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Book Corner – November 2017 (3)

Miraculous Mysteries – edited by Martin Edwards

You must have read or seen something like this. A crime, invariably a murder most foul, is committed in circumstances which at first blush, and many subsequent ones, seems either impossible to have been committed or for the perpetrator to have got in and/or out. In the world of detective fiction these stories are known as locked-room mysteries – the classic scenario is when the victim is found knifed in the back or shot through the head in a room where all the doors and windows are locked from the inside (natch). The earliest example of the genre was Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Drawing upon his encyclopaedic knowledge of detective fiction, Martin Edwards has produced an entertaining collection of sixteen stories that push the rather limited limits of the genre to the edge. Unusually in a collection like this, I hadn’t read any of the stories before, an added bonus to be sure. Some of the authors are familiar to the modern reader – there are stories by Conan Doyle and Dorothy L Sayers – but many are by writers I have come across for the first time. Some are superb whilst others, whilst retaining some interest, are more pedestrian, show their age or telegraph the denouement. The pleasure for the reader is doubled because it is not just a question of whodunit but working out how the dastardly deed was committed. I won’t spoil your enjoyment in this review.

To commit a locked-room crime requires ingenuity and resourcefulness on the part of the felon. But as Dr Tancred says in Too Clever By Half by G D H and Margaret Coles, if you do intend to murder, don’t make the mistake of trying to be too clever. There is always something you overlook, some little trace that ultimately gives you away.

The collection opens with a Conan Doyle story, always a smart move I think. The Lost Special isn’t a Sherlock Holmes story and it concerns itself with a train which disappears somewhere between Liverpool and London. The final story, The Villa Marie Celeste by Margery Allingham was published in 1960 and is the most recent story. It concerns the disappearance of a married couple who depart with just a pair of linen sheets. Although it is relatively modern, its central premise is how a win on the football pools can change people’s behaviour.

A personal favourite of mine is Christopher St John Sprigg’s Death at 8:30, a kind of rerun of Edgar Wallace’s Four Just Men. This time it is the Home Secretary who is threatened with death at a very specific time unless a ransom is paid. The unmasking of the felon, X K, involves some rather unsporting behaviour by the old bill which would certainly have involved a full and comprehensive enquiry by the authorities these days.

Harking back to the days when the cat’s whiskers were a novelty, Grenville Roberts’ The Broadcast Murder features a murder which is broadcast live on the radio, to the consternation of the listeners. I suppose it is something that could go wrong with a live broadcast and might pep up our rather lame programming if it made a reappearance every now and again, just to keep us on our toes. There is a Father Brown story, set in America, The Miracle of Moon Crescent, in which the cleric investigates a death seemingly caused by a curse and in Marten Cumberland’s The Diary of Death, Lilian Hope’s diary lists all the victims, people she hated, who are to meet their maker.

If you like detective fiction and want to spend a couple of evenings by the fire, puzzling over how the corpse met its fate, you cannot go wrong here.


Book Corner – November 2017 (2)

Hangover Square – Patrick Hamilton

It seems as though I have been to Hangover Square. Patrick Hamilton’s classic, published in 1941 but set in the summer of 1939 as hostilities are about to break out, is centred on a small part of London, Earls Court. You will search an A to Z – remember them? – in vain to find the square. After all, it is metaphorical, a grim description amongst topers of where they are heading after a day on the electric sauce. A hangover is the natural consequence of having one over the eight. As Hamilton notes how much better would it be if the hangover came before the pleasure of drink and, in a way, it does for the alcoholic as the hair of the dog soon beckons.

Hamilton’s tale is about alcohol and mental illness. The protagonist, George Harvey Bone, a gentle, fundamentally decent, simple soul, has what he calls “dead moods” where he is disengaged from the world around him. It is not clear but it seems that he is schizophrenic and to the modern reader Hamilton’s treatment of Bone’s condition is a little callous, if not hard-hearted. The story records Bone’s personal descent into an abyss of despair. He survives on a small personal income and the occasional win on the football pools – remember them? – that allows him to numb his pain and insecurities with drink.

