Book Corner – April 2020 (1)

Some Must Watch – Ethel Lina White

This taut, psychological thriller, published in 1933, spawned a 1946 film, The Spiral Staircase, directed by Robert Siodmak. Some later editions of the book were also entitled The Spiral Staircase as they sought to cash in on the film’s success, but Lina White’s title, which comes from Hamlet, “for some must watch, while some must sleep: So runs the world away”, perfectly encapsulates this gothic-influenced tale.

Down on her luck, unemployed in the depression, a domestic servant, Helen Cadel, takes a post as a lady’s help in a remote house on the Herefordshire, Shropshire, Welsh borders. There are eight others in the house, including a bedridden, testy aunt of the head of the household, Professor Warren. Four young women have been murdered in the area and the location of the murders are getting nearer the house. When out walking at the start of the story Helen gets the sense she is being watched. Her sense of unease continues until she reaches the safety of the house.

The bedridden aunt, though, punctures Helen’s sense of security by hinting that she might be in danger. To add to the gothic atmosphere a gale is blowing outside making it difficult for the occupants to leave. And then there is the new nurse, given the seemingly impossible task of looking after the aunt. She is huge and cumbersome, prompting speculation amongst the household that she is really a man and not only that, but some kind of madman soon to wreak a trail of destruction. So prevalent is the speculation that the nurse frequently overhears it when she enters the room.

The nurse is well-conceived and adds a dash of humour to what might otherwise be an overwrought thriller. Indeed, part of Lina White’s genius is the quality of her characterisation, each of the characters are believable and have characteristics that make them slightly sinister, whilst it is easy to find Helen a sympathetic innocent stuck in the middle of something that is beyond her wit to comprehend. The other quality that stands out is Lina White’s mastery of narrative prose. The book zips along at pace, wringing out every drop from the atmosphere she has created and leaving the reader anxious to find out what happens next.

The action is confined to just a 24-hour period and for Helen, her sense of unease growing as she senses that there is really someone in the house to get her, it gets worse. For good reasons, members of Professor Warren’s entourage start leaving the house. Helen is there with just the aunt and the nurse, or so she thinks.

I won’t spoil the denouement but, suffice it to say, it is not a let-down.

There is a slight eugenic tone in the book. Helen is chided by the professor for wearing a cross. In her defence, she says, “The cross represents a Power which gave me life. But it gave me faculties to help me to look after that life for myself”. Someone, though, has decided that her life is not one worth living. The question is: Who? I will leave you to find out.

Book Corner- March 2020 (4)

Ashenden; or The British Agent – W. Somerset Maugham

I am always interested in reading books that had a transformational effect on their chosen genre. Ashenden, published in 1928, is one which had a profound influence on the later direction of spy fiction. It was also the first Maugham book I had read.

It is loosely based on Maugham’s own experiences in the espionage world during the First World War. The eponymous hero is sent to neutral Switzerland, a hot bed of international espionage, by his spy master, R, the first time such a character appears in spy fiction. Unlike the earlier books penned by the likes of John Buchan and William Le Queux, where the British spies are handsome, dashing, fearless adventurers fired by patriotism and foreigners are dastardly and repulsive in manners and action, most of Ashenden’s time is spent collecting and passing on information and Maugham paints most of his adversaries in a sympathetic and humane light.

Far from swashbuckling feats of extraordinary derring-do Ashenden’s world is full of blackmail and assassinations. A spy a la Maugham has lost his moral compass and is engaged in a life and death struggle, using whatever weapons or tactics that are available. There is no sense in the pages that Britain holds the moral high ground as is the case with Buchan. British operatives are no better or worse than their foreign counterparts.

Indeed, running through the pages is a wave of sympathy for those who might otherwise have been tagged as villains. A case in point is Guilia Lazzari who is blackmailed into luring her Indian nationalist lover, Chandra Lal, into France where the police will arrest him. On the horns of a dilemma Giulia finally agrees and Lal falls into the trap but is able to swallow some poison before falling into the hands of the British. Maugham’s narrative sympathises with Guilia and her plight whilst leaving Ashenden looking morally bankrupt.

