The Moving Toyshop: Edmund Crispin (1946)

“One never knows with poets.”

In Edmund Crispin’s wonderfully funny crime novel, The Moving Toyshop, Poet Richard Cadogan pressures his publisher for an advance on his next book of poems, and so with fifty pounds in his hot little hands, he hightails it to Oxford for a much needed holiday. Having missed the last train, he hitchhikes into Oxford, and arriving late in  town, he stumbles into a toyshop. Imagine his shock when he finds a dead woman inside the building, but before he can call for help, he’s coshed on the head. When he wakes up stuffed in a cupboard, he dashes off to the police, and the police return, with Cadogan, to the scene of the crime. The toyshop has turned into a grocery shop, there’s no dead body, and the police dismiss Cadogan’s story. Cadogan decides to call upon the assistance of Gervase Fen, assistant professor at St Christopher’s College.

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The energetic, indefatigable Gervase Fen, who roars around Oxford in a red “battered” sports car named LILY CHRISTINE III, decides to investigate, refusing to turn the case over to the police. In fact he spends most of the book avoiding them with the exception of frequent phone calls to the Chief Inspector who only wants to discuss Shakespeare, but these short conversations always end with Fen hanging up.

“Gervase, it’s a common view that Measure for Measure is about chastity–“

“Very common indeed,” said Fen. “Quite reprehensible. Goodbye.” He rang off.

In his efforts to solve the crime, Fen rustles up a band of assistants including the lorry driver who reads D.H Lawrence and an amorous undergraduate whose success with women comes down to plying them with chocolates.

There are so many wonderful scenes in this literature-loving crime novel. Fen, given to using “out-of-date Americanisms,”  also has the habit of playing literature games when he’s waiting for something to happen: “Awful Lines from Shakespeare,“Detestable Characters in Fiction,” and “Unreadable Books.” In one lively scene at the pub, a debate rages over the merits of  Jane Austen, and the clues to the identities of possible murder suspects are found embedded in the nonsense rhymes of Edward Lear. Fen breaks the ‘fourth wall’ when he jokes about thinking about titles for Edmund Crispin’s books.

The Moving Toyshop is a romp. Although by the end of the book there are several dead bodies, our heroes are never really in danger, and they are clearly having a great time–well the inexhaustible Fen is having fun, but then he doesn’t appear to have any self-doubt or an iota of fear. The plot barrels along at a breakneck pace, but it’s the author’s wonderful, lightening sense of humour that elevate this novel and make it really something extraordinary. Here are just two examples:

At one point a policeman stops Fen and Cadogan as they pursue a young blonde suspected of involvement in the murder through the streets of Oxford:

The constable scratched his nose. “Well now,” he said. “We’re all for love in the Force, but fair’s fair, you know. One of you at a time, and no stampeding.”

And at another point, Cadogan’s publisher, who doesn’t want to give the poet an advance in order for him to take a holiday, offers a few days at his country home instead:

“Perhaps you’d like to stay with me for a few days at Caxton’s Folly?”

“Can you give me adventure, excitement, lovely women?”

“These picaresque fancies,” said Mr Spode. “Of course, there’s my wife…” He would not have been wholly unwilling to sacrifice his wife to the regeneration of an eminent poet, or, for the matter of that, to anyone for any reason. Elsie could be very trying at times.

The Moving Toyshop is book 3 in Edmund Crispin’s (real name Robert Mongomery 1921-1978) Gervase Fen series. I’ve also read The Glimpses of the Moon, book 9 in the series, and strangely, Fen seems to be a much more developed character in book 3 than in book 9. JJ at The Invisible Event says that The Moving Toyshop is the best of Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen series. 

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The Other Side of the World: Stephanie Bishop

“In the mind one jumps from one intensity to another, the hours in between elided and lost. It is the failure of life to stand out.”

Set in the 60s, Stephanie Bishop’s novel, The Other Side of the World, a story of displacement and cultural identity, follows the decision of a young married British couple to emigrate to Australia. While the decision to emigrate is supposed to create new opportunities, in reality, the move brings disaster to an already troubled marriage.

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The novel opens with artist Charlotte Blackwood leaving the doctor’s office after discovering that she’s pregnant for the second time. This is not news that Charlotte wants to hear as she already has Lucie, a seven month old baby, at home. Charlotte isn’t coping well with motherhood; these days we’d probably say that she’s suffering from postpartum depression. It’s clear that Charlotte, stressed to the max, doesn’t enjoy being a mother, and it doesn’t help that she has no time to paint. Meanwhile Charlotte’s Anglo-Indian husband, Henry is in the final throes of finishing his degree and is lecturing at Cambridge. When a brochure advertising emigration to Australia arrives with the slogan, “Come Over to the Sunny Side!” Henry can’t get the images of a sunnier, better life out of his head. They live in a cramped, damp country cottage with black mold creeping on the walls, and it’s impossible not to contrast the photos of Australia with the realities of their living situation.

