Book Corner – December 2018 (1)

Crimson Snow – edited by Martin Edwards

Christmas is coming. The geese I regularly pass in a field on the M40 are getting fatter and wearing an increasingly worried expression on their face. Christmas is a time for relatives and friends to gather, celebrate and fall out. Some might even resort to murder. Dastardly deeds over the festive period make up the common theme of this delightful collection of eleven stories, carefully and lovingly curated by Martin Edwards.

As with anthologies of this type there is a mix of familiar authors – in particular, Margery Allingham and Edgar Wallace – and more obscure writers who have been lost in the mists of time. The length and quality of the stories also varies, a couple take over an hour to read each and others show some signs of their vintage. There is even a play; Christmas Eve by S C Roberts is a Holmesian parody in which the winsome Violet de Vinne consults Conan Doyle’s creation about Lady Barton’s missing pearls and makes quite an impression on poor Watson.

The weather we traditionally associate with Christmas, thick snow, features in a number of stories, marooning the house party, as in Victor Gunn’s Death in December, and allowing Chief Inspector Bill “Ironsides” Cromwell and his sidekick, Johnny Lister, to solve the mystery without the suspects having the opportunity to make good their escape.  In one story we encounter a group of malicious carol singers who commit a dastardly crime but their elderly victim has the foresight to hang her most valuable jewels on the boughs of her Christmas tree. As you would expect, a couple of stories feature Father Christmas, the interchange of costumes in one story giving the felon the opportunity to commit his crime.

Ghosts are also associated with Christmas and seasonal spectres make appearances in a number of stories. Perhaps the best story in the collection is Fergus Hume’s The Ghost’s Touch in which the narrator spends the holiday season in a haunted house. Inevitably, the ghost makes an appearance but not all is as it seems and the ghost is a means to divert the direction of an inheritance. What the story lacks in subtlety of plot it more than makes up for in atmosphere and tension.

Another of my favourites is Mr Cork’s Secret by Macdonald Hastings, perhaps because it has an insurance-related theme and it demonstrates that those of us who worked in the industry may have enjoyed a good lifestyle but we were never off duty. Mr Cork is an underwriter and is following up on a theft of some jewels that his office had underwritten. Inevitably, there is a corpse involved and the finely attuned grey cells of Cork eventually get to the bottom of the mystery. One of the unusual features of the story was that it was originally a competition piece and Hastings held back some vital revelations as a challenge for his readership. Edwards prints the story as it originally appeared but at the back of the book provides the missing information together with the winner’s suggestions. A nice touch.

On the whole, I found this collection less satisfying than others from the same stable, perhaps because the Christmas theme, although offering a range of possibilities, ultimately is a bit restrictive. Writing Christmas stories is more of a money-spinning exercise than anything else and perhaps as a consequence the quality of the writing it engenders is more variable. But, as always, there is enough to keep you interested and entertained.

Whether it has made me anticipate Christmas more keenly is another story!

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Book Corner – November 2018 (4)

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

I mentioned a little while ago that Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street was denied the 1921 Pulitzer Prize when the Trustees overturned the jury’s decision. The prize was awarded to a more established and perhaps more conventional writer, Edith Wharton, making her the first woman to receive the Pulitzer. The winning book, The Age of Innocence, was her 12th novel and appeared initially as a four part serial in the Pictorial Review. It takes its title from a 1785 Joshua Reynolds’ painting, A Little Girl.

On the whole, the Trustees were just about right. Wharton’s novel is a more complete, more rounded piece of work than Lewis’ patchy Main Street but, interestingly, they both explore the theme of how society and its conventions can thwart the individual. Instead of little America Wharton’s book plunges us into New York society of the 1870s and explores its foibles and conventions and the threat that new money and younger people with changing attitudes and values presents to the rather ossified, conventional ways of their elders. She is in her element in poking fun, either directly or with withering parenthetical remarks.

The story is a love triangle. At the start of the book we meet part-time lawyer, Newland Archer – surely his surname is a nod to Henry James’ creation in Portrait of a Lady? – who is engaged to be married to the well-connected, shy, lovely Mary Welland. But there is trouble in Paradise when Mary’s cousin, the exotic Countess Ellen Olenska, scandalously separated from her husband, arrives on the scene. Newland is smitten. He is torn between the stability, comfort and influence that he will derive from a marriage that cements him into the upper echelons of New York society and the all-consuming passions that the unconventional, socially ostracised and rebellious Countess stoke in him.

The pressures of convention and society win out and Mary and Newland are married. But the fire in his heart that Ellen has lit will not be extinguished. After much agonising, Newland decides to elope and join Ellen who has returned to Europe, without leaving word to her beau. Just as Newland steels himself to announce his intentions to Mary, she drops the P word. She is pregnant and, indeed, suspecting the affair, had caused Ellen to leave for Europe. A man of honour, Newland stays with his wife in what becomes a loveless union.

