Sunday 31 March 2024

The Books I Read In March


'The Murder in the Basement' by Anthony Berkeley [Anthony Berkeley Cox] 

I have been given quite a lot of the classic crime novels that the British Library has found great success in re-releasing over the past decade. Most are from the 1920s and 1930s (some earlier, some later) and were often good sellers at the time but have been forgotten by subsequent generations. This was the first of those books I had (not by date of publication but by surname of the author) that I have. Berkeley is not well known these days but was actually a founder of the Detection Club which counted renowned crime authors in its membership.

This novel is a classic of the genre, revolving around a corpse found in the basement of a semi-detached London house that a married couple have just moved into which after the body is finally identified, proves to be linked to a small fee-paying preparatory school just north of London. The private school setting is one that turns up often in books of the time, this one was published in 1932; even Hercule Poirot has a case at one. 

Berkeley has two protagonists that he had used in a previous novel Chief Inspector Moresby and author Roger Sheringham who has a connection to the school. The novel is effectively divided into three parts.The first focuses on identifying the corpse. Then the middle part is actually a novel in the novel that Sheringham has written detailing the tensions between various members of staff as a basis for Moresby's further investigation. The third part is tackling the issue of the prime suspect and whether it can be proven that they did and even if they should be the prime suspect.

The first part of the novel can rather lead you to think this is a going-through-the-motions novel. It is very police procedural in identifying the corpse with what was available at the time. However, Berkeley lifts the novel through the conceit of the novel in the novel and then in the third part, disentangling issues around the prime suspect. You come away feeling that it is greater than the sum of its parts.

'The State of the Art' by Iain M. Banks

This is a collection of science fiction short stories by Banks. The fact that at the end of the month in which I read it, I struggle to recall all of the stories, says something as I was not overly impressed. This may be because it was published in 1991 and as a result the 'unfailing inventiveness' which the review from 'The Guardian' states now may seem well established tropes and indeed rather pretentious. There is a sentient plant in 'Odd Attachment' plucking a human apart. 'Descendant' is about the relationship between a crashed spaceship pilot and his intelligent space suit, that actually felt like a story from the 1950s or 1960s as is 'Cleaning Up' about alien technology appearing all over the Earth at random. The concepts they explore are well known now. Perhaps the strongest stories come from Banks's Culture setting. 'The State of the Art' about Culture explorers coming to Earth and getting too involved, while quite commonplace is reasonably well handled as is 'A Gift from the Culture' about a super-powered weapon to be used for an assassination.

In many ways this book shows that Banks was grounded in the science fiction of the preceding decades. He even explores a Moorcockian set-up with fragmented text in 'Scratch'. Thus, if you are new to science fiction this book will be a good introduction that is quickly consumed and highlights many themes that 20th Century science fiction concerned itself with. For me, though, I had been expecting more and so reading it was rather mundane.

'The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard' by Arthur Conan Doyle

This is a collection of 8 short stories featuring a French hussar during the Napoleonic Wars. Many have likened him to Harry Flashman in (1969-2005), Gerard is not as intelligent as Flashman, but certainly has that self-belief. He thinks that he is very successful with the ladies, but in fact we never have anything more than his word for it, probably due to these stories being published in literary magazines at the end of the 19th Century. While they are brisk, Conan Doyle does really show his skill with the short stories, which in fact most of the Sherlock Holmes adventures were as well. There is a good attention to detail as Gerard finds himself in different parts of the war, from what would now be Poland across to Portugal. Conan Doyle brings out the different arms of the forces and nationalities too and these form a sound basis for witty stories. My edition was only 188 pages long so you could get through it in a single sitting. I do recommend it, if this sounds like your kind of thing.

'The Other Side of Silence' by Philip Kerr

This is the 11th Bernie Gunther book and features him working as a hotel concierge on the French Riviera. In contrast to the previous novels, despite for some brief asides to 1937 and 1944/45, most of this one is set in 1956. Set at the height of the Cold War and during the Suez Crisis it is much more of a spy novel than a crime novel. As is typical, Gunther crosses paths with someone from his past, in this case an SS captain, Harald Hennig that he knew in Berlin before the war and then in Königsberg [Kaliningrad] near the end of the war. The story features real people particularly the British author, Somerset Maugham and his nephew both of who lived on the Riviera at the time. Maugham is being blackmailed and is encouraged to use Gunther as a go-between with the blackmailer. It soon is revealed, however, that the scheme is more about getting to the British intelligence agencies as Maugham previously worked for them. Following the defection of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess, there appears to the East Germans and the Soviets a way to embarrass the British especially with their allies the Americans who are increasingly dubious of them.

Compared to the previous novels, this one has little action and much more dialogue, so feels more like a John Le Carré novel. It is a slow burn in terms of determining what is going on with the various blackmailing. The settings in rich houses and hotels on the Riviera in the 1950s is very well portrayed.  The scene which needs to be noted is how Gunther adeptly manages to turn what is being done to set him up, against his antagonists. Given what we know of the character, we know he has the skills, but Kerr renders the scene admirably. Gunther again gets to sleep with a woman young enough to be his daughter, though in contrast to The Woman from Zagreb' (2015), the previous novel in the series where this happens, this one has a more feasible explanation.

Overall, this is different to the other Gunther novels and may appeal more to those looking for a kind of classic spy novel rather than a detective one.


'The Pelican Guide to English Literature 1: The Age of Chaucer' ed. by Boris Ford

I read the 7th volume in the revised version of this series, 'The New Pelican Guide to English Literature 7. From James to Eliot' edited by Boris Ford back in August 2021:  The various writers who contributed to that volume were very dismissive of the authors they were asked to comment, without exception judging them as far less competent than authors and poets of previous centuries. In Volume 1, fortunately, the attitude is much more positive. I imagine that is because the contributors were eager to promote medieval literature including the work of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland but also far less well known authors. The only one who really suffers disapproval is Edmund Spenser who while recognising he was an author in a transitional period, Derek Traversi feels was not as good as he could have been and was too derivative of outdated approaches something he puts down to Spenser's disappointing career in public service.

As Ford notes a lot of these texts are not easily available to the general reader, so entire texts are included in the second part of the book after the critiques of the first part. Thus there is an interesting range of stories and plays, particularly allegorical ones. As there is reference to work from different parts of England and indeed Scotland, you can see the regional variations in English of the time. Especially in 'Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight' (still attracting attention as the 2021 movie showed) we see specifically north-western English with words that seem drawn from Swedish, Dutch, German and French. A lot of the stories have religious themes which is unsurprising given as contributors note, the importance of miracle plays in culture of the time. In addition, what is shown in this book is simply what has survived and it is certain there were many other works that are now lost.

Thus, this is an interesting book for people who enjoyed Chaucer or Langland or who are interested in having an insight into what concerned medieval people (and what made them laugh) and what they would watch or have read to them. The thing is, while there are numerous footnotes outlining what various words mean and after reading a lot of it, you get a feel for some of the commonly used words, for the most part you are rather wading through Middle English texts and this needs a lot of attention and patience. I think the effort is worth it for what is revealed. However, this is far from being an easy book to read and will take you a lot of time and effort. Ironically the easiest chapter is the incongruous one on medieval architecture, which I am not sure why it was included.

'The Goebbels Diaries, 1939-1941' translated and edited by Fred Taylor

Fuller collections of Goebbels diaries have come to light since this edition was published in 1983. However, this one does provide a slice of them from which we can learn a lot. Josef Goebbels was both the Nazi Minister of Propaganda and Gauleiter of Berlin. As these diaries make clear he was very close to Hitler and indeed murdered his children and wife and committed suicide with Hitler in the bunker at the end of the Second World War when other leading Nazis had fled.

The diaries provide interesting insights into facets of the Nazi regime but reading them at this time, constantly made me hear echoes of populist attitudes and rhetoric which has become so common again in the 2020s. Throughout Goebbels is painfully smug. Any speech he, let alone Hitler gives, as well as their writing is assumed to be the most important thing in not just Germany's but the world's media. Goebbels even believed that this propaganda effectively killed former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain in November 1940 when actually he died of bowel cancer.

