Friday, April 30, 2021
Wednesday, April 28, 2021
If I was underwhelmed by Castle Skull a few weeks ago, 'The Lost Gallows' is a return to form for both me and Carr. In this case for Henri Bencolin and Jeff they're in a wintery London, staying in an outrageously gothic club where a shady Egyptian is being terrorised by threats from the hangman Jack Ketch, and there is the most marvelously macabre car chase through the West end I think you could ever read.
If anybody knows what John Dickson Carr thought of Wilkie Collins I'd be very happy to know it as he feels like his spiritual successor here - or at least some of the details are odd enough to be straight out of Collins. I think the plot made some sort of sense, and you probably could have worked out the murderer from the clues provided, by how anybody reading this could concentrate on something as inconsequential as the plot when a car is being raced across London in the fog, apparently driven by a corpse, is beyond me. A liberal application of mysteries disappearing streets, ancient Egyptian curses, hidden rooms, skullduggery, revenge, model gallows, dwarfs, and terrible accents all add to the general confusion.
There is no point at all in reading Carr if any of this sounds unappealing - the whole point of him, or so I'd argue, is the atmosphere he creates and the details he brings it alive with. I don't honestly care about who did what or how it'll work out, but what I absolutely adore is the way Carr creates a London or a Paris, or any number of other places where for a moment you think you're in a ghost story before he explains how the trick is done. These books are for anybody who's ever jumped at a shadow. In Carr's hands it's positively reassuring to find that evil lies in the hearts of the living, and isn't coming from beyond the grave.
The Lost Gallows is Carr's second book, and written whilst he was still in his early 20's (it was first publishes in 1931 when he was 24 - 'It Walks By Night' is the first, and also available in the British Library Crime Classics series). Judging from my review of 'It Walks By Night', I think 'The Lost Gallows' is a more assured book - though I agree with Martin Edwards in the introduction when he says it's clearly the work of a man, that it's "full of youthful swagger and zest".
There's still none of the humour that I've found in some of his later books, but that humour hasn't been a feature of any of the Bencolin mysteries I've read so far, and Jeff's romance with Sharon seems a bit pointless (Jeff gets better with women as the books continue, I don't know what happens to Sharon) beyond the coincidences it provides for laying clues out for the reader, but the overall there's a sense of the characters settling into themselves, and Carr hall marks about this book which make it hang together just a little bit better than I seemed to think 'It Walks By Night' did.
Altogether I found this book a lot of fun, especially that car chase with all ghost story connotations - and believe me, even more horrible explanation. I think Carr is perfect lazy weekend reading, I need a bit of time on my hands to appreciate his gothic flourishes - they're too good to rush.
Monday, April 26, 2021
Nap Lombard is the pseudonym used by Pamala Hansford Johnson and her first husband, Gordan Neil Stewart for the two detective novels they wrote during the war (this one in 1943, 'Tidy Death' in 1940). There's something about this arrangement that makes it tempting to speculate that there's a lot of Pamela and Gordan in the haphazard detective duo of Andrew and Agnes Kinghof.
Pamala was a prolific author, but I think I've only read one of her books (The Honours Board) although a quick check tells me that there's a reasonable amount of them currently available, I don't know anything at all about Gordon Neil Stewart. 'Murder's A Swine' is almost slapstick comedy with just enough of a macabre edge to balance things out. It's set at the beginning of the War before the Blitz and rationing have really begun to bite and starts with Agnes, who has lost her keys, finding a decomposing body behind some sandbags in her air raid shelter.
Bodies can't bury themselves behind sandbags so this is clearly murder, and then an old lady in the flat above starts being terrorized with pigs heads and other bacon by products. By 1943 I imagine the luxury of being able to use lard in the way it is here would have had a few readers sighing. Bodies start to pile up, and the murders themselves are never treated lightly even if almost everything else is - this is also true of a red herring sub plot about British supporters of Mussolini who are funny until suddenly they're not.
