Wednesday, 14 December 2011

2011 Christmas Quiz - with answers

Having been accused by all and sundry of making these much too difficult in the past, I have decided to limit this year's to just ten questions. All of them concern writers who either write under different names, or are themselves fictional creations.

1. Who wrote well over 100 books over the course of a long career utilising both his own name and roughly 22 others, including Margeret Cooke  and J.J. Marric? A: John Creasey
2. Which well-known poet wrote detective fiction under a pseudonym, featuring the detective Nigel Strangeways? Both names, please. A: Cecil Day Lewis, Ncholas Blake
3. Who write a number of books in which a female detective writer, once herself put on trial for murder, features as one of the leading characters alongside an aristocratic companion? Author and character, please. A: Dorothy L.Sayers, Harriet Vane
4. The "Alexandria Quartet" features not one but two writers, one of whom acts as the narrator of the first volume. Who is the other, already an established novelist at the time of the story? A: Pursewarden (of course)
5. Who is the real author of "Hermione's Five o'clock chit chat" in "Lucia in London"? A: Stephen Merriall
6. By what name is Eric Blair better known? A: George Orwell
7. Which well-knonw historical writer with an active fan following used her maiden name of Halliday to write detective fiction in the 1960s and 1970s? A: Dorothy Dunnett (Halliday)
8. Under what name did Elizabeth Mackintosh write? A: Josephne Tey
9. As James Hilton he wrote "Goodbye Mr Chips" and "Lost Horizon", which became the film "Shangri-La", but what was the writer's real name? A: Glen Trevor
10. In Simon Raven's "Alms for Oblivion" series, which former army office becomes a successful novelist? A: Fielding Gray

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

"The Poisoned Chocolates Case" by Anthony Berkeley

The journalist A.B.Cox, who wrote for Punch, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times wrote both as Anthony Berkely and Francis Iles. The latter pseudonym is perhaps better known, one book inspiring the Hitchcock classic Suspicion. As Anthony Berkely, Cox wrote the Roger Sheringham stories, a classic product of the Golden Age of detective writing (Cox was born in 1893, only three years after Agatha Christie).

The Poisoned Chocolates Case has always been one of my favourite of the Sheringham books. It gently satirises the cult of the gentleman detective, each member of his "Crime Circle", a society of amateur sleuths coming up in turn with a different but perfectly plausible explanation of the same facts, and each fingering a different murderer. It is perhaps unique in the genre in featuring a gentleman detective who can actually get it wrong.

Berekeley's books are often more complex than one finds with those of his contemporaries. The morality is often far from clear-cut, with likable murderers and detestable victims. He also plays narrative tricks, such as writing what does not feel like a crime novel at all and suddenly turning it midstream into a murder story. He did incidentally have a very good knowledge of police procedures from his journalistic activities and two of his novels, The Wychford Poisoning Case and The Anatomy of Murder are based on real life cases.

Happily some of his books have now been reprinted, and are also well worth looking out for in second hand bookshops. The Silk Stocking Murders and Murder in the Basement are also on my bookshelves and can be strongly recommended.

Friday, 18 November 2011

"The Boarding House" by William Trevor

William Trevor was born an Irishman, though he has ended up living in Devon. He remains largely unknown to many, despite having won the Whitbread Prize three times and having been nominated for the Booker no less  than five times.

The Boarding House comes as part of a trilogy published by Penguin as Three Early Novels. The others, incidentally, are The Old Boys and The Love Department, but this was my favourite of the three.

The plot is simple. An eccentric old gentleman who owns a boarding house dies, and leaves it to two of the occupants, who hate each other but are now forced to work together. The former owner saw the house not so much as a business but as a zoo, collecting specific specimens of humanity. All have their quirks and sadnesses. All have by some standard or other, failed in life, and are now drifting along in this equivalent of a ship's life-boat.

Trevors' style is almost surreal, particularly his conversation, which at first sounds heavily contrived . It has almost the quality of what we wished we had had the presence of mind to say at the time, rather than what we actually did. This comes across even more strongly in The Old Boys in which a married couple converse as if writing letters to each other. However, while strange initially, this actually grows on you, and certainly it acts as a boost to characterisation. These are, for the most part, quite strange people, and the reader can almost feel as if they are undergoing a voyeuristic experience. Somehow we always seem to end up knowing more about people than we really want to.

Trevor has that indispensable quality of a great novelist, his own voice. He is genuinely "different". He also happens to write very well. So well, in fact, that it must be questionable whether these books from the early 1960s would find a publisher today.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

"Fortune's Spear" by Martin Vander Weyer

The history of finance is, alas, replete with incidents of fraud, many of which figure prominently in English literature. One of the best known is probably the episode concerning the (fictional) Providential Reassurance which appears in The White Monkey, part of Galsworthy's series of novels which later became known as The Forsythe Saga. Readers may remember that Soames Forsythe becomes a non-executive director, only to discover grave financial irregularities committed by the general manager, who then flees abroad to escape justice and his creditors.

What is not generally realised is that Galsworthy based his story almost verbatim on the the factual fate a couple of years previously of the City Equitable and its general manager, Gerard Bevan. Literally only the names have been changed.

Fortune's Spear tells Bevan's story. In truth it is not an particularly exceptional one until the financial difficulties begin. Bevan was not a flamboyant, full-on conman like Horatio Bottomley (who ended up as a fellow convict in Maidstone prison) who ran elaborate schemes to raise money from the public, bought and sold newspapers and magazines, drank a pint of champagne every morning for elevenses, was an MP and was even talked about (briefly and chiefly by himself) as a possible Prime Minister. He was one of those low profile figures who beavers away, seemingly efficiently but unremarkably, until one day it emerges that it was all based on smoke and mirrors.

There are inevitable comparisons with Nick Leeson, and the author is not afraid to draw these expressly while seeking out Bevan's motivation for acting as he did. Like Leeson, he went on the run, though one feels with Leeson this was the equivalent of a panicked child hiding behind the sofa, whereas with Bevan it was allegedly an attempt to find eventual sanctuary in South America.

