Monday, 30 April 2018

The Books I Listened To/Read In April

'A Dance With Dragons: Part 1 Dreams and Dust' by George R.R. Martin
This was the book that I really felt showed that Martin had lost his way.  This is the first half of the book published in 2011, six years after the previous book 'A Feast for Crows' had been published.  This book overlaps chronologically with that one but features other characters - various members of the Martell family in Dorne including Quentin who has been sent to Essos so his story is separate as he tries to reach Daenerys Targaryen; Reek, formerly Theon Greyjoy who is used by members of the Bolton family who control northern Westeros, John Snow at the Wall, Bran Stark beyond the Wall being absorbed into a tree, Lord Davos Seaworth seeking support for King Stannis along the eastern coast of Westeros, Tyrion Lannister making slow progress on the continent of Essos and Daenerys Targaryen simply sitting in Mereen on the same continent while other cities are ravaged and her opponents attack her from inside and without.

The trouble is, no-one does very much or achieves very much.  Despite the book, in my edition, being 690 pages long, most of it is taken up with people just worrying about things.  There are no major battles that we witness first-hand and for much of the time many of the characters achieve very little  Lord Seaworth spends a lot of time trying to win the support of one city.  Tyrion travels on various boats, being sick and fearing he has caught a disease and so on.  Daenerys goes nowhere and while she faces various threats, in fact the real tension for her is over who she is going to have marry and whether that is the same man as she is having sex with.

Martin is clearly in love with the world he has created and thinks we will all delight in it as much as he does.  However, all the epic drive of some of the earlier books, despite the range of situations he had set up is missing.  The slipping chronology does not help.  In this book, we see John Snow thinking about then sending off Sam Tarly, Gilly and Maester Aemon, but we know from the previous book what happens to them all.  It seems apparent that while impressive at first, Martin has lost control of the multiple characters and so they are left simply shifting around.  I am reminded of how quickly Frank Herbert's 'Dune' series similarly went to seed almost drowning beneath the weight of its epicness.  I would much more prefer to read the book of the television series; the narrative of which is much more engaging and surprising than the bloated, inert thing the books have become.

'Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen: Illustrated Modern Prose Adaptation' by Douglas Hill
There are quite a few books that put Spenser's allegorical stories into modern English.  This is a large format version published in the USA in 1980 and I was given it as a present some five years later.  The closest book to this that most readers will be familiar with is 'The Pilgrim's Progress' by John Bunyan.  This book features six 'books' set in a faux Middle Ages, some generations before each was produced, 1590-98, each focused on a worthy knight such as Sir Calidore representing Courtesy or Sir Guyon representing Justice.  They adventure around various locations encountering monsters or evil people such as Despair or Jealousy and places like the Lake of Idleness and Gulf of Greediness.  Some have different names, for example, Pride is represented by a woman called Lucifera.  Even these paragons are not perfect and have to take refuge at times or are aided by the one supreme knight, Prince Arthur, before he is King.  There is much reference to Faerie Land which is ruled over by Gloriana, a representation of Queen Elizabeth I, the monarch at the time Spenser was writing.  The imagery is rich if a little simplistic and the stories are quite similar with deceptive characters leading the heroes astray and women to be rescued.

The book is a kind of manual for men aspiring to be knightly.  However, some of the lessons are applicable today.  I particularly felt this with the second book of the story of Sir Guyon a representation of Temperance.  As Hill notes, temperance at the time did not mean abstinence, but a balance between that and over indulgence.  Interestingly, he shows young knights being easily offended by minor sleights and getting into dangerous battles notably with Furor aided by his mother Occasion.  I kept on being reminded of young men in town centres on Saturday nights these days.  Hill also points out that Chastity represented by the female knight Britomartis, another representation of Queen Elizabeth, is not about abstinence but having sex in a good marriage rather than promiscuously or selfishly.  Young people of today would see a book like this as stupid, but its warnings about risks of intemperate behaviour are still accurate today.

