Friday, 6 January 2017

Books read 2016


(1) Friday 1st January
And Then There Were None
Agatha Christie
Apparently the best-selling novel of all time. I revisited it after watching the BBC adaptation, about which I had quite a few reservations, and I’m still in two minds. As a story it is creepy and gripping and entertaining, and based on a great and psychologically interesting premise, although I definitely differ with Christie about the levels of culpability ascribed to each of the unpunished killers. But where others see the book as perfectly plotted, like a well-oiled machine, I cannot help but wonder about the logistics of the murderer’s scheme.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of what Justice Wargrave has to do, undetected and – after MacArthur’s death –  in an atmosphere of distrust and wariness: slip poison into two people’s drinks; batter a man’s head in, during daylight, on a small island described as having little shelter; sneak out of his room in the early hours, kill a man bloodily with an axe and then sneak back to his room; inject a woman with a fatal dose of a drug; persuade Armstrong to help him fake his own death from shooting and play dead convincingly enough to be carried back to his own room by someone who isn’t in on the scam without arousing suspicion; persuade Armstrong to go out into the night and be killed; push a clock onto Blore’s head with enough accuracy to kill him. As well as the actual murders he has to keep surreptitiously removing the Soldier figurines (what does he do with them, incidentally?), rig up the seaweed in Vera’s room, and steal and then replace Lombard’s revolver. For the last two deaths, he has to assume that Vera will get the revolver off Lombard and shoot him with it, and that she will then helpfully return to the house with it and hang herself rather than, say, throw it in the sea or shoot herself. I suppose you could argue that his plan does not absolutely depend on the Vera-Lombard scene playing out as it does – he could still have killed them both if, for example, they reconciled and returned to the house, though it would have been difficult given that Lombard had a gun, or he could have retrieved the gun from the beach in order to kill himself if Vera had committed suicide after shooting Lombard. Nevertheless, it feels very convenient that the scene on the beach plays out exactly as the judge wanted it to, as indeed do almost everyone’s actions during the whole stay on Soldier Island.

Now of course most traditional murder mysteries require some suspension of disbelief and a healthy dollop of artistic licence. But there is such a thing as stretching it too far! 

(2) Tuesday 5th January
Mystery In White: A Christmas Crime Story
J Jefferson Farjeon
One of the British Library Crime Classics reissues of neglected inter-war detective stories (see also The Hog’s Back Mystery). Supposedly this was flying off the shelves just over a year ago, but I wonder whether that was for its novelty value as a vintage Golden Age work rather than its individual merits as a really satisfying mystery. The set-up is great – half a dozen passengers leave a snowbound train on Christmas Eve and end up in an isolated old country house which has been recently abandoned, Marie Celeste-style. But the story never quite achieves lift-off, it seems to me. It’s very talky and not really clued in the classic sense. The narrative of the murders only really emerges in a “Well, OK, I’ll tell all now I’ve been caught” scene at the end of the book, and there is no way that you could have pieced it together yourself however closely you read.

What clues there are feel pedestrian and convenient. Some of the characters don’t really seem to have any purpose. The backstory of a long-ago family murder and a disputed will is such a cliché in the genre that you absolutely must do something a bit interesting with it if you want to stand out from the crowd (cf. Sayers’ Unnatural Death and The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club). This doesn’t. Worse still, there is some quasi-supernatural stuff about people sitting in chairs and beds where others have died and thereby gaining special insight.

(3) Wednesday 20th January
The Z Murders
J Jefferson Farjeon
It’s when you read some of the ropier inter-war crime stories that you appreciate why writers like Christie and Sayers are considered to be the masters of the art. I really didn’t rate this, though it has its moments, including an intriguing start. If the rationale behind the British Library’s Crime Classics series is to give a new lease of life to some of the better Thirties mysteries that have been unjustly neglected, then either the general standard was quite low or they need to choose more carefully. I suppose one might say in its defence that it’s not meant to be a conventional whodunit or even a detective story, but rather a thriller. Even so, it’s not to my mind a good example of that genre, or a particularly good story on any terms – at the very least it hasn’t aged well. The characters are uninteresting and the novel as a whole is talky, melodramatic and hokey. Exhibit A for this latter point: the chief villain is a supposedly half-crippled man with no arms, who can move with ninja-like stealth and who keeps up his sleeve, in place of an arm, a silenced gun (whose operation is never explained and with which he is a crack shot). The odd thing is, all this stuff isn’t needed – the fact that he is killing innocent people simply to inspire terror in an old enemy would have been quite scary enough on its own, and in fact turning him into a cartoonishly demonic figure undermines his impact as an antagonist.   

People behave in bizarrely implausible ways in order to move the plot on, and there is an unwelcome appearance for that old trope of the second-rate mystery: For Dumb Reasons I Cannot Possibly Tell The Police What I Know About This Case Even Though It Would Enable Them To Solve It In Five Minutes And Probably Save Several Lives. The motive behind the central crimes is a bit prosaic, as is the manner of its explanation to the reader, a long and contrived exposition dump between the two villains.

(4) Sunday 24th January
The Sussex Downs Murder
John Bude
Tightly constructed Crofts-esque mystery following Superintendent Meredith’s investigation into the deaths of farming brothers John and William Rother. The details of place make it an involving read, and the leisurely storytelling is just right for the Golden Age. In terms of setting and general feel it reminded me of The Hog’s Back Mystery. The solution isn’t particularly brilliant, and is fairly obvious at a quite early stage, so the time Meredith takes to realise what has happened begins to stretch the suspension of disbelief.