It's a neat balancing act that generally works really well. Mostly I laughed through this book and it's tongue in cheek nonsense about stockings and haircuts, good legs and plain faces - then it would bring me up short with something genuinely horrible. Sometimes that was the antics of the murderer, but what's really staying with me is the fascist sympathiser who recognises Agnes Kinghof after she's followed him, abducts her from an ARP training exercise which he's also a part of, threatens her, and then does it again because he knows where she lives.
When Agnes tries to call the local police after this incident she mistakenly dials a wrong number which is out of order - the fear she feels knowing that this man could be sitting on her doorstep is too easy to imagine. There's another side plot about a young man trying to prove an alibi which is completely compelling too (I'd love to give some spoilers and discuss this, and am making an absolute effort not to).
Finally, this feels very much like a book of it's time - it could only have come out of the War, and a time of general oddness and upset routines. Almost anything could happen under cover of the blackout, and there's more than a sense that the humour belongs to people who have lived under a prolonged period of stress. It's an excellent and interesting addition to the British Library Crime Classics series.
I hesitate to say that this series gets better and better, but the books from the last couple of years have been particularly to my taste - partly because of my enthusiasm for John Dickson Carr, and an unexpected love of 1950's crime fiction, and maybe because as time goes on and it's become thoroughly established there's just more for everybody. 'Murder's A Swine' pushes lots of buttons for me in terms of it's humour, eccentricity, and darkness. It's quite likely that there will be Golden Age purists who don't think much of it, but I loved it and thoroughly recommend it.
Wednesday, April 21, 2021
Sunday, April 18, 2021
I've really enjoyed Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings | "Vivre le livre!" (wordpress.com) 1936 book club. As it goes it's probably the year that I've read the most popular fiction from just in the general way of things. I got to revisit a couple of favourites, read something that was if nothing else, at least thought provoking, and realise that I've got a whole pile more serious things to look forward to from 1936 at some point in the future (I think it might be interesting to read Djuna Barnes Nightwood and Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer Will Show together some time when I'm in the mood for lesbian and modernist classics).
There's a lot to be said for looking at the books expected to be popular though, at least if you want some insight into the kind of thinking that might have been taken more or less for granted back in the day. Heyer's Talisman Ring is as full of 1936 attitudes as her Behold, Here's Poison. Both have something of the screwball comedy about them and The Talisman Ring particularly suggests an intellectual equality between men and women that feels quite fresh.
It also makes passing mention of Jewish money lenders that I'd happily see amended to read loan shark, or indeed money lender, in modern editions as it's more or less a throwaway slang description. Add it to Dorothy L. Sayers comments about Jewish money lenders in 1935's Guady Night, some observations Angela Thirkell makes in High Rising (1933) (these come immediately to mind, but I don't think I'd have to read very far into 1936's popular fiction to find more examples) and then look again at Rafael Sabatini's particularly troubling Captain Blood chapter and I have a whole new picture of how prevalent and ingrained anti-Semitism clearly was in the period.
All of these writers, along with P G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, and Nancy Mitford share a particular sort of snobbery too. In some cases it's more engaging than others. I enjoy it more in Heyer and Wodehouse than in most of the others, perhaps it's the comic elements in both, and the romantic conventions Heyer employs that make me feel so. It's also a reminder that the society pages must have been much more like celebrity gossip columns than I'm currently used to.
That Sabatini book is bothering me too. I'm not sorry that I read it, but it has made me wary of picking up anything else by him again. If you read old books your always likely to encounter views and tropes that are now completely unacceptable. Sometimes I don't much care - I did after all choose to read the book knowing it was a risk, other times it really bothers me. This one bothered me for the casual asumption that the public would find a slave trader a sympathetic character.
