Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Flaw in the Crystal (1954) by Godfrey Smith

Flaw in the CrystalGod knows why this was published in Penguin's green crime series. The book does deal with espionage, but at such remove that the fact only becomes clear in the last 60 pages or so. The protagonist, Roger Meredith, works at a nameless government office and is asked by his superiors to befriend an exceptionally gifted and remarkable man called Graham Several, and evaluate his soundness and reliability. It is not made clear until very late in the book that Several is considered for a dangerous mission behind the Iron Curtain. Precisely nothing of note happens as Meredith is wined and dined by Several, visits his haunts, establishes relationships with his friends and generally muddles on with his assignment without revealing much insight into character or any particularly interesting aspects of his own personality. The premise has potential - the very understatedness of the problem is intriguing: what is it exactly that makes a man 'sound' or otherwise? Little is suggested by way of an answer, and less action takes place by the time when at the very end a simple but effective twist looms: Several had been vetted long ago - can it be that Meredith is the one under the microscope? Alas, this is discarded in favour of another development. It is a not unworthwhile book, mainly because it is rather different from what one expects of this genre and period, and it’s decently written, but mostly less than compelling and ultimately unsatisfying.

It is reviewed more favourably here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Flush As May (1963) by P. M. Hubbard

Flush As MayOn May Morning Margaret Canting stumbles on a dead body just outside the small village of Lodstone where she has been staying. She goes to get the village constable, who behaves suspiciously, and when they reach the place together, the body is no longer to be found. The same morning she meets a man, Garrod, who will become her partner in a long private investigation aimed at discovering what exactly happened, why, and to whom.

This is Hubbard's first crime novel for adult readers, and it starts, on the surface of it, conventionally enough. Indeed, a vanishing body is one of the staples of the genre. But Hubbard started as he meant to go on, and the book takes an abrupt turn into otherness with about 40 pages left to go. The brief review available on a couple of web pages dedicated to the author contains in fact a very bad spoiler, because Hubbard takes some serious pains not to hint at the true nature of the Lodstone mystery before the time comes to unravel it. Therein lies a problem, for the long middle stretch of the book is full of cross-country walks and chases which seem to get the protagonists nowhere, and the only major twist is saved until the very end. The weakest part of the novel is the character of Garrod, whose admiration of Margaret, while fully justified, is expressed rather repetitiously. He does not seem to grow any interesting traits of his own, and the ending excludes him altogether. With the knowledge of what was to come, one misses Hubbard's later, obsessed, slow-burning protagonists.

Flush As May 2To sum up, we have an excellent early part, Margaret's stay with a weak and sympathetic vicar, when a low laughter in the churchyard at night promises more horror than a threat of explicit violence. Then the investigation itself is only sporadically involving, and Hubbard's extensive descriptions of topography and landscape are, surprisingly, not very visual, perhaps because they are over-complicated. Unlike some later novels, there is no single striking natural feature that centres the plot on itself, acting almost as a catalyst of events, although natural elements overall play an important part, as one expects from this author. Finally, the ending is again excellent, although I suspect that some readers may find it difficult to accept, coming out of the left field as it does. I am not really surprised that Hubbard is a forgotten author, and that outside a small circle of enthusiasts few people seem to 'get' him. Flush As May starts, roughly speaking, in John Buchan territory and ends with a nod to a very different author who, like Hubbard, shortened his Christian names to initials. Hubbard does not seem to allow his readers to settle with the comfortably expected, like popular crime fiction tends to do.

One of the most curious aspect of Hubbard is his treatment of villains. First, they seldom seem to get any comeuppance, nor is it usually implied that they deserve any. In Hubbard's books they simply are, very much like the menacing or destructive forces in nature. The police constable who gives Margaret some uneasy moments at the start of the book, overshadows the rest of it, but never in fact reappears. Another and even nastier antagonist provides some tense situations but remains in essence a bit player, because the violence he represents is not a personal force but rather something that is acted out through him as an elemental phenomenon, a force of nature. This may sound obscure but makes sense after reading the book. The brief final flash of danger comes from a totally unexpected source - a man who is not violent in himself (just like in The Holm Oaks - it may well be one of Hubbard's recurring motifs). The implication seems to be that violence is not so much a personal trait in a flawed character as something dissolved in nature and finding its outlet in humans just as impersonally as it does in a thunderstorm. Neither the author nor his heroine feel that any retribution is warranted.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Skios (2012) by Michael Frayn

Oliver Fox – charming but prone to extravagantly irresponsible behaviour – passes himself off as a famous visiting lecturer at an international event for the ultra-rich on the Greek island of the title. Three girls vie for his meagre attention span and are variously disappointed, while the real lecturer is frustrated in his rationalistic worldview which turns out to be ill suited to dealing with the unpredictable chain of events sparked by Oliver’s vagary. This is a very mild farce stretching the events of a day and a half over a couple hundred pages and reading a bit like a slowed-down movie, given the script-like sketchiness of description and characterization. It’s fitfully amusing, but never gels into a real novel. Frayn inserts some bits of post-modernist speculation on identity and predetermination but the flimsy material is not compelling enough to throw any new light on these rather tired subjects. A lot of the characters seem introduced on the off-chance of them being useful to the plot at a later stage, but no such need arises, and they are discarded without remorse. The ending draws a particularly shaky line under the whole effort: it reads almost like a declaration of failure. All the plot strands fizzle out in a single monumentally anticlimactic non-sequitur. Skios leaves the impression of a terribly lazy first draft, something that the author of Noises Off could have thrown together in a dentist’s waiting room.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Teleportation Accident (2012) by Ned Beauman

I never expected to enjoy a work of fiction published in 2012 and, horror of horrors, long-listed for the Booker prize – and yet, here we are. Ned Beauman rehabilitates himself after the disappointing ending that spoiled his otherwise near-brilliant first novel, Boxer, Beetle, by dispensing with plot resolution altogether: instead of resolving, he dissolves. It jars at first, but on closer inspection works rather beautifully.