The final scene even affected a world-weary cynic like me. In Paris with his sone, Mary long dead, Newland is offered the opportunity to visit his one-time lover. But he prefers to sit it out on a park bench conveniently looking on to the window of Ellen’s rooms. Perhaps he is right. Memories are far better than reality.

The crux of the book is how to read Mary. Was it just a set of unfortunate circumstances or was she a manipulative little so-and-so, not quite the demure wife that Wharton portrays? I favour the latter interpretation.

It is a great read, some wonderful passages, Wharton writing in an easy style that engages her readership. There is a wider message too behind the book. New York society is/was too suffocating and insular. It needed culture and new influences to breathe and flourish. Exactly what Sinclair Lewis was saying about Mid-West America.

Book Corner – November 2018 (3)

Serpents in Eden – edited by Martin Edwards

It seems to be an unfailing rule of thumb in British TV soaps – I’m thinking principally of Eastenders and Coronation Street – that when the characters go to the countryside, some disaster befalls them. The countryside is dangerous, after all. That never-ending series, Midsomer Murders, perpetuates the myth – the county of Midsomer has a murder rate that would make the Badlands of New York and London blanche. Murder most foul and the bucolic charms of the English countryside have gone hand in hand for a century or more and provide Martin Edwards with fertile ground to compile one of his best anthologies.

There are thirteen tales, unlucky for some, with the usual mix of well-known names and the more obscure. But even when he selects the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and G K Chesterton, Edwards eschews the obvious. So no Sherlock or Father Brown, then. The opener, Doyle’s curious The Black Doctor is a tad melodramatic for my taste and is resolved by means of a device which has become a bit clichéd by now. For me the more interesting points were that there was a doctor of colour practising in the English countryside at the time and that he was affianced to a local lass.

The Chesterton tale, The Fad of the Fisherman, featured Horne Fisher and was a fascinating tale but required careful reading or else the subtleties of the crime could easily pass you by. I always look forward to the Margery Allingham contribution but I was a tad disappointed by A Proper Mystery. It featured that seething cesspit of envy and malice that is the local gardening competition and the destruction of plots which contained potential prize winning entries. Much ado about nothing although the rustics take these things seriously.

When I first came across R Austin Freeman I found him a bit dated and slow going but I am beginning to warm to him in short story format.  The Naturalist at Law is a case in point, an excellent tale in which Dr Thorndyke reveals the fate of a man found drowned. His attention to detail and forensic knowledge is second to none.

Attention to detail is the key to another fascinating tale, Leo Bruce’s Clue in the Mustard. The killer is easy to unmask but the way the murder was committed and the clue that unmasked the villain are ingenious. After reading Ethel Lina White’s chilling and creepy The Scarecrow, I will never look at one in the same way again. A great, atmospheric story.

There is even room in the collection for two of our more quaint rural pastimes. Gladys Mitchell’s Our Pageant features a troupe of Morris dancers, one of whom is murdered. The other is taking the piss out of gullible tourists and E C Bentley has constructed an amusing tale in The Genuine Tabard in which rich American tourists are satirised for their voracious but undiscerning appetite for souvenirs.

Some of the other stories show their age or seem a bit too clever for their own good but are entertaining enough in their own right. There is something for everyone here and I found this collection to be one of the better ones in the series. If you wanted to dip your toe in the blood stained brook that babbles through a chocolate-box village green, this is the book for you.

Book Corner – November 2018 (2)

The Winter of Our Discontent – John Steinbeck

Taking its title from the opening lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III, this was Steinbeck’s last novel, published in 1961, charting the trials and tribulations of Ethan Allen Hawley. When we first meet Ethan he is down on his luck. His family fortune, he comes from whaling stock, have been dissipated by the recklessness of his grandfather and father and a mysterious fire which sent their boat to the bottom of the ocean. Ethan is just about making ends meet as a shopkeeper in a store owned by an immigrant, Alfio Marullo, who entered the country illegally as it turns out. Ethan is contented in his humdrum existence, finding solace in the rows of cans and groceries on the shelves of his store which he addresses in his morning ritual.

What characterises Ethan is his honesty but soon forces shake him out of his comfort zone. On Good Friday, perhaps like Judas, his resolution is shaken by the temptation of thirty pieces of silver. A sales rep enters the shop and offers him a bribe which he rejects, a fortune teller, the town’s femme fatale, Margie Young-Hunt, relays the news that the cards reveal that he will be wealthy and he is provoked by the remarks of his wife, Mary, and the dissatisfaction of his children to consider improving his lot.