Sabatini was a successful author at this point, Captain Blood (the first book in the sequence) had been made into a film in 1935, a few of his books had been adapted for silent films in the 1920's. Sabatini must have known his audience, and they must have known him. It's certainly an eye opener. I'm also left feeling unsure about how books like this ought to be treated now. I doubt The Fortunes of Captain Blood is likely to see another serious reprint, so questions about whether that particular chapter ought to be cut or not are moot. It was interesting from a social history point of view, but I kind of feel that some sort of content warning to that effect would have helped.
Anyway, thanks to Simon and Kaggsy I feel like I've had some of the best and worst of what 1936's popular fiction has to offer, and it's definitely been one of the most interesting book club's to date
Friday, April 16, 2021
Thursday, April 15, 2021
I have a small handful of Sabatini's books re-printed by House of Stratus and bought about 20 years ago. I remember enjoying them in all their old glory back then, and have wondered since how I'd feel about them now. By chance I had 'The Fortunes of Captain Blood' published in 1936 on my shelf, I'm fairly sure unread until now. It's not very long and it seemed like a great book to compare to Georgette Heyer's The Talisman Ring.
I'd read somewhere that Heyer was a Sabatini fan - which I can well believe, and curiously despite being a good generation older, and writing for several years beforehand, his breakthrough success 'Scaramouche' was published in 1921, the same year as Heyer's 'The Black Moth'. Both writers were prolific throughout their lives, both are writing historical adventures with an element of romance - although the emphasis is different.
'The Fortunes of Captain Blood' is the last of a trio of books featuring Peter Blood, Irish surgeon accidentally caught up in the Monmouth rebellion - which places the action sometime right at the end of the 17th century, sent to the Caribbean as a slave, and now exceptionally successful buccaneer/pirate. Sworn enemy of the Spanish, snappy dresser (trade mark outfit - black satin, silver lace, periwig, hat with a scarlet plume - which I can only imagine would have been very sweaty in the Caribbean heat), chivalrous in the face of feminine distress, and endlessly inventive. There are six episodes in this book which are loosely linked but more or less stand alone.
The first four stories were reasonably fun. There are loving descriptions of various outfits - a lot of men swaggering around in purple taffeta or satin - or half naked, even more loving descriptions of gunnery strategy and boat maneuvers, plenty of adventure and a little bit of humour. The descriptions of slavery felt odd to read now, especially as they came without much commentary but as observations of a system there was nothing more offensive than you might reasonably expect to come across if you read books of this vintage.
That changed in chapter five in which Blood encounters an angry Yorkshire man. He's a slaver who has been cheated out of his cargo of people by the Spanish in Havana. Captain Blood vows to avenge him by getting both the value of the slaves back for him, and then something extra in the way of compensation. There's a hefty chunk of anti Semitism thrown into the mix as well. I feel it would have been a questionable line to take in 1836, for 1936 it's more than shocking. Why a reader should be expected to feel sympathy for a slaver is absolutely beyond me, why he ought to be avenged even further beyond me. There's nothing casual about the prejudice here and to be honest I see no reason why the chapter couldn't have been cut from the collection by 2001.
It's certainly changed my view of Sabatini who I had been mostly enjoying up to this point but now feel more than disappointed in. I'm glad to have read the book, it was genuinely interesting to compare to Heyer, but I won't be keeping it and I'm not recommending it.
Tuesday, April 13, 2021
It turns out that Heyer published 2 books in 1936 (a bonus for me this week). The Talisman Ring, covered in yesterdays post, and a contemporary detective novel, Behold, Here's Poison. I can't really argue with the general opinion that Heyer's detective fiction isn't in the same league as her historical novels, but they're still pretty good and probably deserve a bit more love than they've had.
To be fair Arrow have started reprinting these in smart new jackets - normally around Christmas and presumably thanks to the continuing enthusiasm for nostalgic Golden Age crime, so maybe they're getting a bit more love than I've noticed. There are 11 of these crime novels (one of which, Penhallow, is a bit of an outlier in terms of style) and I think it's a shame there aren't a few more. There might have been some level of collaboration with Heyer's husband, a barrister when she was writing these who apparently supplied some plot details, but I doubt his contribution was particularly significant.