This is a well researched and well written book which will be of interest to anyone with even a passing interest in finance. Distressingly, some of the issues which it raises are still with us. Here, as with Enron, the auditors failed to look far enough behind the bald balance sheet numbers. Here, as with Maxwell, corporate governance entirely failed to control, or even detect, the actions of a dominant rogue director. Here. as with many prosecutions launched by the hapless SFO, people who seem to have been almost as culpable as Bevan were not convicted, and were allowed to go unpunished except by the collateral damage to their reputations.

This is essentially a human story, including Bevan's relationships with his somewhat glacial wife, and with his long term mistress who ended up looking after him after his release from prison. Actually the author misses a trick here, as an interesting parallel might have been drawn with John Stonehouse. However, he scores many points elsewhere. For example, one of Bevan's daughters married a self-styled major from the 12th Lancers who turned out to have been a dishonourably discharged trooper from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Evidence surely that daughters really do marry their fathers.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

"Cricket at the Crossroads"

Click here for a Guardian / Observer review of "Cricket at the Crossroads".

Thursday, 29 September 2011

New Kindle

In response to Amazon's ad campaign, I have revisited the possibility of buying a Kindle, but just cannot see what may be in it for me. I like the basic idea, since carrying heavy books on a trip is a constant issue for me, but the Kindle versions seem to be more or less the same price as a proper book, whereas surely they should be much cheaper, and there are some very surprising omissions from the list of available books.

To name but three examples, there is no Patrick O'Brian, no Lawrence Durrell and no Margery Allingham. I looked no further!

Monday, 26 September 2011

Philippa Gregory

I have recently been sent two Philippa Gregory books by her publishers (thank you, Simon and Schuster): The Lady of the Rivers and The Women of the Cousins' War. Incidentally, I should probably state something of a personal interest here, since this is very much my period of history and covers part of of the proposed third volume of my own trilogy on the Plantagenets. 

The former is one of Gregory's excellent historical novels and features as its heroine not Elizabeth Woodville but her mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, about whom I knew relatively little apart from the fact that she was Elizabeth's mother, and was originally married to John, Duke of Bedford, younger brother of HenryV and therefore much older than Jacquetta. Gregory builds a wonderful story around Jacquetta and the various intrigues at court. I'm not sure to what extent any of this is supported by direct evidence but, hey, this is fiction and very good fiction it is too. Anybody who likes historical fiction will love this book.

The latter features three biographies, co-authored with David Baldwin and Michael Jones. Jacquetta and Elizabeth, but also the redoubtable Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor. I really enjoyed this too. To be honest I did not learn much that I did not already know about Elizabeth, having read fairly extensively about her already, but I have never really considered the historical narrative from the viewpoint of either of the other two women, and was genuinely enlightened by reading as to the roles which they played. Thank you again to Simon and Schuster for being prepared to publish a work like this which is genuinely important but, alas, likely to appeal to a fairly limited audience.

I thoroughly recommend both these books.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Croatia - best avoided

In times of yore the Croatians were feared pirates, darting out from behind the many islands which line the coast of Dalmatia to snap up unsuspecting merchantmen and sell their unfortunate occupants into slavery. More recently, they have hung up their cutlasses and have taken to onshore piracy instead, which is just as lucrative but far less strenuous. Having set up hotels, cafes and restaurants they now charge exorbitant prices without offering any comparable quality in return.

As you can see, I am just returned from holiday, which will hopefully explain the recent blog silence. Special mentions go to the Arsenal restaurant in Dubrovnik, which served me frozen fish carpaccio; not just carpaccio which had been frozen, which would have been bad enough, but carpaccio which was still frozen. The Bistro Teatar, also in Dubrovnik, for ripping us off for an orange juice and a small, gassy local beer. The Toranj restaurant in Cavtat, which served a bottle of rose which tasted like dry sherry and then refused to admit there was anything wrong with it.

I would strongly suggest that anyone considering holidaying in Croatia think again. This is a country which cuisine seems to have passed by (we had to complain about something every single meal). It is hugely crowded, even out of season, and the Croatians seem to be intent solely on gouging as much money out of the unfortunate tourists as they can. I have been to Italy many.many times and regardless of what quality of package I have chosen I have always felt I was getting value for money (sole exception perhaps restaurants in Venice), but that certainly wasn't the case this time.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Sad Day

I am finally getting around to rationalising my 1,700 or so books, though will be using a highly arcane system which chiefly involves just moving them from one pile to another.

Sadly I have jsut had to throw out all my Hardy and Trollope, all of which were paperbacks from my schooldays and were literally crumbling away. After several false starts I did finally make it to the recycling bin and bid them farewell.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Two new books

Rather overdoing things this month as I have two new books which are by coincidence both being published in September.

No Fear Finance, published by Kogan Page, is a non-threatening and (so far as possible) non-mathematical approach to learning about finance and investment, designed especially for those with no quantitative skills or background. It is believed to be totally unique. No such other "alternative" finance book exists.

Cricket at the Crossroads, published by Elliott and Thompson, sets the happenings of Test cricket from 1967 to 1977 against the backdrop of social change, and particularly class, colour and commercialism.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

"The Swoop" by P.G. Wodehouse (note correct use of apostrophe)

I blogged recently about The Riddle of the Sands, Erskine Childers's attempt to awaken the British people to the threat of unexpected invasion by those villainous huns, a work for which the British government was so grateful that they subsequently executed him. I think I mentioned that it spawned a whole genre which has subsequently become known as invasion literature, perhaps the best known of which, apart from The Riddle of the Sands was The Invasion of 1910, written ostensibly by William Le Quex, but with Lord Roberts ("Bobs") as an uncredited co-author and Lord Northcliffe as a financial backer.

It is probably this book which Michael Palin set out to spoof in his Ripping Yarns series in the episode entitled Whinfrey's Last Case in which he has a whole Cornish fishing village populated by German soldiers intent on starting the First World War two years early, and the British army gravely incapacitated by a lack of key munitions such as spoons and trestle tables.

