Book Corner – April 2019 (3)

Best detective stories of Cyril Hare

One of the joys of the sort of crime anthologies that the inestimable Martin Edwards compiles is that you come across a wide range of writers, some of whom you are happy to have encountered on that one occasion but there are others whom you wish to explore further. Cyril Hare, the pseudonym of the English barrister, judge and crime writer, Gordon Clark, taken from the name of his Chambers, Hare Court, and his house in Battersea, Cyril Mansions, is one of the latter.

This collection of thirty short stories, some very short, was originally published in 1959 and in America appeared under the title of Death Among Friends. Many of the stories were written for the London Evening Standard in the days when newspapers and magazines dd their bit to foster and develop literary talent. Your fish and chips were wrapped up in a better quality of writing in those days.

What I liked about Hare is that he wrote with a certain panache, a pinch of humour, his plots generally held together and quite often there was a clever twist at the end. To a greater or lesser degree most of the stories in this collection exhibit some or all of these qualities and there are very few duds and most stand the test of time.

For me the one that didn’t was a story called The Rivals, a tale of two suspects, both romantically associated with a girl who is murdered. Both point the finger of suspicion at each other. The identity of the murderer is revealed in the final paragraph and, to be fair, the clues had been signposted during the narrative but you would have had to have had a detailed knowledge of what shoes a chap wore to dances at the time to crack it.

The funniest was The Tragedy of Young McIntyre in which a young, struggling barrister sues his voice coach for ruining his voice. The plot, of course, is absurd but Hare rescues what could have easily been a farce with some aplomb. Some knowledge of the laws of testacy wouldn’t come amiss for the opener, Miss Burnside’s Dilemma, but it has a clever and slightly surprising ending, which sets the scene nicely for what is to come.

In very broad terms, the book falls into three parts; stories involving the law and principally wills, good old-fashioned murder and what might be lumped together as miscellaneous crimes, the latter having more than their fair share of Hare’s characteristic black humour. Perhaps the most atmospheric, ghostly and even bizarre tale was A Life for A Life in which a World War One gas victim has an attack brought on by a pea-souper of a fog and is saved by a pharmacist who died a long time ago.

I am a fan of closed room mysteries and I enjoyed Weight and See which demonstrated that there are some advantages to being overweight. Inevitably, Hare’s most famous lawyer cum detective, Francis Pettigrew, makes an appearance in a couple of the stories and a number are set in his stomping ground of Markhampton. The Children of the Week stories, whilst all insubstantial, were clever and showcase Hare’s technique to good effect.

As always with these collections, there are some stories which are better than others but they are all short enough not to feel you have wasted too much time if you don’t like them.

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Book Corner – April 2019 (2)

Friends and Heroes – Olivia Manning

The opening of Friends and Heroes, published in 1965, the final book of Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, finds Harriet Pringle safely in Athens, waiting for her husband, Guy, to join her from Bucharest, which has now been occupied by the Nazis. As Athens is the acknowledged escape route for the ex-pats who frequented the Romanian capital, inevitably many of the characters we came across in the first two books reappear.

It is the comical rogue, Prince Yakimov, who first gives Harriet the news that Guy has arrived safely in Greece. Harriet warms to Yakimov, whom in the earlier books she had treated with disdain, and he grows into something of a confidant. Greece soon comes under attack from the Italians and by the end of the book the Pringles are on the run again, last seen on a boat entering Egyptian waters.

But the war is just a rumble in the background of this story. It is a device to allow characters, many of whom we have met before, appear and disappear as quickly from the story without too much explanation. There is, of course, the diurnal concern of whether they are safe from invasion or incarceration and how they might effect their escape when necessary but it is mood music rather than the heart of the book.

What the book does do is continue the exploration of the state of the Pringles’ marriage. If it wasn’t apparent before, in Athens Harriet realises that Guy is naïve and generous to a fault. His generosity to others is exploited without him receiving anything in return. Cases in point are Toby Lush and Dubedat. Guy had bent over backwards to find the duo employment in the university in Bucharest. They scarpered when the going got tough but when Guy caught up with them in Athens, they did everything they could to thwart his desire to find employment teaching at the British School.

Harriet, less educated than Guy but more worldly-wise, gets frustrated with her husband’s inability to come to terms with the reality of their situation and how his so-called friends are using him. What adds to her frustration is Guy’s inability or unwillingness to see her as a separate individual. Rather Guy sees Harriet as just an extension of his own persona.

Inevitably, these tensions lead to Harriet becoming disillusioned with her marriage and left alone for more time than she deems reasonable, her fancies start to roam. A handsome officer, temporarily stationed in Athens, Charles Warden, takes her fancy. They start a tentative on-off affair, Harriet battling against her innate sense of convention and her loyalty to Guy. Charles and she almost consummate their fling but it is interrupted by the chance arrival of another character from her past who, true to form, throws the Pringle’s erstwhile kindness and hospitality in their face.