The fascination of the book is the moral dilemma in which this honest, upright citizen finds himself. Ethan debates whether he should stray from his hitherto impeccable code, at one point, in a fine piece of sophistry, reminding himself that “a crime is something someone else commits.” He also provides a bleak reading of the direction of America in 1960: “a year when secret fears come into the open, when discontent stops being dormant and changes gradually to anger.  The whole world stirred with restlessness and uneasiness as discontent moved to anger and anger tried to find outlet in action, any action so long as it is violent.”  By dispensing with his moral compass, he is merely following the zeitgeist.

Ethan’s plan is to defraud his childhood friend, the local drunk, Danny Taylor, who owns a piece of land that developers are anxious to get their hands on in order to build an airport, and to turn his boss in to the immigration authorities. But Ethan is uneasy at heart and the book draws to a conclusion in a way that leaves the reader to make up their mind as to what precisely happened. To my mind, he draws back from doing away with himself, the key passage, surely, being his thought that he must try to help his daughter “else another light go out.”  But Steinbeck leaves matters deliberately ambiguous and the finale is open to other interpretations.

It is a remarkable and disturbing analysis of someone’s moral decline. In truth, at times it seems a little superficial in its analysis and at times the plot line seems wildly improbable. But the mental anguish that Ethan experiences is one that the reader can associate with. Sometimes desperate situations require desperate measures.

For the literary critic, the book is unusual in that it broadly uses two narrative voices, the opening two chapters of each of the two Parts being in the third person and then the remaining chapters in each section featuring, predominantly but not exclusively, the voice and thoughts of Ethan himself. Stylistically, though, Steinbeck writes in a clear, vigorous manner and the quality and pace of writing carries the reader along, even if they have some qualms about the plotting.

I didn’t consider it to be as good as Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden but was well worth reading.

Book Corner – November 2018 (1)

The Allingham Casebook – Margery Allingham

One of the undoubted pleasures to be gained from carefully curated collections of detective fiction by the likes of the wonderful Martin Edwards is that you are introduced to a range of writers whom you might never otherwise have come across. A case in point, for me at least, is Margery Allingham. I enjoyed her witty, well-constructed short stories in Edwards’ collections, always a highlight, and I was encouraged to seek out the posthumous collection of eighteen of her stories which is the Allingham Casebook.

It was like opening a box of your favourite chocolates. There were so many delicious temptations before the reader that it was difficult to know where to start. And, of course, there is the problem of gorging on them all in one sitting, leaving nothing left for another day. The difference, though, is that the stories remain and you can savour them again and again to your heart’s content.

Perhaps Allingham’s most famous detective creation is the diffident, self-effacing, gentleman detective, Albert Campion. Allegedly, he was created as a sort of parody of Dorothy L Sayer’s aristo ‘tec, Lord Peter Wimsey, but he took on a life of his own and emerged as a more rounded character rather than a peg upon which to hang some satirical barbs. Around half of the eighteen stories in the collection feature Campion. We also get to meet some of Allingham’s other stalwarts, including Charlie Luke and Stanislaus Oates.

What drew me to Allingham are her tightly constructed plots and her underlying sense of humour, both virtues can be found in spades in this wonderful collection. She deploys a variety of techniques and approaches to developing a gripping mystery in a few pages. They are not straightforward whodunits, by any means.

One of the gems of the collection is the opener, the atmospheric, witty Tall Story in which we learn along the way that it was his height which got Charlie Luke his first job in the CID.  In the Case of the Villa Marie Celeste, one I had read before in one of Edwards’ anthologies, Luke and Campion join forces to solve the mystery of a young married couple who disappeared one morning with just a sheet. I enjoyed the two’s collaboration in Little Miss Know-It-All in which they battle against a quiz show champion who claims to have lost her fur coat.

Stanislaus Oates gives Campion the credit for solving what on the face of it seems to have been an impossible crime in the Border Line Case.

Of the other stories I particularly enjoyed One Morning They’ll Hang Him, a mystery involving a soldier who had returned from the war with shell shock, his new wife and his aunt who had recently met an untimely end. The final two stories, Mum Knows Best and Snapdragon and the CID, are more vehicles for Allingham to show off her wit than anything else and are none the worse for that.

Plots and counter plots, con men, Soho restaurateurs and many more feature in a collection which the Allingham aficionado can enjoy and which is a perfect introduction for those who haven’t come across one of the undoubted queens of detective fiction before.

Book Corner – October 2018 (5)

Three Men In A Boat – Jerome K Jerome

Comic writing is a tricky business. Apart from a bit of slap-stick humour is not universal. What one person finds amusing, another may shake their head at in bewilderment. And humour often appears in the most surprising and unintended circumstances. For me, one of the funniest moments was the announcement by the PG Wodehouse committee that they wouldn’t be awarding their prize this year as there were none funny enough.

