Book Corner – January 2020 (3)

The Incredulity of Father Brown – G.K Chesterton

Of the so-called Premier League detective fiction writers, I have found G.K Chesterton the hardest going. I persevere because, on the whole, he produces some well-written, satisfying stories. My problem, I think, is that they are heavily laced with the author’s Catholicism, something I could do without, and his pontifications can make the stories overlong.   

This book was published in 1926 and is a collection of eight stories, all featuring his unobtrusive priest-cum detective, Father Brown, and all but the first story, The Resurrection of Father Brown, having been published previously in Nash’s Pall Mall Magazine between 1924 and 1925, other than The Ghost of Gideon Wise which appeared in Cassell’s Magazine. The fact that most of the book has appeared elsewhere in short story form makes for a bit of a disjointed read. Brown is introduced, at length, to the reader each time and each story takes a bit of time to get going.

The Catholic priest has an unerring knack of being at the right place at the right time. Using his powers of observation and heightened sense of intuition, Brown solves a mystery which is beyond the ken of mere mortals. Father Brown is content to unmask the killer rather than see that justice is done. No one seems to be arrested or brought before the courts. Brown’s role is to provide a rationale for a series of events, some of which strain credulity, which have been set in train by a convoluted, some might say over-convoluted, plot. As Chesterton said in 1930, “the essence of a mystery tale is that we are suddenly confronted with a truth which we have never suspected and yet can see to be true”. That, in a nutshell, is what a Father Brown story is all about.   

There is also an element of the supernatural in the stories, a sense of forces or spirits which are operating at another level and impelling the unfortunate characters towards their doom. Brown, whilst acknowledging that there is such a thing as the devil and that miracles do happen, takes great delight in stripping a series of inexplicable events of their patina of the preternatural. The Catholic priest emerges as the least superstitious of the characters, perhaps Chesterton’s way of affirming the strength and veracity of the church.

Of the eight, my favourite was The Doom of the Darnaways, featuring a family curse which doomed the seventh heir at the seventh hour of the day. But all was not what it seemed, and the priest unravelled the mystery. I had read The Oracle of the Dog before and enjoyed it more second time round. Rather like Conan Doyle, Chesterton resurrects his sleuth in dramatic circumstances in the opening story but, unlike Conan Doyle, hadn’t bothered to kill him off in spectacular style in an earlier story. Opening a collection of stories with the death of your hero is always an anticlimactic way to go.

What makes Chesterton’s stories for me is his use of language and his wit. I enjoyed his portrayal of the Manichaean forces of capitalism and bolshevism in The Ghost of Gideon Wise. And as an opening to a story, The Arrow of Heaven, you can’t get better than this; “It is to be feared that about a hundred detective stories have begun with the discovery that an American millionaire has been murdered; an event which is, for some reason, treated as a sort of calamity.” Quite.

Book Corner – January 2020 (2)

The Measure of Malice – edited by Martin Edwards

In these days of DNA testing and face recognition technology, it is hard to comprehend how the tools and techniques available to detectives, whether professional or amateur, have increased and improved by leaps and bounds over the last century. The indefatigable curator of detective stories that Martin Edwards has assembled an anthology of fourteen stories, the organising theme being the use of scientific, quasi-scientific and forensic techniques to solve a seemingly insoluble crime. The results are not only entertaining, with a couple of exceptions, but also serve to remind us that the guardians of the law were often operating with one hand tied behind their back.

The oddest piece of pseudo-science appeared in CE Bechhofer Roberts’ 1926 story of murder amongst the Italian scientific community, The English Filter. The idea behind optography is that the retina retains, rather like a photographic plate, the image of what it has seen. If you could interrogate the retina of the victim of a murder you would be able to see the image of what he last saw, the murderer. And, lo and behold, after ruining one of the eyes they were able to and the case was solved.  

The prize for the most irritating detective in the collection goes to Ernest Dudley’s Dr Morelle in the Case of the Chemist in the Cupboard. To say he is a male chauvinist pig is to put it mildly and it is a great shame that he wasn’t the murderer’s victim. I also found H C Bailey’s The Broken Toad a tad overlong. I’ve always found Reggie Fortune a bit of an acquired taste and whilst it is better than some of the short stories featuring him I have read, it was one of the weaker ones in the anthology.

As usual in an Edwards’ collection, Conan Doyle opened the batting with a Sherlock Holmes’ case, The Boscombe Valley Mystery. It is not one of Doyle’s finest but is serviceable enough and gets the book off to a reasonable start. Footprints in the soft ground and Holmes’ encyclopaedic knowledge of cigar ash – he wrote a monograph on the differences between the ash of 140 types of cigar, don’t you know? – help unmask the murderer, although, frankly, it was pretty self-evident.

The Horror of Studley Grange, by the crime writer and surgeon combo of L T Meade and Clifford Halifax, was a bit of a romp and more of a horror or ghost story than of crime. It was entertaining enough as was C J Cunliffe Hyne’s The Third Smoker where the shape of the lethal wound provided the clue to unmasking the villain. I also enjoyed Anthony Wynne’s The Cyprian Bees. An especially venomous strain of bee is used to commit a murder, the ingenuity of the plan, though, is not sufficient to defeat Dr Hailey.

A Dorothy L Sayer story is always a treat and Lord Peter Wimsey is on form in In The Teeth of the Evidence, using the skills of his dentist forensically to crack the case. Wimsey is a marmite figure to many, but I enjoy the dash of humour that comes with him. The most recent story, as recent as 1955, is Freeman Willis Croft’s The New Cement in which Inspector French’s knowledge of chemistry foils an assassination attempt and unmasks the culprit.

