Tag Archives: London

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.

sweet-william

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

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A Scream in Soho: John G. Brandon (1940)

“But the unfortunate thing about murder, Sergeant,” McCarthy pursued in that whimsical tone of his, “is that it is never committed according to any rules.”

John G. Brandon’s novel A Scream in Soho is set in wartime London, and while this is an entertaining entry in the British Library Crime Classics series, the book, with its emphasis on espionage, is also part thriller. This wasn’t an entirely successful blend in Miles Burton’s The Secret of High Eldersham, but Brandon makes his novel work. We never forget that there are crimes afoot, but the energetic Detective Inspector McCarthy of Scotland Yard is not on the hunt for ordinary killers, but for spies!

A scream in soho

The book opens in Soho on a dark grim night with Detective Inspector McCarthy waiting for an informant inside an Italian cafe. These first scenes set the tone for the novel with its atmosphere of wartime tension, the cosmopolitan population of refugees, and criminal enterprises which thrive in the Blackout. Early scenes establish the unique state of the country, emphasizing the mish mash of the Soho populace. There are plenty of Italians here–including members of the Mafia, the Camorrista, and also a flood of refugees.We see the crowds of people through McCarthy’s eyes as he notes the Austrian and German refugees:

Harmless people who had suffered miseries almost beyond belief for the greater part, and who were filled with nothing but an immense and overflowing gratitude towards the land which had given them shelter in their hour of direst need. Still objects of pity to the soft-hearted McCarthy, notwithstanding the obvious improvement in their condition since arrival here.

But-and it was a very large “but”-there were others; those ugly little black sheep who creep into every flock and, indeed, are there only for their own ulterior purposes. 

Later that night, a constable hears a scream; the scream is also heard by our intrepid main character Detective Inspector McCarthy, who’s about to go to bed. McCarthy, clad in his pajamas, leaves his house and goes to the location of the scream. But there’s no body, just a woman’s hankerchief, a blood stained dagger and McCarthy’s hunch that a murder has taken place. …

The scream heralds the beginning of a series of crimes and murders, and of course, McCarthy investigates. I can’t even say that he heads the investigation as he operates outside of any sort of institution. He doesn’t use policemen to help–but instead employs “Danny the Dip,” a sneaky underworld figure and also enlists the services of a stalwart London cab driver.

This is a well-paced story with practically no down time. As a crime/thriller it works well. McCarthy, although at a loss for how to proceed at several points in the book, never really breaks a sweat or loses his sense of humour. As the book continues it becomes evident, from plot twists, that McCarthy is a lone wolf who prefers to hunt his prey with very little outside assistance.

I laughed when the sex of a murder victim is up for discussion and the coroner suggests that McCarthy establish the victim’s sex by feeling the stubble on the dead man’s chin–how much simpler to just have a look at the naked corpse, but this is, after all, 1940. Anyway, this was a very entertaining, enjoyable read which reflects the concerns and fears of the times. Regarding the crime/thriller blend here, Martin Edwards, in his introduction notes that Brandon aimed to produce a thriller and was “writing at a time when there was a sharp divide between the two styles of popular fiction. Sayers was prominent in the Detection Club, which excluded thriller writers from membership.”

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Murder in the Museum: John Rowland (1938)

In spite of the fact that the subject is murder, John Rowland’s Murder in the Museum starts on a very light note. The book opens in the British Museum with the introverted bachelor, pince-nez-sporting, Henry Fairhurst, researching an assignment on an obscure 17th century courtesan. While the British Museum Reading Room is a highly respectable place, Rowland shows us its sinister side:

Beneath the high, gloomy dome, Henry Fairhurst looked around him. There was an air of deathly stillness in the place, and a silence broken only by the occasional rustle of pages and the subdued murmurs of a borrower discussing books with an official.

Someone has the audacity to sully the hallowed atmosphere of the British Museum by snoring. Henry, “an assiduous reader of detective stories,” and a self-confessed ‘people-watcher,’ decides to rouse the snoring man from his slumber, but as he shakes the snoring man, the stranger falls dead onto the floor.

murder in the museum

Enter Inspector Shelley (who was also the detective in charge of the case in Calamity in Kent). Fairhurst is awed to be in the presence of the great Scotland Yard detective and he’s especially thrilled to be involved in the investigation. The British Museum snorer, as it turns out, was murdered with a cyanide laced sugar-almond, and the victim, the prominent Professor, Julius Arnell, “the world’s greatest authority on the minor Elizabethans,” has left a substantial amount of money to his only daughter, Violet. In the event of her death, the money is to pass to the professor’s nephew, Moses Moss. To complicate matters, the professor’s daughter is in love with a man her late father did not like.

At first, the book concentrates on the endearing character of Henry Fairhurst, a timid man who lives vicariously through crime books and gangster films, while in real life, he’s dominated by his spinster sister. As an amateur detective, Fairhurst makes an exciting link between the death of one Elizabethan scholar and another. With a fertile imagination, he imagines himself “as the principal witness for the crown in a case against one University Professor for the murder of another one.”