However, this set me thinking about a much earlier spoof, written by P.G. Wodehouse, called The Swoop, or How Clarence Saved England which sees England invaded secretly by nine different foreign armies simultaneously (Wodehouse has the news reported thus: Surrey 147 for 8. German Army landed in Essex this afternoon). Trusty Clarence saves England armed only with a hockey stick, dressed in a Baden-Powell outfit and assisted by boy scouts who limber up for the fray by practising morris dancing. Questions are naturally asked in Parliament. One MP asks why, since the Government has already let so many undesirable aliens into the country, a few more really make that much difference.

This early Wodehouse work is much neglected. Do find and read it if you can.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

"The Riddle of the Sands" by Erskine Childers

Alas, The Riddle of the Sands comes across as rather dated today, reading for all the world like John Buchan or Dornford Yates. Yet it was one of the most influential works of fiction ever published, fuelling public support in Britain for the Great Naval Race which preceded the First World War.

Our two plucky lads Carruthers and Davies take their yacht around the sandbanks of Friesland on a sailing holiday, only to discover dastardly prepations on the part of "a foreign power" as all the best thrillers of the day used to say. The story itself is well written and there is all sorts of nautical detail to please the Arthur Ransome and Patrick O'Brien fans out there.

Childers himself came to a sticky end, of course. Always a believer is some form of Irish Home Rule, he finally converted to the cause of full independence and joined Sinn Fein. Yet he was never really accepted by his new bedfellows, being seen as a renegade Englishman. When the Treaty split Irishmen down the middle, Childers sided with the anti-treaty de Valera, was captured by forces loyal to the late Michael Collins, and executed, famously asking to shake the hand of every member of the firing squad. His young son, also called Erskine Childers, and a former pupil of my old school, became President of Ireland in 1973 shortly before his death the following year.

This is such an important book that probably everybody should read it. It is a cracking story.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

"The Mind's Eye" by Hakan Nesser

After my disappointment with Ernesto Mallo, it is heartening to be able to report a much more enjoyable experience with Hakan Nesser, suggested by the lovely people at Hampstead Books.

Chief Inspector Van Veeteren is a chess-playing, toothpick-chewing detective who hankers after leaving the police to work in a an antiquarian bookshop. Thus we encounter the familiar, but still effective sub-plot of the detective constantly trying to resign, and his chief constantly trying to thwart him.

The plot of the book is an intriguing one. A man awakens from a drunken slumber to discover his wife murdered in the bathroom. Unable to remember anything about what has happened, he is unsurprisingly the chief suspect and is promptly arrested.

Actually the denouement is signalled a long way out and so is not exactly surprising, but the book is very well written and is in my view the equal of either Nesbo or Mankell. My only complaint is that Pan have for some reason chosen to publish them in English in the wrong order, just as Viking did with Fred Vargas's Adamsberg books, which led to some very strange results. Why do publishers do this? It seems both illogical and unnecessary.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Monday, 25 July 2011

"Needle in a Haystack" by Ernesto Mallo

This is a detective story set in the closing years of Argentina's military dictatorship, with people going missing on a nightly basis, to turn up murdered and usually tortured a few nights later. There are firm guidelines in place to see that these do not get officially investigated by the police.

I was looking forward to reading this, first because it is set against such a darkly interesting dramatic backdrop, and second because Mallo comes highly recommended (or perhaps just highly publicised). This is the first in a trilogy, and the first two are apparently already being made into films.

Perhaps they will work better in that form. You see, I should divulge that this author is a member of the "punctuation doesn't matter" school. Direct speech is not even broken up by line, but all mish-mased together. It makes for a largely unreadable book, and it seems strange that Arts Council funding apparently contributed to its publication. One can't help thinking that the money would have been better spent on writers who do at least try to obey basic rules of grammar and punctuation.

Monday, 18 July 2011

"The White Cities" by Joseph Roth

I recently read Roth's Radetzky March, a lengthy but well-written family story set, as the name suggests against the decline and fall of the Hapsburg Empire. Having also read something about Roth I knew that he had worked as a journalist and was therefore interested when I saw this title in Hampstead Books. I think I have blogged about them before. They operate by way of a number of tables in the Hampstead Community Centre just by the King William IV pub, whose cellar is reputedly haunted by the ghost of the publican's wife, murdered by her husband.

Roth spent most of his adult life living in France, a country with which he fell in love at first sight, as some of the glowing prose in the book testifies, since this is a collection of articles.mostly written for German newspapers. The most beautifully written describe the small market towns of Provence.

As events moved on in Germany, Roth, as both a Jew and an intellectual, felt unable to return after 1933. He died in Paris in 1939 ironically just before the calamity which he feared came to pass. The final entries, from 1937, which he calls "the fourth year of the German apocalypse", are dark indeed. Taking delivery of the author's copies of his new book, he reflects that it is his eighteenth, that fifteen of the previous seventeen have already been forgotten, and that even the forgotten ones have been banned in Germany.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

"Cranford" by Elizabeth Gaskell

I have just been re-visiting Cranford, that Tillingesque creation of Mrs Gaskell, a community that has its own rules and customs, and whose residents are completely uninterested in anything which happens beyond its parish boundary. Like Benson's creations, Miss Matty and Miss Pole and all their friends live in a completely self-contained little ecosystem of mutual gossip, scorn and support. 

The word "support" marks an essential difference with Tilling, though. Perhaps because Benson's characters (or most of them) are fairly flat, they are left to bear their own problems, but in Cranford whenever anything really horrible happens to anyone there is a rallying round born of genuinely neighbourly feeling. A good thing too, since horrible things, particularly death, seem to occur on a regular basis. There is a lot of death in Gaskell's books, which probably does no more than mirror nineteenth century reality, when death was so much a part of everyday life.

Mrs Gaskell is not a great writer but, rather like Trollope, her male counterpart, she is a great story-teller and thus a rattling good read. Hint: read Mr Harrison's Confessions first.

Saturday, 2 July 2011

"Cards of Identity" by Nigel Dennis

Just occasionally one comes across a book which it is very difficult to categorise or describe. Cards of Identity is one such.

Nigel Dennis was born in 1912 and died in 1989. Along the way he lived in many different places, including Germany and America. He was a book critic, journalist, columnist, novelist and playwright. Cards of Identity is published by Penguin Classics as a novel, though I believe it also did well as a stage adpatation.