In his mind he sees a kind of paradise: sunlight, blue sky, pineapple and steak, golf and tennis.

After one particularly harsh winter, with Lucie deathly ill, Henry who misses the Indian climate, suggests they move to Australia. At first Charlotte refuses, but then, gradually, worn down, physically and mentally she agrees to the plan–somehow thinking that the day of departure will never arrive.

Henry, Charlotte. Lucie and baby May travel to Perth, arriving in the heat of summer, and as far as emigrants go, they’re landed on their feet. Henry has a job teaching English at the university, and they’ve arranged to rent a large house with a big garden. Anglo-Indian Henry, who’s never quite made the adjustment to England, finds that, in spite of his enthusiasm and dedication, he’s not exactly fitting in with his university colleagues. Meanwhile Charlotte doesn’t fit in either, but neither does she try, and then she meets someone who expresses interest in her painting.

The Other Side of the World recreates the emigrant nostalgia for the ‘old country,’ so Charlotte, who didn’t want to move in the first place, doesn’t remember any of the negatives they faced, only the highlights of the English climate, and just as Henry idealized India, Charlotte, who dreams of England at night, now idealizes her former life in England

She and her children at home amid the foxgloves and the hollyhocks. Then she”ll keep her apples wrapped in paper in a box in the cool of the cellar. She’ll wake to hear cuckoos in the summer morning. She’ll make jam from rose hips and hedge plums. She’ll not mind the cold, she thinks remembering the pleasure of gathering sticks and logs from the woodland in the Autumn dusk. 

And what of Henry? Henry doesn’t miss England. He misses the distant memories of his childhood in India. To Henry, “England was always secondary, always derivative, always an aftereffect of a story.”

He remembers this from long ago: a different boat pulling out from the a different port. His mother crying. Crowds, smoke, the heat. Birds circling in the sky. In the heart of the country there were fields of marigolds. Elsewhere, high mountains of green camellia. He used to long for these things. 

The Other Side of the World has a very interesting premise: a husband and wife who emigrate to Australia, with the husband, who doesn’t feel a bond to England, pushing the decision. The two main characters, Charlotte and Henry, fail to connect, and instead, they struggle in their own private hell.  The pain of absence for a loved country throbs through the narrative, and unfortunately, Henry and Charlotte don’t miss the same country. I loved the scenes of struggle with the garden. It’s such a common mistake to attempt to grow plants we loved from the ‘old country’ in a new, different climate.

The casual racism directed towards Henry is echoed by Charlotte’s rigid, narrow, judgmental view of Australians. Charlotte cannot make the adjustment, and quite frankly never tries. To Charlotte, scenes of beauty in Australia are not accepted for what they are, but are only for constant comparison. Charlotte never really grapples with the fact that a move to Australia means making and accepting change; it takes years to adjust. Years to wake up in the morning and realize what country you are in. You lose and you gain. Simple as that.

While the author’s descriptions of the emigrant experience, the climate and the landscape are amazingly evocative, there’s a heavy sense of depression that hovers over the plot which emanates mostly from Charlotte who moves through life in a hazy fog. There are several descriptions of her children as babies: drool, vomit, endless sickness, and it’s quite clear that Charlotte doesn’t enjoy motherhood. It’s not necessary to like characters in order to enjoy a work of fiction (on the contrary, I enjoy reading books about nasty people,) but in this instance, Charlotte’s selfishness oozes through the plot, and effectively impacts the book negatively with Charlotte’s behaviour subsuming and blunting the author’s skillful language. The plot’s conclusion leaves a lingering dissatisfaction, and there’s the sense, at least for this reader, that Charlotte still has an emptiness inside that nothing will ever fill.

Here’s Lisa’s review. 

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Sam Giancana: The Rise and Fall of a Chicago Mobster by Susan McNicoll

“His propensity for immense cruelty had begun to show itself.”

Running at just under 100 pages, Susan McNicoll’s book, Sam Giancana: The Rise and Fall of a Chicago Mobster is a brief overview of a criminal career. Giancana, with his iconic appearance (see the book’s cover) is a significant figure in the history of organized crime, and like many other figures in the underworld, he started off in poverty, with humble beginnings. Sam’s  (Salvatore) father was a Sicilian peddler who left behind his pregnant bride to emigrate to America. Arriving in 1905 at age 24, Antonio Giancana moved to a  Chicago slum. An unsavoury picture emerges of Little Italy with crowded conditions, inadequate plumbing, rampant disease, and dead animals in the streets.

Antonio, working as an independent street peddler, managed to save enough money to send for his wife, and the family moved to slightly better living conditions.  Momo Salvatore, or Sam, was born in 1908, but in 1910, Sam’s mother died from a miscarriage. Sam’s father remarried, and Sam’s childhood, brief and violent, sounds miserable. The author argues that perhaps these frequent beatings led to “a defiance few adults knew how to control.” Sam ended up in a reformatory school for boys but escaped, and at age 11 was living, homeless, on the streets of Chicago until he joined a gang of boys who specialised in stealing “shorts” slang for unattended cars. Sam’s skill at “whipping” (“taking corners at high speed”) developed into skills as a getaway driver. This band of young criminals eventually became known as the 42 Gang.