It is revealed at the climax that John Rother faked his own murder in order to kill William. To achieve this, he stole a complete skeleton for his accomplice Janet Rother to place into a lime kiln, to make it appear as if his “killer” had dismembered his body and disposed of it that way. The problem is that any experienced and/or attentive whodunit reader will know to be extremely suspicious about a supposed “death” where there is no definitive identification of a body (I’m not aware of any method available to provincial police forces in the 1930s by which a skeleton could be definitively identified). Bude makes a reasonably good fist of throwing sand in the reader’s eyes, but the tiny circle of suspects in William’s death makes this harder than it might otherwise have been.

Nevertheless, the journey to the denouement is enjoyable and entertaining, not unlike a Columbo where there is pleasure in seeing how a murderer is brought to justice even when you know his identity. This is despite the clunkingly dated attitudes to women – Meredith is relaxed about John Rother’s lover and accomplice Janet escaping justice for being an accessory to the murder of her husband because it wasn’t really her fault, poor thing, she was in love and her poor little female brain must have been overwhelmed(!)

(5) Friday 5th February
Appleby and the Ospreys
Michael Innes
Solid and well-written but not sparkling country-house murder. Innes’ last book, so maybe not a vintage example of his work. Appleby is likeable if a bit Alleyn-ish and the characters are well done, but the mystery is a bit thin and unless I’ve missed something there’s no definite evidence against the murderer, who conveniently drowns by accident at the end. The clueing isn’t up to the standard of, say, Christie (I realise that’s setting the bar rather high!) One other thing I found rather jarring, especially given that this book was published in 1986, was the attitude to rape. The murdered Lord Osprey is alleged to have sexually assaulted a local woman, but the incident is treated only half-seriously, almost light-heartedly, with a “boys will be boys” indulgence. There is an undercurrent of snobbery too, with the outraged father of the woman, the local publican, being a figure of fun and presumed to be violent and unpredictable – although to be fair the murderer is a don and the new Lord Osprey is not portrayed flatteringly.   

(6) Thursday 25th February
Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the making of the King James Bible
Adam Nicolson
Sprightly and well-researched account of how the KJV came to be. Particularly strong on the religio-cultural milieu from which this great translation emerged, with generous and insightful pen portraits of the various men who played their parts, from the conflicted, flawed, would-be intellectual James VI/I to the various Translators, who often combined worldly pride, spite and ambition with genuine piety and goodness. Nicolson is an enthusiast for the KJV, which he regards as emblematic of English culture at the dawn of the seventeenth century in its commitment to blending richness and depth, majesty and accessibility, simplicity and grandeur, elegance and ambiguity. Nicolson’s interest in Christianity tends, I think it is fair to say, towards the aesthetic and poetic rather than the theological and dogmatic (late in the book he says that he is not a practising Christian). He is very critical of many other Bible translations, but generally on aesthetic grounds rather than the grounds of accuracy or truthfulness. He quotes a magnificently waspish assessment of the New English Bible by TS Eliot, who thought the NEB “vulgar”, “trivial” and “pedantic”. I am sympathetic to Nicolson’s instincts; I am all for the beauty of holiness and a fan of the unmatched rhythms of the KJV – the language of which was already archaic in 1611! – but equally it is not always the most accurate rendering of the original texts, and other translations have done more to bring out the fundamental truths of Christianity, albeit in a flatter and more prosaic style.

(7) Saturday 5th March
The Secret Of Chimneys
Agatha Christie
Gave up on this eventually, and looked up the ending. It just felt very dated, over-complicated and dull; there are swarthy Balkan revolutionaries with “good bad English”, hook-nosed financiers called Herman Isaacstein(!), a ridiculous number of secret identities, hidden passages, lost gems which aren’t really gems at all but paste copies, A Master Villain Who Has Eluded The Police On Three Continents, and people sneaking round stately homes at night. Two characters collude to conceal a murder for very implausible reasons, and this is treated with unbelievable indulgence by the police on the grounds that the victim was a bit of a wrong ‘un.

(8) Tuesday 8th March
The Cornish Coast Murder
John Bude
Bude is not one of the Golden Age greats, but he is near the top of the second division. Like The Sussex Downs Murder, this is slow, even ponderous, in parts. The penultimate chapter is taken up with a rather melodramatic written confession (a device I don’t particularly like). Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable read, with a decent sense of place and likeable characters, although I must say I didn’t find the solution very satisfying – the murder scheme is extremely dicey, and could easily have not worked, while the identity of the murderer is not really clued at all, and his unmasking hinges to a very great extent on facts that have not been revealed to the reader. One can accept an author keeping a few cards close to his chest, but there are limits!

The resolution also feels a bit rushed, compared to the great swathes of the book devoted to exploring what turns out to be a red herring – the possible complicity in the murder of the victim’s niece and her beau, a local writer. I thought at one point that Bude might be double-bluffing, i.e. knowing that the reader would assume that the obviousness of the case against them meant they were unlikely to be the murderers, he had made them the murderers after all. Some of the real masters of crime storytelling can do this: they devote so much narrative attention to a particular suspect and their motive that it seems too obvious for them to be the real killer, but then they unveil a bravura denouement in which that person turns out to actually be guilty after all, perhaps by a hitherto unsuspected method or for some more complex motive.

One final point: this is yet another Golden Age work without any properly realised main female characters. Ruth, the victim’s niece and an erstwhile suspect, gets a free pass for committing perjury at an inquest – a very serious offence – because her delicate female brain was under such terrible strain etc. etc. (cf. the indulgence extended to the accessory to murder Janet Rother in The Sussex Downs Murder).

(9) Tuesday 29th March
Leave It To Psmith
PG Wodehouse
One of the early Blandings books, and an absolute joy. I think I’d read it before but that hardly matters. The plot is the usual contrived nonsense about imposters and diamond necklaces and fierce aunts. One just basks in the brilliance and seeming effortlessness of the writing.

