Friday, 10 January 2014

Books read 2013

A list of every book I read in 2013, including short reviews of most of them. NB reviews of mysteries may contain spoilers, so proceed with caution!


     Green Philosophy: How To Think Seriously About The Planet
Roger Scruton
2.       Animal Rights
Roger Scruton
3.       Gentle Regrets: Thoughts From A Life
Roger Scruton
4.       The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment’s Surrender To Drugs
Peter Hitchens
5.       Uncle Fred In The Springtime
PG Wodehouse
6.       The Geek Manifesto
Mark Henderson
7.       Going South: Why Britain Will Have A Third World Economy By 2014
Larry Elliott & Dan Atkinson
8.       The Hobbit
JRR Tolkien
9.       The Man In The High Castle
Philip K Dick
10.   The Lion’s World: A Journey Into The Heart Of Narnia
Rowan Williams
11.   How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World
Francis Wheen

(12) Tuesday 26th February
The Lighthouse
PD James
Splendid traditional detective story set on an island. Certain elements of characterisation and setting, and certain attitudes, somewhat anachronistic given its supposedly contemporary setting, but not really a problem for me as an appalling reactionary. Agatha Christie-esque, but with a more poetic, thoughtful, realistic edge and more complex storytelling.

(13) Wednesday 27th February
A Murder of Quality
John Le Carre
Short, enjoyable, dryly humorous, scathingly satirical about class and pretension. Fairly conventional plot. Le Carre’s grimy cynicism can be a little tiring.

(14) Sunday 3rd March
Death In Holy Orders
PD James
Beautifully written and involving old-fashioned whodunit. Slightly unconvincing motive in the end, and perhaps one or two too many coincidences.

(15) Wednesday 13th March
The Dawkins Delusion
Alister McGrath
Short but effective rebuttal of some of the more egregious errors of The God Delusion. Good-natured, robust, though lacks the detail and depth to be a truly convincing reply to the New Atheists, A useful starting point nevertheless (and of course McGrath has written at more length on the issue).

(16) Thursday 14th March
From The Holy Mountain
William Dalrymple
Utterly wonderful account of a journey through the lands of the old Byzantine Empire, from Mount Athos to the Great Kharga Oasis in Upper Egypt, focusing on the ancient but embattled and vanishing Christian communities of the Levant. Rich with history, anecdote and character (though he doesn’t always make it clear when he’s taking sides in an unresolved disagreement about historical fact, e.g. his account of the death of Hypatia, and I noticed at least one glaring error, about when Ammianus Marcellinus lived). I learned a tremendous amount and gained a much deeper understanding of Middle Eastern politics. Poignant to think how much worse the situation has become for Middle Eastern Christians in the twenty years since the book was written.

(17) Friday 15th March
The Thirteen Problems
Agatha Christie
Entertaining series of short stories featuring Miss Marple and friends. Diverting and intriguing, a fun read, but I’m not sure I’m a huge fan of short-form detective stories. Christie’s weaknesses – hackneyed characterisation and uninspiring narration – also seem more obvious in these stories than is usually the case.

(18) Monday 18th March
Our Church
Roger Scruton
Elegant defence of the Church of England and its genius for channelling and containing religious enthusiasm while uniting and consoling the country with a moderate, literate, scholarly faith. Thematically not unlike England: An Elegy, with the same sense of paying tribute to something precious that is vanishing before our eyes. Not a work of apologetics or theology, and I’m uneasy with his presentation of Christianity as something akin to a state cult or civic religion (at times he even seems to hint at its being a Platonic Noble Lie). But a greatly appealing book because of its affection for an enduringly attractive way of being English. I do wonder how long Christians will be able to defend a diffident and latitudinarian form of the faith in the coming Dark Ages.  

