Category Archives: Fiction

Death Going Down: María Angélica Bosco (1955)

“That’s what happens to people who go out at night. Just look how they end up.”

I’ve posted previously on the crime books from Pushkin Vertigo. So far there have been some marvelous reads for crime fans: She Who Was No More, Vertigo, The Disappearance of Signora Chiara and several Frédéric Dard titles (all highly recommended by the way). Vertigo has also released a number of a number of novels from Augusto de Angelis–all much more standard police procedurals. Given the rather dramatic division between the book types (makes me think of Simeon’s Romans Durs vs. his Maigret novels), I’ve formed two figurative piles of books with the Augusto de Angelis on the left and all the other Vertigo titles on the right. That brings me to Death Going Down (original title: La Muerte Baja en Ascensor) from María Angélica Bosco–a police procedural that I’m going to place in the left stack with the Augusto de Angelis novels. However, I’ll add a caveat to that decision later.

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Death Going Down opens on a cold night in Buenos Aires as Pancho Soler arrives home drunk to his apartment house. It’s an atmospheric scene as Soler stumbles from his car into the lobby of the building. He has just three minutes of light in the lobby (a regulation we’re told) and he makes it to the lift but sees it’s already in use.

All of a sudden he noticed that the lift shaft had filled with light and at the same moment, as if choreographed, the lobby plunged into darkness.

Someone had come down in the lift. He could make out a blurry shape on the other side of the door. Still leaning on the wall, Pancho moved to one side to make way for the person in the lift but the door remained stubbornly closed. All he could see was the shadow puppet outline of a shape curled up in the corner.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that Soler opens the door and discovers a dead blonde in the lift. The police arrive, the residents gather, and the investigation begins. …

Death Going Down, a prize-winning crime novel, was published in 1955, and the story’s emphasis is the duplicitous lives lead by those in the apartment house along with the idea that the investigation is clouded by the number of immigrants involved. These relative newcomers to Argentina from Europe have lives shrouded in mystery. Are they victims of the nazis fleeing for their lives or do they have pasts they wish to escape from? And herein lies my hesitation in placing Death Going Down in that figurative left pile of Vertigo titles. Yes it is a police procedural but the refugees & immigrants, flotsam and jetsam from WWII still bring the war to Argentina’s shores a decade later, and that’s a nice twist.

There’s a solid assortment of suspects: playboy Pancho Soler, Dr Adolfo Luchter, caretakers Andrés and his bitter wife, Aurora Torres (she hopes the murder victim is the resident she likes the least,) the invalid Señor Iñarra and his family, the abrasive Bulgarian (former resident of Germany) Czerbó and his long-suffering sister Rita, and of course, the murder victim’s husband who married his wife by proxy.

There are three police figures in the book: Inspector Ericourt, Superintendent Lahore, and detective Blasi (my favourite of the three). That’s rather a lot of policemen for a 160 page book, and the result was that I was unable to get a firm grasp on any of their characters–although Blasi is the strongest drawn of the three. Here’s his approach to crime:

What do you do when you’re standing in front of a painting? You adopt different positions until you get the best perspective.

These days a common complaint about crime books is that they are too fleshed out with extraneous detail. In Death Going Down,  the opposite is true, and while I can’t give away spoilers, the plot would have benefitted from further explanation of the past connections between the characters.

Finally, the author made mention of what happened to the victim’s dog, and this was a nice little touch to the tale.

Review copy

Translated by Lucy Greaves

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Sweet William: Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge’s darkly comic novel Sweet William is the story of the sentimental education of a young woman named Ann who lives in London and works for the BBC.  The novel opens with Ann saying goodbye to her stuffy fiancé, Gerald. He’s leaving for a university position in America, and although Ann and Gerald lived together in London, he’s decided that it would not be appropriate to have Ann join him. He’s promised to ‘send for’ her though, and he’s fobbing her off with excuses while she resents him for his lack of commitment. Entwined with Ann’s resentment is the uncertainty of the engagement to a man she doesn’t know well. Ann is feeling a bit lost when she meets William McClusky, a blonde, curly-haired playwright, a chronic philanderer, who invades and then takes over her life, persuading her to give up her job and enter into some slippery domestic arrangement with him:

In ten days she had encouraged adultery, committed a breach of promise, given up her job, abetted an abortion. She had not been aware, throughout these happenings, of any unease of distress. She had become like one of those insect specimens under glass, sucked dry of her old internal organs, pumped full and firm with an unknown preservative. She was transfixed by William. 