Rather echoing Saki’s demise, Yakimov is killed towards the end of the book, a sad loss as he was the one character of truly comic genius in the book.

I enjoyed this book more than the other two, perhaps because I was more familiar with the characters and because there is more action. But, nonetheless, what we have is a collection of English eccentrics, acting as English eccentrics would do. The war and the particular circumstances of war-torn Romania and Greece are just the backdrop to allow Manning to create vignettes of humour, drama and despair. For that reason, I do not see the trilogy as a great piece of literature but Manning did have the luck, if that is what it was, of experiencing and being able to write about the war in a theatre that has rarely been written about in English literature. It makes for a useful addition to the literature of the Second World War.

Perhaps I will revisit the Pringles in the Levant Trilogy but I feel I need some compassionate leave before I start.

Book Corner – April 2019 (1)

Silent Nights – edited by Martin Edwards

Christmas. Not my favourite time of year, for sure, but there is little better than settling down in the warmth and immersing yourself in crime stories with a Christmas theme. As always, Martin Edwards has served up a delightful serving of 15 short stories and as always, the quality is variable. But that is the way of anthologies and there are more gems than duds here.

There is probably no better way to open up proceedings than with a Sherlock Holmes story. Given the seasonal theme of the collection it is inevitably The Blue Carbuncle, a take I have read on many occasions but one that this reader never tires of.

Another old favourite to be found in these pages is G K Chesterton’s The Flying Stars which sees the diffident Father Brown exercise his wits against his old foe, Flambeau. Lord Peter Wimsey crops up in Dorothy L Sayer’s The Necklace of Pearls which is an amusing story of a jewellery theft, set in a country house. A country house gathering is also the setting for Edgar Wallace’s comic tale, Stuffing.

But part of the joy of collections like this is to discover writers who were popular in the Golden Age of detective fiction but who have fallen the wayside in recent times. Fashion is a fickle companion. Perhaps the darkest and most atmospheric story in this collection is H C Bailey’s tale of a serial killer, The Unknown Murderer. And The Waxworks, by Ethel Lina White, an author I am going to have read more of, is one for those who like the traditional mix of spooks and murder. An intrepid female reporter opts to spend a night in a waxworks museum in an attempt to get to the bottom of why it has been the scene of a number of mysterious deaths. There is an interesting twist at the end.

There are a couple of stories where the reader is invited to exercise their little grey cells to solve the crime. Solutions are provided at the back of the book for those who can be bothered. The most satisfying of the two, perhaps because I don’t play chess and so the intricacies of Raymund Allen’s A Happy Solution went over my head, was Nicholas Blake’s A Problem in White. The tale, set on a train, marooned in the snow, features a jewellery heist and a murder and ends with the cliff-hanger sentence, “But who did the Inspector arrest for the murder of the disagreeable Arthur J. Kilmington? And why?”. There are enough clues scattered through the text for the attentive reader to unmask the culprit and, if nothing else, it forces you to read it again to gather up the evidence.

Less satisfying for me was Marjorie Bowen’s Cambric Tea, too long-winded, and Ralph Plummer’s Parlour Tricks, a fun read but a bit too obvious for my taste. On the other hand, Joseph Shearing’s The Chinese Apple hit the spot, a mix of gothic and crime, featuring an ex-pat returning from Italy, somewhat unwillingly, to take care of a niece.

Suffice it to say, there is something for everyone in the anthology and it is a splendid way to wind down from the rigours and stresses of a modern Christmas.

Book Corner – March 2019 (4)

The Spoilt City – Olivia Manning

The second of what is known as Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, The Spoilt City, published in 1962, continues the tale of Guy and Harriet Pringle. The storm clouds of war are gathering around Bucharest, rumours abound that the Germans are going to occupy the country, or perhaps the Russians, and there are fascist marches, uprisings and, eventually, a coup.

Bizarrely, but true to form, the Brits, marooned in the city, go about their business, trying to go about their daily business. Part of what they perceive to be the role of the British is to preserve the cultural life of the city. So a distinguished academic, Lord Pinkrose, is flown in on the pretext of delivering a few keynote lectures on English poetry, just what the locals need. And Guy, fresh from his triumph of staging Troilus and Cressida, immerses himself in running a summer school for the dwindling band of students who are able or minded to continue their studies.

Although the book is structured as a stand-alone story, many of the characters we came across in the first book, The Great Fortune, populate its pages. The comic sponger, Prince Yakimov, is now living with them and a new waif and stray, a potentially dangerous one at that, Sasha, a deserter and a Jew to boot, has joined the Pringles, hiding away in the attic. Inevitably Manning has to allude to events that featured in the first book to allow new readers to catch up, a mildly irritating feature for those readers to whom the first book is still fresh in the memory but an understandable ploy, nonetheless.

