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.