Saturday, 6 April 2019

Books read Q1 2019

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

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

Berlin Game
Len Deighton
Gripping spy yarn from a master of the art, the first of a number of Bernie Samson novels (nine, I believe, three separate trilogies). It shares a key plot point with Tinker, Tailor: a high-up mole in British intelligence orchestrates a complicated distraction to avoid exposure. However, that storyline is interweaved with other strands, mainly the extraction of a long-serving SIS source – Brahms Four –  from East Germany and Samson’s realisation that the main British network in East Berlin is deeply involved in cross-border criminality.

The mood and the setting and the characters really make the story. This is definitely in the “realist” tradition developed by, among others, Le Carre, although with a less slow-burning style, and a little more action, than JLC. The intelligence world as portrayed here is bureaucratic, ambiguous, sclerotic, riven by petty turmoils and rivalries. Samson is not a suave or indestructible action man; he is middle-aged, prickly, irreverent, instinctive. He is also a non-university man in a “Department” dominated by Oxbridge types (a subconscious dig, perhaps, at Le Carre from the working-class Deighton).  

England and the Aeroplane: Militarism, Modernity And Machines
David Edgerton
Short, punchy, provocative book questioning some widely held and cherished conventional wisdom about British history in the twentieth century, with a special focus on aviation and the associated technological and industrial policies. Edgerton has in his sights two main targets, separate but intertwined: first, what he calls the “declinists”, those who see all of British technological history since 1900 as a story of lost greatness, missed opportunities, inevitable falling behind. Second, the believers in what he regards as the myth of “Two Cultures”, the notion that twentieth century British elites were dominated by short-sighted arts graduates, ignorant of and uninterested in the hard sciences, reluctant to embrace technology and reliant on lone boffins to muddle through at times of crisis. Edgerton marshals considerable evidence against both of these views. He notes, for example, that the British government was an early and enthusiastic adopter and promoter of aviation, and that long before 1914 we had given serious thought to the possibilities of military aircraft. By the outbreak of war we had more aircraft in proportion to the size of our army than any other Power.

The establishment’s enthusiasm for aviation continued into the inter-war years. Edgerton explains that the use of offensive air power – specifically strategic bombing – was key to British war planning in the 20s and 30s. He calls this “liberal militarism”, alluding to the early twentieth idealism that saw air power as a means of enforcing global peace. As a further part of his argument against the “Two Cultures” view, of Britain as a nation where isolated and neglected engineers struggled against a distant and uninterested establishment of country house aesthetes, he notes that Britain had a very strong aircraft industry between the wars, which was high status, well-supported by the government, well-regarded in the country at large, and which produced many fine aircraft. British aircraft production appears to have outperformed German production well into the Second World War (until 1944, when Speer’s reforms improved German productivity, albeit much too late to change the outcome of the war).

The last part of the book considers the post-war period. Here Edgerton disputes the “declinist” view that after 1945 we entered a period of stasis and national failure, noting that we remained a serious military-technological power – at least third in the world behind the USA and the USSR, and possibly even second only to the USA. It is true, he concedes, that many big military aviation projects were cancelled, but his argument is, in effect, that ‘twas ever thus; it is not necessarily a sign of decline. He stresses frequently that Britain’s status and decisions must always be looked at in the context of what other comparable major powers were doing. In fact he argues strongly that some of the cancellations, and the partial deprioritisation of military technological development in favour of civilian and consumer technology in the later 1960s, were part of perfectly reasonable and defensible political decisions by government. He has an interesting take on Wilson’s “white heat” speech, suggesting that it was not so much a call for a more technologically-minded society as a call for a more balanced approach to technology, less focused on military applications. 

Edgerton marshals his facts well, and provides a truly encyclopaedic Further Reading section. I should like to read a thoughtful critique of his book to get the best view of the “other side”. He is, I fancy, a man of the left, although he mostly hides this well – only giving the game away by a considerable number of references to the New Left Review in the bibliography, and his reference to a “brilliant polemic” against the Falklands War that appears to be a rather crankish and dishonest take on that conflict by someone on the Corbynite part of the left.      