It is clear that authors down the centuries have been influenced by this book.  I kept seeing things that echoed characters and scenes in the 'Song of Ice and Fire' series by George R.R. Martin, not least Britomart herself who is very reminiscent of Brienne of Tarth, a tall, female knight throughout the series.  Knights associated with flowers remind me of Ser Loras Tyrell.  In the cowardly, comic character of Braggadochio and his squire Trompart of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, especially in his jousting.

The illustrations are pretty random, but I appreciate that Hill is trying to show the characters and settings in the way people of the time might have envisaged them and that is interesting.  For the modern reader this comes across as a very odd book.  However, it has some points, if laboured at times that seem to show Elizabethan society had similarities to our own.  It is also interesting as it helps correct some misapprehensions you might have about attitudes of the time especially around 'proper' behaviour.  It has clearly influenced subsequent authors and there may be references back to it in books nowadays that I am unaware of.

'Sherlock Holmes' by W.S. [William] Baring-Gould
This is a reprint of Baring-Gould's 1962 book, 'Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street: A Life of the World's First Consulting Detective' and is effectively a biography of the character.  It draws extensively on the books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but also numerous pastiches and articles on the stories which appeared in the mid-20th century.  It is fascinating to see the cases outlined in chronological order rather than the way Dr Watson erratically covered them.  Baring-Gould covers any errors on Conan Doyle's part by making them Watson's or saying that details, especially dates, had been adjusted to protect the sensibilities of people, especially Watson's second wife (of three) and various members of European royalty that Holmes helped.

Holmes, we learn, contrary to every portrayal I have seen of him, was a Yorkshireman and spent a lot of his childhood in France.  He studied at Oxford and Cambridge Universities; at St. Bartholomew's Hospital and in Montpellier.  Baring-Gould adds in elements of his own.  Unlike the impression I imagine most readers have, Irene Adler's marriage turns out to have been bitter and she has a son by Holmes.  He, quite convincingly is shown to be a developing Buddhist especially following his return after his apparent death at Reichenbach Falls. Less convincing Baring-Gould has Holmes meeting everyone from Lewis Carroll to George Bernard Shaw and even Jack the Ripper.

Baring-Gould includes text usually from the start or the end of many of Holmes's cases.  If you have not read them then these will be 'spoilers'.  I do not really know why he felt it necessary to include these and can only think it is to add some gravitas to his own pastiche text.  There is enough of interest in the story of his life and those associated with him, notably Mycroft Holmes and Dr. Watson.  Much effort has gone into it, with Baring-Gould benefiting from extensive analysis and speculation by fans down the years.  Overall, I found it a brisk and engaging digest, aided by the fact that I had read all the original stories.  I liked the reference to the cases mentioned in those stories in passing to other cases now extensively written up by June Thomson.

'Modern Spain, 1875-1980' by Raymond Carr
As Carr outlines in the introduction he focuses more on the pre-1930 period than the fifty years after that, in large part because of the number of books in English on the Spanish Civil War.  Saying that, there do not seem to be a great deal on Franco's Spain and I found that section, if a little rushed, very interesting.  Despite the title, the book actually goes back to 1868 and it is strongest in giving a picture of the very complex situation of Spanish politics of the 19th century which is a very good basis for explaining the background for the civil war.  Carr takes time to go through the social and economic developments too and really brings out the variety of experiences across Spain; how diverse its agricultural and industrial patterns were.  He maintains this level into the period of the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera, 1923-30. 

Carr then accelerates and gives much thinner attention to his study, which leaves the book rather imbalanced.  He does draw out very interesting points on how close the civil war came to ending almost immediately and the importance of how the army divided in allowing the Republic to fight on.  His focus is largely Spanish so the intervention of other countries gets minimal mention.  I found the elements on Franco's rule 1939-75 very interesting especially in how he shows the shifting sands of the regime, its altering economic focus and how different groups rose and fell.  I think he could have said more about this.  I guess having published this in 1980, just five years after Franco's death, he might have believed readers would be familiar with the regime as current affairs.  Now, however, decades later, it is not familiar to us and this phase of the book would benefit from filling out.  The return to democracy is handled very quickly, but I guess, as most of the book is about how democracy failed because of a range of factors, it is right to draw to a close once it has been established.