The newly wed Harriet is becoming more and more irritated by her husband, Guy. Universally admired, a good egg, she sees that his willingness to immerse himself into projects that seem futile is his way of coming to terms with the gravity of the situation in which he finds himself and into which he has brought his young bride. But she also detects that Guy sees her as part of himself rather than a separate individual. Gut automatically assumes that what he wants, she wants, a tension that comes to the fore in the second half of the book, when je stubbornly refuses to leave Bucharest when all the other ex-pats are fleeing.

Eventually, after the assualt on his boss, Inchcape, the discovery of Sasha and the raid on their flat, Guy reluctantly agrees that Harriet should leave Bucharest for Athens. The book ends with the assumption that Guy will join her, as soon as he is able.

In real life, Manning arrived as a newly-wed in Bucharest at the outbreak of the war and it is tempting, and probably correct, to assume that her experiences informed her vivid portrayal of a city whose confidence and resistance is crumbling, apprehensive of its future. The characterisation is vivid and the use of small, often comic, sometimes chilling, vignettes to illustrate the mundanities, indignities and frustrations of everyday life and the perils facing an eclectic and eccentric group of Brits thrown together is well judged.

It is a fast read and there is more action and drama contained within its pages than in the first volume. If I had a criticism, it is that Manning’s narrative didn’t involve and immerse me as I thought it might. I felt as though I was a bystander, watching the action from the sidelines.

Still, on to the third!

Book Corner – March 2019 (3)

Joy in the Morning – P G Wodehouse

I find Wodehouse, and particularly his tales of Wooster and Jeeves, to be the literary equivalent of my comfort blanket. No matter how many times I read them, I find I discover something new. It’s a delight to be whisked away from your daily grind to a world of dense toffs and clever, perceptive servants. Of course, this world barely ever existed and is an anachronism by modern standards but it is worth just suspending belief to enjoy the wonders of Wodehouse at his best.

And I concur with many of Wodehouse’s critics that this is perhaps his finest work, certainly his best Jeeves and Wooster story. It had a difficult birth, Wodehouse working on it in Le Touquet when he was rudely interned by the occupying Nazis. His wife, Ethel, had the foresight to pack up the fledgling manuscript when she left France to join him in Berlin and was completed up in the Harz mountains in Degenershausen.

Joy in the Morning, which takes its title from a line in the thirtieth Psalm, was initially published in New York in August 1946. As Wodehouse was under a bit of a cloud in Blighty and paper was in short supply, the book didn’t reach his British audience until June 1947. The scarce paper was not wasted in bringing this wonderful novel to the reading public. Some American editions are entitled Jeeves in the Morning, missing the point entirely in that lovably infuriating Yankee way.

Those familiar with Wodehouse will know what to expect. It is a classic comedy of errors, using shovel loads of coincidence to keep a frenzied plot going. Bertie Wooster is persuaded to visit Steeple Bumpleigh, home of his formidable and tyrannical aunt, Agatha and her hubby, Lord Worplesdon. Worse too, Wooster’s former fiancée, Lady Florence Craye, is in attendance. Will Bertie get himself hooked again?

The book is a frenzied tour de force, love triangles, envious suitors, vengeful suitors, a house fire, a fancy-dress ball, a country cottage burnt to the ground, a miscreant boy, a policeman, a friend of Bertie’s, who is out to get him, a prospective merger of two shipping companies and much, much more. There is even a gag that runs through the book about a fretful porpentine which manifests itself when Bertie finds a hedgehog in his bed, as you do. The countryside is a dangerous place.

The momentum of the book is such that it is very difficult to put down as you are drawn to see what happens next. You are quickly absorbed by the beauty and vibrancy of the writing and the inventiveness of the Wodehousian simile. To give you a taste; “she came leaping towards me, like Lady Macbeth coming to get first-hand news from the guest-room” and he span round “with a sort of guilty bound like an adagio dancer surprised while watering the cat’s milk.

Through all of this mayhem, Wodehouse can take a step and poke fun at himself and his dodgy war record. Talking to Boko Fittleworth, yes, the names of Wodehouse’s characters are eccentrically bizarre, Wooster says, “I doubt if you can ever trust an author not to make an ass of himself.

It’s a glorious romp, guaranteed to put a smile on your face and help you forget about the modern world. What is there not to like?

Book Corner – March 2019 (2)

The Great Fortune – Olivia Manning

This is the first of what became Manning’s Balkan Trilogy and was published in 1960. I have not read Manning before and so was unsure what to expect, save that greater critics than I rate the series.

In truth, I found it an undemanding read, ideal for perusing whilst lying on a sun lounger, and when I came to think about it after finishing it, it seemed to me to be much ado about nothing. There is little in the way of action or, indeed plot, which is a tad surprising, given the book’s premise.

