Black Tide: Peter Temple

Black Tide, the second Jack Irish novel, finds Jack still working as a lawyer/debt collector/finder of missing persons/hobby cabinet-maker. For those who have not read the first book Bad Debts, Jack Irish was a successful criminal lawyer until a pissed-off client murdered his pregnant wife. From that point, life was all downhill for Jack, but he was eventually pulled from purgatory by his former law partner, Andrew Greer. Jack is still broken–some things can’t ever be fixed, but he’s functional–in an alternative kind of way.

Black Tide

Black Tide opens at a funeral with Jack and his “occasional employer,” Cyril Wootton. Gangster George Armit is dead. A funeral is hardly a place for humour but the author pulls it off, and this is a perfect example of the type of humour you find in these pages:

It was a small affair. Almost everyone George had known was dead. Many of them were dead because George had had them killed. As Cyril wryly notes, the mourners are the “most relieved lot I’ve seen since the plane out of Vietnam.”

The main plot of the novel concerns Des Connors, a man who knew Jack’s father, who comes knocking on Jack’s door,

“Looking for me?” I asked. 

He gave me a looking over with clear bluer eyes. “Jack Irish.” Not a question.

I nodded.

He sniffed. “Don’t ya keep office hours?”

“Called out urgently,” I said. 

“Should have put a note on the door.”

He carried on eyeing me, the look of a talent scout. A faintly disappointed talent scout. “Spit of yer old man,” he said. “Bag as. And the face. Bill was pretty hard though.”

I looked down at myself, gained no pleasure from the experience. “Well,” I said, “I’m a bit older than he was.”

The man thought about this. “Still,” he said.” Bit soft.”

No immediate way to controvert this statement occurred to me.

Des has, apparently, come to make a will, and Jack asks if he has children. This opens the conversation to include Des’s second son ex-copper Gary who is, according to Des, “smart but rubbish.” Des lent Gary 60,000 dollars with the promise he’d “double the money” in three weeks through buying shares. Two months have passed with no sign of Gary. But that’s not the worst of it. Des’s wife willed the house to Gary ,and Gary took an 80,000 mortgage out on the house and Des is about to be evicted. And that’s how Jack, who’s big on settling debts and obligations, get’s involved and starts looking for Gary who, as it turns out, is neck deep in some very nasty business.

As always, there’s a sub-plot involving racing and there’s also Jack’s private life which we can’t forget. He hangs out at the local pub and follows the local football team. The oldsters who sit on the stools seem planted there and are always full of opinions. The woman Jack became involved with in Book 1, Bad Debts, reporter Linda, has debunked to greener career pastures and Jack is missing her… sort of. I didn’t like this one as much as Bad Debts but it’s always fun to ride along with Jack Irish–no matter the destination. And if you haven’t watched the TV version, it’s well worth checking out.

review copy

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Temple Peter

I Married a Dead Man: Cornell Woolrich (1948)

Helen, 8 months pregnant, penniless and abandoned, boards the sleeper train. She’s hit rock bottom, and fruitless attempts to contact the father of her child result only in an envelope containing a 5 dollar bill and a one-way ticket from New York to San Francisco. Even though there’s no note, the message is clear.

Once on the train, she meets a young couple, happy, very much in-love, Patrice and Hugh Hazzard, who are travelling to Hugh’s family. They’ve yet to meet Patrice. Patrice is also pregnant, and stuck travelling in an over-crowded train together, Patrice generously befriends Helen. Even though Helen doesn’t share her story, it’s clear that she’s down on her luck. A terrible accident occurs, and Patrice, Hugh and their unborn baby are killed while Helen survives. Thanks to the fact that Helen had tried on, and was still wearing Patrice’s ring when the accident happened, Helen wakes up in hospital and discovers that due to a mix-up everyone thinks she’s Patrice.

I married a dead man

Helen isn’t a bad person, and she doesn’t intentionally set out to deceive anyone. But Hugh’s parents have arranged for a private room for the daughter-in-law (now with a baby) they never met. Along with the private room come flowers and baskets of fruit. With just 17 cents to her name, Helen, drugged up to the eyeballs, finds it easier to go along with the case of mistaken identity.

But one thing leads to another, and Helen is taken to the Hazzard home. Surrounded with the loving, affluent family Helen doesn’t have, she goes along with the deception mainly for her son’s sake. Soon she’s in so deep, it’s impossible to say where this will end. Hugh’s parents have already been devastated by their son’s death, but they carry on knowing that they have a grandson. The story isn’t just about Helen anymore: she has other people to consider–people who will be brokenhearted again.

It’s not easy to step into someone else’s shoes and Helen makes a couple of errors; no one seems to notice–except for Hugh’s brother Bill who isn’t as blinded by grief as his parents. Then the louse who abandoned pregnant Helen, smelling money, reappears like a wolf hunting his prey.