The book follows Egon Loeser, first a theatre set designer in 1931 Berlin, through an unlikely odyssey which takes him to Paris and then Los Angeles in pursuit of his former pupil, the deliriously fuckable Adele Hitler (no relation). Egon has foolishly missed a very narrow window of opportunity when Adele was his for the asking, and so he becomes obsessed with getting another chance. Adele remains out of reach as, year by year, his sexual deprivation mounts to monumental proportions, all the while gathering tangential subplots which range from surrealist to bizarre.

Loeser (for which read ‘loser’, obviously) and his journey have a lot in common with characters from Barth and Pynchon, except that Beauman has a much lighter touch: being British, he does not have to do the American thing and prove his intellectual credentials by using longer words and more convoluted syntax than strictly necessary. That said, the scope of his research for the book is impressive, and his writing, full of extravagant similes that only rarely misfire, owes more to another American, Raymond Chandler (There was enough ice in her voice for a serviceable daiquiri – a definite wink here). The effect is almost always amusing, sometimes dazzling.

An unlikely subject that’s obviously important (Beauman brings it across from his debut novel) is city planning and (this time) public transport. It boils down, of course, to where the hell this civilization is going, and strangely enough (for a man who writes for The Guardian) Beauman is pessimistic on that account. In an epilogue (there are four of them), the much older Loeser sums up, in reference to his book on Nazi death transports: If you leave an Enlightenment running for long enough, eventually, one way or another, it will become preoccupied with the moving around of large numbers of people. It is a curious echo of Aickman or at least Priestley. The implication is that there is not that much difference between rush hour subway and the Belsen trains. If this seems a far-fetched conclusion, the book is nothing if not far-fetched: events behind the scenes are stage managed by Roosevelt’s sinister Secretary of State Cordell Hull who never appears in person but is known to take H. P. Lovecraft for a chronicler of facts. I wonder if Hull’s obsession with Lovecraft can have any basis in reality or if – much more likely – this reflects the author’s symbolical perception of that scoundrelly figure. Beauman is presumably Jewish, and both his novels are highly oblique treatments of the Holocaust, among other things.

The already numerous readers’ reviews, while mostly raving or strongly positive, often seem to run down to a sort of bafflement as to what the book is actually about. To the extent that such a multi-faceted novel could be ‘about’ any one thing, I would say it was about the chthonic forces lurking just outside the Euclidean plane and breaking through every so often in one form or another. In one of the L.A.-set chapters, Professor Bailey’s youthful experiences form what seems to be the most intrusive and irrelevant subplot in the book, introduced jarringly out of the blue. I choose to see this rough handling as an intentional shift into borderline otherness. Curiously, Bailey’s father, who delivers him into the void, reminded me of Aickman’s father in The Attempted Rescue. Bailey’s insane credo – There is a void in things – is as close to defining the subject of the novel as Beauman can explicitly take us.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

A Thirsty Evil (1974) by P. M. Hubbard

Thirsty EvilIn a letter to a fellow novelist, Hubbard described this book as not one I'm very keen on myself, so you don't have even to say you like it. This may be sincere, or the extreme modesty of someone who seems to have been a rather retiring, solitary person. I do, however, have to say that I liked it very much - as much as, if not more than, the tour-de-force of The Holm Oaks. This present novel is a more restrained affair - no gothic thunderstorms, virtually no violence until the last few pages, and no blood whatsoever. There are some major similarities, though.

In the first paragraph the narrator, a young writer, Ian Mackellar, sees a girl on a train and states immediately that no other woman will ever do for him. There is no attempt to explain what it is exactly that makes him fall so hard for Julia. It is implied that she is not a rare beauty, but there is no description of her looks. This is very similar to Jake's unexplained obsession with Carol Wainwright in The Holm Oaks. It is, in fact, very similar to some situations that everyone's found himself in at one time or another: there are people or faces, met by chance, that haunt us, but we seldom do much about it, unlike the teller of this tale. That is perhaps one of the reasons that Hubbard is so easy to respond to: he starts with a sort of psychological commonplace - in this case, love as a thunderbolt, - and then takes it in a direction we would perhaps never follow in 'real life' but would be only too eager to trace vicariously. But his subject, of course, is not love at first sight; it is obsession that he studies. He invites the reader to witness what self-destruction is really like.

As fate would have it, Ian finds a way to track Julia down to a farm that she owns. She has a sister and a brother, and the brother has something wrong with him: the 'something' is hereditary, but there are no further details. The way Charlie's behaviour rolls out, coupled with the fact that the exact nature of his deficiency is left obscure, produces an oddly chilling effect - which is the definition of Hubbard's writing. Again, as in The Holm Oaks, there is the central metaphor for the subconscious - a magnetic and sinister artificial pond around which much of the book is set, with something yet more frightening just below its surface. As usual, Hubbard creates an unforgettable mood and sense of place, but very little actually happens. Ian is the usual driven Hubbard protagonist whose plain statements sometimes sound a little disingenuous. Charlie, his antagonist, is in some sense the mirror image - or, in Jungian terms, Shadow, - of Ian.

Ian pursues Julia, but Julia is burdened - or armed - with an obsession of her own. In fact, there seem to be very few characters in Hubbard who aren't. The intensity of all those emotions meeting at cross-purpose and just out of grasp is what gives the book its unsettling quality. There is, of course, also that Shakespearean leitmotif (Hubbard is a master at linking his plots or situations to the more obscure but striking quotes from the Bard):

Our natures do pursue,
Like rats that ravin down their proper bane,
A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die.