Small Island By Little Train: A Narrow-Gauge Adevnture
Chris Arnot
Delightful little travelogue of one man’s quest to visit some of Britain’s best narrow-gauge heritage railways. Nothing ground-breaking but a lovely read from someone who is clearly good-natured and warm and curious about eccentricity and place. Not as many big laughs as with Bryson – who is clearly a strong influence – but plenty of gentle chuckles. I didn’t know about a lot of these lines and several of them look absolutely fantastic.    

Borodino And The War Of 1812
Christopher Duffy
Well-written and accessible overview of this (perhaps) most important of battles, with some helpful if necessarily brief analysis of each side’s dispositions, tactics and performance, plus some background to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and to the contemporary way of war. The last chapter describes the grim French retreat to the Nienen in November and December 1812.

It seems pretty clear from this account that from the purely operational perspective the French won the battle convincingly. Fighting against a well-entrenched Russian army which was roughly equivalent in size to Napoleon’s forces and which considerably outgunned the French in artillery, hundreds of miles inside enemy territory, on ground which the Russians had selected, the Grande Armée captured almost all their important objectives, notably the Raevsky redoubt and the Bagration fleches, and forced the entire Russian line well back from its original positions. The only significant missed objective for the day was the failure to break the Russian far left flank, which was nevertheless badly mauled. The Russians fought well overall, but were let down by the weakness of certain units and indifferently led. Russian staff doctrine was badly out of date and their high command was riven by bad feeling and petty jealousies. The general in charge of the Russian artillery was killed early in the battle and had given his subordinates little idea of his plans for the deployment of the guns, meaning that their effectiveness was undermined.

However, as Duffy notes, the battle cannot really be considered a straightforward victory for the French – and not simply in light of the following three months. The Russians inflicted serious damage on the invaders, who were far from their supply bases and could not easily replace men as the Russians could. The French cavalry in particular sustained heavy losses. For reasons which can only be guessed at Bonaparte did not commit sufficient reserves to exploit the disarray in the Russian centre in the late afternoon, and so missed a chance to turn defeat into rout. Nor, it seems, did he properly pursue the opportunity of turning the entire Russian position by an attack in force on the relatively weak and exposed Russian far left at Tsitsa. The French troops in that sector became bogged down and were not reinforced in sufficient strength to make a breakthrough. The Imperial Guard did not take any part at all in the fighting. Boney also did not make any serious attempt to pursue the badly mauled Russian army, which conducted an orderly retreat to the east and was able to regroup, refit and re-organise in time to harry the French retreat from Moscow in the early winter.

The human cost was enormous. It’s hard to be sure but Duffy’s estimate is that as many as 90,000 men may have been killed or died of wounds. I have seen Borodino described as the single bloodiest day in the history of warfare until the outbreak of the First World War, and of course the overall death toll of the disastrous French campaign of 1812 was in the hundreds of thousands. It is striking as with most Napoleonic battles how many senior officers lost their lives.  

One thing Duffy doesn’t explore, and which I would like to see more about, is what on earth Napoleon was trying to achieve in the latter half of 1812. I expect books like Zamoyski’s go into this in more detail.

Sharpe’s Revenge
Bernard Cornwell
You know where you are with the Sharpe books. It’s not great literature – although it’s well-researched – and I’m not sure they’re as enjoyable even as Hornblower and Ramage, let alone the Aubrey-Maturin books, although to be fair I haven’t read any of the former for a long time. That said, they’re decent no-nonsense yarns, and if they catch me in the right mood I find them very entertaining. A good diversion from my current heavier reading. 

