Thursday, 3 January 2019

Books read 2018

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

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

(3) Tuesday 16th January
The Skull Beneath The Skin
PD James
James is very good at taking the well-worn conventions of the classic mystery – in this case the amateur sleuth summoned by a rich client to a house party on a remote island – but imbuing them with psychological depth and a literary sensibility. In this respect she rather resembles Dorothy Sayers. This is a Cordelia Gray book, not an Adam Dalgleish one, and I think I marginally prefer the former as a character, although I’m not sure I could articulate why.
This is an atmospheric and gripping read, reasonably clued – though James was much less preoccupied with the pure puzzle elements of the whodunit than previous generations, and more interested in the darkness of murder. Some of the dramatic elements feel a bit de trop; the rich eccentric collector with his stagey butler and rooms full of morbid relics, a crypt full of skulls, a secret passage, and a trapdoor to a cave called the Devil’s Kettle. Also the murder itself is weak; very little about either the mechanics or the motivations make much sense. James indulges herself in a persistent sin of the detective novelist, by making her characters either refuse to reveal things they know for reasons that make no sense, or behaving with implausible recklessness, simply to move the plot on or, alternatively, to slow it down and delay resolution and discovery. In the best mysteries the solution and the story arise from the characters organically; they are not forced.
(4) Sunday 4th February
J Meade Falkner
This is a proper old-fashioned no-nonsense yarn, with moments of real tension and drama and some beautiful settings. I have vague memories from school of finding it heavy going but it clearly caught me at a bad time – it’s gripping and fun.

(5) Monday 5th February
Death Comes To Pemberley
PD James
James obviously had a lot of fun with this (and admits as much in the afterword). Alongside cameos from almost all the main characters in Pride and Prejudice, she throws in a playful mention of some of the characters from Emma. Unfortunately, well-written and well-imagined as it is, and fun as it is to revisit the Darcys, the Bingleys, the Wickhams et al., I don’t think I enjoyed reading it as much as she clearly enjoyed writing it. I always feel slightly cheated when a murder turns out to have not really been a murder at all, and this one is at the low end of manslaughter. The clueing is sparse, and there are reams and reams of rather dull and repetitive exposition after the revelation of the killer about two-thirds of the way through. It would be unfair to say that the explanation of the death has nothing to do with the narrative up to that point – but equally there is a whiff of “will this do?” cop-out about it, just as there sometimes is in third-rate Golden Age books like The Cornish Coast Murder.

(6) Monday 12th March
Clear Waters Rising: A Mountain Walk Across Europe
Nicholas Crane
See here.

(7) Monday 19th March
Brideshead Revisited,The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder
Evelyn Waugh
See here.
(8) Tuesday 20th March
A Confession
Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy was apparently excommunicated for writing this, and I can understand why. It’s a quite short book – an extended essay, really – which culminates in a case for a radically simplified and egalitarian Christianity stripped of the sacraments, ritual, hierarchy and doctrine. It’s not an unattractive vision in certain ways, and its appeal to Tolstoy can probably only be properly understood in the context of its time; in 1880 the Russian Orthodox Church was deeply corrupted by its close alliance with the Russian ruling class.
The argument of the work is quite simple. After some autobiographical reflections on his spiritual and intellectual struggles, Tolstoy recounts his realisation that life appeared to be “evil and absurd”. He suggests that there are four positions with regard to this realisation:

·        Ignorance – those who have not realised that life is pointless can continue quite happily.
·   Epicureanism – those who have realised that life is pointless nevertheless determine to enjoy themselves while they still can
·         Suicide – Tolstoy says that he for a long time regarded this as the rational response
·         Continuing to live in misery and uncertainty with no meaning.

None of these appear very enticing. But, he notices, many people do live quite happily, finding meaning and purpose in their lives through faith, even – or perhaps especially – when they are very poor. He has a rather idealised view, I think, of the simple, happy, ignorant peasant, but equally he is on to something about the integrity of a certain kind of everyday faith that is not constantly doubting and second-guessing itself, or engaging in lengthy philosophical debate.
The problem facing Tolstoy is that even though he only seems engaged with life when he accepts the existence and love of God, that life only appears to have meaning when he does so, he nevertheless cannot maintain that belief as an intellectual proposition. He states that he finds the doctrines and practices of the Church, and the conventional philosophical arguments for God’s existence, unpersuasive and even ludicrous. The way in which Tolstoy resolves this dilemma is to propose a kind of existentialist Christianity, where one must choose to believe, to simply have faith and not to try and ground faith in any kind of rationalism. As soon as you try to tighten your grip on faith, to examine its foundations, it slips away. Again he refers to the supposed simple unquestioning faith of the peasants, who work and pray and live in harmony with one another, and contrasts it with the wasteful luxury of Tolstoy’s own class, who proclaim themselves Christians but live as if the faith were not real.
There are big problems with several parts of Tolstoy’s argument, but he does have several key insights, not least in his realisation that tamed, bourgeois Christianity allied to worldly powers and state coercion is no Christianity at all, and his railing against sectarianism. I’m also drawn to some of his key ideas: that we should not make our faith too dependent on a superstructure of rational argument; that we should be careful of the overdevelopment of theology; and that – especially for those of us whose temperament would otherwise keep them constantly mulling the same questions – ultimately we must simply choose to believe and find meaning. I would add though that Tolstoy never makes quite clear whether the “simple faith” that he advocates has any real distinctive content, or whether it is a kind of Taoist mindset, focused on order, tradition, simplicity and work. 