The problem with an alcoholic who seems to have a ready supply of money and is a bit gullible is that he will soon attract a gang of ne’er-do-wells who will take advantage of his good nature. This is George’s fate and one of the crowd is a would-be actress and femme fatale, Netta Longdon. Bone is fixated with her but their affair is a one way street – Netta tolerates him only when he is useful to her, either as a provider of cash or as someone who can advance her career as an actress. Bone has a literal love-hate relationship with her and the overriding theme of the book is his determination to murder her.

The denouement comes as no surprise but, nonetheless, Hamilton’s genius is the way he keeps the tension and suspense going. His style is easy and descriptive and what we have here is a tale of a deeply unhappy and troubled man who has missed his way in life and become trapped with, seemingly, only one way out. Even when Bone breaks free – he takes an almost childish delight in shooting a 68 on the local golf course – the siren call of Netta lures him back on to the road to destruction.

But although the book is ostensibly about Bone, his nemesis, Netta is portrayed by Hamilton as a modern version of Becky Sharp and is one of the most vibrant, evil women in modern fiction. She knows what she wants and will do anything to get it. But in her own way she is as trapped as Bone. She is an actress of dubious ability with ideas above her station. It is only by becoming a Circe that she can make ends meet (just).

It is to Hamilton’s credit that these two flawed characters can elicit the sympathy of readers and some will argue that Netta’s tragedy is greater than that of George’s. Whatever your view, it is a wonderful tale of pre-war London and of two characters who are inescapably entwined on a course to mutual destruction. It deserves to be more widely read today.

Book Corner – November 2017 (1)

The Shortest History of Germany – James Hawes

When I reflect on my school career, what gave me most pleasure were the intellectual challenging but ultimately pointless exercises of turning English into Latin and Ancient Greek and vice versa and in English Language transforming long-winded, tortuous pieces of text into a concise piece of prose expressing the author’s thoughts and argument. Indeed, the art of precis is a foundation block of this blog – I aim to say what I have to say on a subject in around 500 to 600 words. I wonder if the art of precis is still practised in our schools.

And is precis appropriate for historiography? Hawes, in his brief and engaging canter through the history of what we know as Germany from the year dot to the present, certainly thinks so. I am so used to lengthy tomes carefully sifting through all the evidence, weighing up opposing points of view and speculating on the unknown – the views of women in the main and the lower orders in particular – that his approach is a breath of fresh air. It falls short of the Govian view of history – a timeline of memorable dates and events – but only just.

Hawes’ principal thesis is that Germans west of the Elbe are good and those to the east are bad. The Romans, under Augustus, had the good sense to stop at the Elbe and the Danube in the south. This became the fault-line of German history – the west benefiting from Roman institutions and culture while the east was a land of intolerant, authoritarian barbarians. Hawes points out that the land created by the Franks under Charlemagne and his family and the post-World War 2 West Germany essentially followed the Roman boundaries.

Germany’s troubles, according to Hawes at least, came from the pesky people east of the Elbe. For a millennium what happened in Germany was a continual struggle for power between the industrious, developed west and the aggression of Prussia and its eastern allies. The Russians sheltered Prussia in 1807 and Britain gave it the industrial heartland that was Rhineland in the 1850s and that was enough, together with Bismark’s canny but brutal diplomacy, to set Prussia on the map. The defeat of the French in 1870 “persuaded” the western areas to throw in their lot with the Prussians and the seeds for two destructive World Wars were sown.

And then there is Hitler who at first blush seems to contradict Hawes’ thesis. After all, he was from Austria and from a Catholic heritage, unlike the more Protestant osties – I have always thought the Austrians to be the world’s most consummate salesmen, convincing us that Hitler was German and Mozart Austrian. But, intriguingly, through the judicious use of graphics showing voting patterns, Hawes saves the day by showing that the largest block of votes garnered by Hitler until 1933 came from the predominantly Protestant, eastern parts of Germany. In Bavaria whose centre of Munich and its bierkellers are for ever associated with Nazism, Hitler only got 25% of the vote in 1933. Fascinating stuff and, of course, it is the eastern parts of Germany that are the most fervent supporters of the Hard Right party Alternative fur Deutchsland and of the Hard Left, Die Linke. Should we smell trouble ahead?

