Sunday, 17 August 2014

Penguin no. 1555: The Case of the Four Friends
by J.C. Masterman

'But you know,' he went on unexpectedly, 'what I like most about Victorian novels is that tidying up chapter at the end. It pleases my sense of order that all the eligible bachelors are neatly paired off with the available spinsters, that the villain dies in penury at Boulogne, whilst all virtuous characters flourish like green bay trees. And I especially like the '"flash-on" or whatever it should be called, when the numerous and rosy-cheeked children gather round their honest parents and are told selected passages from the romance of their earlier lives. It's all so comforting. Tell us, Brendel, what happened to the four friends.'

The four 'friends' of the title could not really be considered friends — they would be better described as uneasy co-vacationers, each of whom carries a secret enmity within his heart.

These men are all fairly well up the social scale and sufficiently wealthy that they can spend their New Year break at the Magnifico, putatively the most expensive and luxurious hotel in England. Yet each is guilty of having committed a crime, at least in terms of the laws which applied at the time, although their transgressions remain secret, or known only to a few. This has left two of the men vulnerable, and all of the men dangerous.

But the aspect I found most intriguing was this often-encountered idea, at least in the older Penguins, that the optimal solution to the affair will be the one in which none of the men need suffer the consequences of their irregular actions. It will be considered ideal, should no one end up murdered, if everything can be set to right without the involvement of police or lawyers, and without anyone ever finding out what they have done. Each man's reputation will then be left unsullied, and his family, friends and business associates will be shielded from the shame which pertains to knowing someone who has behaved inappropriately. I always wonder, when I encounter this attitude in an old Penguin, if the misdemeanours and transgressions of the lower classes were viewed in quite the same way.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Penguin no. 79: The Rasp
by Philip MacDonald

     Belford stood where he was left. His lips moved soundlessly. The bank-notes in his hand crackled as the stubby fingers clenched upon them. Presently he raised his head and looked with blurred vision along the path through the trees.
     "Gawd!" he said, the refinement of the servant's hall now completely gone. "Gawd! What a bloke! What a bloody good bloke!"

Like Four Frightened People, this is another old Penguin which features an unfathomably favourable review from the time it was first published. A reviewer for the Glasgow Citizen considered The Rasp to be 'masterly' and 'worthy to stand on the same shelf as Trent's Last Case'. But while I appreciated Trent's Last Case, I didn't enjoy The Rasp at all, and rather than finding it masterly, I found it dull and far-fetched, with an explanation of the crime which seemed interminable and which took me several evenings to get through.

But my real difficulty with the story was in not finding a single character appealing — the female characters are either unfailingly efficient, given to hysteria, or, in the words of the protagonist, Puritan and sexless, while the male characters have been to the War and returned either neurasthenic or unscathed but speaking in the oddest way — a mixture of heartiness and bravado, and with what seems to be a rarely-overcome inclination to mock or patronise those of the lower classes.

It was the protagonist I found hardest to tolerate, although he was clearly conceived as a character intended to inspire admiration. He seemed to be an Ace Rimmer for the 1930s (and you can see this in the paragraph quoted above) — this would be fine in a work designed to amuse, but it is difficult to take when it is intended seriously. Anthony Gethryn seems to have excelled at everything he has ever attempted - sports, politics, painting, writing, and especially in his war service. And of course he is intelligent, charitable, self-deprecating and modest — so modest that he bristles should anyone should think of referring to him as Colonel. Yet somehow that title invariably makes itself known.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Penguin no. 1708: Murder in Pastiche
by Marion Mainwaring

Cover design by Romek Marber
Normally this would have made a coolness between us, and when I went into Beare's cabin and saw him sitting up in bed with a few acres of yellow pyjama wrapped around his four hundred pounds, and his life-jacket within easy reach, I thought of a number of possible cracks, such as saying that the Captain was alarmed about a list to starboard, starboard being the side Beare's cabin was on; but I refrained. For one thing it wasn't up to my usual level and I also admit that I didn't have the heart. So I merely asked, Did he realize that if we'd flown we'd be a third of the way home by now.

Murder in Pastiche describes the chance gathering of nine literary detectives aboard a transatlantic cruise: Atlas Poireau, Mallory King, Jon Nappelby, Jerry Pason, Lord Simon Quinsey, Trajan Beare, Spike Bludgeon, Fan Silver and Broderick Tourneur — the names will be somewhat familiar to anyone acquainted with Golden Age crime fiction — discover that they are to be fellow passengers on R.M.S. Florabunda's journey from Dock 4-b in Liverpool to Ruggarty Pier in New York.

And with so many detectives gathered together it is clear that this will be the perfect crossing for a murder, and aboard is a passenger who seems the perfect candidate for murder victim. Lord Simon Quinsey describes Paul Price as 'a character in search of a murderer', and it is clear that he has been created by Mainwaring with his end in mind.

The few details we learn about Paul Pry, as he is known behind his back, suggest him to be amoral, avaricious and self-concerned, and entirely unworthy of any reader's concern: he works as a gossip columnist for a mainstream U.S. newspaper and he takes advantage of his position to indulge a lucrative sideline which has him charging both to publish positive reviews and to not publish negative ones. His journey to Europe was undertaken solely to curtail his niece's fledgling romance.

He doesn't survive his first night aboard ship. His corpse, adorned with the requisite perplexing props: a pipe and a red and yellow striped scarf, is found crammed tightly into a corner on the deck next morning, with injuries which suggest he has been struck on the head. Everything indicates that he has been murdered.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Penguin no. 15: Four Frightened People
by E. Arnot Robertson

The Sakei were round me when daylight returned: little men, mean-featured, emaciated: the certain extinction of the race within a few hundred years will be a loss only to biologists: they were the worst physical specimens of mankind that I have ever seen.

'I—er—write a little myself—just novels, you know,' said the lean and avid red-haired lady with that air of terrific modesty now in vogue among professional women, who boast to one another of their cooking and their ability to renovate evening dresses and their visits to Ideal Home Exhibitions—being carefully non-peculiar. 'But I don't expect you to know my name! Do you know Malaya well?'

There is an excerpt from what must have been a very enthusiastic review printed on the inside cover of my Penguin edition of Four Frightened People, and I note that there are a number of editions and reprints listed in the relevant section, so this must have been a well-received book when it was first published; it was even made into a film.

But I cannot fathom why: I thought it was a terrible story, underpinned by a premise which simply makes no sense, and focused on the adventures of characters whose actions, judged only by their own accounts, have to be considered reprehensible.

Judy Corder, the narrator, seems possessed of an analytical mind, and so as she recounts the journey undertaken by four unprepared passengers who flee a plague-ridden ship and then walk to safety through a Malay jungle, she reflects on what it is that sets her apart from others, and sets apart those with whom she has an affinity - and by sets apart I mean sets above.

Having read her story I could offer a few suggestions - self-concern and ruthlessness seem the principal attributes, combined with a lack of humanity and compassion. But Judy prefers to characterise people like herself as having a familiarity with poetry, a sensitivity to environment, a sense of detachment and no belief in God.

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.


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