(9) Tuesday 3rd April
The Return Of The Prodigal Son: A Story Of Homecoming
Henri Nouwen
It is no mean achievement to write a book which is simultaneously deeply personal and deeply challenging to the reader, but Nouwen manages it here. Using as his starting point Rembrandt’s late portrait of the prodigal son’s return, he reflects prayerfully and carefully on both the picture and the parable, looking not only at the two sons, whose roles and experiences I have often thought about, but also at the father. Nouwen has several key themes:

  • ·      The need to strip away our reliance on our ego, our own desires for a secure place in the world, our confidence in our own efforts;
  •    The futility of searching for fulfilment away from God, the only real source of ultimate fulfilment;
  •       The need to confront the less obvious but still damaging sins in our life, such as resentment and pride, and be open with God and with others;
  •            The desire of God to forgive and embrace all his people.

    It’s a good book-length meditation, not always comfortable to read because of Nouwen’s openness about his own struggles, insecurities and hurts, and the hard questions he poses to the reader. His experience with L’Arche informs the work, which adds another layer of complexity to the issues at hand. 
      Far be it from me to criticise someone whose spiritual maturity is clearly well beyond my own, but the only real flaw that occurs to me is that, read without any other context, I think the book risks giving an incomplete view of how the Christian ought to relate to God, and makes statements that I am not entirely sure are quite orthodox (there does not appear to be a nihil obstat in my edition). There is a strong focus on God’s love and mercy, and not much about the wrath and judgment of God against sinners, or what it might mean on a concrete level for an individual to return to God as the prodigal does (i.e. through Confession, amendment of life etc). There are also a lot of references to God having semi-human emotional states, which – while obviously intended as metaphor to a greater or lesser degree – raise some difficulties for divine permanence.

But Nouwen would doubtless, and reasonably, have pointed out that he wrote what he wrote, and that there are other books about those things, and that no book can cover everything. A devotional / spiritual book where every metaphorical allusion to God was hedged and footnoted would quickly lose focus and interest.   

(10) Thursday 12th April
Scales Of Justice
Ngaio Marsh
Vigorous and entertaining village mystery that stumbles badly at the end, leaving a nasty taste in the mouth. A well-drawn if not exactly original cast of characters – old squirearchical family, retired naval officer, cat-loving eccentric from the decayed gentry, flirtatious district nurse, parvenu second wife who is Not From Round ‘Ere – all come under suspicion when a retired army officer is killed in particularly gruesome fashion. Alleyn & co. are dispatched from the Yard and the hunt begins. The plot revolves around the repercussions of a nasty incident of treason in the 1930s, involving local families, which makes for some compelling drama. However, Marsh doesn’t quite follow through on the promise of the set-up in her denouement, and the identification of the killer is a let-down; the motive is weak and unclear and the psychology and method implausible. I was reminded a little of the similarly snobbish and unsatisfactory ending to Hay’s The Santa Klaus Murder.

(11) Friday 11th May
Fire And Steam: How The Railways Transformed Britain
Christian Wolmar
Extremely readable history of British railways. Touching briefly on the first basic wooden trackways used in mining in the sixteenth century, and the horse-drawn wagons on metal rails and fixed steam engines designed to haul cargoes on cables, Wolmar then moves on to the first true steam railway engines in the early nineteenth century, and the subsequent explosion in railway construction between the 1830s and the 1860s. He discusses the consolidation and maturation of the network and the agonisingly slow progress in safety – for passengers and staff – and in the development of workers’ rights, and wonders whether there was ever a “Golden Age”. His answer is not really, depending on what you mean by that phrase, but that the best contender for such an accolade is the Edwardian era. A propos of nothing at all, Roden, in his GWR history that I read a couple of years back, names the 1920s as a possible Golden Age for God’s Wonderful Railway.

The First World War changed everything for the railways. They were effectively nationalised, under legislation that had been in place since 1871, and according to Wolmar – who is sympathetic to a nationalised or mostly nationalised system – the central control and co-ordination worked well. After 1918, the railways badly needed money, as essential maintenance and investment had been delayed, and war working had eroded the infrastructure. It was not possible to restore the status quo ante of well over 150 private companies, hence the Grouping of 1923 under the 1921 Railways Act, which left the LMS, the LNER, the GWR and Southern in control of most lines in the UK.

Wolmar paints a mixed picture of the inter-war period, which I must admit I had tended to view as a Golden Age of sorts. Despite the glamour associated with high-profile expresses like the Flying Scotsman and the Golden Arrow, and the branch line nostalgia encouraged by films, TV and literature, the Big Four struggled to retain profitability in the face of growing competition from road freight and buses (regarding freight, they were hampered by the universal carrier obligation). The network was badly in need of rationalisation, with considerable duplication of service and too many small lines that could never pay for themselves, although as Wolmar stresses more than once, and particularly in relation to Beeching, it is far from straightforward to calculate how much value any given branch line adds. A problem that I have not previously seen discussed is the extent to which the railways squandered resources on directly competing with each other, e.g. the GWR and the SR on the London – West Country routes. This had diminished to some extent from its peak in the late nineteenth century, when the old London & North Western and Midland Railways had raced each other on the London to Scotland lines, before agreeing an informal truce, but still persisted and was given new impetus by advances in engine design. Incidentally, Wolmar suggests that consistently the best-designed engines were those of the GWR.

The companies also faced growing industrial unrest, and stronger demands for better wages and working conditions as society changed in the inter-war period (although even in the late 1940s, the number of railwaymen being killed in accidents annually was still in the hundreds). The Depression also affected railway traffic. By the time of the Second World War, only the Southern – which unlike the others had the relatively low-cost, high-return southern commuter routes and had few long-distance lines – was paying a half-decent dividend. The war hit the railways badly, and by 1945 the network was in a very dilapidated state. Despite sterling and heroic service to the war effort by both rail firms and individual employees, the companies were inadequately compensated which made much-needed investment very difficult. The same problems loomed in 1945 as had loomed in 1918, except more so. Full nationalisation went ahead in 1948.