A thought-provoking book which, I’m sure, plays hard and fast with conventional historiography and will have many a professor spluttering in their ivory towers, but if you want to understand Germany in an afternoon, you could do worse than starting here.

Book Corner – October 2017 (4)

The Way of all Flesh – Samuel Butler

For the modern reader of liberal persuasion this semi-autobiographical novel, written by Butler between 1873 and 1884 but not published until 1903, a year after his death, is a difficult book to get your head around. It charts Ernest Pontifex’s voyage of self-discovery.

On the plus side it is populated with characters as vibrant, if not more so, as appear in the pages of Dickens at his best. Theobald, Ernest’s father, is a cruel, parsimonious and unfeeling man and his mother, Christina, a stupid and semi-hysterical female. Dr Skinner is a stereotypical brutal public school master and Ernest’s landlady, Mrs Jupp, is a wonderfully comic, barely respectable member of London’s working class. Butler’s ire is reserved for characters representing the various strands of religious thought – Badcock, a repulsive evangelical and the devious Pryer, a closet homosexual who characterises the venality of the High-Church.

And the book is peppered with wonderful aphorisms. To quote just four; “Youth is like spring, an overpraised season”; “It is far safer to know too little than too much. People will condemn the one, though they will resent being called upon to exert themselves to follow the other”; “All animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it”; “He has spent his life best who has enjoyed it most..” You can get a sense of the general tenor of the book from just reading these snapshots – it is a paean to self-indulgence and doing your own thing rather than trying to adhere to society’s and your family’s expectations.

On the other hand, there are dense and, frankly, turgid passages of religious and philosophical discussion which disrupt the flow of the narrative and at times almost made me throw the book down. And it is a bit of a slow burner – Ernest doesn’t appear until the seventeenth chapter – and the early part of the book deals with the history of the earlier generation of Pontifexes, essential for the reader to understand the psychological ties that bind Ernest so tightly that it is almost a life’s work for Ernest to break free. But perseverance is rewarded because what we have is a coruscating attack on family, religion and liberalism and which radiates warmth and common sense.

There are two forces at play for Ernest’s soul. In his youth Ernest has drummed into him what he ought to do, say and feel, to know his place and do his duty, to abide by the small-mindedness and petty do-goodery of his parent’s low-church Anglicanism. This upbringing leaves Ernest totally unprepared for the great outside world and in a series of picaresque adventures he is ripped off, incarcerated and enters into a bigamous marriage.

The other force, which ultimately prevails, is all about self-interest and self-indulgence, finding your place in the world without worrying overmuch about others, to discover the animalian desire to enjoy life. The living personifications of these attitudes are Alethea Pontifex, Ernest’s godmother, and Mr Overton, the story’s narrator and whose careful stewardship of Ernest’s legacy gives him the funds to lead the life of a self-indulgent author.

I guess this is my problem with the book. Ernest was only able to escape the ties of conventional life because he had the funds to do so – an option not available for many. And to modern eyes he cruelly cast off his own children – they were probably better off for it – in order to enjoy himself.

I’m not sure I would join George Orwell in saying it was a great book but it was full of insights and common sense. It explored well the fraught relationship between parents and children and probably put down on paper what many were thinking but did not have the courage to say. The irony, of course, is neither did Butler which is why it lay in his drawer until he snuffed it.

Book Corner – October 2017 (3)

The Golden Age of Murder – Martin Edwards

Imagine the scene. There is a gathering of local worthies in a country house. There is a scream and one of the servants rushes in to the assembled company to announce that Colonel Blimp has been found dead in the library. Who could have committed the foul dead? Fortunately, amongst the guests is an amateur sleuth, much brighter than the local constabulary, who unmasks the culprit.

