Sunday, 18 January 2015

Penguin no. 1006: The Man With My Face
by Samuel W. Taylor

'If you ever get to know a guy really well, you find out something's eating him. Kids, yes. Young bucks with the dew in their eyes, yes. But take Joe Doakes when he's married and has a couple of kids and realizes he's not going to knock the world off its pins. When he sees he stacks up along with other Joes and can count on just about so much out of this life. And then, brother you find an unhappy man.'

Charles 'Chick' Graham plays along at first, thinking that he has been cast as the butt of some feeble joke. But by the evening's end he is aware that things are far more sinister, and that he is the victim of a conspiracy which has been carefully planned and executed over several years by those closest to him. There is only one plausible explanation of the evening's events, which is that his wife and business partner have worked together to enable a man he doesn't know to assume his identity. What he doesn't realise until later is that they had also planned to take his life.

He had arrived home from work to find someone who looked uncannily like him sitting in his place, with no one willing to admit that they knew him. His wife was adamant that she knew the stranger but not him, his dog attacked him at the stranger's behest, his business partner insisted that he and the stranger had come straight from work. When the police attend his home, Graham finds that he has no way of demonstrating his identity: he and the stranger share the same signature, and the fingerprints on his army ID turn out not to be his own. With his wife and his friends united against him, no one will give any credit to the story that he is the real Charles Graham.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Penguin no. 112: Children of the Earth
by Ethel Mannin

Life gave and it took away, and whatever it did to you or failed to do you had to carry on....The lobster and the crab and mackerel fishing, the potato and tomato seasons, the rising up with the sun to go to market, the toiling long after the sun had gone down, and the dark dreamless sleeps that linked day to day; the Spring tides coming with their May flowers and that aching sweetness on the air; the long hot summers, the sadness of autumn, and the long hard winters, year in and year out, the seasons going on, relentlessly, and one with them.

I took this Penguin down from my shelf after I received an email from John Enock, a fellow reader of old Penguins, expressing amazement that something of this quality should have left such a faint online trace. And faint it certainly is - a Google search turned up not one review on Goodreads or Librarything, and only a single contemporary description, and this despite the fact that Ethel Mannin was clearly a prolific and popular author in her day. It is a heart-rending tale:  I cannot recall another Penguin which left me feeling as sad.

Children of the Earth is a family saga telling of the lives of Jean le Camillion and his wife Marie, and of their five children, who live a primitive existence on the island of Jersey. Ethel Mannin uses their story to reflect at least partly on what she seems to consider the smug and self-regarding attitudes of her contemporaries living an urban life, implying that their arrogance is ill-founded. She contends that they have insulated themselves from life, so that while they might preen themselves on account of their possessions and their refinements, and look down upon all those who lack such things, it is all a delusion: those they disdain are more fully alive than they are themselves.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Penguin no. 1870: Two Clues
by Erle Stanley Gardner

Cover design by Romek Marber.
     'I thought so,' the sheriff said. 'You know, I don't know much about these new-fangled things, so us old-timers have to rely on human nature and character, and figuring what a person would do under certain circumstances and...'
     'That,' Walworth announced harshly, 'is all bosh. The man doesn't live who can judge guilt or innocence by physiognomy or by trusting to the perceptions of his auditory nerves. It's merely a means by which the old-fashioned officer gave free rein to his prejudices. It's no more reliable than locating a well by a forked willow stick.'

Two Clues is a volume comprising two short novels, The Clue of the Runaway Blonde and The Clue of the Hungry Horse, both set in the small rural community of Rockville and both relating the well-deserved triumphs of the ageing sheriff Bill Eldon.

In Rockville, the prospect of publicity, eagerly sought by some while determinedly avoided by others, is a constraint on how life is lived, and this gives power to those who make spreading information their business, from gossiping housewives to the proprietors of the town's two newspapers. When Lew Turlock's teenage daughter is found not to be at the home of a friend she said she was visiting, for example, it is keeping her deception quiet which is of uppermost concern to her father because he fears for her reputation; no one seems too concerned about ensuring she is safe.

It is as if every action in this small town must be conditioned on the possible consequences of other people hearing of it, or on how details could be misinterpreted or misused to advance the agenda of a rival, whether this concerns the behaviour of a teenage daughter or the actions of those seeking to retain public office. Information is a weapon, but it is all spin, and those with influence seem very willing to intentionally distort facts for advantage or revenge. At present the Sheriff finds that he is the target of this kind of concerted effort.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Penguin no. 1353: The Sleeper
by Holly Roth

'By God, Kendall, what a strange hold it is - to be able to get and guide a young man of promise to his triumphant death! To make him negate his birthright of intelligence, charm, handsomeness, the American chance of wealth, love, and pursuit of happiness - for what? A country he's never seen? A doctrine that has been constantly perverted for years? A group of people who lie so shamelessly that they are constantly being caught flat-footed - and then, when caught, lie again with open contempt?