The book may be less powerful than The Holm Oaks, but it gets under your skin more, and more insidiously.

The Rousseauesque cover has a story attached to it.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Girls: A Story of Village Life (1986) by John Bowen


Jan and Sue live together outside a small English village where they keep a shop. They are lovers; Jan is the older by 10 years and thus something of a mother figure to Sue. After seven years of this quiet Lesbian domesticity, Sue is unsure whether her life is on the right track. She goes to Crete for a holiday to ‘find herself’, leaving Jan unhappy and lonely. Jan goes to an Inland Waterways meeting (this is 1975, and Robert Aickman may well be around) and meets Alan who is younger but just as lonely. They have a one night stand which is pretty much a fiasco as far as Alan’s skills are concerned, but it is enough to leave Jan pregnant. Sue returns tearfully home more than ever needing Jan’s care. When Jan gives birth to Butch, they plan to bring him up together in blissful harmony. But then Alan turns up, and from here things take a sticky turn.

The book is neither a mystery nor a thriller, so it won’t be a spoiler (especially given that no one’s ever going to read it) to say that it turns out to be a paraphrase and/or inversion of… Hitchcock’s Psycho, of all things. The parallels are hidden so skillfully that it’s only towards the very end, after an explicit reference, that this becomes clear. Unfortunately, it reads like a Ruth Rendell thriller written by Hope Mirrlees: almost like a fantasy from a never-never land. It’s an interesting approach which possibly could be made to work, but somehow didn’t. The writing often gets too precious, while uncomfortable or horrific details are stated matter-of-factly in a jarring counterpoint; the effect is artificial and tiresome. Yet this language is obviously a conscious choice, so at least the author knew what he was doing. The experiment might have been more successful in less mannered prose.

But then there is one further twist, of sorts, on the very last page of the book, which shakes up the picture and introduces an unexpected angle. They are a haunting couple of paragraphs, and though I read the book mostly longing for it to be over, its bittersweet aftertaste will linger in memory. It’s like there was another, completely different book in there, which the author elected not to write; a reference to a gap on a library shelf.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Aura (1965) by Carlos Fuentes


This somewhat famous novella by Carlos Fuentes made enough impression on the literary world to be translated into English, published in a very slim separate edition, reprinted in a dual-language version, and to elicit from the author an explanatory essay on its creation. To this reader, it is an unreadable mess of unbearably florid, purple language bogged down with junk metaphors, pretentiously monotonous prose rhythm and the unnecessary gimmick of narrating the whole in the second person singular. It is one of those books which make me wonder if their admirers hail from some other planet where different criteria of literary taste hold sway. As for the story, it is about a young historian hired to edit the memoirs of a long-dead general by his decrepit, dying widow who lives with a young niece whose eyes "are sea green and... surge, break to foam, grow calm again, then surge again like a wave". Given that this comes under the grotesquely overrated label of 'magical realism', you've probably already guessed the ending. It's a bit like an Aickman story gone horribly wrong.

The Sabre Squadron (1966) by Simon Raven


Sabre Squadron

In the third volume of Alms for Oblivion Simon Raven does something rather unexpected. Events take place in 1952 in a quiet West German town of Göttingen where a young Cambridge mathematician, Daniel Mond, is trying to decipher the papers of a German colleague who died in the 1930s while working on something which may or may not have been a revolutionary new mathematical method. Mond is obsessed with (or tormented by) his Jewishness in a country which has not yet come to terms with murdering six million Jews. Lonely and depressed, he makes friends with some Dragoon officers from a nearby British base, among whom is Raven's alter ego Fielding Gray, last seen volunteering into the Army at the end of the eponymous novel, and the equivocal figure of Giles Glastonbury who played a major if mostly backstage part in the events of the previous book in the series.

Somewhat despite its straightforward title, and unlike any other British Army novel that I know, The Sabre Squadron gives an outsider's view of soldiers and soldiering, as in an outlandish turn of events Daniel is forced to assume the role of a private under the short-tempered command of his friend Gray. Then little by little the book turns into a spy story, acquiring along the way some of the ambiguities if not the deviousness of an Anthony Price plot. The ending is a bolt out of the blue, yet essentially simple and fully logical, so more satisfying than the contrived scheming at the end of Sound the Retreat (the second book in the sequence but written five years after the third). It is also rather abrupt, so one hopes to come across some development or reflection on it in further books - and, knowing Raven, this might cast the events in a totally different light. In fact, this is one of the most interesting aspects of Raven's sequence: not having a single narrator (like Powell's Nick Jenkins), it can present its characters ambiguously, as capable of both honourable and dishonourable behaviour, depending on the network of relationships within which that behaviour is enacted. Incidentally, honour is a hugely important concept in Raven - which is most likely why he became so unfashionable towards the end of his life. His famous cynicism was largely misunderstood and probably exaggerated, not without some help from the author himself. The fact that honour in his world was a fluid notion never reflected his rejection of it, but only the complexity of his outlook. It seems to be generally agreed among reviewers that The Sabre Squadron is a weaker link in the Oblivion chain. I would say, instead, that it is a key to Raven the moralist - a quality which is not usually noted by his fans. It is commonplace to consider Raven amoral, but a good amoral writer by necessity reflects the opposite quality, and usually to more significant effect than someone who merely sets out to uphold the traditional viewpoint.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Sound the Retreat (1971) by Simon Raven

Sound the Retreat
    In this, the second volume of Simon Raven's addictive Alms for Oblivion sequence, the story follows Peter Morrison as he travels with 300 other officer cadets to India which will shortly be handed over to the Inidians and therefore does not need them. The description of life in an army training camp is as good as anything in Waugh or Powell. The platoon to which Morrison belongs is entrusted, as an experiment, to a Moslem officer, Gilzai Khan - one of the great characters of literature, if only Raven were still read by anybody. The first half of the book is breathtakingly good. My only complaint is that this novel, written fairly late in the sequence (Raven did not write them in chronological order of events in the series), seems to indulge in pornographic excess, thanks to the newly won relaxation of censorship laws. It's not so much a matter of bad taste as the usual rule of more being less. It is in the nature of pornography to be mechanical and superficial, which produces a jarring effect. Instead of being 'racy', the outrageous sex duel between Mortleman and Gilzai Khan actually stops the narrative dead in its tracks and takes a while to live (or read) down.

