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.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (1932) by Julia Strachey

Julia Strachey, a niece of Lytton, seems to have been a junior satellite of the Bloomsbury Group and written only two novels over the course of her long life. The first of these is a novella-length affair, set on a March day in a country-house where a modest wedding is taking place. The matter-of-fact opening is very good, promising all sorts of comic possibilities. From then on, however, the going is pretty uneven. The absurdity of the characters and their interactions in the chaos of the wedding day is well done and often very funny, somewhat in the Evelyn Waugh manner. The bride is swigging rum to deal with nerves, there is an escaped tortoise about and the bride's mother is not quite all there at the best of times. But the purely descriptive passages, attempts at creating a different mood somehow clash with this and bog the thing down. There is a twist at the end which retroactively sort of justifies the sombre intimations... but the story still fails to achieve a unity of tone and purpose that might make it memorable. It's not unlike Chekhov (doubtless revered even in Bloomsbury, and quite possibly a direct influence): snatches of humour do not dispel the underlying dreariness.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories (1971) by Daphne du Maurier

Don't Look Now
Five longish short stories linked together by their supernatural subjects, their misanthropy and the recurring motif of losing control.

Du Maurier's gift, if any, seems to be for inventing incident, but decidedly not for character, detail, or language. Her writing is adequate at best, dreary and banal at worst, with some clumsy turns of phrase here and there suggesting a one-draft writer (this last abortive ten days that ended so abruptly, or the murderers for whom the police sought). Her characters are cardboard cut-outs, defined in the most general terms, in crude strokes. But the famous twist at the end of the title story is probably no fluke: the author does seem to know how to create, at times, a striking scene, a haunting turn of events. That is certainly not enough to lift her into the first rank of literature, but sometimes enough for her subjects to linger in memory.

The story I liked best is The Way of the Cross, in which a group of English tourists from the middle and upper-middle class find themselves in Jerusalem during Passover. Through a combination of external circumstances and their own character flaws, all of them are put to a test and find themselves frustrated and failing in the performance of their social function. All have to re-examine their self-images which prove to be distinctly separated from reality. Perhaps the most striking - even bizarre - portrayal is that of the substitute vicar, who is inexperienced at guiding this sort of party, and thus completely inefficient, yet highly arrogant with his democratic ideal of a working-class parish where the 'lads' may be rough but closer to a communal Christian spirit than the more-or-less leisured Jerusalem lot. The hint of latent homosexuality is not the most disturbing thing here: the vicar suffers a man's ultimate humiliation in the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre, shitting himself due to some acute bowel disorder, and thereafter reflects that perhaps Jesus on the Cross, in his fear and loneliness, suffered it, too - and this sort of not unsubtle but certainly misanthropic black humour seems to be characteristic of Du Maurier.

Not After Midnight is an interesting story with a rather Aickmanesque subject, but resolved a little clumsily, perhaps, with the reader being told simultaneously too much and not enough. A Border-Line Case is a female sexual fantasy of sorts; it links sexuality with some darker aspects of the human nature in a curious way which does not quite work dramatically and leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, but definitely disturbs as must have been the author's intention. The last story in the book, The Breakthrough, is the most overtly fantastic - almost sci-fi - and at the same time the most conventional, with a plot which might have been borrowed from a 60s TV episode.