(10) Thursday 28th April
Third Girl
Agatha Christie
Laboured late Poirot, set in Swinging London, which is described just as you might expect it to be described by someone who grew to adulthood in pre-First World War Britain. Women living independently away from their parents, badly-dressed young people who take All The Drugs, greasy beatniks and artists; it’s all happening and it’s all terrible. The plot is not bad and there is as usual with AC some scrupulous clueing, but at this stage of the Christie proceedings a lot of the individual elements feel very familiar and it perhaps strains a little too hard at the boundaries of plausibility. The detection depends on a couple of honking coincidences – a letter crucial to the case almost literally falling at the feet of Ariadne Oliver! – which Christie in her prime would either not have allowed herself, or at least compelled you to accept cheerfully by the skill with which she told the rest of the story.

(11) Monday 2nd May
Closed Casket
Sophie Hannah
In construction, a conventional and well-clued country-house murder, given the unusual setting of rural Ireland in the early years of the Free State. I did wonder if the setting might turn out to be relevant or important in the story, but it wasn’t – the only actual Irish characters here are the domestics and the gardai, and the owners of the house are Anglo-Irish gentry, heavy on the Anglo, so this is for all intents and purposes Irelandshire, an extension of rural England with a rather slow constabulary whither Scotland Yard police officers are summoned from London and whence you can nip to Oxford for a day or two to follow up some leads.

However, I did very much enjoy the exploration of human idiosyncracies. The main springboard for this exploration is the strange character of the murder victim, Joseph Scotcher. After the posthumous revelation that he was not actually dying from kidney disease, it gradually emerges that numerous people did not really believe him but for a variety of reasons decided not to force the issue, so there are some thoughtful reflections on why we sometimes are willing to live with something less than the truth – cowardice, love, curiosity, self-interest.

The motive for the murder arises from the victim’s personality (aptly, as the importance of understanding the character of the victim is often stressed by Poirot in the canon). A pathologist, Dr Kimpton, an erstwhile friend of Scotcher’s from Oxford days, has become obsessed with knowing for certain that Scotcher is not really dying from kidney disease, and the only way he can know this for sure is for someone to perform an autopsy on Scotcher, which requires killing him. 

The real burning mystery at the heart of the book is left unresolved, which is a brave and clever decision. That mystery, of course, is this: what, if anything, was wrong with Scotcher, an outwardly warm, kindly and charming man? Was he mentally unwell? Was he just calculatedly dishonest? Some form of sociopath? Hannah highlights in the denouement two contrasting wishes sparked by Scotcher’s dishonesty. Kimpton simply wants to know for sure that Scotcher was a liar, and his need for certain knowledge becomes pathological. Lady Playford wants above all to know why Scotcher created a fantasy life for himself. The obvious dichotomy represented is between the desire for knowledge and the desire for understanding, which are not always the same thing.

The title itself alludes rather cleverly to this tension of worldviews, and to the impenetrability and mysteriousness of our fellows; Scotcher, with his unexplained deceits and fabrications, is a “closed casket” to different people in different ways – “casket” being used as a metaphor for the human body in Shakespeare’s King John. This metaphor is also the basis of an important clue in the book, involving a clever bit of misdirection worthy of old Agatha herself. An overheard reference to the need for “an open casket” is taken to refer to an open casket funeral and the various investigators are rather puzzled as to why any murderer would want such a thing. It turns out that it is code for Kimpton’s desire to have Scotcher’s body opened to establish once and for all that his kidneys are healthy.

Kimpton, of course, is a “closed casket”, whose attempt to give a rational account of his his long obsession with Scotcher ultimately fails because no human desire is fully rational, and whose rational murder scheme is let down by his mistakes and impulses. Perhaps his problem is that he is to some extent a mystery even to himself, as we all are, and so our attempts to give a rational account of our motivations, actions, desires and intents never quite succeed, cf. the rationalisations offered by Scotcher’s acquaintances for never having challenged him.  

(12) Wednesday 18th May
Jerusalem: The Biography
Simon Sebag Montefiore
An extremely impressive book in many respects, taking in over three thousand years of endlessly fascinating history, from the first Jewish settlement in the area to the Six Day War of 1967 (a short epilogue reflects on events since then and the possibilities for Jerusalem’s future). This takes in periods of Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Seleucid, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Egyptian, Turkish and British rule. I’d no idea of how relentlessly bloody and violent the city’s history actually was. It actually gets depressing to read about the endless brutality and sectarianism and squabbling, not least the ludicrous scuffles between Orthodox, Catholics, Copts etc. that continue to this day in the Holy Sepulchre, albeit not with the same deadly effects as in former times. 

The narrative is episodic in parts – there is relatively little on late medieval or early modern Jerusalem – although I think that is a reasonable decision as some periods are simply more interesting than others. I certainly found myself singularly unengaged by the tedious parade of debauched, grasping, tyrannical and often psychotic despots who had charge of Jerusalem during a great deal of the Mamluk and Ottoman periods. What was very new to me was the extent of European involvement in Jerusalem in the nineteenth century, and the centrality of Jerusalem to the Crimean War. I was also largely unfamiliar with the detail of Jerusalem’s history in the first half of the twentieth century. SSM dwells in some depth on these subjects.

A minor quibble is that SSM doesn’t always get things quite right in regard to theology. His description of Luther’s objections to Catholic doctrine is odd, to say the least, and he has bought rather glibly into a number of highly debatable views about early Christianity – that it didn’t really exist because of the various different sects, that Constantine imposed his own theological vision at Nicaea etc. He is, however, scrupulously fair in his treatment of the Arab-Jewish conflict that has dominated so much of the modern history of Jerusalem.