William, at least initially, appears to be an attentive, caring man, railing at Ann’s lack of ring on her finger, asking if her fiancé is unemployed (and thus can’t afford a ring) while he states, the very first day he meets Ann:

‘If you were my woman,’ he said, ‘You’d have a ring for your finger.’

Amidst a few gentle protests that she’s an engaged woman, Ann passively accepts William’s ardent, urgent attentions. William stakes out his claim in Ann’s life like an explorer marking his territory with the arrival of a television set so she can watch him on a talk show.

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This book could so easily have been a tragedy but in Bainbridge’s hands a terrible comedy ensues as William’s many lives, countless lies and his innumerable women gradually, and messily tumble out of the closet. He’s married (still) and there’s a violent divorce somewhere in his past, but his present is also peppered with women, a fluctuating sea of women, some of whom are known to Ann, and some of whom are his most ardent supporters and defenders. Ann’s life disintegrates into chaos as William comes and goes, leaves her pregnant, he pops back, floats away, and makes promises which he rarely keeps.

“I’ve never,” he said, ‘felt like this about anyone. You’ll just have to believe me. I do have compartments  to my life, I can’t deny that, but I’ve never loved anyone like this before.’ He looked at her smooth face, the small wanton mouth, the gullible eyes that watched him greedily.

Later Ann asks herself, “what kind of compartments did he mean–air-tight ones or the sort on railway trains? Was she locked away on her own, or was he in the compartment with her?” Many of the things William says with such intensity sound good at the time, especially to the innocent Ann, and it can be argued that William, a rather nebulous figure, could mean what he says at the time he says it, or he could just be a heartless, serial adulterer. He says he visits the children from his ex-wife to read them bedtime stories every night, but when he’s caught in a lie, the story shifts to his obligations to his current wife:

‘she doesn’t want to be done out of cooking for me. Who am I to deny her that?’

He bent his head humbly. There was a flaw in his argument, she knew, but she couldn’t put it into words.

He claims to have plenty of money, and his current, much older wife confirms that, yet many of the presents William brings or sends to Ann have questionable origins. He’s a playwright, and that’s confirmed, and yet his plays appear to be almost parodies of working class woes. Is he talented or not? Does William take advantage of women or does he simply fill each need as he comes across sadness and loneliness? Is William just a conman wrapped up in tinsel prose and cheap tenderness? Are the many women he meets and beds his victims or his muses?

But I can’t finish the review without mention of one of the book’s most marvelous characters-another fuzzy around the edges person–Mrs Walton, Ann’s mother. She interferes, criticises, and behaves inappropriately at all the wrong moments in Ann’s life. At one point she hears William moaning outside trying to get into Ann’s flat:

‘What’s wrong with the fool’ hissed Mrs Walton. ‘Does he think he’s Heathcliff?’ She had never known anything like it. Not even during the war when things were more casual.

Ann makes a visit to Brighton to visit her parents and somehow their warped domesticity connects to Ann’s acceptance of William’s behaviour and his dreadful lies. Even William seems to attain some new dizzying heights of deception with his incredible story of how one trip to the dentist ended with the dentist assaulting him and throwing away William’s clothes.

Beryl Bainbridge based the character of William on Alan Sharp; they had a child together.

Here’s another review at Cleopatra Loves Books

Review copy

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City of Strangers: Louise Millar

In Louise Millar’s thriller, City of Strangers, newlywed Grace Scott returns from a two week honeymoon in Thailand to her new flat in Edinburgh only to find a dead man in her kitchen. The man’s shoes are poorly fitting, he has no socks, and later, according to the autopsy, it’s revealed that the man, who had no ID was starving. The police chalk up the body to a burglar who died accidentally in the process of a break-in, but Grace has a vague dissatisfaction with the verdict which becomes amplified when she finds a scribbled note amongst her wedding presents.

With the signed note as a clue, and propelled by the uncomfortable knowledge that her own father died alone, Grace decides to pursue the man’s identity and find his family. What begins as a fairly simple connect-the-dots mission soon spirals out of control as Grace begins to learn two very different versions of the dead man’s life. She travels to London, Amsterdam and Paris with questions that lead her into the violent underbelly of the criminal world.