The characters are pure Heyer, and very much part of her stock in trade. She also has a couple of mysteries (more thriller than murder) in her historical novels, including The Talisman Ring so the two strands of her writing are not so dissimilar. Behold, Here's Poison shares other things with The Talisman Ring too. Almost all the action takes place in a few interiors - a substantial house in a wealthy London suburb, Grinley Heath, and a smart London flat off St James, and there are the same very evocative descriptions of certain scenes.
The one thing I'd remembered really clearly about this book was it's opening. The under housemaid is taking tea up to the still sleeping household, and looks out of a window. She muses about the neighbours but mostly is thinking about the weather - it's going to be sunny and she has the afternoon off. It's a small thing but so very relatable.
Unfortunately her plans are ruined by finding the master of the house dead. Initially it looks like natural causes - his doctor is certainly ready to say so, but then his doctor also had reason to want him dead, and then Mister Matthews most forceful sister turns up and demands a post mortem. Unfortunately for another sister, a niece and nephew, their mother, an uncle, the doctor, and possibly others who had reason to want Mister Matthews gone, it was murder. Unfortunately for the police it's 5 days later and much of the possible evidence has been destroyed.
There is a smooth and very intelligent nephew who exists to annoy the rest of his family, whilst running his own parallel investigation to the police - he wants to preserve the family name if possible. He also becomes a slightly unlikely, but eventually oddly convincing love interest for Stella, Mister Matthews niece and one of the few more or less likable characters amongst the suspects.
Dorothy L. Sayers wrote a couple of quite generous reviews of Heyer's detective fiction. She notes that the plots aren't the best, but that the characterisation and humour are. The relations between two sisters and a sister in law are masterfully handled here. They might be caricatures but Heyer makes them live, or at least she does when it comes to showing how incompatible they are, so that even though they're not likable I still feel sympathy for them having to deal with each other.
There's an emphasis on dress as well, both male and female which is very Heyer, and also very 1930's. Reading these books makes me realise how much the ideal of masculinity has changed over the last 100 years. Intelligence and elegance seem to be the most important attributes a hero can have. I guess this says a bit about the preferences of the Queens of Crime too.
In short this is a satisfying mystery, the murder method is clever, Heyer's detective is likable (also very intelligent), there's plenty of her trademark humour and a few twists along the way. If you're new to Heyer and doubtful about historical romance, her mysteries are a great place to start. They come with a slightly different set of expectations, and possibly a bit less genre prejudice attached to them.
Monday, April 12, 2021
I had forgotten about the 1936 club until I saw a reminder from Simon a couple of weeks ago, and then got quietly excited when I realised I could read two Georgette Heyer's for it, one of which is an all time favourite - The Talisman Ring. I've been using Simon and Kaggsy's book club as a Heyer enabling tool since they started it and I'm not going to break with tradition now when she's been such a solace in the past year.
This has mostly been due to the #GeorgetteHeyerReadalong on Twitter. Every Sunday we work through 3 chapters of whichever the current book is with plenty of mostly entirely relevant discussion. It's a particularly friendly group of readers with plenty of differing opinions and reading the books like this has been really illuminating. I don't think we've done Talisman Ring yet (I didn't join the group until it had been going for a few months), but I took a lot of what they've made me think about into this umpteenth read of it.
One reason I love this particular book so much is that although there are romances in it, it's essentially a comedy thriller in fancy dress. An old man (Sylvester) is dying, he's rescued his granddaughter from the dicey position of being an aristocrat in revolutionary France at about the same time that his grandson was suspected of shooting a man in cold blood to get back the talisman ring which had been lost over a game of cards. Ludovic (the grandson) is promptly shipped out the country with almost everybody assuming his guilt. Sylvester has summoned his great nephew, Tristram, to his death bed in the hope that he'll marry his much younger cousin (the granddaughter) who will otherwise be alone in the world.