The book starts slowly and it’s not until chapter 4 and the train trip that things take off, but then the book takes shape. In this noir tale, Helen’s life looks bleak but then Fate takes a hand with the death of Patrice, Hugh and their baby. Helen steps into Patrice’s shoes, but it’s an uneasy existence, and it seems just a matter of time before events comes crashing down on Helen. And Fate seems to deal Helen a cruel hand once again–giving her what she thought she wanted back in New York.

And here’s a fantastic quote about Fate–always central to noir:

What makes you stop, when you have stopped, just where you have stopped? What is it, what? Is it something, or is it nothing? Why not a yard short, why not a yard more? Why just there, where you are, and nowhere else?

Some say: It’s just blind chance, and if you hadn’t stopped there, you would have stopped at the next place. Your story would have been different then. You weave your own story as you go along.

But others say: You could not have stopped any place else but this even if you wanted to. It was decreed, it was ordered, you were meant to stop at this spot, and no other. Your story is there waiting for you, it has been waiting for you there a hundred years, long before you were born, and you cannot change a comma of it. Everything you do, you have to do. You are the twig, and the water you float on swept you here. You are the leaf and the breeze you were borne on blew you here. This is your story, and you cannot escape it; you are only the player, not the stage manager. Or so some say.

For this reader, Helen isn’t a particularly interesting character, but the plot is fantastic; when we meet Helen, she’s beaten down by life. The train wreck appears to flip Helen’s fortunes, but it seems unsavoury that anyone would profit from the death of a young married couple and their unborn child. Helen is never comfortable with the deception, she’s not a grifter looking for an easy buck–she’s waiting for the ax to drop. Again. 

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Woolrich Cornell

The Playground: Jane Shemilt

Jane Shemlit’s The Playground concerns three married couples, and their children, thrown together over the course of a summer. Stay-at-home mother Eve, who is more than comfortably off thanks to a generous legacy from her parents has 3 children with landscaper hubbie, Eric. They have an idyllic country home with meadows, woods and even donkeys. Eve is the perfect wife and mother, the sort who makes her own bread–she has an inner tranquility which has a medicated quality. Eve has recently become certified as a teacher of dyslexic children and this move was due to Eve wanting to help her own dyslexic child. Poppy

The playground

Now certified, Eve opens up her home to other parents and takes on Isabelle the daughter of ultra-thin interior designer Melissa who is married to creepy control freak Paul. Also onboard for tuition is Blake the son of Zimbabwe immigrant Grace whose slim income supports the family, barely (including Booker prize novelist dad, Martin).

Day one, things go wrong. But not screamingly wrong. At first it’s subtle: Eve’s husband Eric promised to watch their two other children, but now work commitments demand otherwise. Then Grace leaves daughter Charley at Eve’s house when she drops off Blake for his lessons. So here’s Eve, who planned to tutor 3, with three extra kids: 6 total. Now what can go wrong???? Right away, Eve’s home becomes a sort of playground of dangerous and even sick games for the children, and the adults are so busy with their own issues, no-one notices a thing.

All of these marriages come under scrutiny with Martin working his lazy charms on Eve, Grace agonizing over money, living in a slum, harried all the time, and Melissa worrying about aging and staying in shape–after all Paul has a ‘thing‘ for really young women; he snapped up Melissa when she was 15 (pervie alert), so a mixture of characters–all with their own problems and with the women eyeing each other envying each other in various sad and pathetic ways. …

Sorry but if I went to pick up my kid and the adult watching them had no idea where she/he was, it would be sayonara baby. I didn’t like any of the characters which isn’t a deal breaker for me, as nasty people are usually a lot more interesting than nice ones. In this case, I wasn’t interested in these characters much at all. I wanted Grace and Melissa to whack their husbands upside the head. The Playground would probably slot into the domestic suspense genre and as such it is a slow burn. We know almost immediately that something bad has happened, and so the read is a train wreck waiting to happen.  I wanted to stop the train wreck. 

I used to think truth was a simple thing. That there could only be one truth, single and essential–like light, say, or water. Now I know it comes in layers, some more transparent than others. If you look carefully–and we didn’t–you can see through the top layer to the darkness beneath.

As a reader, I love reading about adults behaving badly, but it’s another thing when it comes to children (and animals), so given the subject matter, this book may not be for all readers.

Review copy

10 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Shemilt Jane

The Best Kind of People: Zoe Whittall

In Zoe Whittall’s topical book The Best Kind of People, George Woodbury is a middle-aged married, respected exclusive preparatory school science teacher who inherited money, a lot of money, from his father. He has a claim to fame as the Connecticut teacher who took down a school shooter, so when he’s accused and subsequently arrested on criminal charges which include attempted rape of several underage girls, his story is BIG news. With George locked up awaiting trial, his wife, local trauma nurse, Joan, his teenage daughter Sadie, and his son Andrew have to deal with the fallout.