The novel reflects the attitudes of the times, so the character of Moses Moss is referred to as a Jew. There’s also a Jewish moneylender, and there’s a sentence that mentions that “he’s one of those unpleasant people whom the fascists are so fond of portraying as the typical Jew, Nothing of the sort really, of course, and to call him such is a libel on the Jewish race.”

There’s a lot here that seems tongue-in-cheek: the poisoned sugared almond, the bitter rivalry of Elizabethan scholars, and that makes Murder in the Museum a well-written romp of a crime story. While more than one person dies, there’s a dastardly villain (in the style of ‘The Perils of Pauline’) and also a few red herrings. The ending is marred by a coincidence that seems a bit too neatly contrived, but then it was a way to drag Fairhurst back into the story.

The rain was descending in sheets, and alone the lengthy road ahead of them the yellow glow of the street lamps stretched in a seemingly endless line into the distance. The paler colour of gas lamps took their place, and then the hideous sheen of the newer type of daytime lamps made their faces look ghastly as they peered at the road where it slipped away, an endless shiny ribbon ahead.

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Dark Corners: Ruth Rendell

In common with many of this author’s other stand-alone novels of psychological suspense, Dark Corners traces the destructive connecting paths of a handful of characters. In this book, Rendell’s characters connect over a large house in Falcon Mews, Maida Vale inherited by 23-year-old writer, Carl Martin. Carl can’t believe his luck when he inherits the house; he’s just published his first crime book, Death’s Door, and hopes this is just the beginning of a long career. Renting out the top floor of the house, which is located in a very desirable area, will allow him to fund his life until his writing career takes off. Without much care, faced with twenty applicants, he accepts the very first one–Dermot, a rather unpleasant character who works at Sutherland Pet Clinic. Although Dermot seems to be the perfect tenant, quiet and single, Carl doesn’t particularly care for Dermot, but then he has no intention of being Dermot’s friend.

The plot thickens when Carl’s childhood friend, Stacey Warren, now a sitcom actress who has put on a lot of weight, begins complaining to Carl about her figure. Stacey, who has begun a cycle of eating to fill an emotional void, doesn’t want to “starve” herself and instead wants to try diet pills. As fate would have it, Carl has a stash at home:

For many years Wilfred Martin collected samples of alterative medicines, homeopathic remedies, and herbal pills. Most of them he never used, never even tried because he was afraid of them, but he kept the lot in a cupboard in a bathroom.

Carl never got around to throwing out all this old “junk” and on page one we’re told that this was a bad decision.

If he had known how it, or one particular item among all the rest, would change his life, transform it, ruin it, he would have emptied the lot into a plastic bag, carried the bag down the road, and dumped it in the big rubbish bin.

So right away Carl makes a couple of bad decisions (keeping the diet pills, and picking a creepy tenant), and he continues to make bad decisions throughout the book. Some of these bad decisions can be chalked up to youth and inexperience, and Carl, faced with an untenable situation in his home, becomes increasingly paranoid. Through a series of missteps which are permeated with guilt, he sinks into isolation, a dark corner,

Dark cornersStory threads that connect in some way to Carl include various secondary characters. There’s a pathological liar, the opportunistic Lizzie who has a slight acquaintance with Stacey, the sitcom actress, and Lizzie’s retired father, Tom, whose new hobby, riding buses on his free bus pass leads to some difficult experiences. There’s also Carl’s girlfriend Nicola, and Dermot’s creepy fiancée. The threads concerning Tom seemed a little disconnected to the main storyline–although Tom’s recognition, and avoidance, of his daughter’s behaviour are well done.

Since her late teens, when Tom had expected Lizzie to change, to grow up and behave, he had viewed his daughter with a sinking heart, only briefly pleased when she got into what she called “uni.” But her degree in media studies was the lowest grade possible while still remaining a BA. Gradually, as she moved from one pathetic job to another, ending up with the one she had now–teaching assistant, alternating with playground supervisor of after-school five -year-olds killing time until a parent came to collect them–he felt for his daughter that no father should feel: a kind of sorrowful contempt. He had sometimes heard parents say of their child that they loved her but didn’t like her and wondered at this attitude. He no longer wondered; he knew. Walking into the house in Mamhead Drive, he asked himself what lie she would tell that evening, and how many justifications for her behaviour she would trot out.

The novel examines Carl’s growing paranoia and the utter loneliness he experiences. Hugging a nasty secret to himself, he becomes convinced that murder is the only option. Dark Corners argues that the corrosive qualities of guilt are unbearable–at least for the normal person who has any sort of conscience. Committing murder is a solitary path to take–other crimes (such as those committed by Lizzie) offer a return ticket, but murder is an irrevocable one way trip for both the victim and the killer.

It’s a bitter-sweet experience to read Ruth Rendell’s last novel, Dark Corners, published after her death. We’ll never again read an Inspector Wexford novel and return to those much loved characters from Kingsmarkham. While Dark Corners is certainly highly readable and completed, there’s a feeling that it’s not quite as polished as her other novels, but for fans, this novel is still a last gift. Ruth Rendell has provided millions of readers with wonderful crime books for decades. Here in this final novel, Rendell includes topical subjects such as the last book shop “for miles around“, the demise of small business, the prevalence of questionable supplements, and terrorism.

