Tag Archives: London

Little Sisters: Fay Weldon

“Well, all of us are nice, charming enough people, until tried by circumstances and hard times, and then, only then so we find out what we really are.”

Little Sisters from Fay Weldon was published early in the author’s career before the wonderfully wicked Lives and Loves of a She-Devil . Little Sisters is classic Weldon, full of the author’s signature style, and includes themes of sexual politics, infidelity, the competitiveness and viciousness of female ‘friendships,’ and fate.

Little Sisters

18-year-old Elsa is shacking up with middle-aged married Victor whose mid-life crisis led to him dumping his wife, Janice, daughter Wendy and his career as a tax accountant. Now he’s an antique dealer, and he and Elsa sleep in the back of his London shop. She also cooks (marginally), deals with customers, types (barely) moves furniture and works around the office. Nothing is said about wages or insurance stamps. What a deal for Victor. One weekend, Victor takes Elsa along to visit millionaire Hamish “manufacturer of flowerpots,” and his wheelchair bound wife, Gemma at their country estate. The invitation is ostensibly for Victor to buy antiques from Hamish, but Gemma, wicked Gemma, has other plans. She’s also invited Janice and Wendy for the weekend.

With Victor and Hamish haggling over the cost of various antiques, Elsa is assigned to type various things for Gemma, typing which is given in the evening to be completed by the next day (think Rumpelstiltskin). During the day, Gemma commandeers Elsa and tells her a cautionary tale–the tale of how, in 1966, she arrived at age 18, penniless and alone, in London and began her employment as a typist at the trendy firm of jewelry makers. Fox and First.

So there are two storylines here entwined together. Gemma tells her tale of being young, naive, and falling in love with her employer, Mr Fox. Gemma’s predecessor left under mysterious circumstances and her departure may have had something to do with the violent death of a woman who fell, or was perhaps thrown out of the office window. Gemma’s co worker, the plain, dowdy Marion Ramsbottle, takes Gemma under her wing, offering her a room at her parents’ home. Marion drops hints about danger, death and a missing finger, but is Marion stable? Some of the book’s funniest scenes take place at the Ramsbottle home. One evening with the Ramsbottles, a family who belong in a Monty Python skit, and Gemma is longing for a life that’s more glamorous:

“She’s having one of her fits, Marion’s mum,” said Mr. Ramsbottle urgently.

“We’d better give her a pill, Marion’s dad, the way the doctor said. One of the strong ones.”

“I’m not taking any pills!” cried Marion. “It will be shock treatment next.”

“That it will,” said her mother,”if you don’t stop it, you naughty girl.”

“Look!” cried Gemma, trying to ease the situation. “Here’s a picture of Mr. Fox in Vogue.”

The second storyline concerns Elsa, Victor, Gemma and Hamish in the present. Hamish wants to strike a hard bargain with Victor, and Victor isn’t above a little negotiation. …

Fay Weldon’s razor sharp, acidic wit dominates the novel, and most of the dark humour comes from Gemma. When Victor and Elsa first arrive, the games begin when Gemma shows her talons within the first few moments:

“Don’t you see many real people?” enquires Victor, taking her hand. It trembles within his, which moves him.

“Anyone with any spirit,” complains Gemma. removing her hand, “stays away. They either like me and Hamish is rude to them; or they like Hamish and I am rude to them. But you know what marriage is like. And you’ve brought Wendy! How lovely to meet you , Wendy. How were your A-levels, after all that? Your father was so worried.”

“This isn’t Wendy,” begins Victor. Wendy is Victor’s daughter. She failed all four A-levels. Art, English, Latin and Sociology.

“No, I am sorry. It must be the concealed lighting: one can’t see a thing, really. But Hamish likes it. Of course, it’s Janice, looking absolutely wonderful, and young enough to be her own daughter. You’ve put on a little weight, Janice. I’m so glad. You were looking ever so thin, as if you had some secret worry. Is it over?”

