Book Corner – August 2018 (1)

Tortilla Flat – John Steinbeck

I’m going through a bit of a phase of trying to plug some obvious gaps in my literary knowledge. After all, I don’t want to be sitting on a cloud and being asked, during a break in harp practice, whether I have read much Steinbeck. Fortunately, Penguin Modern Classics came to my aid a while back by offering Kindle versions of his novels for £0.99 a go and so this is the first of two that I selected.

In many ways it is appropriate that I chose Tortilla Flat which, although it was his fifth novel, published in May 1935, it was the one that made his name. The reviews were favourable, it began to sell well and Steinbeck was able to sell the film rights. It is easy to see why. It is a humorous collection of essentially shaggy dog stories, written with a light touch and imbued with an easy sense of whimsical humour. The characterisation is strong and the style is no-nonsense.

The book focuses on a group of ne’er do well Mexican-Indian-Spanish Americans, known as paisanos, who eke out an existence in Tortilla Flat near Monterey in California. They are work-shy, have voracious appetites for wine, argue and fight with each other but somehow, perhaps because they have no other option, rub along together in a communal house. Think of hippies without the drugs.

The glue which holds the book and the community together is Danny, who, upon his return from the Great War, finds that he has inherited a couple of houses from his dead grandfather. This good fortune raises Danny’s stock in the eyes of his fellow paisanos and he soon collects a motley collection of picaresque characters who vow their allegiance to him but at the same time see him as a bit of a gravy train. The book relays the tales of their life together.

It is easy to see some obvious Arthurian parallels in the story. King Arthur was a commoner, elevated to royalty by his ability to remove a sword from a stone. Like Arthur Danny initially has trouble getting his followers to meet their obligations but eventually wins them round, winning their undying pledges of loyalty. Danny’s house is a round table manqué and the Catholic symbolism which imbues Mallory’s tale is found in spades in Steinbeck’s novel.

There are many moments when the reader will find a smile cross their face as they race through the pages and there are pieces of superb comedy. I particularly liked the story of the Pirate who had pledged a gold cross to St Francis upon the miraculous recovery of his dog from some illness, the task of collecting the thousand dollars necessary becoming a life’s work. The dog, however, was run over a few weeks later. And the story of the woman who was given a vacuum cleaner, without a motor (natch), which she dutifully pushes around her house. If you have a status symbol, you have to flaunt it.

But, rather like Henry IV, uneasy lies the crown on Danny’s head. He is a man to whom responsibility is anathema and the book, on another level, portrays his descent into despair and culminates in a deeply tragic and moving finale. Again, all of this is done with an incredibly light touch.

There are some troubling aspects with the book. Was Steinbeck racist in his portrayal of the paisanos? Even the author had doubts when he saw how his characters were viewed as nothing more than good-for-nothing bums. Women are portrayed either as objects of lust or little more than domestic skivvies. And there is an undercurrent of anti-Semitism. But, as I have often said, we impose our values on literature at our peril.

If you want an introduction to Steinbeck, this is probably as good a book as you could find to dip your toe in the water.

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Book Corner – July 2018 (2)

Continental Crimes – edited by Martin Edwards

I am a sucker for these collections which offer the prospect of an entertaining light read with the opportunity to enjoy again some old familiar friends and to discover some long-forgotten writers. Just to prove that murder most foul is not peculiar to the English countryside and the dark alleys of the metropolis, Edwards has compiled a collection of fourteen stories where the action takes place sur le continent and, inevitably, on a train bound for Venice.

As with all anthologies the quality of the fare is variable. If I was being pedantic, heaven forfend, Jefferson Farjeon’s The Room in the Tower is more of an atmospheric ghost story than a tale of crime and The Secret of the Magnifique by E Phillips Oppenheimer is both overlong and ends with a bit of a damp squib. And for the modern audience the ending to Michael Gilbert’s Villa Almirante – “many a successful marriage has been founded on a good beating” – is a bit rich. Even I, who defend politically incorrect statements as a reflection of their time, think Edwards might have been better advised to omit this story which is of moderate quality at best.