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Murder by Matchlight: E.C.R. Lorac (1945)

Murder by Matchlight from E.C.R. Lorac (real name Edith Caroline Rivett 1884-1959) takes place during the London Blitz and features the author’s series detective Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald. For both setting and plot development, the author capitalises on the Blitz–not only for the bombing but also for the massive human displacement which occurred. At 160 pages, this is a mystery from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction that starts with a murder which occurs almost immediately. Although marred by coincidence, it’s clear from the cast of characters that the author had a lively sense of humour and a strong interest in human nature.

The novel begins on a dark night in London. It’s during the blackout and thirty-year-old Bruce Mallaig, suffering a disappointment, lingers in Regents Park. It’s a “moonless night,” but Mallaig is very familiar with the park and deep in thought, he sits on a park bench when he suddenly hears footsteps close by. The newcomer has a torch, and when Mallaig sees the man climb over and then hide under a bridge, he’s aware that something peculiar is afoot. Then another man arrives  & calls out “anyone about?”:

Next he struck a match and lighted a cigarette. Bruce had a momentary glimpse of a thin pale face, rather whimsical, under the shadow of a trilby hat. “That chap’s an Irishman,” said Bruce to himself, remembering the voice he had heard–even those two words gave the brogue away. […] The Irishman finished his cigarette and flung the end away, so that the lighted tip made a tiny glowing arc before it fell into the damp grass beyond. A moment later he lighted another match, and Bruce rubbed his eyes, wondering if he were dazed by the bright splutter of light in the intense darkness. It seemed to him that beyond the small bright circle of matchlight there was another face in the darkness–no body, just a sullen dark face. The Irishman had bent his head, his cupped hands were shielding the match flame, and then he shook it to and fro and the light went out.

A murder occurs and initially, innocent bystander, Mallaig is a suspect. Once Chief Inspector Macdonald is on the scene, however, Mallaig is an observant witness who, handled delicately by Macdonald, proves to be invaluable. The murdered man is indeed Irish but in time Macdonald discovers that the victim was using an assumed name and had a troubled past with Sinn Fein. Since no one seemed to know the victim other than his fellow residents at a third rate boarding house, Macdonald decides to pursue the case there, among the theatrical residents.

murder by matchlightThere’s humour to be found in the characterizations of the various residents: “conjurors and illusionists” Mr and Mrs Ramses, variety actress Rosie Willing, Carringford, an advisor to a film company, hard-as-nails actress Odette Grey, and gregarious housekeeper Mrs Maloney. Through interviews with the residents, Macdonald begins to piece together a picture of the dead man’s life. Initially identified as John Ward, the victim was a shady character, unemployed with possible connections to the black market, a man who believed in “living easy and letting other folks foot the bill.” He relied on his charm and lived by his wits until apparently someone was motivated to commit murder. Mr Ramses is a particularly colourful character as he’s also a ventriloquist. The residents to the police seem to be “Bohemians,” and we see how Macdonald adjusts his interview techniques and encourages people to talk as he wades though the class structure.

the door was opened by a plump highly coloured lady dressed in a puce coloured, wadded silk dressing gown and jade green mules garnished with dispirited ostrich tips. Macdonald had much ado to keep his eyes from studying the intricacies of her hair curling arrangements. for the coils and adjustments and spring-like contrivances reminded him of a dismembered wireless set.

The author capitalizes on war displacement to illustrate how the murder victim could so easily switch identities and apply for a new ration card:

A man turns up from nowhere, possessing nothing: he says he has been bombed out and has lost his home, his family and his entire possessions. It’s happened in so many cases. How many people bother to substantiate the story?

There’s a certain glibness about the crime itself which expands into a complaint about the “Irish problem” in general, so the book reflects the prejudices of the times. The world is not worse off for the death of the victim, and the emphasis is on the various people who knew the dead man–an “able mind gone to seed.” For its tight plot and well-used setting,  Murder by Matchlight is an enjoyable little mystery for those interested in detective fiction from this era.

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Prelude to a Certain Midnight (1947): Gerald Kersh

“But the sort of men that do jobs like this Sabbatani job, they’re lone wolves.”

I’d been meaning to read Prelude to a Certain Midnight since reading the fantastic Night and the City from the same author, Gerald Kersh. You can read Night and the City and know that this novel was meant to be made into one of the all-time great noir films. Reading Prelude to a Certain Midnight renders a completely different result–the book, its moody, sordid setting, the characters on the fringes of society, and the crime under examination–the rape and murder of a ten-year-old-girl, all get under your skin, and it’s not a particularly pleasant experience.

The book opens by discussing a East-End London pub known as Bar Bacchus–an establishment that has endured a fall from popularity. “For twenty-five years it was one of the three most popular meeting-places in London,” but now it’s mostly empty, and the old regulars claim that the atmosphere of the place changed. Only one of the old crowd still haunts the premises–Amy Dory known as “Catchy” hangs out there, and Kersh gives us pages of description of this piece of human wreckage.