Ashenden is not a novel per se but a series of interconnecting episodes and this is another distinguishing feature from many spy thrillers that had gone before and were to come. Not being plot led, Ashenden allows Maugham, a literary writer rather than a spy novelist after all, the room to develop his cast of characters. And what a collection they are. R is an enigmatic, matter-of-fact head of British Intelligence who despatches his charges to their uncertain futures with a cold, dispassionate warning; “there is just one thing I think you ought to know before you take this job. If you do well, you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble, you’ll get no help”.           

Then there is the Hairless Mexican, a flamboyantly ruthless hired gun prone to the occasional unfortunate error, the British ambassador with a surprising past, the traitor, George Caypor, a devoted family man with a loving German wife, Anastasia Alexandrovna, a woman about town and a committed revolutionary, and my favourite character of all, Mr Harrington, whom Ashenden meets on a long train journey across Russia.

Ashenden finds the American a bore but can’t help admire his determination to conclude some business deals with the then Kerensky regime. Harrington is flushed with success that he has had his contracts signed, but the following day the government falls, violence hits the streets of Petrograd and Harrington meets his end in tragi-comic circumstances. The moral of the story is never worry about your dirty washing.Dry, humorous, emotionally distant, Ashenden is poles apart from Richard Hannay but sets the new standard for spies.

An entertaining, if disjointed, read.

Book Corner – March 2020 (3)

The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane

A strange book, this. It is undoubtedly powerful and was ground-breaking in its time but for all its classic status, it has been a staple in the syllabus of American literature courses and has never been out of print, I found it a tad dull.

Crane died tragically young at the age of 28. He was not a victim of the carnage of the American Civil War which is the canvas for this book but in a German sanatorium from tuberculosis in 1900. As he was born in 1871 Crane had no direct experience of the horrors of that particular war, although it is fairly certain that he interviewed and obtained eye-witness accounts from some who had fought.

It is not unusual these days for an author writing about war to have no specific personal experience, relying on primary sources from the time they are writing about and, if possible, accounts from surviving combatants. But at the time The Red Badge of Courage, in 1894, initially serialised in the Philadelphia Press, Crane’s lack of first-hand knowledge of warfare was something critics seized on. And the furore rumbled on, Hemingway sniffily remarked, “Tolstoi made the writing of Stephen Crane on the Civil War seem like the brilliant imagining of a sick boy who had never seen war but had only read the battles and chronicles and seen the Brandy photographs that I had read and seen at my grandparents’ house”.

This was Crane’s second book and, despite his critics, it was well received, making his name. Although he doesn’t specify the battle, it is thought that the action in the book centres around the Battle of Chancellorsville fought out in the northern part of Virginia between April 30 and May 6th. 1863. It was one of the bloodiest encounters of the war with some 24,000 casualties and was notable not only for victory for the Confederate army but also the death of Stonewall Jackson, hit by friendly fire and then succumbing to pneumonia eight days later.

The protagonist in Crane’s book is Henry Fleming, a young farmhand from New York State, who, against his mother’s wishes, and fired by a naïve form of patriotism, enlists for the Union forces. As one of what the gnarled veterans called “Fresh Fish” Fleming wonders how he will react when liberated from the grinding monotony of camp life he faces the enemy’s guns for the first time.

Indeed, whilst the battle serves as the backdrop to the book, much of the narrative concerns itself with Fleming’s mental turmoil; will he be brave and earn his red badge of courage (a battle wound) or will he turn tail and run? The book explores the fine line between cowardice and heroism and the fears and hopes of a novice soldier entering the fray for the first time. The battle scenes are written in an impressionistic style, there is little sense of the broad sweep of the battle but rather the narrative concentrates on those pockets of action that Fleming experiences.

