Saturday, 30 April 2016

The Books I Read In April

'The One From the Other' by Philip Kerr
For much of this book I feared it would fall prey to many of the difficulties I have found with others in the Bernie Gunther series that I have read recently.  There were scenes in Germany, Palestine and Egypt in 1937 that appeared irrelevant to the rest of the book which is set in Bavaria and Austria in 1949.  I also felt, as with 'Red Gold' by Alan Furst that I read last month, that the cases that Gunther tackles were too episodic.  It was as if we were viewing a number of stories that could have developed into a full book but had been left stunted.  However, fortunately Kerr held back from too much jumping around in time and eventually, almost at the end, the strands came together making the book better than the sum of its parts and finally one of the better of the recent volumes of the Gunther series. It was aided by being shorter than some of them, only 387 pages of narrative in the version I read.  Saying this, so many of his books now overlap in narrating Gunther's life that it can be confusing to determine where you are now reading about him.  In particular in this book he returns to Vienna only a year after he had to leave the city in 'A German Requiem' (1991) which came out 15 years before this book was published.

The main remaining flaw stems from how Kerr has developed Gunther's very world weary, wise-cracking detective.  As reviewers have noted, increasingly he has the style of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, which fits well with action set in the 1930s-50s.  However, for a lot of this book, Gunther seems utterly deluded about what is happening, only regaining his wits toward the very end.  You can put this down to him suffering from grief and ill-health, but it is a wrench in the writing when suddenly he 'wakes up'.  Kerr also continues his annoying habit of insisting that Gunther meets leading members of the Nazi Regime or their allies.  In fact it is something he almost satirises when assassins after Gunther reference him in lots of pictures with such men.  In this book he meets Adolf Eichmann and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini.

I wonder if I have read too many of these stories and that it is too much to expect consistency within a novel these days when editors are not even available to leading authors and across novels, when it is over a decade between one and another.  I keep feeling that Kerr is on the verge of an excellent book but a lack of discipline and a lack of tautness in what he is writing keeps frustrating him from achieving that.

'A Quiet Flame' by Philip Kerr
This is the last of the Bernie Gunther novels that I have at present though another has been published and one is due.  As with a number of these that I have read recently I have felt that they were alright but could have been excellent.  Perhaps Kerr needs a stronger editor.  There are certain traits in his Gunther stories which he feels compelled to include but I think weaken what could be excellent stories.  The use of jumping between two periods of time has its uses and in some of these novels, it helps give us background to what is happening in the later set parts of the story.  I think it works best in 'If The Dead Rise Not' (2009) which was published a year after 'A Quiet Flame' but with me tending to read them in the chronology of the stories, I read a couple of years ago.  It is a device which Kerr overuses now and in this story adds little.  He goes between Berlin in 1932 and Buenos Aires in 1950 when Gunther ended up at the close of 'The One From the Other' (2006) which I read earlier this month.  The greater weakness is Kerr's insistence that Gunther meets leading lights of the time.  In this novel he manages to pack in the leading Nazis, Arthur Nebe, Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, Otto Skorzeny and Hans Kammler.  There seems to be no reason for Skorzeny to turn up.  Gunther also meets the dictator of Argentina at the time, Juan Perón and his wife Eva 'Evita' Perón.  As a result as Gunther notes himself, he is assigned far too many overlapping jobs.

Kerr could have written two excellent novels - one set in Berlin in 1932 with a gruesome murder and the rise of the Nazis against the background of the last days of the Weimar Republic.  He could then have written a fast-moving story set in Buenos Aires in 1950, with Gunther uncovering secrets of the Perón regime.  Mixing them together weakens both elements.  In addition, Kerr piles too much on Gunther that is unresolved.  Various women standing as someone else's wife or daughter seems unnecessarily complicated and much of what Gunther is charged with resolving simply peters out.  The climax happens about three-quarters to seven-eighths of the way through the book and the remainder feels as if he has no idea how to finish it.

As always there is excellent historical detail both in the settings, in what is happening and the way people behave.  The trouble is that Kerr too often loses sight of a good story in fulfilling his desire to shine a light of loads of bits of history in the novel.  In this case less would be much more.  Some gritty crime novels set in 1930s Berlin or 1950s South America would be fine.  However, the author strays up far too many side paths that by the end you feel exasperated rather than gripped.