Serious mistakes were made by BR in its early days, notably poor strategic thinking about the future of railways, dithering over electrification (already widespread on London suburban lines and some SR routes), and the best way forward for locomotives – BR allowed its regions to pursue individual and often eccentric decisions about which locos to use, and persisted with steam long after we should have made a definitive switch to diesel and electric trains. This is relevant to the Beeching era; one of the key reasons why BR was in such financial trouble by the late Fifties is that it was still having to maintain an enormous fleet of steam locos (diesels were more expensive to build but much more reliable and easy to maintain in service). Wolmar takes a critical but fair view of the Beeching Axe itself, arguing that while significant closures were probably needed, Beeching went much too far based on flawed data, short-sighted penny-pinching, and a lack of reflection on the problems that the roads would soon face.

Wolmar is broadly positive about BR’s general achievements. Despite little political support and a lack of vision and investment from government, in an era when mass car ownership and road freight exploded, BR survived and eventually flourished, and by the early 1990s was as strong and ambitious as it had ever been. The Major privatisation, in this account, was a botch job – but the book concludes on a note of optimism, saying that railways remain the future in Britain.  

All in all, a gripping, absorbing, passionate book, with just enough detail to keep it fascinating and packed with good anecdotes.

(12) Sunday 3rd June
Pigs Have Wings
PG Wodehouse
A particular delight, this, although trying to rank the Blandings Saga in any kind of meaningful way is a fool’s errand. Jerry Vail is in love with Penny Donaldson but needs £2000 to marry her; Sir Gregory Parsloe – Parsloe is trying to nobble the Empress, and various other intrigues are going on. It’s all wonderful.

(13) Friday 22nd June
Excellent Intentions
Richard Hull
Wry and entertaining variation on the usual Golden Age tropes. There are two parallel narratives; the investigation of a fairly conventional village murder (on a train!), and the trial of the alleged killer. What makes the book fascinating is that we do not know the identity of the accused until quite near the end, and even then their guilt is far from certain. The final twist is clever too, and adds another layer of ambiguity to the story.

The only real weakness is the slightly sluggish passages where Inspector Fenby is talking to suspects and witnesses. They feel a bit schematic and laborious, in the way that Roderick Alleyn’s interviews sometimes do. “Now then, Mr Wilson, the butler’s pantry opens on to the back of the front hall, and from the pantry you can see into the dining room, but only if the grandfather clock…” To be fair to Hull this is a minor quibble; he is perhaps trying to “play the game” and give us the best possible chance of working out the solution – although we never definitively find out whodunit, a highly unusual proceeding for a Golden Age author.

Another possibility is that these very detailed accounts of individual movements are included in a rather ironical spirit. There are moments where it definitely seems like Hull is having a bit of fun with the genre. The murdered man is a parody of the typical Golden Age victim; a capricious, irrational, selfish, cruel, grasping nouveau riche speculator who hates the villagers, likes arguing with the vicar, and tries to get railway porters sacked for imagined acts of lese-majesté. The murder method – cyanide in snuff – has a faintly silly edge; I did also wonder whether the passages involving the bizarre minutiae of stamp-collecting were intended as gentle mockery of the role sometimes played by arcane hobbies in the plots of detective stories. The one that leaps to mind is The Nine Tailors, published four years before this.

(14) Sunday 24th June
The Murder Of My Aunt
Richard Hull
Another darkly funny subversion of the genre from Hull. Edward Powell, an unpleasant and pathetic man who has been living off his aunt Mildred in rural Wales, decides to kill her so that he can inherit the family money. Most of the novel is seen from his point of view, using the conceit that it is his personal journal. The accounts of his trivial sparring with his aunt are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Hull cleverly, and amusingly, uses irony to expose the depths of Edward’s incompetence, self-delusion, snobbery and vindictiveness, to the point where one almost starts to feel some sympathy for such a pitiful creature.

The postscript contains a rather grimly comic twist, although once you know a twist is coming it is not perhaps especially hard to guess what it might be, given some of the clues in the text. What is equally interesting about the postscript is that if read in a certain way it introduces, perhaps, a note of ambiguity about the family history that forms an important part of the background to the Powells’ mutually unsatisfactory living arrangements.

(15) Saturday 7th July
Blandings Castle And Elsewhere
PG Wodehouse
It’s not that long since I last read this, but it rewards a revisit. Marvellous collection of short stories – some incomparable ones from Blandings, a decent Bobbie Wickham one and some very good Mulliner yarns. I’d forgotten how good the latter were, really excellent although mostly working off the same format. There are apparently forty-odd Mulliner stories, must track some more down.

(16) Sunday 8th July
Calamity In Kent
John Rowland
Decidedly ropey entry in the Crime Classics series. Generic hackneyed thriller offering little in the way of plot, character, detection or pleasurable bafflement. We are in the tedious world of criminal gangs and Big Chiefs and drug rings. Sets itself up as a locked room mystery but resolves this element of the story in a highly disappointing fashion.

(17) Tuesday 10th July
The Tribe: The Liberal Left & The System of Diversity
Ben Cobley
A phrase that came to mind as I read this was “the culture of repudiation”, coined by Roger Scruton to describe the tendency of educated British people to treat with hostility any moral axiom, cultural artefact or custom which appears to be redolent of Old Britain. In a way this is a book about that culture. Cobley does not use the expression; rather he sets out to critique our progressive elites’ operation of what he calls “the system of diversity”. By this he means the way in which those elites – in the media, in politics, in the public sector, in academia – police public debate, damning certain views as morally unacceptable and unleashing public opprobrium on transgressors, and maintain a powerbase for left-wing politicians among purportedly marginalised groups via “community leaders” and the politics of grievance. 