But the Bar Bacchus lost its soul and Catchy lost her body. If you had known her then and could see her now you would see what I mean when I say that she has gone through the years like a woman dragged backwards through a thicket hedge. Time has made a sad mess of her–time and trouble. She had had trouble, she will tell you a few minutes after meeting you. Those bright brown eyes that used to be so steady and candid against the baby-blue whites may now be likened to a couple of cockroaches desperately swimming in two saucers of boiled rhubarb. her magnificent hair has acquired a coarse texture. There is something Bohemian about it: it will not lie down; it resists the comb: it is hair in revolt. She is too tired, now, to fight against it.

After a couple of pages of this sort of thing, Kersh began to seem a little harsh to this character, but he’s just paving the way for the book’s central theme–the lasting impression of an unsolved crime that occurred ten years earlier.

Prelude to a certain midnightCatchy rents a room (but hardly ever pays rent) to Mrs. Sabbatani, the mother of the murdered girl, Sonia. Mr. Sabbatani, a local tailor, died not long after his daughter’s murder, and while Catchy appears to avoid Mrs. Sabbatani (perhaps due to the issue of past rent), she seems to respect her landlady. Mrs. Sabbatani, who has a good, generous heart, won’t throw Catchy out because Sonia liked her.

Then the tale travels back ten years, and Sonia’s murder, still fresh, is unsolved, yet there’s hope that the person responsible will be caught. Little Sonia left school one afternoon in the middle of thick fog and was later found raped and strangled in the cellar of a condemned slum. Although Detective Turpin is on the case, there are few clues–except that Sonia said she was meeting ‘a friend’ of her father who was “going to show her a secret.” This seems to indicate that the killer was a local man–possibly one of Sam Sabbatani’s many customers.

The cusp of the story hinges on the actions of independently wealthy do-gooder, Asta Thundersley, aka the Battleaxe: a “fuss pot, a busybody, with a finger in every charitable pie; a maiden lady of diabolical energy.” Asta is always on the rampage for one cause or another, and if she asks for help in her quest for social justice, and is refused, then the person who declines, or hesitates, “becomes her enemy, in which case his life will be made a burden to him.”  People who stumble into Asta’s path either love her or hate her–there’s no in-between. So while she often butts heads with various figures in authority, she also becomes the champion of the downtrodden. But Asta isn’t all bluster and noise; she puts her money where her mouth is. So for example she employs a broken down fighter, “The Tiger Fitzpatrick” as her butler, and her gruesomely made-up housekeeper is Mrs Kipling: “who had, in her day, danced suggestive dances and sung lewd songs in East End music-halls.”

Asta’s latest cause becomes the quest to find Sonia’s killer….

While the stain of this hideous crime contaminates everyone involved, there’s also the sensation that the crime was spawned by the unhealthy atmosphere of the area. In a very creepy section, Asta, with lurid fascination, begins poking around the crime scene:

Near the kitchen there was an ancient wash-house, with a copper boiler built in a round cylinder of half-rotten brick that had once been whitewashed, and a window as big as a pocket handkerchief that was not designed to open. The smell of five generations of filthy linen hung in the thick grey air of the wash-house. As Asta hurried out of it she saw an archway. It was the opening of a malodorous little vault, the roof of which was the pavement of the street. Looking up, she saw the rusty under-surface of the lid of the coal-hole. There was coal dust under her feet; and now her feet were as sensitive as teeth-she walked on her toes. In the coal-cellar there was a crushed tea chest of peeling plywood, a few shovelfuls of wet coal dust, and a demolished leather sofa.

This was the love nest of the undiscovered murderer. Here the beautiful child Sonia Sabbatani had been ravished and found dead, with her head in a puddle, some lengths of knotted string about her wrists; gagged with abominable rags.

As the police surgeon lifted Sonia, one of the fat grey insects had run out of her ears.

Frustrated about the lack of progress made in the murder investigation, Asta questions (bludgeons) the unflappable Detective Turpin about the case:

“Ask yourself, Miss Thundersley,” said Turpin, “if it’s as easy for us as you seem to think. As you say, sex is a motive–beastliness as you said just now, and quite right too. Well now, you see, almost anybody might commit a crime like that. Respectable fathers of families have been known to, er, commit certain offences against children. People you’d never suspect are always strangling ladies of easy virtue with silk stockings, for instance. This sort of murderer is the hardest sort of murderer to lay your hands on, because he’s not a habitual criminal. He is not known to the police. A burglar, or a forger, or a confidence trickster–he leaves, as you might say, his autograph on his work.”

Some passages, from the mind of the murderer, made very gruesome reading–not so much for the details, but for the pure callousness. Prelude to Midnight argues very effectively that the residues of a crime never leave the minds and the lives of those involved. Everyone connected to the crime is haunted by the event in one way or another. Keeping in mind that the murder is ten years old when the novel opens, Kersh shows that the horror remains and even spreads through the pages to the reader. If Kersh wanted to convince us that he recreated a time, an atmosphere and a killing, then he certainly succeeded.