Inevitably, as you would expect if you have ploughed through the first hundred pages or so, Fleming does turn tail and flee but his escape route takes him to the back of the Union line where he encounters the wounded who ask him uncomfortable questions about where he was hit. In a tragi-comic moment, Fleming watches one of his comrades and friends, Jim Conklin, struggling to keep marching whilst visibly dying from the wounds he has sustained. It dawns on Fleming that war is a particular form of hell, but his experiences persuade him to return to the frontline. Ironically, he does sustain his red badge of courage, but it is when one of his own side hits him on the head to get him out of the way.

In subsequent skirmishes Fleming plays a prominent role in the action, being the flag bearer and being instrumental in the capture of the enemy’s flag. Within his regiment Fleming attains hero status.

It is a thought-provoking book and is interesting in that it shines a light on the horrors of war a couple of decades before the brutal slaughter of the First World War began. Rather like military life there are long stretches of tedium in the narrative before a burst of action. I can see why it became a classic but I’m on Hemingway’s side.

Book Corner – March 2020 (2)

The Code of the Woosters – P G Wodehouse

The seventh in the series of books featuring Bertram Wilberforce Wooster and his inscrutable gentleman’s personal gentleman, Reginald Jeeves, it was published in 1938 and in my view the best of the lot. That’s saying something as any Wodehouse cannot fail to lift the jaundiced spirit of the reader and put a smile on their face, but this is the bee’s knees.

One of the qualities of a timeless classic is that a reader from any period can find something which resonates with them. For me in these parlous political times, there is the oafish figure of Sir Roderick Spode, the self-proclaimed leader of the Black Shorts, clearly an allusion to Oswald Mosely. What resonated with me was Wodehouse’s take on the Voice of the People. “The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?” Never a truer word.

The plot is as usual convoluted and involves Bertie visiting Totleigh Towers, the country residence of Sir Watkyn Bassett, uncle of Madeline. Bertie is persuaded to visit, against his better judgment as he has previous with Sir Watkyn having appeared before him on a charge of pinching a policeman’s helmet, an encounter that left him £5 lighter in the pocket, on a double mission – to save his chum Gussie Finknottle’s impending nuptials with Madeline and to steal a silver cow creamer that his uncle wants.    

There are many twists and turns and Bertie is in danger of being married to both Madeline and Stiffy Byng, who has an on-off relationship with another of his pals, the curate “Stinker” Pinker. Sir Watkyn, given Bertie’s previous, suspects that he is there solely to steal the creamer. Initially, he dragoons the violent Spode to keep a watch on proceedings but Bertie has his number, courtesy of some dirt that Jeeves from his network of gentlemen’s gentlemen has been able to unearth, and so has to resort to the local policeman, Oates. Oates, inevitably, has his helmet stolen and Wooster is the number one suspect.

Suffice it to say, that the superior intellect of Jeeves manages to cut through this Gordian knot and peace and tranquillity is restored. There is a lot of fun to be had in getting there.

Wonderfully eccentric and preposterous as the plots are, what makes a Wodehouse book so special, and this one in particular, is his marvellous use of language. He is on fire with his one-liners, any one of which I would have been proud of penning. Take these for example:

He paused and swallowed convulsively, like a Pekingese taking a pill”.

“She was fully aware that she was doing something that even by female standards was raw, but she didn’t care”.

It was a confusion of ideas between him and one of the lions he was hunting in Kenya that had caused A. B. Spottsworth to make the obituary column. He thought the lion was dead, and the lion thought it wasn’t.”

“I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled. “

“Memories are like mulligatawny soup in a cheap restaurant. It is best not to stir them. “

The leitmotif of this marvellous book and hence the title is the code of honour by which the Woosters conduct themselves. As Bertie says, “One doesn’t want to make a song and dance about one’s ancient lineage, of course, but after all the Woosters did come over with the conqueror and were extremely pally with him.”  A wonderful, uplifting book and one of Wodehouse’s best.

Book Corner – March 2020 (1)

Buddenbrooks – Thomas Mann

I had a health scare a little while back and it made me ponder on my mortality. Surprisingly, one of the themes that kept cropping up was; Which authors would I kick myself for not reading before my time was up? It may just be me but it made me quite anxious and once I was given the all clear I decided to rectify some obvious lacunae in my reading before it was time to meet the great librarian in the sky. Thomas Mann was one such.

