Saturday, 31 March 2012

Other books read in first quarter of 2012

Maigret Mystified – Georges Simenon

A psychological study of a closed society of strangers – people living in the same building, yet so different. Fine character studies, superb atmosphere.

The Underground Man – Ross Macdonald
Macdonald at his best with a meditation on the loss of innocence underlying an excellently convoluted plot.

Sleeping Beauty – Ross Macdonald
Another indictment of a system that puts money before people, creating a machine that churns everyone up and spits them out.

The Blue Hammer – Ross Macdonald
The last Lew Archer book and whilst it contains the usual complex plot and thoughtful examination of the modern world, it also sees a certain respite for an increasingly tired and disillusioned Archer.

Large Type Killer – Richard Williams
Based on a Jack Trevor Story idea (which he later developed as ‘Man Pinches Bottom’) and which he, in truth, probably mostly wrote, this is a Sexton Blake story about a series of innocent events that lead to a man being hunted as a child killer.

Enter A Murderer – Ngaio Marsh
There are some, I know, who regard the outcome as a bit of a cheat. I’m not one of them. And this second outing also begins to put a little flesh on the bones of the main characters.

The Nursing Home Murder – Ngaio Marsh
A classic, simple tale. Well constructed with more development of the central characters.

The Madman Of Bergerac – Georges Simenon
Maigret solves a series of murders from a bed whilst convalescing from a gunshot wound. Bad tempered at the lack of co-operation, he nonetheless works out what has been happening. Somewhat controversial in the eyes of some who claim it is anti-Semitic. Whilst it does deal with the question of Jewish refugees, the ire is directed solely at those who exploit them.

Vintage Murder – Ngaio Marsh
Marsh moves the scene to her native New Zealand with another mystery set in a theatre. The increasing ability of the author as a writer is readily apparent. More show. Less tell. The only annoying this that this is a uniform edition of the works. One would have thought the publisher would have spent just a few quid having someone proof the texts to get rid of appalling typos (I gave up counting after fifty).

Artists In Crime – Ngaio Marsh
Inspector Alleyn falls for Agatha Troy. All very civilized against a backdrop of horrible murder.

Deadlock – Dorothy Richardson
Miriam Henderson discovers the joy of writing and nearly discovers the joy of love.

The Two Of Them – Joanna Russ
Irene escapes the patriarchy of 1950s America to find herself freeing a young girl from the even more oppressive patriarchy of a distant planet, only to find that her actions condemn her in the eyes of her own (male) partner. Beautiful writing. Thought provoking.

Death At The President’s Lodging – Michael Innes
Largely enjoyable if somewhat contrived whodunit. Pleasingly well written and the first of many by the same author (who is not above poking fun at himself from the outset).

Death In A White Tie – Ngaio Marsh

Absolute classic whodunit in high society which whilst not a social critique does not hide the fact that some, even then, regarded ‘the season’ as little more than a meat market.

Overture To Death – Ngaio Marsh
Fine variation on the vindictive old lady theme. The characters are a tad clichéd, but the storyline was in part responsible as it demanded certain stock characters. Still good to read something of the period with flashes of ‘modern’ thought.

Death At The Bar – Ngaio Marsh
Ingenious and impossible to describe without giving the game away. So kudos to the author for managing a whole book without actually doing that.

Surfeit Of Lampreys – Ngaio Marsh
A mix of procedural and whodunit with some nice character portraits thrown in. Alleyn and Fox take something of a back seat in terms of development.

Death And The Dancing Footman – Ngaio Marsh
A wonderful whodunit with clichéd elements gently spoofed whilst presenting a solid puzzle that centres round the vivid image of the footman dancing in the hall to a tune on the radio.

Colour Scheme – Ngaio Marsh
Another mystery set in New Zealand, this time with Alleyn on special service during the Second World War.

Earwig And The Witch – Diana Wynne Jones
Her last book (unless others surface). Written for younger readers, amusing and wonderfully illustrated, this is about how Earwig is fostered and begins to learn to be a witch.

Died In The Wool – Ngaio Marsh
Another New Zealand set mystery centred on an isolated sheep station where the owner disappears and turns up weeks later packed in bale of wool. A regular whodunit with a colouring of espionage.

