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.