'Twelve Women Detective Stories' edited by Laura Marcus
Over the past couple of years I have been working through the various compendiums of crime and spy novels that I must have been in the habit of buying sometime in the past. I have a couple of large ones to go, but this slimmer volume was rather overlooked. It does what it says in the title. It is a collection of twelve short stories featuring women detectives, that were published between 1861-1950. It shows that female detectives while a minority, were not as unknown as they are often assumed to have been especially in the Victorian period. These stories have been written by a mixture of men and women, but interestingly very few of them led to lengthy series and often just a single collection of each character is available.
One of the detectives, Loveday Brooke, the creation of Catherine Louisa Pirkis, I have come across before, but not this particular story. Many of the Victorian tales will appear rather restrained to modern day readers, at times a little naive. This is one reason why Conan Doyle's work has endured because it stands above all his contemporaries whether featuring male or female investigators. This date feel does not mean the stories in this book baulk from violence or a sudden poisoning. Many take advantage of the different ways in which women lived and the heroines are typically skilled at disguise, entering houses of suspects as maids or interior designers. This does not mean they avoid physical action and there are pursuits in sewers, riding over moors, hurrying across countries and around cities, making use of weapons, though in most cases it is the heroine's intelligence and astuteness that allow her to win through. Some of the authors were feminists. notably Charles Allen who had controversially published a book about a woman living with her partner and their child but eschewing marriage.
Many of the stories are around disguise, the theft of jewellery, attempts at deception related to marriage or wills, but these were common tropes of much crime fiction in these periods, especially the Victorian times. Many of the detectives are well off women or middle class women who have fallen on hard times, so have turned to detection as a source of income. However, they have no difficulty mixing in different social circles and have the knowledge of the well-educated. I suppose they are the mothers of female detectives of the first two-thirds of the 20th century before the harder-edged characteristics which are seen in some of these stories came more to the fore.
Of the different stories, my favourite character and one I think could easily be translated into the 21st century is Hagar Stanley, a Roma woman who had been forced from her extended family by the violence of a male relative and has ended up working for a pawnbroker who has died but his heir has not come forward to claim the business. The crime is based on an item she receives at the pawn shop and through her life knowledge she is able to trace what has been happening and to aid her client who she has fallen for anyway. Given the high profile of the Roma and their challenges and the increased use of pawnshops, these stories or a modern version of Hagar would seem an interesting path for a TV series.
Overall while to many readers of contemporary crime fiction these stories will seem dated and even a little naive, they are engaging, highlight the social mores of the times in which they sat and the parameters in which women were compelled to work, but could seek to exceed in such exceptional circumstances as portrayed here.
'Stars and Stripes in Peril' by Harry Harrison
As I noted in July, this is a very jingoistic trilogy, part of a trend in US writing towards trying to show much better and stronger the USA could have been if it had been more nationalistic. Conversely, I have been challenged that what I write is similarly jingoistic for Britain simply because I set stories there and as any regular reader of this blog knows I am very critical of the UK and what it has done. Yet, to even to put it to the fore in a story is deemed inappropriate jingoism and it is nothing on the kind of ardent US nationalism shown in an increasing number of American books. I suppose that is because the concept of the 'manifest destiny' appears as strong today as two centuries ago and things that once would have seemed simply 'what if?' like a vast wall along the US-Mexican border are now actual policy.
I suppose that why I am so frustrated with Harrison is because he had a chance to write a really interesting 'what if?' series. There was a real chance that Britain and France would enter the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy and that would have been something to explore. He could have had the Confederates chaffing against this support even though it was the best chance they had of winning or even simply securing a stalemate. Instead, in a single day, he has the CSA tossing aside support from the largest empire in the world and calling off the civil war so that all Americans can fight together. Harrison forgets that the issue of slavery really only arose as the war went on and the main reason for the split was around how much control the USA had over its constituent parts, hence the Northern forces were often termed by the Southerners as 'Federals' and the Confederacy took the name it did to emphasise this difference. That topic is overlooked in Harrison's books.
