Sunday, 20 July 2014

Penguin no. 1610: The Doors of Sleep
by Thurman Warriner

'Lahsen was a great man. He dabbled in occult mysteries, he put forward theories of life and death and time more fantastic than any man of his generation. But he was sincere, humble, reverent. He was trying to establish some relationship between man and God and the universe. Vinery had no such lofty ambitions when he became one of Lahsen's disciples. Shand was undoubtedly right -Vinery was after a short cut to personal power. I've known Vinery a long time. Nothing wrong with his intellect, but he's a mass of superstitious foibles. The type of man who'd use the electronic brain to win at roulette instead of measure the galaxies. You'd find him deep in archaic rites on Saturday midnight and reading his horoscope in the Sunday press next morning.'

Moira of Clothes in Books wrote two posts on The Doors of Sleep (here and here), before very kindly sending her vintage Penguin copy on to me*. These perhaps suggest that her enthusiasm for the book was a little muted, whereas I loved it from the very first page.

It is late September and Archdeacon Toft has been invited to give the Harvest Thanksgiving sermons at Slumbers St Mary's, the local church of a set of three idyllic villages collectively known as The Slumbers, located somewhere on the south Downs. Archdeacon Toft's ample size is evidence of his enthusiasm for food, and he feels no inclination to accept the hospitality offered by the local rector Smeaton whom he describes as 'that damned ascetic of a priest'. Knowing that the Vinerys employ a decent cook, it is his intention to pass his weekend at Vinery Court, despite the reservations he has about its owner.

He describes his host, Charlesworth Vinery, as 'beautiful as Lucifer, clever as Zamiel, cruel as Beelzebub', and as the man seems hated by his young wife, his brother and his manservant, Archdeacon Toft's reservations about Charlesworth Vinery seem to be shared by many who know him. Vinery had spent most of his early years abroad, but he had returned to the village upon the death of his father with the intention of taking up his inheritance, even though he had no knowledge about, or interest in, the family estate; in doing so he had effectively evicted a younger brother who loved nothing else. Within a month of his return he had also married the woman his brother loved, and he had then run the estate into the ground.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Penguin no. 1590: A Love Affair in Rome
by Ercole Patti

Cover drawing by Charles Mozley
Marcello, who was thirty-five years old, was a clever, sensitive man, but though fond of women, he had hitherto proved incapable of establishing a true and proper relationship with a member of the opposite sex. Up to now he had been satisfied with brief, fleeting affairs. After knowing a woman for a short time, he would find in her qualities which displeased him. The women he knew had always turned out to be too dull, or else quarrelsome, or over-flirtatious, or fond of things which he found detestable.

I have no idea how old Ercole Patti was when he wrote this, but I assume he must have been young, as here, in a novel about a love affair, or more precisely in a novel about a series of love affairs, Patti includes a tirade against literary critics, asserting that those who can write do so, while those who lack literary talent concentrate on criticising and merely affect to be writers. He contends that such critics would never risk their reputations by publishing anything original.

And this one episode stands in such stark contrast to the rest of the book that you cannot help but suspect that Ercole Patti must have felt himself slighted, overlooked not because he lacked ability but because he possessed it. He asserts a conspiracy, with critics intentionally praising those without talent and condemning those with it, their agenda to hobble the gifted in order to enhance their own comparative brilliance. And those putative writers who spend their working hours as civil servants (and whom the critics admire) come in for particular condemnation.

In A Love Affair in Rome, Ercole Patti creates a character who lives too much within his own head. Marcello seems a brilliant young man, with his scholarship, his prospective fellowship and his published essays on philosophical topics, but it is clear that he is also a little naïve and unworldly. Another man might have confronted the problems with which he must deal by responding more immediately and more passionately, but Marcello draws upon his intellectual faculties to rationalise all his doubts away. The problem is that such rationalisations invariably lead him astray.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Penguin no. 740: Carteret's Cure
by Richard Keverne

'Carteret, I've been dealing with crime in one form or another practically all my life. You know that, of course. Things perhaps don't shock me as they would other people; one grows callous, to regard the criminal as a specimen, to put him under the microscope, as it were, to look for the causes that led to the results, so that one may fight the causes. And the main cause in the East is drug-taking.'

For at least 200 of this book's 286 pages I felt as though I was reading a love story rather than a crime novel, and at times it seemed the dullest vintage Penguin I had yet read. The plot improves markedly towards the end, although it never loses a quality which seems best described as awkwardness, with events that are just too convenient for the plot and which seem, on reflection, to make little sense. I have since learnt from The Passing Tramp that this was the first novel written by the now-forgotten Richard Keverne, and having read a few of his others, I know that this is not his best.