His approach is measured, focused analytically on the methods by which the new liberal establishment maintains its power rather than individual incidents of “PC gone mad”. Cobley is himself on the left and rightly sympathetic to the achievements of left-liberal campaigning against bigotry and unjust discrimination. The book is nevertheless chock-full of striking observations; for example Cobley notes how so many senior members of the diversity bureaucracy are themselves white, straight, male etc.; they gain legitimacy within the system by controlling it! I also found helpful the idea of “existential defeat”, as a means of sympathetically understanding those who feel marginalised in modern Britain despite not experiencing formal discrimination. Equally, Cobley’s comparison of the administrators of the diversity system to the imperial administrators of yesteryear deserves careful consideration.

A strong theme is the internal contradictions of the diversity doctrine; it is hard to see, for example, what conservative Muslims have in common with feminists or gay activists. And it is precisely this theme which links up with the Scrutonian idea mentioned earlier. What the various groups under the diversity umbrella have in common is that they are all to some degree in a position of antagonism or tensions vis-à-vis the country as it was before the cultural revolution of the Sixties and Seventies.

Could probably be read profitably in conjunction with Ed West’s The Diversity Illusion and Norman Dennis’ Racist Murder And Pressure Group Politics.
(18) Friday 13th July
Weekend At Thrackley
Alan Melville
Lightweight crime caper from the 1930s, not really a murder mystery as such. Sprightly enough while it lasts, but nothing of great interest. A jewel thief masquerading as a society host invites half a dozen guests down to his country home, including the narrator of the novel, a young man about town, and mayhem ensues. Rather oddly trailed in some reviews as a precursor to And Then There Were None, despite having almost nothing in common with that book and being nowhere near as good. One or two promising narrative threads – notably the one concerning the woman posing as the main villain’s daughter, and the relationship between the narrator and the villain – are oddly neglected, characters are underdeveloped, and the tone is uneven.    
(19) Wednesday 18th July
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe
Agatha Christie
One of the best Poirot novels, I think, published in late 1940 towards the end of the classic period (c1930 – 1942). Superbly convoluted murder, just the right side of over-complexity, and the clueing is very good even by the standards of vintage Christie – I particularly love the little tease dropped in by AC when Poirot and Japp interview the pulp thriller-loving page boy.

The motive, questioned by some reviewers, just about holds up, and the dilemma faced by Poirot at the end is a point against the argument that Christie didn’t do ideas. It has a genuine dramatic edge. The author’s disdain for Fascism and Communism is on show too, in the shape of Frank Carter (one of the “wrongfully accused but still fairly unbearable” types that AC enjoyed creating) and Howard Raikes. I love Poirot’s parting shot to the latter, “in your new world, let there be freedom and let there be pity”.  

(20) Tuesday 7th August
The Greek Coffin Mystery
Ellery Queen
Preposterously complex but undeniably entertaining, a fine example of the US style of Golden Age mystery. Essentially a traditional closed-circle family murder, with some thrillerish elements – increasingly convoluted plotting, stolen paintings, undercover agents, squads of policeman with guns – that give it something of the feel of the classic “hard-boiled” American story.

 (21) Tuesday 7th August
On Art And Life
John Ruskin
One of the little Penguin Classics Great Ideas books; not a self-contained work, slightly disappointingly, but containing two excerpts, “The Nature of Gothic” from Ruskin’s apparently very good The Stones Of Venice, and the text of a lecture he gave at Tunbridge Wells in 1865, “The Work Of Iron”. The reflections on what constitutes truly Gothic architecture are fascinating, and mostly compelling to my (admittedly ignorant) mind, although I suspect he was hard to please as a critic of the Gothic Revival. The lecture is a fascinating little curio; he begins with a wide-ranging reflection on the importance of iron to civilised life and its influence on the landscape and feel of the British countryside and its buildings. Then there are reflections on the importance of the individual craftsman and the horrors of mass production, followed by a stunning gear change into a no-holds barred attack on the bourgeois complacency of his audience in the face of the poor. Ruskin tries to puncture sanctimonious middle-class clichés about bootstraps and moral uplift, and directly challenges his listeners with the verses from the Bible about not oppressing the poor. One form of oppression, he stresses, is to expect too much from them; another is to be always seeking more and cheaper goods (although in terms of outcomes for the poor it’s not clear to me that he is correct that mass production and consumerism is worse for them than a culture of artisanship).

(22) Thursday 16th August
An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Modern Culture
Roger Scruton
Fantastic polemical survey of the current cultural climate – I say current, this was written in the late Nineties. The overarching theme of the book is that the high culture of modernity represents an attempt to retain what Scruton calls the “ethical way of life” in the absence of religious belief, but that high culture is faltering in the face of deconstructionism and what he calls the “culture of repudiation”. He reserves strong criticism for the destruction of rituals which help young people graduate into this way of life, and laments the loss of the habit of judgment which, in his account, characterises the adult who has been inducted into the “ethical way of life”.

This is probably the best single-volume summary of Scruton’s thought on culture that I have read, touching not only on the above but also his scepticism about kitsch and pop, and his sadness at the loss of the old sexual culture of restraint (without which much of the old high culture is unintelligible, and without which it is hard to attain the old heights of high culture). The thoughts about the contrast between modern dance culture and the old common dancing culture are extremely fruitful.

(23) Friday 24th August
The Roman Hat Mystery
Ellery Queen
These novels are good rollicking fun though I can’t see myself returning to them in the way that I return to favourites of the British Golden Age. It’s hard to deny the artistry of the tightly constructed plot, which has locked-room elements and turns on a missing top hat, and the deduction is impressive and hard to fault. However, the motive (silencing a blackmailer) feels a bit perfunctory and the choreography and mechanics of the murder are definitely straining at the bounds of believability. While I like the Queens, I can take or leave a lot of the police procedural elements, especially when revolvers start to be levelled.