By the age of 13, he was dubbed “Mooney” because of his unpredictability and crazy, out-of-control behaviour, alluding to people who supposedly go crazy to the time of the full moon. 

This information about Sam’s formative years sets the stage for what’s to come–a life of violent crime, murder and racketeering.

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As always with mob bios, we enter a murky world, and there’s always a degree of speculation about just who did what….In other words, what can actually be proved? The book delves into the muddy connections between Joseph Kennedy and Sam Giancana, and mob hits contracted by the CIA on Fidel Castro. The information about Sam’s relationships with Sinatra, the Kennedys, election rigging, and Marilyn Monroe is fascinating (see The Empty Glass). There’s a lot here I’d like to know more about, FBI agent William Roemer, “Sam’s true antagonist,” for example. But the book’s length aims at an overview more than an in-depth exploration of Sam Giancana’s life with the result that while the reader, at the conclusion of the book, may know what Sam Giancana did, just what made Sam tick, eludes the narrative. There are many quotes included from Sam Giancana’s daughter, Antoinette’s biography, Mafia Princess, so that’s probably a good source for additional reading.

One complaint. The swear words are abbreviated. I’m sure there was a reason for this but given the subject matter, it’s odd, and feels as though there’s a censor at work. Here’s an example.

If I was gonna get f-ed, at least it shoulda felt good.

On a final note, at one point, the book mentions that a hit was ordered on Big Jim Colosimo by Johnny Torrio, and while I’m not arguing that Torrio wasn’t responsible, I’m not sure that that’s ever been proved solidly.

Review copy

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Commonwealth: Ann Patchett

“Half the things in this life I wish I could remember and the other half I wish I could forget.”

Ann Patchett’s engaging novel, Commonwealth, begins in the 1960s, in California, at the home of detective Fix Keating. It’s his second daughter, Frances’s christening, and while most of the guests are fellow detectives, there’s a gatecrasher, Albert Cousins, otherwise known as Bert, a lawyer from the district attorney’s office. Bert attends, bringing along a bottle of gin, and it’s on this day that the lives of the Keating and the Cousins families begin to blow apart, but no one knows it yet. Taken that way, in hindsight, the christening party is a moment in time, a moving snapshot of the lives of Patchett’s characters. The novel, rooted in that event, then extends out over the next fifty years with other snapshots, following the lives of its characters as they merge for various events–some happy, some tragic, and some just marking the passage of time.

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Bert, who hails from Virginia, is an unhappily married man, but he doesn’t acknowledge it. He dragged his wife, Teresa to California, and now they have three children, Cal, Holly, and Jeannette, with another one on the way (who’ll be a second boy, a “pyromaniac” named Albie). Bert gatecrashes the christening as an excuse to not engage with his overworked wife, demanding children and the chaos called home. As the novel continues, we see that avoidance is a way of life for Bert, and it’s a pattern of behaviour that will have dramatic, tragic consequences for the other characters.

The stunningly beautiful, blonde Beverly Keating, who catches Bert’s eye, has two  daughters with Fix: Caroline and Frances (Franny). There’s a sense about her that she’s the kind of perfect woman who will always land on her feet, and that feeling is proved correct as the plot reveals her various incarnations.

Beverly was always in the pictures the children brought back from summer, as if Catherine Deneuve happened to wander by while they were playing in the pool or swinging in the swings and stepped accidentally in the frame as the shutter snapped.

So here we have a cast of four adults: Fix and Beverly Keating, Bert and Teresa Cousins and between them, six children. Over the course of fifty years, we see divorce, families blending, with Bert and Beverly becoming less-than-enthusiastic stepparents, and as the six children merge into one ad-hoc family, they develop relationships among themselves, creating bonds strengthened by being set adrift.  Although these 10 characters have a shared history, exactly what that history is is open to interpretation. In adulthood, Franny, a young woman who can’t quite find a path in life, meets a much older, successful author, who takes her childhood story, makes it into a bestselling book, and this causes questions to arise, once again, about the past.

Some reviews state that the novel is plotless. Rather, let’s go back to that snapshot image. Patchett doesn’t give us a linear narrative, and takes us back and forth in time, concentrating on some characters through significant family events, so we see how certain choices develop into major pathways. Teresa is the unsung hero here, struggling to manage a job to support her four children and receiving very little credit for it.

In Commonwealth, and the title is explained as the plot plays out, Patchett has created an engaging, tender look at the lives of her characters. It’s the bite of the narrative, the power of perspective and Patchett’s adept portrayal of messiness of life that elevate this novel.

Here’s Fix talking to his daughter Franny:

“And how about old Bert? How’s he doing?”

“He seems okay.”

“Do you talk to him very often?” Fix asked, the soul of innocence.

“Not nearly as often as I talk to you.”

“It isn’t a contest.”

“No, it’s not.”

