Saturday, 1 December 2012

Books read in November

The Hound Of The Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Considered by many to be Conan Doyle’s best Sherlock Holmes, it certainly contains all the ingredients and is an efficient enough tale, but it does suffer from a rushed ending and a lot of plot holes (for example, if Holmes’s young helper on the moor was so easily spotted through the telescope, why hadn’t the escaped convict and his helper been seen?). One could also wish that Doyle had taken the time to explore in a little more depth the social side, that it’s the toffs causing the problems and dumping on the lower classes and cast out folk. That said, it is still an intriguing tale and an enjoyable read.

The Valley Of Fear – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Although on the face of a mash-up of two novellas (one as backstory to the other to make it up to novel length), there is more to the structure of this book than first meets the eye. On the face of it, it is much like ‘The Sign Of Four’ and, indeed, has a similar setting, replete with a secretive society part of which has gone to the bad. But in this later novel, Conan Doyle has used the same structure to add a layer of uncertainty. In the first half we have a classic Holmes puzzle which leads to a denouement of some uncertainty. The back story, presented in the second half, compounds that uncertainty to the end. A very clever use of what could have been straightforward and boring kept alive by turning reader assumptions on their head several times.

His Last Bow – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Clearly not, of course, as there is a further collection, but although Conan Doyle later declares that he has been happy writing the Holmes stories it is clear that whilst there may be ideas, there is less enthusiasm for their working out and presentation. One might argue that as Holmes ages his style changes, but as the stories are not chronological it is obviously more to do with the author. There are one or two intriguing stories of the old style, but for the most part they read like reminiscences long after the fact rather than having been written just after the event occurred.

The Case-Book Of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The final collection of Holmes stories is a hotch potch affair. Different view points and approaches, all of which demonstrate Doyle limitations as a writer – it is difficult to tell a narrative by Holmes from a narrative by Watson as well as the fact they characters have not changed or developed over time. But this is not serious literature. The Holmes stories are entertainments and in that they succeed admirably.

The Franklin’s Tale – Geoffrey Chaucer
I did this for A level and as part of a plan to re-read all those A level texts I finally got round to this (it is taking me considerably longer than the original two years – so many other things keep  attracting my attent – SQUIRREL). It is a tribute to my English teacher (Colin Silk, a gentleman and excellent teacher) that I could sit down and read the Chaucer in the original, straight through, with no need to refer to notes. And enjoy it.

A tale of personal sovereignty and of sexual obsession it clearly owes its genesis to the tales of chivalry and courtly love told by the troubadors. I am inspired now to revisit the rest of the Tales which, I am ashamed to say, I have only ever read in a modern English prose version.

The Lost World – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Although not the first work to posit the survival of prehistoric species into the modern day (Verne used the idea years before), Conan Doyle created the most plausible of settings compatible with scientific understanding at the time. A remote, sheer-sided plateau in South America on top of which species have been isolated from the rest of the world. To this he added the memorable and annoying character of Professor Challnger and the small group that makes the journey with him to verify his claims.

It is a fairly straight forward, gung-ho adventure with some (by modern standards) appalling attitudes. Which is instructive as Conan-Doyle was fairly forward thinking for his day. Whilst it is fairly tame adventure by today’s standards (and many of the film adaptations not only muck around with the casting but add incidents to pep the story up), it is remarkable in that it sets up a standard by which many subsequent and far worse stories have been created. It also highlighted the fascination with dinosaurs which exists to this day, creatures that have turned up in all sorts of isolated spots (or been reborn) to cause wonder and havoc.

The Poison Belt – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A novella that brings together the characters of ‘The Lost World’ at a moment when the Earth passes through a belt of poison gas that affects everyone on the planet. Having had some foresight with regard to the disaster, Professor Challenger has set up a room in which the characters sit through the events, kept alive by oxygen. They witness a train crash and fires and, in the aftermath, drive through a stricken London believing themselves to be the only remaining humans on the planet.

Again, whilst not the first global disaster story (Mary Shelley was an early precursor), it is a remarkable short piece that seems to lay the foundations for works by the likes of John Wyndham. The depictions of the everyday world brought to an end are particularly potent and it is a shame that Conan Doyle did not develop the work into a full-length piece.

Professor Challenger is also an interesting character as he seems to prefigure many of the brilliant, obstinate, and angry scientists beloved of pulp fiction and B movies, perhaps culminating in Professor Quatermass.