The novel begins with George and Joan enjoying a quiet evening at home when he tells her he’s been receiving anonymous “cryptic” notes in his school mailbox and that the school secretary warns him there’s a rumor he’s “being set up.”  Within minutes, police come to the home and George is arrested on charges of “sexual misconduct with four minors, [and] attempted rape of a minor.” What then follows is a nightmare for George’s family. The Woodburys live in the most exclusive gated community in town, but reporters flock outside the gates, snapping photos as family members leave and return. Excrement, eggs and broken beer bottles are thrown over the hedges. Sadie is cruelly harassed at school, and Andrew, now a lawyer who lives in New York with his lover, Jared, returns to help. Joan’s acerbic, fiercely single sister Clara also descends on the home. At first, the family think George’s arrest is a mix up which will be quickly sorted out, but hours turn to days, and weeks turn to months….

We follow the family members as they each go through the process of learning about, and dealing with the accusations. Much of the book’s focus is on Sadie, the 17-year-old who is experimenting with sex through her relationship with her boyfriend, Jimmy, but then later she begins to have feelings for an older man who (stupidly) sends her all the wrong signals. And of course, ‘misreading signals’ or sending ‘wrong signals’ are trip wires in male-female relationships. There are those in Avalon Hills who think George’s accusers just outright lied, and those who defend George wonder if the girls somehow ‘got it wrong.’ 

In high school, Andrew had a sexual relationship with an older married coach. Andrew was 17 at the time, and in his mind, nothing criminal occurred.  Returning to Avalon Falls brings that affair back into focus, and it tends to make Andrew more open to the possibility that his father is guilty of the charges, or at the very least, that he has have a secret life that no one knows about. 

Although the novel concerns the Woodburys in the community, there are really only a handful of characters to worry about here. Perhaps the cleverest addition character wise is Kevin, a one time ‘hot’ author who is floundering on his second novel. He lives with (and off) Jimmy’s mother, Elaine. He comes to the conclusion that George is guilty as there was something off about the man–a total lack of self-awareness and also he was a little too perfect:

George always struck Kevin as an intimidating figure, who was nonetheless approachable and jovial. He used to joke about him with Elaine, that he didn’t seem real. He’d seemed too perfect, too good a husband, not enough darkness. 

On the opposite side of the fence, the school secretary Dorothy is an activist with a men’s movement which boasts slogans such as: Just because you regret it doesn’t mean it’s rape. One of the members thinks that George “is a symbol of all that feminism has done to cause hysteria in this world.” 

Inappropriate sexual behaviour is at the core of the story. We come to news stories with opinions, past experiences and beliefs. We’re human–it’s what we do, and so everyone in Avalon Hills, Connecticut has an opinion (his wife had to know, the girls involved are slutty, etc). Even withholding opinion (as in ‘innocent until proven guilty’) is still taking sides. as far as the residents are concerned. The case is like a storm that whips everybody’s opinions out into the open; the case is no longer about the victims, or George and what he may or may not have done. 

There was a lot I liked about the novel; It’s well-nuanced. Loved the loaded ‘support’ Joan receives. A basket of fruit and a card from the nurses at Joan’s work is delivered shortly after the news of George’s arrest becomes public knowledge:

The card read, I hope you’re hanging in there, and it was signed by all the nurses at work. Accompanying it were a pamphlet for victims’ services, one for a support group for women survivors of violence, and another for a group of women with loved ones in prison.

I sometimes think of news reports that interview neighbours who live next to a suspected pedo. Do you want to be the one who goes on camera saying you always knew there was something weird about him? Or would you rather say he seemed normal and you noticed nothing?

Could have done without the details of Sadie’s sex life–that’s not a prudish comment just an observation. She’s a major character and since some of her father’s accusers are her age (or younger) she is impacted in a way her mother isn’t, but details about the blow jobs and the hands jobs were boring.  I wished there had been more focus on Joan. Also, given the brevity of the charges, it seems highly unlikely that Joan wouldn’t have dug through the family finances from the moment George was carted from the house. Or perhaps that’s just me. Along that same line of thought, at one point, fairly deep into the novel, one of the characters mentally voices an opinion about the witness statements. Joan’s reaction to the evidence and witness statements is vague and never really addressed. Perhaps she doesn’t want to know, but for this reader this seemed manipulated to facilitate plot.

