Dolly: Anita Brookner

“I reflected how easy it is for a man to reduce women of a certain age to imbecility. All he has to do is give an impersonation of desire, or better still, of secret knowledge, for a woman to feel herself a source of power”

Anita Brookner’s novel Dolly is a introspective, quiet, beautifully written novel, placed squarely in the character-study category. The novel describes the minuscule world of our narrator, Jane, the only child of a very happy loving marriage between her two parents, Henrietta Ferber and Paul Manning. As the only, much loved child brought up in a happy home, the single cloud of discontent to appear on the horizon appears in the form of Jane’s rather exotic Aunt Dolly, who is married to Henrietta’s brother, Hugo. Dolly, at first, appears as a very minor, distant character in Jane’s life, but over the years her importance grows.

Dolly begins when Jane is a child, and one of the significant events in her childhood is the arrival of Aunt Dolly and Uncle Hugo from Brussels. Jane is fascinated by Dolly for her exoticism–her powerful perfume, her foreign mannerisms and her expensive clothing. Dolly, who is childless, isn’t exactly a doting aunt, however, and her entrances and exits into Jane’s childhood, adolescence and young adulthood are punctuated with advice–mainly directed towards getting a man. These snippets of advice that could so easily wither a girl of weaker character serve only to intrigue Jane in their disconnect and frank absurdity. Wise, self-possessed Jane realises that Dolly’s barbed comments reveal more about the speaker than her intended target.

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A great deal of the story goes back into the recent Ferber/Manning family history, and we see that Toni Ferber, Jane’s grandmother, who originally hailed from Vienna, is a spoiled, autocratic, selfish woman whose husband eventually gets the sense and courage to run off. Toni Ferber, left to her own affluent devices, dominates the life of her son, Hugo, and mostly ignores her daughter, Henrietta. When Toni Ferber and Hugo meet Dolly and her German mother at a seaside resort, Toni, fatally underestimating Dolly’s character and imagining that she will make a malleable daughter-in-law, pushes her son into Dolly’s arms. For his part, Hugo is content to exchange one domineering woman for another.

On the other side of the family, there’s Jane’s Manning grandmother:

My other grandmother I knew even less, a fact which I did not regret since she seemed, from what I heard of her, to be slightly mad, and may even have been so for all I know. She was a widow living in South Kensington with two small wire-haired terriers to whom she devoted all her leisure hours. She really should have been a dog breeder rather than a mother, for she felt for her son a mild affection only one degree warmer than indifference, whereas she would actually play games with the dogs, for whom she bought expensive rubber toys. The dogs were taken out morning and afternoon for an extensive run in Hyde Park, where my tireless grandmother, dressed winter and summer in trousers, a short-sleeved blouse, and an old tweed jacket belonging to her dead husband, threw balls and sticks, shouted instructions and encouragements, and scarcely noticed the seasons changing all around her. 

Jane’s observant eye records Dolly’s behaviour and mannerisms from her “meaningless smile” to her irritation and constant barbed comments about money. Dolly has a way of diminishing other women, and it’s that power that fascinates Jane. She records the trajectory of Dolly’s life, and quietly, in the background, Jane. alone but not lonely, evolves into an accomplished woman.

Not a great deal happens in the novel, and for its treacly-slow pace, some readers may not enjoy Dolly. Possibly because I once had an exotic aunt of my own, Dolly had great appeal. Anita Brookner creates some powerful characters here–the Manning grandmother, for example, who doesn’t actually appear except as a description. I like the way Brookner divided her characters into quiet people and those who dominate and take control. Jane’s parents are indeed “a haven to each other,” and their relationship, given their respective backgrounds, makes a great deal of sense.

I wasn’t quite sure about the ending which, while it rather nicely focuses on Jane’s career, extrapolates on the idea of Sleeping Beauty, and what women want. The novel covers many decades and slips in the idea of the shifting roles of women. This connects to Dolly and how a woman who has used her looks and her sex to get ahead in life adjusts to aging, but I wasn’t entirely pleased with that last chapter.

I have to send out a thank you to Jacqui for pointing me towards Brookner with her review of Providence. I thought, from reading the review that I’d like the book, but then at the same time I also thought I’d read an Anita Brookner book and disliked it. The title of the book I’d read eluded me (I initially thought it was Hotel du Lac), and then after some digging I realised I’d read a book by Anita Shreve NOT Anita Brookner and in all fairness to the latter, I had to read one.

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Crimson Snow: Winter Mysteries. ed. by Martin Edwards

“It’s the bloke who spends the night in the haunted chamber who always cops it in the neck.”