There is some reference to the abrupt ending of slavery in 1863 and resistance in the South to the Reconstruction. However, when compared not just to the resistance to the Union plans for the South after the civil war in our world, but to the often violent resistance to civil rights legislation ninety to a hundred years later, it seems incredibly mild. I suppose this is necessary for Harrison to allow the combined forces (though madly still wearing Union and Confederate uniforms while serving) to attack the British Empire. Another political problem for Harrison and I guess it is on this aspect that he is weakest, is his assumption that entire populations will be grateful for suddenly have the US system imposed on them. He forgets that Britain and the USA were semi-democracies in different ways in the 1860s and both were taking steps to expand the franchise. Yet for some reason Canadians are seen as having the scales fall from their eyes when the USA invades and imposes 'democracy' on them. This forgets that many of those Americans who opposed independence had migrated to Canada at the end of the American War of Independence and that even today, 150 years on from when the novel is set, many Canadians feel a close affinity to the UK. If they wanted to live in the USA, especially in 1863, it would have been very easy for them to move there.
In this book, the same thing happens with Ireland. Somehow the Americans manage to make a whole series of technological leaps in one go and ensure that they work almost perfectly. The British Empire despite continuing the war against the USA seems to have single spy. The Americans build warships faster than even during the American Civil War. They are then able to launch a cross-Atlantic invasion of Ireland without difficulty despite facing the largest navy of the day. Harrison argues that this invasion is a form of 'Blitzkrieg' but in fact is more similar to what happened in the First World War. Of course, all of the Irish welcome the American invaders warmly and are happy to adopt their democracy. Magically this resolves the sectarian tensions in Ireland. Given how difficult it proved for the British in Ireland and the fact that sectarian violence continued for over thirty years, this seems highly unfeasible. However, in Harrison's world, all problems are solved by joyous receipt of American processes that no-one else, apparently, was able to work out for themselves.
The British are weak because they have been busy building a road across Mexico to allow soldiers from India to build up for an invasion of US states around the Gulf of Mexico, but the Americans get a march on them and trick them. The British seem not consider simply invading California, which had become a US state in 1850, with Indian forces nor indeed the colonies of British Columbia or Vancouver where the British had bases but was not to become a combined province of Canada until 1871. This mad scheme across Mexico seems simply to be an excuse to show how foolish the British were and how easily they could be tricked.
Overall Harrison was given a great opportunity which he used to produce US propaganda. He wasted an opportunity to look at a realistic 'what if?'. He could have come to very similar conclusions without indulging in the fantasy and infinite luck for the USA fighting a dim, delusional Britain and with the rest of the world simply waiting to be invaded by US forces so that they could receive the systems that they would immediately welcome without question.
'Assassination! July 14' by Ben Abro [Robert Silman and Ian Young]
This book published in 1963 envisages an assassination attempt against French President Charles De Gaulle. He held that office 1959-69. During his life there were 31 assassination attempts against him, the most prominent in 1961 and 1962. He was opposed by organisations called OAS and CNR which were opposed to the granting of independence for Algeria in 1962 and felt that De Gaulle was running a form of dictatorship through his creation of the Fifth Republic in 1959 with far greater power for the President than under the previous French republics and his use of secret police to arrest his opponents, sometimes even from other countries.
This novel focuses on Max Palk, a British agent working for the French authorities who is charged with hunting down those planning to assassinate De Gaulle at a ceremony in Paris on Bastille Day (14th July) a national holiday in France. The book gained notoriety as it featured the killing of a serving head of state and showed a real man, Jacques Soustelle, a French member of parliament in the 1940s, 1950s and 1970s, who served as Governor-General of Algeria, 1955-56. He had been a close ally of De Gaulle's but turned against him. He was a member of the CNR and was associated with OAS, a terrorist organisation. Soustelle tried to sue the authors of this novel in a British court on the grounds of defamation. The publishers withdrew it from sale, but the authors fought the case which ran out of steam when Soustelle was granted an amnesty in 1968 and his Israeli backers stopped funding him.
Other real men appear in the book with their names slightly modified. One is Boudin who represents Georges Bidault, Prime Minister of France, 1946; 1949-50 who became a leading figure in those opposing independence for Algeria and seeking the overthrow of De Gaulle. Though he claimed never to be a member of OAS, he was covered by the 1968 amnesty. The other is Morris, the Prefect of the Paris police who is shown as leading the way in thwarting the assassination attempt. He is based on Maurice Papon whose reputation declined sharply as more and more evidence came out about his involvement with the deportation of Jews during the Second World War; the torture of Algerian insurgents while he was Prefect in part of Algeria; the massacre by police of Algerians in Paris in 1961 and of Communists in 1962. Though he served as a member of parliament at various times 1968-81 and served as a minister, ultimately he was charged with crimes against humanity and imprisoned 1998-2002. So it seems that in reality this 'Morris' was more likely to have supported the assassination than opposed it. It must be remembered as Soustelle failed to do, that this book was fiction.