I read some comments from readers who thought the novel ended too abruptly. I didn’t have that reaction; I thought the understated ending was extremely powerful. The author succeeds in showing that no one walks away unchanged by this event. 

review copy

5 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Whittal Zoe

Salt Lane: William Shaw

William Shaw’s Salt Lane is the first in the Alexandra Cupidi series, but the name and the locale, Dungeness, Kent,  rang a bell. Cupidi appeared in The Birdwatcher, and since Shaw knows better than to waste a good character (the Breen and Tozer series), it’s not too surprising that divorced, single parent Cupidi is back.

In Salt Lane, Sergeant Cupidi begins to investigate the murder of a middle-aged woman fished out from a marsh. Even the coroner is stumped when it comes to cause of death, but as the days pass, the case becomes more complex. When Cupidi finally learns the woman’s identity, she makes the drive to London to break the news to her son, Julian. But this is when things become even murkier; Julian was adopted at age 2. His mother, absent for decades, was a heroin addict, and she turned up on his doorstep right around the time the murder victim was fished from the marsh. So who is the imposter? The worn out heroin addict who apologized to Julian and then disappeared or the dead woman fished from the marsh?

Salt Lane

As Cupidi investigates, a second body is found. This is the particularly heinous murder of an illegal alien. Why was he herded into a manure slurry tank ? Are the two murders connected?

In The Birdwatcher, Cupidi ‘lost’ her first partner. For this book, she’s teamed with a younger woman, Constable Jill Ferriter. While Cupidi does not have the most winning personality, Ferriter still has the enthusiasm and naivete of youth, and the two women make a good team–although it takes a while for Jill to crack Cupidi’s defenses. 

In Salt Lane, a tightly written atmospheric police procedural, Cupidi finds that she must dig back into the alternative culture of the 80s. At the same time, she also faces the impenetrable world of illegal employment. It’s a gray world which exists just under the surface, and illegals, who are “never anywhere for very long,” don’t want to talk to the police.

The novel is marred by two coincidences, but in spite of that, this is a highly readable novel, which is driven by the murder investigations. I really liked the location, and the author capitalizes on the area when it comes to atmosphere, idiosyncrasy of locals and method of murder.

Cupidi found the owner of the breaker’s yard in the lot behind the office. He was wearing swimming trunks and dark glasses. A man in his fifties, greying hair swept back across his head, sitting on a plastic chair next to a swimming pool with a can of lager in his hand.

The pool was surrounded by old tyres and rusting gas cylinders.

“Hard day at the office?”

His leathery tan suggested he was out here most days during the summer. He fancied himself; worked out a bit. His stomach was flat for man his age, his arms muscular.

“Work, work, work,” he answered, smiling. “What about a dip?”

Cupidi makes for an interesting series character and I enjoyed the inclusion of her mother as that made some of the puzzle pieces fit. As always with a series character, we get the case (or cases) at hand plus personal life. On the personal side, Cupidi has a problematic relationship with her teenage daughter, and work demands always take precedence. Cupidi transferred to this rural area after she ended an affair with a married officer in a different department. Cupidi watches Ferriter’s interest in another Constable and knows how these things can take a sour turn.

Seriously, these characters need to take their friggin’ cell phones with them for goodness sake. Plus Cupidi is going to have a short career if she keeps putting herself (and her partner) into these risky situations. I’m not a member of the police but even I can see that the risks Cupidi takes are over-the-top. And while I’m at it, Julian’s wife, Lulu is portrayed as somewhat of a nasty cow because she’s suspicious and unfriendly when a woman claiming to be Julian’s mother shows up out of the blue. My sympathies are with Julian’s wife. I wouldn’t want a smelly heroin addict moving in my home and hovering around my toddler. Call me heartless but just because someone gave birth to you doesn’t give them automatic rights–especially if they abandoned you and decided, decades later, to pop in and see how you’re doing. 

While I guessed the perp, the novel kept my interest right up to the end, and if you read the review, it’s easy to see I felt involved with the characters here. 

Now: just a couple of non-review thoughts I’m going to add here. Personal lives are personal lives, and while I understand work-place behaviour/ethics and potential sexual harassment suits, it seems a bit intrusive for ‘the Practice Support Team’ to question Cupidi as to whether or not she’s having an affair with a married officer in a different department. Since dickhead lover boy is in a different department, I’d file that under Cupidi’s PRIVATE life, but that’s me. Then at one point DI McAdam (Cupidi’s boss) stands to “lose his job, his pension, his reputation, everything,” under an IPCC investigation. That seems harsh when we are talking about a split second judgement call under pressure. 

review copy

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Shaw William

The Listening Walls: Margaret Millar (1959)

Margaret Millar’s The Listening Walls begins in Mexico City with two American women, married, quiet Amy Kellogg and hot mess Wilma arguing in their hotel room. Wilma is busy bitching about Mexico which is odd since she’s the one who decided she wanted to vacation there, but then it becomes clear that Wilma, a spoiled rich woman who suffers from “nerves,” bitches about everything.