'The Seeds of Time' by John Wyndham
It is now 35 years since I last read a book by Wyndham, 'The Day of the Triffids' (1951) as a result of seeing the 1981 television series.  I did not even know there had been a 2009 television series.  I remember that book being very much of its time, post-war British science fiction of the 'Quatermass' ilk that was only really shaken up in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the more psychedelic influenced science fiction.  This collection published in 1956, fits with that rather twee post-war British science fiction, despite what Wyndham writes about trying to break from the norms of the genre of that era.  It is certainly less engaging and less challenging than the 'The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology' (1952) edited by John W. Campbell, Jr. that I read in 2010:  and suggests that, despite acclaim for Wyndham, he was not on a par with his US counterparts of the time.

There are some highlights in this book, but a number of the stories are twee science fiction romances, notably 'Chronoclasm' (though the title is great) about a woman from a future having a romance with a man. Of course, this line would be used to full effect in 'Terminator' (1984).  Similarly there is 'Opposite Number' with a similar romantic air but making use of parallel worlds.  Such themes are very common these days but might have appeared much fresher and intriguing when the book was written.  Some of the stories do have an edge, such as 'Survival' about cannibalism in a stranded spacecraft; 'Pillar to Post' about two men, an invalid from the present and an effete man from the distant future battling for control of each other's body and 'Dumb Martian' which is a modernised version of colonial administrator in a backwater exploiting the local populations.  'Pawley's Peepholes' is a whimsical story again with time-travel romance, that feels almost Victorian in nature.  'Meteor' - not to be confused with the 1950 William T. Powers short story of the same name is alright looking at aliens seeking to escape destruction of their own planet by coming to Earth and the difficulties they encounter when they land.

The stories were written before the space race and indeed some, it is not clear how many, were even written before the Second World War.  Thus views, such as water and people living on Mars seem painfully dated.  This is exacerbated by the portrayal of women who even when mature are referred to as 'girls' and are expected to be unable to cope with the pressures of space exploration.  Wyndham even seems to expect that the cost of living, rendered in pounds/shillings/pence would not change, though it would be only 15 years after the book was published that Britain would finally decimalise its currency.

Those standing up better to the test of time include 'Time to Rest' about settlers on Mars following the destruction of Earth (very reminiscent of 'The Martian Chronicles' (1950) by Ray Bradbury); 'Compassion Circuit' about a home-help robot - I read  a short story very similar to this in 'The Guardian' newspaper earlier this year and 'Wild Flower' about plant mutations caused by radiation.  Overall, this collection gives you a feel for mid-20th century British science fiction and the establishment of certain tropes which are now in common usage.  However, unlike the 'Astounding' collection, it does not surprise you with forgotten gems.

'Best Secret Service Stories' ed. by John Welcome
This is a collection from 1960.  I do not know why Faber seem to so like these anthologies.  I read their 1993 ‘The Faber Book of Espionage’  back in April 2012:  and I read a similar collection to this one but from Headline, last July:  It is another anthology of short stories and extracts.  It is better than those two collections, though it seems compulsory to include something from Somerset Maugham's 'Ashenden: Or the British Agent' (1928) and 'The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans' (1908) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in all of these things.  The former is very dull; the latter is fine.  There is an extract from 'Live and Let Die' (1954), a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming but the others are unfamiliar to me.

There are two spy stories set in the American Civil War and given how many novels seem to be coming out about that war, I am surprised not to have seen more like this before,  'Parker Anderson, Philosopher' by Ambrose Bierce is rather contorted rather than adventurous; 'High Tide' by John P. Marquand is far better and very engaging.  There is also 'News Out of Spain' by A.E.W. Mason, which is set during the 1580s around the preparations of the Spanish Armada and one could easily imagine a whole set of spy stories in this context, but I have never encountered any.  The other stories are set in the mid-20th century.  'The Hut' by Geoffrey Household could have been far more gripping and ends up with a range of characters wittering on about a killing and so losing any tension.

'The Flaw in the Crystal' by Godfrey Smith is far too convoluted to be entertaining though it does seem to have echoes of George Smiley stories by John Le Carre.  'Dr Lartius' by John Buchan set during the First World War is alright, but it is narrated so lacks the tension too, it is almost as if it is setting out an idea rather than being a developed work of fiction.  This is a little the case with 'The Trial of Marius Derocq' but it manages a little better and bringing the reader into the story.  'Double Double Cross' by Peter Cheyney starts reasonably though the twist ends up being whimsical when it could have been harder in tone and thus better.  'Water on the Brain' by Compton Mackenzie suffers even more from that almost trying to be humorous in approach.   'Espionage' by Dennis Wheatley is probably the best and manages to get tension into a short story.