This is an engaging book; well written even when explaining convoluted political developments.  It is good at challenging assumptions about Spain.  I think, despite Carr's sense at the time of writing, it would have been a stronger book if the post-1930, and especially the post-1939, sections were strengthened.  However, if you want detail on the period leading up to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, this is a crisp and engaging book.

Fiction - Audio Book
'Casino Royale' by Ian Fleming; read by Dan Stevens
After how surprisingly therapeutic I found listening to 'Dr. No' last month I was able to get an unopened, second hand set of another four James Bond novels in the series, read by a range of actors.  This is the first James Bond book, published in 1953.  It is very simple.  James Bond is sent to France to beat Soviet agent Le Chiffre at cards at the casino in the fictional Royale les Eaux on the Normandy coast; modelled on Deauville and Le Touquet.  Le Chiffre has lost a lot of money in a chain of brothels in northern France after they had been banned and has taken money from the funds of a Communist trade union based in Strasbourg. By bankrupting Le Chiffre it is expected that he will be killed by the Soviet assassination bureau Smersh so disrupting his activities in France and weakening Soviet influence there.

As Stevens notes in the interview at the end of the discs, the book is in three parts.  The first is the build up to the card game in which Bond works with the French agent, Mathis; British operative from S division, the anti-Soviet branch, Vesper Lynd and the CIA agent, Felix Leiter.  The climax of the book is the card game, baccarat followed by the second section, Bond's torture at the hands of Le Chiffre and his henchmen and then a holiday with Vesper along the French coast from Royale les Eaux.  The 2006 movie keeps very close to the book as far as it can given the great changes that have happened in the intervening 53 years.

The book is very much in the shadow of the Second World War which had ended only 8 years before it was published, even while being sharply engaged with the Cold War which followed.  Lynd's Polish boyfriend, Le Chiffre as a displaced person and Bond's connections from the war are some examples. Some of the luxuries seem mundane now - Bond has an avocado pear as dessert in an expensive hotel restaurant; Mathis's cover is as a radio salesmen bringing new radios to important customers.  Certainly to British readers the towns of the Normandy coast are now no more exotic than going to Brighton or perhaps even Bognor Regis.  However, for readers of the time it must have seemed very exciting.

There is less of a battle for Bond in this book compared to the later 'Dr. No', but each of the sections has its own trials - the tensions at the card table especially when Bond is losing, the sustained torture scene and then the fluctuating relationship with Lynd; at one stage Bond considers marrying her.  As with 'Dr. No', Bond's uncertainty about what he is doing, the morality of it, whether he can continue, is a large part of the book; not apparent in the movies before 'Goldeneye' (1995).  He is a flawed hero at best and comes out of the book emotionally as well as physically scarred: he gets the Cyrillic letter 'Щ' carved into the back of his hand. The leitmotif of Jamaica, where Fleming lived, appears even in this book set in Britain and France: at the casino Bond is supposed to be a millionaire from Jamaica.  Overall it is a straight forward book but with a lot going on in terms of the characters rather than the plot.

Dan Stevens's reading seemed pretty flat after that of Hugh Quashie, though his voicing of the women was far less unsettling, he adopts a light tone rather than a more explicitly feminine one.  He does not communicate the chases and the violence as well as Quashie did and overall lacks his rich tones.  His Le Chiffre voice is a good attempt but rather sounds like a cartoon villain.  I have three more of the Bond audio books to go, each with a different reader, so it will be useful to compare.