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There’s a second story strand back in Edinburgh involving Ewan, Louise’s former journalism classmate and his boss, Sula, at Scots Today. Sula is chasing a story which concerns two bodies found in a pit cave: one man was an Australian hiker, and the other was a drug dealer, and Sula asks : “why would an Australian tourist be buried on top of one of Edinburgh’s finest drug dealers?” Of course these two story strands eventually connect.

Ewan and Sula are wonderful characters, and yet they are secondary figures in this tale. Their dynamic and dialogue sizzles and altogether seems much more real than that of Grace and Nicu the hunky prize-winning photographer she meets in Amsterdam. There’s one point when Sula pumps an unwitting PC  for information. He’s been guarding a crime scene in the cold, and she wanders up to him with a spare bacon roll. At another time, she borrows a greyhound as a prop to join other dogwalkers. The touches of humour which underscore how far some reporters will go to get a story help balance the darker, sadder aspects of this tale.

City of Strangers begins as a crime story but then morphs into a more complex, fleshy thriller. While I chewed up the story involving Ewan and Sula, my two favourite characters in the book, I had a much harder time with Grace, who dumps Mac, her newlywed husband without a word to pursue the photojournalist career she knows she wants. I found myself mulling over other plot scenarios: would it have been better if Grace’s husband Mac didn’t exist at all (but then he becomes integral to the plot later,) or what if Grace and Mac had already had longstanding marriage problems when the novel begins? I’ll land on the latter as Grace as a newlywed just didn’t work for this reader. She was too happy to sail off and ‘find herself’ which smacked much more of an unhappily woman than a newlywed–even one with a long-standing relationship such as Grace had with Mac. Grace is essentially drawn as a woman in the midst of a personal crisis having to choose career over domesticity, but the newlywed tag doesn’t mesh, and every time she ignores Mac’s texts or drops his calls, her actions push that post-honeymoon credibility.

Review copy

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Till Death Do Us Part: John Dickson Carr (1944)

I’d never read John Dickson Carr before but took up a challenge from The Invisible Event to read one of this author’s books and post a review on November 30, 2016, to commemorate Carr’s 110th birthday. My pick: Till Death Do Us Part–selected on the merits of its title alone. John Dickson Carr (1906-1977) was an American author who lived in England for several decades of his life, and this novel, set in an English village, features Gideon Fell, arguably (according to everything I read) the author’s most famous character. This is a story of blackmail, murder, and deceit which takes place over the course of just a few days.

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The novel opens at a charity fête on the grounds of Ashe Hall, home of the local gentry. We’re thrown right into the action as playwright Dick Markham, a creator of  “psychological thrillers,” and his fiancée Lesley Grant arrive on the grounds. There’s a storm brewing (literally and figuratively), and after an unfortunate moment at the rifle range, Lesley slides off to visit the fortune-teller, who just happens to be “one of the greatest living authorities on crime” Sir Harvey Gilman, the Home Office Pathologist. Something strange occurs between the fortune-teller and Lesley; she leaves the tent hurriedly and upset. A few moments later she accidentally shoots the fortune-teller, who is subsequently hustled off for medical attention.

That evening, Sir Harvey Gilman, wounded and resting, insists that Dick Markham visit, and Dick is told that Lesley is actually a three-time murderess, a poisoner who has killed two husbands, polished off another lover and very possibly intends Dick to be her next victim. Sir Harvey insists that Lesley, so far, has been too slippery to be caught and punished for her crimes and so he enlists a reluctant Dick to help him.

The next morning, however, Sir Harvey is found dead with a hypodermic needle containing prussic acid–and this is exactly the MO that Sir Harvey, now the victim, attributed to Lesley….

Before too long Dr Fell arrives on the scene and takes over the case aided and abetted by Inspector Hadley. Dr Fell is a large man (think Sidney Greenstreet), given to eccentricities. Till Death Do Us Part is the 15th Carr novel to feature Fell. There’s nothing here about a personal life; he appears around the halfway mark of the book, and mostly grunts, sending significant glances towards Inspector Hadley. I was a bit disappointed in the great detective.