This seemed to me a paragraph which captures the brevity of historical memory, as I am sure that had I read The Sleeper a year ago I would have found its premise - that a young man of exceptional promise would willingly give up every prospect in pursuit of an idea foreign to his culture and beyond his experience - implausible. But this year the story is a familiar one.

The context here is different though: The Sleeper is set in New York during the Cold War, at a time when there was heightened concern with the possible threats posed by Communism and the advent of nuclear weapons. It was to facilitate the spread of Communism that a young American teenager named Francis Burton Hollister was willing to sacrifice everything he might have been.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Penguin no. 1634: After the Rain
by John Bowen

Cover drawing by
Quentin Blake
'What makes a god?' Arthur said. 'Any thinking person will tell you that men make their own gods. They do so by worship. Whatever you worship is God, whether it be a tree, or the sun, or two sticks, or a ring of stones, or a bull, or a lamb, or a river; it does not matter. Simple men worship the things themselves. Complicated men worship the ideas that the things express, or the spirit that infuses the things, but in terms of behaviour it makes little difference. The behaviour - the ritual, if you prefer - is what matters, because, while interpretations change, the ritual endures.'

After the rain begins as a kind of apocalyptic novel, but an unusual one, with events following each other just a little too quickly, and with its focus on appalling events counterbalanced by an equal focus on the absurd. I have read that John Bowen wrote this novel aiming to be for apocalyptic fiction what Michael Innes had been for the crime novel, and it seems to me that he achieved his aim for that is very much how the story reads: it is more fantasy than science fiction.

The unusual duality is there from the beginning, with this surreal story beginning in the most concrete and easily-visualised location - the lower floor of Foyles in Charing Cross Road. It is here that John Clarke meets a putative rain maker intent on selling his entire rain-making library to Foyle's book buyer before he heads to America. Clarke is a copywriter temporarily trying his hand at journalism and he elects to follow the rain maker to Texas where he has been hired on a fee-for-success basis to engineer the end of a nine year drought. The rain maker succeeds on a scale beyond anything he could have imagined, but it is his final act; as the rain maker plunges to his death the entire world is plunged into an extensive period of unceasing rain.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Penguin no. 780: Seven Against Reeves
by Richard Aldington

While Mr Reeves dozed quietly after the holocaust of Mr Houghton's gospel, the rest of the house quivered with an activity particularly unusual on a Sunday. There was a certain tension, resembling on a tiny scale that of an army before an attack. The slumbering Reeves was unaware of the fact that, if he was incapable of solving the problem of what to do with himself, others were prepared to do it for him. With the quiet but deadly obstinacy of the philanthropist, who so often succeeds in squaring his interests with his altruism, Mrs Reeves was convinced that what Mr Reeves needed was to know the 'right people'. Besides, she wanted to know them herself.

I took this book down from my book shelf on one of those days when the title amused me because it seemed apposite, though I'm not sure I understand it's use in this context, for there are no seven pitted here against Mr Reeves. And if it is an allusion to Seven Against Thebes I cannot see that it makes things any more comprehensible, as Thebes was a city, while this is the story of a man who sets out, after much hesitation, to subdue those who would take advantage of him and in doing so wrestles back control of his life.

Mr Reeves is conservative in his outlook and conventional in his tastes, and so he seems an unlikely hero. But while everyone in the story looks down upon the poor man, the author seems almost to champion him, for Mr Reeves is the only character being portrayed here as having integrity, and also the only one who is decent and true to himself; everyone else is after something, typically something they don't really deserve, and it is Mr Reeves they are determined to manipulate into providing it.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Penguin no. 1182: Telling of Murder
by Douglas Rutherford

     'Paddy,' Diana said as I set the fresh glass in front of her, 'I've been thinking. Can't you and I do something together? I mean, you are a private detective. I'm sure the police are very good, but you might be able to do something by sort of - using your intuition.'
     She was looking very earnest and trusting; I liked the way her mouth stayed just a little bit open as she watched me. It gave her an eager expression.
     You've been reading too many Green Penguins. Why, Maguire has just warned me to keep my nose clean. It doesn't work out in real life like it does in detective stories, you know.

The idea that someone might seek to bring down a commercial airliner, unconstrained by any concern for the inadvertent loss of life that such a plan entails, may seem unremarkable these days, but in 1952 it was evidently still an unthinkable idea, a clear sign that some fiendish and immoral organisation was behind the plot on Osborne Vandervell's life.

The first unsuccessful attempt at bringing about his death involves a bomb smuggled onto the plane which carries him from Trieste to London; the second involves poison in his morning coffee injected by syringe into the milk bottle left upon his doorstep overnight. Vandervell suspects these murder attempts will continue, and the only way he is going to survive them will be by returning to Trieste to seek information from his colleagues, together with the assistance of the Venezia Giulia Police Force. To increase the odds of his surviving the trip, he hires private investigator Paddy Regan to act as his chauffeur on the drive back.

