Book Corner – December 2019 (2)

While She Sleeps – Ethel Lina White

I am a fan of Ethel Lina’s White’s work but even her most fervent advocate would be hard pushed to convince me that this novel, published in 1940, is one of her finest. That said, it has some interesting features and makes for an engaging and entertaining read. Instead of an atmospheric thriller which is her normal fare it struck me as light-hearted in tone and a parody of some of the excesses of the gothic genre.

The protagonist is the rather self-satisfied Miss Loveapple who prides herself on her good luck and the fact that she owns three properties in the south of England, including one in Madeira Crescent in London. The book’s opening sets the scene and informs the reader that she is likely to be murdered. “Miss Loveapple awoke with a smile. She had slept well; her digestion was good – her conscience clear; and she had not an enemy in the world. There was nothing to warn her that, within the next hour she would be selected as a victim to be murdered”. The tension in the book is whether she survives with her life intact.

It is Loveapple’s decision to let her London house out, she is obsessively careful with her pennies, leads to her receiving visits from three men all wearing gloves, her paranoid maid, Elsie, had warned her about men wearing gloves, and being selected as the victim of a murder which a minor criminal, nicknamed Ace, intends to use to frame his arch-rival. She goes to Switzerland on holiday and makes elaborate plans to return to Madeira Place on the evening of September 13th, the date set for her murder.

During the course of her adventures Loveapple encounters a motley crew of eccentric characters, not all of whom have her best interests at heart. A shady couple, who have been tracking her since she left Victoria station, mistake her for a Lady’s maid and think she is carrying her ladyship’s jewels plan to rob her. They make several attempts to effect the jewel snatch and there are moments of comedy as circumstances thwart them more often than not. Every decision that Loveapple takes during the ill-fated holiday either takes her closer to her intended fate or thwarts her conspirators.

The plot, such as it, depends on a series of coincidences or chance turns of events. Although not an engaging character, the reader is taken along with it all by the power of Lina White’s writing and descriptive talents, she is at her best when skewering the Brits’ social mores and behaviour when abroad and describing the stunning scenery in the Swiss Alps, and even the most jaundiced of her readers could not help wondering whether Loveapple would make it alive at the end of the story. I will not spoil your anticipation.

A curious feature of the book is that the London elements of the story, it is there where the real danger to Loveapple’s well-being are, only surface intermittently as the story progresses. It almost becomes a sub-plot as Lina White enjoys herself satirising the English en vacances. This makes the book somewhat unbalanced, in my opinion, and makes for a vaguely unsatisfactory ending.      

An enjoyable enough read , to be sure, but if you were thinking of exploring Lina White’s work, this is not the one to start with.

Book Corner – December 2019 (1)

Something Fresh – P G Wodehouse

I always find the world that Wodehouse constructs is the perfect antidote to the madness of modern life and also a form of light relief from some of the heavier tomes I have been working my way through. This is the first of the Blandings books, published in 1915 and known in the United States as Something New, and introduces us to the absent-minded Lord Emsworth, his dim-witted son, Freddie Threepwood. and the butler, Beach.   

I have come to the Blandings books somewhat late and after reading a number of the tales of Jeeves and Wooster. Perhaps this was a mistake because I cannot help but conclude that, if this book is anything to go by, the miss that indefinable chemistry present in the relationship between Wooster and his valet, Jeeves. Threepwood isn’t a patch on Bertie and Beach is a pale shadow of a figure compared to the inimitable Jeeves. I also found it harder to get into than other Wodehouse books.

That said, the Wodehouse aficionado will not be disappointed. There is the usual mix of eccentric characters and the plot, thin as prison gruel as it may be, provides the author with a canvas broad enough to let his comic imagination run wild. Much of the action takes place in Blandings Castle, home of Lord Emsworth. On a rare visit up to London, his Lordship, in a moment of absent-mindedness, pocketed a rare Egyptian scarab, the pride and joy of an American millionaire, J Preston Peters.