(19) Friday 22nd March
GK Chesterton
A range of fascinating essays on various topics. Not all equally interesting, it might be said, but a useful reminder that many of the philosophical and cultural problems that we think of as being characteristically “modern” have been perplexing the defenders of truth since well before the 1960s. Not my favourite Chesterton work; although it fizzes with wit and originality, I didn’t always find the style easy going, and sometimes wordiness and strained paradox obstructs clarity of meaning.

(20) Tuesday 26th March
Call For The Dead
John Le Carre
JLC’s first novel; essentially a murder mystery, although one firmly situated in the grey and bureaucratic espionage underworld that he so triumphantly made his own in later books. Enjoyable and relatively uncomplicated story told with brevity and elegance, and a fascinating introduction to Smiley (although of course his backstory and those of other characters are rewritten to some extent in later works). Couple of good twists. It’s a reminder of how long JLC has been writing now that this is very much a period piece, with its talk of telephone exchanges, typewriters, and saloon bars.

(21) Sunday 14th April
The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England
Dan Jones
Extremely enjoyable old-fashioned narrative history of the dynasty who, as the book’s subtitle plausibly suggests, “made England”. Readable and well-paced, with what must have been a great deal of meticulous research lightly worn. Superb introduction to an action-packed and complex period.  A couple of quibbles: I suspect there are times when Jones has glossed over disagreements in the sources for the sake of maintaining the narrative thrust, and 1485 makes more sense as a terminus for the Plantagenets than 1399 (Henry IV Bolingbroke may not have in the direct line of succession, but he was a Plantagenet, a direct male descendant of Edward III, and the Wars of the Roses were an intra-Plantagenet dispute). But then more extensive footnotes and another hundred years, including the highly complex fifteenth century, would have added considerably to an already long book.

(23) April
Lord Of The World
EH Benson
An odd book, this. Quite enthralling, and an early example of dystopian fiction. The plot concerns the coming of Antichrist as the President of a World State and the Catholic Church’s opposition thereto. The style hasn’t aged well, and Benson’s over-preoccupation with the evils of Socialism and Freemasonry, and a distinctly pre-Vatican II attitude to other faiths and Christian denominations, make some of the storytelling rather stilted and trite. Nevertheless, it’s very entertaining in parts and Benson made some accurate predictions about the future, both technologically and in terms of how Fabianism run amok threatens true humanism.

(24) April
End This Depression Now!
Paul Krugman
Extremely readable and feisty argument for a Keynesian response to the financial crisis. I found it convincing, although I’m already sympathetic to Keynesianism, and doubtless there are Hayekian counter-arguments – and I find it very hard to come to any really firm conclusions in economics. I suspect that Krugman, who is very belligerent in style, has overstated the extent to which his opponents have been refuted and discredited, and it often feels like he skips over weaknesses in his own position with bluster and assertion. But a good book, very accessible for the layman.

(25) April
Five Red Herrings
Dorothy L Sayers
Not one of my favourite Peter Wimsey books. Extremely well-constructed and intriguing as a puzzle, and excellent use of the real-life setting, but I struggled to engage with it as a detective story. Sayers’ habit of trying to reproduce dialect, or irregularities of speech, phonetically on the page swiftly becomes a bit wearisome, though the central problem is a rather lacklustre murder – it’s barely a manslaughter – and some not very interesting suspects. Despite some fun sections, a disappointment overall.

(26) Friday 10th May
PG Wodehouse
1924 compendium of ten very funny Ukridge short stories. I’m new to Ukridge, and found these extremely entertaining, although they mostly lack the brilliant sparkle, and comic depth and intricacy, of the Jeeves & Wooster books or the Blandings saga. Of course, it’s a little unfair to compare them to probably the greatest comic writing in the English language of all time.

(27) Thursday 16th May
What’s Wrong With The World?
GK Chesterton
Extended essay laying out the bare bones of some of GKC’s politico-social beliefs. Some very insightful and convincing passages about the importance of fair distribution of property and the flaws of both capitalism and socialism. Central argument focuses on the private home and the traditional independent family as the core of a civilised, fair economy, and the welfare thereof as a test of a just system. The arguments against female suffrage – based on the importance of the woman’s role in private life, local society and the home – are sophisticated and thoughtful, if not very convincing almost a century later in a very different world. As usual with GKC, sometimes feels like weak arguments or questionable generalisations are wallpapered over by the force of his style.