The most famous book about an assassination attempt against De Gaulle is 'The Day of the Jackal' (1971; movie 1973) by Frederick Forsyth, so it is natural to compare the two books. Though given that by 1971 De Gaulle had died of old age and his opponents politically rehabilitated Forsyth faced less risk. It must be remembered that when Silman and Young wrote the novel, they were undergraduate students who had attended elite private schools in Britain and were studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. Thus, while they had a good grasp of France, they were not experienced authors. As a result, perhaps it is not surprising that their book rather than looking forward to the political thrillers of the later 1960s and the 1970s, instead it looks back to the thrillers of the inter-war period, such as those featuring Bulldog Drummond and Richard Chandos. These featured amateurs charging around Europe getting involved with political scandals and sinister criminals.
There are some good elements to the book. One is when we find out who Palk really is after wondering what his role in the story is. Another is him trying to get into the base of the paratroopers readying to seize power in Paris, barracked in a disused Metro station and then finally when Palk is involved protecting De Gaulle from the actual attempt to kill him at the 14th July ceremony. The role of those sympathetic to the OAS while holding positions in the civil service, police and government is put to good effect and their is a good revelation when we realise who has betrayed Palk.
The weaker parts are when the book begins to seem like a Bulldog Drummond book. In part this seems to stem from their desire to create a secret agent who was utterly unlike James Bond, who was becoming even more into the public eye globally with the movies that followed the successful books, starting in 1964. However, rather than creating a Harry Palmer type character of the kind Len Deighton used in novels 1962-76 (though he was only named in the movies, 1962-66), they end up with some ridiculous scenes in the middle of the book.
The first is when Palk has gone to Switzerland to chase the traitorous member of the government and is held by Soustelle. The way that Soustelle and his comrades decide whether to kill Palk immediately or not is to have him identify the source of a number of quotations; they even offer him clues. He manages just to pull this off and is spared. He later debates with his jailer, a young paratrooper (paratroopers featured frequently in the OAS) and persuades him that he is not really a supporter of the OAS and then reveals that he has caught the paratrooper masturbating. Thus Palk so shames him that the man gives up his pistol and lets Palk shoot him through the back of the skull. These scenes utterly undermine the book and seem pathetic alongside the more feasible assassination plot. I can only imagine that if the publishers had not been in such a rush to get it out, they would have had these altered to something much more realistic.
My edition of the book contains an essay by James D. Le Sueur which gives background details on the authors, who went on to be prominent academics and in far too much detail, information about the course of the libel case. It is interesting but is too long. Overall I was disappointed by this book, but I guess I should not have expected more from the first novel written by two undergraduates brought up on stories of British heroes and 'daring do' produced in the inter-war and early post-war eras.
'Canto for a Gypsy' by Martin Cruz Smith
Smith is best known for his 1981 novel, 'Gorky Park' (movie 1983), a murder mystery set in the USSR, but this book was published in 1975 and features Romano Gry (a.k.a. Roman Grey), a Roma antiques dealer in New York who speaks Magyar and is asked to oversee the display of the Crown of St Stephen, the Holy Crown of Hungary which was passed to US soldiers at the end of the Second World War. In the novel it is on display before being returned to Hungary. This was prescient of Smith because this is what actually happened in 1978. In the story the crown is stolen and may have been substituted. There is also speculation whether the crown in US possession was genuine or a previous copy. The story is short (160 pages) and ends up pretty frantic set around what has happened to the crown centred on St Patrick's Cathedral in New York w here it has been on display.
Smith shows his knowledge of Romany language and culture and indeed of contemporary Hungary pretty well in this book and Gry is an interesting hero with attitudes and values which would typically differ from the average American, for example in finding a horse for a young man living on the edge of the city. However, it becomes far too confusing with all the uncertainty over the various characters and especially their motives. This is not helped by the claustrophobic feeling of the novel, largely focused on a single location. It is clear that Smith improved in his writing and that 'Gorky Park' was properly acclaimed for providing a taut thriller using settings, people and attitudes not familiar to an Anglo-American audience. You can see signs of that skill in this book, but they needed refinement to prevent it coming over as too chaotic to follow in a pleasant way.