I had come across Buddenbrooks, his first novel, published in 1901, when I was researching Advent calendars and, as it had some good notices, I decided to give it a go. Frankly, I found the ending profoundly depressing. I’m rarely ever moved by what I read, I have a heart of stone, but the sense of futility and despair that Mann engenders is truly moving.

The book recounts the long and slow decline in the fortunes of a patrician mercantile family in the Hanseatic town of Lübeck over four generations. Initially, through the endeavours of Johann Buddenbrook the elder, son of the founder of the family business, the family is thriving, influential and wealthy enough to move into one of the principal houses in the town. Everything is rosy and the book opens with Johann dandling his eight-year-old granddaughter, Tony, on his knee. During the course of the book, spanning some 42 years, the family’s fortunes have crumbled.

Tony at the end is the only surviving member of the family. Even her young nephew, the only male heir, has died bring the line to a juddering halt. Thomas, Johann’s successor, has died and Christian, Tony’s other brother, the black sheep of the family, is locked away in an asylum. Worse still, the grand house has had to be sold, to their arch-rivals to boot, and the family business has been liquidated.

What went wrong?

While the world around them changed, the 1848 revolution and the Franco-Prussian wars intrude, the family has stayed pretty much the same. They have their standards, their own way of doing things, their codes of honour. They become dinosaurs. Worse still, the mercantile zeal and spirit which was the foundation of the family’s fortunes has been eroded. The pursuit of luxury and leisure activities and, yes, an immersion into a particularly austere form of Protestantism become more attractive. On the rare occasions that they engage with the wider world, they come off second best. And the dread hand of disease stalks them and leads to the premature deaths of the principal heirs.  

The book gave rise to what is known in business theory circles as Buddenbrook Syndrome, describing a phenomenon whereby successive generations of a mercantile family lose the business acumen, preferring to put their time and money into leisure activities.

The book runs over such an expanse of time that by definition the narrative has to be episodic. It is easy to get swamped in the detail of marriages and distant relatives. But the central characters of Tony, Thomas and, towards the end, little Hanno, hold the narrative together and they are the conduits through which all of the disparate strands pass. I found I enjoyed the book and it wasn’t the heavy, intense read that I had anticipated. My problem, though, was that it was difficult to feel any sympathy for them. They had had it all and managed to throw it away.

Book Corner – February 2020 (4)

The Provincial Lady In America – E M Delafield

They call it third album syndrome. The first is full of energy and fresh ideas, the second is more rounded as the artist learns the tricks of the trade but the third is a disappointment, repetitive and devoid of ideas. Although a prolific and accomplished author, the same comments can be made of Delafield’s third novel in The Provincial Lady series, published in 1934 and parts of which were serialized in Punch magazine.

The Provincial Lady (PL) is now an established writer and, at the behest of her publisher, is encouraged to go to North America to fulfil some speaking engagements and plug her book. As this is the 1930s, it wasn’t just a question of jumping on a plane but a sea voyage, courtesy of Holland America Line and the SS Statendam. The early part of the book is taken up with PL’s concerns about how to break the news of a prolonged absence to her husband, how she was to break the news to her staff and friends, preoccupations about what to pack and wear and, the continual theme of the books, how much it was all going to cost and how she could possibly afford it.

She is treated to a first class on the trip out, somewhat wasted as she is terribly sea-sick, whilst on the return she has to make do with tourist class. Such is the treatment of authors by their publishers. Photographed and fêted when she lands in New York, PL is engulfed in a whirlwind of parties with the literati and a tour of the lecture circuit. Throughout the trip PL is outside of her comfort zone, continually fretting about the suitability of her clothing and how to avoid being saddled with the inevitable bores.

Part of the charm of the PL series is getting to know some of the characters that she interacts with. The nature of her trip to North America, she pops across the border into Canada, is that we have a multitude of characters to contend with, most of whom rarely engage us for more than a page or two. It adds to the sense of a whirlwind, but the book loses some of Delafield’s acerbic barbs as a consequence.