Peters is unwilling to risk a scene by asking his Lordship directly for the return of his property, not least because his daughter is engaged to be married to Threepwood. Instead he hires a young crime novelist, Ashe Marson, to steal the item back. This is the cue for lots of skulking around in the middle of the night, mistakes, alliances, mishaps and food spillage. There is also some love interest, Ashe in pursuit of Joan Valentine, who is also on a mission to repatriate the scarab. The saga resolves itself, satisfactorily for all parties but that isn’t really the point of the book.

The point of the book is the language and it is very apparent that Wodehouse is limbering up to become the master of comedic image that he was in his pomp. Take this description of the impression that Beach made on Ashe when he first met him; “Ashe’s first impression of Beach, the butler, was one of tension. Other people, confronted for the first time with Beach, had felt the same. He had that strained air of being on the very point of bursting that one sees in bullfrogs and toy balloons”.        

And how about this for a mastery of economy in the use of language and yet painting an extremely funny image? “Lord Emsworth raised his revolver and emptied it in the direction of the sound. Extremely fortunately for him, the Efficient Baxter had not changed his all-fours attitude. This undoubtedly saved Lord Emsworth the worry of engaging a new secretary. The shots sang above Baxter’s head one after the other, six in all, and found other billets than his person. They disposed themselves as follows: The first shot broke a window and whistled out into the night; the second shot hit the dinner gong and made a perfectly extraordinary noise, like the Last Trump; the third, fourth and fifth shots embedded themselves in the wall; the sixth and final shot hit a life-size picture of his lordship’s grandmother in the face and improved it out of all knowledge”.

Wonderful stuff but not his best. And the Empress is nowhere to be seen. She doesn’t appear until the late 1920s.

Book Corner – November 2019 (4)

The Amateur Cracksman – E W Hornung

It is good, every now and again, to turn literary conventions on their head. The classic crime novel has a detective, often an amateur sleuth, together with faithful sidekick, solving nigh on impossible crimes which have baffled all and sundry and bring the felons to justice. Ernest William Hoffnung’s crime creation, on the other hand, is a gentleman thief, who uses his cunning and position to pull off astonishing robberies and evade detection.

Arthur J Raffles, together with his friend, Bunny Manders, is the yin to the yang of Hornung’s brother in law’s famous creation, Sherlock Holmes and the ever faithful Dr Watson. Indeed, this collection of eight stories, first published in 1899, was dedicated to Arthur Conan Doyle, perhaps with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Our hero, if he can so be described, is a pillar of Victorian society, an excellent cricketer who plays regularly for England and at Lord’s but a spendthrift who rarely has enough money to live on. His answer to his regular cashflow problems is to use his position in society, it allows him access to all the rich houses in the capital, to commit the odd robbery or two and live off the earnings of his work. In the first story, The Ides of March but originally published as a short story in 1898 as In the Chains of Crime, Raffles happens upon Bunny, the narrator of the tales a la Watson, down on luck and initiates him into his line of work.

The third story, Gentlemen and Players, introduces two characters who are going to make life difficult for the duo, Inspector Mackenzie of Scotland Yard and a notorious criminal, Crawshay. In the seventh story, The Return Match, Raffles manages to get the dangerous Crawshay off his back but in doing so reignites the suspicions of Mackenzie.

The last story, The Gift of the Emperor, sees Raffles at his most audacious but his plans come unstuck when the stalwart detective boards the ship he is travelling on at Genoa and a search reveals that Raffles has the stolen jewel. Raffles jumps overboard and neither Bunny nor the then reader knows whether he made it to the shore or not, surely a nod to Doyle’s The Final Problem and Holmes’ encounter with his nemesis, Moriarty, at the Reichenhach Falls. The modern reader knows that this isn’t the end of Raffles, just as Holmes survives his tussle – you don’t kill off the goose that lays the golden egg – but you can imagine the impact on the readers at the time.   