“And he’s married now?”

Franny shook her head.

“Single.”

“But there was a third one.”

“Didn’t work out.”

“Wasn’t there a fiancée though? Somebody after the third one?” Fix knew full well that Bert had had a third divorce but he never tired of hearing about it.

“There was for a while.”

“And the fiancée didn’t work out either?”

Franny shook her head.

“Well that’s a shame,” Fix said, sounding as if he meant it

Caroline recently posted about errors and cliches in a short story written by Ann Patchett called Switzerland that is part of the novel Commonwealth. After reading Caroline’s post, I had reservations about reading the book. My concerns turned out to be unfounded–Commonwealth was excellent–I loved it, but if I had to pick fault with the novel, then that complaint would be the section in which Teresa flies to Switzerland to meet her daughter, Holly. We don’t see a lot of either Teresa or Holly in the book, and this section, which stuck out as clunky, did not blend well with the rest of the story. But apart from that, Commonwealth is an entertaining, engaging read.

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The Wicked Go To Hell: Frédéric Dard

“It was an eerie spectacle, for the darkness obstructed the rest of the bodies so that the prisoners looked like the heads of fallen angels nailed to a backdrop of night, with their hands for wings.”

Pushkin Vertigo continues to publish some astonishing crime novels, and this is proved once more by a second Frédéric Dard novel, The Wicked Go To Hell which follows on the tail of Bird in a Cage. The Wicked Go To Hell follows the escape of two convicts–one a spy and one an undercover cop. There’s very little down time in this gripping tale, an exploration of identity and morality .

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The novel opens with a bureaucratic scene of a cop named Mérins meeting with his chief while groans of beating and torture taking place next door provide the incongruous background noise to what should be an office meeting. The man being beaten is a spy. He’s been interrogated five times, four times too many, according to the chief, but like many ideologues, the prisoner isn’t breaking. The chief has an alternate plan–he intends to place Mérins undercover in the same cell with the prisoner. They are supposed to buddy up and then plan an escape.

“We’ll lock you both up in the same jail cell… a tough one.. the sort of place that gives kindly old ladies the shivers. The pair of you will escape!

You’ll try to hole up somewhere and you’ll wait. The breakout will be big news. The head of the organization, knowing that his man has escaped, will want to get him back… At some point or other, he’ll break cover…Then, when you’ve got your hands on him…”

He made a chopping motion with the side of his hand. The gesture meant death.

‘Got it?”

The Chief expects that guards will be killed along the way, but hey, it’s all in the name of making the escape look authentic….

 

“Your second problem: the escape… Keep telling yourself, old son, that you’re acting unofficially.”

He repeated the word, spelling it out with great vehemence:

“Un-off-icially! The minute you leave the office I shall disown you! You know what that means?”

Sure I knew. He couldn’t help taking a sly sideways look at me.

“If you run into trouble, I won’t be able to lift a finger to help you, especially since escape won’t happen without breakages…”

The novel then shifts from the first person to the third–two freshly beaten men, handcuffed together, are thrown into a cell by a sadistic warden, where they join a third prisoner, a mute. The two new prisoners, Hal and Frank exchange names, but we don’t know which one is the undercover cop and which one is the spy. Each man expresses suspicion that the other has been planted in the cell as a “stool pigeon.”

Days of beatings pass in the airless, dank, dark prison; nights are full of screams, and then Hal and Frank hear that an execution of another prisoner is planned. They hatch a plan to escape on the day of the execution, and the plan gives them hope, raising their spirits:

They had grabbed it as they would a battering ram-and in fact their idea was itself a battering ram, with which they would try to smash down the gates….

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say the men escape, and that’s when the story really begins. ..

Although this is a novel about an escape, the atmosphere is incredibly claustrophobic–running from the dank, stinking cell to the outside world, the desperate men are chased and hunted, and exchange one hell for another.

In common with other titles in the Pushkin Vertigo line, The Wicked Go to Hell is an incredibly clever novel. Author Frédéric Dard deliberately blurs the lines between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ guys, stripping them of their identities so that we try to guess which one of the two men is the spy and which one is the undercover cop. All we have to judge them by is their current behaviour–which really is how we should see everyone–not by their uniforms or their status. Both men lose their identities as they become dehumanized prisoners. But then after the escape, we keep waiting for the reveal, and it comes, finally at the end of the wonderful story in which right and wrong blur into escape and survival. While both men begin this journey on opposite ends of the law, there’s a greater morality here in the bonds of friendship, debt and loyalty.

According to the afterword at the end of the book, Dard wrote 284 thrillers. I’m hoping that Pushkin mines this author’s work. The Wicked Go To Hell was made into a film. I’d love to see it.