Murders and detectives are such staple fare of the written page and on our television screens, that it all seems a bit hackneyed now and, sad to say, all a bit too cosy. To make matters worse, many of the novels of the so-called Golden Age of detective writing – the period between the two World Wars – are imbued with social attitudes that many in today’s more politically correct environment find unpalatable. From today’s perspective it is hard to credit how innovative many of the stories were, as writers strove to push out the boundaries and tease the little grey cells of their avid reading public. And avid the readers were, seeking an escape from the economic and political uncertainties of the thirties but in a way that avoided the horrors many had to endure in the First World War.

Edwards writes an impassioned plea in defence of the genre and so convincing is his thesis that on hearing it a jury would dismiss all charges against detective stories out of hand. As a self-confessed detective fiction nut, I enjoyed this romp and have made many a note in the margins of its pages of books that I want to explore. Beware, this book could cost you serious money!

In essence, Edwards tells the story of the Detection Club, established in 1930 and meeting occasionally in London to provide a social network for crime writers. To be admitted to the club writers had to have produced work of “admitted merit” and there was an elaborate, slightly gothic and certainly bizarre initiation ceremony to be undergone. Principal luminaries of the club were Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, G K Chesterton and Anthony Berkeley and these take centre stage in Edwards’ narrative. Each in their own way had troubled personal lives and sought solace in writing. All the other 35 members in the inter-war period feature in the book and it is from their pen pictures that I have built up my reading list for the future.

There are some fascinating insights. I didn’t know, for example, during the Second World War Christie came under suspicion of being a German spy because she called a character Bletchley – the code-cracking centre was hush-hush at the time – in her novel N or M? and because she was living in a block of flats known to be frequented by spies. In a period of economic turmoil, bankers and inheritors of fortunes found themselves victims of murder plots and heinous murders of spouses sometimes reflected the desires and tortured love lives of their authors.

As the world moved inexorably towards a second major conflict, the genre explored the question of whether it was possible to commit a good murder, whether eliminating a Nazi or a prominent fascist was really a crime, a theme initially explored by Edgar Wallace in Four Just Men. Interestingly, neither Sayers – she had found religion – nor Berkeley – he had gone into deep depression – wrote detective fiction after the outbreak of the war and by the time peace had broken out, the emphasis was more on the psychological thriller.

If you are interested in the genre, this is a book you shouldn’t miss.

Book Corner – October 2017 (2)

Malice Aforethought – Francis Iles

First published in 1931, Malice Aforethought is an early example of what is known as an inverted narrative crime novel. What this means is that the focus is not on solving the crime a la Sherlock Holmes and Maigret but on seeing how the murder was carried out and to understand the motivation and psychological make-up of the murderer. After all, Iles aka Anthony Berkeley aka Anthony Berkeley Cox baldly states in the opening sentence that Doctor Bickleigh, a hen-pecked man with a pronounced inferiority complex, is going to do away with his wife. For the reader the principal interest is how he did it and whether he got away with it.

In some ways Bickleigh is a stereotypical murderer. He is trapped in a loveless marriage – Julia, his wife, is portrayed as an awful, domineering woman. Her bullying and unsympathetic manner is given full rein in the opening scenes of the book during the preparations for a tennis party to which the great and the good of Wyvern’s Cross are invited. Mind you, Bickleigh is no saint. He is a philanderer and has a string of lady friends, including the faithful Ivy whom Bickleigh treats with disdain. At the tennis party, Bickleigh’s advances are rebuffed by Gwynyfryd Rattery. A new woman, Madelaine Cranmere arrives in the village and when Bickleigh falls for his charms and demands a divorce which Julia refuses, you know her fate is sealed.

The other sense in which Bickleigh is a stereotypical murderer is that he is a Doctor, a profession which gives him easy access to drugs and poisons. I will not spoil the story but, suffice to say, that his chosen profession proves very helpful.