The Naked Nuns – Colin Watson
A Flaxborough novel, and if you don’t what that is, shame on you. The Flaxborough novels are some of the finest humorous crime novels of the twentieth century. Superb dry with, wonderful characterization, and a portrait of a provincial town that is both over the top and deadly accurate. Because beneath the respectable surface of Councillors and business owners, their wives and all the the other folk of dubious means of support lies an unpleasant truth: that these people are for the most part criminals, cheats, and liars. And in some cases their actions lead to murder.

In Flaxborough, thankfully, the police have the superb Inspector Purbright who understands exactly what these people are like and what they are capable of. And Colin Watson delivers each of these books with superb writing that looks simple but which is the work of a master.

Pulp – Charles Bukowski
Bukowskis final novel, a pastiche of the kind of noir detective story in which the detective doesn’t detect, just stumbles around getting beaten up until the case resolves itself. A bit like life. Which is pretty much the point of the book. It is also about death and in fact the central character, Nicky Belane, may already be dead when the book opens and this is his rite of passage.

Bukowski substitutes the weird characters of America’s underbelly with weird characters from its fictional psyche. Aliens, Lady Death, a succession of stupid bartenders presiding over bars with one person in them, usually aggressive. The only real character is the man who wants evidence of his wife’s infidelity and then gets angry about it, turning his fear and his ire on the detective he has hired.

The whole thing is written in Bukowski’s tight, unflinching style and is a real joy to read.

The Hour Of The Star – Clarice Lispector
A short, intense, and demaning work that defies comparison (despite attempts through the years). It also, in a number of ways, defies categorisation. This is often described as a portrait of an anti-heroine, but Macabea really is nothing of the sort. Born in a poor region of Brazil and living in a slum of Rio de Janairo she is an everygirl and a nogirl; representing the many tens of thousands who live similar lives, yet unique for she is an absolute innocent, as attached to the world as any star.

For all its intensity and introspection there is a lightness of touch to the style that creates an easy read. The book can be finished in a few hours, but it is a story that will stay a lifetime because inconsequential details and events start to surface long after the covers are closed and Macabea has died.

There is an intriguing subtext as well in that the narrator at one point admits he is her boss (although he also calls himself a writer and speaks of her boss in the third person). The whole thing is also a metatext as we are privy to the thoughts of the (fictional) author not only about the character with whom he is falling in love despite her having no real redeeming features, but about the process of creating her and telling her story.

Definitely a book to return to.

Lonelyheart 4122 – Colin Watson
Lonely women disappear, apparently after making use of a matrimonial service. The police investigate, but the set-up seems to be above board and fool-proof. But it’s not just the police who are investigating and we are introduced to one of the truly enigmatic characters of crime fiction, Lucilla Teatime. From what we learn of her, one suspects she is the type of women who spent the second world war being parachuted into occupied Europe. Whatever her past (which is not altogether on the right side of the law), she develops into a wonderful addition to this series.

As well as all the other praise I could heap on these novels, it is their subtlety I love. Watson does not spend pages telling us about the motives of characters. They are there in front of us. Only once is made explicit in this story and even then if you blink, you miss it. It is that level of respect for the reader, that level of confidence and intelligence in the writer that I really do appreciate in an age when subtlety has become something of a lost art.

Charity Ends At Home – Colin Watson
Another fine example of Watson’s work with a wonderful portrait of a couple gleaned mostly from the people around them and those questioned during the murder investigation. The story is approached obliquely and even the red herring does not look red, smell of fish or swim about.

The Flaxborough Crab – Colin Watson
Goings-on in the world of medicine as seen through the prism of Flaxborough. Watson’s trademark dry wit creates convincing portraits of people and a time. It also dissects social attitudes and finds them wanting.

Plaster Sinners – Colin Watson
This is an altogether more sombre book, despite the ‘guest appearance’ of a London DI whose method of working is to upset people and see what happens. It is sombre because it involves family and the lengths to which some (in this case, landed gentry) will go to cover up past indiscretions. To match the mood we get an excellent story, equally wonderful characters, and Watson’s acidity aimed at the usual targets – very often the institutions that dehumanise us.

The Land Of Mist – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Thirteen years after his last outing, Professor Challenger is revived as a minor character (to Malone’s central role) in this work. Malone, still working for his newspaper is tasked with writing a series of articles (along with Enid Challenger, the Professor’s daughter) about religion. Each week they take a different one and eventually attend a Spiritualist meeting. Thereafter, Malone investigates much more deeply and becomes convinced of the truth that lies behind Spiritualism.