'Live and Let Die' by Ian Fleming; read by Rory Kinnear
This is the second James Bond book and follows a couple of weeks after 'Casino Royale'.  Bond is sent to New York to investigate the sale of old English gold coins by the black gangster 'Mr Big' who is based in Harlem but seems to be smuggling in coins from an island off Jamaica, which when the novel was published in 1954, was part of the British Empire and was where Fleming lived.  Fleming had written this book before 'Casino Royale' had been published.

Bond is again partnered with CIA operative Felix Leiter who appears in 'Casino Royale'.  However, Bond and Leiter really bumble around in this book each allowing himself to be captured twice by Mr. Big or his agents.  This leads to Leiter being mutilated by a shark in the way it is shown in the movie  'Licence to Kill' (1989) and Bond to be dragged almost to his death in a similar way to the portrayal in the movie 'For Your Eyes Only' (1981).  Big makes good use of the fact that blacks predominated in service-sector jobs in the USA, notably in transport. For much of the book, Big has the upper hand and this led me to realise that Fleming portrays Bond as quite bigoted, only to reveal how this weakens him.  In 'Casino Royale', Bond is highly dismissive of any role that a female agent like Vesper Lynd can play and is proven to be completely wrong.  In this novel, he sees black men as only recently coming to a position in which they could be a criminal mastermind.  The fate of Leiter and how difficult Bond finds bringing Big down, again proves how poor a judgement this is.  It is only by the luck of timing that Big is killed and Bond reprieved; it could have easily gone the other way around.  While Fleming was certainly a man of his time, he does challenge his hero's assumptions.

Fleming is very much of his time in being obsessed by physical appearance and as in the two previous Bond books I have heard read, his antagonist is physically distinct.  Big is very large, as bald as Dr. No and his skin is grey due to a heart condition.  Like Dr. No and Le Chiffre he is very intelligent and Fleming comments on the skill of his plans.  Fleming does not like the USA, seeing it as tawdry, often seedy, with poor quality clothing and cars and especially bad food.  However, he describes it in great detail and as with the other books, you can enjoy these as a window on to a country at a particular time in its history.  His attitude switches abruptly when Bond moves to Jamaica, a location that Fleming clearly loved and felt he had to extol. As in the other books we get a lesson on a subject or two, in this case about voodoo, used by Mr. Big to terrify his agents, and about barracuda.  Strangways and Quarrel, plus the house of Beaudesert, which all feature in 'Dr. No' feature for the first time in this book.

Sometime in the 1980s I read a criticism of a computer game which featured Bond accessing a stash of Benzedrine in order to replenish his energy to explore an island.  The reviewer was very critical saying he had never seen Bond take drugs in any of the movies.  However, it is clear that the game designers had gone back to the original novel because Bond is shown as deliberately taking Benzedrine in order to pull of the more-than-human exploits he does, in this book swimming to an island battling against and octopus and barracuda.  The more I hear the books the further I realise they are from the movies.  Bond has far more self-doubt.  Even a storm while he is flying to Jamaica puts him into a terror that he has to think himself out of with great effort.  He also has far less sex than in the movies.  Often that is postponed until very late in the book, or as in this case, after the book has finished.  Bond and Solitaire, the seer held captive by Mr. Big, but both is still too injured by the end of the book to do it.

Overall the book is simpler than the movie, as seems to be the case throughout with the adaptations.  It goes into immense detail rather than having great quantities of action.  Bond is very reflective but not always right and Fleming seems to feel obliged to have his character shown where his assumptions are wrong.  In this book he is out-classed by his antagonist and really only wins out through last-minute luck.

Rory Kinnear starts very over-excitedly with his narration, but settles down as the book progresses.  He has a wide range of Americans to voice which he pulls off well; his voices for the black characters do not become caricatures nor are so strongly accented as to be difficult for a white British listener to understand.  His women are light, like Stevens's, rather than attempting to go too far in being effeminate, though in this book Solitaire says a lot less than Honeychile Rider did.