Towards the end of the book Morrison is faced with an impossible decision and extricates himself in an unexpected way, especially if one is familiar with some of his later story from other books in the series. The way he deals with his predicament may be contrived but rings true to life in its essentials: it presages what remains just outside the scope of the novel, Mountbatten's shameful withdrawal from India leaving millions to be slaughtered.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Holm Oaks (1965) by P. M. Hubbard

P. M. Hubbard may well be to the psychological thriller what Robert Aickman is to the ghost story: a brilliant original with a pessimistic worldview and an oblique style, weaving a note of despair into baroque and sometimes violent imagery with flashes of subliminal horror.

A married couple, Jake and Elizabeth, move from London to a remote coastal area where Jake's recently deceased uncle left him a house. The house used to go with a nearby wood of the eponymous holm oaks, but shortly before his death the uncle had sold the wood to a neighbour living on the other side of it, Dennis Wainwright. Dennis is the epitome of inarticulate menace, a kind of evil Sterling Hayden character who says nothing, smiles thinly and carries a large stick. At first sight, Jake falls in love with his wife Carol. But even before that both Jake and Elizabeth fall in love with the wood, although for different reasons.

Hubbard never plotted his books in advance, and this shows here, but not to the novel's detriment. For about half the book's length nothing much happens while it's clear that something is bound to. Hubbard lays on the atmosphere, mood and sense of place layer after layer so that the overall effect is like a particularly vivid landscape painting, sticking in the mind forever together with the drama that's set to play out in the foreground. Dennis gets some wind of his wife's secret assignations in the wood and plans to cut the trees down. The long set-up lulls the reader even as it prepares him for the inevitable violence. When this comes, it is so out of the left field that the shock is almost transcendental.

But the horror alone would have made the book an effective little chiller and nothing more. What ultimately disturbs more than any external turn of events is Hubbard's trick - closely reminiscent of Aickman's - of implying things just out of the reader's grasp. To give a very brief example, Stella tells Jake at a certain point, meaning Dennis and Carol: He is an odd kind of monster, anyway - she won't be any good to you, not after him. The implied power of relationships to shape people, whether physically, emotionally, or psychologically, is what Hubbard seems to be all about, without much overt reference to anything specific, but with a strong sense that the shaping is mostly done into twisted forms. Jake is, of course, in a relationship himself, and his wife, just like Carol, is also tramping the woods alone. How much are the two couples mirror images of each other? Would Carol be attracted to Jake if he hadn't, in some respects at least, been a throwback to what initially brought her together with Dennis? Hubbard never makes such questions explicit - rather, his narrator buries them very deep in his subconscious mind, of which the wood of the title is an oblique metaphor. Jake's word for anything cannot be taken not because he's out to deceive, but simply because he is, like so many people, heavily invested in a deceptive self-image. The self-deception becomes palpable once, at the final climax, when a special relationship with guns has to be invented (or hastily introduced) to justify a fatal but most convenient turn of events. But throughout his narrative the reader is subtly made to doubt and wonder.

Like Aickman, Hubbard finds a lurking otherness in everyday things, but where in Aickman the otherness is ghostly or uncanny, in Hubbard it is closely related to character and its flaws. Freud, of course, has much to do with both kinds. The strong elemental background in Hubbard puts emphasis on human weaknesses: his elements are always cold, distant, overpowering, inimical to man. Hubbard was a Scorpio, and serves almost as a textbook illustration of plutonic polarities when compared with that other great scorpionic thriller writer, Dick Francis: the latter writes of the limits of strength, endurance and achievement while the former is concerned with the destructive power of (mostly male) weakness (based on the two books I've read so far). Artistically, though, Hubbard is in a different league.

This would have made a great - potentially brilliant - Robert Hossein film, with Hossein himself playing Jake, Sterling Hayden (in a dream cast) as Dennis, Marie-France Pisier as Carol, Catherine Deneuve as Elizabeth and, in an inspired bit of imaginary casting that almost takes my breath away, Alexandra Stewart as Stella.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Man Who Won the Pools (1961) by J. I. M. Stewart

The Man Who Won the Pools

A young electrician in Oxford wins an enormous lottery jackpot and has some educational experiences among the higher and lower classes.

There is a psychological tradition in the classic British novel and a perhaps stronger melodramatic one. Stewart, both under his own name and as Michael Innes, borrowed from both, but it was the melodrama that never let him go. Sometimes its grip on him seems so strong, even in his 'straight' fiction, that one wonders if it could be just from lack of trying, consciously opting for the easier choices. A lottery win is, of course, pure melodrama to begin with, but the novel starts in what could at least seem a psychological vein, and as usual Stewart can be quite subtle about his characters' interactions and inner states. That's what makes jarring the sudden melodramatic turns of events which puncture this narrative at regular intervals. It's like there were two different books in here spliced together by different authors - one of them, quite possibly, Michael Innes, as some of the incidents wouldn't be out of place in a John Appleby thriller. It's a likeable but slightly disappointing novel, especially when one knows what Stewart was capable of (The Last Tresilians - also not without its share of melodrama, but under much tighter control).