The book appeared just before the arrival of the gritty spy novels of the 1960s which raised up the genre greatly.  It shows spy writing in a difficult position, perhaps because of the genuine stories from the two world wars being well known to readers.  The daring of the Victorian era had gone and yet the cynicism of the 1960s was not yet in place.  It introduced me to some writers I would not have encountered which I imagine was the purpose of the collection.  More than that it sparked thoughts on why we have not seen more historical spy fiction, even now when we have had over twenty years of medieval detective stories.'

'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' by J.K. Rowling
This was the most enjoyable book I have read for quite a while.  Perhaps that says something about my level of literacy given that the edition I had inherited indicated it had won an award for the best book for 9-11 year olds.  I feel that in this book Rowling got into her stride.  The hesitancy of the early sections of 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' had been worked out and so this book moves along at a cracking and engaging pace.  I still have my qualms about the lionising of the elite public school system; there is even a reference to Eton which does not feature in the movies.  However, fortunately, Rowling begins to counter-balance this a little by the tensions around biological 'racism' in the magical world with people attacking 'mudbloods', i.e. people from non-magical families.  It is a decent primer for children on the basis of biological discrimination and lays the basis for the anti-Fascist message which appears in later books.

If like me, you come to the books after having watched the movies, you will notice that the climactic action part has far less coverage in the book than it does in the movie.  Rowling seems far more concerned with school life and the development of her characters which is a fair approach but may leave some readers wondering when the exciting bit is going to be reached.  I had been told that there are parts of the books which do not appear in the movies and this became more apparent with this second book.  The revelation of what a 'Squib' is, i.e. someone from a magical family with no magical ability themselves; the Deathday party for one of the ghosts with rotten food and the Valentine-letter delivering dwarfs do not appear in the movie.  Ginny Weasley's affection for Harry Potter is much clearer in the book.  The action is stretched over a longer period and Hermione Granger remains a cat-girl for weeks; similarly those petrified are in that state for far longer than in the movie.  The fate of the mandrakes, humanoid plants is a dodgy issue as they are shown as going through different ages coming to maturity at which stage they are presumably killed in adulthood, when it is noted they try to start cohabiting, to make a potion.

Reading this book I can now better understand why the series was so popular as books.  It is a child's book but sensibly Rowling does not shy away from concerns that children will be coming to as they age, even when looking at a fantastical world.

'The Labour Government 1964-70' by Brian Lapping
Lapping was a Labour Party member asked by Penguin in 1971 to analyse the preceding Labour governments, 1964-66 and 1966-70.  These had seen Harold Wilson as prime minister, coming to officer after 13 years of Conservative government which had followed in the wake of the immediate post-war Labour governments.  As Lapping shows, Labour came to power with big ideas, particularly in terms of planning the economy and modernising Britain.  A lot of their plans were immediately undermined by the economic situation.  At the time and enduring into the 1970s, the status of the pound as an international currency and the balance of payments, i.e. the difference between imports and exports were the dominant way the economy was judged, in a way that they are no longer.  The Wilson governments struggled to adjust the imbalance built up over the preceding years without imposing austerity and they also suffered from international financiers speculators weighing in to try to shape government policy in favour of big business.  Thus, in the economic sphere these governments are seen as failures and Lapping is unstinting in his criticism of the governments' inability to counteract these constraints.

As the book progresses, however, other sectors of UK society which tend to get overlooked show that Wilson was a moderniser and he and his ministers worked hard to make Britain a country fit for the 1960s and 1970s rather than clinging tightly to the glories of the past.  As today, such people face blind opposition, but the record is pretty good especially given the economic difficulties that were faced.  This book is a very good reminder that things which are now perhaps taken for granted, such as rules for equality for women and ethnic minorities; attempts to alleviate poverty and even the obligation to consult the public about urban development did not simply appear but had to be legislated for, taking a great deal of concentrated effort.