Crimson Snow, a collection of crime stories set around the Christmas season is a perfect companion read to Mystery in White. Short story collections are a wonderful way to ‘try out’ new authors, and in the case of Crimson Snow, I had a reunion with Margery Allingham and met some new (to me) interesting authors. And here’s the line-up:

The Ghost’s Touch: Fergus Hume

The Chopham Affair: Edgar Wallace

The Man with the Sack: Margery Allingham

Christmas Eve: S.C. Roberts

Death in December: Victor Gunn

Murder at Christmas: Christopher Bush

Off the Tiles: Ianthe Jerrold

Mr Cork’s Secret: Macdonald Hastings

The Santa Claus Club: Julian Symons

Deep and Crisp and Even: Michael Gilbert

The Carol Singers: Josephine Bell

Solution to Mr Cork’s Secret: (author’s solution and two winning entries)

I shan’t cover every story in the review, but will instead focus on some favourites. The collection itself presents a pleasant variety with private citizens, an unpaid PI, and a few policemen in the mix. While there’s a range of stories, I found myself really enjoying the blend of voices here.

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I’ve been meaning to read Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of the Hansom Cab for years, so I was delighted to read his short story, The Ghost’s Touch, in which the narrator, Doctor Lascalles is invited by an Australian friend, Frank Ringan to spend Christmas at the “family seat near Christchurch.” Frank, whose father made his fortune in the “gold-digging days”  is the wealthy member of the family, but the “head of the family” is Frank’s cousin impoverished Percy Ringan. Alarm bells ring in the mind of any self-respecting crime reader when we learn that the Ringan cousins have made their wills in each other’s favour.

Frank is extremely proud of the ancestral estate and “the position and antiquity of his family,” so he’s thrilled to spend a traditional English Christmas at the ancestral estate at Ringshaw Grange.

It was a wonderful old barrack of a place, with broad passages, twisting interminable like the labyrinth of Daedalus; small bedrooms furnished in an old-fashioned manner; and vast reception apartments with polished floors and painted ceilings. 

At Ringshaw Grange, however, things begin to go wrong when there’s an unexplained fire in Frank’s bedroom and he’s moved to the notorious haunted chamber, the Blue Room. …

Edgar Wallace’s The Chopham Affair was another pleasant surprise. In the introduction, Martin Edwards states that while “subtlety was not” Wallace’s strongest point, “his short stories have arguably stood the test of time.”  The Chopham Affair, a story of blackmail and murder, was excellent, and this is how it begins:

Lawyers who write books are not, as a rule, popular with their confrères, but Archibald Lenton, the most brilliant of prosecuting attorneys, was an exception.

Off the Tiles from Ianthe Jerrold is a short story with a twist as it ends not so much with a solution (which does occur) as with an observation on the unwavering consistency of human behaviour. The story is an investigation into the death of a woman who appears to have fallen off of her roof. Hostilities exist between the dead woman and her neighbours and the dead woman’s sister insists that murder has occurred.

The Man with the Sack from Margery Allingham was a delight. It’s a story in which we find poor Albert Campion roped into being an unpaid PI during a Christmas gathering which takes place at the home of some old friends. In The Santa Claus Club from Julian Symons, private investigator Francis Quarles is employed by the wealthy Lord Acrise who has been receiving threatening letters from a man who went to prison decades earlier. Christopher Bush’s Murder at Christmas is the story of a golfing holiday interrupted, most inconveniently, by a murder. Victor Gunn’s amusing Death in December features Chief Inspector Bill ‘Ironsides’ Cromwell who investigates a murder that takes place during the holidays at a castle. A dead body pops up and then everyone finds themselves snowed in….

“A fine place to bring me to for Christmas,” he said sourly. “Ghosts all over the place before we even get indoors!”

Crimson Snow, and what a apt title that is, is a most enjoyable read for the season.

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1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution: Selected by Boris Dralyuk

“Every pickpocket who takes a wallet from some heedless passer-by can now say that he’s a follower of Lenin.”

“Why not? Lenin takes somebody else’s house, a pickpocket takes somebody else’s wallet. The only difference is one of scale. After all, great ships need deep waters.” (Teffi)

Welcome to 2017, a year to mark the 100 year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It’s perhaps then not surprising  that the ever innovative Pushkin Press should mark the occasion with a very special book: 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. Editor Boris Dralyuk concentrated his selections on the period between February 1917 and late 1919 with the aim “to steep the reader in its tumult-to recreate that heady brew of enthusiasm and disgust, passion and trepidation that intoxicated Russia and the world as events unfolded.” 