The title story makes a shocking impression in comparison to the film - in the sense of being shockingly inferior. It is the least atmospheric of the lot, despite being set in Venice, and its prose is commonplace even for Du Maurier. But more strikingly, it turns out that most of the incidents that fill the film are interpolations by the screenwriters. Virtually nothing of the film is present in the original: the early scene in the restaurant, much curtailed - the visit to the police - the walk back to the two sisters' pensione - and the final twist, of course, but that's it. Much of the story - and it's not a particularly short one - is filled with John's quite tedious thoughts and perceptions and with inconsequential exchanges like the long discussion of possible ways of travelling back to England. There are no visual patterns of any kind, or thematic patterns, for that matter, either. Why is a frozen pond flat? has the touch of brilliant obliqueness totally lacking in Du Maurier. Two other vital elements are missing from the story: the love and the tragedy. The death of John and Laura's daughter is only treated in retrospect, and the trauma of it is not an overwhelming presence. There is even an implication that John is not too seriously affected by the loss. Neither the love between the couple nor their love for the dead girl is in evidence; in fact, based on the story, it is not even clear that the couple have enough imagination to suffer much. What happens in the story is just a supernatural muddle, or at most a macabre joke of the misanthropic sort. In retrospect, after the other stories have been read, a certain crudeness in Du Maurier is obvious, and being stabbed by a grotesque dwarf mistaken for a child becomes an incident of the same sort as shitting oneself in church. Indeed, in the story's last line John perceives his death as a humiliation, in the same way as the vicar in the other story takes his own bizarre ordeal. The story's ending is the final insult to the film, the crowning disappointment. Instead of a rhythmical bang, a transcendence of language, such as one expects from the masters of the form, the text of the story dwindles into inconsequence just as John's life does.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Don Among the Dead Men (1952) by C. E. Vulliamy

A professor of chemistry at an English university in the 1920s discovers a compound which causes a state of blissful gaiety quickly followed by painless death and remains undetectable afterwards. He then proceeds to devise a plan for ridding humanity of its most objectionable and rebarbative members, starting with those who happen to hamper his own career. Throughout, and up to the final court trial, there are explicit references to the Armstrong poisoning case of 1922, while the possible parallels with the concentration camps and gas chambers remain implicit. Somehow, coming so soon after the horrors of Nazi Germany, the mock philosophizing on the subject seems either too mild or not mild enough to suit the times.

The book reads like a cross between H. G. Wells and Michael Innes on tranquilizers. The writing is decent, but the plot too simple and repetitive, and the characters rather less than two-dimensional. On the whole, precious little meat here.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Genius and the Goddess (1955) by Aldous Huxley

Published as a 'novel', this book has the length of a novella, but in point of fact it is a very long short story, being concerned with a small group of a characters and a very circumscribed part of their lives and relationships. So publishing this on its own may have been a disservice: one expects novelistic qualities, and perhaps judges the thing too harshly for their absence.

However, even as a short story, much of this is pretentious tripe. When the author calls one of his characters a Genius and another a Goddess, and proceeds to treat them as such (even if with a touch of irony, which may or may not be the case here), somehow one knows from the start that the author cheats, because his business is to flesh out a character first, and then, if appropriate, to give that character symbolic or allegoric attributes. Huxley neither bothers with the characters nor properly tells a story here: it boils down to an anecdote. But an anecdote full of philosophical comment, generalisation and would-be important ideas. Rivers, the character telling the story, practically in monologue, barely can report a line of dialogue before launching on an insightful interpretation of what the speaker meant, felt and thought. Instead of describing people's actions, he describes - at length - their presumed inner states, with a lot of fancy twaddle like She was a goddess, and the silence of goddesses is genuinely golden, or She experienced the creative otherness of love and sleep. And he is nothing if not maddeningly didactic, very sure of the profound value of what he has to impart.

Another thing that I found peculiarly annoying was the taking for granted that Maartens, the quantum physicist and Nobel Prize winner, was in fact a genius by virtue of those facts alone. Now, almost 100 years on (the story is set in the 20s), we realize that humanity would hardly notice a quantum physicist more or less. Moreover, we know that all scientists produce their most important work when young, and then the quality of their output declines quickly. Maartens is an old man, but the whole purport of the story is predicated on the assumed fact of his enormous value to humanity and the need to keep him going at any cost.

The only interesting aspect of the book was the Man Ray photograph of the young Huxley, who is absolutely indistinguishable from the young Robert Aickman. I would have constructed a conspiracy theory around this fact - suggesting they might have been the same person - if I could believe Aickman capable of writing such unmitigated rubbish, not worth the three paragraphs I spent on it. Actually, the young Huxley seems to have been a decent writer, and one can't help wondering if it had been his LSD and mescaline experiments which enfeebled his mind and his literary capacities so dramatically.