Any Nazi event is seen by Goebbels as the biggest and best that has ever been hosted. Goebbels bitterly complains that all claims, especially those by the British are lies that must be vigorously contested and they, especially Churchill, will pay the price for this in the future. Yet, he also outlines all the lies he is pumping into other countries whether neutral or the enemy. This double standard is apparent incessantly and for someone living in 2024 seems very familiar.

Goebbels's attitudes do lead him to make mistake. All through 1940 he keeps expecting the British to surrender. Every bombing raid he insists is lowering the British morale to a point that it is unsustainable for the country to continue fighting and that the Americans are losing faith in the British. In contrast he dismisses the air raids on Germany as almost minimal and insists that German morale will not be harmed by them. You slowly see a change and by 1941 even Goebbels recognises that if the German public can persist under such attacks that there is nothing to say that the British and Soviet publics can too and that imminent surrender is far from likely. However, this initial attitude applied not just to Britain and the USSR but to Yugoslavia and Greece, does remind us that the Germans went into these battles with strong assumptions of quick and easy victories. Goebbels's access to Hitler and his ability to interfere in aspects far outside his assigned portfolios adds to this fact.

The preparations for the invasion of the USSR, Yugoslavia and Greece are interesting. The internecine battles with Nazi officials and other departments become tiresome but do show how chaotic the Nazi regime was. The Foreign Office in particular seems despised by all sides of the regime but retained power and influence. It is hard to swallow Goebbels wittering on about his beloved children, his numerous houses and the art works he is buying. These statements do nothing to humanise the man and it is clear that he finds it difficult to comprehend anything outside his own desires.

I found this book useful to contextualise the ones I have been reading in recent years about the Nazi regime and to show some of the reasons by what often seemed to be irrational policies and behaviour by its staff.

Thursday 29 February 2024

Books I Read In February


'The Lady from Zagreb' by Philip Kerr

I have lined up the last few novels by Kerr (who died in 2018) featuring his German detective of the 1930s-50s, Bernie Gunther. This is the tenth in the series and like many of the others, jumps between wartime and post-war happenings. While it is common for us to know that in almost all detective novels, the detective will live beyond the end of the book, this approach does mean that even when they are facing serious jeopardy, as Gunther does in Switzerland in this novel, we know they have survived the incident largely unharmed.

Living in southern France in 1956, Gunther sees a movie featuring a (fictional) actress, Dalia Dresner, of Croatian extraction, with whom he had a sexual relationship in 1942-43. At first we seeing him dealing with an assignment to investigate the use of a house in Berlin by the SS for the daughter of the man it was taken from. That first case has a real hard boiled feel to it, but tapers off. Still it does provide information and contacts useful for the second case when he is tasked by Dr. Josef Goebbels controller of movie making under the Nazis with finding the actress's father who is in the collaborationist state of Croatia. The action in this novel is broken by Gunther going off to investigate the Katyn Massacre which featured in the previous novel in the series, 'A Man without Breath' (2013) which I read when last going through Gunther novels back in 2016:

Despite this fragmented nature and the fact that a beautiful actress would fall in love with a grizzled police officer almost twice her age, the story is interesting. Travelling to Croatia and Switzerland allows Kerr to show us different countries' experiences during the war and the inter-play between different nations police forces. His portrayal of the landscape of these two countries, complements that of the luxurious houses in Berlin which feature when he is in Germany. The manipulation of Gunther whether directly or indirectly, is well handled and credible. I was successfully misled in that regard, though other readers may spot this sooner. While at times credibility can be stretched, for the main this is an engaging mystery story, as always with Kerr, effectively grounded in the times and places he is showing.

'The Second Sleep' by Robert Harris

It is certainly challenging to guess what Harris will write next. While he has produced a number of historical novels set during the last days of Republican Rome and before and during the Second World War, he has largely adhered to straight historical fiction. His most famous book, 'Fatherland' (1992) which was an alternate history book featuring a Nazi victory, was really his only one which diverged from historical fiction. In contrast 'The Second Sleep' is a post-apocalyptic novel, set in the 2800s. Society has returned to the industrial level of the mid-18th Century, with water-powered factories being the highest level of sophistication.

We are not told what the apocalypse was but Harris shows concerns about how much knowledge depends on the maintenance of electricity and internet access, very timely given we lost internet access across our district this week and thus could not even contact people to report it. There are also indications of climate change. The novel takes place in Devon in South-West England but parakeets and even birds-of-paradise live wild in the countryside and the county produces bountiful red wine.

A Christian church is largely in control of English society (Scotland is once more a separate state). It has some elements of Catholicism such as clerical celibacy and the use of Latin, but also of the Church of England, i.e. it uses the King James Bible and the head of state is the head of the church rather than this residing with a Pope. Investigation and discussion of the remains of the pre-apocalyptic society are treated as heresy and this is at the heart of the book. Christopher Fairfax is sent to a small Devon village following the death of the local priest and discovers that the dead man had an enduring interest in the preceding society and what might be a refuge of the last of those seeking to maintain an industrial England.

Obviously there are lots of parallels to 'A Canticle for Leibowitz ' (1959) by Walter M. Miller Jr., though, unlike that book which covers many centuries, Harris's is on a much smaller scale, confined to a small village and its neighbouring market town. This helps in him drawing the characters richly and the inter-play between Fairfax, Lady Durston and Captain Hancock, a local industrialist, is well handled. Harris was looking to draw on the work of Thomas Hardy (even naming the post-apocalyptic county, Wessex) and there is also the flavour of Jane Austen novels too. In that he succeeds. However, the book falls down at the last. I have often noted that Harris struggles with endings. This is also notable in 'Fatherland' and 'Enigma' (1995) and in fact the screenplays of these two (1994; 2001 respectively) handle the conclusions better than the novels did. The same happens here, it is almost as if Harris runs out of steam. There is a great revelation and then it just halts where another author would have given something more satisfactory or at least more conclusive.

'Dinner for Two' by Mike Gayle

This is quite an insubstantial novel. It seems in part autobiographical featuring a music journalist then agony uncle (a role Gayle has held), Dave Harding, who like Gayle is black. He lives in London in the early 2000s. Not a great deal happens. His wife Izzy has a miscarriage and Harding is contacted by a 13-year old girl, Nicola, who claims to be his biological daughter as a result of a one-night stand while Harding and her mother were on holiday in Greece. Much of the book is taken up with Harding angsting over whether it is right for a man to want to be a father the way some women yearn to be mothers. Then there is thinking about revealing Nicola to Izzy and being in touch Nicola's mother. Caitlin. It is padded out with mildly witty articles that Dave writes for various publications and his comments to women about what men are thinking. I was surprised Dave does not get more into difficulty as a result of meeting a 13-year old girl, on occasion playing truant from school, for a number of meals and drives in his car. Izzy and Caitlin also seem much too easily accepting of the situation. I have a sense that Gayle has written a book on how he wishes people would behave when 'patchwork' families develop than is actually the case in UK society. In addition all the characters come over as very privileged and not facing any real challenges which makes it all seem like a 'feel good' fantasy. Maybe I should have expected that from Gayle's writing.

Wednesday 31 January 2024

Books I Read In January


'My Name is Red' by Orhan Pamuk

It was highlighted that this book translated from Turkish was written very much in a Turkish style. I have to confess I found that hard going. There are multiple points of view and we move between them at random almost like a game of 'tag' rather than in a structured way.  In addition, drawings and even a colour appear as 'characters' in the book. The murderer has two identities that we see through the eyes of at different times.