Michael Carteret is a rising young London barrister who visits an isolated part of Suffolk and falls for young Molly Seymour, daughter of a local squire, when she rescues him from what she insists would have been certain death. He had ventured too far in a small boat on a cold winter's evening, and unable to return against a strong tide, and fearful of being swept out to sea, he had beached himself upon the mud and prepared to wait it out until the tide turned. Molly finds him hours later, inadequately attired against the wind and icy rain, and nearly frozen to death.

Once he recovers from his ordeal, Carteret realises that their romance is unlikely as Molly is a headstrong young woman who has involved herself in activities which he cannot condone. He is concerned for her, and for the illegality of her actions, and he determines to save her from her youthful follies. She, however, is inclined to view his interest and concern as interference and to resent them both. You could almost describe the first 200 pages as the story of the smitten Carteret's endless worrying about whether his interests lie in supporting Molly's clandestine actions or in opposing them.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Penguin no. 1011: The Story of Ragged Robyn
by Oliver Onions

To-day, at this distance of time, we see these things as behind some thick horn pane, tallow-smoked and cloudy and intercepting as much light as it lets through. We read of waylayings and hamesuckens, or cruel threats and implacable redemptions, and wonder if it was not better to have lived under the Danelaw outright than to suffer 'a protection' that no longer protected anybody. Little is known of Peg Fyfe and her Holderness crew, and of young Robyn still less. It is not even certain that that was his name, so do the harmless names perish and the infamous ones survive. But here follows his story, pieced together from such fragments as remain. 

I have thought about this all week, and I cannot see a way to discuss this book that wouldn't take something from the enjoyment of a prospective reader. I had the good fortune to read it while knowing nothing about it, choosing it solely because it was written by the author of Widdershins, and I found it enchanting but shocking, though perhaps only because I read it unforewarned. And so I strongly recommend both reading it and reading nothing about it beforehand, this blog post included.

The story begins with Robyn Skyrme as a thirteen year old boy, uneasily walking home along a sea-wall, and sometimes atop it, all the way from the Saltings to Unthank, a small village in East Yorkshire. He carries upon his back a heavy pack which impedes his progress, and in his pocket a replica pistol which he has manufactured from a holly-root. This latter abets his courage, even though the protection it provides is illusory.

The story is set in the fens of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire during the 17th Century, and it is portrayed as a lawless region, remote and lonely, and certainly no place for a thirteen year old boy travelling on his own. The contents of Robyn's pack have come from a ship which offloads when the creeks and tides are favourable, and although he describes them as medicines, he knows that it is alcohol he carries, so the reader must presume poor Robyn is being used as a courier in the smuggling trade. As the light begins to fade, and Robyn's courage along with it, he is tempted by his cargo, and having some notion of Dutch courage, he samples the contents of his pack.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Penguin no. 1437: The Dud Avocado
by Elaine Dundy

Suddenly, without quite knowing why, I found I was very glad to have run into him. And this was odd, because two Americans re-encountering each other after a certain time in a foreign land are supposed to clamber up their nearest lamp-posts and wait tremblingly for it all to blow over. Especially me. I'd made a vow when I got here never to speak to anyone I'd ever known before. Yet here we were, two Americans who hadn't really seen each other for years; here was someone from 'home' who knew me when, if you like, and, instead of shambling back into the bushes like a startled rhino, I was absolutely thrilled at the whole idea.

I purchased this old Penguin, along with several others, for just fifty cents at a local swap mart from a seller who expressed surprise that anyone would be interested in such old books, and who kindly returned the following week with even more old Penguins for me to choose from, priced no higher. And I was surprised that first morning as well, but in my case it was only about happening across a title I had never found before, so early on a Sunday and so close to home, after all the years of seeking them out.

I finished reading The Dud Avocado later the same day, as I found it an engaging and amusing novel which held my interest from the first page, even though the plot could be described as confused and confusing at times, and despite the behaviour of its temperamental and tantrum-prone heroine. Elaine Dundy had me captivated because she was able to convey through her prose a quality which I found beguiling; it was a reminder of just how exciting it was to be young, with nothing decided and everything still possible. At two pages in, I felt as though I hadn't read anything quite so enlivening in years.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Penguin no. 1106: Over My Dead Body
by Rex Stout

I knew the picture was Miltan because Carla Lovchen took me across and introduced me to him and his wife. He was small and thin, next door to a runt, but wiry-looking, and had black eyes and hair and a moustache which pointed due east and west...His wife, in spite of her New York clothes and her 1938 hair-do, looked like one of those coloured pictures in the National Geographic entitled 'Peasant Woman of Wczibrrcy Leading a Bear to Church.' At that, she was handsome if you like the type, and she had shrewd eyes.