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Contents:

The Revolution: A Poem Chronicle

Stolen Wine:

Marina Tsvetaeva

Zinaida Gippius

Osip Mandelstam

A Distant Voice:  

Osip Mandelstam

Anna Akhmatova

Boris Pasternak

Wake Me Tomorrow

Mikhail Kuzmin

Sergey Esenin

Iron Flowers

Mikhail Gerasimov

Vladimir Kirillov

Alexey Kraysky

Purifying Fire

Andrey Bely

Alexander Blok

Titsian Tabidze

Our March

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Prose

The Break

Alexander Kuprin

Valentin Kataev

Alexander Serafimovich

Dovid Bergelson

Teffi

Vasily Rozanov

Alexey Remizov

Of Dragons and Men

Yefim Zozulya

Yevgeny Zamyatin

Blue Banners and Scarlet Sails

Mikhail Prishvin

Alexander Grin

Future Prospects

Mikhail Zoshchenko

Mikhail Bulgakov

One of the important aspects of this collection is that these pieces were not written with hindsight; they were written at a very specific moment of history, capturing the transient feelings of those times. Not only does this collection gather together the most important creative voices of the period, but each section gives a short bio of the writers–along with their fate (so few lived to old age.) I had intended to write a short description of what happened to each writer before I came to this review but the editor did this in the book, and shows, effectively how writers of such amazing talent were killed or displaced–an entire generation swept off the map.

I won’t review every piece–some given the outcome of the Russian revolution and subsequent civil war are extremely painful–but instead I’ll say that by far my favourite is Kuprin’s story (perhaps not too surprising since I loved The Duel.) Kuprin’s tale Sasha and Yasha: An Old Story is an incredibly moving piece in which we are left to wonder what happened to the characters whose photographs are in an old album:

It feels like none of it ever existed: the glorious army, the extraordinary soldiers, the heroic officers, our dear, good, carefree comfortable Russian life… The old album’s pages tremble in my hand as I turn them.

Teffi presents a frightening picture of Russian society with her vicious little story The Guillotine, and in her piece, A Few Words About Lenin (1917), she presents an unflattering portrait of the man and his ideology.

He sensed nothing, predicted nothing. He knew nothing but what he’d been stuffed with: the history of socialism

Yefim Zozulya’s story,  The Story of Ak and Humanity augurs the Red Terror yet to come with the commodification of the individual.

Those whose existence is found to be superfluous will cease to exist within 24 hours.

I loved Alexander Grin’s story, The Soul’s Pendulum, a story in which a man sees the revolution as one of history’s “exhilarating and magnificent upheavals.”  Valentin Kataev’s story The Drum focuses on a group of cadets–one in particular whose greatest concern in life is getting some extra time with his sweetheart, but everything changes when the news arrives that the Tsar has abdicated. On the other side of the political equation, Bolshevik Alexander Serafimovich’s story How He Died is also incredibly moving even though it’s initially heavy-handed. This is a wonderful collection that provides many pointers for those who wish to expand their knowledge of Russian literature, but readers are best advised to come to the book with some idea of the history of the period.

A poem by Blok 

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The Death of the Author: Gilbert Adair

“Reader, I tell a lie.”

Gilbert Adair’s Love and Death on Long Island  features a reclusive author who fell in love with an American heart-throb, and after enjoying this dark tale of obsession, I turned to Adair’s The Death of the Author. This book also features another middle-aged, bachelor author, but this time it’s Leopold Sfax, a man whose egomania exceeds even that of Giles De’Ath in Love and Death on Long Island. Giles De’Ath looks positively humble and congenial next to the malignant Leopold Sfax, a smug, celebrity professor who is enthroned at New Harbor, one of America’s most prestigious Ivy League schools. Sfax is a philosopher, theorist and critic best known for The Theory–an approach to criticism which has dominated campuses across the country since the 80s. Sfax is “the most celebrated critic in the United States,” and with The Theory applied to literature, “the Author was to find Himself declared well and truly dead.”

I had demonstrated that it was for the text to ‘write’ its author rather than vice versa, the presence of a human sensibility somehow embedded with that language, within that text, had at last been understood for what it truly was: an absence, a void. The old and handy pedagogical dichotomies, the so-called binary oppositions that had once served to authenticate the truth and completeness of the Author’s interior universe–identity and difference, nature and culture, self and society–had at last been reversed or dissolved.

The book opens with Sfax meeting Astrid, a “flickeringly brilliant if too conventionally focused” former graduate student, who tells him she plans to write his biography. Sfax, our first person narrator, is obviously not thrilled by the proposition and tells her that he will cooperate but that she will not ‘get’ him–that no one ever has. Perhaps that reaction isn’t too surprising from a critical theorist, or is there something else afoot? Something far more sinister? How much of Sfax, paradoxically, lies in his theory?