Not so much a novel as a means of presenting a Spiritualist case to the public, this is nonetheless well written and thoughtful (if at times overly sentimental). Doyle’s involvement with Spiritualism is well known and he was clearly well read and well versed. If nothing else this is an interesting fictional documentation of a movement that gripped the public imagination in the aftermath of the First World War.

Blue Murder – Colin Watson
Whilst the humour is still there, this is a much more serious outing and with a much more convoluted (although plausible) plot. The focus here is on a group of outsiders – a team of journalists from a Sunday newspaper intent on digging the dirt on what they have been told is the production of blue films by the local photographic society. As a background, it could not be more relevant as it is clear the newspaper in question is modelled on a newspaper that is mired in sleaze of its own making.

The story itself also grows out of the misery caused by the sanctimonious dirt digging of such newspapers and the collateral damage that ensues. As such it is the most realistic of the Flaxborough novels.

Whatever’s Been Going On At Mumblesby? – Colin Watson
Snobbery with violence. It’s the title of a book by Colin Watson in which he discusses murder mysteries. It can also apply to this, his final novel. Although there is a degree of exaggeration in his character portraits, it is only a degree. He has caught exactly the degree to which certain people think they are (a) above the law and (b) entitled to behave exactly as they wish toward people not in their own feral group. Exactly how that manifests is the fascinating plot of this book.

I was a little disappointed by the device used toward the end (letter left to be opened in the event of death explaining most of the plot), although given that it was a lawyer, not entirely out of character. That aside, a wonderful addition to the Flaxborough series.

In A German Pension – Katherine Mansfield
Considered by Mansfield to be an immature work, this may be true compared with her later stories, but by anyone else’s standards, these are first class. For the most part these are studies of people staying in a German hotel for a ‘cure’. And whilst they veer slightly toward caricature, that is simply a device by which to heighten points of interest rather create grotesques. Indeed, far from being critical of Germans (as some have suggested) it strikes me as being a far more universal critique of the kind of pretentiousness to be found in any upper-middle class group of people who can afford to take a few months away from ‘normal’ life to stay in a hotel and indulge in pampering their bodies.

The narrator/observer is always coy about their own reason for being there and one really only need look at Mansfield’s own life to fill in that background. And even if they are to be regarded as immature works, it is clear that as an author she already has a keen eye and a way with words that builds with assured strokes convincing and sometimes humorous portraits of people.

There are also other stories here which owe more to fiction than observation as they look into events and lives to which Mansfield probably had no direct access. That these are interleaved quite seamlessly with the other works is a testament to her work and they provide a wonderful contrast to the lives of the privileged and their petty concerns.

The Sleeper Awakes – H G Wells
One of Wells’ fictions – a future history in which a man goes into a coma, is left a fortune, and on waking finds he owns half the planet and that those administering in his name have created the kind of society we can see evolving at this very moment. Giant corporations rule, democracy is dead, the workers earn just enough to live in company workhouses and the wealthy migrate to Pleasure Cities.

Unfortunately, fascinating as it is, the story on which this is hung is thin stuff and is clearly a device for Wells’ warning about what the future might hold. If it is read as political tract, it works a lot better, but even then it cannot be considered one of Wells’ better fictions. Neither fish nor fowl, even Wells wasn’t that happy with it. It was written in haste as a serial and he extensively rewrote it when it became a novel. Even then, it is clear the flaw is in the structure and without changing that it was never going to be more than one of his ‘other’ works.

The Mystery Of A Butcher’s Shop – Gladys Mitchell
Superb. Glorious. I have always enjoyed Mitchell’s books. Far superior to Christie in every way in my opinion. Better written. More intriguing plots . A central character far better conceived (and as ageless) as any other detective in fiction. And not afraid to be off the wall. Indeed, it is the battiness and sheer fun of the puzzle in Mitchell’s books that I find so attractive.

In this, a dismembered and headless body is found one morning hanging in a butcher’s shop. Who it is and how it got there takes us back to a fairly stard country house scenario but with a cast of characters that are broadly drawn but intriguing. And one by one they all fall under suspicion and indeed most of them had opportunity. But piecing it all together and always one step ahead of the police with her speculations is Mrs Bradley.

If you enjoy golden age detective fiction then you should give Mitchell a go. Her work is sadly neglected, only about ten of her sixty plus novels are in print. But they can be found if you hunt them out.