Finally, a note on my edition from Blackmask. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Blaskmask books, but this publisher puts books in the hands of its readers, so I can’t complain. There were just a couple of typos, and one completely out of place sentence, but that was it.

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The Square: Rosie Milliard

“If you just drove in and out of the Square all day to deliver your child to The Prep, which is ferociously exclusive and expensive, you would feel as if life was a sort of planet of plenty, thinks Tracey, who knows full well from her clients who buy cosmetics from her that it is not.”

The Square, a novel from Rosie Millard is a satire which lampoons the lifestyles and values of a handful of residents of a neighbourhood of expensive London Georgian mansions that were “built for the Victorian bourgeoisie, fallen into disrepair, divided up, broken down, reunited, refurbished, [now] they are serving descendants of their original class once more.” Everyone who lives in the Square is proud of their address, as if living there is some sort of achievement. Most of the characters’ primary concern is appearances, so in this delightfully malicious look at class and materialism, we see characters who think they’re unique when in actuality, they are ultra conformists who have “knock-through kitchens,’ send their children to the same schools, compete with ridiculous dinner parties, and show off designer labels as if they were medals.

All those women with husbands who work in the City, dressed in their silk shifts and tweedy jackets, makeup so subtle it looks like it’s not even there, hair beautifully blown. It is the handbags which are the signifiers, though. Soft, buttery leather bags. Purple and green and black, with clinking accoutrements to announce their presence; silver locks and heart-shaped key fobs and gilt chains, and huge stitched handles which fit just so under your arm.

The residents/characters in the book include:

  • Tracey and Larry: who won the lottery but find that maintaining the lifestyle expected of residents of the square is beyond their means. They have two children–Belle and Grace and an au pair, Anya. Belle is old enough to remember her working class, pre-lottery days.
  • Jane and Patrick: Patrick “who has gone to seed,” brings home the big money while mega bitch Jane, known to her husband as “Der Führer,”  brings home her lover, Jay for frantic afternoon trysts. Their only child George is the most mature person in the household.
  • Harriet and Jay: overweight and unhappy Harriet doesn’t fit in with the other ultra slim wives, and Jay busies himself with an affair with ultra-skinny Jane.
  • Pretentious, obnoxious artist Philip Burrell and his nutty Russian wife Gilda who dresses like she “just stepped out of theatrical clothing emporium, or is trying to represent a painting by Watteau.” Philip hires a young man from the local council estate to build his pricey works of art: reproductions of golf holes which sell for up to 50,000 pounds a pop.

The novel follows the various complications in the lives of the characters and culminates in the residents’ fundraising talent show (the council refuses to pay for new iron railings. Sob…). We see Tracey, with her “tarty outfits,” who doesn’t fit in with the other wives, trying to make a living as a door-to-door cosmetic salesperson. Realising that the family will not be able to sustain the lifestyle of the Square for much longer, she hunts down financial makeover guru, television personality Alan Makin, while Philip Burrell decides to move on from making models of golf holes to making models of marathon courses. Meanwhile the resident children, unbeknownst to their parents, struggle with their own issues.

the squareVenom flies in to even the small scenes with two or three characters, but the major laughs break out when the residents come together en masse. The funniest scene in the book IMO takes place at Jane’s dinner party. Jane is the sort of character we  love to hate, and here when she’s on show, at her most pretentious, she’s very funny.

With characters such as these–the pencil-thin rich bitch, the cuckolded husband, the neglected overweight wife, and her slimy cheating spouse you know that you are reading about types rather than individuals–so don’t expect character development here. Yet in spite of the fact that author Rosie Millard’s novel concentrates on stereotypes, we can all too easily imagine people we know in these roles. I struggled with the character of Jane’s son George. He was too mannered, and the segment concerning George’s film seemed constructed for laughs rather than credibility. It’s hard to sustain humour in satire, and when the novel moved towards the fundraiser, the humour lagged and tired as slick wit weakened, and as Jane says as one point, it’s “sort of like realizing that modern British life is indeed modelled on a Carry On film.” But bravo to the author for nailing the pretentious crowd who live in the Square–a place, oddly enough that sounds a lot like Rosie Millard’s own neighbourhood, and a place even more strangely that sounds exactly like a neighbourhood here in N. America…

Opposite the blackboard is the obligatory ‘island’. Every kitchen has one, a marooned stone rectangle surrounded by a cluster of chrome stools. Somewhere on it there will be a single, commanding tap. There might be a recipe book propped up on a lectern, like a religious text.

Beside the island is a colossal, humming fridge and a vast six-burner appliance capable of feeding an entire church choir, should one drop in. This is known as the ‘range’. It is not used very much. Hot meals still tend to come from the microwave, or local restaurants, whose takeaway menus are pinned to a cork board.

The entire room glories in laboratory-style cleanliness. There is an entire cupboard devoted to cleaning implements and chemicals. There is a bespoke bottle for the kitchen’s myriad surfaces, each of which has been quarried, quartered, buffed and bullied into a properly gleaming state of submission.