(28) Thursday 23rd May
A Room Of One’s Own
Viriginia Woolf
Powerful manifesto of inter-war feminism, considering women’s historic invisibility in the arts (and literature in particular), both as creator and subject. Woolf’s core conclusion – that women’s inferior social status, powerlessness and lack of freedom have deeply impaired their ability to reflect upon reality, to contemplate “the thing in itself” – is surely correct. She returns several times to “five hundred pounds a year” (presumably at the time the minimum needed to support oneself in some kind of civilised existence) and the titular room with a lock on the door as being symbols of female independence, and preconditions to create great art. Men, of course, have always taken such independence for granted. Beautifully written, with a style somewhat reminiscent of Chesterton. Interesting reflections on sex differences, and their significance in literature – Woolf argues that true greatness lies in combining the male and female elements in the human psyche. One possible criticism is that she is too preoccupied with sex barriers to achievement at the expense of class barriers (though she does touch briefly on this).

(29) Tuesday 28th May
CS Lewis’ Dangerous Idea: In Defence of the Argument from Reason
Victor Reppert
Densely argued but short and accessible expansion of one of CS Lewis’ key arguments from Miracles; viz. that one of the key arguments against naturalism is that if philosophical naturalism is true, then there is very little reason to think that our processes of thought and reason are reliable guides to the truth. Personally, I find the argument from reason compelling, and the objections unconvincing, although it’s a more of reason to doubt atheism than a cast-iron proof of either theism in general or Christianity in particular. More reading probably required, though it’s one of those issues where an absolutely decisive argument either way is not available and to some extent we have to choose what arguments we accept.

(30) Thursday 30th May
The Great Gatsby
F Scott Fitzgerald
Touching story of excess, superficiality, regret and disillusionment in the Roaring Twenties. Not for the first time, I found a classic rather heavy going. A good and well-written book, with something to say, but perhaps a little overpraised.

(31) Saturday 8th June
The Hollow
Agatha Christie
Comfort reading, really (I’ve read this book twice before). AC always good fun, but not for the first time I found one of her books a little flat and disappointing on rereading. There’s a fine, clever plot in here, but the storytelling doesn’t quite do it justice, and the style grates in places, with constant and annoying overuse of ellipses when describing characters’ inner lives, which detracts from serious psychological insight. Some rather melodramatic accretions in the subplots.

(32) Saturday 15th June
Towards Zero
Agatha Christie
Definitely a classic of the genre. Straight into my top ten Christies. Lovely old-fashioned Golden Age setting, good characters, a tight and twisty plot. I was vaguely aware of the outcome from having seen the TV adaptation and read Pierre Bayard’s book, but this didn’t spoil it.

(33) Sunday 23rd June
A Talent to Deceive
Robert Barnard
Short, punchy defence of Agatha Christie, and to some extent of the “conventional” whodunit in general. Published soon after her death, so a little dated now, but makes some excellent points about AC’s mastery of plot and her excellence in the craft of the Golden Age murder mystery (Barnard is very insistent that AC’s work was craft and not art). All the more worthwhile because – though a fan – he’s not blind to Christie’s limitations and weaknesses, and acknowledges that a few of her books are pretty dreadful.

(34) Friday 5th July
The Three Languages of Politics
Arnold Kling
A long pamphlet really, rather than a book, putting forward the idea that among politically engaged people there are three main ways of thinking about politics; progressives, conservatives and libertarians, and – importantly – that adherents of these ways of thinking employ different vocabularies, which leads to frustration, mutual incomprehension and tribalism. Kling pleads for better understanding between users of different “heuristics” and less reliance on group politics. Quite a fun, pithy read, but it’s not exactly a devastatingly new insight – and the causes, background and consequences of the loss of a shared epistemic and metaphysical framework have been explored much more deeply e.g. in Macintyre.