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translated by David Coward

Original title: Les Salauds en Enfer (1956)

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The Methods of Sgt Cluff: Gil North (1961)

The Methods of Sgt Cluff, from author Gil North, is the second Cluff novel following hard on the heels of Sgt Cluff Stands Firm. What the hell is happening to the Yorkshire market town of Gunnarshaw? Sgt Cluff just wrapped up the case of Amy Wright when the body of Jane Trundle, the young chemist shop assistant is found one rainy night. Just as there was criticism of the victim, Amy Wright for marrying a younger man in Sgt Cluff Stands Firm, in The Methods of Sgt Cluff, some residents of Gunnarshaw think that Jane Trundle, who had big ideas beyond her station, “asked for it.” The story, peppered with signs of vanishing small town life which include the rag-merchant and the cobbler, focuses on the sharp, impenetrable lines of class distinctions. The market town is changing with new council houses built on the edges of town.

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We see some repeat characters here: Annie, Cluff’s housekeeper, Inspector Mole and young Constable Barker, who knows he’s not earning any points with Mole for sticking close to Sgt Cluff. This murder investigation turns out to be an eye opener for Barker in terms of seeing the lives led behind closed doors.

He thought he had been better off as a uniformed constable. He wondered where the glamour of crime had got to, the fights and adventures in the novels he’d read. He rubbed his hands together in a washing motion, as if a sordidness he had never imagined had dirtied him.

In common with the first novel in the series, The Methods of Sgt Cluff is also a very cinematic book, but whereas the writing was occasionally clunky in Sgt Cluff Stands Firm, author Gil North (1916-1988, real name Geoffrey Horne) is clearly feeling much more comfortable with his subject matter. There are some strong, descriptive passages of the rugged, unforgiving landscape.

Class plays a large role in the investigation. Inspector Mole still can’t accept that Cluff is a plain clothes officer, and he also can’t accept that the chemist, Greensleeve, a man of considerable standing in the town, should be considered a suspect. In the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, we saw class trumping suspicion as Scotland Yard caved to these gentlemen sleuths, or conversely, the upper class frequently being eliminated as suspects–not so with Sgt Cluff–although the old ways are still present; it’s just that Cluff pays no respect to class. The plot, rather interesting coalesces around three houses. Sgt Cluff, a man who’s very sensitive to atmosphere, visits the shabby, tiny home of the victim, and ever a compassionate man, he now understands the victim’s desperation:

Nothing that happened in any room of this house would go unheard in another, or fail to have its meaning interpreted. Where was privacy for the people living in it? How could they get away from each other? 

And then later Cluff visits the wife of one of the suspects, the chemist Greensleeves. Mr and Mrs Greensleeve are an affluent couple who live in a pretentious, prestigious home, and while it’s a grand house, there’s something terribly wrong. Cluff, who’s very sensitive to atmosphere, can’t wait to get out of the house:

The walls around him contracted, oppressive, and the atmosphere of the room hung about him like a material fog, heavy with long-standing hostility. 

In comparison, there’s Cluff’s country home, supervised by the indomitable Annie. It’s a comforting, welcoming place:

He investigated the oven attached to its attendant cylinder of gas, discovering in it a meat and potato pie large enough to feed both Barker and himself three times over. A pantry overflowed with pastries, yellow buns, Eccles cakes, apples buried in crisp crusts, tarts smothered in jam. 

Gil North is clearly much more comfortable and relaxed with this novel; he seems to have hit his stride with his main character, Cluff, and with this second Cluff novel, there’s a nice, unexpected twist when it comes to the murder.

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Dear Mr M: Herman Koch

“At first the man feigns patient interest in an adjustable bed frame or a chest of drawers, but before long his breathing grows labored and he begins tossing glances toward the checkout counters and the exit, like a dog smelling the woods after a long trip in the car.” 

I loved Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner and liked Summer House with Swimming Pool. These are both very different novels but they share some characteristics: black humour, nasty people, and skewed morality. Dear Mr M, a story of revenge, focuses on a famous writer who is oblivious to the fact that he’s being stalked. The writer, M and his stalker, Herman have deep connections, and over the course of the novel, those long-standing ties are gradually revealed through several perspectives.

The novel opens with Herman narrating. It’s a strong invective as Herman spits abuse at M, a writer he despises, but this isn’t dislike based on M’s professional shortcomings. No, what exists between M and Herman is personal and has putrefied over the last 40 years.

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A sense of menace arcs over the narrative as Herman watches M which isn’t hard to do since Herman is M’s downstairs neighbour. A game of cat-and-mouse is afoot with the mouse, M, so deeply buried in his own writerly concerns that he’s oblivious to Herman’s malicious activities.

M’s breakthrough novel was Payback, a fictionalized account of the real-life disappearance of a history teacher named  Jan Landzaat. Landzaat was last seen by his pupil, the teenage Laura (with whom he’d been having an affair) and her high school boyfriend, prankster, Herman. Landzaat, who’d been dumped by Laura (and Mrs Landzaat) wasn’t taking Laura’s rejection well when he barged into Laura’s life and the remote home owned by her famous father. There’s no one single story about what happened that weekend, but Landzaat was never seen again. …

But forty years have passed. M’s career is now in eclipse. He’s married to a much younger woman, and above all else, he’s tired–tired of the pathetically small attendance at book readings, tired of the same boring, and sometimes hostile questions, tired of interviews. M, the object of Herman’s decades-long venom is seen as a rather pathetic man who can’t even rustle up a decent cup of coffee in the local cafe. Herman wonders if M “is aware of his own mediocrity?”