Archie Goodwin portrays his employer as indolent, corpulent, and mercenary; for while it is hinted that Nero Wolfe was once a young man with romantic inclinations, he is such no longer. The mature Wolfe is rotund, uninterested in exercise, and dedicated to remaining debt-free.

And unusually for a private detective, his principal passion is the cultivation of orchids, and to this end he houses thousands of plants upon the top storey of his home, visiting them by means of a private elevator. His daily timetable seems conditioned on the need, or perhaps the desire, to tend to these orchids, and so he is only available to clients at fixed times and at a fixed location, and even then only when his bank balance requires it. Nero Wolfe is quite willing to turn prospective clients away when his financial situation allows him to, and to charge rather heftily when it doesn't, and so the case described here serves as something of an exception, in that he takes it on when he is sufficiently solvent to have no need of it, and he doesn't charge anything for his services.

But the fixed hours remain immutable. And although his presence elsewhere is requested a few times, and demanded at others, he doesn't leave his home even once during this story. He seems very much an armchair detective, sending out one of his employees in search of anything he should require, whether information, a document, a delivery, or an audience with a witness. Typically, these tasks fall to his confidential secretary Archie Goodwin, who must often invoke quite a degree of ingenuity in ensuring that his employer's requests are fulfilled. And so it is Archie who narrates this story - describing his adventures and complaining about his employer's impositions, while delivering his views on the appearance of everyone he meets. It is his blunt assessments and his sardonic sense of humour which makes the story such a pleasure to read.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Penguin no. 2241: Night's Black Agent
by John Bingham

Cover design by Anne Gibson
     In the public imagination certain categories of people fall into what are known in the advertising world as brand images. Retired Army colonels are supposed to be peppery, clergymen vague, landladies and mothers-in-law fierce, and professors absent-minded. Keen fishermen are usually regarded as harmless, patient, good-natured, gentle people prone to sit on camp stools communing with nature and watching a float.
     Green was a keen fisherman.
     He was also at least a double murderer, a blackmailer, a seducer, and one of the most sadistic and vindictive persons it is possible to imagine.

Consider a man who finds pleasure in killing - fish, animals, people, it doesn't matter which. More than this, he is determined and unwavering, so that if he should be thwarted in any way, his first thought will be to revenge himself through an act of murder. But it will not be the person whom he considers his adversary who will be at risk of death; instead he will select the one person, completely innocent of any contributory act, whose death will cause his adversary the most pain, or perhaps the most trouble.

John Bingham's narrator considers such evil, dismissing any notion that such a man should not be held accountable for his actions because of an assumption that he cannot be other than mentally ill. And he reflects on what should be done about someone who kills in this way, obliquely rather than rationally.

He suggests that the justice system cannot offer a reliable solution, for juries invariably require motives, and a motive is difficult to demonstrate where a man enjoys the act of murder for its own sake, and has little interest in the person he plans to kills. And as this man will go to any lengths to ensure that appearances suggest his adversary as the killer, the police too are of little help.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Penguin no. 397: The Bamboo Blonde
by Dorothy B. Hughes

He was right; this was beauty, like being a little girl again, sailing to a mythically serene England, a summer-gay France. "Never no more." He must have sensed her refrain for he said with a scowl, "It isn't fair that the delusions of grandeur of one small Austrian should have spoiled the whole world for us."

The first thing that I had difficulty understanding about this story was just why someone would choose to remarry Con Satterlee, and yet this is what Griselda, a costume designer in Hollywood, has done, four years after the divorce. The remarriage doesn't appear to have made her particularly happy.

She has suddenly found herself whisked away from Malibu for a second honeymoon on Long Beach without an explanation, and it is a honeymoon which neither of them seems to be enjoying. Griselda spends the first day  fuming, and when they head out in the evening, she watches as her husband picks up a blonde-headed woman in the Bamboo Bar, leaves without a goodbye, and takes their car, so that she must walk the five blocks back to their holiday cottage, in the dark, on her own.