(36) Monday 29th July
In The Teeth Of The Evidence
Dorothy L Sayers
Good short story collection; detective stories, mysteries, tales of the macabre. Two Lord Peter stories and five featuring Montague Egg, the travelling salesman-cum-detective (rather a thin and uninteresting character, who I think might become wearing at novel length). The rest are a varied and involving read. A few are serious, verging in a few cases on Twilight Zone-style horror – like “Nebuchadnezzar”, which riffs on the idea of the conscience-catching play from Hamlet, and “The Leopard Lady”, which features a fantastical Murder, Inc. style organisation apparently getting away with child murder. Others are a little more whimsical. The supernaturally-inflected story, “The Cyprian Cat”, is one of the less successful – it’s atmospheric and dark, but doesn’t quite work as a ghost story or as a detective story. DLS is a better exponent of the mystery/crime short story than Christie. Good at setting up intriguing situations, and fond of the ambiguous payoff.

(37) Thursday 1st August
Clouds Of Witness
Dorothy L Sayers
Enjoyable read, as ever with DLS, and a splendidly atmospheric setting of a hunting lodge on the Yorkshire Moors. I like the main characters and I like the dynamics of their relationships, and there is genuine wit and humour, even if DLS might learn to wear her learning a little lighter. I expected great things from the set-up, and there is two-thirds of a fine Golden Age detective story here, but I found the last few chapters oddly unsatisfying – too much stagey and purple courtroom drama – and parts of the detecting underdeveloped. It’s unclear, for instance, how precisely Lord Peter gets on the trail of Cathcart’s mistress. Then there’s the rushed melodrama of the finale and the unsatisfying resolution of Gerald’s affair.     

(38) Friday 2nd August
Small Is Beautiful: A Study Of Economics As If People Mattered
EF Schumacher
A well-written and thought-provoking call for a more humane economic system, touching on everything from environmental degradation and international development to resource depletion and the dehumanising and spiritually deadening nature of modern capitalism. I agree with a fair bit of this, especially the idiosyncratic but worthwhile section on Buddhist economics, and the whole thing has a distinctly distributist/Chestertonian feel, stressing localness and human scale and co-operation between management and workers. That said, there are a fair few “yes, but…” moments – he is overly pessimistic about resource depletion, as many were in the Seventies when the book was written, and I don’t think his characterisation of free market theory is quite fair. He also underestimates, I think, the amount of coercion and confiscation that would be involved in his proposed solutions, and is naïve about the kind of intrusion by government that might be required.

(39) Tuesday 13th August
Ender’s Game
Orson Scott Card
Punchy, well-paced sci-fi with some interesting themes and ideas. Largely manages to avoid genre clichés and clunky dialogue, although the idea of adults using minced oaths involving the word “fart” stretches credulity. Impressive that OSC seems to have foreseen something very like the modern internet – and indeed the power of blogging, in the undercooked and incomplete Locke/Demosthenes subplot.  I would have perhaps liked to know a bit more about the larger context of the story, although the sense that this is one story within a much larger and more complex universe (cf. Lord Of The Rings) does help with sustaining interest. Clever twist ending and epilogue opens up a world of possibility for future books.

(40) Tuesday 20th August
The Mystery of the Blue Train
Agatha Christie
Unwelcome elements of the thriller and the potboiler intrude on this rather thin whodunit. Not one of the classics; sparsely clued and lacking in focus and narrative drive. Overly elaborate murder plot, which wouldn’t have been a problem had loose ends not been left hanging. My judgment may have been coloured by the fact that I already knew the culprit from seeing the TV adaptation.