I proposed that, again, in every text, there would fatally arrive what I called an aporia, a terminal impasse, a blank brick wall of impenetrability, an ultimatum of indetermination, when its self-contradictory meanings could no longer be permitted to coexist in harmony and its fundamental ‘undecidability’ would undermine for ever the reader’s most fundamental suppositions.

Following the meeting with Astrid, Sfax begins to tell his own story, and yet even as the narrative of reinvention flows, holes appear in Sfax’s past–his life in France during the Occupation, the disappearance of a friend, his decision to move to America with “its bright patchwork of opportunity, its whole candid candied hugeness,” his humble beginnings in a book shop and his leap into academia with “the chance to no longer toil in some obscure store, handling other man’s books the way a bank teller must handle other men’s money.”

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That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss of this slim novel of 135 pages, but I will say that if you enjoy novels about campus life and academic skullduggery, you should try this novel. Obviously Gilbert Adair has fun here (referencing Barthes) with this tale of university competitiveness, backstabbing academics and the unassailable qualities of dominant theories that hold academic disciplines in thrall. Even Giles De’Ath from Love and Death on Long Island is mentioned here in a passing reference to being an advocate of the Theory.

Adair, who breaks through that fourth wall, has a marvellous way with words which trickles down through his insufferable, snotty narrator. Here’s Sfax’s great enemy in the department, a hapless, harmless fellow named Herbert Gillingwater:

a kind of Peter Pan in reverse, never known to have been young. Indeed, his mousy nicotine-stained moustache and frankly sepia beard impressed one as older even than he was, deeply unappetizing hand-me-downs from some ancient parent; and it was claimed of him, an old maid of a bachelor, that if the striation of the corduroy suits he wore in all weathers looked as raggedly corrugated as it did, it was that he would freshen it simply by plunging it every six months or so into a sinkful of boiling water and detergent.

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The Done Thing: Tracy Manaster

“If you live long enough there’s no line that you won’t cross.”

Tracy Manaster’s powerful novel, The Done Thing, examines the actions of a retired orthodontist, Lida Stearl, whose sister, Barbra, was murdered almost two decades earlier. The killer, Barbra’s husband, Clarence Lusk, is sitting on Death Row in Arizona while his appeals run out. In the aftermath of the crime, which left Barbra, her lover and a young policeman dead, Lida raised Pamela, Clarence and Barbra’s child. But now Lida is a widow, and Pamela is married. Largely left to her own devices, Lida stumbles across a website for prisoners who are seeking penpals, and here Lida finds Clarence, admitting his boredom and loneliness, seeking correspondence. For Lida, who has tried to visit Clarence once a year  only to be refused, a correspondence is just too tempting an opportunity. She rents a PO box, assumes a fake name, pretends to be a young flirtatious girl, and begins a correspondence….

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Lida is admirable in many ways; she’s had a successful career, a happy marriage, and she’s shelved her own desires for motherhood in order to raise Pamela, but she’s also deeply twisted when it comes to the subject of Clarence Lusk, and yet who can blame her? When it comes to Clarence, Lida is completely obsessed; it’s an unhealthy thing to indulge, yet she does–sometimes in ways that are downright nasty. Here’s how the book opens, brilliantly, showing us both Lida’s obsession and her train of thoughts.

The State of Arizona conducted her executions at dawn and had for several years, a policy change from midnight for which no explanation had been offered. I liked to keep abreast of such things. I had the Daily Star delivered to my St. Louis home, days late and at not small cost. For nearly two decades I’d collected clippings and taken notes on legal pads. I ran calculations and so I knew: forty-eight percent of inmates took breakfast as their final meals. Maybe they sought grounding, one last moment in step with the breakfasting rest of the world. The eggs, though, threw me. Thirty-four percent of prisoners-even some slated for electrocution-demanded fried eggs.

Lida should, of course, walk away from the penpal scenario for her peace of mind alone, but she doesn’t; she embraces the opportunity to suck Clarence in to a fake relationship. Lida’s husband used to keep her grounded and “knew there was no peace to be had from a certain vein of thought,” but Lida is worried that Pamela may have a lover (like her mother) or even be in touch with her father. Lida has “waited for eighteen years and four appeals” to see Clarence exit this world, but “Clarence lingered, unshakeable as the phantom weight a watch leaves on a naked wrist.” She even has special “execution suits” ready for the Big Day, and the window opened through the penpal relationship allows Lida a tempting glimpse into Clarence’s inner life.

It wasn’t actually peace I wanted. I wanted to be sure Clarence Lusk wouldn’t find any.