Iles’ approach allows us insights into Bickleigh’s mind and thought processes. He is characterised as a rather pompous man, self-satisfied and convinced that he has planned the perfect murder. But as events go somewhat out of control, the reader begins to realise that Bickleigh is not as clever as he thinks he is and is increasingly deluded about the natures and motives of those around him. He is not a sympathetic character and although I was drawn into the book, fascinated by the modus operandi of the murderer and the tensions around whether the crime would be detected, I found it mattered not to me whether he got away with or swung.

Iles is particularly good at painting quick character sketches and gets the insular and bitchy world of English country life down to a tee. The unsettling thought is that many of us find ourselves trapped in some aspects of our lives, desperate to find a way out. How easily would we be tipped towards a path which results in murder?

Iles presumably got his inspiration for the book in part from Dr Crippins and Herbert Rowse Armstrong, the so-called Hay poisoner and the only solicitor to be hanged for murder in England. The book takes an unexpected twist right at the end. If you are tempted to read it and have a battered second-hand copy, make sure that it contains the Epilogue. I may be old-fashioned but I much prefer a whodunit!

Book Corner – October 2017 (1)

The Moor’s Last Stand – Elizabeth Drayson

The year of 1492 was one of major significance for the western world. We all know that it was the year in which Christopher Columbus had trouble with his sat nav and landed on an island which he dubbed as San Salvador, thinking that he had reached the East Indies. What is less well-known is that it was the year in which the last foothold of Islamic power was eradicated from Western Europe, a tale that Drayson tells with some gusto.

On 2nd January of that fateful year, Boabdil, the last Sultan of Granada, handed over the keys of the capital, ,which had been in Moslem hands for seven centuries, to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella and went into exile. It is said when Boabdil reached the furthest point of his former land from which Granada could be seen, he sighed and burst into tears. His mother, Aixa, turned round and said, “you do well, my son, to cry like a woman for what you couldn’t defend like a man.” This is probably apocryphal but ever since Boabdil has had a bad rep and Drayson’s mission is to restore his credibility or at least explain why he gave up his kingdom without much of a fight.

Drayson traces the history of the Emirate of Granada from the conquest of large parts of the Iberian peninsula and the establishment of Al-Andalus from 711 CE by the Umayyads. The Nasrid dynasty, of whom Boabdil was the last, took control in 1238, although, in truth, their status was little more than vassals to the kingdom of Castille. What did for Boabdil was the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, uniting the kingdoms of Castille and Aragon, and Ferdinand’s determination to eradicate the Moslem thorn in his side. Ferdinand successfully played on divisions amongst Boabdil’s relatives and by late 1491 the writing was on the wall for Boabdil. Rather than risk mass slaughter, he negotiated a treaty of surrender.

About 200,000 Muslims emigrated to North Africa after the surrender and those who remained were guaranteed their property, laws, customs and religion under the terms of the surrender. But the Christian rulers began to turn the screw and following an unsuccessful rebellion in 1500 the rights of Muslims and Jews, who were collateral damage in the whole affair, were withdrawn. At best, Boabdil was naïve in trusting that the Christians would be true to their word.

This is a strange book. It is never a good sign when half way through the ostensible subject, Boabdil in this case, is dead and, frankly, the evidence and facts about him are painfully thin. Drayson spends more time exploring the early days of the Muslim presence in Iberia and then reviewing how later history, literature, art, poetry and music viewed the last Sultan than on the Sultan himself. The sense is that what would have been an interesting monograph has been padded out to make a book and parts of the last two chapters dealing with his posthumous reputation are deadly dull. I struggled to summon the enthusiasm to see it through to the end.

History, as they say, is written by the victors. From an objective standpoint, it is hard to see that the expulsion of the Muslims, and the Jews, was a good thing. Granada with its wonderful Alhambra is a testament to the architectural skills of the Moors. Their territories allowed learning and research to flourish and were a model of religious tolerance, allowing people of all faiths to live in what they termed convivencia or harmony. The surrender of 1492 ushered in intolerance and the Inquisition. Boabdil was a victim of realpolitik, no more, no less. I am grateful for Drayson for shining a light on an area of history I was painfully ignorant of. I just think she could have made a better fist of it.