I enjoyed the subtext involving Dick Markham’s behaviour with Cynthia Drew. Everyone in the village predicted a match but when Lesley arrived six months earlier, Markham had eyes for no one else. There’s an undercurrent of disapproval in the village against Markham for disappointing Cynthia. The obvious sexual attraction between Markham and Lesley does not exist with Cynthia–nonetheless Markham, a character I rather liked, gets himself in quite a bit of trouble with his gallantry.

Poisoner’s Mistake was proclaimed from one wall, Panic in the Family from another. Each an attempt to get inside the criminal’s mind: to see life through his eyes, to feel his feelings. They occupied such wall space as was not taken up by stuffed shelves of books dealing with morbid and criminal psychology.

There was the desk with its typewriter, cover now on. There was the revolving bookcase of reference works. There were the overstuffed chairs, and the standing ash trays. There were the bright chintz curtains, and the bright rag rugs underfoot. It was Dick Markham’s ivory tower, as remote from the great world as this village of Six Ashes.

The solution to the crime is wrapped by Fell who hugs all of the information to himself and then does a Grand Reveal at the end–this happens to be something I dislike in my crime books, and since I’ve never read this author before, I can’t say if this is usual or not. The set-up, the writing, the atmosphere were all great fun. I tried finding John Dickson Carr at the library, but the cupboard was bare. Have other readers out there found this author at the library?

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Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions: Mario Giordano

“Fragrantly, in a white caftan and gold gladiator sandals plus dramatic eyeliner and plenty of rouge, she used to sail into the bar like a cruise liner visiting a provincial marina.”

german-literature-month-2016Yes it’s German Literature Month 2016 and what would this event be without a crime novel? Last year for GLM, I reviewed Thumbprint a 1936 novel from Friedrich Glauser; this year it’s Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions by Mario Giordano. The author, a child of Italian immigrants was born in Munich, and this first crime novel was originally published in German. Interestingly, the novel’s protagonist, Auntie Poldi is a German woman who decides to move to Italy. …

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The novel’s narrator is Auntie Poldi’s nephew, a would-be writer who plans to write a “big, epic family saga spanning three German-Sicilian generations” but, so far, has made little progress. He relates how Auntie Poldi, at age 60, decided to move to Sicily “intending to drink herself comfortably to death with a sea view.” The nephew comes to visit once a month, living in his aunt’s attic ostensibly to work on that great novel, but also to keep an eye on his aunt. Auntie Poldi, a “pig-headed Bavarian,” is a sort of larger-than-life Auntie Mame figure; her hobby is to collect photographs of “good looking traffic cops from all over the world.”

My Auntie Poldi: a glamorous figure, always ready to make a dramatic entrance. She had put on a bit of weight in recent years, admittedly, and booze and depression had ploughed a few furrows in her outward appearance, but she was still an attractive woman and mentally tip-top-most of the time, at least. Stylish, anyway. 

Auntie Poldi (Isolde) had a career as a costume designer, and married a tailor, Peppe (Giuseppe).

Poldi and my Uncle Peppe had shared a grand passion, but alas, a few things went badly wrong. Two miscarriages, booze, my uncle’s womanizing, divorce from my uncle, my uncle’s illness, my uncle’s death, the whole issue of the plot of land in Tanzania and sundry other unpleasant twists and turns, setbacks and upheavals of life had stricken my aunt with depression.

Poldi’s retirement to Sicily has her relatives concerned, but she refuses to move closer to them in Catania, and instead moves to Torre Archirafi (found photos of the place online, and it is spectacular). The novel goes on to include some unpleasant realities about living there along with details that bring the location to life.

Poldi, in common with those who have strong personalities, has theories on just about everything, and while she may think she wants a quiet retirement, it’s clear that that will never happen. This indomitable woman turns into an amateur sleuth after the disappearance of a young handyman she employs, and she rapidly gets in much deeper than she expected.  Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions would be easy to classify as a cozy mystery, but I wouldn’t place the book fully in that subgenre: it’s too tangy a book for that classification. It’s definitely an amateur sleuth book, on the light side of crime, with an emphasis on humour and irrepressible figure of Auntie Poldi, but the book is also a statement about being comfortable in one’s own skin.  The appeal of the promised series will depend very much on how the reader connects to the character of Auntie Poldi. If you are looking for light, amusing crime set in an exotic location with a confident, older protagonist, then this book is a pleasant way to spend a few hours.