(24) Friday 24th August
Donkey Boy
Henry Williamson
The second in the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. Just as good as the first, perhaps even better, though a harder read for me because of the central theme; the gradual alienation of the small boy Philip Maddison from his father Richard through the latter’s self-importance, humourlessness and bitterness. It spans almost a decade, taking in the dawn of the new century, the Boer Wars, the death of Queen Victoria and the 1906 election which brought the Liberals to power. As it closes, Philip has just won a scholarship to a local grammar school.

In terms of the wider cast, we see more of Richard’s family, including his brothers – John, struggling to cope after the death of his wife Jenny (for whom Richard developed an unrequited passion in the first book), and Hilary, the adventurous, easygoing, wealthy sailor. There is also his sister Victoria, married to the charming (but, as we later find out, prostitute-using) George Lemon. We are introduced to some of Hetty’s cousins too. What is interesting about the scenes with the extended families is that they are largely portrayed from Philip’s own point of view. Williamson had a real gift for empathising with children’s view of the world; their partial understandings, their odd fears and fancies, their strange games, their vivid imaginations, and the way in which their relationships with adults can be distorted.

Elsewhere Theodora’s grand dream of a progressive school ends in failure; Sidney Cakebread, the husband of Hetty’s sister Dorrie, dies in South Africa after volunteering to fight the Boers along with Hugh Turney. Hugh himself becomes a more interesting character over the course of the novel. In The Dark Lantern he was unsympathetic, a supercilious and sardonic wastrel. The start of Donkey Boy finds him as a favourite uncle to Philip, initially making his way as a not very successful music hall act and then acquitting himself well out on the veldt. Later, with his health declining from complications of syphilis, he returns to live with his parents, who have moved next door to the Maddisons on Hillside.

The Maddison marriage deteriorates further, blighted by Richard and Hetty’s failure to communicate. Hetty is increasingly concerned by Richard’s authoritarian and rigid parenting, but lacks the assertiveness – or perhaps even the conceptual framework – to challenge her husband. Her anxiety and unhappiness communicate themselves to the children, making for a nervy and unhappy home. Richard believes her to be over-indulgent and thus the cause of Philip’s wayward behaviour, blind to the way in which his own cruel discipline, his disdain for his wife, and emotional distance have affected the boy (and his two sisters – in one shocking scene Richard strikes Doris repeatedly when she threatens, with childish naivete, to kill him if he makes Hetty cry again).

There are signs that Hetty may develop into a more confident and recognisably modern woman – she has talked to friends and family about votes for women, despite Richard’s predictable opposition to the idea. But that, if it happens at all, will presumably come later in the series. Not that the march of progress is absent at this stage; change is obviously afoot, much to the chagrin of the old Tory romantic Richard. Most noticeable are the physical changes – the urbanisation of what was once rural north Kent under the aegis of the new London County Council, the development of The Hill for more housing and facilities, the sweeping changes to the local town to enable more trams to run and to allow the new-fangled motor cars to use the streets. One of the things that oppresses Richard is the knowledge of his paradoxical position: he resents the growth of London, the despoiling of nature and the wild places, but he is part of it.

Richard is not an entirely unsympathetic character. He does work hard for his family, there are several scenes of his being an affectionate and jovial parent, and our knowledge of the origin of some of his neuroses and preoccupations does help us understand him. While it does not excuse him from his failings, we must note that he is unhappy and frustrated and unfulfilled, as Hetty recognises, and bound by the conventions of his time, his sex and his class. 

(25) Wednesday 29th August
One Of Our Submarines
Edward Young
Gripping and eye-opening memoir of one man’s experience of the Second World War, as an officer and later captain in the Silent Service. Young saw action in most of the theatres of war – the Arctic, the North Sea, the Channel, the Med and the Indian Ocean – and had some lively experiences, not least his hair-raising escape from the sunken HMS Upholder on its doomed first voyage, and later an ambush by Japanese land forces after a secret mission went south. It’s written in the old style, direct and clear, with considerable reticence and modesty. The matter-of-fact way in which he refers to colleagues and friends failing to return from patrol is striking, and a reminder of the incredible courage and daring involved in wartime submarine service. In addition, while he does mention briefly that he was the first RNVR officer to command an operational submarine in the Second World War, he makes no reference to his decorations (Mentioned In Dispatches, DSO, DSC and Bar), except as part of a table at the very end of the book listing the ship’s company of his last command HMS Storm. He underplays his part in the actions for which he was awarded them; he devotes only a short paragraph to the action in which he earned his first DSC, the sinking of an Italian submarine. He stresses the achievements and skill of others, and is endearingly honest about his own failures and worries. I would have perhaps liked to know more about the last months of his naval career – the book ends quite abruptly with his return to Pompey in April 1945 after a year and a half on the Eastern Station, but he apparently remained in the Andrew until November 1945 and worked in a staff role with a promotion to Commander in the last months of the war. However, this is a minor quibble. Perhaps he felt that describing a desk job after five eventful years at sea would be anti-climactic.   

(26) Wednesday 29th August
Great Christian Thinkers: From The Early Church Through The Middle Ages
Pope Benedict XVI
For several years, at his Wednesday audiences, Benedict gave short reflections on the lives and spirituality of great saints of the church, from the time of the apostles through to the high medieval period (the last in the series of seventy is Julian of Norwich). This is one of those books to dip in and out of, rather than get through in one sitting, but it requires and rewards slow, careful reading. The range and depth of Benedict’s learning is hugely impressive, and he shows great skill and care in drawing spiritual and moral edification from the lives of these very different people. It gets a little repetitive in places, but that is no bad thing given the importance of the lessons to be learned and probably inevitable given the format in which the book originated.   