(13) Tuesday 24th May
Five Little Pigs
Agatha Christie
Almost certainly the finest Poirot book, probably Christie’s masterpiece, and arguably the apotheosis of the classic detective story. Well-crafted, strongly clued, wise, psychologically perceptive, with engaging and plausible characters and a solution that arises perfectly from the narrative. The economy of style and storytelling which marks most of the best Christies is very much on display. If I have any quibble, it is that the denouement ends a little abruptly, but that is only a minor objection.

Christie returned several times to the “murder in the past” motif – Nemesis, Ordeal By Innocence, Sleeping Murder, Elephants Can Remember, and By The Pricking Of My Thumbs come to mind – but never quite as successfully, with the latter two in that list suffering badly from the rambling and unfocused style of the later years.

(14) Tuesday 14th June
The Black Tower
PD James
James loved to set her mysteries in closed or isolated communities, little worlds unto themselves, and we are in one here – a mildly shambolic home for disabled people on the Dorset coast, Toynton Grange. It is somewhat reminiscent of St Anselm’s from Death In Holy Orders, as it is run on quasi-monastic lines and forms a refuge for various people who are either inadequate or lost or fleeing from professional and personal scandal. Dalgliesh, convalescing after medical treatment, arrives on the scene in response to a request for help from an old friend, a priest, who turns out to have died shortly before the detective’s arrival (as people who summon help with unspecified problems are wont to do in the more traditional type of mystery). It turns out that one of the patients at the home had died a few days before Fr Baddeley, and two more deaths follow Dalgliesh’s arrival.

The plot is not especially intricate or engaging – the murders have been committed to cover up a drug-running ring – but the book is very well-written and full of marvellous detail. James’ gifts of psychological insight, description and character are pleasingly to the fore. The inmates of the Grange feel like real people with lives of texture and nuance. The dilemmas and hard choices they face are recognisable. The ending is suspense-filled and taut, though dependent on a rather corny plot contrivance, viz. Dalgliesh, having just solved the case in a flash of insight while all alone in an empty country house, is surprised by the killer, who realises that the detective has rumbled him and then proceeds to explain his whole diabolical scheme whole holding the detective at gunpoint. Dalgliesh is later saved in the nick of time by the Dorset police! The solution is not unclued, however, nor does it feel like an imposition on the story.
(15) Monday 4th July
Death Of An Expert Witness
PD James
A typically Jamesian set-up, this; a small, remote community – this time a police forensic science laboratory in the fens – turns out to be a hotbed of lust, love, tragedy, unhappiness and ambition. An enjoyable read, full (as ever) of well-observed, plausible characters with properly developed and very human inner lives. James is still just about within the classical tradition, especially in her focus on what you might call middle-class murder, although she does not flinch away from, and indeed emphasises, the horror and finality of violent death, and the irreparable damage and trauma caused thereby. She also writes freely and directly about sex and darkness, subjects which the Golden Age writers were obliged to approach more obliquely, or not at all. The atmosphere is well-crafted too; the oppressive and even sinister loneliness of the fen country is a constant theme. 
(16) Monday 4th July
Why Believe?
John Cottingham
I don’t know whether I would categorise this as apologetics exactly, but it is an attempt to lay out some of the reasons why an intelligent, thoughtful person might come to believe in Christianity. The tone is moderate and measured, with a focus on the many issues arising from the so-called moral argument, the nature of the individual self, and our experience of life as it is lived. It doesn’t have the punchiness of many responses to the New Atheism. I think it is fair to say that the book is primarily an assertion of the reasonableness rather than the truth of Christian faith. One might even say it is too moderate and measured; it felt to me like there was a lot of throat-clearing and a lot of the points are made very tentatively. Cottingham also seems reluctant to defend in any definite way the specific historical, theological and moral claims made by Christianity, but then this is not perhaps that kind of book.

One final thought: the arguments here confirm my sympathies with what has been called existential Christianity, i.e. a faith based ultimately on a choice in the absence of absolutely compelling reasons.

(17) Saturday 9th July
Antidote To Venom
Freeman Wills Crofts
Slow-burning and suspenseful inverted whodunit, in which the director of a zoo makes the fateful decision to become an accomplice in a particularly callous murder as the result of a long chain of poor decisions. Two things in particular are well done here: first the way in which we are invited to like, and sympathise with, George Surridge (who is, not unlike Edmund Bickleigh in Malice Aforethought, essentially a weak man rather than a malicious one), and second the gradual build-up to the murder – it is not clear for a long time who will be killed or why. The unravelling of the scheme, thanks to the meticulous investigation of Inspector French, adds considerable tension to the second half of the book, and the ingenious mechanical method of killing, though fanciful, is just plausible enough. The last chapter, in which Surridge decides to confess after a sort of religious experience and goes to the scaffold cleansed and happy, feels a bit heavy handed and moralistic (FWC often indulges his moralistic side).     

(18) Sunday 17th July
Great Western Railway: A History
Andrew Roden
Compulsively readable and well-researched general history of the GWR, from its genesis in the 1830s under the guidance of Brunel, Saunders, Russell and Daniel Gooch to its apotheosis in the early decades of the twentieth century (Roden himself argues the GWR’s “golden age” came in the 1920s, which seems plausible). Filled with anecdote and colour and information I never knew, plus useful but not over-complicated technical detail about locomotives and systems. It could have done with some better editing, to make some of the narrative clearer, and perhaps an index and some maps and diagrams showing parts of a steam engine.
(19) Monday 25th July
The Golden Ocean
Patrick O’Brian
One of POB’s first novels, and his first foray into writing about the age of fighting sail. There are very faint echoes of The Hobbit – a wide-eyed naif from a rural backwater becomes embroiled in a huge adventure whose significance is initially beyond his comprehension, and returns home much changed and laden with foreign treasure. In fact, you might say that this stands in a similar relation to the Aubrey-Maturin books as The Hobbit does to The Lord Of The Rings, i.e. it is a relatively light-hearted, conventional stand-alone adventure that prefigures a more expansive, more sophisticated, darker saga. It’s enormously enjoyable, and the story is given a little extra impact by the knowledge that it is based on a real expedition, namely Commodore Anson’s lucrative but very costly cruise to harry the Spanish in the Pacific in the early 1740s. Anson took numerous prizes, including a Spanish treasure galleon, and became enormously rich, but fewer than one third of those who set out with his squadron ever saw England again (scurvy, still poorly understood at the time, was a particular problem). All the POB hallmarks - the wonderfully immersive detail, the humour, the underlying humanity – are present and correct.     