Family Matters
Anthony Rolls
I remember this being recommended in Edwards’ The Story Of Classic Crime In 100 Books. I think Rolls might have been among the writers Edwards calls the Ironists, those who brought a satirical or blackly comic edge to the genre. That element is definitely present and correct here – this borders on farce in parts and has an undercurrent of dark comedy, poking some gentle fun at the genre. The plot is clever, amusing and, in my experience, unique – no mean feat among classic mysteries. It  centres on the unhappy marriage of Robert and Bertha Kewdingham. Robert is a fussy, peculiar man, who has lost his job as an engineer in early middle age and not found another, with the result that he turns in on himself and gives free rein to his obsessions – his vast collection of tat, his leadership of a tiny local cod-fascist outfit called the Rule Britannia League, and his belief that he is the reincarnation of a priest from Atlantis. Bertha is frustrated and unhappy, bored and suffocated by life in a small provincial city surrounded by her husband’s mostly unsympathetic relatives. She starts an affair with her husband’s cousin, a charming London writer, and decides to poison Robert. Simultaneously the local doctor, dangerously obsessed with poisons and experimentation – it is strongly implied that he has already killed more than once – decides to use Robert as a guinea pig. For a long time the two poisons cancel each other out, until Robert finally dies one evening and the police begin to investigate.
A very enjoyable read, with a deftly handled mystery at its heart, alongside the comic and psychological elements. Some great cameos among the minor characters, not least the faux-naïve Mrs Chaddlewick. 

The Death Of Grass
John Christopher
Gripping apocalyptic tale, with a hard undercurrent of misery and bleakness. As society collapses following an outbreak of a virus that kills almost all the staple crops of Europe, having already devastated the East, middle-class engineer John Custance, accompanied by his family and a growing band of friends, allies and hangers-on, fights his way north to an isolated valley owned by his brother that is defensible and has sufficient stocks of food, especially potatoes. This genre – middle-class Brits struggle to survive after the disappearance of civilised life caused by some barely understood and often unseen catastrophe – has apparently been derided as “cosy”, but there’s not much evidence of cosiness here. It’s low-key certainly, with no epic scale, but also pretty unflinching, a realistic portrayal of the lengths to which people will go to survive and defend themselves, and what people will do in the absence of authority and order. Even the “heroes” act cruelly and selfishly in order to make it through to the haven of Blind Gill. The central characters are well-drawn and the changes in their personalities wrought by the demands and stresses of their situation are perceptively sketched.  The terse style adds to the tension, but - and this isn't true of many novels - I think it might have benefited from being a bit longer (certainly the ending feels abrupt).

The Kraken Wakes
John Wyndham
Like The Death Of Grass, a slow-burning account of middle-class Brits – Mike and Phyllis Watson – facing a gradually unfolding and incomprehensible crisis that destroys their ordered world. A real page-turner, effectively ratcheting up the tension until the very end. It portrays rather starkly a flooded and abandoned London, and alludes to mass starvation and the collapse of the government (Parliament removes itself to, of all places, Harrogate). The fact that we never find out what the “Kraken” is, or why it is acting as it is – the taking of the human prisoners is never explained – works very well as a source of mystery and intrigue. The book is, however, less bleak as a story than The Death Of Grass; it lingers less on the grim detail of social collapse. There is nothing here, for example, to match the rape scene and its aftermath from TDOG, or the subtle transformation of Custance wrought by the demands of ruthless leadership, or the cold-blooded killing of the soldiers by Custance and Pirrie. And the ending is hopeful (TDOG’s ending is also hopeful but more ambiguously and enigmatically so).