These are the stories which piqued my interest, but the others were all passable in their different ways. The joy of anthologies like this is that there is always something for everyone, an opportunity to discover new writers, and, if you can’t get on with one story, there is always another.

Book Corner – January 2020 (1)

Step in the Dark – Ethel Lina White

Step in the Dark was published in 1938 and was Ethel Lina White’s twelfth novel. The plot is a little thinnish but if you like an entertaining read with a dash of romance and lashings of suspense and thrills, then this may be one for you. What intrigues me about White is how inventive she was in finding variations on the thriller, crime novel, some of which she pulled off with aplomb and some which leaves the reader thinking the concept was a bit weak. For me, this book falls into the latter camp.

The protagonist is a successful novelist, Georgia Yeo, a thriller writer, who wrote to support her two children, following the death of her husband. Now with some money, she embarks on a trip to Belgium with her literary agent. There she meets a Swedish count who shows her around Brussels and for whom she falls hook, line, and sinker.

Georgia decides to marry the Count and he whisks her off, together with her children, to his private island off the archipelago of Stockholm. But there the mood changes. The Count is not quite what he seems. He is a confidence trickster, short of readies, despite the pretence of a lavish lifestyle, and sees Georgia as the cash cow that will improve his financial standing sufficiently that he has the funds to pull off another scam.

He sets Georgia the task of writing another best-seller, helpfully providing her with the plot. Her predicament is spelt out to her by the Count in this exchange; the plot will be “Your own story,’ he replied triumphantly. ‘What is happening to you *now. This exact situation.’ As she stared at him he began to laugh. ‘You think me mad? You wonder I dare let you write about it, so that your friends may know? But you forget your reputation as a writer of thrillers. You can tell the world the truth, but it will be accepted as fiction”.    

If she does not fulfil her task, her life and that of her children will be in danger. The Count has assembled a sinister collection of characters, his mother, the Professor who is a dab hand at accidental assassinations, and a girl, Clair, who originally masquerades as a man and turns out to be not only the Count’s wife but a victim of one of the Count’s earlier scams, to thwart Georgia’s attempts to get word out to her friends and family and to escape. Her other preoccupation is preventing her too worldly-wise children from finding out the extent of the danger she has put them in.

All of Georgia’s attempts to effect her escape end in failure. How is she going to get out or will she end up another of the Count’s victims?

I will not spoil the ending. What I will say about it, though, is that compared with Lina White’s careful building up of layer upon layer of tension, it is rather rushed and a bit anticlimactic. The story is, however, well-written and the reader is carried along at a pace. It is one of those books that you race through but don’t want to end. The characterisation is good, even the minor characters are believable, and she paints the gothic atmosphere well.

All in all, a bit of fun to read but not one of her better books.

Book Corner – December 2019 (3)

The Provincial Lady Goes Further – E.M.Delafield

Published in 1932, this is Delafield’s sequel to her best-selling The Provincial Lady, reviewed elsewhere in this blog (https://windowthroughtime.wordpress.com/2018/01/24/book-corner-january-2018-3/). It is better known as The Provincial Lady goes to London in America, as indeed she does. It is written in the same breathless, chatty style of its predecessor, definite articles and personal pronouns jettisoned with gay abandon. It’s like reading a diary full of pensées or a certain type of blog.

Our heroine, the provincial lady, has found some sort of minor literary fame as a result of her first novel. The book opens with various of her acquaintances feeling somewhat miffed about the way they were portrayed. (Note to self: don’t use real, live people in next book). But life is still its chaotic mess, trying to run a family on a meagre budget, dealing with a temperamental French nanny who always seems to be having a crise, problems with the domestics and a husband who is less than helpful, monosyllabic and happy to snooze behind a copy of The Times.

Still, the royalties from her book do give some welcome financial relief, allowing her to rent a small flat in London, ostensibly as somewhere to write her next book but, in reality, a bolthole from her crazy domestic life in Devon and an opportunity to set her foot gingerly into the literary and social world that the capital offers.

She meets up with an old school pal, Pamela Pringle, who leads a rather complicated love life, several husbands along the way and a string of male admirers in tow, and involves our heroine in the complicated stratagems to cover up her traces. Any invitation to a soiree, dinner, or an event prompts a clothing crisis. She never seems to have the right clothes to wear. Delafield delights in satirising, in a light and gentle way, the mores and behaviour of the upper middle classes at play.

Our Lady ventures abroad taking a trip to Brussels to attend a literary conference, arriving typically late and feeling rather awkward and out of place, left to socialise with other social misfits and outcasts, and the family on a holiday to Brittany. She is spreading her wings and she talks, at the end of the book, about going to America.

The book has a gentle wit throughout, portraying a clever woman but one who is out of her depth and disconcerted by the complexities of modern life. She seems always to be on the verge of some disaster and, of course, pressure from her editor to complete her next book. The book is full of parenthetical asides, notes to oneself, ideas for articles which are never pursued or observations of a more philosophical nature.

Our Lady is a bit of a feminist but lacks the confidence or the readiness of wit to stand her ground. A case in point is this passage where Robert, her husband, volunteers her services to perform at the village concert; “Definite conviction here that reference ought to be made to Married Women’s Property Act or something like that, but exact phraseology eludes me, and Robert seems so confident that heart fails me, and I weakly agree to do what I can”.     

The book is somewhat autobiographical. The magazine, Time and Tide, appears frequently in the book and Delafield was a director of it. She had two children and lived the life of an upper-middle class woman in Devon, struggling to keep a ramshackle home going.

It’s great fun, at least as good as the first, and I shall probably be travelling with her to America.

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.