Kitchens in the Square are a miracle of processed nature. Marble, granite, steel, quartz, slate, with accents of wood and chrome brought together in one glorious assemblage. The kitchens are like a geology lesson.

At night, the au pairs creep out of the small rooms. They enter these bright, soulless places and erect computers upon the marble islands. they perch on chrome stools and talk via Skype to their families in languages which to Belle’s English ear sound like falling water. Alone and undisturbed they explain to their fascinated relations how things are in the Square, a place full of money, nerves, and giant unused ovens.

Review copy

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The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (Part II)

Following from Part 1

The Lorimer sisters forced to earn their own living or accept the charity of relatives opt for the former and open their photography shop with painfully high hopes.

Think of all the dull ways by which women, ladies, are generally reduced to earning their living! But a business–that is so different. It is progressive; a creature capable of growth; the very qualities in which women’s work is dreadfully lacking.

This speech is made by Gertrude to her sister, Lucy, and at this point the photography shop is still in the planning stages. We could say that Gertrude is optimistic, but with Lucy and Phyllis , there’s a more romanticized view which becomes contagious:

“And I,” cried Phyllis, her great eyes shining, “I would walk up and down outside, like that man in the High Street, who tells me every day what a beautiful picture I should make!”

“Our photographs would be so good and our manners so charming that our fame would travel from one end of the earth to the other!” added Lucy, with a sudden abandonment of her grave and didactic manner.

“We would take afternoon tea in the studio on Sunday, to which everybody would flock; duchesses, cabinet ministers, and Mr. Irving. We should become the fashion, make colossal fortunes, and ultimately marry dukes!” finished off Gertrude.

The Romance of a Shop is faulted for its ending–the wrap-up of the fates of our 4 sisters. Would I fault the novel?… Yes, but I’m not the only one, and this criticism is addressed in the intro which includes a comment from author Deborah Epstein Nord (Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City) who argues that the last chapters revert to “a shoddy Pride and Prejudice with all four sisters searching for an appropriate mate.” Also quoted is Deborah Parsons’ argument  (Streetwalking the Metropolis; Women, the City and Modernity) that “Levy backs down from the implied female radicalism” with a conventional conclusion for the sisters. The author of the Broadview edition, Susan David Bernstein addresses those criticisms with her interpretation of the conclusion.

The Romance of a shopI was initially disappointed by the novel’s conclusion as the plot slid into romance, new and old as well adding the looming threat of a slippery seducer. Still, I think that Levy might well be adding realism here by creating characters who opt for marriage as the practical choice, and in the quote above, we see that clearly marriage is in the minds of these sisters. Levy planted the seed for the reader to see very early in the novel, so should we be so surprised when that is what occurs?  There’s another later moment when Gertrude, left to her own melancholy thoughts, admits that in all likelihood, at least a couple of her sisters will marry and move on. We could even argue, as noted in the earlier quote, that the sisters see their photography business as paving the way for an introduction into the best of society and a way of making them more desirable and eligible.  For this reader, a far worse flaw than the conventional ending was the drama involving Lucy. It seemed contrived solely for the element of suspense.

The Broadview edition clocks in at 278 pages, but the novel itself is about half that. This is an instance when I would have preferred one of those Victorian triple-deckers as The Romance of a Shop is thin on character development. Sister Fanny, for example, is barely glimpsed except as a housekeeping figure, and added scenes of the sisters actually at work, instead of the recounted details, would have enhanced the plot.  Gertrude is the most interesting sister, and the scenes that yield her thoughts, and the scenes involving Gertrude and Mr. Darrell are the most interesting in the book. Mr. Darrell wants Phyllis to sit as a model for a painting. He dislikes Gertrude and sees her as a frumpy “dragon-sister to be got round.”  Here’s a stunning moment between Gertrude and Darrell:

She glanced up as she spoke, and met, almost with open defiance, the heavy grey eyes of the man opposite. From these she perceived the irony to have faded; she read nothing there but a cold dislike.

It was an old, old story the fierce yet silent opposition between these two people; an inevitable antipathy; a strife of type and type, of class and class, rather than of individuals: the strife of a woman who demands respect, with the man who refuses to grant it.

Amy Levy “modeled the Lorimers on her friends the Black sisters,“(Clementina Black was a suffragette, author and a trade union organizer who fought for equal pay for women). At one point, Levy slips in the statement that customers “seemed to think the sex of the photographers a ground for greater cheapness in the photographs.” There’s an authenticity here in the attention paid to detail to the lodgings, and the glimpse of the professional woman’s perspective in London of the times is unique.

Another fascinating aspect of the novel is the vulnerability of these sisters now that they are running a shop. Most of their old friends drop them, and Aunt Caroline is scandalized by their behaviour. Their work forces them out into the world; they have to mingle, and sometimes go alone to studios owned and operated by men.

We have taken life up from a different standpoint, begun it on different bases. We are poor people, and we are learning to find out the pleasures of the poor, to approach happiness from another side. We have none of the conventional social opportunities for instance, but are we therefore to sacrifice all social enjoyment? … we have our living to earn, no less than our lives to live, and in neither case can we afford to be the slaves of custom. Our friends must trust us or leave us; must rely on our self-respect and your judgment. Convention apart, are not judgment and self-respect what we most rely on in our relations with people, under any circumstances whatever?