One oddity is to be found in Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Popeau Intervenes. The ‘tec, one Hercules Popeau, has many of the characteristics found in one of Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth, Hercules Poirot. Lowndes’ creation predates Christie’s character and she was rightly pissed by how closely Poirot resembled her man and it is worth getting the book just to compare and contrast. You will not expend many little grey cells in the exercise.

I am a fan of Arnold Bennett and his A Bracelet at Bruges – more a case of how the crime was committed than by whom and with a dash of romance thrown in for good measure – doesn’t disappoint. Conan Doyle opens up proceedings with a superbly crafted non-Holmesian tale, The New Catacomb – not one for claustrophobes. G K Chesterton is represented with a Father Brown tale, The Secret Garden, in which the diffident cleric solves an impossible mystery involving a gruesome beheading. It is one of the best Father Brown stories, in my opinion.

Agatha Christie provides us with a tale of mystery and intrigue on a train en route to Venice. Have You Everything You Want? is a fairly lightweight affair and certainly not one of her best but introduces Parker Pyne to her readership. More to my taste was The Perfect Murder by Stacy Aumonier which featured a couple of impecunious brothers whose plight was not helped by relatives with deep pockets and short arms. I also enjoyed the slightly folksy and twee Petit-Jean by Ian Hay.

I was left thinking that many of these stories would have worked well in an English setting. For sure, the continental aspect added a bit of the exotic to proceedings but there was very little that was distinctively foreign about many of the tales, perhaps a reflection that most of the writers were Anglo-Saxons.

On the whole, I found that was less to admire in this collection than in others that Edwards has produced but there was enough to whet and sustain my appetite. There is nothing better than to dream of sunnier climes on a dank and dreary English evening.

Book Corner – July 2018 (1)

Claudius The God – Robert Graves

There is something odd about historical fiction as a literary genre. After all, most of us have a passing knowledge of major historical events and figures and so a story that focuses on one has lost a lot of its dramatic tension before it starts. We know the outcome before we have got past the preface. And then there is the problem of a story narrated by a person who dies. The drama of the denouement, in this case Claudius’ murder, is lost because the protagonist can’t relate it.

These are some of the problems Graves battled with in his 1934 sequel to I, Claudius, a riveting tale of inter-family plotting and assassination which puts the Game of Thrones into a cocked hat. The second book is less dramatic because the anti-Darwinian Claudius, the epitome of the survival of the unfittest, has amazingly emerged top of a rather sordid pile and has very few enemies to plot against. That said, Graves succeeds in making Claudius a rather endearing, idealistic ruler, totally unsuited for the position he finds himself in and with an unfulfilled yearning to return Rome to a republic.

The other major theme running through the book is the treachery of his young wife, Messalina. So besotted is Claudius with her and so naïve that she runs rings round him and has a string of paramours. Claudius is the last to know but when the scales finally fall from his eyes his revenge is bloody and swift but the result for Claudius is that he becomes a bitter cynic, abandons his republican dreams, nurtures Nero, marries Agrippina and meets his end. Graves has to rely on accounts by Suetonius and Seneca, neither were Claudius’ greatest fans, to finish the story off.

Another structural oddity is the beginning of the book is that after detailing Claudius’ acclamation by the Praetorian Guard it launches into a retrospective account of the colourful life and times of the con-man and reprobate that was Herod Agrippa. This allows Graves to recount the treatment and pogroms launched against the Jews and it cannot be read other than an attack and commentary on what was going on at the time in Germany.

For the English reader a section of particular interest is the invasion of Britain, Claudius’ principal military achievement, for which he awarded himself a triumph. The rationale for the invasion, at least according to Graves’ Claudius, was to thwart the influence of the Druids whose training-camps in Britain fomented unrest in Gaul. “The Druids, therefore,” he writes, “though they were not warriors themselves but only priests, were always fomenting rebellion against us.” Surgical strikes against them would restore the status quo and allow the spread of civilised values to continue unhindered. Now where have we heard that rationale before?

By the standards of the early Roman emperors Claudius was a good thing and did much to improve the lot of the Romans, particularly with the re-engineering of the port of Ostia. Graves’ portrait is sympathetic and for all his faults, one cannot help feeling a wave of sympathy for Claudius.