Monday, August 01, 2011

The Journeying Boy (1949) by Michael Innes

The Journeying Boy

I have sometimes reflected on how often authors are unreliable judges of their own work. This is a case in point: The Journeying Boy was Innes's own favourite among his novels. One can only suppose that something in its tone (Boy's Own Adventure from an adult perspective) somehow particularly resonated with his inner child's idea of perfect fictional entertainment. To be fair, most contemporary critics concurred and praised the book extravagantly.

An eminent nuclear scientist busy with work essential for national security engages a tutor to take his teenaged son, the journeying boy of the title, on an Irish vacation. Next day, the tutor sends a telegram, regretting that a death in the family prevented him from taking up the job. Promptly it turns out that the death was his own. Another tutor is quickly hired and the boy despatched to his destination, where kidnappers roam, greedy both for money and for nuclear secrets. So far, so good.

The big problem with this one is that for some reason Innes decided to write it as a 'serious' novel. Not that laughter is completely excluded, but Innes does not treat the situation as an extravagant fantasy, an eccentric joke. The effect is most curious. Where in his less ambitious thrillers the tone and pathos often rise to Stevensonian heights, here - where the author aspires consciously to that level - the result is definitely riddled with flaws that one more readily associates with Buchan or Edgar Wallace.

The use of coincidence borders on the outrageous. At one point, the boy Humphrey by pure chance finds himself sitting in a cinema next to another boy impersonating him to a misled tutor. In a separate thread of the plot, the police investigating the tutor's murder gain vital knowledge through the chance happening of a blackmailer having been hit by a bus and, before dying, lucidly revealing some timely information which he pieced together apparently by a mix of divine revelation and superhuman insight. Part of his communication is that there is not one, but two gangs of kidnappers breathing down the boy's neck. And at the very end of the book, as one gang makes its escape by plane and the other by boat, how do they get their comeuppance if not by plane dropping from the sky to hit boat? If this sounds utterly bizarre, it is. Other characters are just left as blanks and drift out without any explanation: we never learn anything about the obviosuly talented and very nasty teenaged impersonator or the woman who accompanied him at the film theatre. Much of the conspiracy is finally exposed not through detection or action but through the clumsy device of revealing at some point the thoughts of the villain.

In contrast with this rampage of melodramatic convention, the writing is involved, donnish, sometimes precious - or, in Innes's own term, polysyllabic. The intricate syntax is all very well when a bunch of Oxford professors are plotting and intriguing to Byzantine and ludicrous effect. But in an action story, there are inevitably some climaxes where more direct writing is clearly better suited to the needs of the narrative. And, unfortunately, this book has the longest stretches of pure tedium ever encountered in an Innes novel. It takes the boy and his tutor about 100 pages to get from Euston to Ireland, and very little happens during the whole stretch of the journey, aside from some sneaking to and fro along the length of the train and an encounter with a travelling freak show out of The Lady Vanishes. The bulk of the trip is taken up with the tutor's reflections and feelings. Jacques Barzun thought that 'the long-winded analyses of feeling and action are intolerable almost from the start', being thus one of the few critics who dissented. There is another episode later in the book when the tutor, roused at night, investigates some suspicious sounds and movements in complete darkness. Another critic noted, approvingly, that it was 'the longest passage of straight narrative, without dialogue, covering a moment or two of time, which I know of in the literature'. Indeed, it takes up about two dozen pages. What might have been fine in a Robbe-Grillet novel, is unfortunately rather tiresome in an Innes one. And generally, for all the (needless) complexity of the plot, there is very little actually happening all along. There is a lack of construction here that the alleged 'serious' approach does not seem to justify.

