Friday, 9 August 2019

Books read Q2 2019

Smallbone Deceased
Michael Gilbert
Gilbert, who also wrote Death In Captivity, is a good find. This is yet another hit for the BLCC stable. I rather fancy the editors might be getting more discerning. A classic Golden Age closed circle set-up, with a murder in a firm of solicitors, which gives it a faint resemblance to Murder Must Advertise. The firm, and its varied inmates, are amusingly and convincingly portrayed, and the story itself is well-constructed, drily funny, and smartly clued. Our point-of-view character, Henry Bohun, is as a very attractive amateur sleuth, and one might wish he had featured in further novels. A slight weakness, perhaps, in the murderer's motive. But in real life people do apparently kill for very odd reasons.

The Loss of The Jane Vosper
Freeman Wills Crofts
Crofts was not, in my view, one of the greats. He could be a ponderous storyteller, and he often ends his stories with a leaden and moralistic tying up of loose ends, presenting a solution with a dutiful but rather dull third-person account of who did what and when and why. His books are also not really fair-play mysteries in any sense. Nevertheless, they generally remain worth reading. They are well-constructed and engrossing, and his focus on the realistic mechanics of detection makes for a good read. This is a pretty solid Crofts. Through patient and dogged police work, Chief Inspector French runs to earth a nasty gang of thieves and murderers, who have conceived a daring but ruthless scheme. The opening chapter, set on board the eponymous Jane Vosper, is genuinely tense, and the climax is pretty exciting too.  

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Books read Q1 2019

(Decided to do this by quarter rather than for the whole year to make it a bit more manageable.)

Murder For Christmas
Francis Duncan
I don’t know whether I’m feeling indulgent because of the time of year, or possibly even feeling defensive of the Golden Age genre after this Christmas’ dreadful Christie TV adaptation, but I thought this was really good fun, an entertaining slice of escapism even if not very original or brilliant. A Christmas house party is interrupted by murder, and amateur sleuth Mordecai Tremaine – quite an attractive character – resolves the crime. The solution is rather good, if a little far-fetched in some particulars, and is decently clued, but the denouement is the weakest part of the book.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Published pieces - for Niall completists

I had a few pieces published in the Catholic Herald last year:

"Belgium's euthanasia nightmare", 03/08/18

- Why assisted suicide is a dark road to travel.

"Cashing in on the politics of grievance", 27/09/18

- A review of Ben Cobley's book The Tribe

"Ignore the critics. It's A Wonderful Life is a wise tribute to everyday heroism", 20/12/18

- A defence of Capra's classic against its detractors

In May, I also wrote a longish piece for the Excvbitor website replying to Peter Hitchens' defence of Elizabethan religious policy.

Friday, 18 January 2019

Somewhere, Anywhere, Leave, Remain: Thoughts between two stools

I could probably pass for a member of the Metropolitan Liberal Elite, if I had to spend an evening undercover at Tate Modern for a Gilbert & George retrospective, or attend one of those famous Islington dinner parties (although I must say that the one and only time I have ever been to a dinner party in Islington, almost everyone there was ferociously right-wing and made me feel like a hand-wringing wet). I went to a pretty good university, I work in the public sector in London, I read and write poetry for pleasure, I like ballet. I favour a redistributive welfare state. I am strongly supportive of public transport, cycle superhighways, car-free cities and renewable energy. I would even call myself an environmentalist, albeit one who owes more to Roger Scruton than to George Monbiot. And of course, at about 9.30am on Thursday June 23rd 2016, in a now-demolished Croydon youth centre, I put a cross next to a box containing the words “Remain a member of the European Union”.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Books read 2018

(1) Thursday 4th January
The Mystery Of The Skeleton Key
Bernard Capes
Like the work of Austin Freeman and Chesterton, this straddles the boundary between the late Victorian crime story and the true Golden Age tale. Unfortunately it has few of the strengths of the latter and several of the worst weaknesses of the former – notably a highly melodramatic and over-complicated plot, often ponderous prose, no real clueing (indeed key clues are actually hidden from the reader), and a rather stilted love story which adds nothing to the narrative. It is not without good points and entertainment but is not worthy of the praise accorded to it by, inter alia, Chesterton, who wrote a short introduction to a 1929 reissue of the book.

(2) Tuesday 9th January
The Hollow
Agatha Christie
I now rate this book much more highly than I did a few years ago – I last reread it in 2013. I’m still not sure it quite comes off as triumphantly as it might have done. Christie’s overuse of dashes and ellipses becomes very irritating and the ending feels anticlimactic, while Poirot himself doesn’t have a lot to do (apparently Christie regretted putting him in the story and I’m inclined to agree with her). His acquisition of a country cottage, Resthaven, feels out of character, shoehorned in to the story to get him on the scene – it is never mentioned again in the series, like his “retirement” to the country in Roger Ackroyd.
However, it’s a clever and occasionally unsettling book, a well-told story, probably in my Top 10 Poirots. The solution is simultaneously complex and simple, and crucially does not stretch the suspension of disbelief too far. It is psychologically plausible and the plot emerges from the characters and their attitudes and relationships rather than being something that they exist to serve.  

Saturday, 29 December 2018

"The ABC Murders" Murder

NB This post contains spoilers for several Agatha Christie books. 