The plot of the book, such as it is, revolves around the summer get-together of the Identity Club and the playing out of three case studies in particular. The first is an inspired bit of nonsense of imagined ritual revolving around badgers. The second pokes fun at the rather serious business of sexology, while the third hints at dark Stalinist undercurrents within a monsatery setting. "Identity" is the key word throughout, with some people deliberately pretending to be other people (whose names they have often been given by ohers) and others apparently succumbing to some sort of hypnosis into believing that they really are other people.

Beyond saying that the book is clearly intended to be a comedy and is indeed very funny in parts, it is difficult to pin down the style. To say that it is "nonsense" prose is insufficient; it is much greater than that. A pretentious PhD student might decsribe it as deconstructionist. I will say only that it has overtones of The One Way Pendulum, The Bed Sitting Room, Beyond the Fringe, and even perhaps looks forward to Monty Python.

I am very glad to have come across this book, having previously heard nothing of either it or its author. Do try it. In in increasingly bland and anodyne world, it is overwhelmingly different.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

"From Aberystwyth With Love" by Malcolm Pryce

I find it difficult to believe that I have not blogged about Malcolm Pryce before since I have been a huge fan of his work since Aberystwyth Mon Amour came out. There are now five in the series, so there is a treat in store for you if you have not actually sampled them before.

Imagine Raymond Chandler writing about a Welsh seaside resort where the Druids are the equivalent of the Mafia, ice cream parlours may be used for money-laundering, and small town politics seeth with corruption and illicit passion. Like Jasper Fforde, Pryce has created a surreal and richly comic world which sucks you in and delights you.

Louie Knight is his equivalent of Philip Marlowe and shares many of his characteristics: struggling financially, a loner and a maverick, but with a highly developed sense of personal honour.

Most impressive of all, Pryce has managed to keep the quality consistently high and the narrative fresh as the series has progresses, something with which others, such as perhaps Evanovich, have struggled. I really enjoy these books. They are good, well-written, clever fun.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

"The Flowers of Evil" by Simon Acland

Readers will remember that I gave Simon Acland's The Waste Land a rave review; it was one of the best written, best researched pieces of historical fiction that I had seen for a long time. Well, now there is a sequel, as the final part of The Waste Land always hinted there would be, and which is facilitated by means of a very clever literary device, the nature of which I am certainly not going to disclose.

Which also makes it clightly difficult to tell you very much about Flowers of Evil without giving away any vital plot elements. Suffice it to say that it covers the period when various of the leaders of the First Crusade have split away and carved out principalities for themselves, most notably in Antioch and Edessa, amid constant manouverings and temporary alliances, with common religion not necessarily a bar to enmity, nor religious difference necessarily a bar to uniting against a comon enemy.

It is written in the same excellent style. The story moves at a cracking pace, and I was very glad to be able to take this book with me on a long plane journey, as I found it very difficult to put down, several glasses of Merlot notwithstanding. Like its predecessor, I thoroughly recommend it. Sex, violence, philosophical musings and great prose are a winning combination.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

"The Spanish Farm Trilogy" by R.H. Mottram

Mottram, like Richard Aldington (already reviewed on this blog) served in France during the First World War. These three novels, The Spanish Farm, Ninety-Four, and The Crime at Vanderlynden's were published separately but are available as an omnibus from Penguin. They were all critically acclaimed at the time, the first of them winning a major prize in 1924.

Mottram was a Norfolk man, and though he also spent some time living in Lausanne, he remained in Norfolk for most of his life, being awarded an honorary Doctorate by the UEA in 1966, five years before his death. Again like Aldington he was also a war poet, though I have not so far been able to locate any of his verse. He wrote approximately sixty books, so it is strange that he should be unrecognised today.

The trilogy is innovative in design, telling various stories which all feature around the Spanish Farm of the title, which is a battlefield landmark in Flanders. Thus there is very much a feel of different storylines featuring different characters streaming through time and swirling around this one fixed geographic point in the process.

Though these books are nearly eighty years old, they do not feel particularly dated. The prose style is probably somewhere between Maugham and Bennett, which is, after all, high praise.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

"The Tiger in the Smoke" by Margery Allingham

It remains a mystery to me how and why Agatha Christie remains in everyday view when several of her contemporaries who were in my humble opinion better writers have been consigned to the bookends of oblivion. My Christmas Quiz this year, for example, revealed the sad truth that many intelligent, well-educated people had never heard of Edmind Crispin, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh or Margery Allingham. Whisper it gently, but some had never even heard of Dorothy L. Sayers. Oh dear.

For anyone wanting to make the acquaintance of Margery Allingham, and Campion, the detective who features in most of her later works, then The Tiger in the Smoke is as good a place as any to start. In fact, it is by common consent her best book, transcending the genre of a detective story to become a full-blown thriller in the tradition of John Buchan or Eric Ambler. In fact, it is arguably even more than this. Many Allingham fans contend that it is in fact a pukka novel by virtue of its deep characterisation and fine prose style.

It is difficult to describe the plot without giving too much away. A seemingly inexplicable murder is linked to a universally feared man recently released from prison. The action revolves around the household of an eccentric clergyman, and is part love story and part feminist novel, the denouement relying heavily on the courage of the central female character acting alone.

Allingham was the professional writer non plus ultra. Both parents were writers and so were several generations of ancestors on both sides of the family. She is said to have received her first writer's fee at the age of eight for a story in a children's magazine. According to the Margery Allingham Society, she saw a detective story as a box with four sides: a murder, a mystery, an enquiry, and a conclusion with an element of satisfaction about it. Within this box she crafted roughly twenty full length whodunits as well as many short stories. Some, particularly the early ones where the Campion character is still maturing and can be frankly slightly irritating from time to time, seem a little dated and imperfect. Others, particularly this one, are masterpieces.

Friday, 6 May 2011

"Cry Havoc" by Joe Maiolo

Apologies since this post is slightly off-topic, but I must give a very honourable mention to this book, which kept me company recently on the first leg of a mammoth trip.I wouldrecommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the causes of the Second World War. Yes, I know, I too groaned "Oh no, not another one" when I picked it up,.

I thought I was something of an expert on the 1930s but this book told me a great deal I did not know, or the significance of which I had not properly grasped. Also very well written!