Wilma had had a bad year, a divorce (her second), the death of her parents in a plane wreck, a bout of pneumonia. She had planned the holiday in Mexico to get away from it all. Instead she had taken it all with her.

The argument is overheard by hotel maid Consuela who, thanks to a stay in America, speaks and understands English. She likes to listen in on guests and if she has an opportunity, she steals what she can. One evening the two American women spend the evening in a local bar with a ne’er-do-well drifter American named O’Donnell, and that night, Wilma falls from her hotel room balcony. She was drunk, and her death is ruled a suicide.

the listening walls

Amy’s husband Rupert flies down to Mexico to deal with the situation and bring Amy home. That would seem to be the end of the story, but it’s just the beginning. Gill, Amy’s over-protective brother wants to see his sister when she returns home, but she simply vanishes. According to Amy’s husband Rupert, Amy wants some time alone and will shortly be in touch. To Gill, things don’t add up, and suspecting Rupert’s motives, he hires a private detective.

This is my second Millar novel. Margaret Millar doesn’t seem much read these days, and she’s faded in comparison to her husband, Ross Macdonald. The Listening Walls was initially hard to get into due to the cringe-worthy portrayal of Mexicans (immature, dishonest, sleazy), but once the novel moves back to America, things pick up. This is mostly due to the characters, which is ironic since that’s the very thing that weakened the novel in the beginning.

There’s Dodd, the determined, no-frills detective who digs deep for information, a veterinarian whose single-minded devotion to animals always comes first (my favourite scene), an all-too devoted secretary who ballroom dances, dodging the geezers who might drop in the middle of a tango, Gill a man whose primary relationship is with his sister–not his wife, and then there’s Gill’s far-from-loyal wife, Helene who hopes her sister-in-law never reappears:

She munched in a piece of crisp bacon, listening to Gill the way one listens to the waves breaking on a beach, knowing the noise will always be the same, only varying in volume now and then with the tides and the weather.

So often the noise was about Amy, and Helene listened out of habit. without interest. In her opinion, Amy was a dull little creature, invested with wit by her brother and beauty by her husband, and having, in fact, neither. 

I didn’t buy the ending but I preferred The Listening Walls to Beast in View.

Blogging amiga Jacqui also reviewed the book, and we more or less felt the same about it.

9 Comments

Filed under Millar Margaret

Abigail: Magda Szabó

“Once again, as so many times before, Gina had a sense of being trapped in the chilly, suffocation air inside a bell-jar.”

Madga Szabó’s brilliant novel, Abigail, is set during WWII. It’s Budapest, and life for 14-year-old Georgina Vitay, ‘Gina’, the daughter of a widowed General, has changed. Her beloved French governess has had to return to France, and Gina lives a fairly secluded life with visits to her somewhat unreliable, giddy, vain Aunt Mimó. Gina also has a simmering romance in the form of Lt. Feri Kuncz but since he’s not welcome in the General’s house, meetings take place at Aunt Mimó’s “afternoon teas.”

Gina is stunned when her father announces one day that she is to leave for a boarding school “in the provinces.”

In the past she had been able to persuade him to do almost anything; now he seemed deaf to all her pleadings. He had decided on her fate without discussing a single detail and merely informed her what would happen. If he had given any kind of explanation, anything she could understand and accept, it might have been easier for her to bear the thought of being torn away from her familiar world.

It all happens so quickly and Gina imagines that an imminent stepmother is at the root cause of the upheaval. She’s allowed to say farewell to her aunt but not her friends or the staff. She is not to mention she’s leaving Budapest and Gina isn’t told where she’s going so her destination remains a secret. Gina is unhappy and peevish about her father’s decision which she sees as a betrayal and a rejection, but it’s clear to the reader that the General fears for his daughter’s safety, and as it turns out, his fears are very much warranted.

Gina’s father drives her to the distant Bishop Matula Academy for Girls which is located “almost on the Eastern border.” While the strict school is protestant, there’s the feel of a convent. The building is “like a fortress” with a barred entrance, and the girls must hand over their worldly possessions when they arrive. Soap, towels, a dressing gown, and even a toothbrush are deemed against “regulations.” 

Surely she did not have to be told that such trumpery would be of no interest to a good christian girl.

She is given the plain uniform, her hair is cut, arranged in plaits and tied with a black shoelace.

Gina was now trembling with shock. They have swallowed me whole. I am no longer myself, she thought and her breathing became a rapid pant.

The stricter the school, the more secrets the girls keep between themselves. At first Gina is generously welcomed by her fellow pupils, so at least she has companionship and friends, but she makes a terrible mistake which leads to her being ostracized.