In fact, you should see your face when you’re extolling your own intelligence. Your face, and the look in your eyes. It’s the look in the eyes of a rabbit who has misjudged the distance to the other side of the expressway–and realizes too late that the headlights bearing down on it are already too close to dodge. A look, in other words, that doesn’t believe itself for a moment, that’s paralyzed by the fear that the first tricky question will expose it as a fraud, once and for all.

A mediocre writer serves a life sentence. He has to go on. It’s too late to change professions. He has to go on till the bitter end. Until death comes to get him. Only death can save him from mediocrity. 

Koch shows us that there are two ways of perceiving men who have relationships with much younger (underage) woman–they can be seen as predators, which is the common view, or idiots. At first Landzaat seems to be a middle-aged predator, but as the plot continues, he morphs into a pathetic, emotionally weak loser who can’t accept the fact that Laura, his teenage lover, realizing that she’s made a horrible mistake, has moved on. Laura takes the nuclear option, and that leaves Landzaat alone in the aftermath of his affair’s destructive path. Through Herman and Laura’s eyes, we see how the young perceive the aging loser, and to Herman, every teacher is a loser:

Nowhere is the odor of mediocrity more pervasive than at a high school. It’s a smell that works its way into everything, like the stench of a pan of soup that has been bubbling on the burner for too long.

Dear Mr M, for its acrobatic, nasty subversive wit made me chuckle with sheer delight. Nothing is sacred here, and all of the characters are fair game for the author’s acerbic vision. Koch mines the deep well of student dislike for their teachers, so Herman’s observations about his “dropping like flies” high school teachers are vicious. Each “sad announcement,” for Herman, is just an occasion when “you had to keep your mouth shut and look serious, but what we mostly felt was a sense of justice having been done.”  Koch captures the students’ perceptions as teachers being old and decrepit, boring people who are so mediocre, they might as well die now and get on with it. And then of course, there’s that “one spectacular finish” by social studies teacher Harm Koolhass who “less than half an hour after a midnight landing in Miami,” takes a “wrong exit”:

Somehow we couldn’t reconcile the two images–the trousers and the beaded bag on the one hand, the corpse hanging out of the car with its neck twisted at a strange angle on the other. As though the halls, the classrooms and the auditorium of the Spinoza Lyceum were the worst possible preparation for a violent demise in an American B-movie.

Dear Mr M, shares some thematic connections with The Dinner (the insular world of youthful morality) and Summerhouse with Swimming Pool (a predatory male and an underage girl), but it’s ultimately not as successful a novel. While the first half or so of Dear Mr M was very strong indeed, the plot began to lag when it shifted to Herman’s high school days, and the story’s pacing cools down to teenage friendships and a certain ordinariness. These sections just couldn’t match the ingenuity, viciousness and hilarious spleen of the first half of the novel. That said, in the last chapter, Koch pulls the strands together brilliantly, and the novel ends on a splendid note. Flawed as the novel is, I’ll still read anything from this author.

Review copy

Translated by Sam Garrett

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Filed under Fiction, Koch Herman

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman: Stefan Zweig

Stefan Zweig’s novella, Twenty Four Hours in the Life of a Woman, opens with guests at a French Riviera resort gossiping and “obsessing” over an incident that took place at the Grand Palace Hotel. A new guest, a handsome, charming young Frenchman man, arrived one day a little after noon and spent his time in a whirl of activity. The young man left abruptly that same evening, claiming that he’d “been suddenly called away.” Imagine the shock, when the guests learn late that night that a married woman, Madame Henriette, the wife of “a stout, thick-set manufacturer from Lyon,”  has left her husband and two children to run off with the young Frenchman she just met. Tongues start wagging with the delicious gossip which is fed by a dramatic scene from the husband, and the gossip leans to earnest discussion about whether or not the married woman, a “minor Madame Bovary,” is crazy to leave her husband and family behind or whether her actions can be understood.

You will understand that such an event, striking like lightning before our very eyes and our perceptions, was likely to cause considerable turmoil in persons usually accustomed to an easygoing existence and carefree pastimes. But while this extraordinary incident was certainly the point of departure for the discussion that broke out so vehemently at our table, almost bringing us to blows, in essence the dispute was more fundamental, an angry conflict between two warring concepts of life. 

The debate between the guests takes a very specific form which focuses on morality:

But what aroused so much indignation in all present was the circumstance that neither the manufacturer nor his daughters, not even Madame Henriette herself, had ever set eyes on this Lovelace before, and consequently their evening conversation for a couple of hours on the terrace, and the one-hour session in the garden over black coffee, seemed to have sufficed to make a woman about thirty-three years old and of blameless reputation abandon her husband and two children overnight, following a young dandy previously unknown to her without a second thought.

