Tag Archives: post wwII Britain

The Things Men Do: James Hadley Chase.

“For the first time since I married her I was sharply aware that she was in the way.”

In James Hadley Chase’s dark noir novel, The Things Men Do, it’s post WWII London. Garage owner, Harry Collins is struggling to make ends meet. His business isn’t going well, and he’s buried in bills. The garage is in the wrong part of time and there’s few customers. If things don’t pick up soon, Harry will have to close shop and move on.

Out on a call late one night, Harry breaks his rule of stopping to pick up hitchhikers. But the attractive, sexy young woman, a damsel in distress standing next to a non functional car, doesn’t exactly fit the hitchhiker-type description. So Harry stops and picks up the woman. Gloria turns out to be, or so she claims, a successful lingerie designer. While all the alarm bells go off in our heads, Harry’s lust takes over.

The Things men do

Harry is a married man. He lives above the garage with his wife Ann, and she’s the sort of woman who doesn’t complain and who goes without new clothes in order to prop up her man. When Gloria enters the picture and begins telling Harry that there are plenty of ways to make money, Harry begins to keep secrets from his wife. Then Gloria invites Harry to a party at her flat so that he can discuss a business opportunity.

Harry steps deeper and deeper into deceit. He lies to his wife and his best army buddy Bill, but even beyond that, he lies to himself. It’s clear to the reader that Gloria is a part of a honey trap, and even after Harry meets Gloria’s clearly criminal friends, he finds excuses to go to her flat and talk to her ….

They looked as if they had just stepped out of a Humphrey Bogart gangster picture: the car, the clothes, they way they spilled out of the car leaving the doors hanging open, was nearest thing to Hollywood I’d seen off the movies.

The Things Men Do is a slow burn. I wasn’t that impressed with the novel until after the halfway point. It seemed fairly standard fare with the plot leading the reader down a very well worn path: the goodie two shoes wife who puts up with anything to keep her man happy, the dupe led by lust to his own doom etc. But something in the novel shifts flips when Harry takes action, and the book’s final tense scenes are dark and relentless as Harry rolls towards his fate. Harry makes references to his WWII experiences and his ability to kill. In his mind he’s gone “soft” in civvie street, but that marshmallow patina is shed as Harry seeks revenge.  Yes some people are bad, but then there are others who are evil. Greed, lust, violence tangle to deliver a powerful ending.

The French cover is the best in my opinion. 

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Filed under Chase James Hadley, Fiction

Noose by Bill James

“Quite often narrow squeaks are what shape our days, aren’t they?”

I’ve been meaning to read author Bill James for a while now, so his latest novel, Noose arrived at the right time. In spite of the cover, this is not a crime novel, and instead while a noose  is mentioned in the tale, for the most part, the noose is figurative. It’s a sense of moral obligation on the part of the protagonist, Ian Charteris, who when the novel opens, is a reporter.

NooseIt’s 1956. The novel opens with Ian receiving a call at home from the Mirror news desk to cover a story, the suicide attempt of a young up and coming actress named Daphne West who was found in a gas-filled room. The “customary PR gab” insists this was an accident, but there are some ugly rumours about Daphne’s involvement with “big-deal theatre producer” Milton Skeeth. According to the Mirror, Ian is the perfect man for the job:

That’s one of your flairs, isn’t it–getting folk to confide, blub on your shoulder, reveal all? You sport that kind of sympa face and chummy voice. You could become an agony aunt when age sets in and your career starts to run down. I want to hear the flagging of her gas-strangled heartbeat in your stuff, Ian.

But there are indications that Ian is already involved in this story in some way, and this could partly be explained by Ian’s suspicion that Daphne is his father’s illegitimate child and therefore his half sister.

Noose is a clever, very neatly organized novel, and the story’s trajectory begins to appear following Ian’s somewhat unethical presence at Daphne’s hospital bedside. From this point, the story’s arc extends back more than 20 years to Ian’s childhood with his “amphibious” dad–a very strange fellow. Noose explores the seminal incidents of Ian’s childhood which take him on a very specific path to adulthood, a murder which Ian witnesses, a hanging, and a woman saved from drowning. Seemingly disconnected events weave a safety net of privilege around Ian’s future, even as we see that Ian cannot escape his past, and it all begins with Ian’s father saving a young woman from drowning after she falls from a paddle ship. This story of heroism is a mainstay of Ian’s childhood, and it’s rolled out like an old familiar carpet every so often. Ian is trained to provide his father (who even snaps his fingers as though he can’t remember a crucial detail), with prompts, and of course Ian has the story memorized.

‘But back on that special day, you dived in from the port deck rail, determined to make a rescue.’

‘Had to.’

‘The woman’s coat and other wet clothes tugged her down.’

‘The sea there. Murky. Hard to spot anyone at depth.’