But as the hours dragged by she began to panic. This was something she had not reckoned with: the terrifying self-discipline of the Matula. These girls were not like any other. They had been brought up in their own special world and trained to keep their silence. 

In this tight, oppressive atmosphere, the society between the girls is recreated marvelously. “Those who couldn’t keep up, or didn’t work, were sent away at the end of the year, never to set foot in the building again.” Under strict discipline, these teenage girls study hard and suppress most of their natural behaviour, but like all repressed behaviour it bubbles up, unable to be completely contained. According to tradition, a garden statue named Abigail assists the girls with their various troubles, so many of the girls take their sorrows to Abigail–the statue who leaves notes and and even passes along letters to some of the girls. The girls’ role model is the legendary Mitsi Horn who attended the school decades earlier and flouted the rules by wearing an engagement ring on her finger. Now widowed by WWI, and with her only son killed in action in WWII, she lives close by and occasionally hosts a group of girls.

Gina could easily imagine what Abigail’s friend the eighteen-year-old Mitsi Horn must have looked like in the days when she could still laugh so loudly it could be heard, they said, at the porter’s lodge.

Another great diversion for the girls is the relationship between some of the teachers. There’s definitely a love triangle afoot with handsome young Kalmár in love with Susanna but she seems to only have eyes for Kónig–a middle-aged bumbler whose kindness to Gina only generates contempt. There are disturbing incidents around town and even in the school which indicate there’s an active war resistance afoot. The General’s visits are few; at first Gina is hurt by what she sees as his abandonment but then after she tries to run away, her father is forced to take her into his confidence. Gina, who first saw the school as a punishment, realises it’s a sanctuary.

It’s only January but I can easily call this as one of the best books I will read this year. It’s that good. Gina is forced to grow up and make mature decisions that someone decades older would find difficult. Yes it’s a coming-of-age story, adventurous in parts, but it’s also a story of betrayal, of the value of self-discipline and incredible courage on some many levels. I’ve read 3 Szabó novels now: Abigail, Katalin Street and Iza’s Ballad. Abigail is the best of the three IMO. It’s an amazing tale. 

Review copy

Translated by Len Rix

6 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Szabo Magda

The Marquise of O: Heinrich von Kleist

Kleist’s Marquise of O was a third or fourth re-read for me, and there are some books that yield fresh results each time. This is true of Kleist’s novella–one of the few Kleist wrote (the excellent intro from translator Nicholas Jacobs mentions) that actually has a happy ending. How can you not like a happy ending? And yet for this read, I found the ending happy … yes … but a little incongruous. Back to that later.

The Marquise of O

So here’s the plot which was, apparently, based on a real, sensational event, and as we can imagine Kleist’s story caused quite a stir too.

The story begins with the Marquise of O, “a woman of impeccable reputation and mother of well-brought up children” putting advertisements in newspapers that “she had inexplicably found herself in a certain condition, that the father of the child she would bear should make himself known, and that out of the regard for her family she was resolved to marry him.” This is a bold but desperate move taken by the Marquise, and then the tale moves backwards in time.

It’s the Napoleonic Wars. In a Northern Italian town, the widowed Marquise of O and her children live with her parents. With news that war approaches bringing foreign troops, “even Russians,” the Marquise’s father, the Commandant, urges his wife and daughter to flee, but before they can escape, the citadel is surrounded, and after much fighting the foreign troops break into the castle. Some soldiers find the Marquise and drag her out into the courtyard. They are about to rape her when a Russian officer appears and “with angry thrusts scattered the dogs lusting after their booty.” The Russian, Count F., then offers his arm to the Marquise and escorts her to her rooms. Here she faints. The Commandant surrenders to Count F who then proceeds to be a Great Hero by dashing over the castle ramparts performing all manner of astonishing deeds. 

The Commander-in-Chief (the Count’s uncle) of the Russian troops learns about the “criminal assault” on the Marquise and tells Count F to round up those responsible and have them shot. Count F says he cannot identify them, but since one of the men was wounded by Count F as he rescued the Marquise, it’s not long before the general has the wounded man interrogated, the remaining perps are found and then shot. 

From this point, Count F has a special place in the Marquise’s eyes, so she and her parents are horrified to hear that he is subsequently killed on another battlefield. Yet the rumours are false, the Count still lives and he returns to the Marquise and her family. He expresses a desire to marry the Marquise and has interrupted an important mission to accomplish his goal. The Marquise’s father cannot understand the Count’s urgent wish to marry his daughter, but the more the Commandant prevaricates, the weirder the Count becomes. 

All agreed that his behaviour was utterly strange and that he appeared to be used to capturing women’s hearts, like fortresses by assault.