There are some wonderful secondary characters here including Pamela, who has effectively lost both parents, and who becomes the staging ground for emotional ownership. Then there’s Pamela’s in-laws, the boisterously happy  Claverie clan. Finally there’s Marjorie Lusk, Clarence’s mother, “funneling her retirement into his defense.”  A small part of the novel details letters back and forth between Clarence and Lida aka Maisie, and since Lida is our first person narrator, a great deal of her thoughts are directed towards Clarence.

I loved this novel–not just for its unique approach, and for the way the author showed another way of tackling the topic of crime, but also for the way the author created such horribly flawed human beings.  The novel explores the idea that it is impossible to tell what Lida would have been like if this crime hadn’t hijacked her life and stained her personality. There’s definitely a before-and-after for Lida who is left to wonder how Barbra might have aged, what she might have achieved. Lida does some very nasty things in the book, but these acts are hand-in-glove with the murder of her sister, and this is one of the marvellous aspects of this book: I asked myself how I would act under the circumstances.

I hadn’t yet learned to think more terrible things.

The book’s blurb  says: “As letters pass steadily between Lida and Clarence, her preoccupation with his crime and its echoes intensifies, and she finds that crossing one line makes the ones that follow all the more tempting to cross.”  That’s a perfect quote, and I can’t do better so I’m including it here. While this is a story of one woman’s obsession, the book opens into much more complicated avenues which include notions of justice, the irrevocable nature of murder, the death penalty, and forgiveness. And lest you yawn at some of those topics, I’ll add that the novel is not preachy and does not take definite positions–the plot is far too subtle for that. This is a beautiful, mature examination of some of our darkest behaviours, and the plot wisely doesn’t step into the muddy waters of motive, repentance  and justification, and instead allows the reader to chew over the plot without authorial heavy-handedness. Murderer and victim(s) are forever linked together, and in The Done Thing, Tracy Manaster explores the terrible damage incurred in an act of violence.

I liked Tracy Manaster’s first novel, You Could be Home By Now, but The Done Thing is unique and thought-provoking. It’s only January, and The Done Thing is already a candidate for my best-of-2017 list.

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Schlump: Hans Herbert Grimm

Novels about combat in WWI seem to have commonalities (trenches, lice, endless shell bombardment, and various body parts strewn across the ground). And, of course, there’s always the sense of terrible waste. Hans Herbert Grimm’s (1896-1950) novel, Schlump contains many of the usual WWI scenes we’ve come to expect, and its 17-year-old protagonist, who’s later called a ‘lamb to the slaughter’ while on his first leave back home, goes off to war, like many young men, with absolutely no idea of the horrors that await him.

He pictured the sun shining, the grey uniforms charging, one man falling, the others surging forward further with their cries and cheers, and pair after pair of red trousers vanishing beneath green hedges. In the evenings the soldiers would sit around a campfire and chat about life at home. One would sing a melancholy song. Out in the darkness the double sentries would stand at their posts, leaning on the muzzles of their rifles, dreaming of home and being reunited with loved ones. In the morning they’d break camp and march singing into battle, where some would fall and others be wounded . Eventually the war would be won and they’d return home victorious. Girls would throw flowers from windows and the celebrations would never end.

Schlump became anxious that he was missing out on all of this.

Of course, Schlump enlists and at first he gets lucky. Training camp is “great fun,” and after that, Schlump’s ability to speak French lands him office work, and so at age 17 he is “responsible for the administration of three villages.” Men march in and men march out, and all the time, Schlump is “glad not to have been with them.” But of course, Schlump’s good luck can’t last forever, and eventually he ends up at the front lines.

schlump

Schlump is an interesting fictional character, and we immediately get that sense from his name alone. No hero would have that name, and while Schlump is not an anti-hero, rather he’s an observer, a participant by default and a largely optimistic fellow in spite of all the death that surrounds him. Over time and with horrendous experiences, he “had become smarter.” Yet in spite of everything there’s still an innocence about him, and a moment comes when he decides he must “distinguish himself.

During the course of the novel, Schlump is wounded and manages to get home on leave, and each subsequent leave reveals the deteriorating situation at home. At one point his mother starves herself beforehand so that there’s bread for Schlump when he returns. There are many memorable scenes here: the collecting of unexploded shells “because raw iron was needed back in Germany. The men were promised seven pfennigs for each piece,” and although the German soldiers risk their lives to collect these shells, they are never paid for their troubles. In another scene emblematic of the dearth of military strategy, an officer comes up with the plan to “bring back a British soldier, dead or alive, from the enemy trenches,” and Schlump goes along with another  German soldier to complete this mission.

In one quote, Grimm accentuates that enemies in life are levelled by that great denominator: death

Here lay a multitude of corpses–Germans and British, all mixed together. At one point they’d collected in a heap, as if in death they were trying to warm themselves. All were lying on their stomachs, heads turned to the side, revealing their greenish faces, teeth glinting faintly between pairs of black lips. Rifles, gas mask s everything in a muddle, soaked in blood and more blood.