There are some entertaining or funny or even exciting passages in the book, in the true Innes spirit, but they are few and far between. Also on the positive side, the motive which prompts the boy to act as he does is interesting and perhaps rather original - but that motive is only revealed late in the book, and much of the narative up to then just does not work dramatically. Roy Fuller's With My Little Eye, which I recently read, another thriller with a teenaged protagonist, and written just a year earlier, is a perfect example of how high moral and emotional stakes drive forward a story of this kind and make one largely overlook the deficiencies of plotting. In The Journeying Boy, for the most part of it, there is just nothing much to care about, either in terms of story or character or any underlying issues. While Fuller's protagonist is also his own story's narrator, in the Innes book we mostly see the boy through the eyes of his tutor, Mr Thewless - who is himself one of Innes's palest creations.

At one point in the book, Innes pokes fun at Brideshead Revisited. The title comes from a poem by Thomas Hardy.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Weight of the Evidence (1944) by Michael Innes

Weight of the Evidence
A professor at Nesfield University is found killed by a meteorite; John Appleby investigates. One of Innes's most enjoyable academic farces, often laugh-out-loud funny. The solution to the mystery is a non-sequitur: nothing much in the investigation actually leads up to it - it's just produced out of the hat when the time has come to conclude the story. It is also bizarrely implausible and psychologically unconvincing. Curiously, Appleby does suggest at one point another possible solution, eminently more satisfying - which is then swept aside as the wrong one. Borges mentions this unfortunate tendency in Innes in his review of Hamlet, Revenge! However, I'd had so much fun with the characters and the dialogue that I didn't really care whether the solution was decent or not. Innes in any case makes it plain from the beginning that the mystery can't be taken seriously. Nobody much bothers with fingerprints, timelines and alibis; Appleby and his local colleague Inspector Hobhouse basically behave as Valentin does in the Father Brown story: they just follow the most curious trail that offers itself first.

The side plot involving Church's bigamy provides an interesting and uncharacteristic glimpse into what must be the author's own feelings about some topical matters of the time.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Victorian Chaise-Longue (1953) by Marghanita Laski

The Victorian Chaise-Longue

If ever I read a more boring book, I cannot remember it offhand. A young middle class wife and mother recovering from TB has her consciousness transposed into the body of her unmarried counterpart in 1864. The unpromising idea is developed in a stultifyingly monotonous narrative which drones on and on without a single character developed enough to make him interesting, without a memorable or unexpected line of dialogue, without a word that enlivens the page. It's not that Laski is a bad writer, exactly; she just seems no kind of writer at all. Funnily enough, she (or her main character) spends some effort on pondering the paradoxes of time, in line with Houghton's book I have just finished, but those speculations couldn't be more inane. Maybe this all-embracing boredom results from the fact that Laski aimed not at telling a story but at making a point (Milly, the 19th century girl, is denied acceptance for all the things that the 20th century Melly takes by right and without a second thought). The ending is finally horrific and out-of-balance with the routine writing, but even that does not dispel the boredom, or the suspicion that Laski herself couldn't care less about her story or her characters.

The only thing that I knew about Laski up to now was that she'd hated the Ripley books as a reviewer and publicly advised Highsmith to bury the character as soon as possible. Now that I've come across her own notions of storytelling and character development, I am not surprised.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Julian Grant Loses His Way (1933) by Claude Houghton

Claude Houghton's obscurity (not even a Wikipedia entry!) must be due to a combination of factors. To begin with, he was one of the first writers who wrote explicitly about the gap between the positivist world view and the things that make life worthwhile. This un-PC approach can't endear him to the consumer. Another reason, perhaps, is Houghton's penchant for modernist subjects without the least inclination for the modernist use of language. The general feel of his books is almost bizarrely old-fashioned. His prose seems almost deliberately devoid of subtlety and nuance, his dialogue is theatrical, stylized, inauthentic, sometimes stodgy. Yet often somehow this comes together to a decidedly hypnotic effect. His sense of language rhythm is there all right.

Admittedly, it works better when this ostensibly naïve and simple writing is attributed to the first person narrator of I Am Jonathan Scrivener than when it's the authorial voice in Julian Grant. Still, it would be wrong to think of Houghton as hopelessly mediocre. His commentary on character and mores is refreshingly direct and often aphoristic. He has a sharp tongue, a sense of humour, and he is observant when he wants to be. Life in Bohemia is described as 'parties where everyone leans on something and discusses Vitality'. Exploring his options in a certain predicament, the protagonist suggests: 'Or I might become an English Communist. After all, I have a private income.' In fact, Houghton is best when he pays attention to detail, to the particular - something that, however, he is least of all concerned with. His main interests are metaphysical.