'Moonraker' by Ian Fleming; read by Bill Nighy
When I started listening to the box set of four James Bond novels, far more familiar with the movie order, I had thought they were picked at random whereas in fact they are the first four.  There are brief references back to the previous story.  This one is very domestic and covers only a few days of activity.  We learn a lot about Bond's day-to-day work when not on a mission, largely reading reports about various espionage and criminal developments.  Even the mission is unusual.  It starts with Bond being used on personal business by M and then being used by Special Branch at a rocket development site in Kent.  Between London and the coast of Kent is as far as Bond goes in this book rather than to any exotic locales abroad.  It reminded me of novels like the movie 'The Small Back Room' (novel 1943; movie 1949) and 'Enigma' (novel 1995; movie 2001) set on such developmental bases, though in wartime.  This book, published in 1955, is very much shaped by the experience of the Second World War which had ended just ten years before its publication.

The book focuses on Sir Hugo Drax, a self-made millionaire who is developing an atomic missile for Britain.  However, Bond is drawn into investigating him first by M, his boss, who has been advised that Drax is cheating at cards at the gambling club 'Blades' of which M is a member.  Much of the early part of the book is taken up with Bond battling against Drax, playing Bridge.  However, Bond is then sent to Drax's development centre in Kent following a murder-suicide of the security officer and very slowly uncovers that neither Drax nor his plans are what they seem.  Again Fleming shows Bond as flawed.  His opinions of Drax keep on being shaped by the populist view of the 'Daily Express' newspaper and he tends to overlook worrying signs because he believes that Drax is a patriot and while eccentric and a cheat at cards, intends the best for Britain.

Bond under-estimates both the abilities of Drax and of Gala(tea) Brand, the Special Branch officer who is working undercover as Drax's aide.  Bond comes up with a fatal and foolhardy plan to prevent the outcome when Brand produces a much less hazardous and simple solution.  Bond expects to go off on holiday with Gala at the end of the book, because they have been pressed close in tunnels and under landslides at various occasions.  However, she points out that she is going to marry a fellow police officer; she had been wearing an engagement ring right throughout.  Brand deserves a series of her own.  She is very level-headed, highly intelligent and brave; bilingual in English and German.  Interestingly, her adept handling of the figures for controlling the rocket echoes the recent highlighting of the role of female mathematicians on the US space programme in the movie 'Hidden Figures' (2016) and in an episode of 'Timeless' (broadcast 2016/17).

Once again, Fleming shows Bond as physically courageous and generally cool, even devious, when under pressure.  However, his judgements as in the previous two books are often highly flawed and this leads him and others into danger.  This is another Bond book in which the hero has no sex.

Bill Nighy does the voices very well.  At times you think another actor has taken over.  He has less challenge than some of the other readers with only German accents to put on beside a range of British ones of different classes and only a couple of women who do not speak a great deal, despite, especially in Gala Brand's case, being central to the book.

'Diamonds Are Forever' by Ian Fleming; read by Damian Lewis
Published in 1956 this was the fourth book in the series which shows the rate that Fleming was turning them out.  Like 'Casino Royale' and 'Live and Let Die' it is on a small scale, with James Bond really working like an undercover detective, rather than facing down a megalomaniac bent on widespread destruction as was seen with the plot to launch a nuclear missile on London in 'Moonraker'.  The British Empire appears again as Sierra Leone is the source of diamonds being smuggled into the USA via London, at the time the location of 90% of the world's trade in diamonds.  Bond takes over the role of one of the smugglers in an effort to trace the course of the smuggling routes.  It is quickly revealed that it is carried out by The Spangled Mob, a Mafia family overseen by the two Spang brothers.  Again, as is a common theme in these books, Bond underestimates his opponents, dismissing all US gangs, despite his experience with Mr. Big some months earlier, as ostentatious and rather stupid.  Of course, he is proven to be mistaken leading to risks to his life and his kicking by men in football boots.