The main subject seems to be the British class differences, and the conclusion is, apparently, that they can't be surmounted by love or money. The only way across is the way of the mind - an education. And that, perhaps, not so much a way across as the way that makes class differences immaterial. At the end of the book the working class protagonist and an Oxford undergraduate he's befriended discuss Piero's Flagellation - while the former is planning to study engeneering at Cambridge. It's almost like a meeting of Snow's two cultures and the birth of a new Renaissance man from a proletarian mould. Stewart I think voted Labour so it may well have been an idea dear to him, whether or not he could accept it as at all realistic. All in all, the book reads rather like a fantasy - almost like something out of H. G. Wells, who also followed the melodramatic tradition and was even deeper involved with Labour. Only with Wells it would have been on a larger scale - a miraculous substance, let's say, instead of a pools win, which would have sent the whole of humanity into IQ stratosphere, to embrace knowledge and social progress. What I would have liked from Stewart is a novel about a man who made all that money and then discovered its limitations. But such a subject would probably have been less open to melodrama (and, anyway, it's sure to have been covered by Henry James or somebody like that).

Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Perfect Crime, Or Two (1969) by Hubert Monteilhet

A Perfect Crime Or Two
Just like the previous book that I reviewed here, this one has its author doubling as a protagonist under his own name. I hope somebody someday comes up with an interesting little monograph on the author as murderer, and this book will have to figure prominently in it - and this is not a spoiler. So, Hubert Monteilhet, a well-known author of crime fiction, is travelling in Spain when in a hotel restaurant his glance falls idly on an intriguing trio of fellow diners: a man of distinguished appearance in late middle age, a strikingly beautiful woman and a boy in his late teens. That evening and night, all three of them in turns visit the author and tell him their stories, which complement each other. And for different reasons, the author is moved to help all of them in different ways – for, apart from writing crime thrillers, he has a profitable sideline in selling recipes for perfect murders to a select and discreet clientele.
As usual with Monteilhet, the plot involves potential criminals and potential victims switching places, with murder lurking in every soul like a coiled snake, with everybody guilty – including the author! except the author is the least hypocritical of the lot about it – or that is what he likes to think. And like in most Monteilhet stories, the narrative is driven forward not by a mystery of a crime but rather by the question ‘who will end up inflicting the most pain on whom and in what way?’ And under this icing of suspense, in his guise of a monstrous and mocking cynic, Monteilhet, as usual, delivers a scathing attack on the public and private morals of our time, on moral complacency, on cynicism itself, on a society which foolishly thinks it can survive without the concept of an immortal soul. It is interesting how Monteilhet always represents himself as among those at whom his outrage is directed. There seems to be an element of self-detestation about it – something perhaps very characteristically Catholic. Could it be that, among other things, the author deplores himself for the necessity of being so entertaining about his condemnation of sin? Because, obviously, without being entertaining, one can hardly hope to reach a large audience with a moral invective in the second half of the 20th century. Monteilhet would not have been out of place in a 17th century pulpit, while these days he has to preach through the low medium of crime fiction. But the entertainment, happily, is of the most erudite, highbrow, almost arcane variety. And the writing – in the original French - is a joy.
Unfortunately, the translator, Patricia Allen Dreyfus, or perhaps the publisher, Simon and Schuster, found it necessary to dumb down the English version by omitting something like a third of the original text, including some of its most outrageous dark comedy, and editing large chunks of what remained, including the crucial ending. Some amusingly post-modernistic passages also got the axe, like Monteilhet’s reference to his American translations! A very funny discussion of the (excellent but unfaithful) film adaptation of his earlier crime classic, Return from the Ashes, survives.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor (1937) by Cameron McCabe

Cameron McCabe, a character in his own book, works as an editor in a London film studio where an aspiring starlet is found dead in a pool of blood. McCabe hits it off with Inspector Smith of Scotland Yard and tags along on the latter's investigation. We know where these things end. The book's reputation for striking originality (Julian Symons called it 'the detective story to end all detective stories') is based, presumably, on a couple of artificial twists which can best be described as Robbe-Grillet attempting to trump Agatha Christie. There is also a long - interminable - epilogue purportedly written by another character and analysing in detail the book and the supposed critical reactions to it, with many quotes from the actual critics of the time. Much later, in the 70s, when the author's true identity was discovered, Frederic Raphael compared him to Nabokov and others called him the father of the nouveau roman. The author himself considered The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor 'mannered and puerile', and I for one will not be dissenting from this opinion. The book is written in a horrible Americanese, deliberately aping Hemingway, with a lot of faux-snappy dialogue, and dismal wisecracks, and conversational non-sequiturs, and pukeworthy hardboiled sentimentality, and sloppy descriptions, and long-winded sentences using the conjunction 'and' countless times to moronic effect. The author, a German immigrant only just fallen in love with the English language, was allegedly not yet 20 when he wrote it. As German immigrants do, he later became a psychoanalist and sexologist, and killed himself at 80 because of an unhappy love affair.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Circle of Friends (1966) by Julian Mitchell

Circle of Friends

In Part One, the narrator, Martin, a young socially unadjusted Englishman, is knocking about New York, jobless and penniless, when through a chance invitation to a party he meets the rich Henrietta and her theatre director husband Freddy. Drawn into their circle of friends, Martin has a brief liberating experience, a sort of crash-course on being accepted and on relating to the people around him.