The Viaduct Murder
Ronald Knox
This is a fairly entertaining mystery, reasonably well-clued, written with some wit and verve and exploring one of the tensions – or if you like, weaknesses – in the classic detective story genre, i.e. how a complex theory that “fits all the facts” and appears watertight can still be entirely wrong. Twice in this book we are presented with a seemingly irrefutable account of what is really going on, and twice Knox turns the tables on us. In this respect it reminded me slightly of Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, although that book is more self-consciously satirical.
Knox makes a philosophical observation on the basis of these reverses, about the way in which people allow theories to dominate their observations. It’s a fascinating thing to explore in a Golden Age mystery, but the discursus in which he explores it feels a bit clunky. Parts of it are used as a way for Knox to obtrude his own beliefs (about, for instance, evolution) into the story.  
The plot itself is fairly slight, and does not fulfil its early promise as a railway problem. There is some unconvincing and convoluted monkey business with a secret passage – generally a bad sign in detective fiction – and the four amateur sleuths suffer from that rather laboured sub-Wodehousian facetiousness that tends to afflict the lighter style of Golden Age mystery. Knox also struggles with one of the central narrative problems for the creator of an amateur sleuth, i.e. how do you account for the absence or ineptitude of the police, and / or their tolerance for interference, concealment of clues and information, alteration of crime scenes etc? He addresses this in part by having the police actually solve the crime while the amateur quartet of Reeves, Gordon, Carmichael and Marryatt fail to do so, but the boys in blue still seem oddly indulgent of the removal of evidence from a crime scene. And besides, the revelation that the real detecting has been going on elsewhere while we follow four gentleman amateurs blundering about does rather make one wish that the book had followed Inspector so-and-so of the Anyshire Constabulary instead.
The eventual solution to the crime is satisfactory enough, though with one or two improbabilities and a mildly irritating lack of premeditation. I suppose one might argue that making the murder the work of a moment’s madness, unplanned and therefore not enormously convoluted, is part of Knox’s point about the difficulties of complex theories. The aftermath of the murder, with the killer hiding out in a secret passage helped by a conveniently sympathetic servant who is not named and does not feature in the story in any serious way, does strain credulity quite considerably.

Armageddon: The Battle For Germany 1944-45
Max Hastings
Sprawling epic account of the last year of the Second World War. We start with the Western Allies on a high in the late summer of 1944, expecting to be in Berlin by Christmas. Most of France was in Allied hands, Paris had been liberated and the Germans had sustained serious losses in the Normandy encirclement. Momentum was swiftly lost, however; British caution meant that an opportunity to clear the Scheldt estuary quickly and at minimal cost was squandered, meaning that the port of Antwerp could not be used to ease the logistic difficulties faced by the Allies (it was finally opened up, at great human cost, in November). The subsequent failure of Market Garden in mid- and late-September dealt a serious blow to morale and the resultant need to rebuild, resupply and reorganise large parts of the Allied army meant that there was little prospect of further large-scale offensive action that year. The Allies settled in for several months of niggly, attritional fighting. The Germans, though increasingly short of everything – and running especially low on well-trained and experienced soldiers – remained dogged, brave and ingenious in both attack and defence, while the Allies’ citizen armies tended to be cautious and lacking in initiative.
                Meanwhile, in the East the Soviets finally invaded the Reich in the autumn of 1944. Man for man, the Germans were probably still more than a match for the Red Army but they were vastly outnumbered and outgunned by this stage. By the new year the Russians had forced the Germans back to a line roughly approximating to the modern German-Polish border, and were clearing the last pockets of resistance from the Baltic coast, with an almost unbelievable savagery.
                In the West December saw the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler’s insane and doomed last attempt at victory. In the end the Germans were badly beaten, but once again the Allies were slow to exploit their victory and did not pursue the retreating German formations. They had many more weeks of hard, costly fighting before the total German collapse in the West began in March, and Allied troops finally poured across the Rhine. Around the same time, on the Oder, a huge Russian attack finally broke the Wehrmacht and the Soviets reached Berlin in force during April.
                The real impact of this book lies in the personal stories. There are hundreds of individual testimonies, not just from soldiers at the various fronts but from Allied bomber crews – there is a longish discursus on strategic bombing, its progress, successes and inadequacies – and, harrowingly, from civilians and other non-combatants caught up in the hellish chaos of the war. The horrors experienced by these people were truly, unimaginably awful. The destruction of German cities, the systematic rape of German women by Red Army soldiers, the absolute misery of the millions of Germans fleeing East Prussia amid the freezing winter of 1944-45, grief and injury and abandonment on a vast scale. The stories of orphaned children, dead children, children left homeless are almost too much to bear. Reading the book hardened my instinct that we should have stayed out of the first war: whatever a Europe dominated by Wilhelmine Germany would have looked like, it would have had to be grim indeed to match the miseries of Europe in the years 1914-45.
                A key theme of the book is Hastings’ argument that, while the Anglo-American armies were not especially impressive on the battlefield, with some exceptions, and their leaders were generally cautious and uninspired, this was an inevitable corollary of the fact that they were the armies of civilised democracies, made up of ordinary men raised in, and conscripted from, peaceful, liberal societies. The Nazis and Soviets, though highly successful in military terms, were reckless with human life and their soldiers often achieved the goals they did with a fanaticism and brutality that could never have been tolerated in the Western Allied armies. For my own part I see something genuinely demonic in the frenzied killing and rapine that marked the Eastern Front on both sides (and of course in the activities of the NKVD and the SS/Gestapo behind the lines).       