The second thing I struggled to understand was the author's obsession with Griselda's wardrobe. Irrespective of the danger in which Griselda and her husband find themselves, particularly after the woman he picked up is found dead a few hours later, the thing uppermost in Griselda's mind at any particular moment seems to be what she should wear. One style of outfit must be selected if she is going shopping; a different one if she intends to catch a plane; something different again if she is to spend any time in the presence of another woman, for it seems that in any meeting of women a hierarchy is immediately established according to the degree to which each one is recognised as better-dressed than the others.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Penguin no. 841: The Franchise Affair
by Josephine Tey

Cover illustration by Romek Marber.
If he is so interested in justice he might do something about that. But your lot are never interested in justice, are they? Only injustice....What do I mean by your lot? Just what I say. You and all your crowd, who are forever adopting good-for-nothings and championing them against the world. You wouldn't put out a finger to keep a hard-working little man from going down the drain, but let an old lag lack the price of a meal and your sobs can be heard in Antarctica. You make me sick.

I was reminded, as I read this, of a scene from an old episode of The Twilight Zone, in which a street of neighbours turn upon one of their own (and I've sometimes wondered if that scene was the inspiration for a similar moment in Toy Story). The provocations may differ, but the reactions are very much what The Franchise Affair is about: the upright, moral, but unthinking majority, and the damage they can do.

They are somewhat less forthright in this English setting, so that while there is still the rush to judgement, there is less of an inclination to confront the alleged transgressors directly. The chosen tactics are a little more subtle: there is the ready willingness to think the worst, the spreading of gossip, the cold-shoulder in the High Street, and the outraged letters to the editor. And some young men entertain themselves late at night by yelling abuse over a gate, and leave behind a little offensive graffiti. But in time the degree of the bullying escalates, leading to broken windows and other vandalism. All this is directed at two older women, a mother and her unmarried daughter, who live together at an isolated location in a house known as The Franchise.

Josephine Tey's scope is even broader, however, in that she considers the various concerns which motivate such behaviour, from the profit motive of the tabloid newspapers who care less about the truth and more about creating any sensation which will encourage the sale of their product, and the many villagers who lack the ability to think critically, and are too accepting of any story they hear. But her greatest scorn seems reserved for those who would seek to display an assumed moral and intellectual superiority by championing any position at odds with the mainstream.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Penguin no. 654: Fruit in Season
by Anthony Thorne

They were, alas, a generation too late. Martimas in their father's day was a fine sight - a couple of hundred lads, mostly from Steeple, but from Ripley and Birdsfield also, and from the hamlets and endways about them, gathered in that cobbled square which they called The Green, a crowd of them stretching from the school clock right up to the door of 'The Stag' and, of course, behind it. Farmers, whose horses were tethered to the trees of Sparepenny Lane, came walking among the lads; and you could tell these by their good breeches, by the bunches of blue ribbons in their hands, and by the sound of the silver they jingled. They would be glancing about them, too, appraising a likely man by his looks, and the men, conscious of appraisal, were alert and gay.

There was something rather charming in this portrait of the hiring traditions of Steeple Goring. I suspect it was mostly because of Anthony Thorne's prose and the particular talent he has for evoking places and events. But it was also because he was describing something being experienced communally, involving ceremony and celebration, and underpinned by tradition and ritual. And while I don't imagine that 'appraising a likely man by his looks' falls anywhere within the ambit of contemporary notions of fairness and equal opportunity, what a contrast it provides with the need to address selection criteria, to reflect on personal anecdotes of teamwork and innovation, and to endure weeks of uncertainty.

Martimas Fest seems to offer a kind of sport for the villagers of Steeple Goring: everyone turns out to witness the contest between the young men, to support the successful, to commiserate with the losers, and to speculate on the reasons that this farmer has been rebuffed or that lad overlooked.The successful are given a blue ribbon to wear in their buttonholes to seal their contract of employment, and a shilling to spend in The Stag, so that the afternoon can be spent in celebration.

But the tradition had become an anachronism by 1920, a symbol of a way of life that was already passing away. Catherine, William, Glen and Douce are children at the time, and having been allowed a rare day in the village, they inadvertently find themselves witnessing the very final Martimas Fest of Steeple Goring. It is an insipid affair, one which has never recovered from the impact of the War years when the employable comprised only those too young or too old to have gone to the War, and when it was therefore marked more by what was missing than by what could be observed. But the children love watching it anyway, just as they love anything associated with the village.


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