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The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy (Part I)

The Romance of a Shop … this wonderful title accompanied by a beautiful cover and an intriguing synopsis persuaded me to buy this book written by Amy Levy (1861-1889), an author I’d never heard of before. I read a marvelous Broadview edition which includes a short bio of the author who committed suicide at age 27, various collected articles on several aspects of Victorian society, poetry and a short story by Levy and 19th century reviews ofThe Romance of a Shop. This is a book about the “New Woman,” a topic also covered in George Gissing’s splendid novel, The Odd Women, a simply fantastic novel that made my best-of list in 2013. Amy Levy’s novel won’t be making the 2014 list for reasons I’ll explain, but this was an interesting book which convinced me to read the author’s other novel Rueben Sachs.

The Romance of a shopGissing’s The Odd Women concerns six sisters left destitute following the death of their father. We see how they are forced into menial employment as governesses of families just above their social sphere, and in these positions, they’re overworked and underpaid. One sister works in a shop and it’s a work-till-you-drop sort of situation which she bails from at the first opportunity. She lands in a miserable marriage that’s just another type of drudgery–even if it is gilded around the edges. The Odd Women is a bold novel which addresses sexual desire, the disparity between male and female sexual freedom, the practicality of ‘free unions’  in a society rife with gender inequality, and the power balance in marriage. The book questions whether or not women can thrive as wives, or if a career as a single woman is a preferable and healthier choice. As a result, the female characters in Gissing’s masterpiece are faced with tough choices. Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop isn’t as bold or as subversive a novel as The Odd Women. The informative introduction from Susan David Bernstein describes Levy’s novel as important: “borderland fiction, inscribing a space between traditional and progressive representations of women.”

There are four Lorimer sisters in The Romance of a Shop, and the novel opens following the death of their father, a London photographer.  With all bills settled, and the furniture sold, they are left with just 500 pounds between them. Fanny, the eldest daughter at thirty, is the result of Mr. Lorimer’s first marriage, and thanks to a legacy from her mother she has just 50 pounds a year to live on which she is happy to share with her 3 half sisters. In Gissing’s novel, New Grub Street, fifty pounds  a year bought a life in a garret for Edwin Reardon.

Relatives propose breaking up the four girls and sending two of them out to live with an uncle in India while the remaining two have been offered a home with the family friends, the Devonshires.  The four young women want to remain together and 23-year-old Gertrude, the most interesting of the sisters, and by no coincidence, the most intelligent, proposes that they move and open their own photography studio. It’s a bold plan, and while Lucy is solidly behind the plan, Fanny, who is the dullest of the bunch is appalled. Here’s Gertrude making her argument:

“No, I have another plan to propose to you all. There is one thing, at least, that we can all do.”

“We can all make photographs, except Fan,” said Phyllis, in a doubtful voice.

“Exactly!” cried Gertrude, growing excited, and walking across to the middle of the room: “we can make photographs! We have had this studio, with every proper arrangement for light and other things, so that we are not mere amateurs. Why not turn to account the only thing we can do, and start as professional photographers? We should all keep together. It would be a risk, but if we failed we should be very little worse off than before. I know what Lucy thinks of it, already. What have you others to say to it?”

“Oh, Gertrude, need it come to that–to open a shop?” cried Fanny aghast.

Levy positions her argument of ideals vs reality by creating the wonderfully ironic title. There’s nothing romantic at all about running a shop, but there are lots of grim realities–bill-paying, attracting customers, competition, long hours, and above all, a future that, if one is successful, brings only more of the same. Is there romance here? Yes, the first whiff of romance is seen in the sisters’ collective imagination of becoming pioneers, independent women pursuing careers instead of marriage. Fanny, the oldest and the most conventional sister is, according to Lucy, “behind the age.” And this is true in more ways than one–not only is Fanny appalled by the behaviour of her sisters who have decided to be independent career women, but she’s also left behind in the terms of her own life. Years before, Fanny had a suitor but he had no money and sailed off to Australia to make his fortune. Gertrude and Lucy are the pragmatists, and 17 year-old Phyllis, the family beauty, is impractical, frivolous and romantic. There’s lots of flurry and excitement as the sisters make their plans, and the fact that this is a decision made from necessity and desperation is shoved aside until the business opens…..

More in part II 

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The Voices by F.R. Tallis

“Places have atmospheres, certainly, and I suppose that powerful, emotionally charged events might leave some kind of impression–a kind of memory. But as for the dead coming back to meddle with the affairs of the living? I’m not sure I believe in that sort of thing.”

In 2013, I read and enjoyed The Sleep Room, so when I saw that British author F.R.Tallis had written a new novel, I knew I had to get my hands on it. But first a story….