Review copy

Translated by John Brownjohn

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Black Widow: Christopher Brookmyre

“Just because you’re a psychopath doesn’t mean you can’t have emotional intelligence.”

Black Widow is the page-turning story of a talented, female surgeon who falls into disgrace through social media, only to recoup her life with a whirlwind romance with the seemingly perfect man. But six months later, he’s dead and she’s accused of his murder. …

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Diane Jager once had a job as a surgeon in a prestigious hospital, but she led another life, online, as Scapelgirl, running a blog in which she revealed the sexism she endured as a female surgeon and the difficulty of balancing personal and work lives. The problem is, when anonymity is used to push a personal agenda, well sometimes people go overboard, and that is certainly the case with Diane. Her blog became a cause celebre amongst other female doctors, for Scalpelgirl as an anonymous agent tackled issues (and people) she would not have wrestled in person. The rage of the blog took over, and Scapelgirl becomes known as Bladebitch by her detractors, her identity was revealed (along with some of her sleazier moves) and she was forced to resign. She takes a job at Inverness, her “penitential northern gulag.”

Despite the baggage she brought, she was too valuable a prospect for them to pass up, like a provincial football team happy to take on a flawed talent who had fallen from grace at one of the major clubs.

At her new place of employment, Diane meets IT tech, Peter, and against all the odds, they hit it off, rapidly becoming absorbed in each other. With Diane’s biological clock ticking away,  there seems no need to slow down.

Six months later, Peter’s car is pulled out of a freezing river. Peter’s sister Lucy contacts investigate reporter, Jack Parlabane, and tells him that she thinks her brother may have been murdered.

Black Widow is a very cleverly structured tale which begins in a courtroom and then goes back over time through several points-of-view. We see events through the eyes of two constables: Ali Kazmi and Ruben Rodriguez who are the first on the scene of Peter’s accident–the ones who break the news to Peter’s not-so-grieving widow. Then there’s Parlabane’s view. He’s still bruised from his divorce and a catastrophic dip in his career, so the Bladebitch case offers not only distraction but also possible career redemption. The third viewpoint comes from Diane aka Bladebitch herself; there’s a lot to like there (she’s driven, talented, extremely intelligent) but there’s also a lot to dislike: she’s cold, unapproachable and prickly.

This is someone you do not want to fuck with. This is a woman who will make it her purpose in life to settle the score. They say payback’s a bitch? Then believe me: you don’t want payback from the Bladebitch.

The novel’s clever structure (which is just a teensy bit manipulative but forgivable and within the realms of acceptability–unlike Gone Girl which crossed the line IMO) is bolstered by a certain synchronicity, so we see PC Ali Kazam concerned about a possible pregnancy while Diane longs for a child. We see PC Rodriguez leaving London for exile in Inverness (echoing Diane’s trajectory), and one chapter in which Diane comes to an important revelation is immediately followed by Parlabane experiencing a realization of sorts. The portions narrated by Diane are the strongest and the most compelling in the book; she’s a terrific character, and over the course of her narration, we begin to see exactly how her character became crafted by experience.

I guessed the book’s solution and that’s probably due to all my crime reading, but I still enjoyed the book very much indeed. Work-life balance, sexism in medicine, the mirages often encountered in relationships, all these issues are tackled rather well here, so combine that with a page-turning crime novel, and you have an excellent read.

Black Widow is the seventh in the Jack Parlabane series, and in spite of the fact that this is the first one (so far) that I’ve read, I had no problem reading this as a stand-alone.

Review copy

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Mr Bone’s Retreat: Margaret Forster

“A large, creased, gray American, he began the minute he eventually arrived to describe to the assembled throng the state of his bowels, with which he had been having some trouble.”

Bachelor William Bone, a retired civil servant, has lived happily in the same Regency house opposite Richmond Park  for 40 years. William, after purchasing the house finally a few years ago, has spent a lot of energy carefully renovating it, and now it’s perfect.  The house is divided into three flats with William living on the top floor flat, while Agnes Joliffe, a widow and an acquaintance for over 50 years lives, as his tenant, in the ground floor flat. The middle flat is finished but empty.