Ian’s father’s proudly owns a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings from the day he saved the young woman from drowning, and he’s jealously protective of his heroic action. Even though Ian’s just a child, he recognizes that his father has to be the centre of attention, and this makes for an awkward moment when Ian and his father attend a memorial service. Here’s Emily Bass, the reckless young woman saved by Ian’s father:

She said: ‘Often I speak to my husband and my friends of the undaunted captain who flung himself into the dark, dark sea in a valiant though doomed effort to save me, while also mentioning your father, Ian, naturally. It’s really fairly unusual to have a distinguished man die for you, isn’t it? Off came his cap with gold braid on it, I believe. Oh, such an occasion then, and such an occasion now.’

‘I got you out, you know,’ Mr Charteris remarked again. ‘Many a newspaper cutting I have at home describing this, haven’t I , Ian?’

‘Many,’ Ian said.

There were a couple of moments when I wondered why the novel began with an attempted suicide and then went back into Ian’s childhood, but the author keeps tight control over the story, all loose ends are neatly addressed, and we come to see that Emily plays a very significant role in Ian’s later life. Take L.P Hartley’s quote, “the past is a foreign country,” and that simply has no relevance to Ian’s adulthood. He may think he’s a man with Free Will but every step of his life is shaped by his past–specifically his father’s past–sometimes he’s aware of that and sometimes he just suspects it.  A sense of moral obligation, of “debt,” is the noose that motivates Ian. According to Ian, it’s his “nicer side,” and he has to do a “bit of reciprocity.” While most of this sense of obligation stems from his father’s past, Ian also feels guilty for his role, as a child, in sending a man to the gallows, and later, he has cause to feel guilty about a fellow RAF officer.

Noose reminded me more than once of an Evelyn Waugh novel–perhaps the Sword of Honour had something to do with it, and that certainly brought Waugh’s name to mind, but no, it’s more the quirky characters–the Bells who own a chip shop, the woman at the hanging who knows all the relevant details and advocates the cat-o’-nine-tails first, and there’s one marvelous, extremely funny scene in which Ian, conscripted for his National Service engages in mock battle with a rival for the Sword of Honour, Bain. Ian senses that Bain is inherently the better candidate for the Sword of Honour, yet does the best man (whatever that means) win or does fate in the shape of his father’s past intervene yet again? Spanning a couple of decades of British history, this is a novel in which Ian seems to be one of the few normal people, and he’s surrounded by eccentrics in an off-kilter world. Noose argues that we pay for the sins of our parents, for it’s in Ian’s adulthood, that he finally understands some of the more mysterious incidents in his childhood.

Here’s Ian’s father angry when newspaper reporters show up to talk to his son:

“I knew it, I knew it,’ Mr Charteris said. He punched the hall dado rail with his fist three times quickly. Ian’s mother hated fist work against walls or furniture. She considered it showing too much excitement, like foreigners, especially in hot countries where people got so steamed they forgot control. She went to the spot on the dado rail and brushed it with her hand, as though to give it comfort or make sure her husband hadn’t contaminated it by getting his skin broken in the blow and leaving blood.

“First down the police station in the middle of the night , and now this,” Mr Charteris said. “They want to know everything and spread it. Don’t tell me they won’t spread it. Why are they called “reporters” if they’re not going to spread it? They’re going to spread it to people who buy the Echo.”

“Spread what, dad?” Ian asked.

“Oh, yes, spread it,” his father replied.

I really didn’t expect this novel to be gently humorous and I was pleasantly surprised. There’ll be more James in my future.

Review copy

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A Commonplace Killing by Siân Busby

“Regret was so closely aligned to guilt that it was often quite difficult even for the most seasoned detective to tell the difference between the two.”

It’s London, 1946. The body of a woman is found sprawled on a London bombsite. It’s a well-known slum area near Holloway prison, an area frequented by prostitutes and their johns, so when the police are called to the scene, initially the case is treated as “A Commonplace Killing“–not a particularly big deal and certainly nothing to get that excited about. But to Divisional Detective Inspector Jim Cooper, there’s something about the case that doesn’t fit the profile of a prostitute killing. The middle-aged woman appears to be the sort that takes care of herself, but then if she’s not a prostitute what is she doing in this area keeping a sordid assignation? Cooper thinks that “somebody somewhere will be missing her,” and yet no one has reported a wife or mother missing. Who is this mystery woman?

A commonplace killingThe novel’s two storylines follow Cooper as he investigates the murder in a country that is experiencing an “unprecedented crime boom” and Lillian Frobisher, a 43-year-old London housewife whose life has become a lot worse since VE Day. Cooper, who knows he’s not a “first-rate murder investigator,”  understands that if the victim is not identified the chances of finding her killer shrink. While Cooper’s workload has exploded, Lillian finds post WWII London a lot less interesting and colourful than the war days which were, to her, relatively carefree. For one thing, her husband Walter has returned, and their home is now a partly bomb-damaged slum. Lillian is also the sole caretaker for her bed-ridden, demented mother, and has taken in a female lodger who doesn’t pay rent and who refuses to lift a finger. All of the casual affairs Lillian had during the war while her husband was absent have evaporated. Lillian’s war effort, as she saw it was “to do her bit for married servicemen on leave, GIs looking for a bit of fun.” Now she’s stuck with Walter and “their accumulation of weariness, regret and resentment.”