Well written, impeccably researched and reasonably well paced, albeit a tad long, it is a worthy sequel to I, Claudius but, for me, the first book was the better read.

Book Corner – June 2018 (2)

The Long Arm of the Law – edited by Martin Edwards

Very few policemen make it into the golden pantheon of literary detection. Of the crème de la crème only Maigret, in my view, is comparable with Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey and Agatha Christie’s creations, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Where the local plod appear in the pages of Conan Doyle, Christie, Chesterton, Sayers et al, they are pedestrian, slow-witted, literary devices to illustrate the brilliance of the grey cells contained within the cranium of the amateur sleuth.

Of course, if we are looking for the antecedents of literary detection, we cannot ignore Dickens’ Inspector Bucket (Bleak House, 1853) and Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff (The Moonstone, 1868) but they are both preceded by Edgar Allan Poe’s amateur, Auguste Dupin, whose mastery of ratiocination was amply exemplified in The Murders of the Rue Morgue (1841). In an attempt to rescue the much maligned officer of the constabulary, the indefatigable Martin Edwards has put together an interesting collection of fifteen short stories showing the professional policeman at his best.

Anthologies are patchy in quality at best and I sensed at times that Edwards was scraping the barrel to provide enough examples from a varied array of writers to make his point. The other problem is that often the resolution of the problem is not the result of structured, forensic enquiry and investigation which, I assume, is the staple fare of police work but the inspired deduction of one of the officers. In other words, there is little difference in the way the culprit is unmasked it just happens that the grey cells belong to a police officer, not a leisured amateur.

The book’s opening story, The Mystery of Chenholt by Alice and Claude Askew, sets the collection off on the wrong foot. The detective, in order to discover what was going on in the house, has to put his fiancée, albeit an officer in another force but not a detective, into the place as an undercover agent. Her evidence results in the unmasking of the villain. Reggie, the detective, pulls it all together but it is not a shining example of straightforward police brilliance.

That said, there are some gems to be found within. Laurence Meynell, a writer I had never come across although, according to Edwards’ insightful and punchy introductions to each story, he had been writing for sixty years across a number of genres, produced my favourite, the Cleverest Clue. The eponymous clue was staring all of us in the face but it took a stroke of genius for it to be spotted and its importance to be recognised. A great story.

After The Event, by Christianna Brand, was another of my favourites, not least because its format was so different and seeing two detectives competing and pitting their wits against each other was fun. Michael Gilbert’s Old Mr Martin has an unexpected twist at the end that I didn’t see coming – one that might offend the sticklers for the rules and conventions of detective fiction but provides a satisfying ending to the spookiest and most atmospheric of the tales.

Choosing a title is one of the hardest tasks facing a writer and my enjoyment of the entertaining romp that is Roy Vickers’ The Man Who Married Too Often was marred somewhat by the fact that the title pretty much gave the game away. None of the other stories reach the heights of these but that is one of the joys and risks of reading an anthology.

An interesting collection but I’m not sure that the case is made for a reconsideration of the merits of police officer-led detective fiction.

Book Corner – June 2018 (1)

The Misty Harbour – Georges Simenon

A man is picked up in Paris by the police. He has lost his memory, has recovered from a serious wound to his head and has five thousand francs in his pocket. The appearance of his maid, Julie, at the police station reveals that he is Yves Joris, the harbour master of the Normandy port of Ouistreham, just outside Caen. Within twenty four hours of his return to Ouistreham, Joris is dead. Maigret sets out to unravel the mystery.

As with many of Simenon’s novels, this book, first published in 1932, is very atmospheric. When Maigret arrives at the port, he can hardly see anything in front of him because of the mist, a metaphor which is picked up throughout the book as the detective slowly and methodically picks his way to the truth, despite the best efforts of the local community to close ranks and frustrate him. Maigret has to resort to some unorthodox methods – a spot of breaking and entering – to move his investigation on but, inevitably, he succeeds and a rather convoluted plot is unravelled. Central to the story is another tale of human frailty and a set of consequences that could so easily have been avoided.