As I noted in 'Live and Let Die', Fleming had no love for the USA.  In this book he disparages New York once again and takes on both Saratoga and Las Vegas as tawdry, seedy places.  Felix Leiter, left missing an arm and a leg reappears working as a Pinkerton agent involved with corruption in horse racing and is important in rescuing Bond; seeming to work far more effectively than he did in 'Live and Let Die'.  Bond ends up killing a number of the criminals involved with the smuggling though almost inadvertently when responding to their attempts to kill him and Tiffany Case.  Case, an American, starts off as a smuggler's guard while Bond is acting in this role taking diamonds from Britain to the USA. She is also a croupier on crooked card games at the Spang's casino.  She ends up helping Bond.  However, despite their professions of affection we never see them actually having sex.  Fleming outlines that this was because she had been gang-raped when aged 16 and has challenges with intimacy.  Honeychile Rider had experienced a rape and Solitaire had kept herself apart from men because of her clairvoyance; Gala Brand because she was engaged.  Bond's appeal erodes some of Case's reticence, though ironically he is attracted to her toughness born from her involvement with crime from a young age.  However, contrary to what I had expected, it is not common to end up having sex with the primary female character.

With the references to empire - the book ends on the border of Sierra Leone and French Guinea and Bond travelling back to Europe on the 'Queen Elizabeth' ocean liner rather than by aeroplane, we are reminded that it is set in the 1950s.  It features a gay couple who are cruel hitmen, though Fleming does not draw any specific connection between their sexuality and their cruelty.  He does like to populate his books with people who stand out, often physically but also in other ways, as with Mr. Big's accidie, a intense boredom.  As Bond notes in 'Moonraker', homosexuality was still a crime in itself in Britain at the time, so by their very relationship Kyd and Wynt are 'criminal'.  Overall then, this is really a straight forward crime adventure.  Bond does face risks to his life and we learn a lot from Fleming about everything from diamond trade, the Saratoga races, Las Vegas and its casinos, even steam trains of the West of the USA.  Bond tends to be a little less self-reflective than in the preceding books and it is really only in the close that we see the world weariness that stood out in these other books.

Damian Lewis often portrays American characters and so is well equipped for the bulk of those in this story.  He also does a German pilot and an Afrikaaner dentist.  His tone, however, when covering the exposition bits, alternates between sounding like comedian and presenter Griff Rhys Jones and natural history presenter Sir David Attenborough and so can be a little too relaxing and soporific.  I guess it does make the tense passages stand out that much more.

'The Call of Cthulhu and Other Stories' [includes 'The Hound', 'The Dunwich Horror' and 'Dagon'] by H.P. Lovecraft; read by William Roberts
As with the James Bond novels, the Cthulhu stories are something many of us have heard of and have some dim idea about but have never read, or had read to us.  This was why I bought this set.  Lovecraft had a rich imagination.  These stories largely focus on the 'Old Ones' alien creatures from a distant galaxy able to travel in dimensions that we are not familiar with and who established vast cities on Earth long before the appearance of man.  However, for millennia they have been dormant, perhaps even dead, but able to infect the dreams of humans and lead some to be their worshippers, building towards the day when their dominion will be restored over Earth and probably most of humanity and current life on Earth will be destroyed.  The creatures Lovecraft describes are very alien, but usually have multiple tentacles and are misshapen, wallow in slime and certainly stink.  In 'The Call of Cthulhu' and 'Dagon' tremors under the sea force some of the structures to the surface leading to madness and hysteria in people and among cultists across the world.  In 'The Dunwich Horror' two hybrids of different sizes are born to a woman in Massachusetts and terrorise a very dreary part of the state.  'The Hound' is a more standard horror story about two men who set up a grotesque museum in their house until an amulet they grave rob attracts a supernatural force to terrorise them.