Book Corner – September 2017 (4)

It Can’t Happen Here – Sinclair Lewis

The events of 2016, culminating in the British vote in favour of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as President of the US, has caused many of a liberal persuasion to question whether universal suffrage is all that it is cracked up to be. Even the so-called cradle of democracy, classical Athens, showed the limitations of allowing all and sundry to vote with the rise of the likes of Alcibiades and Cleon who offered the demos jam tomorrow rather than the reality of having to face up to their problems today.

This is an astonishing, amazingly prescient book, written in 1935 by one of America’s most prominent authors of the time who won a Nobel Prize in 1930. It charts the rise of Senator Berzelius Windrip, nick-named Buzz, who storms to the presidency by promising Americans $5,000 dollars each and vowing to make America great again. Sound familiar? Once in the White House, although he spends much of his time in a nearby hotel suite, he appeals to his core constituency of poor and resentful white males to repress dissent and set up a fascist state. As Lewis presciently wrote, “the fault of the Jeffersonian Party… was that it represented integrity and reason, in a year when the electorate hungered for frisky emotions

The book’s protagonist is the rather unworldly, Vermont newspaper editor Doremus Jessup, who tries to resist the fascist forces that have taken over his country and for his trouble spends time in a concentration camp where he is tortured and beaten. He is a beacon of hope in Lewis’ rather grim dystopia.  Although Windrip is overthrown, he is replaced by dictators who are even worse than he and whilst parts of the country rebel, the book ends without the sense that sanity would be restored.

What I found particularly interesting was Lewis’ characterisation of Windrip’s style. “The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar almost detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and yet his more celebrated humor the shy cynicism of a country store”. In speech “in between tricks[he] would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts – figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely wrong”. Windrip threatens neighbouring countries, particularly Mexico, with absorption into the great American empire whilst nicking the best ideas around from the Japanese or, in the words of Windrip, “don’t let that keep us from grabbing off any smart ideas that those cute little beggars have worked out”.

The take-away for me was Jessup’s analysis of why what was inconceivable had happened here. It was down to the laissez-faire attitude of liberals and Jessup’s self-styled Respectables who had made such a hash of convincing their fellow citizens of the legitimacy of their cause. This is the risk we run with a democracy.

For all its prescience and penetrating insight, is it great literature? Probably not, if the truth be told. It is too polemic to be so and the switch from the generality of the situation in the first part of the book to the specifics of Jessup’s ordeals and resistance in the second is a bit too clunky to work satisfactorily. But as a lesson as to what can happen and an astonishing insight into what might be in store in Trumpland, it can’t be beaten.

Book Corner – September 2017 (3)

What’s Bred In The Bone – Grant Allen

This book, not to be confused with Robertson Davies’ 1985 novel of the same name, is a racy, page-turner, romp of an adventure, mystery story. It was published in 1891and was an entry into a literary competition organised by George Newnes, the publisher of Titbits magazine, which attracted some 20,000 entries. Allen wrote the book in double quick time and scooped the prize of a thousand smackers. It was a sensational success.

By that time he was already a prolific writer, not only of fiction but of articles and books of scientific interest. In particular, he was a stout proponent of evolutionary theory. Today, however, he is pretty much forgotten. Perhaps there are too many vestiges of jingoism and the little Englander for the modern taste. A shame, perhaps, as he knew how to write a ripping yarn.

The story has a bit of everything. A near catastrophic railway accident in which a tunnel collapses leaves the two protagonists, Elsa and Cyril, one of the Waring twins, in close proximity in fear of their life. Inevitably, they fall in love but the path of true love does not run smoothly. Elsa is fascinated by Cyril’s snake – there ought to be a Freudian sub-text to this but this was written in more innocent times – and we soon see she has a hidden side. One of her characteristics, which she shares with her female relatives – they come from Romany stock – is her deep insight into people’s psyches. She is also overcome in moments of high personal drama with the desire to dance with snakes or, at least, a feather boa if a reptile is not to hand. This is England after all.