Some of the guests, who struggle to accept that Madame Henriette ran off with a man she just met, believe that there was a “clandestine affair” conducted long before the assignation at the hotel, and the dominant opinion is that “it was out of the question for a decent woman who had known a man a mere couple of hours to run off just like that when he first whistled her up.” The narrator, however, perhaps a romantic, takes the position that it was “probable in a woman who at heart had perhaps been ready to take some decisive action through all the years of a tedious, disappointing marriage.”  

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Our narrator, defending Madame Henriette, who he believes was “delivered up to mysterious powers beyond her own will and judgement,” finds himself in the minority opinion while the other married couples “denied the existence of the coup de foudre with positively scornful indignation, condemning it as folly and tasteless romantic fantasy.” An elderly widow, an Englishwoman, Mrs C, who has an “eccentric obsession” with the behaviour of the now-absent Madame Henriette, seems fascinated by the narrator’s moral stance. As the narrator’s holiday comes to an end, Mrs C tells her own story of twenty-four hours of madness….

This superb novella argues that married women, especially of a certain privileged class, are cocooned from life’s passions and ugly realities, and are, therefore, vulnerable to love affairs.  Are they kept like little pets in gilded cages? The story of Madame Henriette and Mrs C echo all stories of other great fictional heroines: Anna Karenina leaps to mind–although of course, Zweig’s story doesn’t follow the aftermath of Madame Henriette’s decision. While Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is concerned solely with the impulsive decisions of two women, nonetheless, there’s an arc to the story that continues beyond the first page. Anna Karenina, one of literature’s great tragic heroines, threw aside her tedious marriage for love, and we all know how that story ended. Madame Henriette’s fate will most probably be ignominious. Zweig allows us to imagine the consequences of her rashness, but he tells us, instead, the story of Mrs C’s extraordinary behavior.

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman is a beautifully constructed, almost perfect tale of two women who went off the rails. There’s a 19th century feel to this story, and the narrator tells us almost immediately that the events he describes took place “ten years before the war.” So it’s a tale told in retrospect by someone who can’t forget either Madame Henriette or the confidences of Mrs C, a woman haunted by her actions decades after they took place.

Review copy

Translated by Anthea Bell

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Sgt Cluff Stands Firm: Gil North (1960)

“Of course it couldn’t be murder. Not in Gunnarshaw.”

When the body of married woman, Amy Wright is found in her gas-filled home, everyone in the small Yorkshire town of Gunnarshaw assumes it’s a case of suicide. After years of nursing her ailing mother, Amy, a woman in her 40s, married a man many years her junior, a ne’er-do-well and a known womanizer. The consensus of the town is that Amy’s death is the sad conclusion to a bad mistake. Everyone from the police surgeon to Inspector Mole tells Sgt Cluff that Amy’s death is sad, yes, but nothing to get worked up about. But Sgt Cluff, a Yorkshire man of very strong opinions, is deeply troubled by Amy’s death.

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Sgt Cluff Stands Firm from Gil North shows a world in flux. The market town of Gunnarshaw has many houses in which bedrooms have been converted into that perennial luxury: an indoor bathroom. Cottages are being demolished to make way for businesses. This is a time when suicide is illegal, before the birth control  pill became “available for all” on the NHS. This was also the end of the age when it was common for children to nurse their ailing parents until death.

In Cluff, we have a hero who hates his car, loves his dog (who accompanies him on his investigations), a solitary man who’s bonded to the land and has a solid moral core when it comes to right and wrong. Cluff isn’t entirely convinced that Amy’s death was suicide, and yet even if it was, can justice be brought to the callous husband who pushed her so far? Cluff takes a holiday to pursue the case, and that means keeping a close eye on Amy’s philandering husband in this tale of marital strife and revenge.There’s more than a dash of misogyny in the novel–but this is clearly not from the author but from some of more ungracious characters who pass judgments on Amy who is seen, by some, as foolish for marrying a man so much younger than herself in an ‘well-she-asked-for-it’ sort of way. The author makes it easy to delineate characters into those we should like and those we should dislike by their treatment of Cluff’s dog.

Sgt Cluff Stands Firm is the first in a series of 11 novels. Gil North (1916-1988) whose real name was Geoffrey Horne was, like his protagonist, from Yorkshire, and his Cluff books were very popular in the sixties, spawning a television series. Sgt Caleb Cluff, a heavy-set bachelor who lives with a Persian cat and a dog named Clive (one in a series of Clives) is a solid character who inspires respect from the locals and fear in the baddies. Inspector Mole, Cluff’s superior, dislikes animals and is a snob. He is “at a loss to understand how the Sergeant had made the plain clothes branch.” Mole underestimates Cluff, and yet Mole also dismisses the darker aspects of the Amy Wright case in his eagerness to end the investigation. According to Mole, “there’s nothing to get excited about,” and even the police surgeon chalks the woman’s suicide up to “the menopause.

