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.