We are in Bucharest in 1939 at the time when Britain declares war on Germany. Rumania is ostensibly neutral but even during this first part of the trilogy the vultures are circling the carcass. The principal characters are two Brits, Guy and Harriet Pringle. Guy has lived in Bucharest for a while and has a teaching post at the University. He returns bringing his new bride, Harriet, whom he has married after a whirlwind romance.

There is little in the way of back story so we really don’t know much about the nature of their romance or why Harriet was persuaded to live in a country far away from Blighty with a man she barely knew. What we should know, though, is that the book is semi-autobiographical, Manning arriving in Bucharest as a newly-wed just as war was declared.

The Pringle’s world is principally that of British ex-pats, fellow academics, bureaucrats and members of the press. Their interaction with Rumanians is marginal and Manning’s portrayal of the locals is not flattering. They are loafers, beggars or domestic menials. The ex-pats’ diurnal routine is work, drinks in the English Bar at one of the city’s hotels, gossiping and conducting their own petty feuds. There are some interlopers, none more so than the inveterate sponge Prince Yakimov, who provides a comedic element to the tale.

What does come through in this book is Manning’s astute sense of time and place. It is an atmospheric novel. It would be easy for her to ramp up the tension and drama of a group of beleaguered Brits in a foreign and potentially inimical country but her approach is one that emphasises the mundanity of their life. The war is a mild irritant that barely gets in the way of the lead characters’ lives but you sense through her narrative that it is the reality of their situation is creeping ever nearer.

It is a cliché that the Brits holed up in a corner show a certain stiffness about the upper lip. Guy with an astonishing insouciance for the situation decides to produce a play, Troilus and Cressida, as that is what would be expected of the Brits in such circs. The second half of the book is dominated by the play, Harriet finding herself excluded from proceedings and left to her own devices and to ponder the state of her relationship with Guy. The timing of the play which deals with the fall of Troy coincides with the German invasion of France, the capture of Paris and Britain’s bleakest moments.

There is a temptation to compare the book with Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time but this should be resisted. The same characters crop in different circumstances but Manning’s book lacks the satirical bite of Powell.

It was an entertaining enough read and I found enough in it to entice me to read the second part, The Spoilt City, more of which anon.

Book Corner – March 2019 (1)

The Cellars of the Majestic – Georges Simenon

As I found myself in too much detail about the sewerage systems of Tudor England, I felt the need to come up for air and read something a bit lighter and breezier. What better than another Maigret novel?

The Cellars of the Majestic is one of the better Simenon novels and would certainly be among my recommendations to anyone who wants to dip their toe into the murky world of crime in 1930s France. As often with Simenon’s works it masquerades under a number of names. The excellent Penguin reissues have reclaimed the original title, translated into English of course, but during its long and varies career it has also been known as Maigret and the Hotel Majestic and the Hotel Majestic.

It was written in December 1939 and initially saw the light of day in serial form, between April and October 1940, in a magazine called Marianne, published by Gallimard. It was not until the autumn of 1942 that it appeared in book form and so should be regarded, chronologically at least, the first of Simenon’s so-called Gallimard cycle. For the train spotters amongst you, there was a Hotel Majestic in Paris’ 16th Arrondissement but it closed in 1936 and was converted into Government offices. Whether it was the inspiration for Simenon’s book is unclear.

The story is simple enough. The body of Mrs Clark, the wife of a rich American industrialist, is found in the cellars of the Majestic by the head coffee maker, Prosper Donge. It seems an open and shut case, the identity of the culprit obvious. That this is the case seems to be confirmed by the discovery of a second body. But Maigret is not convinced.

He digs into the background of Donge and Mrs Clark. It soon becomes clear that not everything is at it seems. The two are linked to a nightclub in Cannes called the Belle Etoile. I won’t spoil the story but there is a twist to the story and the real culprit is not immediately obvious. As usual Maigret’s doggedness gets his man.

For the Maigret aficionado, there are some unusual things to note about the book. Firstly, unusually the text is populated with characters, many flitting in and out of the story, as befits staff and guests of a major hotel, and most contribute little to the plot other than colour. Secondly, Maigret is unusually active. We see him riding a bicycle as he follows and then accompanies Donge to his home. He also has a trip down to the Cote d’Azure to investigate the stories of the three night club hostesses and to unearth Charlotte who holds the key to the mystery.

It is also fascinating to compare Maigret’s techniques with those of other great fictional detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Not for him, the exercising of the little grey cells. Rather he immerses himself into the scene of the crime and the characteristics of the suspects. This often means that a typical Maigret novel is short on action but it allows Simenon to paint a picture with his wonderfully economic, succinct writing style.

As a consequence, his books are short, this book is barely over 130 pages long, but every word is to be savoured.

Now back to the drains.