My NYRB edition states, in the introduction, that Grimm met with East German authorities in 1950 and two days later committed suicide. I’ve been watching The Weissensee Saga on television, a wonderful series set in East Germany, so I have my ideas about what Grimm’s meeting was about and why he opted to commit suicide. Schlump was not a literary success. It’s not first-rate literature and the novel competed against All Quiet on the Western Front which was published around the same time. All Quiet on the Western Front is a seminal WWI novel, a book that can potentially profoundly impact the reader. Schlump doesn’t have that power, and yet it’s still disturbing, still manages to get under the skin.

Jacqui’s review is here.

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

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The Knife Slipped: Erle Stanley Gardner (1939) writing as A. A. Fair

“You can’t have understanding without empathy, and you can’t have empathy without losing money.”

It’s been a long time, too long, since I read a Hard Case Crime novel, and Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Knife Slipped  arrived at a good time. Gardner, using the name A.A. Fair, originally wrote this novel with the intention that it would be the second in the Cool and Lam series, but the book was rejected, partly, for the behaviour of Bertha Cool. This is a tale of a low-rent, bottom-feeder PI agency (owned by Bertha Cool) whose operative, disbarred lawyer, Donald Lam, investigates a case of adultery, triple identities and corruption.

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Bertha Cool’s agency is hired by a bossy mother-weepy daughter duo to investigate the daughter’s husband who was seen in a nightclub with a blonde “who wasn’t wearing a stitch more than the law allowed.” Bertha, who dominates the story, has a very particular attitude towards husbands –possibly because once she had one of her own.

By God, you’d think your husband was the only man on earth who ever stepped out. They all do-those that are able. Personally, I wouldn’t have a man who was true to me, not that I’d want him to flaunt his affairs in my face or to the neighbourhood, but a man who doesn’t step out once in a while isn’t worth the powder and shot to blow him to hell.

Bertha is an incredible, confident, tough-talking, penny-pinching character, and Donald, who’s barely making a living,  knows that “if you made anything out of her you sure as hell earned it.” Here’s Bertha laying down the rules to her clients:

“Twenty-five dollars a day,” she said.

“Twenty-five dollars a day is a lot of money,” Mrs. Atterby snapped. 

“Seems like it is to you,” Bertha Cool said easily, “not to me.”

Mrs Atterby hesitated. Her long, lean fingers gripped the black, patent leather handbag which was supported on her lap. You guarantee results?” she asked.

“Hell no,” Bertha Cool said, “we don’t guarantee anything. Christ, what do you want us to do, get him seduced?”

Donald begins the investigation, and the case of the cheating husband soon morphs into something much bigger and much more dangerous. Bertha Cool, the brains of the outfit, is a great character. While Donald is the operative, Bertha, who often talks about herself in the third person, is a huge (literally) presence, guiding the investigation every step of the way, and saving Donald’s neck more than once. She’s cheap (lets Donald drive her beat-up heap, springing for a new car when the junker breaks down), reads the odometer so that Donald can’t use the car for anything other than business, and keeps him on a pauper’s budget. But Bertha is also unflappable and commands respect from even the lowest, pavement-hugging-hood.

This PI story, with more than a smattering of humour and high on atmosphere rips along at high-speed, narrated by our flawed detective, a man who takes all the risks while his female boss maximizes profit. These two characters work well together, for as we see when the plot plays out, Bertha has a soft spot for romance, and is very well aware of Donald’s character weaknesses and his tendency to fall in love.

It was raining hard outside. It was a cold rain. The drops were big and came down hard, making little bursts of water where they hit the dark pavement. I heard her give a little exclamation behind me as she saw the weather. 

Yucca City turned out most of the lights at midnight. The clouds had settled low enough so the lights from the metropolitan district below were all blotted out. The Mountain Crest apartments seemed to be shut off from the rest of the world, an island of wan light isolated in a sea of darkness. 

The afterword from Russell Atwood contains some interesting information on the series and how the two main characters changed in the books that followed this second, rejected, story.