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William and Agnes get along well, but some tension exists between them. This is mostly manifested in the way Agnes teases William about his cleaner, his routines and his belief system. Autocratic and critical, Agnes is the sort of woman who “had been born to have servants,” and she terrifies everyone–including her lumpish, unattractive daughter, Germaine.

Germaine was one of life’s visitors–as far as her mother was concerned there was no permanent place for her anywhere. She flitted. The jobs she had had were endless and not a decent one among them. She had not had the brains to go to university, easy though it now was compared to Mrs. Joliffe’s day, but she could at least have trained herself for some worthwhile auxiliary profession. Nor had her personal life been any more commendable. Unmarried till the age of thirty-two, she had then married a Hungarian refugee who upped and went back to Hungary three weeks later. Farcical. Quickly she had taken up with an elderly insurance clerk, who had in due course married her, then stepped in front of a tube train at Mornington Crescent. Apparently he had been wearing bifocal spectacles for the first time or something ridiculous. Then there had been Homer. 

Agnes, a widow after just two years of marriage, loved William and at one time expected to marry him, but William, who has a terrible fear of love, sex, and commitment, has always managed to keep Agnes (and the world) at arm’s length. William is a creature of habit, and his solitary life is one of ordered routine with “normal activities which he loved so much that even a day away grieved him.” People tend to bully William, and that includes his housekeeper, so perhaps it’s just as well that he has no intimate relationships. He’s long since made peace with his choices.

Other people oppressed him if he had to put up with them more than half an hour-a discovery that had made him sad when he was young but was now his strength.

William only has one friend, Pullen, William’s architect, a dreadful bully who terrorises his secretaries. Every time William goes to Pullen’s office, there’s a new secretary, usually in tears. When it comes to employees, Pullen’s  “turnover was impressive.” Not only does he shout, bully and deride, he also dangles one leg over his chair in a way that “called attention to his bulging crotch.” Pullen is rather cruel to William, but William never seems to get it, or perhaps Pullen’s barbs don’t trouble William–a man who seems very comfortable with his life.

The sport lay in the vicious teasing Pullen gave William. He teased him, nastily, about everything. He teased about sex, pretending William was a well-known poof, or about Mrs. Joliffe, pretending she was his mistress. He teased him about his running, pretending he ran in the park only to rape young girls and not to keep fit.

So here is William in his late 60s, a fussy man whose spartan routine means everything, a slippery man who has avoided commitment and messy emotional entanglements. One Christmas Eve, a young couple, Alex and the very pregnant Sophie, show up on William’s doorstep, attracted by the glimpse of an empty flat. William, driven by manners and politeness, allows the couple to stay the night, and then gradually, Sophie, talks William into allowing them to rent the flat…

A gentle comedy ensues from William’s fateful decision. He loathes noise and mess, has very strict rules for cleaning common areas and using the bathroom (no using the toilet after ten at night,) and communicates through letters and notes in order to avoid confrontation. Meanwhile Alex, Sophie’s unemployed artist boyfriend who has no understanding of responsibility or manners, tramples all over William’s ‘rules.’  This situation rapidly becomes untenable for William, but he’s torn between avoidance and good, responsible behaviour–two dominant aspects of his character.

When I first came across Mr Bone’s Retreat, I was concerned that I wouldn’t enjoy the book as I tend to become annoyed with passive or door-mat characters. But William is anything but passive. Alex’s bad behaviour spurs a frenzy of letter writing as William tries to reel in his tenants. Mrs. Joliffe, of course, becomes involved. On one hand she befriends Sophie, and on the other, she pushes William to do something about the situation before a baby breaks the formerly peaceful routine at the house. And of course, before too long, William, who has a lifelong avoidance of relationships finds that he has two women dependent on him.

This is my second Margaret Forster novel. The first was The Unknown Bridesmaid which I loved. Both novels are intense character studies–although Mr Bone’s Retreat is rather comic as we see William struggle with conflicting values. There’s a sadness to the unrequited love affair between Agnes Joliffe and William–although by the end of the book it seems as though William probably did the right thing in avoiding marriage to the domineering Agnes. Sophie acts as a catalyst in the novel, shaking up Agnes and William’s lives, telling Agnes some painful truths, and illuminating William’s generosity long hidden under his fussy, obsessive routines.