The defining scene of the new BBC adaptation of The ABC Murders, written by Sarah Phelps, came quite early on in Episode 1. Poirot was talking to Japp on the latter’s allotment. It was just about the only moment in the whole adaptation that felt like it had any connection at all to the spirit of the original novel, not least because it involved two likeable characters, bearing at least some resemblance to their literary counterparts, having an amicable conversation (this made it practically unique among any of the scenes in the entire three hours).

It didn’t last. In what was clearly intended to be a giant middle finger to dreary bourgeois squares who actually enjoy Agatha Christie novels, Japp promptly dropped dead from a heart attack. In the books, he is still going strong in 1948, fifteen years after the setting of this adaptation, when he receives his last mention in that year’s Taken At The Flood. Of course only suburban pedants like me actually care about such trivial matters, and who are we to question the Great Artiste?  

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Books that make my worldview, #1: TS Eliot's Four Quartets

(For the intro to this series, go here.)

I am not doing this series in any kind of coherent order, but just as it comes. So first up, perhaps oddly, is some poetry. I am not a poetry critic, I am not even very knowledgeable about it, but I offer this as a personal reflection. 

It's often difficult to say with any precision what a great poem is "about"; perhaps if we could do so there wouldn't be any need for the poem to exist. Four Quartets, a cycle of linked poems written by Eliot before and during the Second World War, are preoccupied with ideas that for various reasons I find very resonant: time, eternity, regret, memory, and the struggle to retrieve from the conditions of modernity some ongoing sense of stability, of rootedness and of a place within history. The Quartets appeal to me at least in part because they have given me ways of understanding and shaping and articulating my own thoughts and feelings about these complex themes. They are not easy to read, and defy "understanding" in any syllogistic or mechanical sense, but - crucially - neither are they deliberately obscure in the way of some Modernist works. Eliot is simply striving to do justice to the subject matter rather than being difficult for the sake of it or showing off his own cleverness. The references to Eastern mysticism, for example, are integrated into the philosophical arc of the poem, rather than being casually thrown in as part of a try-hard eclecticism.     

Friday, 23 November 2018

Books that make my worldview: Intro to an occasional series

I liked the idea of writing about a series of posts about some of the books that have shaped the way I understand the world, with a short explanation of how and why. Originally I was going to just do one post but I soon realized that it would be extremely long.

It's worth noting at this point that astute readers will notice a distinct lack of books on economics. This is because, by nature, I am most keenly interested in social-cultural-religious questions, rather than political-economic ones, albeit the line between the two categories is not always clear.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Buildings and the Benedict Option: can our physical heritage help save the faith?

(This post is a slightly amended version of a piece originally published in 2016 on another website, now defunct.)

Within a day’s hike of the house in which I grew up, and in which my parents still live, there are at least four ruined or abandoned churches. A short walk into town from that house takes you past a high flint wall that was once part of a medieval abbey, and over the road from that is the site of a church demolished in the sixteenth century. My father—a retired Anglican priest who likes to keep his hand in—takes a regular service in a church that dates back eight centuries. An hour’s drive across the county brings you to the spectacular remains of St Mary’s Reculver, which was begun almost 1400 years ago after St Augustine converted the Kentish kings at the start of his mission to the Anglo-Saxons.
When I lived in Oxford, it took barely an hour to stroll out along the Thames to the ruins of Godstow Abbey, a nunnery dissolved by Henry VIII which has been gradually falling down for four hundred years since being badly damaged in the Civil War. In the very centre of the city, at St Michael at the Northgate, you could drink coffee and browse books at the foot of a church tower that was completed before the Norman Conquest.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Some thoughts on Peter Hitchens' "The Phoney Victory".

A few not very orderly, and decidedly provisional, thoughts on Peter Hitchens' new book. This isn't, and doesn't purport to be, a complete or thorough analysis. 

Many of the themes developed in this book will be familiar to regular readers of Hitchens’ blog. It is probably best understood as a series of linked essays criticising various aspects of what he has elsewhere called the “Finest Hour Myth”, the popular view of Britain’s role in the Second World War. They touch on, inter alia:

  • ·The wrongness of the (supposedly) popular conception that WW2 was an idealistic war begun with the intent of “defeating fascism” or “saving the Jews”.
  •  The failures and inconsistencies of pre-war British diplomacy and war planning, which led us (in PH’s view) into the wrong war at the wrong time, for foolish grandstanding reasons.
  •  Our incompetent conduct of the actual war, especially the war at sea (this is ascribed to, among other things, cuts to the navy in the inter-war years implemented by one Winston Churchill). Other incidents cited as evidence for Hitchens’ thesis here are the ill-conceived and largely pointless Norwegian operation, which took a harsh toll on the RN destroyer fleet, the Dunkirk disaster (which likewise cost us many fine ships), the chaotic evacuations of Greece and Crete, and the loss of Singapore – in this connection, Hitchens directs particular scorn at those responsible for uselessly sending into danger Prince of Wales and Repulse. He also questions whether it was wise for us to devote huge resources to maintaining control of the Mediterranean and North Africa during 1940, 1941 and 1942, when the Battle of the Atlantic still hung in the balance, and when our forces in the Far East were crying out for reinforcements.