Fay Welson’s signature themes are present including the competitiveness between women as they fight over the spoils: men who are unfaithful, selfish, egomaniacs, cruel, neglectful or crazy.

Something has hardened in her heart. She wants struggle, conflict, victory. She has this scent of triumph in her nostrils: the taste of sexual power between her soft red lips. Something instinctive and nasty surfaces, hardens and takes possession: other women are her enemy, she perceives. Men are there to be made her allies: her stepping-stones to fulfillment and worldly success. Herself, her children, cradled in luxury and safety. (Well, how else is she to do that, on a typing speed of thirty-five, and shorthand fifty-three?) Elsa looks sideways at Gemma and think why, if I wanted, I could have Hamish too. Then where would you be, helpless in your chair, with your unworkable legs and your mutilated hand. Sitting there, patronising me.  M

So who are the ‘little sisters’ in the novel? Perhaps the title refers to Marion’s relationship with Gemma, or perhaps it refers to Gemma’s relationship to Elsa. Both relationships are complex, and while Marion mostly helps Gemma, there’s also hostility and envy. Gemma’s relationship with Elsa is bitchy and spiteful, but underneath her brittle, damaged surface, Gemma identifies with Elsa on some level. But then again, perhaps ‘little sisters’ refers to Wendy and Elsa? Gemma discovers that the two young women share a birthday and she rather spitefully (and hilariously) insists on throwing a party for ‘the twins.’

Little Sisters is written with the author’s inimitable style, so it has a fairy tale quality to it. But as readers know, all fairy tales contain elements of horror. Also present is another of Weldon’s favourite themes: the prevalence of fate in our lives.

Had you never noticed the way the secret world sends out signs and symbols into the ordinary world? It delivers our messages in the form of coincidences: letters crossing in the post, unfamiliar tunes heard three times in one day, the way that blows of fate descend upon the same bowed shoulders, and beams of good fortune glow perpetually upon the blessed. Fairy tales, as I said, are lived out daily. There is far more going on in the world than we ever imagine. 

en are

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The Day of the Dead: Nicci French

The Day of the Dead is an ominous title for the final book in the Frieda Klein series from husband-and-wife writing team “Nicci French” (Nicci Gerrard and Sean French). For those playing catch-up, this is the eighth book in the series which follows London psychologist Frieda Klein. I’ll add here that in spite of the fact that this book includes many repeat characters, it can be read as a standalone, but if you want to get a bit more out of the story, I’d recommend that you read at least the first one in the series: Blue Monday.

the day of the dead

The Day of the Dead begins with a horrific incident in London which leaves many people wounded, but as the police begin to investigate what seems like an accident, the incident turns into something much more sinister. This murder case initially baffles police, but then another body surfaces, and another, and another…..

Meanwhile, Frieda Klein (who doesn’t appear until we’re really deep into the plot) is in hiding. In Blue Monday, she met serial killer, psychopath Dean Reeve, and although he was supposedly dead at the end of the book, Frieda has insisted to the police for years that Dean was still alive. And considering how her life has been turned into a theatre of blood and murder since meeting Dean, she may be onto something.

Dean Reeve is the ultimate predator, and over the course the series he’s played a cat-and-mouse game with Frieda, always close by, always circling. To some, Frieda’s claims about Dean Reeve are too fantastic to be believed, and she is regarded as an attention seeking nut, a woman “who has left a trail of havoc behind her,” but Frieda also has her defenders.

In The Day of the Dead, the police finally have to acknowledge that Dean Reeve is alive, and into his current string of showy murders stumbles a young confused criminology student named Lola who has become so interested in Frieda that she decides to write a dissertation “deconstructing” the psychologist. Lola seeks Frieda and manages to find her, but with Dean Reeve circling, Lola doesn’t want to leave Frieda’s side. Frieda is in hiding for a reason as she knows that those close to her are in danger from Dean. Frieda knows that Dean “is reaching the end. One way or another.” 