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Loving: Henry Green (1945)

Henry Green’s novel Back  is the story of a soldier, now an amputee who returns home to England while WWII rages on. The title, obviously, refers to the man’s return; he’s changed, his world has changed. Loving, published a year before Back, must then refer to the relationship between the newly appointed butler, Raunce and the maid, Elsie. There’s a secondary romance but more of that later.  The story is set in a grand house owned by an upper class Anglo-Irish family with the servants, in theory, making sure that everything runs smoothly. These two groups of people–the masters and the servants–move in different worlds, but when things go wrong, as they do several times in the novel, there are comic results which reveal the inherent paradoxes within the upstairs-downstairs relationships.

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The grand country house is owned by the Tennants, but the son (and heir) of the house, Jack, is off at war, and most of the servants are British (the one irish servant isn’t allowed in the house). There are rumours that the Germans may invade, rumours that the IRA may attack, and the servants, isolated from events in Britain, except for the occasional letters, are cocooned from the deprivations of rationing, and spared the German bombing raids. The male staff members know that if they step foot back on British soil, they’ll be conscripted. So here they are, sitting out the war, hearing its distant rumblings, isolated from their home land.

The novel opens with the death of the elderly butler, Eldon, who unbeknownst to the lady of the house, Mrs Tennant, has been steadily ripping her off over the years. Charley Raunce, formerly the head footman and now butler by default (where else would Mrs Tennant get a replacement in wartime?) ‘inherits’ Eldon’s notebooks. One shows how much he’s been siphoning off the estate, and the other is a sort of reference guide of visitors–its information directed towards getting tips.

The death of Eldon heralds a mini-crisis within the household as head housemaid, Mrs Burch can’t accept Raunce’s promotion. Raunce’s promotion is a shake-up of the established power structure, the unspoken element the entire house runs on.

Not a great deal happens in this story: the cook’s disruptive nephew arrives, scrawny and ill-fed from England, a peacock is murdered, the peacocks are locked up, a valuable ring goes missing, and Mrs Jack (whose husband is away fighting) is caught in bed with a naked man. Through all of these incidents, just what should be aired and what should be kept secret (away from Mrs Tennant) become the points of action. These incidents serve to underscore the separate worlds of the two classes, and the problems that ensue when those world collide.

Loving is a sort of upstairs-downstairs book with an emphasis on the latter. Dozens of peacocks roam the estate–beautiful and yet rather useless, and somehow they seem emblematic of the Tennant family who are largely clueless about what is going on under their noses. The war rages on outside this country, but the Tennants, who care nothing for Ireland, are mostly concerned with the cold dinners delivered to the nursery and the dearth of coloured blotting paper:

“You write to London for the blotting paper of course?”

“Yes Madam but this is all Mr. Eldon could get. I believe he was going to speak about it.”

“No, he never did,” she said, “and naturally it would be hopeless trying to buy anything in this wretched country. But tell me why if there are several pastel blues can they do only one shade of pink?” 

“I believe it’s the war Madam.”

She laughed and faced him. “Oh yes the shops will be using that as an excuse for everything soon.”

If Raunce’s promotion leads to a mini-crisis in the house, the disappearance of a ring is near catastrophic. The servants, and not Mrs. Tennant’s well-known carelessness, are immediately blamed, and this leads to a very funny scene with the insurance investigator and even accusations that the cook is a drunk:

“I think everything’s partly to do with the servants,” Mrs. Tennant announced as if drawing to a logical conclusion.

“The servants?” Mrs. Jack echoed, it might have been from a great distance.

“Well one gets no rest. It’s always on one’s mind, Violet.”

There’s very much the bitter-sweet sense that we are privileged to see a vanishing world. Violet, Mrs Jack, is in love with another man, in a relationship that will not survive if her husband returns from war. If Jack dies in war, what will happen to the house? The Raunces of this world are not the Eldons. The servants are restless and consider other lives; there are no ties to Ireland, no sense of permanence:

“No, what’s going’ on over in Britain is what bothers me. The ways things are shapin’ it wouldn’t come as a surprise if places such as this weren’t doomed to a natural death so to say.”

Another wonderful revival from New York Review Books

Lisa’s review is here.