Friday, 29 April 2011

"The Man in the Queue" by Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, as to which much ink has been spilt on the pages of book blogs, often gets in the way of understanding that she was also a legitimate Golden Age crinme writer, though nowadays sadly neglected.

In this book her Inspector Grant, one of my favourite fictoinal detectives, faces what appears at first an intractable case. A man is found to have been fatally stabbed while in the queue for theatre tickets. The corpse held upright by the press of bodies, his killer has long since had a chance to slip away, and even the identity of the dead man is not known.

Grant is an intensely credible detective, very much an everday creation, much more of a Wycliff than, say, a Campion or even an Alleyn. Success usually comes as much from dogged police procedural work as it does from Grant's instinctive hunches which, incidentally, he freely admits are usually wrong. The French have a name for this sort of book, a policier, and Simenon's Maigret books are probably the best example.

Though this book was first written as long ago as 1929 it is remarkably undated, and I recommend a perusal of Tey's ouevre to anyone interested in the detective novel as a genre.

Incidentally, even though it is not intended to form any part of the subject of this post, I should state for the record that I personally find The Daughter of Time an excellent book, though I can think instantly of at least one book-blogger who would give me a fierce argument on this!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

"The Black Camel" by Earl Derr Biggers

Apologies for the recent lack of posts. I have been on an extended trip to the USA and the Middle East, and thereby hangs a tale, or rather a number of books.

Being a rapid and voracious reader with a bad back who is determined not to carry a heavy bag, long trips (anything more than a couple of days) present something of a problem. I have debated buying an e-reader such as a Kindle, but have so far been deterred by the fact that almost no books that I would want to have on it are currently available. Doesn't it seem even remotely strange to those who peddle these things that there should be no Patrick O'Brien, Edmund Crispin, Margery Allingham or Lawrence Durrell, for example?

Another option of course is to take a couple of books with you, read them, throw them away and buy some more. Apologies to fellow book-bloggers everywhere for even suggesting this. Yes, the idea of throwing a book away is just as abhorrent to me as it is to any of you. However, regretfully I have started trying to grit my teeth and do it, since it seems the lesser evil to writhing around on the floor unable to stand up or walk (but only just).

Looking out of my hotel room in Phoenix, having just turned the last page of the excellent Cry Havoc by Joseph Maiolo (of which more anon) the weary traveller's eye chanced upon two sights in quick succession: (1) a large Borders store across the road and (2) a closing down sale notice in its window. Closer inspection revealed that discounts of between 60% and 70% were available as the store only had about three days left to live. They were even selling off the shop fittings to local students.

Forty minutes later I staggered back to my hotel with eight books. One of them was The Black Camel by Earl Derr Biggers.

Biggers was a 1907 Harvard graduate who rather let the side down by turning to detective fiction as a way of life. He had a big break when his first published book Seven Keys to Baldpale was subsequently adapted into no less than seven different films (including Haunted Honeymoon) and a stage play by the great George M. Cohan of Yankee Doodle fame. He is though best known for his Charlie Chan mysteries. Chan became a Hollywood institution, featuring in about fifty different films from the 1920s onwards and being played by various different actors.

Chan is a complex character. He has a large and happy family but generational issues are apparent, albeit good-naturedly. His older children, for example, are growing up resolutely American, whereas Chan clings to his mother's more traditional Chinese values. As a detective, he hides a fiercely intelligent and disciplined mind under a mask of mock-humility and self-deprecation. This does not however prevent him from sarcastic asides to an ethnic Japanese assistant, who is one of von Moltke's industrious idiots.

The title of The Black Camel refers to death, and death naturally plays a part in the proceedings as a Hollywood actress visiting Hawai is found stabbed to death in a beach house. Any further description of the plot is difficult without compromising the denouement.

While I have of course seen many of the films, this is the first Charlie Chan book which I have read, and I recommend it. It is a well written story with a sympathetic central character, and has not aged in the same way that so many of its contemporaries (it was published in 1929) have done.

Another name to add to your list when browsing in book shops.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

"Serenade" by James M. Cain

Of course I have seen Double Indemnity many times, but have never read the book. The same goes for Mildred Pierce and The Postman Always Rings Twice, though by the way I recommend the 1946 version with John Garfield and Lana Turner. I was therefore intrigued to read Serenade, my first ever brush with the written word of James M. Cain, and it turned out to be a revelation.

Cain's writing style could best be described as a cross between Hemingway and Chandler, but that is not to suggest that he does not have a style of his own - far from it. He has a truly original voice which reaches out and grips you from the very first page, when he is describing himself seated in a sleazy Mexican bar.

This is a "crime story" only in the sense that a crime is indeed committed. It is actually much more of a love story, and a doomed love at that. The scope of the book is amazing. We do not find Hemingway or Chandler, no, nor even Hammett, who was a cultured man as Lillian Hellman's Pentimento attests, discussing the nature of opera, or the merits of Beethoven as a symphonic composer. Cain slips all this in amongst references to Hollywood film-making and life on the stage of the world's leading opera houses. The fact that they book both begins and ends amid rural poverty in Mexico may make this seem rather strange, but in fact it works brilliantly.

I was hugely impressed by this book, and would recommend it to anybody, no matter what their interests. Needless to say, most of his 18 books are out of print, but I will be adding Cain's name to my wish-list when visiting second hand book shops.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Now even the Daily Telegraph seems to have forgotten how to speak English

From today's Telegraph:

Doctors are ignoring the new "fit note" system designed to get sick staff back to work quicker

Thursday, 17 March 2011

"Richmal Crompton: the woman behind Just William" by Mary Cadogan

Let me confess straight away that I am a lifelong William fan, and being put onto Frost at Morning by Simon of Stuck-in-a-book had also shown me that Crompton was a serious author. Ever since then, I have looked for her books regularly whenever I am in second hand book shops.

Early on in this biography, which is clearly a labour of love, for Cadogan has also written a companion to the Wiiliam books and is also the editor of the Just William magazine, she admits that she nearly changed her mind about writing it, as she was unable to find anybody with anything to say about her subject which was not universally positive. Indeed, it seems that Richmal Crompton was genuinely a very good and nice person, despite battling against the handicap of polio. However, as Cadogan acknowledges, this does not necessarily make for interesting reading.