The book is set in Constantinople in the 1590s and rotates around book illustrators, one of whom is murdered near the start of the book, and their various relatives. It informs you a great deal about the style of book illustration of the time and the stories which were most popular. The style of a particular artist is used in part to determine the killer. There is also the background tension of the traditional approach to illustration inherited from Persia and other regions east of Anatolia and the 'new' more realistic approach coming from western Europe via the Venetians which is a more realistic rendering of people's features and perspective. This then touches on religious questions around the representation of people in Islamic art. 

Though the cast of characters is well drawn, at time the book descends into soap opera territory especially about the wife of a missing soldier husband and whether she can remarry - and who - and whether she should live in her father's house or her in-laws house and so on. While this aspect tells us more about the characters it does become rather laboured, piling an extra layer on top of the murder mystery and all the discussions about art. The investigation itself also goes off into philosophical paths using a formula which I imagine may be familiar for Turkish readers but for Western readers just adds further complications.

There is a lot in this book and it is informative. The characters are believable. However, the very slow pace of the book and constant diversions from one or other of the main threads makes it quite tiresome to read. I admire the work that went into this book but did not enjoy reading it.

'The Vampye and Other Tales of the Macabre' ed. by Robert Morrison and Chris Baldick

This is a collection of stories and articles published in literary magazines, 1819-1838. While following on from the Gothic mania of the previous century, these stories, notably 'The Vampyre' (1819) by John Polidori really developed horror tropes which remain with us even some 200 years later. It was written during the same competition at Villa Diodati near Geneva where Mary Shelley wrote 'Frankenstein' (1818). Indeed when  'The Vampyre' was first published it was attributed to their host Lord Byron rather that Polidori, the doctor of Byron's friend, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Polidori is acknowledged for changing the character of the vampire from being undead peasants to a lord, a man of society. Interestingly, the vampire antagonist, Lord Ruthven as well as drinking blood, also works to ruin decent men and to promote nefarious ones, so you have the sense of his evil beyond the standard vampire diet.

The stories in the collection are written in a style and language of the time, but fortunately the editors provide a lot of background information on each, if the reader is unfamiliar with the context, and translations of archaic terms. In the case of 'Sir Evelyn's Dream' by Horace Smith this is particularly necessary as it is set some 200 years earlier still and he seeks to use language of that time. While many of the stories are supernatural in nature, featuring ghosts, others are more accounts of grim happenings of the time 'Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman' by William Carelton is simply the account of a vigilante killing in Ireland and 'Some Terrible Letters from Scotland' collected by James Hogg, is largely accounts of the spread of cholera. 'Life in Death' featuring a reanimation potion with only partial effects, in fact can be considered a science fiction story.

Others such as 'Monos and Daimonos' by Edward Buller, 'The Master of Logan' by Allan Cunningham, 'The Curse', 'The Red Man' by Catherine Gore, 'The Bride of Lindorf' by Letitia E. Landon and 'Passage in the Secret History of an Irish Countess' by the better known Sheridan Le Fanu, are all satisfyingly either supernatural or of a horror nature for the reader looking for short classic Gothic stories. They also remind me of Roald Dahl's 'Tales of the Unexpected' (1979), the sequels and TV series based on them. Overall this was an interesting collection of often forgotten stories which impinge on Gothic and horror writing long after they were published.


'The Hare with Amber Eyes' by Edmund De Waal

This is the second time in two months that I have mistaken a non-fiction book for fiction. In fact this was an investigation by the author, a descendant of the incredibly wealthy Ephrussi family. The linking aspect are the 264 intricate netsuke - ornate Japanese ornaments made of wood or ivory, to keep cords in place on someone's clothing in the 19th Century - that he inherited. You have to admire his effort in finding how they first arrived in Europe during the mid-19th Century fad for Japonisme and the context in which they were housed in Paris before moving to Vienna as a wedding present and then to the care of De Waal's uncle who lived in Japan following the Second World War. It is an interesting account of an incredibly wealthy family who were destroyed by the coming of Nazism and the persecution of Jews. Their wealth did allow most to escape into exile. A dedicated servant preserved the netsuke during the Second World War so they could be reunited with the family afterwards. However, vast quantities of artwork sold to help pay for passage into exile or seized by the Nazis are now housed in galleries across the world.

I really admired the hard work De Waal put in digging up the story of his ancestors especially in the turbulent times in which they lived. However, you quickly have had enough of all the details of the vast houses they built and the extensive art collections they assembled. While their wealth did not exempt them from persecution, most of the family came away alive. In addition, it is clear that De Waal is rather unaware of his own privileges. He works as a potter and yet owns a house in London and clearly has the time and the money to fly off across Europe and into Asia, whenever he wishes. While it is an interesting story it is one that left me feeling uneasy, particularly for those Jewish people living in Vienna and Paris who were unable to get away.

'The Hitler State' by Martin Broszat

This is a good supplement to the four volumes on the rise and maintenance of power by Noakes & Pridham that I read in 2022/23, notably Volume 2: Broszat goes a level deeper and shows just how complicated Germany was under the Nazis. We are familiar with the sense that the regime was chaotic and that Hitler was happy to foster competing organisations often overlapping. This book provides the detail of those and how different bodies ebbed and flowed throughout the period, particularly in the pre-war years. It features many of the second- and third-rank Nazis which tend not to get featured even in specialist books on the regime and shows how different characters and ambitions, and the arguments among them, fuelled the chaos. In particular Broszat addresses the balance between Party and State, contrasting Germany with the USSR in this respect and articulating the contests between authoritarian - due to the persistence of so much from the previous state systems - and totalitarian trends. In the fields of the economy and industry, he shows how the entwining between official positions and private business was 'messy' but in fact allowed the German economy and output to continue. Ironically this mashing together of the private and the official was very much how Britain ran its wartime economy too. Overall this is a detailed account which really demonstrates the every-changing 'machine' of the Nazi regime. However, it does beg the question how much more deadly Nazi Germany would have been to the world if it has been organised effectively or even just on a rational basis.

Sunday 31 December 2023

Books I Read In December

Well, this year I managed to read 53 books which averages out at just over one per week. However, the pattern across the year has been imbalanced due to the varying length of what I read. This month I read, at 704 pages, the second longest book I read this year so did not get through much else.


'Fleshmarket Close' by Ian Rankin

This was the last of the Rebus books I had been given. It is the 15th in the series and 9 others follow it. However, I am unlikely to rush out and buy those. As has been clear in terms of the Rebus books I have reviewed this year, they are not bad, but they are far from gripping. You do feel rather as if you are slipping into an episode of the 'The Bill' (broadcast 1983-2010). Rebus goes about his business as does Siobhan Clarke who by this stage was overdue for equal billing with John Rebus. The book has three components which reflect issues of the time (2005) and indeed now. One is the murder of an immigrant living on a sink estate; there is also human trafficking and modern slavery involved. The attitudes towards immigrants seems unchanged even 18 years on and indeed much of this book, bar some aspects of technology, could be set right now. The other is the disappearance of a young woman depressed at the death of her sister who may be mixed up in prostitution and the other is the finding of skeletons in a pub basement. Rebus and Clarke go through the motions to solve what soon proves to be a tangling of these elements and Rebus might be starting a relationship with another middle aged liberal, artistic woman pretty much a replica for those who have crossed his path in previous novels.

'The Plot Against America' by Philip Roth

This book is probably even more impactful now than when it was published in 2004. It is effectively a fictional memoir written by a Jewish American boy also called Philip Roth who is growing up in New York City in the late 1930s and 1940s. It is an alternate history in that rather than Franklin Roosevelt being re-elected for a third term in 1940, the aviator Charles Lindbergh wins the Presidency and follows the policy of the America First movement. This means that the USA does not enter the Second World War and curtails aid to the Allies. In addition Nazi German and Imperialist Japanese politicians are welcomed at the White House. Anti-Semitism which was an element of the America First approach grows in strength with moves to relocate Jewish people from the cities out to rural areas of the USA.