The Count won’t go away and the Marquise finally agrees to not marry another until he returns from Naples. The Count is torn between hopeful and disappointed as he tells the Marquise’s family he wanted to marry her immediately. What’s the rush?

Well it soon becomes clear what the rush is. The Count FINALLY leaves, and the Marquise begins to feel ill. She’s stunned to learn she’s pregnant but her father is horrified; she claims she did not have sexual intercourse with anyone, but he doesn’t believe her, and throws her from the house. It’s this that drives the Marquise to publicly advertise for the father of her child to show himself. It’s a desperate move designed to show her parents that she is innocent. 

SPOILER ALERT:

It’s a great little story that was made into a great film by one of my favourite directors Eric Rohmer. For this reread, I was struck by the fairytale aspects of the story (rape aside). Here we have mortal enemies shooting each other one minute and sitting down for tea together the next. Of course it’s a class thing. 5 men were executed for attempted rape, and the noble is forgiven. He’s a dashing hero, a persistent suitor but if you peel away the glamour, his actions were despicable even if they are covered with a patina of courteous gallantry. 

review copy

translated by Nicholas Jacobs

3 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Von Kleist Heinrich

Fell Murder: E. C. R. Lorac (1944)

“Hate is a bad master.”

E. C. R. Lorac’s Fell Murder takes place during WWII in the Lake District. Lorac (Edith Caroline Rivett) deftly juxtaposes the beauty, tranquility and durability of the landscape against the foibles of human passions and the dark days of WWII.

The Garth family live at Garthmere Hall, a rambling building part “medieval in origin, but succeeding generations had altered it again and again. It was in part great house, in part farm house.” The house is ruled by patriarch “grim” Robert Garth but the farm is worked and managed by his middle-aged daughter Marion. The eldest son, Richard, married a woman against his father’s wishes, so he was cast out from the family home 25 years earlier.  The woman, Mary Ashwaite, subsequently died in Canada. No one has heard about Richard since. Also living at Garthmere Hall is Charles Garth, the second son who escaped from Malaya  and returned home penniless. There’s also Malcolm Garth, a sickly young man from Robert Garth’s second marriage, and Elizabeth Meldon, a distant relative of the Garths. She’s in the Land Army.

Fell Murder

The novel opens with John Staple, the Garth bailiff striding across the Garthmere land and enjoying the view from the hills across the countryside which is “an unchanging certainty in an unstable and changing world” Staple is shocked when he meets the prodigal son Richard also hiking across the hills. Richard is on leave and has chosen to spend the week visiting the land he loves. The Garthmere land, incidentally, is entailed so Richard will inherit. Richard asks Staple to keep his visit secret. He has no intention of seeing his family, and will soon return to sea.

Staple’s conversation with Richard is overheard, and so Richard’s presence in the region is no longer secret. Shortly thereafter, old irascible Robert Garth has an accident with a loaded gun, but luckily no one is hurt. But after a fox hunt, Robert Garth is found murdered in a small shed on Garthmere land.

Local police superintendent Layng is called in to investigate, but he’s not a local (who still talk about the Battle of Flodden Field) and cannot penetrate this closed culture. He is brusque and doesn’t treat some of the landowners politely as their clothes don’t signal their status:

He had forgotten the fact that the farmers hereabouts thought nothing of ancient clothes, dung-laden boots and scarecrow hats. 

He’s impatient and sorely underestimates country ways.

Layng had a slightly pompous manner and a tendency to regard the shrewd farming folk as being slow of understanding because they habitually spoke slowly and thought for a long time before they gave vent to speech.

Layng gets nowhere with the case and so Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Macdonald arrives, commandeers a bicycle and starts investigating. ….

While I guessed the perp about halfway through, Fell Murder was an entertaining read. Here we are in WWII with petrol rationing, signposts removed (back in place finally), and black marketing of eggs. And now there’s murder, and an inheritance that isn’t exactly ‘fair.’  While these are dark times indeed, Lorac elegantly and descriptively displays a love of the land, and how Macdonald understands these Lake District folk, giving them respect. Lorac shows how a crime that seems impenetrable to one investigator can be solved by someone who takes a different, less hostile approach. Here’s Macdonald and Marion:

“Thanks you very much for being so patient,” replied Macdonald

“You remind me of my dentist a bit.” she answered unexpectedly. “He’s always very polite, but he pulls my tooth out just the same.”

The excellent introduction from Martin Edwards discusses the “sub-genre of crime fiction, the ‘return of the prodigal’ story.” That had not occurred to me before, so as always Martin Edwards continues to illuminates this well-loved genre.

Review copy

7 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Lorac E.C.R.

An Answer From Limbo: Brian Moore

“The awful things I have done in dreams.”