The novel more or less starts as the story of a sentimental education, in the manner apparently characteristic of the author, but then takes a rather unexpected turn towards an education in perversity. The protagonist begins as a naïve youth hungry for experience; the hunger overwhelms him and leads eventually to an 'emotional suicide'. And then he finds himself in the 'dream world' where he is confronted with a variety of symbolic visions and a lot of metaphysical speculation. This part alone would be enough to make the book unpalatable to a modern audience. Yet this is something that the young Robert Aickman may very well have read (in fact, almost certainly read). The ending boasts a distinctly Aickmanesque frisson: 'The men will want to have a good look at you. The women can't - because they're blind.' Here's another curious thing about Houghton: however much he may go wrong with verbosity or excessive allegory at some points in his narrative, he always seems to make things right in the end. You may be intermittently tempted to skip, but not to throw the book away.

This novel is another proof of how strongly the ideas of J. W. Dunne impressed his contemporaries, or those of them prepared to be impressed. In fact, when J. B. Priestley outlined his concept of the afterlife four decades later, in some aspects he stuck very close to Houghton's symbolic vision. And, of course, the implication of the would as a construct of consciousness would be echoed by Owen Barfield in the 50s. So, yes, the book is a curiosity, but a curiosity lying well within an established tradition. And while it is old-fashioned in form, its subject matter cannot be outdated, especially because so little fiction has been concerned with similar matters since Houghton's time.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Narrow Corner (1932) by W. Somerset Maugham

The earlier chapters are splendidly atmospheric; after that either my mood went, or Maugham stopped bothering - I haven't figured that out. I understand now why Maugham is considered a second-rater: what you see is what you get, the story and characters are all on the surface. Aside from that, he treats the point of view in a cavalier manner that would have made Henry James's hair stand on end. Speaking of which, just as Fuller is obsessed with hair, Maugham is obsessed with teeth. To say that in this book teeth equal character would not be a huge exaggeration. Still, reading Maugham is mostly a pleasure because of his great facility with language: it is an object lesson in clear, direct, purposeful writing.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

With My Little Eye (1948) by Roy Fuller

It may have been Karl Marx who inadvertently gave the British thriller its distinctive mark by making London his home base and inaugurating it as the anarchist capital of the world (inasmuch as anarchists can be said to have a capital). If the term 'British thriller' does not really bring to mind anything in particular, it should. Anarchist conspiracy - specifically anarchist - captured the popular imagination towards the end of the 19th century, and there is inevitably something ridiculous about anarchism - something of the bumbling vaudeville performers. It may have been the siege of Sidney Street that clinched it, but things were drifting that way long before then. Mr Hyde tramples the body of his victim, the incarnation of the anarchist impulse, performing a sort of dance, a music-hall routine. The hound of the Baskervilles, or Tonga, and in fact so many of Conan Doyle's villains, are fairground freaks. The whole of the Father Brown cycle is a carnival hall of distorting mirrors. In fact, the cycle ends at a fairground, as far as I remember. Edgar Wallace was pure vaudeville, with a sinister bent. And then, a few years after Sidney Street, Richard Hannay was born, whom Hitchcock later introduced to the screen at a music hall. Hitchcock put another favourite character through a carload of a magician's trick equipment while Europe teetered on the brink of war - but even the war could not put an end to the village fair, as demonstrated in Greene's Ministry of Fear. In other words, the true British thriller is a fairground thriller, a fantasy set in a never-never land, always with a touch of improbability, of the music-hall, of Gilbert and Sullivan and, in fact, Francis L. Sullivan; a bit larger and quite a bit queerer than life.