(41) Wednesday 21st August
Feral: Searching For Enchantment On The Frontiers of Rewilding
George Monbiot
One of the best and most fascinating books I’ve read all year. The key idea of “rewilding” is for humans to stop intense management and exploitation of parts of the countryside and the sea, allowing the re-establishment of a more authentic ecosystem and ending practices that are wrecking biodiversity. It’s a vision I find very attractive, especially the notion of reintroducing extinct animals (including “megafauna”). There’s a great depth of research and experience and thought behind this book, which has some autobiographical elements alongside its core arguments. Monbiot is clear-eyed about the political and human difficulties of his project, and gives considerable space to constructive criticism, e.g. from the upland sheep farmers of the Cambrian mountains (Monbiot has a particular animus against sheep for their role in keeping the British uplands sparse, bare and ecologically uninteresting).

(42) Sunday 25th August
Strong Poison
Dorothy L Sayers
Cracking read. Easily one of DLS’s best, not least because of the introduction of Harriet Vane into the proceedings. The identity of the murderer isn’t exactly a baffling and indecipherable mystery given the way the story is set up (I think I would have guessed it even if I hadn’t read it before), but there is great enjoyment in the pursuit. Even the long opening – an exposition of the details of the case in the form of a judge’s summing-up – doesn’t feel contrived. Lovely comic touches – especially from the manipulation of a séance and the recounting of the arguments in the jury room. Overall, excellent example of the “re-investigating a crime for which someone has been wrongfully tried/convicted” sub-genre of Golden Age whodunit.   

(43) Wednesday 28th August
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion
Jonathan Haidt
This was the book of the moment about a year ago, and I can see why. There’s something here to interest everybody. The book is actually a bit more broad-ranging than the title suggests, but Haidt’s core message is quite simple: that what we think of as reasoning appears in many cases to be rationalisation of intuition rather than pure Kantian ratiocination, and that the intractability of political and social squabbles is in large part down to the fact that different people have different moral foundations in their genetic-cultural make-up. His argument is that liberals tend to focus on just a few of these moral foundations, while conservatives are more interested in all six. Some of the most interesting parts of the book, for me, are the sections where Haidt, his centrist liberalism notwithstanding, defends the conservative mindset against liberal accusations of bigotry and unreason and takes an honest look at the respective strengths and weaknesses of conservatism and liberalism. Less impressive are the parts of the book that deal with philosophy – Haidt argues for a form of moral relativism and then states that he is not a relativist, and it’s not clear to me that he understands conservatism especially well (even if he is more sympathetic and interested than most liberals). I also continue to have doubts about the design of studies that purport to examine “what people of X political background really think”, and I wonder whether too much of a superstructure of anti-rationalism is built on the undoubted truth that many people are terrible at explaining, or thinking through, their moral beliefs rationally.

(44) Tuesday 3rd September
Jeeves In The Offing
PG Wodehouse
What can one say about Wodehouse? This is pure, joyous, innocent escapism. The plot details hardly matter – this one is set at Aunt Dahlia’s Brinkley Court and features Reggie “Kipper” Herring and Bobbie Wickham’s engagement – when the comedic writing is this good. Plum is the Master.

(45) Tuesday 17th September
Dining With Al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring The Many Worlds Of The Middle East
Hugh Pope
A wide-ranging, informative and thoughtful memoir by a journalist who has spent almost his entire working career in the Middle East. Hugely enjoyable, not least because the politics are largely kept in the background. Pope is very good at letting people tell their own stories, and I like his insistence on the complexity of the ME and its people. He also conveys very well the tragic side of the region and its history. I would have liked the book to be longer – there must be many more stories to tell from his career – although not perhaps as lengthy as Robert Fisk’s overlong book that deals with many of the same places and times.

(46) Thursday 19th September
Three Men In A Boat
Jerome K Jerome
This must be the fourth or fifth time I’ve read this book, but it’s still a joy. Uproariously funny, in a sort of proto-Wodehouse style (I wonder if Plum read it). It’s a shame JKJ didn’t write more works of comedy. One slight quibble: the non-comedic bits leftover from when the book was a straight travel guide haven’t aged well, and seem out of place – most strikingly the scene where they come across a suicide, which seems like it’s from another genre and another book entirely.