(20) Sunday 7th August
The Unknown Shore
Patrick O’Brian
A companion piece to The Golden Ocean, with a somewhat similar structure – young midshipman and friend embark with the Anson expedition, and after many adventures in far-flung foreign parts return home older and wiser. Of necessity this is perhaps a little darker than TGO; it is set against the background of the wreck of HMS Wager and the bloodshed, mutiny, disasters and miseries that befell the ship’s company subsequently. But the focus on the two likeable central characters, and their eventual successful journey to Spanish Chile and then back to England, keeps things from becoming too dark. Those two characters are Midshipman Jack Byron, a sort of proto-Aubrey figure (based on a real person, who had a distinguished career at sea and was the grandfather of the poet), and the fictional Tobias Barrow, surgeon’s mate and obviously a first draft of Stephen Maturin, with his almost autistic level of scientific knowledge and focus, and total bafflement at the jargon and rhythms of naval life.

The tale is well told – it is interesting to see POB experimenting with frequent direct authorial intrusion into the narrative, a technique which he (probably wisely) abandoned for the Aubrey-Maturin series. The horrors of the Wagers’ situation are dealt with unflinchingly but in an understated way and sometimes obliquely. One possible weakness: it is very much one story among many, and you get the sense that there is a great deal happening that we are not hearing much about, e.g. what exactly happened when Captain Cheap shot Cozens? What happened to the mutineers who took the modified long-boat and the cutter to Brazil? What of the Marines abandoned by Cheap and the loyalists (including Byron and Barrow) during their attempt to make their way north? Who exactly made the decision to abandon those men? What happened to Campbell after he converted to Catholicism and went to Rio? But then of course you cannot possibly tell all the stories of the Wager in a single novel, and the fact is that we simply don’t know for sure the full answers to those questions. The tragic mysteries that still cling to the affair add to the interest.

One further sort-of criticism: I might perhaps have wanted to hear more about their journey back to England, which was an enormous distance and far from straightforward, but which is dealt with in a rather peremptory fashion. And yet perhaps an over-lengthy treatment of this might have unbalanced the novel and made it feel overlong or anti-climactic, since the real meat of the adventure is the shipwreck and the voyage north to civilisation from Wager Island, and the happy resolution of that arduous experience is a natural point at which to begin concluding the book.

(21) Thursday 11th August
Striding Folly
Dorothy L Sayers
Three short stories for completists only. Striding Folly itself is the most interesting but feels underdeveloped and tonally uneven, trying to straddle the very different genres of detective story and horror story. Perhaps it might have been better as a long short story. The other two are inconsequential slices of crime-free Wimsey whimsy, with the charming but dramatically dull domestic bliss of Peter, Harriet and their children featuring heavily. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that DLS wasn’t at her best in the short detective story, unlike e.g. Conan Doyle and GKC. The Wimsey of the novels is often on the verge of becoming irritating; here he crosses the line. The placing of the snake in Miss Quirk’s bed feels oddly out of character for Peter; there’s an element of gratuitous and perhaps even snobbish cruelty to it – and Harriet’s indulgence of it feels wrong too, given what we know of her character.

(22) Saturday 20th August
Attention All Shipping: A Journey Round The Shipping Forecast
Charlie Connelly
Sprightly and informative, though necessarily episodic, travelogue following one man’s quest to visit every shipping forecast area. It has a very Bryson-esque feel, featuring lots of Connelly’s personal and family history, jokes at his own expense, encounters with eccentric or bizarrely memorable characters, and set-piece descriptions of mishaps and tribulations, notably two grim episodes of seasickness.

As with Bryson, one wonders about the degree to which at least a few of these encounters and incidents have been significantly embellished, if not actually made up from whole cloth. That doesn’t matter too much; in some respects the comic travel sub-genre is a spiritual descendant of the tall tale or the shaggy dog story, and as such there is a sort of implicit understanding between writer and reader that a certain amount of embroidery will take place. In any case, it’s an enjoyable book, even on the occasions when the humour feels a little bit overdone or strained (one example: it felt to me that a long-running comic motif involving Connelly’s ne’er-do-well great-grandfather, who apparently ended up travelling all over the world on a ship after a heavy night’s drinking in the Docklands, never quite took off). The theme lends itself to variety and interest, although isolated and/or economically precarious seaside communities tend to feature heavily, and Connelly takes advantage, with a good ear for the striking anecdote and the telling detail.

(23) Friday 2nd September
David Thomson
A genuinely beautiful book; one that I’m sure will stay with me and grow on me. It helps that I am somewhat familiar with the area in which most of the action, if that is the right word, occurs.