In truth, these stories are barely credible, laced with the arrogant snobbery of the Victorian upper classes, very politically incorrect, racist and sexist, but if you are prepared to put up with that, then they are entertaining, undemanding reads. Perhaps troubled by the thought of a gentleman thief, Hornung goes to great lengths to show that Raffles has a code of conduct. He would never stoop to murder and will only steal out of financial necessity. However, in the heat of a robbery, his steadfastness sometimes slips.

There are moments of comedy too and poor old Bunny is the stooge to the great man, never really let into what is going on, there to provide the muscle and, when he does use his initiative as in Nine Points of the Law, he nearly wrecks the plan. This means that the reader is, along with Bunny, behind the action, a device that some readers may find irksome. As Bunny states with some justification, “You lay your plans, and never say a word, and expect me to tumble to them by light of nature”.    

Still, take the stories for what they are and you will spend an enjoyable evening.  

Book Corner – November 2019 (3)

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary – M R James

I am also partial to a good ghost story and in my opinion the master par excellence is Montague Rhodes James, the Cambridge University mediaeval scholar and antiquarian. Given his professional and academic interest in dusty archives and the other impedimenta of a practitioner of the art of antiquarianism, it is no surprise that he reflected this interest in his stories. This collection, first published in 1904 although several of the eight stories had appeared individually in magazines, was the first of the books for which he is best known today.

What I enjoy best about James is that he makes the reader do a lot of the work. His narrative concentrates on setting the scene, in creating the atmosphere and bringing matters to a head, leaving the reader’s febrile imagination fill in the blanks, burnish the details. They are subtle tales of nudges and hints and, as such, are immensely satisfying. In truth, there are commonalities in the plot, an atmospheric setting, seemingly ordinary in its way but with a hint of something not quite right, a naïve protagonist and the discovery of something, usually a book or an artefact, which is the medium through which the supernatural force is roused. James doesn’t do nice ghosts. They are grotesque, malevolent beings, although if you read the text carefully there is precious little in the way of description. James provides just enough for you to paint your own picture.

All of the stories, in their own way, are excellent but each reader will have their particular favourite. For me, it was the final story, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. An antiquarian, too clever for his own good, unlocks the clues to the location of some treasure contained in a stained-glass window. However, he soon realises that he has bitten off more than he can chew and that he would have been better off leaving sleeping dogs lie.

There were a couple I had read before, I was surprised how few in this book I had. Number 13 gives you a clue as to why hotels are shy of allocating that number to one of their rooms. The other, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll come to You, My Lad, hasn’t aged quite so well. The blustering old military type with his definite opinions on all matters Papist was a bit too much to bear but the mysterious and powerful forces let loose by simply blowing a whistle found in an old ruin was powerfully told.

The book starts off with a tremendous tale, Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book. A collector is surprised that a sacristan of a church in France is willing to let him have Alberic’s valuable manuscript for a pittance. When he gets it back to his room, he soon realises that there is more to the pages than meets the eye. The Mezzotint was another atmospheric tale, the eponymous illustration giving a sense of the unstoppable force it was to unleash.

Lost Hearts was a little too obvious for me but the Ash Tree made up for it with its lashings of creepiness. Count Magnus was a lighter, more humorous romp and illustrated the perils of disturbing the dead.  

If you like a good ghost story, and now is the time with the long nights and the howling winds, you cannot go wrong with this collection.

Book Corner – November 2019 (2)

The Cuckoos of Batch Magna – Peter Maughan

If you have been kind enough to plod through my book reviews over the past few years, you will have realised that I have a rather eclectic taste in book. After a period of reading Victorian novels, I like to escape to something altogether lighter and I am on the hunt for the perfect comic novel. The helpful Kindle recommends tool on my e-reader, if uncontrolled an open invitation to spend oodles of money, brought this opener of a series of five and published in 2004 to my attention. Whilst I wouldn’t say it was exactly comedy gold, it was a pleasant enough read and there was enough in it to encourage me to explore Maughan’s work further.