(47) Wednesday 26th September
Three Men On The Bummel
Jerome K Jerome
Sequel to the above. Brilliantly funny in parts, but lacks the prequel’s strong sense of place and story. The ending is weak, with a long and boring discursus on “the German character” which is variously inaccurate, dated, and repetitive, and the oddly censorious extended discussion of German student habits, especially the Mensur, seems completely out of place. Entertaining nevertheless, especially some of the stuff about bikes and “overhaulers”.

(48) Wednesday 9th October
In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World
Tom Holland
I’ve always enjoyed Holland’s assured touch with the broad sweep of narrative history. This is very much a worthy successor to Persian Fire and Rubicon, taking on a fascinating subject – the collapse of the Roman and Sasanian empires in the Middle East, and their replacement by a vast Islamic confederation spreading from the Hindu Kush to Spain. It’s a fascinating period, and one in which I have a keen personal interest. Lots of the names were familiar from my undergraduate days! One of the key themes here is how Late Antiquity saw the systematisation and codification of the monotheisms that now dominate the region and the world. He also casts an extremely critical and sceptical eye over the early history of Islam (for which there are few reliable sources and little firm archaeological evidence) – although his view is apparently controversial among historians.

(49) Sunday 13th October
Imperial Life In The Emerald City
Rajiv Chandrasekaran
A detailed examination of the work of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran Iraq from April 2003 to June 2004, by a journalist who spent most of that period living and working in Baghdad and knew many of the key figures in the US occupation government. The overall thesis is that the US occupation was for all intents and purposes a failure, and need not have been so had basic mistakes been avoided. These mistakes are well-known now, a decade on – they include the over-strict de-Baathification, the dismantling of the army and security forces, the failure to address bread-and-butter issues like power shortages and security, and the needless alienation of important Iraqi players – but it’s still quite incredible to read about the extent to which the Bush administration mishandled the aftermath of the invasion, and underfunded the reconstruction. The CPA was staffed largely by White House loyalists rather than Middle East specialists or diplomats, and it’s hard to believe why anyone would have thought that a US model of free-market democratic capitalism could be instantly and straightforwardly imposed on a country without any tradition of such things. Perhaps there’s an element of Monday-morning quarterbacking to this book, and maybe there are accounts of the CPA that give a different picture, but given subsequent events in Iraq it’s hard to see how it can be regarded as a success.

(50) Thursday 24th October
A Man Lay Dead
Ngaio Marsh
Marsh’s debut, and the first of hers I’ve read. Approaching the Platonic ideal of the Golden Age country house murder, with all the strengths and weaknesses that description implies; a weekend gathering in the English countryside, an implausibly elaborate murder with an exotic weapon, secret societies, conveniently overheard conversations in the library, a mysterious foreign butler, and a rather half-hearted melodramatic romance. Fair bit of wry authorial humour, which makes a change from Christie, but risks breaking the spell in a genre that is, much as I love it, already on the edge of absurdity. I could also do without the phonetic rendering of accents – whether the tiresomely slow and stereotyped rustics, or the dodgy Russian. Alleyn is an engaging sleuth, a gentleman detective with a hinterland who is nevertheless a professional policeman (a forebear of Adam Dalgleish and even Morse). I enjoyed it a lot, although the plotting was a bit sparse, and the dashing back and forth to London in pursuit of Bolshevik conspirators felt a bit like padding from a mediocre twenties potboiler and took some of the focus away from the crime, the solution of which seemed a bit peremptory. As a rule I think country house murders are at their best when the action remains in the immediate locale. I’ll read more of Marsh.

(51) Tuesday 29th October
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club
Dorothy L Sayers
Nifty little mystery from DLS. Splendidly clever and macabre set-up, almost comedic and only mildly implausible. Cleverly executed and well-clued. It’s not exactly social history, but it captures some important snapshots of post-WW1 London, especially of clubland and the art scene.