Of course, that poses the question; what is a humorous book? Even the most tragic of works have some moments of levity. Wall to wall jokes would be tedious in the extreme. No, it is a tone and general atmosphere that marks a book of humour. And if I was pinned up against the wall to name my favourite humorous books of all time in the English language, then Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat would be up there amongst the best. It is a book I turn to time and time again and one that does not pall on me.

Published in 1889, it was an overnight success, despite being condemned by the critics (what do they know?) because of its lowbrow language and its protagonists were seen as hopeless and neurotic, not the sort who founded and maintained an Empire. It started life out as a travelogue – vestiges of the original concept remain with the descriptions of Hampton Court, Marlow and Medmenham. But Jerome quickly spotted the comedic value of confining three chaps, not forgetting Montmorency the dog, in a small boat pottering up the Thames from the outskirts of London to Oxford. It is a trope to which desperate TV producers turn to this day.

The journey is almost by the by, a peg upon which Jerome hangs a diverse series of set pieces, exploring the absurdities and mundanities of daily life. My favourite of the many shaggy dog stories that Jerome peppers the text with has nothing to do with the journey but is a marvellous account of Uncle Podger’s attempts to hang a picture on a wall. I defy anyone not to find it funny. Following up fairly closely is the trio’s increasing desperate attempts to open a tin of pineapples without a can opener.  In disgust, Harris throws the by now misshapen lump of metal into the drink. We can sympathise with how he feels.

It’s easy to see the book’s appeal. It has a timeless quality about, even though the days of travelling along the river in a boat, pulling in wherever you fancied and escaping from the grime and drudgery of life in the metropolis to a spell, however brief, enjoying the bucolic charms of the countryside have long since gone. Rather like a road trip novel, it is a book about life, comradeship, how we rub along with each other and reminiscences of times past and irrespective of the time when the story is set, these are timeless concerns which affect all of us.

True, it has a particularly English slant. We are past masters at talking about the weather, the horrors of our food and the stresses and strains of suburban life but it is written with a light comic touch that makes it accessible to most, irrespective of where in the English speaking world they reside. This is its triumph and why it will long remain amongst the best of comedic writing.

Book Corner – October 2018 (4)

Main Street – Sinclair Lewis

Occasionally I read a book and wonder what all the fuss was about. A case in point is Sinclair Lewis’ satire of little town mid-West America, Main Street, which was enormously successful when it was published in 1920. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 for it, only for the Board of Trustees to overturn the jury’s decision. And, of course, Lewis was the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1930.

What makes great literature, in my opinion, is that it speaks to all generations through the ages. Second tier literature may resonate with contemporary audiences but does not have the gravitas or world view to stand the test of time. And I think this is where Lewis’ novel sits. No bad thing in itself but Main Street is very much a creature of its own time and whilst fascinating as a snapshot of American society at the time and the frustrations of and sense of claustrophobia in small town America, it is dreadfully dated.

The protagonist is Carol Kennicott, an aspirational young woman, and the book, a kind of Bildungsroman, charts her path through adulthood, an unsatisfactory marriage to the local doctor in Gopher Prairie in Minnesota and her sense of frustration as she tries to find a role for herself in her new surroundings. Truth be told, there is little in the way of plot – it is more episodic – and many of the characters we meet along the way are a couple of brush strokes rather than well-rounded portraits. Lewis is on a mission to skewer middle-America but for satire to work it needs to exaggerate but his portrayal is mired in too much realism. He makes his points but not as well as if he had exaggerated the characteristics that he found fault with.

Realising that she has arrived in Dullsville, Carol sets about improving the quality of life through good works and by trying to introduce a bit of what she considers to be culture into the daily lives of the townsfolk. You can imagine that if you were set in your ways and contented, someone like that would be a veritable pain in the arse. The townsfolk give her enough rope to hang herself with, nodding in agreement to her face but fighting tooth and nail behind her back to defeat her plans. Carol crosses acceptable social boundaries by being friendly towards, and overpaying, her maid and befriending her feckless husband. But the tentacles of well-meaning, patriotic America stifle her and her ambitions. Even life in the city is no greener.

Perhaps one of the problems for the modern reader is Carol herself and her situation. She is comfortably off, has a maid but lives at a time when the woman’s place was very much in the home. Her fight to exert her independence and do what she wants to do doesn’t quite sit with the freedom and place of women in today’s society.

Along the way, Lewis comes up with some great lines. “She did not yet know the immense ability of the world to be casually cruel and proudly dull” and how about this for an analysis of the purpose of a dull, conformist community? – “It keeps strays in the flock. To word it differently: ‘You must live up to the popular code if you believe in it; but if you don’t believe in it, then you MUST live up to it!” There is no other way to be.  

This book is a creature of its time but there is enough insight in the pages to keep the modern reader interested. War and Peace it is not, though.