The story is set in Batch Magna, a sleepy backwater deep in the heart of rural Shropshire, on the banks of the river Cluny – if I had to place this fictional village it would be in the Clun and Bishop’s Castle area – which time has forgotten and life just chugs along, untroubled by the outside world.

Or it did until the lord of the manor, Sir Humphrey Miles Pinkerton Strange no less, a caricature straight out of central casting of an eccentric aristo, popped his clogs. With a nod to many a 19th century novelist, the estate is entailed and so instead of passing to the Sir Humphrey’s granddaughter, it ends up in the hands of a distant relative, Humphrey (call me Humph) Strange, an American and an unsuccessful Wall Street banker, to boot.

Saddled with death duties and a hall that needs work done on it and a barely functioning estate, Humph decides to do what any self-respecting American would do with a British pile, turn it into a theme park. This would entail evicting the tenants, including a motley crew of people living on some paddle boats which are the remnants of the fleet the general’s father brought to the place to liven it up. Naturally, the locals do not want their lives disrupted in this way and much of the plot and the humour comes from their attempts to thwart the American’s plans and Humph’s attempts to gain acceptance amongst the locals – in my experience of Shropshire, that takes about twenty years.

The characters verge just on the right side of stereotypes, a retired naval captain who spends his retirement drinking and searching for Atlantis and has a glass eye to suit all occasions, a randy crime novel writer, Phineas Cook, the Owens who are the salt of the earth and know the ways of the river intimately, Jasmine and her large brood and so on. Maughan has just enough eccentricity in his characters to create interest and at times the urgency of the plot line seems to go by the wayside, rather like time in a dreamy Shropshire village.

The battle between Mammon and the bucolic idyll that was life in Batch Magna is resolved by an astonishing and convenient deus ex machina in the form of an antique gun, lying almost forgotten in the backroom of a Shrewsbury gun repairer. I won’t spoil your fun and if you are looking for an easy read which will put a smile on your face, then this may be for you. P G Wodehouse it is not but, then, what is?

Book Corner – November 2019 (1)

Murder in Midsummer: Classic Mysteries for the Holidays

I’m a sucker for these anthologies of murder and crime tales. Murder in Midsummer is not one from the series curated by the inestimable Martin Edwards but was out together by Cecily Gayford. Quite what she did is difficult to determine as there is no introduction to the anthology and no introduction to any of the stories. Money for old rope, if you ask me.

My other quibble is the title. The books blurb says that all the stories take place in the summer and whilst they all have a vague holiday theme about them, some are vague as to which season the action is set. The story that jars most is Ellis Peters’ contribution, Dead Mountain Lion, not a Cadfael tale, by the way, which is set in the snow-capped and icy Dolomites. Snow and ice form the backdrop to the story, not blazing sun. These are small points and it is difficult to hit on a title that represents a wide range of stories but the title is a bit of a misnomer.

That said, the ten tales which make up the book are well written and entertaining enough. You can’t go wrong with a collection that features Sherlock Holmes. Father Brown and Lord Peter Wimsey, can you?

The Lion’s Mane, Conan Doyle’s contribution, is an oddity in itself in that it is one narrated by Holmes himself rather than the ever-faithful scribe, Dr Watson. Holmes is in retirement by the coast and is invited to exercise his grey cells to solve a perplexing and violent assault. It is his knowledge of sea life that resolves the conundrum and as Holmes’ cases go, it is one of the weaker.

Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is a Marmite character, many love him, others are irritated by his mannerisms. I rather like him and the stories have a nice thread of humour running through them. Rather like Holmes, Wimsey has a propensity to let sleeping dogs lie and let natural justice take its course. The felon in The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face, unmasked by Wimsey, gets away with his crime. However, Sayers’ moral compass is not as steady as Doyle’s as another cops the blame.