This is a short, cinematic novel–not really a whodunnit. Instead the plot shows two people who made marriages for material gain–a young, ambitious woman who married a much older farmer, and the sleazy Wright who married Amy for the security she offered. Cluff is positioned in the novel, unusually for a policeman, as a wrathful, vengeful man who intends to get ‘justice’ for Amy–a woman who was neglected and ignored by everyone who knew her. As a crime novel, Sgt Cluff Stands Firm is an unusual pick for British Library Crime Classics, but then that’s part of the attraction of the series which introduces readers to British crime classics that were formerly OOP. While there’s nothing earth-shattering here, it’s a competently plotted novel–although I did find some of the descriptive sentence pacing on the annoying side:

He was meagre under his gaberdine raincoat, his knees pointed, his shanks like sticks under their covering. His eyes were shifty, never still. His lips were hardly perceptible. His nose was sharp like a ferret’s. He gave the impression of being suddenly trapped. He opened his mouth. His teeth were needles.

The novel’s strength comes in the force of Cluff’s personality and battle between good and evil. Analytically, given the times, Cluff could be seen as a bastion of moral values. He doesn’t approve of a young woman in the book who appears to be a quasi-prostitute, so perhaps Cluff’s popularity was partly in response to what was perceived as the erosion of morality in the 60s. We have no doubt that crime would run amok in Yorkshire if not for Cluff’s impressive presence, and as always with a series, it’s affection for the main character that guarantees success.

Review copy

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The Eskimo Solution: Pascal Garnier

“He kills people’s parents the way Eskimos leave their elders on a patch of ice because … it’s natural, ecologically sound, a lot more humane and far more economical that endlessly prolonging their suffering in a nursing home. Besides, he’ll hardly be doing them harm; he’ll do the job carefully, every crime professionally planned and tailored to the person like a Club Med holiday.”

In Pascal Garnier’s The Eskimo Solution, an author of children’s stories decides to branch out into a different genre. On a slim advance from his skeptical publisher, he’s rented a house on the Normandy coast, and begins working on a novel about a middle-aged man named Louis who decides to start killing the parents of various friends in order to ‘gift’ his friends with premature inheritances.

Since everything goes to plan, no trouble with the law or anything, he starts killing the parents of friends in need. Of course, he doesn’t tell them what he’s doing-it’s his little secret, pure charity. He’s an anonymous benefactor, if you like.

Gradually the writer begins to identify with his fictional character and the writer’s life spirals out of control as fiction and reality mix in a deadly and disorienting fashion…

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Any one reading The Eskimo Solution will have to pay close attention to the text as Garnier melts back and forth into the crime writer’s life and that of his main character and alterego, Louis. The crime writer’s tale is written in the first person while Louis’ story unfolds in the third, so if you get lost it’s fairly easy to pull yourself back and hang onto ‘reality.’ Any sense of confusion, however, isn’t helped by the fact that there’s another Louis, an elderly neighbour in the crime writer’s life. I asked myself why Garnier used the same name twice and concluded that the two characters named Louis–one real, the other fictional–serve to blur the lines between fact and fiction (in this metafictional novel). And as the novel continues with the plot taking the stance of Life Imitates Art, Garnier is clearly dragging the reader into a life spinning out of control.

I really liked parts of The Eskimo Solution; it’s classic Garnier black humour with the crime writer  bemoaning the fact that he has to wait until his parents die until he gets his hands on a meagre inheritance, hoping all the old people will be wiped out by an epidemic, and pissed off asthe fucking doctors have made them practically immortal,” but overall this is not Garnier’s best by a long shot. The novel’s premise had a lot of promise, and if the crime writer had begun following Louis’ lead, this would have been a much stronger novel. Indeed, Garnier seems to play with this possibility–he even places two elderly people in the path of the crime writer. The elderly neighbours, Arlette and (another) Louis are harmless and sweet, but since the crime writer’s fictional Louis has been bumping off people over 50 at an alarming rate, Garnier dangles the murder of Arlette and Louis as a tantalizing possibility.

Anyway, if you’re a Garnier fan as I am (and this is novel number 9) you won’t be able to resist. The Eskimo Solution shows a middle-aged man chomping at the bit to get his hands on his parents’ money, and like many a writer before him, he uses fiction to resolve the issues in his life. Given that I’ve talked to so many people in the last few years who dumped their elderly parents in ‘rest homes’ while they cleared out their estates, selling off all the parents’ worldly goods asap, this novel hit a chord for me. Garnier illuminates the dark wish of many early middle-aged children, drags it to daylight, and takes it to a typical Garnier-ish conclusion. Garnier’s work can’t all be as good as Moon in a Dead Eye, and when you start reading a large number of novels from any writer, it’s inevitable that you rank them in order of preference. While I wasn’t crazy about The Eskimo Solution, it had its merits in spite of its flaws.

Order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Boxes

The Eskimo Solution

The Panda Theory

A-26

Here’s another review at Words and Peace

Review copy

Translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken

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Filed under Fiction, Garnier Pascal