Brian Moore’s An Answer From Limbo is a bitter look at the price of success, and how we lie to ourselves about our actions. 29-year-old expatriate Irishman, Brendan, lives in New York with his American wife, Jane, and their two small children. Brendan always swore he’d be a great writer, but his novel languishes unfinished. There are plenty of reasons for this: a shortage of time and the need to earn money for his family. When the novel begins, Brendan, is smarting from the news that someone younger than him, a man he considers less talented, has nailed a book contract. Brendan, who’s been sending his mother a pitiful allowance, decides to bring his mother over from Ireland to raise the children so that Jane can go back to work and so that he can finish his Great Novel.

an answer from limbo

Of course there are so many things fundamentally wrong with this plan. Mrs Tierney hasn’t seen her son in years, she’s never met his wife or the grandchildren and self-centered Brendan hasn’t filled his mother in on his plan to exploit her labour to accelerate this Great Novel.

My life in America has been caught up in marriage, in parenthood, in the pursuit of a wage, in the foolish vanity of the few short stories which I published here. My novel has been subordinated to these dilettantish things. I shall be thirty years old next December. I can no longer coast along on ‘promise.’ Performance is the present imperative. I must be Ruthless. I have only one life; I must do something with it. Time, I must find time. 

That quote reveals Brendan’s secret thinking. Fatherhood, marriage and earning a living are hardly ‘dilettantish’ things, but this is how he chooses to prioritize.

In the small New York apartment, Mrs. Tierney very soon realises that all is not well in the marriage. She sees things she shouldn’t; she hears things she could do without. Objectified with complete lack of consideration, Mrs Tierney is left to deal with 2 small children all day long, every day and asks only that she can attend church and mass, but neither Brendan nor Jane respect this. She is literally treated like a slave. Jane, who is going back to work for the first time, feels threatened. She nicknames her mother-in-law Mrs Let-Me. This was all Brendan’s Great Idea but he’s a moral coward, and so he ducks his responsibilities of being the mediator between the two women, and one day, Mrs Tierney’s religious beliefs take her too far. …

The novel is told through several points of view so sometimes the narrative is through Mrs Tierney’s eyes, sometimes from Jane, sometimes from Brendan, and sometimes in the third person. I felt sorry for Mrs. Tierney, who isn’t exactly in the best of health–although no one notices because it’s convenient not to. In spite of being a stranger in New York, Mrs Tierney manages to make some friendships which affirm her individuality and humanity–things that are completely ignored by her son and daughter in law. The plot concentrates on territory, and Jane feels that her mother-in-law encroaches on her territory–although of course both parents were all too happy to abandon their responsibilities at chosen moments. Jane falls prey to the office Lothario and this sets loose a chain of events

While I really liked this novel, there are a couple of cringe-worthy things. Jane has sexual fantasies, which like most fantasies are rather dark and involve all the sorts of sex she isn’t getting with meat-and-potatoes lover Brendan. The minute she gets a job and goes to work, the office Lothario is sniffing around and the inevitable happens. According to Jane, who knows it’s coming and wants it to happen, it was rape, and the lothario also thinks that Jane wants to be able to say it was rape. Women say no but they really want it, right?

“So,” Vito said. “I finally decide that she wants to but she wants to be able to say it was rape. I couldn’t stop him your honour, he attacked me.”

The book also reflects the characters’ racial attitudes and there are a few comments about homosexuals and lesbians.

The novel does a good job of looking at a writer’s life and the sacrifices that must be made in order to succeed–although in Brendan’s case, of course, he’s heartless and “ruthless.” He tells a doctor acquaintance, a man who runs a small literary magazine, that he’s quit his job, sent his wife back to work, and hauled his mother over from Ireland to take care of the kids.  The doctor praises Brendan for his ruthlessness.

“Exactly,” said he. “Ruthless, that’s just what I mean. Now I’m a surgeon, I cut people up. I’m a helluva cool surgeon, you ask them down at Saint Vincent’s, they’ll tell you I’m a cold one. But although I can cut people’s guts out, I’m chicken. Not like you. You came in her today, pale as plaster, and you told me your mother’s just arrived and she’s like a stranger to you and you’re worried if she’ll be happy here. What have I done, you said. But you’re play-acting. You don’t care. You brought her here without ever asking yourself whether she’d be happy or not. And the only reason you’re afraid now is because you’re worried your little scheme isn’t going to work. You don’t give a damn about your mother, really, All you care about now is finishing your book. And that Brendan I envy you.

I wanted to add that when I first started reading the book, I didn’t know Brendan’s age. Here are two young professionals in New York, working in publishing, and for a moment I thought they must be in their 40s, so it was shock to find that they are in their 20s….Things have changed.

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Moore Brian