Perhaps because of this, she embarks upon the approach of juxtaposing extracts from the William books with similar themes in Crompton's serious books. While this is an interesting exercise, since the two are usually diametrically opposed, does it actually tell us anything about Crompton the person and, if so, which version is closer to the truth?

Books like this should never be discouraged, and I did enjoy reading it, but I came away wondering if I really understood much more about this thoroughly nice but rather enigmatic person than I had before. It was worth reading for at least two things which will stick in the memory.

First, she saw Enid Blyton, an almost direct contemporary, as a distinct competitor, remarking on one occasion when she feared she was dying "Enid Blyton, here I come". Interestingly, she regretted repeatedly that nobody had ever written a really good girls' boarding school book., at one of which she had been a teacher herself for some years Since she must have known Blyton's work, this must mean that she didn't think much of Mallory Towers et el.

Second, she seemed to have a strange premonition about when she was going to die, even though she was not ill at the time and, indeed, in the end died almost instantly from what seems to have been a not particularly severe heart attack. Contrary to her usual practice, which was to fill her diary for the new year with engagements months in advance, she refused to accept any beyond 11 January 1969, which did indeed prove to be the day she died. Spooky.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

"A Time For Scandal" by H.H. Kirst

This is becoming a familiar litany, but this book seems to have been out of print, at least in English translation, for many years. I finally got hold of all three of the trilogy (of which this is the first) second hand on the Internet.

Kirst is probably best known as the author of Night of the Generals, which was of courses made into an international film. but within Germany he is celebrated as the creator of Gunner Asch, who features in a series of humorous army tales.

A Time for Scandal is a murder mystery set within a rich and powerful industrial family riven by all the usual tensions: father hates son-in-law, daughter hates mother, mother hates father, etc. Initially a matter of mistaken identity, it soon becomes that much more is at work here.

It does read very much for what it is - a 1970's thriller - both because of its style and because of its background (the 1971 Munich Olympics), but is none the worse for that. Do give it a try should you come across it in a second hand book shop.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

"The Club of Queer Trades" by G.K. Chesterton

It is difficult today to realise just what a colossal figure Chesterton was in his time, both literally (he was six foot four and 21 stone) and figuratively, in literary society. It has been estimated that he wrote over 4,000 essays as well as hundreds of poems and short stories. In addition he was a playwright, a Catholic theologian, a social commentator, a book reviewer, a historian, and a contributor of various sections of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

He was also a considerable wit. One example, surely worthy of Groucho Marx, will suffice: "women say they don't want to be dictated to, and then become stenographers".

Yet today he is remembered largely for his Father Brown stories. A shame, since he also wrote about 80 other books, one of which, The Club of Queer Trades, dates from 1905. What a pity that we can no longer use words like "gay" and "queer" in their original sense. Both had precise meanings which are almost impossible to capture with other words. In Chesterton's time, "queer", particularly when used in the north of England, meant unusual but in a rather strange and eccentric sense, with overtones of something that might also be slightly sinister or worthy of suspicion.

The book, alas, now comes across as rather dated, but more for its subject matter than its language. To qualify for membership of the eponymous club you must have a distinct and unique calling which is a profession rather than a hobby. You must actually make your living at it. It is here that the period quality starts to creak a little in modern eyes. Would it ever really have been possible to make a living by delaying people from setting out to dinner parties so that one gentleman who had been invited could propose marriage to the hostess?

G.K. Chesterton is undoubtedly unfairly neglected today, and overdue for a revival, but perhaps this is not the book with which to do it. The Man Who Was Thursday may be a better place to start.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Back from holiday

Just back from a wonderful holiday in India, so normal service will be resumed! In the meantime a quick plug for Parisians by Graham Robb, which was one of my holiday reads. It is my favourite sort of history: all sorts of quirky facts and connections coupled with individual human stories. I never knew, for example, that both The Count of Monte Cristo and La Vie de Boheme (and thus La Boheme) were based on true stories. I particularly liked Robb's description of Paris as a city for lovers who also have jobs and families.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Another indy publisher bites the dust

Duckworth have been bought by Bloomsbury, apparently. One less independent publisher. Surprising that the Monopoly authorities are not starting to look at the world of publishing. It would be fascinating to know what percentage of the market the top two or three have between them.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Douglas Hayes

Peter Yapp writes in response to my post about Douglas Hayes:

Re your interest in Douglas Hayes - in case you haven't found out any more about him: 'Tomorrow the Apricots' is part of a - largely autobiographical? - sextet called overall, 'The History of a Selfish Man' - beginning with 'My Father in his Dizzerbell' and ending with 'Quite a Good Address.' His most famous novel, 'The Comedy Man' possibly the truest, least sentimental and funniest novel ever written about the lives of jobbing actors was filmed with Kenneth More and Angela Douglas in the cast. The film is fun, but the book is better. I too have tried to find out what became of him. A dust-jacket blurb claims that he walked out of the cast of a West End play in the mid-1950s and went to Australia, implying that most of his novels - nine altogether I think - were written while globetrotting and living out of a suitcase. I can't find out whether he is alive, but haven't yet gone to the lengths of looking up wills and death certificates. The last trace I've seen is a letter to The Times in the mid-Seventies complaining about the derisory proceeds of the public lending right and stating that he was currently working in a meat-packing factory. Abelard-Schumann who published 'Comedy Man' are no longer in business. When I made enquiries of Macmillan who published the sextet, they said they had been taken over since they published those books, and their records lost. - I hope this is useful: if you do find out more about this elusive author I'd be grateful for any information.

Anybody out there know anything more?

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Book Quiz with answers

Oh dear - nobody did very well this year. I thought I had made it easier, but it seems most of you out there disagree. However, if you take a look at the answers I think you will kick yourselves for missing most of them.

Back by popular request from last year, some more opening lines for you. Book and author, please.

1. "Was there anything quite so under-rated in this shallow, plastic, global-corporate, tall-skinny-latte, kiddy-meal-and-free-toy, united-colours-of-fuck-you-too world than a good, old-fashioned, no-frills, retail blow-job?"