(52) Thursday 31st October
The ABC Murders
Agatha Christie
One of my favourite Poirot novels, though how much of that is due to comfort and nostalgia and how much to its merits as a detective story I’m not sure. Clever if simple way of disguising a traditional closed murder mystery as the hunt for a mad serial killer.

(53) Sunday 3rd November
A Carribean Mystery
Agatha Christie
Not a particularly enthralling mystery – or perhaps it just doesn’t reward re-reading. Rather undercooked plot, with a fair bit of repetition (although that sort of works thematically given the nature of the central murder). Many Christie weaknesses to the fore, notably Janet and John narration, the irritating overuse of ellipses and dashes, and the terribly old-fashioned and patronising portrayal of black characters (in AC’s defence, she was 74 when this was published in 1964 – a Victorian in a Beatles world). Certainly one of the lesser Miss Marples.

(54) Wednesday 6th November
The Diversity Illusion: What We Got Wrong About Immigration & How To Put It Right
Ed West
A scathing but well-informed, non-bigoted and fair-minded critique of UK immigration policy, since the Second World War. Nails some hoary old myths, including the idea that Britain is “a nation of immigrants”. On the contrary, as West points out, Britain was until the late twentieth century very ethnically homogenous, and previous “waves” of immigration tended to be relatively small. The largest, the Huguenots, consisted of only a few tens of thousands over several years, at a time when the English population was about three million - and of course the Huguenots were skilled, keen to integrate, and shared the same religious and ethnic background as the English. EW raises some big questions about the (somewhat incoherent and self-serving) ideologies of diversity, “anti-racism” and multiculturalism, and looks at a wide range of research on social cohesion and the economic effects of immigration. I found this compelling, although perhaps a little anecdotal in parts; I would have liked it to be more thoroughly referenced.  

(55) Saturday 9th November
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
John Le Carre
Brilliant spy novel. Twisty and clever and beautifully written in a sparse but involving style. Great use of understatement and total mastery of plotting. Hard to fault, although I’m not naturally drawn to the grimy, grey, sad, seedy world that Le Carre’s characters so often inhabit, and I can’t go as far as he does in drawing a moral equivalence between the two sides in the Cold War.

(56) Friday 15th November
Have His Carcase
Dorothy L Sayers
This may be a personal high point for the Peter Wimsey novels. An ingenious and admirably plotted novel, with many fun twists and turns and excellent pacing, and a large cast of memorable characters. Fine sense of place. DLS excels here at pulling the rug from under you, and then putting it back, before pulling it from under you again in a slightly different direction. The ambiguity in the last chapter about whether the perpetrators will be convicted (looking at the matter from a strict legal perspective, there’s almost no direct evidence against them) is quite a brave, and clever, conclusion. I always enjoy the byplay between Lord Peter and Harriet, and it’s good to see police officers who are intelligent and resourceful, even if not quite our hero’s equal.

(57) Monday 18th November
Unnatural Death
Dorothy L Sayers
Another elegant and enjoyable read from DLS. Lovely atmosphere and settings, and something approaching genuine philosophical depth in places, cf. the reflections on Christianity and euthanasia. As fairly often with her novels, there isn’t a great deal of mystery about the culprit. The pleasure lies elsewhere, in the writing, the characters (it’s good to see Miss Climpson again) and the story. I like these stories where the crime, and/or the key to solving it, lies somewhere in a murky past and the detective must dredge up old or unreliable memories. I’m a sucker for dusty old family solicitors, too, and there are plenty here. That said, I found this one a little disappointing in some ways. The nature of the original murder is somewhat unsatisfactory, and the motive for the third murder is unclear. In fact, the whole subplot leading up to the third murder doesn’t make a great deal of sense in the context of the final reveal about identity (which I had more or less guessed). Intriguing portrayal of some quasi-lesbian relationships.