(27) Thursday 30th August
The Path Of The Martyrs: Charles Martel, The Battle Of Tours And The Birth Of Europe
Ed West
Ed has made rather a cottage industry out of short, readable introductions to various topics in medieval history, cf. his books on Magna Carta and The Wars Of The Roses. He has a fine eye for the colourful anecdote, and a wry turn of phrase. In this volume we are guided through the rise of the Islamic Empire, the collapse of the Latin West, and the beginnings of early medieval France and the Holy Roman Empire. I was familiar with the overall outline but much of the detail was new to me, especially the bafflingly complex world of Merovingian politics – like many of the post-Roman barbarian states, the Merovingians were in a near-constant state of turmoil and infighting.
I really must read more about Charlemagne.

(28) Monday 10th September
Bats In The Belfry
ECR Lorac
Good example of a Golden Age novel at the top end of the middle rank. Not brilliant, not a remarkable feat of plotting or psychological insight, but an atmospheric and well-told mystery following the disappearance of a struggling novelist. The style is light without too much flippancy, and the setting is good – although all the characters feel a bit one-dimensional, including the women, neither of whom makes much of a mark as a full individual (despite the author being a woman, Edith Caroline Rivett).

(29) Thursday 20th September
The French Powder Mystery
Ellery Queen
I think this could be my favourite Ellery Queen novel thus far. It has the drawback of involving drug-dealing and “professional” crime (as many of the books in the series do), but these elements do not intrude too strongly and, unusually, didn’t have much of an impact on my enjoyment of a well-constructed whodunit with a closed, albeit large, circle of suspects and some entertaining locked-room elements. I have one or two quibbles with the logistics of the murder – notably how a body was moved down six floors in a lift and across a department store floor patrolled by nightwatchmen without detection – but I quite like the Queens and the supporting cast from the NYPD.

(30) Sunday 23rd September
The Belting Inheritance
Julian Symons
After a splendid traditional first act, I found this stumbled in the middle and petered out rather disappointingly. The set-up – a man long thought dead returns to his family, or does he? Cue murder and mischief – is a classic of detective fiction; for example, Christie dabbled with it in Taken At The Flood. A propos of not much, it is interesting how advances in our knowledge of DNA have almost entirely eliminated the possibility of this kind of disputed identity problem as a plot device in contemporary mysteries, just as advances in forensics have made redundant uncertainty about bloodstains and the like.

The disputed identity-based plot is hard to pull off well. It is not always straightforward to create a plausible sense of mystery around someone’s true identity. I have never rated Christie’s Murder In Mesopotamia very highly, for example, because the problem of identity on which that book turns is simply unbelievable. The Belting Inheritance has a similar problem. It strains credibility to think that someone would have real trouble recognising, at close quarters, a brother they had known as an adult, even after a gap of a decade. People just don’t change that much.

Even if you can swallow your scepticism on that point, the mystery struggles to get going. There is almost no investigation of the actual murder; a historic murder receives more attention, but even so we are not really offered the chance to consider it as a problem. Towards the end, coincidences and contrivances begin to pile up – indeed, I believe Symons himself actually criticised the book in this respect later in his life. The clueing is underpowered and the final twist feels rather unearned.

To be fair, there is also good writing here, some subtle characterisation and some excellent humour.

(31) Tuesday 25th September
The Colour Of Murder
Julian Symons
This is very good. Like The Belting Inheritance it is perched between Golden Age puzzler and modern crime story, but it straddles the divide with considerably more aplomb than that book and relies much less heavily on coincidence, although there is an absolutely preposterous one at the very end. It is somewhat akin to an “inverted whodunit”, with the important difference that rather than following a murderer and seeing the unravelling of his scheme, here we are presented with a man who may or may not be guilty, and the true facts of the crime are not definitively revealed to us. We find ourselves not in the position of an omniscient narrator but a baffled juryman having to make a decision on the balance of evidence. The second half of the book is mostly taken up by some very engrossing courtroom drama, with some beautifully sketched characters and considerable tension.       

It is strongly hinted by the author that the jury erred in finding John Wilkins guilty of killing Sheila Morton and that another person committed the murder (in my opinion, based on the evidence presented, the verdict was at least legally mistaken, but that is by the by). The reader’s attention is drawn in particular to the character Bill Lonergan – this is done through the preposterous coincidence noted above. Arguably, Symons also hints faintly at the guilt of May Wilkins, whom I personally suspected quite strongly. Psychologically it does not seem to make sense for Wilkins to have killed the dead woman, the object of his romantic-erotic delusions. At the end it is suggested that he is genuinely mad, so perhaps this accounts for the crime – but then again, his mental health is left as something of an open question.

(32) Thursday 27th September
1066 And Before All That
Ed West
Another of Ed’s short and sprightly medieval history books, dealing with the end of Anglo-Saxon England and the dawn of Norman and Angevin rule. What this one does well is to give a clear sense of the main players in the enormously complex high politics of pre-1066 England, without getting bogged down in too much detail. Now I wouldn’t mind reading some more detailed and scholarly accounts at some point – once again I feel my unfinished copy of Stenton glaring down from the shelf – but it’s useful to have this entertaining outline to create a way in to the more academic and focused stuff. There are some superb thumbnail character sketches here, which serve as a reminder of just how hideously awful so many of the key players were.   

(33) Wednesday 3rd October
When William Came
HH Munro
 Something of an oddity, this. One of the better-known entries in the genre of “invasion literature” which enjoyed a significant vogue before the First World War. The plot follows Murrey Yeovil, an archetypal Victorian-Edwardian moneyed gentleman of leisure, who returns to the UK – after adventures and a near-death experience in Siberia – to find that the old country has been defeated and occupied by Imperial Germany following a brief, disastrous war. Some have fled to other corners of the Empire, unwilling to live under the Kaiser and hopeful of starting a resistance; many more have made their peace with the new regime, including Yeovil’s wife, a social hostess into whose mouth Munro puts a not entirely unreasonable case for acquiescence.