Tristram isn't especially enthusiastic but he needs a wife and isn't especially enthusiastic about anybody else either. Eustacie seems to feel much the same - although after a few hours in each others company it's fairly clear that they really won't like each other much. Then Sylvester dies, Ludovic turns up as a smuggler in which guise he meets Eustacie escaping the prospect of a dull marriage. There's some shooting in a moonlit forest, Tristram realises that Ludovic is innocent, another cousin suddenly looks suspicious, and a woman who makes him laugh turns up. There are a lot of jokes, and it's all very enjoyable.
Reading Heyer slowly it also seems crazy that her work was never adapted for film. Most of the action here takes place in a handful of different interiors and a bit of woodland, the dialogue, and running around is very reminiscent of the screwball comedy's of the era, and the cast is limited. It should have been a gift to film - and a well made contemporary adaptation would be delightful (the only book of hers that was adapted was not well served - you can find The Reluctant Widow on you tube - it's an absolute mess compared to the source material) even if it wasn't entirely faithful.
As it is there are wonderful scenes - such as Sylvester's death bed - lit by 50 candles, furnished with rich brocades, with an old man in his wig and a great ruby ring at the centre of it determined to have the last word. I feel like I'm watching rather than reading, and Heyer invites her readers to be amused as well as entertained by the vision she's created.
What I hadn't really noticed before this year, but am coming to see as more of a feature of her work is how loosely Heyer sketches in the details of her main characters. Tristram is described as tall, dark, lean, and we know he's good in a fight - but otherwise it's up to the reader to decide on the details. Ludovic is tall blond and handsome, Eustacie is small dark and beautiful... There isn't really a lot about their personalities either beyond humour and intelligence. Her secondary characters by comparison are much more richly detailed. This has to be a big part of why her books have aged relatively well (there are bits which haven't), it's so easy to project yourself into the heart of them.
Overall The Talisman Ring is lighthearted, well written, fun. It doesn't expect to be taken particularly seriously, it's function is solely to amuse and entertain which it does very well indeed. I'm very happy to have had a reason to read it again right now.
Thursday, April 8, 2021
Saturday, April 3, 2021
These are more of the war time writings of Inez Holden, this time from 1944-45 after the earlier collections of Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It Was Different at the Time which covered 1938-1941. There's No Story There is a novel, or something between a novel and a fictionalized account of Holden's war time observations. She did work in a munitions factory in Wales although I'm not clear if it was on the scale of 'Statevale' - which covers seven miles, has 30,000 employees, and is an enclosed world of it's own.
I found Blitz Writing interesting, Holden is too good an observer and too good a writer for it not to be, but it's not as compelling as There's No Story There which given that the construction of the two isn't so very different kind of surprises me. There's an extra something about this book, a subtle sort of alchemy that makes it work in a way I can't pick apart.
There are 13 loosely connected chapters - vignettes really, of life at Statevale from the perspective of varied characters, the final chapter presented as a letter a newish arrival is writing home ties everything together. There are also 3 final chapters which are unrelated, but all add to the war time picture, especially Musical Chairman.
This book came out with Margaret Kennedy's Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry and it is absolutely worth reading both together because both feel like they show a part of war time history that's under represented. In Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry it's Kennedy's willingness to share her fears and prejudices, in There's No Story There it's all about the behind the scenes work and this time I was really surprised by my own ignorance.
Holden was a Bright Young Thing who ended up as a socialist, and reading this book there's more than a suggestion that conditions at Statevale verge on being a socialist utopia - sort of. there's a place for everybody - jobs for people to damaged to go into, or back into the army. Conditions in the hostels are basic but good and for a portion of your wages every need is taken care of. What I hadn't realized is how little choice people had in how and where they were employed.