'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince' by J.K. Rowling
As I have commented before, I came to the books only having watched the movies a number of times each. As the series progresses the books and the movies diverge to a greater extent. As a result only a couple of central scenes in this book are replicated in the movie; others are very different. Thus, coming to the book it was as if, while featuring a number of characters I know well, that it was a new story for me. I recognise that I have been working up to a realisation that I should have noticed long ago. Rowling is far less concerned with the adventures, which feature prominently in the movies. Instead she is primarily interested in Harry Potter as a boy growing up.
Yes, he lives in very exceptional circumstances, but she spends a great deal of time, especially as the series progresses with focus on his day-to-day life. He is now in what would be Year 12 in the current British system and beginning his N.E.W.T.s, equivalent of 'A' Levels, so much of the time is spent going on about lessons and future careers for Potter and other pupils. Now that he is 16 there is also a lot more about girlfriends and the tensions this can raise.
So it is very much a school book with magic and the threat of a superpowered wizard seeking to be dictator on the side. I did wonder one thing about Hogwarts School and that that was, because they do not have normal lessons just ones about magic, whether their skills in mathematics, English language, let alone computing and science, are neglected. This neglect becomes more apparent in this book as Ron Weasley struggles to correctly spell certain English words.
The book in my edition is 160 pages shorter than 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' which I read last month. The length allows Rowling to feature a whole host of people who do not turn up in the movies or only in passing, but it is not as cumbersome as the previous volume. This gives it a greater tautness and this allows the drama of the story, the element I like best compared to mundane school-day stuff to be more dynamic. As a result I found this as very satisfying read even though I had a rough idea of what was going to happen.
'Our Kind of Traitor' by John Le Carré
I was recently given four Le Carré books and as this one had recently been released as a movie I decided to start with it. While I have watched the television series and movie based on his Smiley books and his 'The Night Manager', the only other one I had read was 'A Murder of Quality' (1962) which was only his second novel. This one was published in 2010 but refers to the 2008 financial crash and the latter days of the New Labour government in Britain. It features a couple, a male lecturer at University of Oxford, Perry and a female barrister, Gail who come into some money and holiday in Antigua where they meet a Russian gangster involved in money laundering and his extended family. The novel is about these two aiding a small sub-section of MI6 in aiding the Russian to defect to Britain bringing details of his business before he is disposed of by the gangsters who no longer need him.
The first half of the book is shown in retrospective as the two leads recount what they saw and heard on Antigua. Le Carré should be commended for trying out a different form and having a disjointed narrative that is not linear and in which a number of players show us their perspective and what they know. This extends to two of the British agents and to a lesser extent a couple of their colleagues. Sometimes people complain that Le Carré has dialogue reminiscent of the 1970s, but I think in this book he manages to break that. Indeed in some ways he goes a little too far with members of MI6 seeming to buy into the fluctuating New Labour ideology which has a nod to ethical foreign policy but is happy to collaborate with international dubious people. Possibly more accurately, there is a railing against misogyny especially in how Perry treats Gail when things become difficult. Saying that Gail's career trajectory seems much more credible than Perry's. Both of them do seem 'young fogies' and in this seem to refer back to inter-war thrillers, especially their love of tennis and Perry's mountaineering skills. However, I used to meet some people of that kind of upper middle class ilk and they do tend to become old before their years. Likewise, when I met the head of MI5 and chairman of the D Notice Committee, they spoke in the way the agents do here, but that was twenty years ago now.
Just over halfway the book moves on to a linear narrative though with regular switching between the points of view of Perry, Gail and Luke, one of the agents. I guess Le Carré could not have continued looking back without revealing who survived, so reducing the sense of jeopardy, but it also seems to slacken the pace of the novel as the scenes move to Paris and then Switzerland. Le Carré is pretty good at showing 'innocents' being caught up in such business, which is often a challenge to make credible. He draws parallels between money launderers, high financiers and the governments who have an ambivalent attitude to both without this being plastered on as a theme and appearing very relevant to the time when it was set. The ending is abrupt and leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but I suppose that is fair for a thriller. Some of the jeopardy seems rather let go when it could have contributed to the tension, so you feel a little at the end as if he had tired of the project. Overall, not a bad book. Le Carré makes good use of thorough research and this cannot be accused of being a book left over from the Cold War. I welcome his use of an alternative structural approach and it is a shame it could have not been sustained right through the book as it added energy.