The novel is really a series of vignettes showing different incidents from the early months of the occupation; underlying the whole thing, one feels, is a deep love of England, coupled with a bitter criticism of what Munro thought was our decadence and unpreparedness for a major war, in particular our refusal to follow the other Powers in Europe and introduce conscription. At one point in the book the occupiers, rather than imposing a military service obligation on the British as they have with other subject nations, decide instead to disarm and pacify the country, a deliberate – and ironic – humiliation. Munro’s point is clear.

I enjoyed the finely poised and ambiguous ending. Yeovil finds himself torn between getting involved with the resistance, and retiring into a quiet, complacent private life deep in the Sussex countryside. Meanwhile in London a planned parade for the Kaiser by the Boy Scouts, viewed by both Germans and Britons as a test of whether the occupiers have captured the hearts and minds of the younger generation, ends as a damp squib due to a mysterious no-show by the Boy Scouts.    

(34) Tuesday 9th October
The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion
Peter Hitchens
See here.

(35) Wednesday 10th October
Brat Farrar
Josephine Tey
Based on the ones I’ve read so far, Tey’s novels are sui generis within the Golden Age genre. They aren’t really classic puzzle whodunits, nor are they really police procedurals, or modern psychological thrillers, though they have elements of all of these. They are very good, though, and this is no different, a well-written and well-crafted suspense story about a man who is persuaded to impersonate a (supposedly) long-dead heir.

(36) Wednesday 10th October
The Lamp Of Memory
John Ruskin
Another short compilation – first, an extract from The Seven Lamps Of Architecture dealing with the importance of permanence and piety in our building, then three speeches dealing with, respectively, the nature of good art and the importance of the individual craftsman; the need to read more deeply and sympathetically; and the shortcomings of Victorian capitalism and society. All the classic Ruskinian themes are here – love of craftsmanship and skill, of learning and beauty and poetry, and a fiercely eloquent scepticism about wealth, free markets, consumerism and mass production. The third speech is especially interesting, delivered as it was in the Town Hall at Bradford, presumably to local worthies who had asked him to design a new Exchange but ended up with a fiery denunciation of materialism, neglect of the poor and the cult of “getting on”. A book to revisit at length to get a real sense of Ruskin’s worldview and arguments, which even when wrong are worth reading.

(37) Friday 26th October
Frozen In Time: The Fate Of The Franklin Expedition
Owen Beattie & John Geiger
Fascinating blend of travelogue and historical – scientific inquiry, looking at how modern methods have enabled us to shed much more light on the Franklin mystery. The core of the book is an account of two archaeological investigations by Beattie and his team, in the summers of 1984 and 1986, to exhume the bodies of three sailors who died during the expedition’s first winter at Beechey Island – John Hartnell, William Braine and John Torrington. Beattie’s conclusion was that, since all three bodies showed high levels of lead poisoning, it was probably that which led to both a high death rate early in the mission, even before the ships became trapped in the ice in late 1846, and also potentially poor decision-making in the latter stages of the expedition. There is a useful account of the historical context of nineteenth century Arctic exploration, and some eye-opening reflections on the failure to properly determine the causes of scurvy (tinned food was apparently thought by the Admiralty to have anti-scorbutic qualities for most of the nineteenth century, when in fact tinned food was likely the source of the lead poisoning).  

(38) Sunday 4th November
Useful Work Versus Useless Toil
William Morris
There are four separate pieces collected here:

·         The titular lecture given to the Hampstead Liberal Club in 1884, outlining Morris’ attractive vision of a world where everyone has access to fulfillfing, productive, work suited to their skills and nature, and where there are no idle rich and no boss class stealing value from the labour of the working classes. He focuses on the need for beauty and usefulness in manufacturing, and rails against mere luxury, ornament and superficiality.  
·         Gothic Architecture, also a lecture (given to the Arts and Craft Exhibition Society in 1889), a strong and persuasive defence and definition of Gothic architecture as the most humane, flexible and beautiful style, rather along Ruskinian lines. Morris laments the ugliness of late Victorian architecture; what would he of made of London in 2018?
·         The Lesser Arts, another lecture, given to the Trades Guild of Learning in 1877, arguing strongly for a reinvigoration of the decorative arts and a re-uniting of artists and craftsman, who – by Morris’ account – have found themselves ploughing increasingly separate furrows since the emergence of modern capitalism and in particular mass production.
·         How I Became A Socialist, an article written in 1894. Not especially persuasive, though well-written and passionate and justly damning of some aspects of Victorian capitalism (see below for my problems with Morris’ politics).

I find myself in – at least – two minds reading high-minded Victorian radicals like Morris. On the one hand I am strongly sympathetic to their aesthetic and moral discontent with industrial capitalism. I delight in Morris (and Ruskin’s) evident love of beauty and craftsmanship, and share not a little of their disdain for mass production, soulless architecture, and the free market’s enabling of pointless fripperies and geegaws. Their critique of what Marxists call the “alienation of labour” has some force and is substantially correct.

However – and it is a big however – it is not entirely clear to me that their political ideals and prescriptions have a great deal to recommend them. Among the spectres at the feast in the writings of the socialist Romantics are the questions of means, and of coercion. How will we ensure, for example, that manufacturers focus on quality not quantity? How exactly will we prevent a manufacturer who can make a hundred thousand mediocre widgets per year from outcompeting a manufacturer who can make thirty thousand excellent ones per year?  How will we ensure that all work is fulfilling work? Who will clean the toilets and the drains and sweep the streets in the utopia of enjoyable work tailored to individual nature? If there are no masters, who will direct the activity? How will people be paid? Without mass production how will the benefits of civilisation be widely spread and cheaply available? Why should the aesthetic preferences of a small number of people be enforced by law (if indeed that is what Morris is suggesting – it’s not clear, which is rather my point)?

