Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Pursewarden's Christmas Book Quiz

Yes, it's that time of year again. As Tom Lehrer has it: "Hark the Herald tribune sings, advertising wondrous things."

Try the 2010 Book Quiz. This one is a little more wide-ranging than last year, and I'll give you one clue: this time there's no Arthur Ransome. See how many you can get. (Please don't cheat and use the internet ...)

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?"

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 ..."

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."

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."

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."

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."

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."

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."

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.

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."

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Answers by email please to guyfsATyahooDOTcoDOTuk by 5 January 2011

Sunday, 5 December 2010

"The Ministry of Fear" by Graham Greene

What a pleasure to come across a book that one has read many years ago (in the 70s in my case) and find that it really is just as wonderful as you remember it having been. Back then, of course, everybody read Greene, but he seems to have fallen out of fashion. Why is this, I wonder? Perhaps because publishing a book these days is as much about promoting the author's future books as it is about the work in question, and with a dead author of course, there can be no future works. Ditto media rights, although The End of the Affair was filmed as recently as 1999 (Greene died in 1991).

The Ministry of Fear was itself filmed in 1944, though some of the characters' names were changed for no apparent reason, and from the very first pages it has the atmosphere of the sort of wartime thriller that used to be two-a-penny (or, more accurately, two-a-shilling for those of you who remember bobs and tanners). Exactly the sort of story that could have been written by any of the screenwriters who dashed off scripts about menacing men in raincoats standing under lamp-posts, and sudden deaths in mysterious circumstances in darkened rooms.

The difference is, of course, that Greene takes this staple fare but transforms it into a serious novel, often mixing fact, perception, idea and random observation in the same paragraph. We are, we learn dealing with somehow who thinks of himself as a murderer, having been the perpetrator of a mercy killing of his dying wife. Justice has in this instance been merciful, committing him to a mental hospital for a year rather than passing a death sentence. This basic truth about the central character swirls around the book from then onwards, even being present in the final scene when, we learn, unlike in Brighton Rock (the film-makers changed the ending in cowardly fashion) a lie on which a love is based is going to remain steadfastly unmasked.

Love. yes. The feminine interest in this case is a young Austrian girl, who should surely have been played by Alida Valli, since the character is based so closely on the girl in The Third Man (which, unusually for Greene, was a film treatment turned into a novel rather than the other way around), yet one reads with a shudder that the part went to the American actress Marjorie Reynolds, whose main claim to fame was a bit part in one of my favourite films (scandalously unavailable on DVD), His Kind of Woman. Whether she is a "good guy" or "bad guy" remains unresolved until near the end, and even then is shrouded in a certain amount of ambiguity.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Greene was never taken as seriously as he should have been as a novelist because of the accessibility of his writing, and the thriller-type plots which many of his books employ. Yet it is impossible to read more than a few pages without realising that he was one of the twentieth century's greatest novelists in the English language. Again, the fact that so many of his books were turned into films may have perversely worked against him, with many people perhaps contenting themselves with watching the film and thus never actually buying the book. Even public libraries no longer carry anything other than a skeleton selection of his works.

Re-reading this book after such a long interval has made me want to re-experience his whole canon, and one of my New Year's resolutions will be steadily to re-read the lot, starting with The Man Within.