Part Two, narrated by Henrietta's son Lawrence, has the group of friends staying at Henrietta's country house in England and rehearsing a play, Fielding's Tom Thumb, for a village fête. All sorts of undercurrents are implied but not perceived by the 18-year-old Lawrence who is completely and hilariously involved in directing the play.

Part Three, with a confusion of narrating voices, finds Freddy suing Henrietta for divorce, citing Martin as co-respondent. Things get complicated as the novel's focus is intentionally blurred. Both Martin and Lawrence, whose individualities provided viewpoints and frames of reference for the earlier events, become sidelined, but so is everybody else. The author seems to contrast a personal and a general view of the situation, with objectivity equally elusive to both, and actual events meaningless or immaterial next to their varying interpretations which alone influence the outcome. Pynchon says somewhere that there is no hope of understanding a situation unless all the particulars of everybody involved are understood first. Julian Mitchell seems to imply that a situation dissolves in the influx of detail; analysis of the particulars uncovers chaos rather than produces order or understanding. In Part Four, the somewhat shell-shocked Martin tries to make some sense out of what happened and also dissolves into a new life of which nothing shall be known.

Both the structure of the novel, shifting viewpoints among multiple narrators, and its concern with a woman's place in society and her vulnerability to social prejudices, strongly and parodically echo Wilkie Collins, but the tone, especially in the first half, is closer to Woody Allen (a less frivolous, much more subtle Woody Allen). Aside from postmodernistic narrative tricks, Julian Mitchell is interested in the relation of theatre to life and America to England. The latter problem is ambiguously posited. On the face of it, there is much criticism of the class system and the strait-laced traditional English mentality. But at the same time the Americans are shown as unable to appreciate subtleties of character and complexities of a situation - especially as represented by Freddy, who is also seen to be a failure as an 'art' theatre director, but making an immediate hit with (presumably crass) commercial productions.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Death at the President’s Lodging (1936) by Michael Innes

Death at the President's Lodging1 Death at the President's Lodging
Innes's first mystery and John Appleby's first case, involving the murder of a college President. Murder, to rephrase Chandler, is here given to the people who never really commit it - to play with. And one might perhaps expect that these unworldly academics would go about it clumsily and absent-mindedly, with much scope for highbrow farce. However, university scholars are often - or at least used to be - possessors of what in the literature of the time was known as 'first-class minds'. So what if actually they are very clever about their murders? And indeed they are - so clever that there is no earthly way to deduce what really happened that night at the President's lodging. How does Appleby solve the crime, then? Well, he finds a witness who just happened to see the whole thing - and 'the whole thing' in this case involves several people hopping around the college with clockwork precision, their movements timed to the minute, dragging around a dead body which, among other things, keeps bleeding profusely long after life has departed. Complexity can be satisfying and it can be maddening, and this is strictly the latter variety. Moreover, the whole book is full of endless recapping by Appleby of what might and might not have happened and who was where at what particular time and whether a number of different gates were locked or unlocked at some moment or other and how ten different keys were changing owners over a period of time. All this, of course, was the kind of stuff then generally expected of a crime novel, so in writing his first Innes was merely adopting a form. If this was the kind of detection he could come up with, no wonder that Appleby in the future relied rather more on psychology and legwork. Even more disappointingly, the characters here are bland and colourless to such a degree that it is quite difficult at times to remember which is which, and still more difficult to care which of them 'did it'. No surprise is produced in the end, and I think Appleby is very shaky on the murderer's motive. In fact, a fascinating kind of motive - academic jealousy - is suggested very early in the book, but absolutely nothing is made of it. All in all, a big disappointment - the poorest Innes I've read so far.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Doctor Criminale (1992) by Malcolm Bradbury

Soon after the collapse of the Wall, a young journalist travels across Europe researching the life and work of a famous but elusive Eastern European philosopher.

'Old-fashioned' is a word that comes to mind often when reading this book, and indeed I think a LibraryThing reviewer uses it in his first sentence. What exactly gives it the old-fashioned feel is very interesting: I believe it's the fact that the author does not try to be clever about his subject - even when at his funniest or most ironic - and that he remains straightforward about it all the time, not aiming to disguise his not being clever. In other words, the book is as simple - perhaps naïve - as its narrator is meant to be, without winking to itself postmodernistically all the time. The narrator is slightly problematic: his voice, in its simplicity, is quite a bit older than his apparent age, and his big introductory scene, hilarious, at the Booker Prize ceremony, sets him up as a sort of enfant terrible which he certainly is anything but for the rest of the book (one almost expects the whole thing to disintegrate into a Holden Caulfieldish drivel after the first chapter). But there is something endearing about this mismatch of personality and narrative voice: the book comes from a time when a young man could afford to have a serious voice, at least about some things. Aside from that, it destroys any possibility of a realistic approach, quite in line with the novel's treatment of Europe as a fictional, transitional never-never land.

The novel's philosophic insights may not be profound, but they are not insignificant. Bradbury is a rare author who can be funny without losing sight of serious things. It's not quite effortless - one can see the construction elements all the time (and this is curiously in common with Bradbury's two famous students, McEwan and Ishiguro, who also seem to share some rhythmic similarities with him). But Bradbury's general likeability overcomes this (as it sometimes does not with Ishiguro and never does with McEwan). It reads a bit like a cross between Iris Murdoch and David Lodge, with perhaps a dash of the 'magical realism' that is explicitly referenced in the book when the narrator goes to a cultural conference in Argentina, re-reading the major 'magical realists' on the plane and then stepping into the literary community of Buenos Aires where everybody talks about Borges and every woman is a former mistress of his. I use quotation marks because I detest the term and much of what goes under it, but the technique works well for Bradbury who uses it sparingly, wittily and firmly within the European tradition. 'Magical realism' gets to be too much when it's smothered by exotic local colour (and flowery language), but Europe seems just the right setting for it. The fact that scores of actual and living public figures are mentioned and encountered in the pages of the book somehow only adds to the fictional haze enveloping the continent which Bradbury makes a character in his book. His non-judgemental, ironic, but also rather sober view of Europe as a network of corruption (in which East and West are symbiotic partners) may have been taken as jaundiced poetic license in 1992, but is mild stuff by today's standards. Yet when one considers the atmosphere of international jubilation in which the book was written, it must have taken quite a bit of clearheadedness to be so bleak about the underlying fabric of history.