Roth holds to the style of the boy's perspective, so at times he jumps up and down the chronology rather than progressing neatly. Philip's concerns about his friends, relations with his brother and cousin and with his parents feature as much as concerns about where the USA is going. His cousin joins the Canadian Army and fights in France; his brother becomes part of the Just Folks movement which sends Jewish children to US farms to be apparently more integrated into WASP US society. Given policies that have been adopted at state and federal level in the past decade, it is very educative to see and think about how such discrimination can be advanced subtly but steadily.

The book succeeds in showing how easily it could have been (and remains especially now) for the USA to slide into an authoritarian state. It also reminds us that Germany did this too, not abruptly, but step-by-step eliminating the rights of Jews until within nine years it had reached extermination. The novel is successful in capturing that kind of 'Cider with Rosie' (1959) perspective of a boy recalling his life. I am sure there are US equivalents, though more Scottish and Irish ones pop up in terms of searches.

I think my two main criticisms are that it seems almost entirely to leave out the black population of the USA from the alternative. The black population of Germany was smaller but it did face discrimination under the Nazis. It seems that, at least, Lindbergh would have adopted apartheid policies towards blacks as well as Jews, especially given there was segregation in the military anyway and many states already had segregated buses, schools, cafes, etc. very much like what was coming in South Africa. 

The other thing is that the book has too much of a pat ending. Lindbergh who flies himself around the USA campaigning simply disappears on a flight back to Washington DC. While oppressive policies follow in the wake of his disappearance, including declaration of war on Canada, soon Roosevelt is re-elected as President and the timeline is 'corrected'. It would seem more realistic is some of Lindbergh's coterie would have remained in power and using the the conspiracies that soon develop around the President's disappearance, use it for negative integration, i.e., using it as 'proof' of the threats the USA faces and so ramp up authoritarian policy. A post-war world world with a (semi-)Fascist USA, the USSR in control of an larger slice of Europe and no Marshall Aid to assist post-war recovery in the remaining democracies would be a bleak picture to hint at even if Roth did not paint it.


The Social History of Politics' ed. by Georg Iggers

This is a useful book to read alongside Hans-Ulrich Wehler's 'The German Empire, 1871-1918' (1973) which I read in August: Iggers brings together articles and book extracts published between 1954-1979. These look at slices of German society in the Imperial period and various social developments. It is particularly good with Hans Rosenberg in digging into the Junker class and showing that despite a continuity of interests these large landowners from eastern Germany actually changed in make-up and their sources of income in a way which is very much overlooked in general histories of Germany. There are articles on the evolution of the working and its social contexts as well as the middle classes of Germany. Karin Hausen's renowned piece on the impact of home sewing machines reminds us how easily overlooked the significance of a relatively minor innovation can have on society, especially if it is deemed to fall into the 'realm of women'. That is unfortunately still a factor in so much research even 45 years on from the publication of that article. Overall, a crisp, focused read which provides very useful penetrating background for anyone interested in German history.

'Fifty Amazing Secret Service Dramas' edited by Odhams Press Editors

Initially I thought this book, published in 1937, was a collection of fiction stories. However, in fact it is extracts from various memoirs written by 24 different authors. While some names are changed or substituted with just an initial, the bulk of what is covered if factual. Most of the extracts are about the First World War, including the outbreak of the Russian Revolutions, though some, such as the best known one from Robert Baden Powell, focus on the pre-war era; one is about countering gun-running in South Africa in the 1890s and one is about spying in the USA in 1929. There is some corroboration between different accounts for example about the female doctor who controlled the German network in occupied Belgium and the British spymaster "Evelyn" based in Folkestone.

One interesting aspect is the different perspectives. The memoirs are not simply written by British spies, but Belgians, French, Germans, Russians and Americans too. There is some brief coverage of Japanese spy activity at the time of the Russo-Japanese War 1904-05, but not much. Most of the extracts are about human intelligence, but there is interesting information on the early days of radio intelligence and the use in locating submarines. Aircraft also feature and it is interesting to see how the landing of agents in occupied territory was becoming used before the examples we are familiar with from the Second World War.

Being based on real people and events, it does not baulk from simply outlining how people were executed. Many of those featured in the book end up that way, whether male or female and of all ages. Given death rate that these spy missions were carried out against the backdrop of, I suppose readers would not be sentimental. The cover simply shows a blindfolded man standing against a wall awaiting his execution. It is interesting, however, how many blunders or oversights outlined in these accounts were to be repeated in the next world war. This book would be a really useful source for anyone thinking of writing spy or adventure stories set in the first 20 years of the Twentieth Century. 

'Keynes and After' by Michael Stewart

I read the second edition of this book, published in 1972 when the post-war boom was beginning to come to an end and the concept of floating currencies was becoming widely accepted. This book is very useful in explaining why governments behaved in the way they did during the Depressions which in Britain and to a great extent in Germany, filled the 1920s and 1930s when the problem became global. As you might expect the book gives a good summary of Keynesian principles and how his followers took them beyond what Keynes himself had argued. It also addresses monetarism, which despite President Nixon's abandonment of it, was to become the more popular economic theory of the 1970s and 1980s, even if, as Dell showed in 'The Chancellors' (1997): it was never really put into full effect in Britain.

The style of the book is very much like a lecture and it makes useful of very simple examples to explain economic principles and theories. I feel it really retains value in this regard especially for people operating in an era when many monetarist assumptions have become seen as 'the truth', despite hiccoughs such as the boom of the early 1990s and the 'credit crunch'. of the late 2000s.

While retaining value, Stewart's book now seems rather naive. He states that the problem of mass unemployment, at least in industrialised countries is over. Furthermore he says more than once that UK unemployment above 2.5% would be politically unacceptable. However, by 1984 it was at 11.9%. He is accurate in his warnings of persistent balance of payment difficulties and inflation in Britain but does not see that these, rather than unemployment, would quickly come to be seen as the prime economic challenges. He does note that such unemployment would effectively smash union power and lead to a fall in wages, but did not foresee that legislation would accelerate that process.

Stewart does clearly identify the problems of regional unemployment and the need for retraining in both the UK and USA, challenges which have not been appropriately addressed in either country even 50 years on, hence the persistent unemployment from the 'mismatch' of those without work at a time of a high level of vacancies. However, he makes no reference to immigration which played such an important role in Britain and West Germany in supplying labour when demand was high in the 1950s-60s. Nor does he reference cheap oil which again aided the post-war boom while meaning that inflation, still too high in Stewart's eyes, did not reach the levels it would attain from 1973 onwards.

While of its time, this is a useful book for explaining the two main economic theories influencing governments in the late 20th Century. I found it particularly insightful for explaining why British governments were effectively intellectually paralysed to do anything to reduce the impact of the Depression.

Thursday 30 November 2023

Books I Read In November


'Pariah' by David Jackson

Though set in the early 2010s, this crime novel about a New York detective of Irish heritage, Callum Doyle really feels like the hardboiled fiction of the 1930s and 1940s, especially that sense of existential threat; alienation and indeed isolation whether in the rural or urban space. When two of the police officers working with Doyle are murdered, his precinct is both eager to catch the killer but also increasingly suspicious of the detective, especially as his female police partner at a previous precinct was also killed in a raid gone wrong. It soon becomes apparent that the murderer is looking to isolate Doyle from colleagues and even family, making it too dangerous for anyone even criminals to be in contact with him. At times there are clichéd phrases, but the novel is fast paced and there are some great scenes in which Doyle escapes what his antagonist has woven around him. If you have run out of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler novels or want that tone but in a contemporary setting, then this novel does the job well and I can understand the acclaim it has received. Occasionally it does feel like a first novel, but overall Jackson rises above his lack of experience and I imagine the subsequent books in the series will be more polished.