It is a memoir, of sorts, detailing Thomson’s decade-long residence as a tutor with the Kirkwoods, an Anglo-Irish gentry family living in Roscommon, during the 1930s and early 1940s. But it is very far from a conventional memoir; there is only the very barest of linear narrative, few dates, and minimal detail about Thomson’s family, his education or his life away from Woodbrook. It was not entirely clear when or indeed whether he began living at the house full-time, having just spent parts of his vacations there while he was an undergraduate at Oxford. Some reviews I’ve read describe it as dreamlike, and that is a good way of putting it. It feels meandering and even episodic, as if consciously trying to mimic the partial and thematic way in which we recall the past, often moving from one recollection to another without any clear logical link. Thomson often alludes to the way in which memory becomes distorted over time, how particular events can cast shadows both forward and backwards. Of course, the style may also reflect the fact that he burned all his diaries and papers from the time in a rather adolescent fit of self-pity, despite being not far off thirty at the time.  

Several interconnected strands are woven into the book. There are his experiences of rural life in inter-war Ireland, which are endlessly fascinating, e.g. the workings of livestock fairs, the odd remuneration arrangements between the residents of Big Houses and their servants/employees, and the extraordinary raucous semi-pagan pre-funeral vigils at which dancing and drinking and games occurred, and the corpse was sometimes actually included in the festivities, by having a pipe put in his hand. There is also a fair bit of history, and inevitably this means a lot of difficult to read passages about the grotesque and relentless English oppression to which the Irish, and particularly the poor Irish, were subjected from the time of Elizabeth onwards (Thomson states that Elizabeth and Cromwell both actively sought to exterminate the ordinary Irish population; I am not familiar enough with the history to know if this is true). As well as these aspects, there is the strange, stuttering, half-admitted love affair between Thomson and the elder of the two Kirkwood daughters, Phoebe. I must confess I found this a little bit troubling. When the book starts Thomson is eighteen and Phoebe is eleven, and his pupil, yet his romantic-erotic affection for her seems to begin almost straight away. When she was only fourteen the tendresse between them had reached such a stage that it is bothering her parents. On the other hand, it was perhaps a more innocent age and there is no suggestion that Thomson ever took any sexual advantage of her. And it does seem that the two might have forged a long-lasting relationship on adult terms, if not for Phoebe’s sudden and shocking death from an undisclosed illness in January 1945, the event with which the book ends.

Always rumbling away in the background, in a manner faintly reminiscent of Brideshead, is the decline of the estate, the financial problems of the good-natured but rather chaotic Kirkwoods, and the gradual disappearance of a way of life centred on the Big House and the big landowners, left over from pre-independence days. Thomson returned to Woodbrook in 1968, after 25 years away, to find it in a bad way. The shrunken estate was overgrown and the house had been partially demolished and neglected by the elderly, frail owner (an old friend of Thomson’s and one of the Kirkwoods’ former neighbours and helpers, who had a family connection to the land going back to before the Kirkwoods arrived in the late seventeenth century). This melancholy, open-ended and elegiac ending reflects the whole mood of the book. It is an impressionistic and unsentimental piece of work; many loose ends are not resolved – we never hear how things turned out for most of the Kirkwoods after Phoebe’s death, for example.

I will definitely read this again. Thomson makes an excellent companion because he does not seem interested in concealing his faults and failures. He is not aiming for likeability, but for honesty, and so achieves likeability as a by-product.

(24) Wednesday 7th September
Mrs McGinty’s Dead
Agatha Christie
One of the last really good Poirots, I think – indeed, one of the last really good Christies before the steady decline of her last two decades brought an end to the hot streak that started c.1930. Its immediate successor in the sequence, After The Funeral, is a late flourish, probably top five material, but after that it is definitely rather slim pickings.

It’s not a personal favourite. However, there is some clever clueing and a decent plot, plus some good comic stuff with Ariadne Oliver, through whom Christie sends herself up mercilessly. The awful guesthouse in which Poirot stays is also quite funny. The denouement feels somewhat cluttered with coincidences; as well as the revelation of the murderer, Robin Upward, we discover that one of the characters is a fraud, another is a suspected wife-murderer and may have tried to push Poirot under a train, and still another is the daughter of the woman whose mother was killed by Robin Upward’s mother Eva Kane!

(25) Friday 16th September
Ordeal By Innocence
Agatha Christie
Enjoyable late entry in the Christie canon, though not so much a detective story as a psychological study that takes a murder as its starting point. There are real if not brilliantly original insights here. They concern the difficulties of living with suspicion, the temptation to accept a convenient and plausible untruth rather than confront a difficult truth (cf. Hannah’s Closed Casket), and the tensions and moral ambiguities of adoption, especially in the now outdated context of rich people adopting poor children (with occasional use of cash inducements). Interestingly, Christie’s clear belief that heredity frequently matters rather more than upbringing in determining life outcomes has increasingly been vindicated by research, whereas I suspect that it was very much against the mainstream of opinion when the book was published (1958). She also alludes to the real-life Derek Bentley case, and makes her position on the joint enterprise question fairly obvious, that is to say she clearly thinks that moral culpability for a crime extends to encouraging others to commit it.

Story-wise, we’re on pretty solid Christie territory, though in darker shades than usual: a family murder, some time in the past, with a closed circle of suspects and a seemingly wrongfully convicted culprit, cf. James Bentley in Mrs McGinty’s Dead and Caroline Crale in Five Little Pigs. It’s striking that AC was a good enough writer to not make such characters mere martyrs or paragons; wrongfully accused people in her books are often prickly or difficult. The murder victim is cleverly and subtly drawn, as a well-meaning but deeply flawed person in whom benevolence and self-righteousness and frustrated desire and thoughtless cruel insensitivity were all mingled together.

The resolution of the mystery makes good dramatic sense but felt a bit heavily signposted, and AC can’t resist the temptation to tie up some romantic loose ends. The climactic scenes also stretch the suspension of disbelief.

