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!