'Piranesi' by Susanna Clarke

Two years after Clarke's debut novel, 'Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell she was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and while a second book came out in 2006, she was unable to produce anything else until 2019 and this novel was published the following year. While it is much shorter than her debut, this book has the same almost matter-of-fact magic realism about it. The main character is called Piranesi by another and inhabits a vast building with multiple chambers filled with statues and ornate architecture. Parts of it are crumbing and there are often floods caused by various tides coming into the lower chambers. The story is told through Piranesi's journal and he details more of his environment and the remains of others he finds coming into it. Initially only one of these is alive but as the novel progresses, the character and we learn more about the situation, what the vast house is and how he came to be there. If I say much more I will spoil the story which does a great job of unfolding the details bit by bit and showing that it is magic realist rather than fantasy as it might appear (as it did to me) at the outset. The novel reminded me of early work by Christopher Fowler and novels by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (more of which below). The tighter focus of this novel means Clarke's skill in conjuring up fascinating places and intriguing people is put to great effect. I hope that she publishes more.

'The Angel's Game' by Carlos Ruiz Zafón 

This is the second book in Ruiz Zafón's tetralogy but is a prequel to 'The Shadow of the Wind' (2001) which I read last month: It is again set in Barcelona but this time in the 1920s with an epilogue in 1945. Some of the same characters appear, though younger. The story is very similar to the first book in that it has a very Gothic tone with the protagonist, David Martín, a journalist and subsequently a novelist. There are more scenes in run-down grand houses and backstreets of Barcelona, corrupt police, unrequited love and a visit to the the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. 'The Shadow of the Wind' was a kind of literary detective story with Gothic overtones. This novel centres on a Faustian pact that Martín makes with an elusive, probably supernatural French publisher and the disruption it causes to his life. However, there is also the uncovering of a complex crime focused on the grand house the author buys with profits from a series of Gothic novels, the City of the Damned sequence. As the novel comes closer to the conclusion this becomes clearer as a crime story, with that hardboiled feel, indeed reminding me a little of the movie 'Chinatown' (1974) and the pace steps up into an all-action finale with car crashes and a fight in cable car.

I almost feel that my reading this month unintentionally has been in the same vein. This novel has the kind of fated doom that characterised hardboiled novels and movies but also has aspects of the unearthly, sitting alongside the mundane which characterises magic realism. The trouble for me was that I read this too soon after 'The Shadow of the Wind' whereas originally they were published 7 years apart. Thus, I had had my fill of bleak young men and angelic young women in the shadowy decay of Barcelona. This book was some 69 pages shorter (441 as opposed to 510 in my editions) but still felt rather too long and it would have had more impact if crisper. I am certainly not rushing out to buy the remaining two books in the series but may come to them in some years' time.


'The Chancellors' by Edmund Dell

Edmund Dell was someone I used to run into quite a bit in London in the 1990s up to his death in 1999. He had served in various under-secretary of state roles in the late 1960s before becoming Minister of State for Trade and then Employment to 1970. In 1974 he was Paymaster General and then Trade Secretary until 1978. In this book, published in 1996, he reviews the 17 Chancellors of the Exchequer, the British finance ministers, 1945-90.

What is astounding, perhaps unsettling, about this book is that, throughout, Dell makes no attempt as a historian to be objective. He savages every Chancellor on a range of bases for what he sees as sustained incompetence, arrogance, naivety and simply being wrong about almost everything in how the economy was unfolding. It seems a surprise that he was ever a Labour MP let alone in a Labour government. His economic outlook as revealed through his commentary is that in some way Britain needed to shirk off any international role, that defence should have been reduced to a minimum and that it should have had a much smaller state, with very little social welfare or health service. It is a Little Englander attitude in extreme. Saying this, while Dell favours the market, he does not sit with the free marketeers of the Thatcher years seeing them as tinkering too much and deluded in their belief in monetarism or what they thought was monetarism.

Reviews quoted on the book speaking of it being 'severe' (David Butler) and 'merciless' (Peter Hennessy) are accurate. While it can be argued that the criticism is warranted, Dell goes far outside what is taken as the usual historical approach. Many of his comments, even the captions under the photos of all the different chancellors are snide, touching on the juvenile. He occasionally yields a little for Dennis Healey and Nigel Lawson, but generally this book is filled with attack after attack on the men it focuses upon, sometimes descending well away from academic analysis.

Dell did not come across in this way when met in person and it seems apparent he had bottled up a lot of vitriol that he felt compelled to shoot out in this book. I am surprised the editors let him get away with this, especially the stuff which would be embarrassing reading in an 'A' Level essay. I suppose his standing, as seems to be the case with some established historians, made him immune from being edited.

The book does explain the complexities of the first 45 post-war years of the British economy clearly and it has a value in that. However, never have I read a history book which is effectively a personal rant against a string of people. If anything this should have rather appeared as an autobiography rather than masquerading as a genuine history book.

Tuesday 31 October 2023

Books I Read/Listened To In October


'The Shadow of the Wind' by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

This is the first part of Ruiz Zafón's renowned tetralogy. It is set in Barcelona, 1945-56. It is a little magic realism, with most elements quite realistic, if Gothic in tone. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books which the protagonist is taken to as a boy and is the home to books that would otherwise be lost has a fantastical element. However, other aspects such as the role of the secret police under the Francoist regime, established right across Spain in 1939, is realistic. Daniel is allowed to pick one book from the cemetery and selects 'The Shadow of the Wind' by Julian Carax an unsuccessful published author from Barcelona who spent much of his life in the inter-war years in Paris. Daniel sets out to discover the story of Carax, especially his subsequent death in Barcelona, and those who knew him that remain. This involves a lot of investigating among deserted buildings of the city and avoiding various nasty characters including the man intent on burning all Carax's work. It is also a coming of age story and Daniel's challenges with the young women he falls for, in part mirror Carax's own.

This book has been immensely successful. It was published in 2001 and translated into English in 2004. I am not sure why I had not come across it before, though possibly as given my reading patterns I typically reach books some 15-20 years after they have been successful and they are common in charity shops. I was interested in the setting, having read quite a lot on the Spanish Civil War, but much less on the period afterwards. The Gothic atmosphere is well rendered. The investigation and the sense of jeopardy were handled effectively. I did feel that it went too far in trying to be twisty in its narrative and its revelations and that my patience with how many times it might loop around or parallels be drawn, was probably exhausted by the three-quarter mark, though I continued to the end. Perhaps the petty, and at times violent, nastiness of characters especially towards their children, becomes tiresome after a while.

I have the second book, in the sequence, 'The Angel's Game' (2008) which is a prequel to read. While it was a labour to finish the first book, I did admire the imagination of the author and his portrayal of the settings so will not abandon reading the second one in due course.

'A Question of Blood' by Ian Rankin

I actually listened to the audio book version of this back in August 2018: Interestingly, this time round, reading it, I felt that it was actually tighter than I felt back then listening to it. There is some travelling about, but compared to some of Rankin's books I have read in recent months, this felt to be necessary. The fact that Rebus and DS Clarke work together rather than separately for much of the book, may be one reason why aspects do not feel superfluous. The story does move on briskly and as I noted before, not being a standard murder mystery in that the killer is known from the outset, does not undermine the investigation and it is interesting that some of the 'red herrings' are put in intentionally by people working to their own agendas. Thus, overall, I was glad I came back to this book as I was much more satisfied with reading this particular entry in the series, the 14th, then I was listening to it five years ago.

'Breakfast in the Ruins' by Michael Moorcock

While I have read a lot of Michael Moorcock books down the years, this was one, published in 1971, that I had not come across before. It is a short novel (174 pages in my edition) which see the protagonist Karl Glogauer dropping into various versions of himself, usually as a boy in various locations from 1871 to 1990. He is projected into these roles, it appears, through having homosexual sex with an unnamed Nigerian man who he meets in the roof garden cafe of the Derry & Tom's department store, a location regularly turning up in many of Moorcock's books.