Review copy

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A Harmless Affair: Christina Stead

Lisa at ANZ Litlovers announced Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20, and I selected a short story at random from Ocean of Story.  A Harmless Affair takes a look at the ambiguous relationship between the happily married Lydia and a journalist/author/soldier, Paul Charteris. Lydia, married to Tom, is in a strange mood, aware of spring, aware of love, when she is invited to a party full of “distinguished people who had all arrived at their destinations.” Lydia meets Charteris, she owns all of his books, and invites him to meet her husband sometime.  He makes a comment that he didn’t know that she was married and that he has ‘no luck.’

ocean-of-story

A week later, Charteris phones and asks if he can visit sometime. He’s given an open invitation, and a month later, he rings again and says he’s coming over. Tom and Charteris appear to like each other, and gradually a relationship forms–mainly between the two men–although there’s something in the air between Charteris and Lydia. Charteris says things to Lydia that he doesn’t say to Tom, he sends Lydia these “rare golden smiles.”  How is Lydia to interpret the things Charteris says, the looks he sends her?

Lydia and Tom move to another state for two years, but they return to New York and run into Charteris again. There’s something doomed about this man. He seems in a downward spiral, tired, and unkempt. The absence and the reunion forces Lydia to consider that “this is the man I nearly lost my head over,” but the inexplicable enchantment Charteris weaved over Lydia before, begins again.

This twenty-five page story is disturbing, and yet there’s nothing ostensibly that should disturb any reader. Perhaps it’s the way that Stead conveys how Charteris, obviously a damaged soul, burrows under Lydia’s skin. She thinks she’s in love, but is she really? The title “A Harmless Affair” is, like the story, somewhat ambiguous. We are left with the idea that Charteris irrevocably alters Lydia’s life, but is this for the better or for the worst? How much of all this germinates in Lydia or her projection? Stead argues that just a few looks, a few words casually thrown out, can lead to unsettling consequences that have no closure. Anyway, a strangely unsettling story. …

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The Mysteries of Paris: Eugène Sue (Part II)

Earlier this year, I took a look at (and started) Eugène Sue’s mammoth novel, The Mysteries of Paris. The Mysteries of Paris ran, as a series, in the Journal des Débats from June 1842-October 1843. I’m still chugging my way through it, and it’s hard to review as there are spoilers galore in every chapter. Each main character has at least one other identity, and their convoluted histories cross back and forth. Every time you think you have a handle on the plot, Sue throws in more to confound us.

the mysteries of Paris

As a writer, Sue is shameless. He’ll throw mention of a character into the narrative in a seemingly minor way, but you can almost hear the thunderclaps of suspense overhead. One of the characters mentions a lost son who is wearing a Lapis Lazuli cross; we don’t have to wait long; it appears in the next chapter. One character seems vile, but he flips into a decent sort within the space of a few chapters. People pop up and disappear. Conversations are conveniently overheard. Coincidence occurs so often, you’d think there were only a few dozen people living in Paris. It’s clear that Sue is thinking on the fly. This isn’t plotted out in minute detail in advance.

This is not great literature–it’s too melodramatic for that, but it’s still great fun. Sue is one hell of a plotter. If he were alive today, I could see him writing for one of those really tacky, addictive thrilling TV series: say The Affair, or Dallas back in the day.

The book’s main character and hero is Rodolphe; he’s actually a Grand Duke of some German principality whose agenda is to travel through the gutters of Paris in disguise and  save people from poverty and a life of crime. Rodolphe knows that many of the Parisians whose paths he crosses are mired in lives of poverty and crime for no fault of their own, and he also understands the difference between true evil and those who have to do what they do in order to survive. Hence he has no problem, for example, with Songbird, a young girl who’s enslaved in a life of prostitution, whereas he loathes the woman who abused Songbird: The Owl, a one-eyed hag whose secret weapon is a bottle of acid which she is prepared to throw on anyone who gets in her way.

Rodolphe even tolerates The Ogre: an innkeeper who whores out Songbird, and the message is that Rodolphe’s intolerance is for those who abuse and corrupt. This supposition comes true as we learn more of Rodolphe’s past.

I liked Rodolphe until he went all Old Testament on me. He’s a god-like figure dispensing bounty for those who deserve it and punishment for those who don’t. I’m still working on the book, so who knows what else Sue has in store.

Review copy

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