Criminale, the brilliant intellectual allowed to travel freely between the East and the West during the Cold War years, betraying a little bit of each side to the other, must have had quite a few real life models. Yevtushenko comes insistently to mind - not that he could be called an intellectual - because so fêted in the West while at the same time so obviously an informer - also because, like Criminale, he managed to convert his public fame rather mysteriously into a very comfortable retirement package in the healthy climes. George Steiner and Georgy Lucacs must have also contributed to the character, both explicitly mentioned. What puzzles me is why Bradbury chose this name for his antihero, with all its blunt connotations.

Another and more general complaint is Bradbury's old habit - affectation? - of squeezing his conversations into long single paragraphs, so that it's sometimes a headache to keep track of who's saying what, especially if more than two persons are participating.

Among the curiosities that struck me on a personal level: the book has an epigraph from Freud, and as early as page 4 seems to get weirdly prescient about this reader's historical background:

There was budget crisis in Washington, high-street recession in Britain, the fiscal jitters in Tokyo, and bank fraud all over the place. In Brussels Napoleonic dreamers were reinventing Europe, if they could just find out where its edges started and stopped. There was conflict in Yugoslavia, ethnic and tribal tension everywhere. Over the European fringes, Saddam Hussein (former Takriti street-fighter, and BBC World Service man of the year), thinking it was passing brave to be a king and ride in triumph through Persepolis, had sent a genocidal army to murder, rape and pillage in nearby friendly Kuwait.

Etc, etc. Insert other names, reverse the roles here and there, and does anything ever change?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Hare Sitting Up (1959) by Michael Innes

Hare Sitting Up

An eminent scientist working on the development of bacteriological weapons disappears without a trace, and his identical twin, a school headmaster, is enlisted to impersonate the man while John Appleby conducts a countrywide search (as usual, almost single-handedly, and by personal request from the Prime Minister).

This hare is a curious beast in the Innes menagerie. Touching as it does on the disturbing subject of the possible self-destruction of the human race, the book adopts an almost serious tone - not quite above a joke, but miles apart from Innes's usual levity. Not that the subject is particularly deeply penetrated. In fact, the usual farcical plot elements are all here, so the story and the tone do not quite fit together. Perhaps for this reason, the first half is slow going. Things pick up a bit towards the end. The main twist is easily guessed, but it's a neat twist, and perhaps more fun could have been had with it in a less topical story.

The ending itself is rather messy. A new and highly superfluous character is introduced very late in the day with the specific purpose of becoming the instrument of justice - although justice in this case is an overstatement. Innes, curiously for a mystery writer, disliked murder, but even more than that he disliked surrendering his criminals to the courts (very probably because he objected to capital punishment). So most of his villains either commit suicide or get their comeuppance through accidental means. In Hare Sitting Up, as in many of his books, Innes manages to have a mystery without a murder, but then he deals out to his likable and eccentric criminal a gruesomely detailed and very sticky end; go figure. Perhaps he considered it preferable to Broadmoor - and it certainly is, but still it's strange that he could not leave the eventual punishment altogether out of his stories. It appears that redemption à la Raskolnikov did not seem to him a probable event, for all his interest in psychology. Perhaps he really was a Freudian rather than a Jungian. Incidentally, his evident interest in sibling relationships, so prominent in this and many other books, both by Innes and by J. I. M. Stewart, doubtless springs from the same source.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

No Bail for the Judge (1952) by Henry Cecil

No Bail for the Judge
A prudish High Court judge criticises a colleague for an indiscretion, and explains how he himself, once appointed to the High Court, stopped even going to a pub for lunch to avoid the slightest possibility of doubt as to his moral character. The very same evening a combination of circumstances forces him to accept the hospitality of a prostitute. Five days later he finds her murdered and himself holding the murder weapon. This is a classic Hitchcock situation of the wrong man framed for murder and an innocent man being punished for tempting Fate with thoughtless words or actions. The story also develops in the typical Hitchcock fashion, with the mystery element discarded early on and the suspense tightened by the uncertainty of how, or if, the truth is going to triumph in the end. No wonder, then, that Hitchcock was planning to film this novel in the late 50s, with John Williams as the judge, Audrey Hepburn as his daughter and Laurence Harvey as the gentleman thief she hires to prove her father's innocence. The project is famous for its attempted rape scene involving Hepburn, which is not in the novel but which, one hardly doubts, Hitch would have made the centrepiece of the film. The whole thing would have been a curious reversal of the situation in Dial M for Murder, where John Williams comes to the rescue of Grace Kelly, falsely convicted of murder. One can't help regretting this was never filmed.

Cecil's books (I've read two so far) are popular entertainments with some simple lessons to teach about the principles of law and the legal justice system. The way their plots and narratives are put together may seem almost perfunctory: the author avoids anything like character development and following a coherent train of events to drive the story forward. What he goes for are long stretches of quirky or sometimes hilarious dialogue and brief, virtually inconsequential episodes of character interactions which seem like vignettes very obliquely related - or even totally unrelated - to the main story. Here's an example with a minor character picking up a prostitute:

'Hullo, lambkin,' he said, 'would you be all by yourself?'
'I would not,' she said, 'but I am.'
'That can be remedied. What about a drink?'
'I should love one.'
They walked down Bond Street. She stopped at one of the windows.
'That's a nice Utrillo,' she said.