(39) Monday 12th November
Fire In The Thatch: A Devon Mystery
ECR Lorac
A good example of a Golden Age novel at the very top of the second division. An entertaining and involving whodunit, well-written, well-paced and with a strong evocation of place. The characters are good, albeit not especially original or deep. Lorac manages to make the murder genuinely affecting; the victim is sympathetic without being improbably saintly. The thematic background, involving the looming social changes in rural England as the Second World War comes to an end, is handled reasonably well, if rather briefly.        

Like the majority of GA writers, Lorac didn’t have the plotting gifts of someone like Christie. There are no real gasp moments in the conclusion, and the logistically complex solution to the murder, while satisfying, is reminiscent of Crofts or Bude’s painstakingly worked-out transport-based problems rather than of Christie’s devilishly clever and expectation-wrecking denouements. In addition, one or two of the red herrings and subplots run out of steam or are underdeveloped. In particular the potentially fascinating character of June St Cyres is shallow and underwritten, which remvoes some of the interest from the St Cyres family dynamics.

However, this is easily a highlight of the BLCC series as a whole.

(40) Sunday 18th November
Goodbye To All That
Robert Graves
Superb memoir, dealing mostly with Graves’ service in the Great War, at first in the Welsh Regiment and later the Royal Welch Fusiliers, but bookended by other reminiscences; his childhood and education, and his experiences in the immediate post-war years. It is written with wit and insight and humanity. The sections dealing with the war are heartbreaking in their description of the awful waste and loss and destruction of moral sense.

His very early life was in some ways rather delightful, with affectionate and well-to-do – if somewhat distant – parents, and holidays in North Wales and Bavaria, whence came his mother’s family. The description of their Bavarian trips are especially poignant, for their portrayal both of warm Anglo-German relations, and of the relaxed, bucolic culture of rural Germany at the start of the twentieth century. Neither, of course, were to last (Graves lost German cousins in the war).

At Charterhouse, where he arrived after a succession of prep schools, Graves had a tricky time. He was seemingly bookish and sensitive, a born member of the awkward squad who cared little for games – this at a time when the school was strongly focused on sport in the old Victorian-Edwardian tradition, and athletes an elite caste. He did however discover poetry, which seems to have made an important difference to his life.

From school he went more or less straight into the Army, serving in France during 1915-16, before being badly injured at the Somme, so badly injured in fact that his colonel thought that he had died from wounds and wrote a letter of condolence to his mother, which arrived at his home two days before his own letter from the hospital pointing out that he was not, in fact, dead. After recovering he spent the remainder of the war on home service, as he was unfit for the front line. Increasingly disillusioned with the war and with British society, he became good friends with Siegfried Sassoon and helped to shield the latter from some of the fallout from his famous 1917 protests against the war.

Peace saw him taking up a place at Oxford, and increasingly involved in radical, poetic and bohemian circles, not least via his strongly feminist wife Nancy Nicholson. He left the university without a degree, determined to be his own master and write for a living, and the couple spent several years in rather precarious circumstances – albeit with their well-off families as a backstop – living off his writing and her crafts. They had four children in fairly quick succession at this time. However, in 1926 Graves was appointed to a very well-paid job at the new University of Cairo. He only stayed a year and the narrative ends there, with a very brief note added at the time of writing in 1929 that he was now divorced.   

(41) Friday 14th December
Hand In Glove
Ngaio Marsh
Solid village mystery from Marsh, certainly much better than Spinsters In Jeopardy, which I tried reading before this and gave up on half way through. Not one of the best ones – the motive is a bit vague and the ending rather abrupt, and there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of detection as such – but the setting is just the kind I enjoy, and the characters are entertaining (if not very deep).  

(42) Friday 21st December
Singing In The Shrouds
Ngaio Marsh
In The ABC Murders, Agatha Christie presents the reader with what appears to be a senseless campaign of slaughter by a madman, which turns out to actually be the camouflage for a fairly conventional Golden Age murder plot. In Singing In The Shrouds, Ngaio Marsh presents us with what appears to be a senseless campaign of slaughter by a madman, which turns out to be a senseless campaign of slaughter by a madman.

Now, to be fair, there is fun to be had. The action takes place almost entirely on a ship bound from London to Cape Town, the usual Marshian cast of vivid characters is present and correct, and the culprit is just about guessable for the careful reader given Marsh’s detailed approach to telling us who was where, when and with whom. However, the essential randomness of the crimes draws some of the interest from the denouement. Under the informal rules of classic murder – and certainly by my own strong preference – the crime(s) must be committed for a rational purpose, by a basically sane person with some clear and comprehensible end in mind. Obviously one might quibble, perhaps on Aristotelian grounds, as to whether any murderer can truly be said to be acting rationally, but that is by the by; it is observably the case that people without any obvious impairment of their reason do kill.

The book suffers from Marsh’s lack of real inventiveness with plot. I suppose by comparison with most Golden Age writers she is pretty good, and Christie is an unfair benchmark. But equally it’s hard not to be a little disappointed by the lack of rabbits from hats in the final chapter, given Marsh’s high reputation. Just one example – fairly early on, Alleyn narrows the list of suspects down to four. This list is at no point amended, and when we reach the moment of truth, sure enough one of those four is the villain. It’s hard to see Christie, or maybe even a careful plotter like Crofts, not having a bit more fun with this, perhaps by having people come off the list and then turn out to be the killer after all, or calling the reliability of the list into doubt, or something just to toy with the reader a little.    

(43) Saturday 22nd December
Goodbye Mr Chips
James Hilton
A little sentimental, of course. But a charming read, wonderful to slip into at Christmastime, evocative of a vanished but rather admirable England – and arguably with a little more thematic depth than it might first appear.  

No comments:

Post a Comment