(26) Tuesday 20th September
Opening Night
Ngaio Marsh
Another theatrical murder, and another Marsh which felt a bit lacklustre. The writing style is fun, if a bit mannered and arch, and there are as ever some marvellous grotesques and a few good jokes. But events proceed strictly according to the Marsh formula and the central mystery just feels underdeveloped and flat. The solution is only lightly clued – it’s not at all clear how Alleyn comes to his conclusion – and as so often with Marsh feels a bit bolted on. 

(27) Tuesday 27th September
John Buchan
Clever moderns are rather superior about Buchan’s adventure novels, written a hundred years ago in a world that has vanished almost entirely. You could get a whole grievance studies conference out of his assumptions about the world. But that is to miss the point. For my money they are still rattling good yarns; preposterous of course – with coincidence piled on contrivance piled on melodrama, and frequent interludes in which people explain the plot to each other – but entertaining. In this one we find Hannay teaming up with friends old and new to thwart the Germans’ attempts to start an Islamic religious revival in the Middle East and so undermine British power there.

And amid the old-fashioned views about blacks and the heavy-handed moralising about the Wicked Germans and the jarring attempt to imply that the main villain is gay, there is a truly enduring and admirable moral vision, one that elevates masculine strength, self-sacrificing love of country, humanity, mercy to defeated opponents, courage in battle, and loyalty to friends even unto death. Not so bad really. It’s easy to laugh at the code of the British gentleman, rather harder to come up with anything better.

(28) Monday 10th October
Swing Brother Swing
Ngaio Marsh
Like quite a few other Marsh books – Off With His Head, Vintage Murder, Enter A Murderer, Death In Ecstasy, Overture To Death, Death At The Bar – this concerns a murder that takes place apparently in plain sight; a big band musician shot during some comic gunplay with a sharp piece of sewing kit fired from a revolver. No, really.

This is towards the top end of the Alleyn books, although from me that’s not especially high praise since I don’t really rate most of them. It’s a clever set-up for a murder, fairly clued, and the tale is entertaining in parts. I quite enjoy Marsh’s sense of theatricality and taste for grotesque baroque staging – in small doses. But it is formulaic in a number of respects, and the motive (drugs) is just a bit dull and easy. Alleyn is still rather underwhelming as a character, and the writing of the young aristocratic women feels a bit arch and overdone. As I come towards the end of my reading of the Marsh books, it seems clear that she never pushed the boundaries of what you could do within the conventions of a Golden Age detective story, certainly not in the way that Christie (or to a lesser extent Sayers) did. It’s as if Christie had spent her whole career writing variations on Styles or Death In The Clouds, rather than moving on to books like Roger Ackroyd, Orient Express, And Then There Were None, Five Little Pigs, or Endless Night.

(29) Thursday 13th October
The Pit-Prop Syndicate
Freeman Wills Crofts
One critic apparently referred to FWC as being of “the humdrum school” of detective fiction. That is harsh but not entirely unfair (I have read a fairly decent sample of his work now). This isn’t a conventional Golden Age mystery. There is a murder, but it’s thrown in about halfway through in an oddly desultory fashion, as if Crofts didn’t really want to bother with it but felt he ought to for the sake of form. The bulk of the plot concerns the investigation of a brandy smuggling racket between Bordeaux and Hull, first by two young and resourceful English gentlemen on a boating holiday (echoes of The Riddle Of The Sands, right down to one of them being in love with the daughter of an antagonist), and then by the meticulous Inspector Willis, who is clearly an early version of Crofts’ indomitable plodder Inspector French.

Possibly I’m judging it a bit harshly because I wanted a murder mystery, not a thriller/police procedural that ends with a dozen armed policemen storming a freighter on the Humber to net a gang of professional crooks. But even on its own terms it felt a bit leaden and ineptly told, though the mechanics of the detection are occasionally absorbing. There seemed to be a lot of scenes of men sitting in comfy chairs smoking and drinking and explaining the plot to each other, and endless incidents of characters creeping around to spy on the baddies and overhear convenient exposition, while incidents and investigations that would have been intriguing to read about happen off the page, and are simply relayed in Crofts’ not very sparkling prose. The one and only female character is dreadful, a mere cipher with no personality or perspective of her own who could not possibly be involved in crime because she’s good-looking, and the romantic subplot cringemaking. A central conceit of the story is that the original discoverer of the smuggling scheme is so deeply in love with this woman that he will not let his fellow amateur investigator go to the Yard because it might cause her to be ashamed of her father, who is involved. This was irritating not only because we were not given any insight into why he had conceived such a deep love for the girl, or she for him, but also because it is a textbook case of People Acting Stupidly Because Plot. And no-one seems very bothered that this refusal leads to the father being killed!

This book is more evidence for my view that the high regard in which writers like Christie and Sayers are held is not due to mere chance or fashion or groupthink, but actually reflects their genuine artistic superiority to most of the writers active in the Golden Age detective genre.

(30) Tuesday 18th October
The Vanishing Man
R Austin Freeman
Impeccably clued and well-constructed Edwardian detective story, entertaining and engrossing and even quite funny in parts, if a little slow and ponderous. An interestingly ambiguous ending too. Thorndyke and Jervis are worthy successors to Holmes and Watson, though not quite their equals, and the well-researched detail of then-contemporary forensic techniques is an enjoyable part of the story. I should have tumbled to the solution much sooner than I did; one must always be very careful with a skeleton that is impossible to identify definitively, especially when there is a sealed sarcophagus with some curious distinguishing features in the background. I also missed a very obvious bit of trickery about the time of death and a not very observant maid.

Apart from the pacing, the only real problem is, as ever with this vintage of story, the badly overwritten romance. Ruth Bellingham is fleshed out more than usual, given a plausible personality and a job and interests, but she still exists in the story basically as an appendage, a love interest, a mere prize to be won. The scenes where she and Berkeley declare their love for one another, and she does the tiresome “Oh, My Love, It Cannot Be, For Reasons” stuff, were literally unreadable for me.