Final Curtain – Ngaio Marsh
Theatrical portraits abound. And having had some small experience of the professional theatre, they aren’t as exaggerated as one may, at first, think.

Swing, Brother, Swing – Ngaio Marsh
Not only did she come up with some great titles, but she was excellent, as this book proves, at creating monstrous characters. Not out-and-out evil, but those egomaniacs who annoy you with their blatant idiocy, the ones you know will never listen to reason.

Revolving Lights – Dorothy Richardson
Exquisitely written novel in the pilgrimage series. Miriam Henderson experiences the dark uncertainties of a disintegrating relationship (the tension and distress conveyed with perfect insight), and the contrasting joy of a holiday away from London.

Opening Night – Ngaio Marsh
Another theatre-set murder; another book featuring a young woman newly arrived in London from New Zealand. Yet these repetitions in no way distract from the story. Indeed, the very theatricality of Marsh’s work is evident here. She uses a repertory system of ‘characters’ and, like a good actor, makes them her own.

Spinsters In Jeopardy – Ngaio Marsh
Not a whodunit. Not an especially good thriller, either. More like an attempt to introduce us to the Alleyn’s horribly precocious child in an adventure that has little logic but which is, nonetheless, entertaining.

Scales Of Justice – Ngaio Marsh

A little disappointing in its reinforcement of a type. Although the set-up is intriguing, the characterization is a little thin and, for once, contains no sense of gentle parody.

The Trap – Dorothy Richardson
The eighth book of the sequence and Richardson’s maturity as a writer is much in evidence. She handles each episode with consummate ease, weaving a strong thread through so many apparently disparate aspects of Miriam Henderson’s life. Some of the oddities of style that vex some commentators (the movement between third and first person, the use real people and their alter egos) seems to me to be quite logical – the author is engaged with this work and appears quite naturally within it. After all, one of the main concerns is about the difficulty of putting anything to words that adequately convey ones ideas and experiences. Richardson has a found a way of doing this.

Nemesis – Lindsey Davis
Whilst all the ingredients are there, this turned out to be a very flat cake indeed. No tension, no sense of peril, no horror, and the ‘mystery’ is so obvious that I spent most of the book thinking it must be a massive red herring.

Off With His Head – Ngaio Marsh
Back on form with this foray into the deadly side of folk dance. Wonderful characters (Dame Alice and Dulcie are vividly sketched) and an intriguing mystery.

Singing In The Shrouds – Ngaio Marsh
As much thriller as mystery, another top form novel. Set on a boat with a small group of characters, it’s a race against time to discover which (if any) is a psychopathic killer who murders every ten days.

False Scent – Ngaio Marsh
After the highs of the previous two, this settles back to a more comfortable level. A return to theatre folk (some of whom really do behave like that, believe me; I’ve been on the wrong end of it), but a well-crafted novel nonetheless.

Hand In Glove – Ngaio Marsh
The usual repertory company is here with a set of characters one feels might have been better developed. The book is short and feels rushed, yet there is potential there for much more. A good read, however, and it does the job it set out to do.

Dead Water – Ngaio Marsh
At this point, Marsh seems to have found a new seam to mine. Whilst in some respects this is a fairly standard whodunit, the old repertory of characters has been given a shaking up, the young lovers fade into the background, and the whole thing has genuine elements of tragedy about it.

Death At The Dolphin – Ngaio Marsh
Back to the theatre, but with a twist. A story that revolves around a glove that would seem to have been made for Hamnet Shakespeare, and the fall out of events from when the glove first came into the hands of a wealthy recluse.

The Adventures Of Robina – Emma Tennant
A clever conceit to set an early eighteenth century novel in the mid twentieth century. That is, a female innocent abroad in the mid twentieth century written in the style of the early eighteenth. It is fast, funny, and bitingly satirical.

Le Secret De La Salamandre – Jacques Tardi
Comic book at its best. Excellent drawing, off the wall story (intersecting with other story strands by Tardi) and the bonus of realising my French is still up to it (with a little help from a dictionary).