'Beyond 9 to 5: Your Life in Time' by Sarah Norgate
As has been the case with a number of books I have read this year, this one is written by an author I have met. Before it was published I used to meet her cycling along a cycle path near my house and in a pub near where a friend of mine lived. Very naively and foolishly, I thought she was attracted to, or at least interested in, me. However, it turned out she much preferred younger, taller men with shaven heads. I finally recognised that she simply took pity on me. Given what you find out about Norgate in this book, that was no surprise as she is shown as an important academic in studies of the mind, taking part in a number of experiments; she has clearly travelled extensively and was an athlete. It is no surprise that she saw a man who did not even own a car at the time, as rather pathetic though worthy of compassion. Perhaps the latter aspect came from her work in psychology.
The book is a work of popular science, though it is backed by thorough references, particularly to numerous experiments regarding human perception and its engagement with time. It is one of a series of 11 books in the 'Maps of the Mind' series published by the Open University in 2006. It is written in an easy style with personal anecdotes and speculations mixed in with the scientific evidence. It works through different facets of mental and physical engagement with time, for example, issues of longevity and their impact on how we see time; how light is important in how we appreciate time; the impact of what we experience in the womb; cultural perceptions of time, notably differing between countries focused on rushing around and those with a more relaxed situation and the experiences of particular groups of people such as life sentence prisoners, autistic people, blind people and people with terminal diseases and dementia.
The book is interesting and easy to get through. The main problem is that so much information is communicated in 152 pages of text (plus 29 pages of references) that your head is left spinning and you tend to forget what you have just covered, so ironically, it is probably best to read this book slowly, far slower than the day-and-a-half that it took me. I am rather concerned by the sweeping portrayals of particular countries as have a single approach to time and despite promising to do so, Norgate does not reconcile how Japan is rated as one of the most frenetic countries and yet has excellent longevity. However, on the other side, she does well in predicting the future and the impact of mobile devices and how we interact that has only increased in the decade since the book was published.
Overall, I felt this was an alright book. Its main challenge for me was that reading it felt so frenetic with so much information being thrown at me in quick succession, leaving me feeling uncomfortable with it and only taking away a few lessons from reading it.
'Target: De Gaulle' by Christian Plume and Pierre Démaret
This seemed to be the logical book to read after 'Assassination! July 14'. However, I had already been reminded of it by watching the penultimate episode of Series 2 of 'Bulman'. It was entitled 'W.C. Fields was Right' and was broadcast in 1987 - the title refers to the statement by Fields: 'never work with children or animals' as both a boy and a dog feature. In the story the book is referred to by name and has the same dust cover as my copy, though it seems to have been wrapped around a fatter book, perhaps so it is more visible on screen. The episode sees a one-armed gangster played by Tony Doyle (1942-2000) using explosives fixed to a dog in an attempt to assassinate one of his rivals. This approach to assassination is mentioned in passing as one of many considered to be tried on De Gaulle and is envisaged being carried out, using three dogs, at the start of 'Assassination! July 14'.
Anyway, back to the book itself. It was published in French in 1973 and in English the following year. As a result the authors were able to interview many of those who were involved in the 31 known assassination attempts against Charles De Gaulle between 1944-64. They write in a brisk style which carries you through the technicalities and the continuous bad luck that the would-be assassins faced. They are pretty good at articulating the complexity of the OAS and the connected CNR, the main groups bent on assassinating De Gaulle once he became President in 1958 and certainly as he moved Algeria to independence 1960-62. The various factions and groupings are complex and you need to follow carefully, but they do not make it as inaccessible as some do. They also highlight groups such as the Old General Staff, which remain shady even today. They are certainly good at highlighting how the assassins constantly benefited from a fifth column of sympathetic soldiers, police, civil servants and politicians who gave them refuge and particularly advice and how this counter-balanced police penetration of the OAS and the willingness of De Gaulle to have suspects abducted and promptly executed. Another strength of the book is the authors' analysis of how assassins were tracked down by the police, whether by accident or through detective work. Thus, they can convincingly fill the gaps in what remains a patchy official record.
This book is embedded in a particular period of modern history and some of this will be unfamiliar to people of today. However, as a non-fiction book it manages to straddle being detailed and informative, balancing both the assassins and those who would catch them and yet being written in an engaging rather than 'train spotter' style to the issues. Overall it is a very interesting book especially if, like the writers of 'Bulman' you are looking for a good idea for a plot.