(31) Wednesday 19th October
Tales of Terror And Mystery
Arthur Conan Doyle
Intermittently diverting short story collection from Conan Doyle. The tales of mystery are mostly dated and unremarkable – with the possible exception of The Lost Special, for which I downloaded the collection in the first place in search of railway mysteries – but several of the tales of terror are effective chillers. The New Catacomb in particular is properly creepy and horrible, with echoes of Poe’s The Cask Of Amontillado. The Terror Of Blue John Gap and The Case Of Lady Sannox are good too.

(32) Friday 21st October
John Thorndyke’s Cases
R Austin Freeman
A mixed bag. A couple of really good short detective stories, with the rest ranging from merely readable to weak, implausible and contrived (the whole business with the mirror in The Mandarin’s Pearl and the dagger fired from an antique rifle in The Aluminium Dagger just felt a bit silly, though I  did guess the solution of the former). Rather dated in style – there’s a lot of people sitting down and explaining the plot – and attitudes; women are variously servants or damsels in distress, and prone to emotional storms or hysterics. This wouldn’t matter so much if the tales didn’t sometimes feel like a mere device for showing off the scientific techniques involved in the detection, and if the villains weren’t so obvious (these stories tend to be about how rather than who). I think I perhaps find Thorndyke’s omniscience a bit tiresome, but then I don’t have quite the same reaction to Holmes, so who knows?

(33) Tuesday 25th October
Is God A Moral Monster?
Paul Copan
I have a certain admiration for any Christian apologist who sets out to tackle the moral problems of the Old Testament. From the apparently strange, pedantic and cruel laws of ancient Israel to the seeming endorsement by God of ethnic cleansing and the killing of the innocent, there is no end of ammunition for the sceptic to call into doubt Christian convictions about God’s benevolence and consistency, the nature of God’s “choosing” of Israel, and the reliability of the Old Testament. My own instinct has been to take the view that statements recorded as divine commands may not necessarily have been divine commands. Copan takes a different tack, developing several themes:

·         - The laws of Israel were much more morally advanced than those of their near neighbours;
·     - The peoples against whom God commanded the Israelites to use terrible violence were dreadfully sinful and barbaric;
·         - The God-given laws of the Old Testament were meant for a particular people in a particular place at a particular time, taking into account the Jews’ moral development. They are not perfect but they represent God’s purpose in gradual moral formation.
·       - God’s purposes are not our purposes; his ways are not our ways. Sometimes we must simply trust that He knows what He is doing.

This is a credible and interesting approach, but in the end I just found the book a bit glib and evasive on some big issues, as if Copan hadn’t actually paid close attention to objections. There was too much culture war knockabout (cf. Feser’s The Last Superstition) and I didn’t particularly like the chatty polemical style. I wonder whether this book would really help a sceptical inquirer, or someone with some deep questions about God’s nature and justice. I suspect not – this is a book to shore up the faith of someone who wants to be reassured, rather than a comprehensive treatment of the OT problems for the really curious sceptical inquirer. Copan’s Evangelical convictions cut him off from any other approaches to the issue other than that trying to explain away the hard parts. More fruitful explanations might come from those who are less committed to literalist readings.

(34) Friday 28th October
Micah Clarke
Arthur Conan Doyle
Splendid historical adventure following the adventures of a Hampshire Puritan’s son who becomes involved with the Monmouth Rebellion, the ill-fated precursor to the Glorious Revolution. It’s actually rather wise in its way, a tract against cruelty, fanaticism, tyranny and sectarianism, as well as being a no-nonsense ripping yarn.

(35) Saturday 5th November
Sir Nigel
Arthur Conan Doyle
Another of ACD’s historical yarns, this time telling the tale of how Sir Nigel Loring – who also features in The White Company – won his spurs in the early 1350s, performing three “small deeds” of valour and knight errantry for his beloved Mary; the capture of a French spy in the Channel, the storming of a fortress belonging to a cruel bandit, and the capture of the French king Jean at the Battle of Poitiers. It’s good fun, with memorable characters like Samkin Aylward and some moving descriptions of the English countryside near Guildford.

And yet it’s very difficult to entirely put out of mind my reservations about many aspects of the whole system of knightly honour – or to be more precise, the way in which it was inconsistently and inadequately obeyed in practice, not to mention built on a cruel social system – and the fetishisation of the martial virtues. Neither seem to sit at all well with the Christianity that was supposedly the bedrock of these men’s moral life. It is all very well seeking after glory and fame in battle, but the regular warfare of the period caused vast suffering, not only to the ordinary people displaced, killed, starved, raped, and robbed in the process but to the rank-and-file soldiers and their families. Nigel is a loyal, true knight, but he serves and perpetuates a horrible system, indeed he reacts with shock and disdain when he meets William Langland, the social radical who wrote Piers Plowman, and the latter argues for a more just distribution of wealth. I don’t think Conan Doyle necessarily endorses this system in every jot and tittle – he is implicitly very critical of the Church, for example – but he appears to have had a high view of it.

Women are also terribly written, insofar as they appear at all. The scene with the Wicked Seducing Hunchback Of Shalford and Sir Nigel’s sister-in-law-to-be is very unconvincing, and Mary (the future Mrs Sir Nigel), while not entirely without character, is very much the dutiful, idealised prize. 

1 comment:

  1. This is an excellent list. I'll admit I have a hard time reading any criticism of Sayers, even though your criticism is certainly fair and one with which I cannot disagree at all. I just love Sayers so very much. I recently read a biography of her written by Barbara Reynolds. It may be out of print, though worth reading if you can get your hands on a copy. It's fascinating to see how much of herself Sayers wrote into her stories.