Both such episodes and the dialogues sometimes manage to create for a moment a sense of atmosphere or character that seems almost an incidental by-product of the narrative. This approach may create the impression that the author does not really care about what he's doing (and certainly not about literary art). However, on consideration, the episodic and seemingly inconsequential structure of the story must be very similar to the way that a trial judge pieces together the strands of the often disjointed evidence in a legal case, reconstructing the events and the patrticipants' characters from a limited and tendentiously arranged amount of factual data. And Henry Cecil, of course, was himself a County Court judge, so it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to suggest that perhaps the curious way he constructed his narratives was related to what might be termed his legalistic worldview. And this would mean that such constructions are not arbitrary but, on the contrary, rather original. Be that as it may, I find his stories intensely readable, and the sense of a higher moral order they imply is a comfort and an encouragement, even if it highlights a conspicuous absence of same in the world around us.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

There Came Both Mist and Snow (1940) by Michael Innes

There Came both Mist and Snow

Another of Innes's family gatherings in an old baronial hall, or baronet's mansion in this case, around a strangely half-hearted crime - not murder, but only attempted murder this time. The house and park are surrounded by an industrial estate, with vast neon signs, factory sirens and traffic noises intruding all the time upon the pastimes of the upper classes. This creates a curious atmosphere, but the book is a curiosity in many other respects as well. This is an early Innes - only his 6th novel - which reads like a late one: it's short, under-characterized, and the ending is more whimsical than satisfying.

Borges speaks of the Ellery Queen mystery structure, in which two solutions are proposed, a convincing but false one, and the even more convincing true solution. Innes seems to have made a speciality of discarding as many solutions as he can manage. In this particular case, there are solutions implicating by turns every member of the house party, with increasingly bizarre motives and murder methods involved. The book is overflowing with extravagantly stressed details which are only too obviously clues planted by a clumsy author - but they are so varied and puzzling that it seems impossible to sort out the direction in which they should be pointing. From this material, a full collection of Father Brown stories might have been produced. After going over a dozen promising if overcomplicated versions of the crime - involving anything from fancy shooting methods to dextrocardia - we arrive finally at the true solution, which uses one and only one clue, completely missed by the reader in the very first pages of the book and connected with the quotation in the title. This is both neat and infuriating; infuriating because there is no real logic substantiating any of the versions, including the final one; the choice between them is made just on the author's say-so. Appleby does not put in five minutes of honest detection here, while at one point going to the length of knocking out an innocent man with a stone for the sake of an anatomical experiment. At another point he falsely reports a man to his family as having been killed by an industrial press and leaving remains 'no more than a few millimetres thick' - which probably gave Innes an idea for a later novel, but which is also a rather shocking instance of black comedy even for this author.

As usual with Innes, there are multiple diversions in this unsatisfactory chronicle. The characters are surprisingly entertaining despite being underdeveloped due to the short length of the book. The narration is in the first person (unusually for Innes), and the narrator, a slightly pompous elderly author perhaps in the Henry James mould, has some priceless exchanges on the craft of literature with his cousin, a scatterbrained mystery writer in the Agatha Christie vein. There is also a parlour game of Shakespeare's bells and a lovely false clue quotation from Yeats:

Bolt and bar the shutter,
For the foul winds blow:
Our minds are at their best this night,
And I seem to know
That everything outside us is
Mad as the mist and snow.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A High-Pitched Buzz (1956) by Roger Longrigg

A High-Pitched Buzz
A curious little novel, one of those which fall between the cracks of literature and never get rediscovered. It chronicles a few days from the life of a young copywriter who reads Raymond Chandler and goes to see samurai movies in between his social engagements. The thin plot has a lot to do with life's little treacheries, and can be seen, if one wants to look at it that way, as an extension of Chandler's big theme: what is an honourable man to do in a dishonourable world? It is interesting how the same kinds of treachery are treated as a big tragic subject in the early 20th century - say, by Henry James or Ford Madox Ford, - and how by the 50s they become the everyday form, as illustrated in this book or in something by Pamela Hansford Johnson or Roy Fuller. The account of the office intrigue directed at unseating the protagonist's obnoxious boss could be written today - or perhaps indeed at any point of time as long as offices exist. Today, however, this sort of thing is taken for granted. It was only for a brief period that such things were at all considered by literature - precisely that kind of literature that got sidelined later as irrelevant. Perhaps the authors themselves were only semi-conscious of this commonplace villainy as symptomatic of something bigger and deeper and going wrong with the human nature. But this is not to suggest that this particular book tries to be very serious. However, when Henry, the protagonist, goes to visit his fallen boss at home, we discover something very different about the man from what could be expected. The style is perhaps a conscious borrowing from Evelyn Waugh - with pages and pages of absurdist but lifelike dialogue - but whereas in Waugh everybody was either ridiculous or Catholic, here the effect, or the outcome, is rather less straightforward. Ultimately, the protagonist is more puzzled than anything else - by the way people act, by the way things turn out, and even, to an extent, by his own motives. That puzzlement is perhaps the most valuable thing about this flimsy, easily likeable novel. Among the incidental pleasures are some turns of phrase which could be pure Chandler, or sometimes the definitely British vintage of the chandleresque idiom: Askew like an evil Brazil-nut behind his big shiny desk; or Leaning forward with a pathetic air of eager bafflement, like an English child at a French gangster film; or He grinned at me charmingly from the fireplace, up the side of which he was growing like a vine.