The most outstanding part of this book is how prescient Lapping was.  In many sections, if you took out the dates, you could think he was talking about Britain in the 2010s.  He was very far sighted on a wide range of issues such as the Britain's desire but lack of money to keep up a world role; challenges facing private tenants; hostility to immigrants; surveillance and keeping of computer records on people; the challenges of urban and transport planning even down to the level of bus companies in towns something that remains a challenge; the formation of unitary local authorities; demands for greater autonomy for Wales and Scotland; the difficulties of paying for social welfare and the National Health Service; the need for social workers; how university staff can be rewarded for their teaching; the fact that all higher education institutions wanted to become universities; the desire to retain grammar schools; the need for more technical and vocational education and so on.  What is fascinating but a little disheartening is that Lapping's analysis of the ills of the UK stand up even forty-five years later and many remain unresolved.  In addition, many of the attitudes used to challenge Wilson and his governments are still being rolled out today.

This is a brief (219 pages) analysis of a particular time in British history.  It explains the complexities of what was going on, especially in the economy, in a very accessible way.  It also reveals Brian Lapping as an acute analyst of Britain who was able to outline its experience in the coming decades.  It is a history book but is almost stronger in showing how the shape of things to come were apparent to those who effectively analysed the situation in the early 1970s.  Yet, like Wilson, they proved incapable of overcoming the robust conservative resistance to change that was necessary for the benefit of the wider UK population.

'The Heath Government 1970-74' ed. by Stuart Ball and Anthony Seldon
This was a logical book to read after the Lapping one.  It is different in style with a series of chapters written by different historians and commentators each taking a different facet of the period in government.  Looking along my 'to read shelf, I realised that this year I have a number of books written by people I have met.  In this case I have only met one of the authors, John Ramsden (1947-2009) who I ran into at the Clacket Lane services on the M25 in the early 2000s; in addition I briefly met Edward Heath himself in 1995.  The book is very thorough in its analysis, but good at presenting complex situations especially over the balance of payments, inflation and wage agreements.  The two editors seem to have had a light touch on the various chapter authors and as a result there is quite a bit of repetition especially in the political and economic chapters; in some cases even the same quotations are used more than once, let alone points that are made.

Edward Heath's government has suffered from attacks both from left-wingers who have condemned him for his confrontations with workers and for trying to restrict free collective bargaining, but also from the Conservative Party, his party itself.  The Thatcherites condemned Heath as representing all the failures of the party and its failed approaches.  Ironically, as is noted on a number of occasions in the book two of the leading Thatcherites, Margaret Thatcher herself and Sir Keith Joseph, were ministers right throughout the Heath government and oversaw two of the largest spending departments in that period, despite their aversion to the public sector and public expenditure.  In addition, many of the leading ministers of the Thatcher administrations worked under Heath.

Heath is not excused in this book.  His aloofness and distance from his party are noted as failings.  His expectation of reasonable behaviour from those he had to deal with whether coal miners, foreign governments and sectarian parties, put him at a disadvantage.  However, the book does rescue Heath from the damnation of the Thatcherites and shows that he was not some kind of pathetic aberration but fitted in the context of the time.  While Heath himself set out to be very different from Wilson, one can actually see them as coming from the same mould.  They were men who had come from ordinary backgrounds and had thrived through hard work rather than privilege.  They were not afraid to be the people they were.  They were also clearly technocrats of that mid-20th century ilk.  Both men sought to improve the British economy and get industry working in a more efficient way and both failed in the face of obstinacy both from workers and from industrialists.  Heath certainly appears in this book very like his European conservative counterparts such as Konrad Adenauer in West Germany and Charles De Gaulle in France, but even like the West German Social Democrat Willy Brandt.  In Britain that modernist, efficiency, technological approach to conservatism, had a very brief existence and was hammered by its opponents from both sides of the political spectrum, to the extent that it has been effectively erased from the memory of the Conservative Party.

The book shows that Heath came into office far better prepared than most other Prime Ministers.  However, he was in a time of high unpredictability and anyone in that position would have struggled whether Wilson or Thatcher or any other possible candidate.  The end of the post-war boom, the oil price 'shock', increasing aspirations and consumerism, the challenges of immigration brought on by regimes such as Idi Amin's and conversely the rise of explicit racism and increasing sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.  Perhaps only in Enoch Powell, the chief rival within the Conservative Party to Heath, do we see a problem specific to Heath; then again Powell would have caused difficulties whoever was in office.

While the book could  have benefited from some tighter editing and discussion between the various chapter authors, perhaps with a baseline chapter outlining events clinically to save on people rehearsing these throughout the book, it is a very thorough and even handed analysis of a period in British history which is often too easily; often deliberately, misunderstood.

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