Saturday, 27 November 2010

"The Last Enemy" by Grace Brophy

Apologies for the lack of posts over the last couple of weeks. This has been caused partly by my other life intruding (chairing a conference in Paris and then teaching an MBA module at Cass Business School) and also because I have rather unwisely agreed a deadline of mid-January for delivery of the manuscript of my next book.

I have also been reading (and eking out to make it last as long as possible) Peacemakers by Margaret MacMillan, which is the quite the best book I have read for a very long time.

However, revenons a nos moutons, and fiction in the shape of The Last Enemy. An unfortunate choice of title, since one thinks instantly of the immortal Richard Hillary book, and I seem to remember at least two others as well, but this is the only unfortunate thing about this book. Well written and well crafted, it is a murder mystery set in Italy and has inevitably prompted comparison with Donna Leon, though I am not sure why. Stylistically it reminded me more of Camilleri, or even Mankell.

Without wishing to give away anything about the plot, I thought the denouement a little unsatisfying and contrived. This is not your traditional detective story, where carefully scattered clues allow you to work out the solution for yourself, but a policier in which a sudden truth becomes known. However, the characterisation and overall plot more than makes up for this. Intriguingly, it leaves various possible romantic entanglements signposted but unresolved, which hopefully means this will be the first of a series. I hope so - I really enjoyed it.

Friday, 5 November 2010

"The Listening Eye" by Patricia Wentworth

Patricia Wentworth was a Golden Age detective writer who should be reckoned the equal of Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L. Sayers. Why is it that the great Golden Age writers were all women? She lived a long life (1878-1961) and was a prolific writer. Her books, which stretch to over two pages of Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, were published at roughly two a year between 1910 and 1961.

The Listening Eye dates from 1957, though it still has a "between the wars" feel to it, with its chaste romances, country house weekends, servants, boarding houses, settlements and allowances. It features Wentworth's lady detective Miss Silver, who is inevitably compared to Christie's Miss Marple. That Christie should apparently have stood the test of time far better is hard to understand from a purely literary point of view. Wentworth's writing is at least as good, and Miss Silver is a genuine semi-professional detective as opposed to Miss Marples, who is essentially a glorified small town gossip. It seems largely due to the fact that Christie has been sold hard (done to death?) by film and television whereas Wentworth has not.

I had quibbles with this book. It is not a genuine detective story in the sense of clues being laid out which, if properly considered, can bring one to a realisation of the nature of the crime and the murderer's identity. Although we are privy to Miss Silver's thinking, at least one of her hunches turns out to have been wrong. However, the writing and the characterisation more than makes up for this. The characters are unusually three-dimensional for what is a standard detective story, and the prose is well-crafted.

Fortunately, I have read very few of Wentworth's books, and my local library is well stocked with them ...

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Two slightly off-topic recommendations

Both these book recommendations are off-topic, falling neither within the broad (fiction) nor narrow (unjustly neglected English language novelists) scope of this blog. However, that will hopefully increase rather than diminsh the credibility of my views!

Cloud Road is a piece of travel writing by Jehn Harrison set in South America. Harrison takes about two years to do both desk and on-the-spot reserach for his books, and it shows. It also helps that he is a very fine writer.

Angels, Dragons and Vultures by Simon Acland (whose historical novel, The Waste Land, is reviewed on this blog) is a first hand account of venture capital and the entrepreneurial experience which is not only hugely informative but also happens to be genuinely witty.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

"Tomorrow the Apricots" by Douglas Hayes

I tracked this book down following a mention of Douglas Hayes in a biography of Julian Maclaren-Ross. Apparently "Jay" both reviewed and admired this author, though his books have long since fallen out of fashion.

First impressions were not propitious, as even back in 1973 publishers seemed to feel the need for a half-naked woman in army uniform on the cover, thus conditioning one to expect a Virgin Soldiers type of book. Anybody buying it on that supposition would however be in for an unwelcome surprise. This is a serious, well-crafted novel. Written in the first person and the dramatic present, it feels heavily auto-biographical and one can see why JMR liked Hayes so much, since it feels very much like some of his own army stories from WWII.

My only reservation about this book is its length; at 130 pages it is hardly a novel, except by the trashy, contemporary standards of some publishers who pass you off with a novella, or extended short story but still expect you to pay the price of a full length novel. Having said that, though, there is nothing wrong with brevity; after all, Heart of Darkness is one of the greatest works of fiction ever written.

I have not been able to find anything out about Hayes, who seems to have slipped into total obscurity. I do not even know if he is alive or dead, or whether he is the same Douglas Hayes who wrote the screenplay of a comedy film in 1963. Does anyone out there know any of the answers?

Monday, 1 November 2010

Booktrust Teenage Prize 2010

Congratulations to Gregory Hughes, who has today been announced as this year's winner of the Booktrust prize for teenage fiction for his novel Unhooking the Moon. The unsuccesful short-listed writers were:

The Enemy by Charlie Higson (Puffin)
Halo by Zizou Corder (Puffin)
Nobody’s Girl by Sarra Manning (Hodder Children’s Books)
Out of Shadows by Jason Wallace (Andersen Press)
Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick (Orion)