Aside from the mode of 'transport' and a vignette set in 1990, there is not much science fiction or fantasy, rather they are quick portrayals of different historical settings including Paris under the Commune, 19th Century Brunswick, Capetown, Havana at the time of the Spanish-American War, the east end of London,  (German) Alsace during the First World War, Kiev during the Russian Civil War (a popular context for Moorcock), New York at the time of Wall Street Crash, Shanghai during the 28th January Incident of 1932 (rather than the Japanese invasion of 1937), Berlin in 1935, Auschwitz in 1944, Tel Aviv in 1947 at the end of British mandate, Budapest in 1956, Kenya in 1959 during the Mau Mau Emergency, with US troops in Vietnam in 1968 and the west end of London (notably Ladbroke Grove another venue Moorcock likes to use) with a prediction of rioting and unemployment in the 1980s which was a reasonably accurate prediction. As you can tell all the settings are grim; often violent.

Also in common with his style, Moorcock mixes in excerpts from newspapers and non-fiction books of various periods. He also presents a moral dilemma at the end of each chapter. In many ways he was the precursor of a lot of what goes on in terms of social media these days. At the time the book must have appeared like a lot of his work, as a challenging text in terms of the incidents it focused on, its very format and the engagement with topics such as homosexuality and abuse. Now such are commonplace features on TV and in books thought non-linear, multi-perspective structures are unpopular with readers even if they do feature in movies and TV series. Consequently what a reader in 2023 is likely to pick up on is the quality of the descriptions of the contexts and in one case quite an engaging short story. Aside from that, it does feel at times as if Moorcock was showing off his ability to be non-traditional in his approach which would have jarred/challenged readers in 1971 much, much more than it does 52 years later.

'Walking on Glass' by Iain Banks

I believed that I had not read this book, though given I get through about 50 per year, perhaps it is to be expected that I forget some from a decade or two ago. This was published in 1985 so I would have had ample time to read it in the past 38 years. It was not as if I was entirely familiar with the book and I did not know the ending. It consists of three strands that we move between in turn. Two of them are about men living in London in 1983/84: Graham Park, an art student and Steven Grout, a man who maybe neuro-diverse or mentally disabled. For much of the novel we see them moving around on a particular day, one in which Graham is going to visit a woman called Sara who he is in love with but has been rather toying with his affections and Steven loses his job as a roadworker. I did not recall either of these stories. 

I did recall the third strand which features a man called Quiss and a woman called Ajayi who come from opposing sides of a war on a different planet or time. They are confined to a vast castle in a bleak landscape and have to play out almost impossible games such as one-dimensional chess, open-plan Go, spotless dominoes, Chinese Scrabble and Tunnel. Working out how to play and completing a game allows them one chance to answer the riddle and be released from the castle. In the depths of the castle are rooms in which other prisoners can insert themselves into the lives of others as a distraction from their imprisonment.

This was Banks's second 'contemporary' book and like 'The Wasp Factory' (1984) combines the mundane with the rather outré aspects. It also points to his other stream of writing as Iain M. Banks, as a science fiction author. Overall the book, rather like its predecessor, shows different personal Hells. It shows how we can construct or at least contribute to constructing contexts which distress us mentally and then fall victim to these; often unable to break out of them even if in (large) part we have built them up in the first place. This does say something about neuro-diversity and mental health, explored less sensitively in the 1980s than now. Unfortunately Banks's 'solution' seems to be simply to seek oblivion, whether that is through self-destruction, suffering a severe injury or simply abandoning even our best work. Added to that it makes a strong message that we should never hope and ultimately the nastiest people in our world will always come out best off.

While it might not be perceived this way, as with 'The Wasp Factory' this novel is effectively a low-key horror story and should be approached in that way. It is an unhelpful musing on the mental worlds we construct and its overall message is that anyone finding themselves in such situations should simply give up, whether on their efforts or indeed life itself. As you can imagine, I did not enjoy this book. It is engaging as it goes along but in all three strands ends up being utterly bleak.


'The Weimar Republic' by Eberhard Kolb

This was a good book to read after Wehler's 'The German Empire' (1985) which I read in August: Like Wehler, Kolb provides a brisk but focused analysis of the next period in German history, which eschews being dogmatic down any of the lines which became very ensconced in German history in the 1960s-80s. The first part of the book is an account, which really cuts through the confusion and draws attention to aspects which are overlooked. He makes the notable point that the state's democracy had died by 1930, almost three years before Hitler came to power. Kolb dismisses many of the 'easy' answers that have been put forward for the failure of the Weimar Republic and indeed misconceptions, perhaps even myths, that for so long persisted, regarding the rise of the Nazis. The second half of the book looks at research into different themes of the period as it was when this edition, the first in English was published in 1988. The bibliography was updated from the German first edition four years earlier; there is a 2004 edition in English available too. Thus, this book provides a valuable insight into a period of history which retains interest (e.g. 'Babylon Berlin' TV series, which began in 2017 is still running with a 5th season planned) and a good counter to many of the lazy answers that people continue to wheel out about how the republic fell.

Audio Books

'Prince' by Rory Clements; read by Peter Wickham

Set in 1593, this is the third in Clements's series of spy thrillers featuring John Shakespeare, brother to the more famous William. It is very well done with aspects of what you might expect from a modern spy thriller but clearly set in the late Elizabethan period with rich descriptions of all the sights, sounds and smells of the time. Shakespeare works for Robert Cecil, effectively spymaster for Elizabeth I in the last decade or so of her reign. While his father Cecil acted as her Secretary of State, 1590-96, Robert despite being disabled, carried out a growing part of his work before taking on the position 1596-1612.

John is initially set to investigate terrorist incidents using gunpowder against Dutch refugees from the Eighty Years War who have settled in London. There is much tension around these immigrants though it is soon apparent it is being exploited for a range of purposes. John is later sent to find out about the possibility of an unknown Catholic child of Mary, Queen of Scots who it is believed the Spanish fighting against the Dutch and hostile to Britain, are aiming to set on the Scottish and perhaps the English throne too. Between them John and his assistant Boltfoot Cooper investigate around London and especially into Essex for the conspirators.

Clements handles the story well. There is rivalry between John and his fellow agents which adds interesting points of tension and dynamics to the plot. Clements does not hold off from brutality of the times, with regular reference to tortures and violence even to

 John's loved ones. There are vain people and brutal people involved, so the jeopardy feels genuine and there are blind alleys which John goes down. He is capable but not all-seeing, which allows us to feel an affinity with him. Some of the conspirators are rather larger than life, but throughout Clements does ground them with genuine motives and behaviours appropriate for the late 16th Century. There is an epic climax which is built up to well and does not feel ahistorical.

Overall, there is a lot going on in this book, but it maintained my interest without losing me, right throughout. It runs to almost 13 hours on audio, unabridged. Wickham is called on to do a lot of voices from France, Spain, Scotland and the Netherlands, and most of these are handled well, including the female voices. The only gripe is one of his Dutchmen sounds more Polish, though that only brought home how many parallels there can be felt to be between xenophobia of the the Englands of both Queens Elizabeth. This is part of an 8-book series and I would certainly buy more that I come across whether printed or in audio format.

'End in Tears' by Ruth Rendell; read by Christopher Ravenscroft

I have never read any of Ruth Rendell's novels, though I have seen TV dramatisations of 'A Fatal Inversion' (1987; broadcast on TV 1992) and 'Gallowglass' (1990; broadcast 1992) novels she wrote under the pseudonym Barbara Vine. This novel is the 20th in the Chief Inspector Wexford series and was published in 2005, so after the 48-episode 'The Ruth Rendell Mysteries' TV series (broadcast 1987-2000), which I never saw but was aware on.

The novel is a classic contemporary-set British police procedural novel set in Sussex. A killing of a woman by a lump of concrete being dropped on the car she was travelling in is soon followed by the murder with a brick of a young single mother. This brings Wexford into a complex investigation despite the small range of suspects and it is soon tied up with inheritance, surrogacy and the guardianship of children, with echoes in Wexford's own life. Aside from fewer people having internet access and a lingering discomfort over homosexuality, this book could be set now and Rendell does well in combining modern concerns with a classic crime genre with some tropes, notably the brothers, that would have fitted in earlier decades. It jogs along quite well and the conclusion comes across as believable though perhaps unexpected.