"The Sacred Art of Stealing", Christopher Brookmyre

2. "ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank near the corner of Eleventh and First ..."

"American Psycho", Bret Easton Ellis

3. "The only advice I can offer, should you wake up vertiginously in a strange flat, with a thoroughly installed hangover, without any of your clothing, without any recollection of how you got there, to the police sledge-hammering down the door to the accompaniment of excited dogs, while you are surrounded by bales of lavishly-produced magazines featuring children in adult acts, the only advice I can offer is to try to be good-humoured and polite."

"The Thought Gang", Tibor Fischer

4. "When the shower of shit, which he welcomed, spattered over his chest and belly Professor Pfeidwengeler was thinking about his worst enemy, Dr. Ruth Neumark."

"Brown-out on Breadfruit Boulevard", Timothy Mo

5. "Dora Greenfield left her husband because she was afraid of him. She decided six months later to return to him for the same reason."

"The Bell", Iris Murdoch

6. "Does such a thing as 'the fatal flaw', that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life exist outside literature? I used to think it didn't. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs."

"The Secret History", Donna Tartt.

7. "The waiter, who had slipped out to make a quick telephone call, came back into the coffee room of the Goose and Gherkin wearing the starry-eyed look of a man who has just learned that he has backed a long-priced winner."

"Ring for Jeeves", P.G. Wodehouse

8. "Gerald Middleton was a man of mildly but persistently depressive temperament. Such men are not at their best at breakfast, nor is the week before Christmas their happiest time."

"Anglo-Saxon Attitudes", Angus Wilson

9. "September 3rd, 1939. The last minutes of peace ticking away. Father and I were watching Mother dig our air-raid shelter. 'She's a great little woman', said Father. 'And getting smaller all the time, I added'. Two minutes later a man called Chamberlain who did Prime Minister impressions spoke on the wireless; he said: 'As from eleven o'clock we are at war with Germany' (I loved the WE). 'War?' said Mother. 'It must have been something we said', said Father.

"Adolph Hitler: my part in his downfall", Spike Milligan

10. "Whether or no she, whom you are to forgive, if you can, did or did not belong to the Upper Ten Thousand of this our English world, I am not prepared to say with any strength of affirmation."

"Can you forgive her?", Anthony Trollope

Next, some questions concerning business and finance. In each case, supply the name of the character, the name of the book (if appropriate) and the name of the author.

11 Whose stockbroker was called Mr Mammonchance?

Lucia, E.F. Benson

12 This merchant sits at the centre of an international web of business and finance. He plots a revolt against the civil power while fathering a love-child with the narrator's girlfriend. His wife has affairs with two men who may be able to expose the plot in order to spy on them. His tongue-tied brother turns out to be a gifted orator. Their mother is a beautiful woman who is horribly disfigured by a dreadful disease.

Nessim, "Cleo" (Alexandria Quartet), Lawrence Durrell

13 This very wealthy man of leisure and refinement becomes even more wealthy as a result of shorting the market before the Wall Street Crash. Appointed a count by the Pope, he leaves his immense fortune when he dies on the Riviera to his niece, so that her husband can try to reconstruct his father's investment firm which failed during the crash.

Elliott Templeton, "The Razor's Edge", Somerset Maugham

14 The heroine rejects this man's proposal of marriage when he is rich and she is poor, but then marries him later when he is poor and she is rich, using her unexpected inheritance to re-start his mill. In the meantime she has lied to him in his capacity as investigating magistrate in a murder enquiry in order to protect the black sheep of the family, her brother, who is a deserter from the army.

John Thornton, "North and South", Elizabeth Gaskell

15 Named after his ability to conjure up his favourite breakfast right there in the dealing room, this character is one of a cast of dealers sitting high in the fog and low clouds of San Francisco. Unlike his colleagues, he succeeds in breaking out of the endless cycle of contracts and options which keep them chained to their desks but prevent them from ever actually becoming rich.

Eggs Igino, "Bombardiers", Po Bronson

16 This unfortunate young man is simultaneously sent down from university and loses his small inheritance. Impoverished, he becomes engaged to a wealthy businesswoman. However, innocent of business matters, he neglects to realise that the business in question actually consists of running brothels. As he sits down to his pre-wedding breakfast the police arrive and arrest him.

Paul Pennyfeather, "Decline and Fall", Evelyn Waugh

17 Whose long and successful career as a prosperous local merchant and civic dignitary is haunted by the guilt of having sold his wife to a stranger at a country fare as a penniless and drunk young man?

Michael Henchard, "The Mayor of Casterbridge", Thomas Hardy

18 This character loses all his money by investing it with the rogue banker Mr Merdle, and is imprisoned for debt. Ironically he has himself in the meantime restored the fortune of a man long imprisoned for debt at the same prison, having been made aware of his plight by the man's daughter. Released when his business partner's affairs prosper overseas, he marries the daughter.

Arthur Clennam, "Little Dorrit", Charles Dickens

19 One of the central characters realises that he has been used as a pawn in setting up a new company, buying lots of goods on credit, then selling them all quickly for cash and moving on without trace. The term applied to this particular type of fraud is also the title of the book.

"The Long Firm", Jake Arnott

20 This financier and man of property gets into a protracted dispute with an architect whom he has engaged to build him a house. Though ultimately successful in court, it proves a pyrrhic victory since the damages are paid for the architect by an elderly well--wisher. In what rapidly becomes a very tangled story, the architect is in love with the financier's wife, but later dies tragically in a traffic accident, distracted by hearing some dreadful news.

Soames Forsyte, "The Man of Property" (The Forsyte Saga), John Galsworthy

Having had questions about the sea and the navy last year, it seems only right to have some questions about soldiers and airmen this time round.

21 The eponymous hero of this book succeeds in fighting for the army of two different countries during the same war. He later makes an advantageous marriage, but throws away his carefully won social status in a moment of blind rage. His young son is killed in a riding accident. He later unwillingly fights a duel with his step-son.