Although this book clocks in at just over 400 pages, it was a very quick, addictive read. The novel’s strongest point, IMO, is that Frieda, having dealt with Dean Reeve, never underestimates him. Psychopaths are underestimated by novices who cannot even begin to imagine how someone like Dean thinks. Most of us are lucky enough to live our lives without ever crossing the path of a psychopath, but if you’re unfortunate enough to ever tangle with a sicko and survive, you move forward into an unsettling life. The authors nailed this feeling.  As the novel builds to its inevitable crescendo, the pacing is excellent. While Frieda seems to have reached a zen-like plateau in her acceptance of this, her final duel with Dean, the character of limpet-like Lola is rather annoying. The authors pulled a bit of a switcheroo with the plot, and I might have been a bit annoyed about it had I not already guessed it. Still, if you are in the mood for a a crime novel that sucks you and and refuses to let go, then The Day of the Dead may fit the bill.

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A Private View: Anita Brookner

“The girl possessed an unusual gift:she brought everyone to the brink of bad behaviour.”

After a string of Anita Brookner novels from the female perspective, it was a change of pace to come across A Private View. The protagonist of this novel is 65-year-old, freshly retired George Bland. When the novel opens, he’s having a boring time in Nice. There’s too much time on his hands and too much time to think, and so he returns to his London flat to resume his retirement. But shortly upon his return, his life is disrupted by the arrival of a young woman, Katy Gibb who commandeers the opposite flat. George finds that his life of orderly calm is now subject to disturbing thoughts and longings. Will the man who’s spent his whole life with caution as the dominant force, now suddenly become impulsive and throw caution to the winds?

a private view

Thematically, A Private View has the most in common with Visitors (of the ones I’ve read so far). Visitors is the story of a widow who temporarily houses a young man, and his presence forces the widow to question her life and her choices. Katy Gibb has the same impact on George, but in George’s case, Katy wheedles and manipulates her way into George’s life against his better judgement, flagrantly dangling herself rather like a piece of ripe fruit.

George, to outsiders, and certainly to Katy, seems to be mundane and boring. He loves his routine, goes to bed early and never overindulges. The reader, however, is privy to George’s inner thoughts and concerns that perhaps he’s been too cautious in his life. Born into poverty, and used to a life of modest means, he put off marriage to his teenage sweetheart, Louise, until she got fed up waiting and left George to marry someone else. And then there’s the memory of George’s dearest friend Putnam, who died before he could retire, before Putnam and George could put all of their retirement travel plans into reality:

They had waited for too long, and the result was this hiatus, and the reflection that time and patience may bring poor rewards, that time itself, if not confronted at the appropriate juncture, can play sly tricks, and, more significantly, that those who do not act are not infrequently acted upon.  

It takes George a while to see Katy for what she is, and even though he’s onto her game, he’s still torn by desire and even pity. For George, Katy represents everything he isn’t, everything he didn’t do with his life. Her presence unearths the question of regret, and offers George, devilishly, the opportunity to indulge in behaviour he’s always cautiously avoided.

While Brookner uncovers George’s private thoughts, he still (in complete privacy) isn’t entirely honest with himself, cloaking his desire with denial and excuses.

He knew that he was not being quite honest with himself: he had been stimulated by the sight of the girl’s appetites (for there had been more than one in evidence) and intrigued by her, as if she were a puzzle sent to beguile him in these bewildering days of leisure, this life so free of incident and adventure

Overall, George was far too easy on Katy, who had an over inflated opinion of herself and could have done with a swift kick in the bum.