Roy Fuller's narrator speaks of the fantasy of consipracy and crime which can almost be shaken off by exerting one's will, too improbable to be real. Midway through the book, the story abruptly veers off for a while into New Arabian Nights territory, and the protagonist takes this in his stride. In fact, the narrator, a boy of unspecified age but probably about 15 or 16, is a literary twin of Jim Hawkins, and the gang of villains that he exposes is one half Flint's pirates and another, the pirates of Penzance. For all its popular roots, it is a grim book (Fuller's other two thrillers would be grimmer); but as always, the author finds the time for poetry and for discussing the mechanics of crime fiction.

There is usually some minor flaw in Fuller's plotting which slightly mars the overall effect. Perhaps it is another characteristic of the genre, in line with the primitive origins. In this case, it is Rhoda's bizarre whim of sending Frederick to find Brilliant: if she does this with the obvious motive of getting him killed, she should not logically come to his rescue at a later stage. On second thoughts, one can explain it by resorting to a psychoanalytical interpretation: Rhoda subconsciously wants to blow the whole thing wide open. This version of her behaviour is never implied.

I never noticed it before, but in this book Fuller is completely obsessed with hair. I thought it a strange obsession. Shortly after finishing the book, I was on a tram, and a woman with distinctly repellent hair sat down right in front of me. When I was returning about an hour later, the same woman was on the tram with me again.

P.S. The book was included by Julian Symons in his 100 Best Crime and Mystery Books, and for once his choice can't be faulted.

Friday, July 15, 2011

My Turn to Make the Tea (1951) by Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens, a great-granddaughter of Charles, quit her upper-middle class surroundings to go and work, in turns, as a servant, a hospital nurse, and a junior reporter on a provincial newspaper. Each occupation gave life to a book, with this one being the last of the three. It is supposed to be autobiography rather than a proper novel, and it has a few very brief moments where the author is seen to merge with the first-person narrator, but generally it is so vivid in incident and character, so fluid in its storytelling, that one can't help assuming a lot of artistic license. Life sometimes does imitate art, but not this consistently. Monica Dickens starts as a mildly annoying narrator - she seems to be looking on her low-class colleagues and neighbours with all the superiority of her origins, upbringing, education and taste, even at times with bitchiness. But gradually she - as the author and the character - comes to accept these people as her own, at least for a while. Yet whatever happens, she cannot entirely avoid the suspicion of just slumming there - and this gives the book an interesting ambiguity, with the narrator being an insider and an outsider at the same time, setting the book apart from others depicting a roughly similar milieu (like Slaves of Solitude or Of Love and Hunger). The final sacrifice by the narrator is more than ambiguous; it's not just that she does not really have all that much to lose, but also that by making the sacrifice she is at the same time rejecting the life among these people and going away to bigger and better things.

Dickens had her Sun and Mercury in Taurus, and it shows in the book in the abundance of earthy qualities. She does not shirk from the ugliness, the squalor, the vulgarity (especially in the earlier chapters, and very much in contrast to the light-hearted title). There is drabness and dreariness pervading the pages - very much in line with the other Dickens - but where Charles aimed at grotesque and caricatural effects, Monica almost goes for downright freakishness, sometimes near-horror. It is the world of the Ealing comedies, and just as addictive, but strictly the underside of it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Old Hall, New Hall (1956) by Michael Innes

Noseless himself, he brings here noseless blocks,
To show what time has wrought and what the pox.

Ignoring S. S. Van Dine, Innes would devise a mystery without a corpse whenever he could. This is one of them, except there is a corpse in it, in a twist that Chesterton would not have disowned. But the story is not one of detection, being instead centred on a treasure hunt. It breaks another major Van Dine rule, of course, - the one that everybody breaks. The way the protagonist's perception of his love interest changes over the course of the book is not unsubtly drawn, though Innes remains ultimately loyal to his underachieving philosophy. Much of the story is brisk and pleasant, but it bogs down in the middle with a series of long letters from a lady who lived in the first half of the XIX Century: a sort of Jane Austen pastiche, presumably quite well done because as mind-bogglingly tedious as the original. At one point, though, the lady amusingly mentions her brother who's travelling in the Caucasus, in the environs of Ordzhonikidze. But that is not enough to offset phrases like It was at this point that I began - and that with some indignation - to smoke the Duke of Nesfield. The modern part has some better compensations: a couple of typically eccentric academics and the protagonist's novel in the manner of Kafka, called The Examination, in which the main character, C., is unable to discover whether he is the examiner or the examined.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Villa in France (1982) by J. I. M. Stewart