Barry Lyndon, "The Luck of Barry Lyndon", Thackeray

22 This character eventually dies in hospital from an unspecified disease, allegedly exacerbated by a fellow officer smuggling whisky into the ward at his request. Prior to meeting his end, he fights a protracted campaign of deception and skull-duggery over an ancient portable toilet known as a thunderbox with a fire-eating senior officer who claims to be able to kill a man with a spoon.

Apthorpe, "Men at Arms" (Sword of Honour trilogy) Evelyn Waugh

23 This young militia officer tells our heroine that he has been wronged by a wealthy man who is staying in the district. She taxes him with this news, and is upset when he refuses to discuss it. When the officer later elopes with her younger sister, to the imminent ruin of her entire family, she is forced to revise her views of both men.

Mr Wickham, "Pride and Prejudice", Jane Austen

24 This young flier falls in love with a Polynesian girl, Full Moon (perhaps partly because she saves him from drowning), while loyally serving his legendary companion during some ripping adventures in the Pacific, battling an evil Corsican. His companion was unlucky in love, falling for a beautiful woman after a forced landing when his magneto shorted, only to discover subsequently that she was an enemy spy. Understandably, he was awfully cut up about it.

Ginger (Hebblewaite), "Biggles in the South Seas", Captain W.E. Johns

25 Hated by his men, this leader turns on one of them who has spoken of a "fair fight" with the words "That is a filthy, obscene, disgusting word, and I will not have it used by any man in my squadron." A consistently successful ace, he is shot down one day after realising that he has fallen in love with a nurse he met while in hospital.

Major Woolley, "Goshawk Squadron", Derek Robinson

26 A figure of fun at school, this officer rises rapidly through the ranks during wartime and subsequently becomes a Member of Parliament, a Peer of the Realm, and a University Chancellor. He falls in love with and marries a most unsuitable woman who is famously sick in a vase.

Kenneth Widmerpool, "A Dance to the Music of Time", Anthony Powell

27 A carelessly signed fuel chit blights this officer's career. He later becomes a successful novelist, fathers a child by the young wife of a hereditary aristocrat, lives with a retired high-class prostitute, and helps thwart a plot by an evil schoolmaster to possess a beautiful boy.

Fielding Gray, "Alms for Oblivion" Simon Raven

28 Having fallen out with the general whose favourite he previously was, this young Lieutenant is posted by the General in a fit of pique to command a platoon on a dangerous combat mission. Resented by the platoon sergeant, there is no happy ending.

Lieutenant Hearn, "The Naked and the Dead", Norman Mailer

29 This soldier is shell-shocked and can remember only a distant past. Returning to country house society, he is the object of two different women's attentions. Narrated by another female, who acutely observes what she sees around her. A psychiatrist helps him to face a difficult choice. Perhaps an inspiration for number 30 (below).

Chris Baldry, "The Return of the Soldier", Rebecca West

30 A working class lad who becomes an officer, but never feels accepted in the officers' mess. Shell-shocked, he is treated by a psychiatrist alongside fellow patient Siegfried Sassoon. Bisexual and promiscuous, he eventually gets engaged to a young munitions worker.

Billy Prior, The "Regeneration" Trilogy, Pat Barker

Finally, can you identify these detectives and/or their companions and associates?

31 This detective falls in love with the daughter of a duke while investigating a murder at a stately home. He is later quizzed as to his intentions by her brother, himself a celebrated sleuth.

Inspector Parker, "Clouds of Witness", Dorothy L. Sayers

32 This detective with a biblical name has a partner who does not need to eat, and who goes on to star in a non-detective role in a famous series of books by the same author.

Elijah Baley, "The Caves of Steel" and others, Isaac Asimov. Partner is R. Daneel Olivaw.

33 Despite being able to fly, this police office is captured by the villain of the piece, but manages to escape with the help of a flatulent secret weapon, and get the better of him. They later become first uneasy allies, and then friends. She does not tolerate fools gladly, and is constantly in trouble with her superiors.

Holly Short, "Artemis Fowl", Eoin Colfer

34 This detective is described as not using his own name (or title), and lives in a flat above a London police station. Blond and languid, he at one stage has a pet jackdaw. In one story his Romany connections come in useful.

Albert Campion, "The Crime at Black Dudley" et seq., Margery Allingham

35 We first make the acquaintance of this detective as he investigates the death of a young actress in an Oxford college. With everyone else convinced that she committed suicide, his main challenge is to prove that in fact any murder has been committed at all. An unusual ring worn by the woman serves as a plot device, as well as featuring in the title of the book. In this and all the books in which he goes on to feature there are numerous cultural references, which some find eclectic and entertaining, and others puzzling and pretentious.

Gervase Fen, "The Case of the Gilded Fly", Edmund Crispin

36 The blowing-up and killing of this detective is described at the beginning of the first book detailing the cases which he and his partner have solved over the years. He has a penchant for antique boiled sweets and white magic. Pipe tobacco and pints of bitter also feature heavily. His partner is elegant, charming, and a great hit with the ladies.

Arthur Bryant, "Full Dark House", Christopher Fowler

37 After a detective sergeant from Scotland Yard fails to solve the mystery of a stolen diamond, this man determines to crack the case himself. Sinister Indian jugglers lurk in the background. An evil doctor and a misappropriated trust fund also feature.

Franklin Blake, "The Moonstone", Wilkie Collins

38 This detective, created by an author who is better known in a different genre, has his office in a fashionable part of North London, and his investigations head off in directions which appear totally irrelevant to the matter in hand, running up huge expenses claims in the process. Another detective who does not use his real name, perhaps because of some scandal in his past while at university. A leather coat and a red hat make it difficult for him to blend into the background.

Dirk Gently, "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency", Douglas Adams

39 This lady detective unexpectedly acquires a fine home and a housekeeper. Fond of quoting the bible and Tennyson, she has good relations with the police, as is only to be expected since she was once the Chief Constable's governess.

Miss Silver, "The Case is Closed" et seq., Patricia Wentworth

40 We first meet this detective in a case that involves an orchid hot-house, murder, blackmail, missing persons, and an enigmatic Jewish woman in a bookstore. Claiming to be able to speak English if he needs to, he goes on to feature in several further books.

Philip Marlowe, "The Big Sleep", Raymond Chandler