Friday, 31 May 2013

The Books I Read in May

‘Search the Dark’ by Charles Todd
This is the third book in the Inspector Rutledge series.  Though written by an American they are set in Britain immediately after the First World War.  Rutledge is an amiable detective literally haunted by a man he executed as an officer during the war.  Many of the characters in the book have been damaged by the war which provides unpredictability in their actions and contrast with the setting.  The reason why I picked this particular book was because it is set in Dorset which I love.  One of the previous books was set in Cornwall.  It is clear that Todd has a love of these counties and a highlight of the book for me is his description of what marks Dorset out:
‘This was Hardy country.  But it was the difference in light that impressed Rutledge more than the author’s dark and murky characters.  There was a golden-brown tint to the light here that seemed to come from the soil and the leaves of the trees.  Not washed pastel like Norfolk, nor rich green like Kent.  Nor gray [sic] damp like Lancaster.  Dorset had been wool trade and stone, cottage industry and small farming towns strung along old roads that the Saxons had laid out long before the Norman conquest.’   

Todd refers to real places such as Charlbury, Lyme Regis and Kingston Lacy (which he wrongly spells ‘Lacey’).  He relocates Singleton Magna from Lancashire to Dorset, but Magna, as in Canford Magna and Fontmell Magna, is a name used in the county.  Stoke Milton does not exist in reality but there is East Stoke and Milton Abbas in Dorset and New Milton close by in neighbouring Hampshire. 

It is unsurprising that Todd uses American English to refer to things though this leads to the oddity of a Dorset person referring to a ‘program’ of films at a cinema.  I know that readers these days are unwilling to accept characters speaking in ways that might be more historically accurate, so I can forgive Todd sometimes modern turns of phrase, people simply will not accept anything else and bitterly complain when you try even just to give a flavour of the way people spoke at the time. 

There are a few historical errors that Dodd should have spotted given that he is writing novels in this period.  For a start it would have been difficult for anyone to be travelling in a Second Class train carriage at this time.  Very few train companies, and none going to Dorset, had them.  Instead there were only First and Third Class carriages.  Todd shows the detective having tea in the garden of a pub in the middle of the afternoon.  This would have been impossible even when I was a child, let alone back in the 1920s.  It was only really in the late 1980s that pubs began to sell tea or coffee.  It would have been more accurate for Todd to show them having tea at the hotel he mentions. No-one has cream in their tea in Britain. There is something called a 'cream tea', but this refers to the meal called 'tea'. In Britain both the drink and the afternoon meal are called tea and Dodd has clearly mixed them up. A 'cream tea' is a tea (the meal) at which you have a drink of tea and scones with jam and cream on them; there may be other foods such as sandwiches and cakes as well. People in Britain have milk in their tea and occasionally lemon.

A key error which I am surprised that he and his editor missed is a farmhouse with two inside bathrooms.  Again even in my youth, this would not happen.  Certainly in the 1920s, many houses lacked bathrooms entirely and the toilet would be outside even in cities let alone in the countryside.  If he had been referring to the house of the local lord of the manor, then that was acceptable, but for a run-down farmhouse, it would have never been the case.  It is likely that there would have been no running water to the house and it would have had to be drawn from a pump by the back door.

The story of a man seeing a woman and children from a train and thinking they are his lost family, hunting for them only for a woman to turn up dead is a good basis for the story.  However, the key difficulty is that the book takes far too long.  I know he wants to sum up the slow-moving nature of the countryside, but the toing and froing of Rutledge really diminishes the horrors he is referring to and the revelations that appear about various local families.  Cut by 50-70 pages (my edition of the book is 344 pages long) this could have been a far more effective novel with the balance between the horrors of war and the bucolic setting shown more sharply and so with more punch. 

Despite my interest in the setting, I felt reading this book was a labour and consequently would not relish reading others set in contexts with which I do not have such a connection. 

‘Louis XIV’ by Philippe Erlanger
It is quite stunning just how many biographies there are of the French King Louis XIV; a quick search of Amazon shows twelve let alone the books covering particular policies and significant individuals at his court.  I cannot remember why I bought this book.  It was published in English in 1970 and one in a while it can appear dated, most notably when speaking about Louis’s first queen Maria Theresa of Spain and says that her indolence and her ignorance might be attributed to her having some Arab ancestry, a bigoted comment that properly would not be tolerated these days.  Louis XIV’s long reign was a complex one but Erlanger is best when painting brief portraits of the people that Louis associated with.  He is good at highlighting phases in which alternate paths could have been taken, something I always like.  When he is dealing with the political manoeuvring and the incessant wars Louis engaged in, he is far weaker.  I came away from this book having less clarity about the period of the Frondes than I did before I started reading it. 

Erlanger’s pace accelerates as the action becomes more complex or pressing and you yearn for him to get back to issues from a period of greater stability.  Furthermore whilst he may be correct to use the designations such as ‘Monsieur’ and ‘Mademoiselle’ for members of Louis’s family, once you have got a few pages on you have forgotten who these signify and adhering to their actual names would aid comprehension. 

The book was written in French, I was reading a translation and maybe not being as familiar with French history as he may have expected his readers to be, I was more easily lost.  However, a key purpose of a biography is to allow you to understand better what motivated an individual and what they took part in.  Coming away from Erlanger’s book, I feel I do know more about Louis’s character and how it changed over the years.  However, in terms of the domestic political and international relations aspects of his reign, I would need to turn to a different source to get to grips with them.

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