Everything about him reminded her of all that they had once been; of all that they might have been. She suppressed the urge to sweep away his shaving things lined up on the mantelpiece along with the clock and their wedding photograph, just as she suppressed the need to sweep away Walter.

The novel is set in a gloomy post WWII Britain. Rationing is still in place, rumours sprout that bread is available in a certain location, and the queues start forming hours before the beleaguered shop opens. The shortages have also created a whole new world of crime. People who would never have dreamed they’d step over into the criminal world participate, on some level or another, in the black market. Cooper argues that the current social climate of deprivation “has supplied a capital opportunity. You might say that the current crop of villains are merely supplying a demand.”

Counterfeiting, swindling, short-changing, stealing: the desperate pursuit of nylons, tea whisky, sausages and cigarettes had made criminals of everyone.

Part of the bitterness, regret and disappointment that oozes from these characters can perhaps be explained by the sheer anticlimactic post war atmosphere. The war is over. It’s been ‘won,’ and there’s nothing to look forward to in this bleak new reality. After years of deprivation, stress, fear and loss, for some, nothing seems to have improved. Walter, home from his desk-job war is lucky to get work as a hotel doorman. Many people think the food is going to “feed fat Germans” while Britons go without:

Everyone was supposed to believe now that there was a change in the air: a spirit of fairness and justice: an end to the inequities of the old pre-war world. All of that. Otherwise, everyone said, what had it all been for.

Cooper, who survived “drowning a thousand times a day in Passchendale mud,” didn’t sign up for WWII–not because he wanted to advance in his career, but simply because he couldn’t stomach another war. He’s a solid copper, hard-working, dependable, and “everybody reckoned that he was among the very best when it came to the delicate tasks of trailing spivs and extracting information from narks; that even the most determined crooks had a sneaking regard for him.”

Jim Cooper is thrown into the company of the very attractive, eager young Policewoman Tring, assigned as Cooper’s driver for the duration of the case. She is interested in “post-war psychology,” and sees the fallout of war responsible for turning the tide of human temperament:

“Thousands of men–trained killers–let loose on the world. They’ve seen terrible things; they’ve suffered and they’re scarred. And of course a good many of them are deserters.”

He loathed the pseudo-psychiatric drivel that had become part of common parlance since the war. Thanks to John Bull magazine and the Home Service, everyone was now a blasted Freudian; just the other day he’d heard some fellow on a bus talking about how the Germans had a ‘persecution complex’, whatever the dickens that was. Not uncommonly for a detective, he had no interest whatsoever in why men do bad things.

“All crooks have their reasons,” he said, “which they will give if asked and sometimes even if not asked: poverty,: drink; absent fathers; absent mothers; a bump on the head… It’s all absolute tosh to my mind.”

“But aren’t you curious, sir? Don’t you want to understand what motivates them?”

“Not really. To be curious about a thing you have to find something surprising in it, and I’m afraid that nothing surprises me anymore.”

In A Commonplace Killing, which evokes the dingy world of Patrick Hamilton–complete with the prostitutes, crooks, spivs, and fences who haunt the drab London cafés and pubs, author Siân Busby deftly shows just how much can be done with a crime novel. While who committed the crime is certainly a pressing question, ‘why‘ dominates and yet motive is also subsumed into the relevance of the times. The characters are thrown together in horrible, drab, depressing circumstances, creating a destructive crucible for those trapped in their unhappy, damaged lives, so we see people who, given other circumstances, would not have taken these particular paths. In spite of the fact that Siân Busby’s dark novel is full of opportunistic people who grab whatever straw that may possibly make their lives more tenable–criminal or not, moral or not–all of these damaged people are treated with compassion and humanity. Part of this compassion is shown through clever subtle parallels drawn between the murder victim and Divisional Detective Inspector Cooper. Just as the ageing murder victim imagines that she can still attract men young enough to be her son, Cooper is powerfully attracted to Policewoman Tring. These delusions are intended to stave off despair, loneliness and disappointment, but for these characters, there is no temporary solace in this bitter new world.

Siân Busby died in 2012 following a long illness. Although she finished the final chapters, her illness cut her time short and no doubt these abbreviated final chapters would have been fleshed out considerably. So while we know how it ends, the final chapters are not quite up to the standard of the rest of the book. The introduction written by the author’s husband includes a loving tribute to his wife.

review copy

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