On another level, I was mildly irritated by George’s thoughts that he never spent money. He eats out about twice a day, just returned from Nice, and I lost count of the number of taxis he took. But these are symptoms of Brookner’s rarefied world. In most of the other Brookners I’ve read, the female protagonists have some sort of bookish employment but also have independent means. George, who stayed at the same job for decades, has a pension which was added to when Putnam made George his beneficiary, so again no money worries. It’s interesting to note that while the protagonist of Visitors had a deeply rooted fear of having her home taken away by nefarious means, Katy doesn’t hide her designs on George’s flat.

order of preference so far:

Hotel du Lac

Look at Me 

Dolly

Visitors

Friends and Family

Undue Influence

A Private View (bottom of the list because Katy was so repellent)

 

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But a Short Time to Live: James Hadley Chase (1951)

“There are some girls, Harry, who are no good.”

James Hadley Chase’s wonderful noir novel, But A Short Time to Live, is set in dreary post WWII London. Harry Ricks is one of several photographers employed by a failing business to take photos of people in the street, and it’s his job to try to make a sale. It’s depressing work with a very low success rate, and Harry is struggling to make a living. This is how the book opens just after Harry snaps a photograph of a woman passing by:

The fat woman smiled self-consciously at Harry as he gave her the card. It was a pity, he thought that she had let herself go. Her uncared for hair straggled from under a hat that didn’t suit her, her eyes were heavy and tired, and there was a shine on her face that made you think she had just this moment finished cooking a stodgy, uninteresting meal.

It’s the end of a long day, and Harry is in the Duke of Wellington having a pint when he notices a stunning woman drinking whisky with a much older, fat and unpleasant man. Harry’s first impression is that while the woman is beautiful, the situation indicates that there’s some funny business afoot.

Her companion wasn’t the polished Stewart Granger type Harry expected to see, but a short, fat elderly man whose face was the colour of port wine and who was as near being intoxicated as made no difference.

A few hours later, a series of events leads Harry to taking the woman in the pub, Clair, home to her very large, expensive flat. While everyone else still feels the belt-tightening of the war, Clair seems immune to deprivation: her flat is well-stocked with whisky. She claims she’s a model, drives a sports car, dresses in expensive clothing and Harry desperate to avoid some nasty conclusions about Clair’s behaviour,and ignoring “how hard she looked,” believes every word she says. …

but-a-short-time-to-live

Some of the characters in the book, even though they are astonished that Harry would land such a woman, admire Clair, but Harry’s best friend and roommate, Ron, warns against getting mixed up with Clair. Ron, a tragic figure, who has had bad experiences with what he calls “glamour girls” warns Harry that these relationships never work out for the “poor mug who marries them.”

There’s another great character here–Mooney, a strange, shady figure, who starts out in the book as Harry’s employer. Mooney is lazy, unambitious  and happy to sail on the talent of others. Later in the book, Mooney’s more exploitative side takes over as he starts using Harry, but by the time the tale ends, Mooney reveals more character than we thought he had:

If you’re not settled in a job by the time you’re forty, it’s curtains. Watch that. You’ve got to be fixed up by forty, kid. Don’t forget. it’s important. No one wants a man when he’s over forty these days.

Clair is the dominant partner in the relationship with Harry. Everything runs the way she wants: what she spends, where they live, who they see. Harry makes a few objections, but he’s weak when it comes to Clair. In this story of doomed love, Harry has plenty of warnings about Clair; he sees things, he’s told things, but he keeps on … committed and devoted to the end of the road.

But A Short Time to Live follows the trajectory of Harry and Clair’s relationship, and the book took a number of unexpected twists and turns as this troubled couple try to (and seem to) elude fate. This is an excellent noir tale, set in a dreary post WWII London, peopled with spivs, prostitutes and cheap entertainment; it’s a story oozing with desperation and darkness spiraling towards its inevitable end.

This is the first James Hadley Chase novel I’ve read set in England. It’s available for mere pennies in the US. My kindle version has a few typos but nothing that inhibited readability.

 

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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.

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

Review copy

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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.”

Review copy

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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.

review copy

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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.

Review copy

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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.

Review copy

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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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