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A Very Russian Christmas from New Vessel Press

“In California they drink gin instead of tea.” 

a-very-russian-christmas

I saved A Very Russian Christmas from New Vessel Press for the right time of year, and while I can’t say that the stories made me full of good cheer, they all definitely contained elements of Christmas in one way of another. There’s a universality to these stories which show Christmas as a troubling time, a time for reflection and, as cheesy as it may sound, being grateful for what we have. Here’s the line-up:

The New Year’s Tree: Mikhail Zoshchenko

The Boys: Anton Chekhov

A Christmas Tree and a Wedding: Fyodor Dostoevsky

At Christmastide: Anton Chekhov

Dream of the Young Tsar: Lev Tolstoy

Makar’s Dream: Vladimir Korolenko (translated by Victoria Zinde Walsh)

A Woman’s Kingdom: Anton Chekhov

A Distant Christmas Eve: Klaudia Lukashevich

The Little Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Christmas Phantoms: Maxim Gorky

A Lifeless Animal: Teffi

My Last Christmas: Mikhail Zoshchenko

Chekhov’s The Boys is the tale of a planned escape to America; In Mikhail Zoshchenko’s, The New Year’s Tree, the forty-year-old narrator recalls the lessons learned 35 years earlier. In another story from Chekhov, At Christmastide, an older couple pay someone to write a letter to their daughter who has married and moved away. Dream of the Young Tsar from Tolstoy was a bit of a disappointment; it’s sort of a Russian version of A Christmas Carol, heavy handed and moralistic.I’m not going to review all the stories, and instead I’m going to concentrate on my favourites in the collection.

Maxim Gorky’s story, Christmas Phantoms, is the story of a writer who, on one very cold night, is finishing a story about two peasants–a blind husband and his elderly wife, who, after an unsuccessful day begging on Christmas Eve, freeze together to death in the snow. What a dreadful story, I thought to myself, and I felt disappointed (too soon) by Gorky, but he pulled a few tricks and before the story was done, I had a few chuckles. All I’ll say is ‘writers beware what you do to your characters.’

Another favorite was Chekhov’s A Woman’s Kingdom. The story opens on Christmas Eve and focuses on unmarried Anna Akimovna, a young woman who owns substantial property, including a factory which employs 1800 workers. Every year at Christmas, she distributes a certain amount of money to the poor, but this year, an extra 1500 roubles lands in her lap, and she decides to give it away. But who to give it to? She’s faced with a stack of begging letters (and hateful letters), and letting fate award the 1500 roubles, she picks a begging letter at random.

A Woman’s Kingdom is a fairly long story, and one that could have been worked into a novel. We see Anna’s Christmas when she is visited by the local poor who shivering with cold, pay respects, Anna notes “in reality there is something cruel in these Christmas customs,” but she’s powerless to stop the century old traditions.

For Christmas dinner she’s joined by a civil councillor and a slimey barrister, Lysevitch. These men can be seen, ostensibly, as suitors, but neither of them court Anna-although sleek Lysevitch, “like a spoiled horse fresh from the stable,”  is full of stupid advice about Anna taking multiple lovers.He’d “long ceased to believe in anything he had to say in the law courts, or perhaps he did believe in it, but attached no kind of significance to it–it had all so long been familiar, stale, ordinary ..”

Anna, an extremely sympathetic character, was raised from peasantry to wealth by inheritance. She’s not entirely comfortable with her position. She longs for love and marriage, but it seems that she’s destined to remain unmarried. We see a life of privilege but a life that’s sterile. She has wealth but she’s being ripped off in various ways; she’d like to help those in need and give charity, but her actions are either thwarted or futile.

My favourite story in the collection was Dostoevsky’s A Christmas Tree and a Wedding. The narrator is an unnamed man who sees a wedding, and then casts his mind back to a children’s party which took place five years earlier on New Year’s Eve. The family who threw the party were wealthy, and the narrator, an outsider, observes the other guests, the children and their accompanying governesses.

Particularly charming was a blackeyed, curly-headed boy, who kept trying to shoot me with his wooden gun. But my attention was still more attracted by his sister, a girl of eleven, quiet, pensive, pale with big, prominent, pensive eyes, exquisite as a little cupid. 

Idle gossip between the guests whispers that the little girl will inherit 300,o00 roubles, and the supposedly disingenuous narrator notices that gifts, which seem to be randomly distributed, are awarded to the children with “presents diminishing in value in accordance with the rank of the parents of these happy children.” The son of the governess, “the child of the lowest degree” gets a cheap book while the little heiress receives the most expensive doll. To say what happens next would be to spoil the story for other readers, but once again Dostoevsky chronicles the lowest points of human behaviour.

Review copy

Makar’s Dream translated by Victoria Zinde Walsh

My last Christmas and The New Year’s Tree copyright estate of Mikhail Zoshchenko

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Filed under Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Fiction, Gorky Maxim, Korolenko Vladimir, Lukashevich Klaudia, Teffi, Tolstoy, Leo, Zoshchenko Mikhail

It’s a Wrap: 2016

Back once more to my best-of year list in no particular order.

War Crimes for the Home: Liz Jensen. Irreverent, darkly funny, a tale of poisonous sibling rivalry during WWII.