About twenty years ago, a relocation seemed imminent. As it turned out, the move never happened, but the search for a new home led to a bizarre experience I’ve never forgotten. With only weeks, as I thought at the time, to find a rental, pack up and move, I drove to this small, rural area in order to check out a few houses. I saw a handful–most were disappointing with a range of problems, and then, the very last house on the list seemed promising. The rent was fair, and unlike the other houses, this one, on the outside at least, seemed to be in a good state of repair. I met the real estate agent in front of the house which was located on a remote side road. We went inside, and there was the usual bland living room and kitchen. Then I passed into the hallway, and something happened….

A chill and a heavy feeling of dread passed over me as I turned into the first bedroom on the right; I felt as though I was about to see something horrifying, but, of course, the room was empty. As I stood in the doorway, I knew that something terrible had happened in this room. I quickly passed through the rest of the house, went into the back garden where I experienced the same feeling, and then returned to the living room. There the real estate agent, with a stack of rental apps in his hand, said, “before we go any further, I have to tell you that a murder took place here…” Let me ask you: would you move into this house?

If you reject my experience, then The Voices will probably have no appeal, but if you accept my story, then F.R.Tallis’s macabre tale of things that go bump in the night is for you.

The voicesThe Voices takes place in London in the 70s as a married couple, Christopher Norton and his pregnant wife, Laura, meet an estate agent at a Victorian house located near Hampstead Heath. The house appears to have been uninhabited for some time, and in spite of substantial need for repair, the Nortons fall for the house, buy it and move in. The house may be a long-term project in terms of repair, but it seems perfect, and one of its selling points is a large room on the top floor which Christopher, a composer, can use as a studio. It’s on this first day, that Laura, standing and gazing into the overgrown garden sees something. This is the moment when the couple should have RUN, but no, instead they buy the house, move in and Laura gives birth to Faye.

Over time, Christopher and Laura begin to grow apart. Christopher’s career stalls, and he sees another friend, a man who opted for a less commercial career, receiving the sort of recognition he craves. Christopher writes and creates film soundtracks, and while he was once in Hollywood, now the jobs coming his way are scarce and for minor films. In fact, at one point, he’s even passed over for Star Wars. In a funk, Christopher discovers some peculiarities on recordings he’s made inside his home studio. At first he thinks there’s an equipment problem or that the voices he hears are radio interferences, but as these options are ruled out, he becomes convinced that the voices on his tapes are paranormal activity. After reading the book Breakthrough: An Electronic Communication with the Dead by Konstantin Raudive, Christopher is convinced that the voices will be an integral part of a unique project that will make his career. He delves into the history of the house and descends into obsession as he attempts to capture the voices of the dead on tape.

The engineer shook his head. ‘Nothing.’

‘What do you mean, nothing?’

‘I couldn’t find anything wrong.’

‘But the voices…’

‘Yeah,’ said Kaminsky. ‘The voices.’ He lit a cigarette and nodded silently to himself. ‘I’ve been listening to them, and if you think about it…’ He hesitated and seemed uncertain as to whether to proceed or not.

‘Yes.’

Kaminsky continued. ‘They don’t sound anything like radio broadcasts, do they? She died last night; I’m a stranger here; Come, Tommy. Fate. In French, German, English. I mean, what sort of stations are we picking up here?’ It was true. The voices didn’t appear in an ongoing stream of interference, and it was difficult to imagine them in the context of an ordinary radio programme. ‘And why no music?’ Kaminsky added, foreshadowing Christopher’s own thoughts. ‘No records, no jingles, nothing.’

‘What are you suggesting?’ Christopher asked.

The engineer studied the smoke rising from his cigarette.’I don’t think these voices are radio transmissions.’

Meanwhile, Laura, a former top model, suffering perhaps from postpartum depression, experiences horrible nightmares. Growing apart from Christopher, she joins a feminist book group, and begins to reject her past life. As Christopher and Laura become estranged from each other, there’s a big question: is this just a normal turn of events or is the atmosphere of the house itself eroding their psyches?

She had only intended to stop reading for a few seconds to rest her eyes, but she found herself thinking about the past. It was happening more and more–memories would detach themselves from some deep, murky place of concealment and rise in her awareness. An image of an Italian couturier formed in her mind. She had thought about him a lot since being reminded of his existence by her old see-through blouse (which she had now given to Oxfam). Once again, it all came flooding back. The hotel, the black leather furniture and the floating forms in the lava lamp. She had absorbed enough pop psychology from magazine articles to know that the insistent return of these memories was symptomatic. It meant something.

That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to give away. With Christopher and Laura’s estrangement, combined with his feelings of anguish at a lost career, we’re initially not sure how much here is psychological vs paranormal. Over time the difference becomes clear, and author F. R. Tallis, a clinical psychologist, carefully and relentlessly builds dread as Christopher’s obsession grows and Laura begins to feel that there’s a presence in the house. There were moments when I wondered at the lethargy of this married couple, but then that’s explained by their twin paths: Christopher, happy to delve into the house’s dark past, and Laura, who has a tiny sliver of intuition, but she’s too deep in her own memories trying to get to some central truth to take action. Much is left to the imagination, and this just adds to the terror. There are some loose ends with the secondary characters, Sue in particular, and the storyline involving the house’s last owner is frustrating elusive, but overall this was a gripping, dark tale.

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