Lovecraft was writing in the 1920s and his language is of that era.  However, in his attempt to terrorise the reader and to emphasise the horror it is very contorted and certainly bombastic.  At times it becomes repetitive in its descriptions of the various slimy, tentacled, stinking beings and it actually has the effect or wearying you rather than adding to your fear.  One problem is probably that his various tropes such as arcane tomes, while themselves drawing on the Gothic but giving them a new approach, have since publication become so well embedded in subsequent popular culture that they seem unexceptional compared to when they were written.  Roberts, an American, certainly matches the tone of the books, really adding to the bombastic nature of them.  However, it is excessive and even though the stories are not lengthy, him repeatedly telling you how horrifying what he is describing is, with such vigour, actually has the opposite effect.  The landscapes he describes, all dank and rotting, also become tiresome as described so often.

There has been criticism of Lovecraft being racist.  He reflects an American of his time, and indeed more widely in Western society.  His attitude to race stems from racialism, i.e. the view that there are strong differences between different races of humans.  In addition, that the 'quality' of races can become 'decadent' what we might term degenerate.  Even among white families he mentions he makes distinctions, especially in the 'The Dunwich Horror' between branches of families that are decadent and those that are not.  The racism is clearest in 'The Call of Cthulhu' in which he speaks of 'mongrel' people, putting various mixed-race people in Louisiana into this category and seeing them as prone to being influenced by evil forces and behaving in a barbaric way.  The reference to 'diablist Eskimos' seems odd nowadays but is no less offensive.  Lovecraft, thus, has another layer of 'horror' for white American readers in the 1920s, i.e. the fear that their race was at threat not simply from unknown forces, but from other races and from falling into degeneracy itself.

Overall, I felt exhausted by listening to the stories constantly emphasising to me how frightened I should be and the details of the various dingy locations.  It was of interest to hear what Lovecraft wrote but unsettling that despite an interesting early engagement with galaxy-crossing aliens presented in an interesting way, it is wrapped up in attitudes to race that have long been unacceptable.

'Maigret Collected Cases' ['Maigret Goes Home'; 'Maigret in Montmatre'; 'Maigret Has Scruples'; 'Maigret in Society' and 'Maigret Sets a Trap'] starring Maurice Denham and Michael Gough
I do not usually review recordings of radio plays that I listen to, but am making an exception for this collection.  First it was a series of plays adapted from five of the Maigret novels by Georges Simenon, rather than being a play outright.  Second, this collection, though originally broadcast in 1976 has been released in 2017 as a box set of CDs and is widely available on eBay.  Each story lasts 45 minutes and so they are in some cases, notably in 'Maigret in Montmatre' and 'Maigret Sets a Trap' both recently dramatised featuring Rowan Atkinson in the eponymous role, there is compression.  However, the adaptation has been done very well and so you do not lose the essence of these stories.

The absence of narration is overcome, in part by the strange device of having Maigret discussing the cases with the author of the books, Georges Simenon.  Maigret books appeared 1931-72 and Simenon lived 1903-89, so they could be contemporaries, though Denham's voice seems no different when dealing with a case and when speaking to Simenon about it as Maigret, presumably meant to be in the 1970s.  In fact as is the case with the Maigret novels, there is a difficulty in pinning down the time when they are set, it is some vague, mid-20th century period. The selection does favour those stories in which Maigret crosses paths with the faded nobility of French society rather than the everyday people. 

The accents are very much English Received Pronunciation though pronunciation of the various places and names is in decent French.  It is very much in what might call the Radio 4 'house style' with lots of sound effects and different actors appearing on different speakers or more distant from the microphone to give a sense of space, but sometimes a challenge when sitting in a car listening (and a very different experience if in a left-hand drive car as in France!).  Overall I found these stories engaging, though I would have preferred them read rather than acted as I feel the narration would have allowed me to sink more deeply into them than was the case with this approach.  The fact that I felt that I they were too short and I wanted more, might be a sign that I felt they were decent.