(58) Friday 22nd November
I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan
Armando Ianucci, Steve Coogan, Rob and Neil Gibbons
Hilarious addition to the large and varied Partridge oeuvre. Funny and clever throughout, and a send-up of badly written celeb memoirs as much as it is of Alan himself. The few misfires come when the writers strain too hard to make nakedly political points about the supposed prejudices of the suburban bourgeoisie from which Alan comes.  

(59) Thursday 28th November
The Everlasting Man
GK Chesterton
Ambitious, ingenious and mostly convincing defence of Christianity as the most rational and humanistic religion, and the one which accords most closely with the deepest desires and instincts of man. Apparently written as a refutation of the idea that Christianity has somehow been rendered irrelevant and absurd by the passage of history (as had recently been argued by HG Wells at the time of its publication). I don’t think I gained as much from this book as I might have done, because I read it very intermittently over several months. This meant I lost track of its overall schema. Will read again sometime.

(60) Friday 29th November
The Catalans
Patrick O’Brian
Something of an oddity, but rather a charming one. A philosophical novel, with long passages of moral discussion and reflection set against the backdrop of traditional Catalan society. Alain Roig bears some resemblance to an early draft of Stephen Maturin (although this is set post-WW2 not in Napoleonic times). P O’B is a brilliant descriptive writer, although the ending of this feels underdeveloped – but this may be a deliberate choice to suggest deep undercurrents and the importance of things not said.

(61) Wednesday 4th December
Taken At The Flood
Agatha Christie
A good Poirot. Well set up, with a splendid cast of characters, and firmly anchored in a particular time, which adds something to the narrative heft and background. Nagging sense, as often with AC, that the telling of the tale doesn’t always do justice to the plot. Somewhat problematic conclusion – I feel sure that Rowley would not have gotten off scot-free for his role in Arden’s death, while the idea that Lynn would take his attempt to kill her as some kind of impulsive romantic gesture proving the depth of his love and his suitability as a husband seems both implausible and distasteful. That said, the Rowley-Lynn-Hunter subplot works well in general.

(62) Monday 9th December
The Labours of Hercules
Agatha Christie
Collection of short stories loosely structured around – I almost said unconvincingly shoehorned into – the framework of the twelve labours of Hercules. The stories themselves are fairly decent on the whole (some are very good and could have been expanded into novels quite easily) but others are weaker and the prologue setting up the Hercules connection and the contrived in-story references to the labours are rather silly. AC should have just settled for the pun as a title for a book of twelve Poirot short stories and not tried to extend it any further.  

(63) Saturday 14th December
Artists In Crime
Ngaio Marsh
Enjoyable country house murder. The country house in question is an artist’s college run by one Agatha Troy (a future love interest for Alleyn?). The suspects are good fun, only occasionally lapsing into stereotype, and the narrative is sparky and entertaining. The solution is clever without being ingenious or remarkable, and the twist is deft and very neatly clued. Two very gruesome murders. Some surprisingly racy elements for a 1938 Golden Age mystery. Abortion is alluded to. One of the (minor) characters seems to be a lesbian. Sexual infidelity lies at the heart of the plot. “Free love” is ever-present and discussed; this is obviously a very modern and bohemian set, although one detects a hint of authorial disapproval given the fates and actions of the characters most closely identified with libertine lifestyles. I like Alleyn and his team, and his family.

(64) Sunday 22nd December
Mystery Mile
Margery Allingham
I’ve not read any of Allingham’s Campion books before, and I found this surprisingly heavy going. I can’t quite put my finger on why. It’s not really a pure whodunit – more of a crime thriller, with some pretty generic stuff about villainous gangs with improbably long and convenient tentacles led by an implausible foreign Moriarty. Some rather clunky racial stereotyping too – "The Jew" crops up and the aforementioned Moriarty-figure is a Turk. There are some neat puzzles and some good clueing, but MA doesn’t always play fair on the latter.

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