It is a bit of a literary commonplace for an English writer to visit America and regale the reader with their views. Charles Dickens was particularly sniffy about what he found there and his disdain for the uncouth American way of life came through loud and clear in Martin Chuzzlewit. The PL is a more sympathetic guest, overwhelmed by the hospitality and vivacity that she encounters. She does, though, seem to have a bit of a cloth ear as to what is going around her. At the time of PL’s visit America was in the depths of the Great Depression, not that you would know it from the text. Perhaps the wealthy, who had survived the Wall Street Crash, and those who lionized literary figures were impervious to the economic downturn. It struck me as a bit odd, though.

Although PL does not go down to the southern States, there is a lot of comment about the Southern accent. To English ears it does sound odd, but it is hardly worthy of a major leitmotif for the book.

PL has definitely changed since her debut and not for the better. She is still a bundle of insecurities, but her warmth and observational powers which made her such an endearing character have been blunted. There is one more in the series in which she turns her hand to Land work in support of the war effort and another, which most critics regard as a stand-alone. I think I will leave PL here back in the bosom of her family. Her husband, surprisingly, seems to have missed her.

Book Corner – February 2020 (3)

The Terracotta Dog – Andrea Camilleri

Published in 1996, this is the second of Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano books. The edition I read had been translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli and it read well. I’m always skeptical as to how faithful translators are to the original but this has enough stylistic quirks and pace to suggest that it is close enough.

The most irksome thing about the book is that every now and again we are told precisely what it is that Montalbano is having to eat. I suppose in a way it gives local Sicilian colour, assuming what he is eating is a speciality of the island or, perhaps it is to give the impression that he is a northern boor, not from those parts, as they are not Sicilian dishes. Who knows and who cares? When I’m reading a detective novel, I want to be entertained, not fight my way through a restaurant menu.

What intrigues me about Montalbano is that he is another detective, Holmes and Maigret are to the forefront, who place their trust in natural rather than legal justice. It is enough for them to unmask the culprit and let the malefactor’s guilty conscience plague them to the end of their days. It is an interesting approach and would certainly reduce the prison population, if adopted in earnest, although there may be a corresponding increase in depressives. It is the route to which they get to the truth rather than the judicial consequences of the crime which are of interest to both the writer and the reader.

Montalbano’s methods are unorthodox. He keeps close contact with the criminal fraternity and often his breaks come from tip-offs from them. But what he is able to do is make sense of what seem at first sight to be random, disparate events. If nothing else the Terracotta Dog is a case in point. It starts off with a Mr Big in the Mafia world, high up on the most wanted list, Tano the Greek, sends word to Montalbano that he wants to give himself up but only to Montalbano. A dramatic raid is staged and Tano’s arrest is a major feather in Montalbano’s cap, so much so that he is threatened with promotion, something the Inspector is keen to avoid at all costs.

During the raid they find a hiding place in a cave with a large cache of armaments. Around the same time a local supermarket is robbed in circumstances which make no sense. Montalbano won’t let it go and his investigations lead him back to the cave again, where there is a second chamber which contains the bodies of a young couple and various artefacts, including a terracotta dog.

Perhaps the highlight of the book is the Inspector’s encounter with an eccentric, reclusive former priest, Alcide Maraventano. It is through him that Montalbano realizes that the murderer of the young couple really wanted to be discovered and to atone for his misdeeds. In a convoluted and, it has to be said, slightly strained way there is a link between all these disparate parts.

Although the plotting is not convincing enough to make this a classic, there is enough to keep the reader interested. The characteristics of Montalbano’s colleagues become clearer, they are generally incompetent and liable to give the game way, the knowledge of which suits the Inspector as he prefers to operate on his own. His relationship with Livia, his on-off girlfriend living in the north, is as strained as ever and the Swedish woman, Ingrid, whom we met in the Shape of Water crops up again to lend a hand.

Camilleri’s style is light and he writes with wit, some of the scenes in danger of descending into farce. On the whole, I enjoyed the book. I just wish he would tone down the food.