Stewart, a brilliant writer who somehow failed to quite make the top grade, wrote this late novel about a, well, clever writer with an inferiority complex. Stuck at what may have been a critical point in his development, there is an event which may or may not have contributed to his failure, and which he cannot forget. So he devises a little posthumous experiment - a prank - a hoax - perhaps a revenge. The set-up is brilliant and much subtler than the brief summary can indicate. The pay-off may be a let-down, but then again, maybe it was meant to be. Maybe the point is that life does not allow things to pay off in the ways we intend. Or, perhaps, that you must be a better writer to plan a better revenge. In fact, unfulfillment is the fate of virtually every character in the book. The heroine's father keeps planning a book on the mystery of Time (he reads Dunne at some point), but all he manages is an anthology of classical excerpts on the subject. The heroine herself is almost tragic in her progress from a precocious 9-year-old to a quiet, ordinary middle age. But is progress the right word? In a wry, very Innes-like scene, the father makes a naïve point about Time always flowing in the same direction. But the book perhaps suggest that while time flows forward, the characters pale into insignificance instead of developing their potential. I am not quite sure this was the author's intention, but the effect is unmistakable, and dispiriting.

The mechanics of the plot are curiously similar to the other two Stewart novels that I've read. In all three, the hidden springs of the action are connected to some family skeletons. It isn't much of a spoiler to say that homosexuality is what rattles in the cupboard, or shall we say closet, here. 'It does seem such rotten luck, to be made that way,' is the heroine's verdict.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Friends at Court (1956) by Henry Cecil

Legal wranglings in a perfect world where everybody's decent including the criminals, and justice is certain to triumph. Rather flimsy but extremely enjoyable. The literary equivalent of the better sort of British film comedies from the 50s. Also, I suppose, a kind of Wodehouse substitute for people who, like me, can't stand Wodehouse.

The Prevention of Corruption Act 1906 is at the heart of the plot (the little there is of it), and as I finished reading this today, Andy Coulson was arrested under the same Act - not frequently in use these days, I gather.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Murder of My Aunt (1934) by Richard Hull

There is something Nabokovian in the juxtaposition of a sick mind's obsessions with a saner view between the two narrators of the book. Shades of Despair (first published, funnily enough, the very same year) are unmistakable - and the main character even makes a reference to unspecified murder cases on the lines of the Rouse case. But where Nabokov's murderer is deluded, this one is deluded and stupid. The latter fact is treated as funny - actually, it's what generates most of the (meagre) laughs here. But now that murder has long ceased to be an intellectual sport, and we know that murderers are, in fact, generally stupid, it's not as funny as I presume it once was. It goes without saying that the author does not possess Nabokov's command of language, and his determination to concentrate on the technical planning of things at their many various stages, rather than on the characters or atmosphere, makes the book for the most part pretty boring. The 'unguessable' and 'stunning' final twist, admired by reviewers, is in fact the only possible - or at least the obvious - twist in this kind of story, once you know that there is a twist.

P.S. The cover artist, McKnight Kauffer, turns out to have been an interesting character who did, among other things, the title designs for Hitchcock's The Lodger.

P.P.S. Incidentally, Les mantes religieuses and many subsequent Monteilhet novels are built upon the same basic plot idea.