The Stranger Next Door: Amélie Nothomb. So you’ve retired and want to move to a quiet life in the country? Think again.

The Flight: Gaito Gazdanov. Trying to escape fate never works.

The Ted Dreams: Fay Weldon. What can I say? Fay Weldon is a GODDESS.

All Things Cease to Appear: Elizabeth Brundage. Who says crime fiction can’t be literary? A haunting novel of crimes, decades apart, that take place in the same house.

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea: Teffi. I can’t say that I wish I’d lived through the Russian Revolution, but Teffi’s memories bring some powerful experiences to life.

Siracusa: Delia Ephron. Two unhappily married couples and one precocious child on holiday in Italy. What can go wrong?

The Wicked Go to Hell: Frédéric Dard. Three Dard books from Pushkin Vertigo this year, and this was my favourite.

Bye-Bye Blondie: Virginie Despentes. Who can resist a Kamikaze woman?

The Moving Toyshop: Edmund Crispin. Funny and fast moving, the best of all the Golden Age mysteries I read this year.

Sweet William: Beryl Bainbridge. William could give Casanova a run for his money.

Willful Disregard:Lena Andersson. Obsession and delusion in a relationship break-up.

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Filed under Bainbridge, Beryl, Brundage Elizabeth, Crispin Edmund, Dard Frédéric, Ephron Delia, Fiction, Gazdanov Gaito, Jensen Liz, Nothomb Amélie, Teffi, Weldon, Fay

The Lake District Murder: John Bude (1935)

“One wet and windy” night in March, farmer Perryman, returning from Keswick, is looking forward to getting home, when his car comes to a halt. Discovering that he needs petrol, Perryman legs it to the Derwent garage about a quarter of a mile away. This area of the county is “a bleak and uninhabited stretch of road,” and at this time of night, despite the fact that this is tourist country, there’s no traffic.

The garage seems “curiously deserted,” but there’s a “glimmer of light” coming from the shed. Perryman goes inside and discovers that one of the garage owners, a young man named Clayton, is inside his vehicle with the engine running. From the exhaust, there’s an attached hosepipe which is tucked under a mackintosh encasing Clayton’s head and shoulders. It looks like a clear-cut case of suicide.

the-lake-district-murder

Inspector Meredith is called to the scene, and although Clayton’s death certainly appears to be a classic suicide, there are other elements to the case which don’t add up. Clayton was engaged to a local girl, and he’d planned to emigrate to Canada after the wedding. The garage isn’t exactly a prosperous concern, but it’s a steady stream of income, even if Clayton, who has a ne’er-do-well partner, does most of the work.

Inspector Meredith’s suspicions are already aroused when he fails to find a motive for suicide, but then when he learns of a suicide that took place involving another garage owner just a few years ago, he insists on an autopsy on Clayton and begins digging into the case. …

The Lake District Murder is an interesting entry into the British Library Crime Classic list. Both The Sussex Downs Murder a tale of adultery, and The Cornish Coast Murder include amateur sleuths who enjoy the topic of crime, while  Death on the Riviera (which has more than a smattering of humour) involves a counterfeiting ring. The Lake District Murder, with its undercurrent of organized crime (which would seem to connect to Death on the Riviera) is much darker and much more realistic than the other Bude novels from the British Crime Library.

Inspector Meredith is challenged by the fact that he must investigate the murder of Clayton and not the nefarious doings at the garage–as to do so would possibly alert the criminals involved to temporarily shut down operations. In the absence of an amateur sleuth to offer assistance, Meredith bounces his ideas off of other police officers.  Meredith’s investigation is a hard, humourless slog as he stakes out various locations, questions numerous people and travels on a motorbike and sidecar. This police procedural is detailed with Meredith piecing together pieces of evidence and trying to create a plausible murder scenario. This section of the book will either intrigue or lose readers depending on the reader’s eye for detail and desire to solve the crime. Meredith is a rewarding character, very stable, and roping his son in for assistance when necessary against his wife’s wishes.

Lately I’ve been chewing over how some fictional/television detectives suck at their jobs and need to move onto new gigs. Nancy Devlin in The Level is just the latest example of someone who should forget police work and look for another way to make a living. The temperament of Bude’s Inspector Meredith clearly suits his career; he’s calm, patient, low-key and adaptable.

The introduction from Martin Edwards mentions how John Bude (Ernest Carpenter Elmore 1901-1957) knew the Lake District well, and this aspect of the story definitely comes across strongly with descriptions of terrain, landscapes and weather.

For the first time since the Inspector had started to investigate the Clayton case, he could look up over the roofs of Keswick and see the snow-capped ridge of the Skiddaw range etched in details against a hard, blue sky.

review copy

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Filed under Bude John, Fiction