Where the book is strong is in its descriptions of the port – it was apparently quite a busy place in the 1930s with its rather complex set of waterways. Simenon also paints a tremendously vivid picture of life in a community such as Ouistreham in his usual sparse, careful language – astonishing for someone who wrote so quickly. You can smell the fug of dampness, tobacco smoke, alcoholic vapours and coffee. I found I admired this book, longer than the norm for a Simenon novel, for its writing rather than the mystery Maigret was solving.

The Liberty Bar – Georges Simenon

In terms of atmosphere, this book, also published in 1932, is the polar opposite of the Misty Harbour. Set in Antibes we have sunlight and glare. Maigret is hot and sticky, uncomfortable, a fish out of water. He is sent from Paris to investigate the mysterious death of an Australian, William Brown. The two women who lived with Brown concoct an implausible story to account for his demise. Maigret, who is under strict instructions not to cause a drama, sets out to uncover the truth.

Brown, who has worked with French intelligence, has lived a double life. He would go off for a few days a month on a bender – his novena – and hook up with two other women. A fortune, a will and the petty jealousy between two of his women lead to his undoing. Maigret follows the trail – it is a rather low-key, low-energy investigation, reflective of Maigret’s instructions and his discomfort with the heat. But he gets there in the end. As often is the way with Maigret, though, he allows natural justice rather than the judiciary to prevail, the perpetrator left to see out their remaining few months at liberty but filled with remorse.

This is one of Simenon’s better Maigret novels and provides an interesting insight into the lifestyle on the Cote d’Azur in the 1930s as well as Maigret’s investigative methods and if you were looking to dip your toe into Simenon’s work, this is as good a place as any to start.

Book Corner – May 2018 (3)

The Complete Short Stories of Saki – Hector Hugh Munro

Munro’s last words were said to be “put out that damned cigarette” before he was hit by a sniper’s bullet in France. The tragedy was that he needn’t have served – he volunteered at an age when he was too old to be called up – and so English literature lost one of its finest exponents of the short story. One wonders what heights he would have reached had he not been killed.

There are many collections of Munro’s stories – the one I read lovingly over a period of a year or so, dipping in and out when I needed something to smile about or gasp in amazement, was issued by Vintage Classics. His nom de plume, Saki, means one who serves wine in Urdu and like a waiter he tantalises, pours out his heady brew and leaves the reader gasping for more. His style is very economical, rarely is a word wasted or ill-chosen. His characters are vividly drawn and his stories are peppered with a mordant wit.

What struck me was how inventive Munro’s similes were and how delicious were his turns of phrase. To take just half a dozen at random: “The black sheep of a rather greyish family”, “People talk vaguely about the innocence of a little child, but they take mighty good care not to let it out of their sight for twenty minutes.” “The sacrifices of friendship were beautiful in her eyes as long as she was not asked to make them.” “The young have aspirations that never come to pass, the old have reminiscences of what never happened.” “The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.” “I’m living so far beyond my means that we may almost be said to be living apart.”  Wonderful.

In many ways Munro is the staging point between Oscar Wilde who must have been an influence and P G Wodehouse, whom he influenced. Many of his characters could have come out of the pages of Wodehouse – two of the recurring characters in his short stories, Reginald and Clovis Sangrail, do nothing more than move from country house to country house, getting into scrapes or causing mischief. There is a childish delight in Munro’s stories at the prospect of cocking a snook and puncturing the pretensions of the middle and upper classes. His stories are humorous but there is more there than you would find in Wodehouse. There is satire, something dark lurking beneath the surface, a touch of the bizarre and the gothic. Many of the stories have an unexpected twist.

My particular favourites are Tobermory, which is about a cat that is taught to talk with disastrous consequences for all, The Unrest Cure where a house’s calm is punctured by the threat of a pogrom, Filboid Studge, The Mouse that tried to help, which is a wonderful satirical attack on the world of advertising and Laura, a strange tale of reincarnation where the protagonists returns as a destructive otter. But there is something for everyone. Most of the stories are very short, some barely lasting a page or two and mostly three or four, but each one left me in awe of the skill and craftsmanship of the author.

For those of a sensitive, politically correct disposition, there are phrases and attitudes that may cause offence but then Munro was a creature of his time just as we are creatures of our own. Just enjoy his stories for what they are, the finest examples of the story in its short form. Shame about the fag.