The Troubles: Ireland’s Ordeal 1966-95 And The Search For Peace
Tim Pat Coogan
Well-informed and detailed account of the conflict in Ulster from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s (when the book was written), with a brief history of Anglo-Irish relations and of the Northern Irish state itself. Coogan, who for a long time edited a Dublin-based nationalist newspaper, is obviously extremely well-connected in Ireland. He seems to have been on familiar terms with most of the key politicians in the Republic, as well as in the north. On the evidence of this book, he also had extensive contacts within the Republican paramilitary world, as well as some within the Ulster and London security establishments.
                I was familiar with the broad outlines of the story of Ulster told here, of a sectarian and corrupt statelet neglected and indulged by London, and then descending into political violence after the mishandling of the burgeoning civil rights movement of the late 1960s. But there is so much more to it than that. I had no idea of quite how brutal, comprehensive and systematic the oppression of northern Catholics had been, or how utterly short-sighted and bigoted the Protestant supremacists were. Similarly, I was not at all familiar with the complexities, contradictions and tensions in play regarding relations between northern nationalists and politicians in the Republic. I was only vaguely aware of the various initiatives to end the growing violence that were going on in the early Seventies, and of the security forces’ shameful and baffling reluctance to really take the battle to the Loyalist terrorists in the way that they took on the IRA. It was very interesting to get a fuller picture of how the American angle fed into the peace process in the early Nineties.
                The sections on collusion and the “dirty war” were both enlightening and disturbing, although the elision of proven or near-proven incidents of collusion with much more unclear and ambiguous incidents does slightly blunt the force of Coogan’s critique. Also new to me were the revelations about how both the British and Irish governments exerted serious pressure on media organisations to report the “party line” on events in the Six Counties.
The only real weakness of the book – and I speak as someone sympathetic to the Irish nationalist cause – is that Coogan is rather indulgent of the Provisional IRA, in a way that somewhat undercuts the credibility of his fiery moral indignation at the cruel deeds of the UDA, the RUC, and the British Army. He writes approvingly of the PIRA’s rigour in recruitment, their mental and physical toughness, and their political commitment – as though we are meant to admire such things. He was clearly sympathetic to the hunger strikers and their demands, and only very occasionally dwells on the grisly, appalling details of IRA “operations” (he often does this for actions by the security forces or Loyalist murder gangs). He describes its senior leaders as men of “calibre and integrity”, with the frankly appalling caveat “the use of force notwithstanding”. The occasional mockery of British indignation at IRA terrorism – there is a snide joke about the horses killed in the Hyde Park bombing, as if the death of the horses was what aroused moral outrage, rather than the attempt to kill innocent people walking through London on a summer’s day – leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.
I cannot recall any mention of, for example, Jean McConville; she certainly does not appear in the index. He is highly critical, at some length, of the so-called “shoot to kill” policy employed by the security forces; he also finds room for a long attack on the British media. Rather less room is found for any discussion of the Disappeared (this was barely mentioned; it is certainly missing from the index). More than once he refers to RUC “death squads”. This appellation is never applied to the lawless murderers of the Provos. Instead we have the antiseptic euphemism “active service units”. That the PIRA accounted for well over half of all the fatal casualties of the Troubles, and that it routinely tortured people to death using the most sickening methods, is passed over in near-silence. Coogan’s account, it seems to me, subtly (and perhaps unconsciously) tries to minimise the agency of the PIRA. It seems they were forever responding to British-Loyalist provocations, and seldom initiating violence themselves.
          I don’t like to indulge in whataboutery, but equally moral clarity is important. If you truly object to cruelty, to bigotry, to violence, to children having their fathers and mothers snatched away by the bullet or the bomb, you must object in all cases. The real green heroes of the Troubles, it seems to me, are not the men of violence, the bombers and the torturers and the thugs in balaclavas, but the constitutional nationalists like John Hume, Seamus Mallon, and Gerry Fitt. Of course we should admire those who turn their backs on violence and seek peace; but it is much better never to have dipped your hands in the blood of the innocent at all, and so few of those who make a big deal of “leaving violence behind” actually repudiate violence in principle and express genuine contrition.