But Regan has no idea of what it is that he has signed up for, naively viewing the proposed trip to Trieste by way of Paris as his chance to have a paid holiday on the Continent. He finds the journey to be anything but leisurely, as Vandervell's adversaries are indefatigable; the first half of story tells of one murder attempt after another, attempts that only cease when their objective has been attained. And so while Regan is still alive when they reach Trieste, Vandervell is not, and out of respect to his temporary employer Regan then applies himself to solving the mystery of just why so much effort was expended on bringing about Vandervell's demise.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Penguin no. 1391: Patrick Butler for the Defence
by John Dickson Carr

     'It is not at all irrelevant,' he said, 'that Mr Hugh Prentice's hobby should have been the reading of these stories. We've all read them. And very often we have found the same wearisome device.'
     'A victim, murdered and dying, is just able to speak a few words. He would, of course, speak the name of his murderer. Instead, in some of these stories, he blurts out some weird gibberish which nobody would ever say, and which has been designed by the author merely to baffle detection. Such - it appeared! - was our own problem. The difficulty seemed to be gloves. It was raining gloves. And all because, apparently, Abu of Isapahan had gripped Hugh Prentice's wrist and with his dying breath said, "Your gloves".'

I suspect I would have been quite critical of this story had I read this old Penguin at any other time; it is so lightweight that even the author couldn't resist mocking its underlying premise, as you can see in the passage quoted above. But my life has been in such a state of flux recently that lightweight is exactly what I needed, and no matter how implausible the events canvassed here, it has seemed to me at times that those in my own life have been more implausible still. So on one hand I really enjoyed this novel's untaxing quality; on the other hand I found it somewhat ludicrous.

The eponymous Patrick Butler has little to recommend him, although John Dickson Carr seems to have a soft spot for him, and Butler also seems pretty keen on himself. Among the beliefs he takes for granted is a conviction that he is never wrong, although he does have a moment of self doubt when he concedes that he may have drawn an incorrect conclusion, an admission which brings with it the galling possibility that there may be something in the suggestion of his critics that his success to date has been underpinned by the efforts of Dr. Gideon Fell. But Butler's ego is such that his moment of self doubt is fleeting, and by the end of the book he is once again secure in the belief that he is always right.

It is as though he has been given a licence to behave terribly, as he goes uncondemned for behaviour which would never be tolerated in others. He is arrogant, misogynistic and vain, and he approaches his profession as barrister as though it were a sport, admitting that he prefers guilty clients to innocent ones perhaps because the challenge is all the greater and the victory all the sweeter. And like many successful, capable and wealthy men, he seems to have women in his thrall.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Uncertain times

A terrible misfortune befell our family last week without warning. As it involves other people, the story is not mine to tell, but it has left everything uncertain and I have not been able to plan my life more than an hour ahead for several days past.

I have endured some terrible things in the past week but I have also been the focus of some amazing acts of generosity. My freezer has been filled with food, my lawns mowed, my children cared for. I have literally been able to ask for anything and no one has hesitated for a second; it is only afterwards that I learn that people have walked out of parties or meetings or family gatherings to come and help us. This has made all the difference.

The one thing I cannot do in the midst of this turmoil is read, and so I am going to put this blog aside for a while. I will return to it as soon as I can.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Penguin no. 1476: Hide My Eyes
by Margery Allingham

     'I never let anything tear the skin. I've never been faintly fond of anything or anybody in my life.' He spoke lightly but with satisfaction. 'I'm deadly serious about this. I spotted the plain mechanical truth of it as a child. You could almost call it the Chad-Horder discovery. Any kind of affection is a solvent. It melts and adulterates the subject and by indulging in it he loses his identity and hence his efficiency. By keeping myself to myself in the face of every conceivable attack I have remained successful, bright, and indestructible. It's a simple recipe for a hundred per cent success. I hand it to you gratis, Richard. Consider it a token of my esteem. Ah, here are the crumpets.'

The title of Hide My Eyes is a reference to one of the themes of this novel, being the idea that evil can be abetted by well-meaning people reluctant to contemplate a possibility which might appal them, or which might imply that their view of the world is naive. Rather than face a truth which seems terrifying, a few of these characters seek their solace in appealing fictions which serve to explain their fears away.

But as the truth with which Polly Tassie will be forced to contend through the course of this story is appalling, it is perhaps no wonder that she shies from it for as long as she can. The reader is aware from the beginning of something Polly cannot know: that this caring elderly woman has been supporting, in her kindly way, the actions of a man so self-concerned and lacking in principle that he will kill without the slightest qualm if it will help him avoid a problem, or if it will result in a financial reward. This is a murderer who has been quietly supporting himself for many years on cash and assets lifted from those he has killed.

The story begins with Gerry Hawker, variously known as Horder and Chas-Horder, driving an old country coach, curtained and dimly-lit, into London's theatre district and then parking it carefully in Goff's Place. Only the two passengers seated at the front are visible from outside and though it is odd that they fail to alight, and that they are never seen to move, they are the kind of elderly folk who excite little interest. And this is all to Hawker's plan; he intends to commit a murder and he has taken some fairly elaborate precautions to  make sure that he blends with his surroundings and so passes unnoticed.


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