Monday, July 04, 2011

From London Far (1946) by Michael Innes

When I was first reading everything by Innes that I could find about 25 years ago, I remained completely unaware of his interest in art (or psychoanalysis, for that matter). Now it turns out that the majority of his books are overwhelmingly concerned with the art, artists, artistic sensibility and all the related issues down to optics and physiology. The Last Tresilians, a Stewart novel, contains the most profound insights into the mystery of artistic perception that I've encountered anywhere in literature. But some of the Michael Innes thrillers - like this one - under the guise of a crime or adventure story also touch upon the subject in a manner not at all trivial. The book concerns the post-WWII theft of European works of art on a massive scale, and the best part of it is set on the coast of Scotland amid some splendidly eccentric characters in the Stevensonian vein (but funnier). There is also a sort of mystery interwoven with the thriller plot: the thieving gang kidnaps and notably mistreats an eminent psychoanalyst - to what purpose? This gives Innes a lot of scope to engage his other pet subject, although his attitude to it seems at the least ambiguous; the psychoanalyst is an 'unsound philosopher', in the words of the protagonist. Some of the proceedings are hilarious: the shrink is followed around by some furniture-removal vans, but since it is an impossible thing, he is driven to deny that he sees them. After he is kidnapped, he also denies the fact because he attributes it to a mere persecution mania due to overwork. And the way how part of his story is related is completely priceless, so not to be revealed. Brain physiology holds the key to the solution of the mystery - exactly as in the other 1946 Innes novel, What Happened at Hazelwood. Moreover, From London Far alludes to the major (musical) clue to the murder in the other book, and Money from Holme, just recently read, refers to the clue of this one, a painting by Masaccio. There are other serious subtexts in the book: some Greenian moral complexities are not at all lost upon the reader, even if treated lightly.

The beginning of the novel is literally explosive yet somehow slow to involve, but once the action gets to Scotland it's hard to put down.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Money from Holme (1964) by Michael Innes

Innes at his most frivolous reminds me of a gleeful schoolboy bubbling with laughter at perpetrating a particularly clever prank. In an interesting mirror effect, the main character in this book is also like just such a schoolboy, except prone to extreme nastiness. In other words, the author's Shadow. Some of the racist language, purporting to be the character's unvoiced sentiments, must have already been jarring to many in 1964. Even Christie had stopped using the n-word by that time (she uses blacks in A Caribbean Mystery in the same year), and I doubt that she ever reflected on 'them' being hardly very different from monkeys (in the hilarious context of internal strife between rival African factions). In fact, it appears that the black mischief was one of Innes's recurring motifs, along with switched identities and returns from the dead. Even Waugh couldn't be funnier on the subject. Another recurring theme is, of course, painting, and Braunkopf is once again a major character, making it difficult for the reader to avoid lapsing into his peculiar idiom for a while. But the most curious aspect of the book is a marked similarity of certain plot points to the whole Derwatt affair in Patricia Highsmith's Ripley Underground (1970).

The ending is rushed, as not infrequently with Innes, and slightly mars what could have been a masterpiece of literary roguery.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

What Happened at Hazelwood (1946) by Michael Innes

Christie often stressed the concept of Evil as the driving force of crime. Innes, in true Libra fashion, eschews it at any cost. He strives for harmony all around. Crime is at worst grotesque, not evil, and Innes's preference is, while explaining the mystery, to explain the crime away. It is he who used the outrageous but sooner-or-later inevitable twist of having a victim die of laughter. If evil is to be present at all, it is first for the block, as in this novel. The book has an almost Victorian feel, helped by two different narrators, somewhat in the Collins manner. Nicolette is one of the most appealing heroines in the genre, if not the whole of literature. It's surprising how sexy Innes can afford to be in 1946 in the most conservative of genres (including a borrowed device from an even earlier novel). Where he fails is in not even trying to mask the mechanical revelatory final reel as literature. To him, straight fiction and a mystery story were irreconcilable, and he does not attempt to make the mechanics of the plot plausible or at least seamless. Still, it's a top-tier Innes, and would have made a wonderful movie in the right hands (Launder and Gilliat).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Moving Toyshop (1946) by Edmund Crispin

This alleged classic is very funny in parts, but as a mystery it's a mess. There is no investigation - all revelations are made through chance encounters or events overtaking the protagonist - and the solution to the puzzle is an insult to anticlimaxes. The moving toyshop itself, a Chestertonian concept on the face of it, is irrelevant to the plot and resolved uninventively.