The Tao Of Pooh
Benjamin Hoff
Intermittently amusing and enlightening, but also annoyingly trite in parts. Takes a very original and interesting idea – that Winnie-The-Pooh embodies many of the Taoist virtues – and stretches it to breaking point, and beyond. I am fairly sympathetic to what I understand to be the essential Taoist vision, i.e. the cultivation of simplicity and stillness and practical wisdom, alignment with the rhythms of the natural world, and a suspicion of over-complexity. But the lack of specific moral content, the absence of genuine ethical axioms, means that it is ultimately incomplete. In addition, the hostility shown by Hoff to intelligence, science and technology, is excessive and glib. I was struck by the credulity with which he accepts the somewhat unlikely claim that there was a Chinese man still alive in the twentieth century who had been born in 1677 – and not only that this man was alive, but that at the age of over 200 he retained his faculties and had the appearance of a man in his fifties.  

Kings And Comedians: A Brief History Of British-Polish Relations
Ben Sixsmith
Short and well-written introduction to Anglo-Polish history from medieval times right up to the present day. BS is obviously fond of his adopted home, and the Polish history is written with affection and sympathy. He has a good eye for the telling or poignant vignette, and manages to convey the sadness and tragedy of the national struggles for independence and freedom, especially in the last century, without making the country’s past seem like merely a series of miseries and setbacks. The level of detail is just right for the scale of the book, not so much that it burdens the narrative but not so little that it feels lightweight and under-researched. Would be good if a publisher asked Ben to write an expanded version of this. 

Eiger Dreams
Jon Krakauer
Splendid little collection of JK’s journalism, some of it from a way back now, before he really hit the big time with Into The Wild and Into Thin Air. I could read about climbing exploits and wilderness adventures more or less indefinitely. There a few standouts: the sobering but gripping piece about the deadly “bad summer” on K2 in 1986; the one about John Gill, the master of bouldering; the one about the various attempts to claim that Everest was not, after all, the highest point on earth; and the very last article, which tells of Krakauer’s rather foolhardy adventure to the wilds of Alaska in 1977, when he solo-climbed the Devil’s Thumb.
One thing I was reminded of reading this is just how complex and varied climbing is, and how dangerous at the top level. There’s very little margin of error on some of the big routes. It’s a source of real fascination to me how climbers do it. I love the mountains but the sheer skill, courage, and endurance required for serious mountain climbing is something else.  

Death In Captivity
Michael Gilbert
Very entertaining and original whodunit, for my money one of the best BLCC reissues so far. A locked-room mystery, or very nearly one, set in the unusual confines of a POW camp in Italy. As far as I know this is a unique idea, and it's well-executed. Gilbert - who was himself a POW in Italy - keeps the tension up throughout, and incorporates elements of the escape story and the psychological thriller. He also resolves the locked-room component of the story plausibly and satisfyingly, which is no mean feat (cf. the frustrating resolutions to such conundrums found in Calamity In Kent or Death Of A Lady).

Murder In Piccadilly
Charles Kingston
Decent variation on the well-worn sub-genre of the inverted whodunit, in which we know the murderer from early on and see his perspective as well as that of the detective, and - generally - watch the unravelling of his plan. 

A fairly normal set-up for that sort of book: a weak and amoral young layabout infatuated with a demanding woman plots to get rid of a miserly rich uncle so that he can inherit enormous wealth. It has well-drawn characters, a good sinister atmosphere, and is written with some style and wit. Unfortunately the ending is unsatisfactory, leaving too much unexplained, despite a darkly funny twist; many classic mystery writers struggled with endings, and it seems to have been especially tricky for those who tried their hands at the inverted whodunit. 

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