Yes, the plot is ridiculous but Allen has the panache to pull it off. There is a murder, a case of mistaken identity – having twins as central characters is helpful, I suppose – and the danger of a grave miscarriage of justice. It is not a whodunit – we know who committed the murder – and the main interest of the book is how the innocence of Guy Waring is going to be established, particularly as with each twist and turn of the plot his predicament seems to worsen. I won’t spoil the story but feelings of remorse on the part of the real murderer prompted by Elsa’s astonishing ability to get into their head wins out. The book ends happily ever after with most, if not all, of the loose ends tied up.

Guy’s adventures include a spell digging for diamonds in South Africa – successfully, naturally – and it is this part of the book that may most offend as the natives are depicted as little more than uncouth savages. But, alas, that was the overriding view of the times, even amongst evolutionists and scientists. In a world where we are accustomed to accepting that a good DNA sample will unlock the key to identities, it is fascinating to be reminded that around 120 years ago marital records and ledgers recording births and deaths were of paramount importance. And a chap can’t get around at all without an encyclopaedic knowledge of the railway timetables.

It is a rather dated novel and one which is heavily imbued with the racism and sexism of the age but also one that sheds a fascinating insight into how our forefathers saw the world. The central moral of the story is, as the title points out, that breeding will out and will shine through your actions – a concept that can only prompt a snort of derision today. The plotting is ridiculous and heavily reliant upon coincidence – but then even the best novelists are guilty of having clunking plots – and in less skilled hands the book could easily crash into an unedifying heap. But if you can suspend your prejudices and finer critical judgment, you are in for a great few hours of entertainment.

Book Corner – September 2017 (2)

Crime and Punishment – G F Newman

At a certain time during the day earlier this year I would take a short drive in my car and on the cat’s whiskers, tuned to Radio 4 (natch), was a drama called The Corrupted. My journey was so short I only caught about five minutes at a time but it piqued my interest. I was able to track the source material down, a two-volume thriller called Crime and Punishment by the creator of the TV series, Law and Order, G F Newman. It was published in 2009.

If I was expecting a modern take on Dostoevsky’s tortuous musings on the moral dilemma that committing a murder causes, then I was in for a disappointment. This is a fast and furious tale of crime, violence, sex and corruption – not my normal fare at all. The story starts in post war London in 1951 and the brutal murder of her old man by Cath. This traumatises the son, Brian Oldman, who witnesses the killing and sets him on a path of crime and violence in cahoots with his draft dodging uncle and boxer, Jack Braden. The first book, which is the better of the two, is a litany of beatings, mindless violence and the occasional killing as Brian and his even more psychopathic uncle battle for supremacy of their manor against the likes of the Krays and Richardsons.

Oh yes, we are in the world of faction and pretty much every other page has a reference to a real life person or character. At times it seems as if Newman is on automatic pilot – oh, I’ve written 500 words and haven’t mentioned a real person so I better throw one in now. So we find the likes of Churchill, Tom Driberg, Maggie Thatcher, Emil Savundra, Jack Slipper of the Yard and Ronnie Biggs peppering the pages. That the cast list has so many people from London’s rather recent dodgy past makes you wonder whether Oldman and Braden are pseudonyms for real gangsters but I think it is just a rather unsubtle attempt to give colour and context to the tale.

The police, or at least most of them, are in the pay of the crims and they generally have some hold over the judges, so the journey to retribution is long, winding and uncertain. Brian eventually gets his just desserts but there are so many loose ends and incomplete story lines that it all becomes a bit of an unsatisfactory mess. It is as though Newman has painted too extensive a picture and struggles to control his material. In the end, he jettisons all of the sub plots to bring the tale of Brian Oldman to a conclusion. Even so, the story is too long and could have benefitted from a gangster’s razor being put through it.

This is not my cup of tea but it served as an undemanding read on a sun lounger on a beautiful beach whilst sipping a long cool drink. Newman’s style is direct, breathless and he can tell a story. But the plot is often too implausible and too full of holes to lift the book from anything other than what it is – a good, low brow holiday read.