There's comedy here - especially in chapters 7 and 8 (Factory Tour and Visit) when the visitor who turns up isn't quite the visitor expected, and then something much darker in 9 (Check Up) where a Jewish man finds persecution where none is intended. His paranoia has good foundation of course, which adds to the bleakness of his situation.
There are chapters about being snowed in to the factory, and out of it, Snowed In is perhaps my favourite in the book - it's where I think Holden's magic touch is most evident. She creates images which have an almost mythic power here without being heavy handed about it. It's something about the other worldliness of a snowy landscape and the warmth of a boiler room contrasted with each other.
There's also a casual look at the strain that war time years apart put on marriages, all the human frailties and weaknesses and how we accommodate them in a community, hints of a mystery, and above all the extraordinariness of ordinary people. Readers will recognise as clearly as Holden did that there is a story - the curious thing is that in all the endless stories of the war that we keep remaking and rewriting how seldom this one seems to be told.
Thursday, April 1, 2021
I’ve been saving this Rhineland Mystery as a treat – I thought the combination Of John Dickson Carr and a suitably gothic Germanic setting to let himself loose on would be quite something. The promise of an Aleister Crowley like figure was also hopeful, but in the end I either wasn’t in quite the right frame of mind, or John Dickson Carr was showing a certain restraint. I think it’s more likely to be that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind because Carr does provide a castle full of secret passages perched high above the Rhine, and shaped so that it looks like a giant skull – which can hardly be thought of as restrained.
This is another Inspector Henri Bencolin mystery, Bencolin is lured from Paris by the great Belgian financier Jérôme D’Aunay, after the equally mysterious and horrifying death of his friend and host, Myron Alison (Carr definitely wasn’t holding back, Myron turned out to be almost as hard to kill as Rasputin). Both men were friends with the charismatic, unpleasant, and very successful magician, Maleger who’s body was supposedly found in the Rhine 17 years previously with yet more mystery attached.
Odd things happen on the way to the Rhine, and when Bencolin and Jeff finally arrive there’s a massive thunderstorm, all the better to appreciate the skull shaped castle in. The suspicion is that one of Myron’s house guests must have murdered him, and as everybody has been stuck in his house together suspecting each other for several days they’re not very happy. An old friend and adversary of Bencolin’s is also on the scene – his German counterpart, officially in charge of the case. The two had been spies on opposite sides during the first world war and have retained a good deal of respect and friendly rivalry.
As I describe this book I realise I’m going to have to read it again at some point, because it sounds better and better, and hopefully next time I’ll be in a better mood to appreciate all the details – of which Carr is a master. As it is the moment I really perked up was near the end when he’s describing a somewhat macabre dinner party and does a role call of Vermouth’s and Amaro’s – which made me long for any sort of aperitif suitable occasion – even a dinner party designed to flush out a murderer in a ghastly castle shaped like a skull with black onyx floors (especially such a dinner party – it would be one memorable way to end lock down).
There’s also a delightfully incongruous cocktail in production at this point – it’s not one I’m familiar with, and a quick look in my own books on the subject and online doesn’t throw up any references for it from 1931 – there’s a similar recipe that claims to be from 1960’s. At some point I’ll dig a little deeper on this – Carr’s version is simple, and I think it would be very drinkable, although I can see why Jeff Marle opts to change to Pernod after his first one. I haven’t made it yet as I don’t have an open bottle of apricot brandy to hand – but it’s 2 parts gin, 1 part apricot brandy, 1 part freshly squeezed orange juice, shaken over ice and strained into a cocktail glass.
It sounds like a decent cocktail for spring – it should allow the apricot brandy to really shine, be quite fruity, and have a hell of a kick to it. As Carr’s characters have been stuck in their own mini lockdown, a couple of relationships have come to a messy end as well as the matter of the murder under investigation it’s a clever choice – so at odds with the rest of the Gothic atmosphere and high emotion.