Ravenscroft does reasonably well with the voices, especially as there are a lot of women of differing ages to cover. His Wexford ironically is perhaps his weakest voice and I think this is because he was seeking to emulate the actor George Baker's portrayal of Wexford in the long-running TV series, but at times the deep West County accent wobbles. It would probably have been better for him to deliver his own take on the character's voice.

'Tomorrow Never Dies' by Raymond Benson; read by Simon Vane

As regular readers of this blog will know about five years ago I listened to all of the original Ian Fleming James Bond books in audio format. Since I read 'James Bond, The Spy Who Loved Me' (1979) by Christopher Wood, when it came out, I have not read any of the novelisations of the movies until I came across this one. Apparently it is based on an unused version of the movie script. However, in common with what I understand is usual with these novelisations, coming to the book does add quite a lot to the movie. There are back stories to Elliot Carver, Paris, Mr. Stamper and so on which develop these characters. In particular through showing their flaws and their physical traits, the characters especially of Carver and Stamper that we see in the movie, make more sense. There is a whole extra character, a non-binary heir to the Chinese throne who does not even turn up in the movie.

Wai Lin gets more detail too and we see 'behind the scenes' before she encounters Bond. She is, however, portrayed as being 28 (which does seem young to be a Colonel in the Chinese Ministry of State Security) and petite whereas Michelle Yeoh who portrayed her in the movie was 35 at the time and 1.63m (5'4") but shot so she looks little shorter than Pierce Brosnan at 1.86m.

The action scenes are well handled, influenced by the movie, clearly, though in some cases much more practically portrayed and factors such as the need for decompression when coming up from the sunk ship are addressed rather than skipped over as in the movie. Bond also has to use more initiative when aboard the stealth ship than being fully kitted out as he is in the movie. Rather scary is a scene which does not feature in the movie in which Carver outlines the wars he intends to start in the coming years, including a vicious Arab-Israeli conflict, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and an American civil war. Benson, or whoever wrote the script back in 1997, had pretty decent insight into the likely conflicts of a quarter of a century into the future.

Simon Vane does well on the accents, just avoiding sounding too stereotypical with the German and Chinese ones. He is clearly influenced by the movie portrayals and captures Jonathan Pryce's Carver well and indeed even Judi Dench's M decently. I would certainly be interested to see other novelisations of the movies though this is rated to be one of the best. The two I have read/heard do add depth to what is shown in the movies; the background stories and the grittier elements do feel to bring them closer to the Fleming books than mainstream movies probably permit.

'A Murder of Quality' by John Le Carré [David Cornwell]; read by John Le Carré

I read the novel of this some time in the past but had forgotten the plot. It is a murder mystery set at a public school. Le Carré was educated at Sherbourne and taught at Eton. Like George Smiley, the protagonist of the novel, Le Carré had been a spy working for both MI5 and MI6 at different times before becoming a novelist. This novel is set in the 1950s with the overhang of the war not too distant. However, a lot of the attitudes and behaviour shown would be no different if you set it, as many authors do, in a British public school of the 21st Century. I suppose this makes it ironically more accessible to readers (even though only a small minority would ever attend such as school) than if it had been set in a grammar school or a secondary modern school of the time.

The wife of schoolmaster is beaten to death with a coaxial cable. Thus reminding us though the context of the public school is a supposedly genteel setting, in fact the brutality of the war and the cheapness of life continued to impact on the attitudes of many in the following years - you sometimes often spot this in Agatha Christie novels of the time and I instantly think of 'A Murder Is Announced' (1950). This novel has a similar element in that Smiley is drawn in after the victim has sent a message predicting her murder.

The novel is brisk but conjures up a range of characters in this constrained setting, which perhaps while they have become stereotypes in the years since, seem to be nuanced when portrayed by Le Carré. He is particularly adept at showing us characters and then completely undermining our perception of them. Some readers might be riled by this, but the author does remind us that even his protagonist's view of people may be far from perfect and especially coming fresh to the locus, largely judges them through what people say about them.

I can see why this novel has retained its appeal as it is almost an exemplar of writing a 20th Century English murder mystery and you feel that Le Carré did it to put himself into that context and show what he could do in that genre rather than spy fiction. It is not common to have the author read their book on audio. This is only the third book I have listened to where that has been the case. It does take Le Carré a little time to get into his performance, perhaps because it was not something he did habitually. However, he is soon well underway and coming from the class and background he is portraying he proves very capable of portraying characters of both genders from that context well. At just 2 hours 30 minutes in total, this is certainly one to listen to (or indeed read) if you have exhausted your collection of Christie, Marsh and Sayers, but want something clever set in a context they would recognise.

Saturday 30 September 2023

Books I Read/Listened To In September


'Resurrection Men' by Ian Rankin

This is the thirteenth book in the Rebus series and was prize winning. Unlike some of the recent preceding ones, this novel has energy. Rebus is sent back to a training college but is working undercover to find out about corrupt police officers. There is an air of uncertainty especially as the case the retrainees are given to work on is one Rebus knows and her does not know if he is as much under suspicion as the men they are working with. In parallel then overlapping, is the case handled by DS Siobhan Clarke. While not named on the covers in many of these stories she is as much a protagonist as Rebus himself. Rebus is still in his relationship with a curator, though a night-time encounter with her seems rather too convenient to be believable. There is quite a lot of tracking back and forth between the college and Edinburgh and Glasgow. Crime boss Big Ger Cafferty appears yet again though some of the focus is on one of his lieutenants. It gets a bit tiresome that he keeps on turning up. However, this novel is decent in terms of the doubts and self-reflection of Rebus and Clarke and how the different threads of the various stories come together.

'Fool's Errand' by Robin Hobb

This is the first of the Tawny Man Trilogy set in the same world as Hobb's Farseer Trilogy, the first book of which I read some while back: Indeed its protagonist is the man who was known as Fitz in that series, but 15 years later when, having renamed himself Tom after all the dramatic adventures of the previous books, is now living a bucolic life with his adopted son and the wolf he is bound to. Hobb's world has two kinds of magic that are genetic inheritances but can be accentuated through training. The Wit allows someone to bind with an animal and communicate with them telepathically. If not handled properly the person can lose themselves in the animal's identity. At the time of this book, the Witted are being persecuted and horribly executed. The other is the Skill which is another form of telepathy allowing sight, i.e. being able to "farsee" and communicate over distances. Tom probably has both abilities. There are also hedge witches with the ability to make charms to achieve low-level magic which actually works.

The first third of the book seems to be going nowhere. We see Tom's quite life while he is visited by various people from his past who know more or less about his history. Most important is the Fool of the title, who had that role at court, but has now reinvented himself as Lord Golden (many nobles names are characteristics such as King Shrewd and Prince Dutiful). He is a kind of alien with unknown abilities but probably a recurring role as a prophet who needs a catalyst in the form of Tom. This section of the novel is effectively a huge recap of the entire Farseer Trilogy which might be a bit tiresome if you have read it, but does mean if you are new from Hobb's work you can get up to (leisurely) speed with her world. Then the rest of the book is a mission into the depths of the country to track down the heir apparent Prince Dutiful who is Witted and has been lured away by a hunting cat.

Hobb has real skill in her writing. Whereas there are some familiar tropes, she has a deftness in turning in ways you do not expect, especially in extracting her protagonists from danger in credible ways. The relationships between the main characters, including Nighteyes the wolf, are handled very well when they are faced with a range of unusual and mundane challenges. In addition to the adventuring with questing and battles, and various bits of magic, it is these relationships which really bare you on in the story. There are no absolutes and even the 'good' characters are grumpy and flawed. I know some readers do not like protagonists who make mistakes, but I feel it means that you can feel you are alongside the characters even though they are existing in a very different world to our own. In addition, despite the fantastical setting there are parallels to our world, notably in suspicion and hostility to those who are seen as 'other' and in turn the negative integration which can make the oppressed become almost fanatical in their defence.