I really enjoyed The Exploding Battleship by Michael Innes which beautifully combined two of my interests, murder and scamming. The ruse that lures mark into the scam is ingenious. Ruth Rendell’s Achilles Heel features Inspector Wexford and is entertaining enough, if a bit pedestrian. The weakest of the stories in my view was Carter Dickson’s The House in Goblin Wood, a mix of gothic horror and fantasy, which didn’t quite work. Disappointingly, the Margaret Allingham story, The Villa Marie Celeste, is one I have read several times but still withstood another reading. R Austin Freeman, I find a little tedious and The Blue Scarab was no exception. It was a clever enough plot but he does go on. The Oracle of the Dog sees Father Brown on top form as he unravels the truth behind a crime.

Book Corner – October 2019 (5)

The Claverings – Anthony Trollope

The nights are drawing in and it is time to curl up with another Trollope. The Claverings, written in 1864 but not serialised in the Cornhill Magazine until 1866 and published in book form until a year later, could rightly be described as one of Trollope’s unappreciated gems. The author was rather pleased with it, noting in his Autobiography that it was well-written, with both humour and pathos. The problem, though, as he noted, was “I am not aware that the public has ever corroborated that verdict. I doubt now whether anyone reads The Claverings”, he sniffed.     

Well, if very few read it then, matey, these days it has pretty much fallen off the radar screen. If anyone reads Trollope nowadays it is probably going to be the Barchester series or the Pallisters or The Way We Live Now, which is a shame. The Claverings is classic Trollope and a perfect introduction to his world and style.

Yes, it is a tad long-winded – what Victorian novel, especially one written for serialisation, isn’t? – but has a pace about it and an engaging enough story to keep the reader interested. It is almost as perfect a novel as you can imagine, not a thread left undone, every loose end tied up. Trollope playfully cross-references the Barsetshire series, Bishop Proudie forbidding Henry Clavering, the rector, from fox hunting. So, why did it never find much favour with the reading public?

Part of the trouble, I think, lies in the fact that the lead characters are a tad ordinary with all the human failings of the common man. As the narrator of the story says, “men as I see them are not often heroic”. The plot revolves around a love triangle. The story opens with Julia Brabazon rejects the marriage proposal of Harry Clavering, a man she loves but who has very modest prospects, in favour of hooking up with the loathsome, dissolute but rich, Lord Ongar. In answer to the obvious Mrs Merton question, Julia “had no reliance on her own power of living on a potato, with one new dress every year”.       

The marriage was an ordeal but Lord Ongar quickly succumbed to the strains imposed on his body by his dissolute lifestyle. Meanwhile Harry has plighted his troth to Florence Burton, the daughter of his boss. When Julia reappears on the scene, what should Harry do, return to his first love or remain faithful to his vow of marriage? Cue much soul-searching and wringing of hands as all three protagonists try and work their way through this moral Gaudian knot.      

It takes an intervention of Neptune as an improbable and extremely convenient deus ex machina to resolve the dilemma. The accident, telegraphed well before it occurs, suggests that Trollope was grappling for a way out for his story and many might see it as a structural weakness which detracts from the reader’s enjoyment of the book. I find with many a Victorian novel you need to suspend credulity when considering the plot. Whether you consider the device to be a cop out or not, it does free the main characters from their torment.

I thought Trollope treated the moral anguish of the characters with sympathy and gave the reader an insight into their psychologies. On a more superficial level, the book is full of humour, social insight and pathos. Along the way we meet some wonderful characters including a supposed Russian spy, the sporting and devious Captain Boodle, who I’m sure gets a namecheck in Phineas Redux, a belligerent cleric, Dr Saul, the brothers Clavering, Sir Hugh of the hard heart and Archie, the feckless one, a sleazy foreign Count and many more.

I enjoyed the book and as a book that stands alone as opposed to being one of a series and being of moderate length (by the standards of the day) it is a good introduction to the author.