Dawn’s Left Hand – Dorothy Richardson
On the confusions and uncertainties of personal relationships (particularly Miriam’s with Hypo). Whilst still philosophical, the novels are now becoming more concerned with the personal again (rather than the universal) and we see Miriam’s sensibility and understand of men and women in a far less hypothetical setting.

The Pastel City – M John Harrison
Harrison can put more story, ideas, and description in one page than most writers of fantasy can put into a over-long chapter. The richness and depth is astounding with the added layer that is a conscious examination and subtle subversion of the genre. If you want to know how fantasy should be written, this is the book for you.

The Manual Of Detection – Jedediah Berry
Curiously flat and lacking in tension, the interest in this book is invested in the world that is created. It has taken a number of commonplace elements and ideas and moulded them into a diverting and well-realised dreamscape. Certainly unusual, well-written, and well worth a read.

Le Noyé À Deux Têtes – Jacques Tardi
A continuation of the Adèle Blanc-sec series. Amusing, subversive, full of period detail (in both the images and the text) – popular culture in a form at which the French excel.

Journey To Paradise - Dorothy Richardson

You might think anyone whose life’s work was invested in a massive novel of 2110 pages (each of the thirteen chapters a novel in itself) would have problems with the shorter form. Yet Dorothy Richardson’s genius with words seems to have known few bounds. This collection of short fiction and autobiographical sketches demonstrates just how accomplished she was at reducing whole worlds to a few pages without losing anything in the process.

The works clearly have a commonality with the much longer Pilgrimage series. Indeed, they offer an insight into aspects of Dorothy Richardson’s life before the opening of her first novel. Childhood, from the very earliest memories that often recur in Pilgrimage are here explored in detail. Sitting in the garden as a very young child; visits to relatives; the bliss of holidays by the sea.

Each is a delicately and subtly cut jewel that reflects all forms of light and changes as the perspective alters. What is even more amazing is that one of the earliest exponents of modernist literature is, to my mind at least, the best. Perhaps that is the enthusiasm of discovery, but much as I love Virginia Woolf (who has always held top place), I fear she must move over and make place on the top step of the podium for Dorothy Richardson.

Sadly this, and much of her other short work (not to mention her non-fiction) is difficult to come by. All power to Virago for ensuring Pilgrimage is available. Perhaps they should get this volume back into print as well as the perfect introduction to the work of a still neglected writer.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Oberland - Dorothy Richardson

A marked change here in this ninth novel of the sequence. To begin with (and in common with the four following) this is much shorter. By way of compensation it is much more intense. That is partly the framework (a holiday in Switzerland) and the time scale (two weeks instead of many months or years); but is also the preoccupation of the novel. Rather than London life always on the edge of financial hardship and her relationships with the people around her and how that is part of her growing social and personal awareness; this book is quite literally a holiday.

Two weeks in Switzerland away from all her concerns (although there is, as always, an underlying hint of all those things never spoken of) amongst people she has never before met and enjoying freedoms that were perhaps just a little bit daring for the time. A young woman alone tobogganing on the Swiss mountains, sitting on the hotel stairs discussing socialism with two young men... Most of all, however, are the vivid descriptions of the place. Miriam’s life in London, whilst full of life, beautifully conveys what living in a large city is like. There is a mild sense of claustrophobia in a world where the predominant colour is grey and all struggles are worthy. None of this is mentioned directly, yet the sense of it is always there, set against her youthful episode in Germany and here, thrown into shadowy relief by the electrifying beauty of the Bernese Oberland.

As a piece of sustained description alone (the precise capturing of the stuffy, overheated air within the hotel is remarkable) this would be a novel to recommend. Yet it does so much more than that on a very subtle level. Miriam, out of her normal environment, must confront her prejudices, defend her beliefs, and accommodate herself to unusual circumstances. And she flowers. There is still something of the petulant child about her at the beginning; something of the teenager who took that first journey abroad to earn her living. By the end, she seems to have become serene. Her thoughts flow in the same direction and much more smoothly (perhaps indicating that they run a great deal more deeply as well).

Yet for all her personal development we are not allowed to forget the world beyond, about Miriam’s concerns. These are brought back into sharp focus at the very end of the book with the simple but highly effective incident of the young man showing his sister a hole in his glove and telling her she must mend it.