I do not have any more books by Hobb at the present, but if you are looking for well-written fantasy which is credible but not as bleak as grimdark, I can recommend this series.

'Mr. Commitment' by Mike Gayle

This is the second novel by Gayle. I read his first, 'My Legendary Girlfriend' (1998) back in 2016: Gayle was trumpeted as the male version of Helen Fielding in featuring in a reasonably light way novels looking at relationships in contemporary Britain (largely London). This one features Ben Duffy, known to his friends as 'Duffy' who is an unsuccessful stand-up comedian who aged 28 has been in a relationship with successful advertising executive, Mel for four years. They live at different ends of London and she asks him to move in with her and get married. Duffy spirals into lots of concerns about marriage, not really about commitment but about the trappings that come with marriage, such as consumerism and children. The novel is then a 'will they/won't they' back and forth with other options for both Duffy and Mel appearing. It is very much of the ilk of 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' (1994), though with a lot less humour.

Some reviewers feel Gayle has portrayed the male characters as stereotypically useless men. I would disagree as in fact this is one of the challenges, most of the other men in the book, seem to be fully in control of their lives and doing pretty successfully. Many of these kinds of books have a sort of 'soft' social class portrayal of a kind of middle class and people around the fringes, actually doing better than would be the case given costs and low salaries in London. Duffy flat sharing is a reasonable portrayal. Marriage itself comes over as a middle class activity and it is tightly associated with dinner parties and especially in this book visits to Ikea. This seems to be an inescapable context. Even 'Starstruck' (2021-2023) strays into this territory though it is a lot funnier. I guess this was the focus back in the 1990s and is coming around again after different portrayals like 'The Royle Family' (1998-2012) 'Gavin and Stacey' (2007-2019), and 'Two Doors Down' (2013-2023). I know I am comparing a novel to TV series but it does show how few relationship novels I read.

This was not a bad book though what it features was hardly unexpected. It would have been good to have included more humour. Possibly the best thing is it might make young men - though they are unlikely to read it - actually think beyond their immediate needs to their longer term and see that relationships can be achieved without having to buy into the whole 'kit' of middle class consumerism.

'The Montmartre Investigation' by Claude Izner [Liliane Korb and Laurence Lefèvre]

This is the third book in the Victor Legris series. Legris is a book seller living in Paris in the late 19th Century who is also an amateur detective seeking to solve local crimes before the police do. The two authors, sisters who are both Parisian booksellers, are very knowledgeable about France in the period. The book is lovingly detailed in describing all the different districts, their buildings and the residents. Though set in 1891, the fringes of the French capital do open quickly into farmland and an urban goatherd is an important character. The case starts with the murder of a schoolgirl from a boarding school close to Legris's shop which he co-runs with his aged mentor and step-father, Kenji Mori and their assistant, Joseph, an aspiring crime novelist.

A number of people are murdered through the book and Legris and Joseph, often working alone, wheedle their way into various locations to get to the bottom of these and indeed to see if there is a connection between them and what it might be. The first killing might even be a case of mistaken identity and as a result Mori's goddaughter comes to stay at the bookshop. There is a lot of following people around the streets of Paris. There is also a lot of visiting the nightclubs, notably 'Le Moulin Rouge' and 'Le Chat Noir', where the protagonists happen to run into every famous Parisian artist, writer and composer of the time, which does feel rather artificial. Legris's lover is a painter, Tasha and it is nice to see an amateur detective who is not celibate, even if his relationship is complicated. 

There is a lot of interest in this novel. The details of the settings and the people are fascinating. The murder mystery is pretty clever and not that easily to predict, but avoids deus ex machina being needed to resolve it. The prime drawbacks are that there is a lot of tramping around and the tone seems off. This may be due to it being in translation from French. Despite a series of brutal murders, starting off with a stabbed girl, the tone is persistently light. This is fuelled by quirky customers at the bookshop, Legris having women throwing themselves at him, Joseph's mother' Legris on-off relationship and Tasha's disapproval of his investigating and so on. It may have greater gravity in the original French, but in English, despite points of interest it comes off uncomfortably jarring.

'Half A King' by Joe Abercrombie

This novel is set in a different world from, 'The Blade Itself' (2006) which I read last month: This one has a more Nordic flavour and focuses on states around the so-called Sundered Sea, a roughly circular sea with rather bleak moors, forests and fens around it and various cities on its shores. It focuses on Yarkvi, the second son of the King of Gettland who was born with a withered arm with only a thumb and one finger on his hand. With his father and elder brother dead, he is called back from training as a Minister - a celibate kind of combined herbalist, diplomat, advisor, order to be king. On a revenge mission to a neighbouring state his uncle attempts to kill him and takes the throne. Yarvi survives but ends up as a galley slave, then later escapes with others from the galley to make the arduous journey back to Gettland to recover his birthright.

Though Abercrombie aimed for this to be a young adult book; a little less 'grimdark', and it is a bit shorter than 'The Blade Itself' and much shorter than later books in that series, it is still pretty much a gritty read, with lots of death and suffering along the way. The book is not high fantasy and at times if someone told you it was set in genuine Nordic history you could almost believe it, including when a One God is put in place over the 409 gods worshipped before. With uncles and a widowed mother in a Nordic realm, there are heavy overtones of 'Hamlet' (1601). The portrayals of this bleak context are well done and the action moves along briskly. The portrayal of the characters is handled well and as Abercrombie notes in an interview at the end of the edition I have the focus on one point of view throughout and a small set of characters at any one time means the character development is rich. Some might foresee the twists at the end, but I found they were well handled.

If I see more books in the series I would certainly pick them up.


'What is History?' by E.H. Carr

This is a series of four lectures that Carr gave in 1961. Despite its age it has really stood the test of time (though it does refer to all historians as 'he' and talks about the USSR) in terms of its exploration of perspectives on history. It is a short book (159 pages in my edition) however covers a whole range of issues that still need to be thought about. Examples include whether anything in history is 'inevitable' and how historians are impacted by their attitudes of their own time when looking at attitudes of the past and whether we can ever be really objective. In some ways the book comes to a proto-Post Modernist approach which was to develop in the next thirty years, emphasising the looking at context rather than insisting that our perspective is somehow greater than others without checking this. He also points out how Western-centric so much of history is in the West and how this neglects histories that in the life of humanity have had huge impacts.

Despite its age, this book is very deft and putting questions that historians especially in the period of so much dubious 'history' appearing online, need to keep asking themselves and using to check their work. If you are interested in the study of history, I feel this book remains relevant especially in what it asks.

Audio Book

'The Collectors' by David Baldacci; read by Steven Pacey

This is the second book in Baldacci's Camel Club series. I listened to the third book back in 2020: It is typical of many of the CD audio books that seem to turn up in charity shops. The 'Camel Club' is a collection of misfit middle-aged and elderly men with various backgrounds largely in intelligence or the military who get wrapped up in conspiracies and solving crimes, led by Oliver Stone a former CIA assassin who now lives and tends a cemetery. In this one the gang investigate the killing of a librarian at the Library of Congress where one of them works and the assassination of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. There is a parallel story about a con artist and her gang ripping off an Atlantic City gangster, which overlaps with the main story as she was the former wife of the librarian.

There is a lot of chasing around Washington DC but the solution of what is going on is reasonably well handled.  Some of the technology, especially used in the con, seems dated, even for 2006 when the book came out. Unlike 'Stone Cold' (2007) which I listened to back in 2020, the language is a bit less tough-guy throughout and it is more a gang of quirky sort-of amateurs solving what is going on which turns out to be spying and treason.

Pacey does well with a range of distinctive American voices and is not bad with the few female voices that appear. This is not the sort of book that I would have gone out and bought but it is fine enough for listening to while commuting.