Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Tuesday Night Club: Foreign Mysteries

The Tuesday Night Club has chosen Foreign Mysteries as this month’s theme – as usual, in any way the bloggerLogo likes to interpret it.

Bev at My Reader’s Block has produced another great logo for us, and she is also collecting the links this month.

Anyone is welcome to join in, either as a one-off or on a regular basis. Just contact one of us.

Originally the Tuesday Night Club concentrated on Golden Age detective stories, though we’ve become more loose about this as the months roll by. Last month (History and Mystery) I very much covered more modern books – so for this week (at least) I decided to go back to source. At first I thought of books by foreign authors, but I really don’t think I know very many GA books in that category. So it was time – as it so often is - to look at the Queen of Crime Writers, Agatha Christie. 

Now she was a woman who liked her foreign travel. And bang in the middle of the GA period there was this one…

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

published 1938

Appointment with death 6

[A group of travellers camping at Petra]
Sarah went down to the big marquee. She found her three fellow-travellers there. They were sitting at a table eating. The guide was explaining that there was another party here.

“They came two days ago. Go day after tomorrow. Americans. The mother, very fat, very difficult get here! Carried in chair by bearers – they say very hard work - they get very hot – yes.”

Sarah gave a sudden spurt of laughter…

[After an expedition] The party arrived back at the camp weary but in good spirits and with an excellent appetite for a late lunch. It was past two o’clock.

The Boynton family was sitting round the big table in the marquee. They were just finishing their meal.

Appointment with death 2

[Later] “Women do not look their best in the desert,” said Dr Gerard dreamily. “Miss King [Sarah] here, yes – she always looks neat and well-turned out. But that Lady Westholme in her great thick coats and skirts and those terribly unbecoming riding breeches and boots – quelle horreur de femme!”

Appointment with death 1

commentary: This is not one of my favourite Christie books, so I hadn’t read it for a long time and wondered what I would make of it.

Firstly, the desert scenes – the murder takes place at Petra - are very well done and interesting. It’s obvious from Christie’s Autobiography and Come Tell Me How You Live that she loved her trips and long stays with her 2nd husband, Max, on archaeological digs, and I think her knowledge of and love for the setting comes over well. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to find these pictures – all from the Matson collection at the Library of Congress – which really seemed almost like illustrations for the book, or stills from a film version. (There are hundreds of pictures of Petra at the LOC, highly recommended to anyone interested.)

When I did a previous post on travel in Christie, I said about the central family, the Boyntons:
Of all Christie’s horrible families, they probably have the distinction (against considerable opposition) of being the one you would least like to share a vacation with, even disregarding the murder.
-- and that’s about right on a re-read, though I think I was too harsh in that post, as, contrary to what I said,  only old Mrs Boynton is truly nasty, the others are just annoying and rather feeble. Mrs B’s malignancy is well-done, but it’s somewhat inexplicable: she’s just horrible for the sake of it, no joy or motive.

The book is mercifully short, though action-packed. I was thinking, reading other GA authors, how well Christie avoids those long boring middle sections, where everyone explains where they were, and people speculate on possibilities. There is quite enough of that here, but she does make it less boring than some other authors (looking at you, Ngaio Marsh).

And there are enough clothes in the book to keep me happy. I was interested that Sarah has been turned out of one of the holy places in Jerusalem because she is wearing a sleeveless dress.

And a character wears a double terai hat – explained in another Christie blogpost, by me, thus: ‘it’s the hat people wear in films and book illustrations set in tropical places, when they are not wearing a solar topee. It’s the other one.’ And in general what people wear in the desert becomes important.

Overall, my verdict was that it was much better than I remembered, though still not top rank. But the exotic setting was highly enjoyable.

Appointment with death 4Appointment with death 5

All photos from the Matson collection at the LOC, showing an expedition to Petra in the 1930s.

Tourists in Petra having dinner.
Tent at the camp.
Photographing Petra 1934.
Tinted photos – left and right.

Monday, 5 December 2016

The Likeness by Tana French

published 2008

Likeness 1

They were waiting for me outside the door, ranged at the top of the steps. In my mind I still see them like that, lacquered gold by the evening sun and glowing vivid as a vision, every fold of their clothes and curve of their faces pristine and achingly clear. Rafe leaning against the railing with his hands in his jeans pockets; Abby in the middle, swayed forwards on her toes, one arm crooked to shade her eyes; Justin, his feet precisely together and his hands clasped behind his back. And behind them, Daniel, framed between the columns of the door, his head up and the light splintering off his glasses. None of them moved as Frank pulled up and braked, pebbles scattering. They were like figures on a medieval frieze, self-contained, mysterious, spelling out a message in some lost and arcane code. Only Abby’s skirt fluttered, fitfully, in the breeze...

Likeness 2

‘Hi,’ I said at the bottom of the steps, looking up at them. For a second I thought they weren’t going to answer… Then Daniel took a step forwards, and the picture wavered and broke. A smile started across Justin’s face, Rafe straightened up and raised one arm in a wave, and Abby came running down the steps and hugged me hard. ‘Hey, you,’ she said, laughing, ‘welcome home.’

Likeness 3Likeness 4

commentary: Any very keen blog readers out there will be able to tell exactly how well I am doing in my attempt to ration my reading of Tana French, spread them out. In September there were two entries on her books: the new one The Trespasser on the 22nd, and In the Woods, her first, four days later on the 26th. (Secret Place came in March.) She’s only written six books, and now I have fallen and read my fourth. Only two left, sigh.

The Likeness was my favourite so far, and that’s saying something as I have loved them all. I am always fascinated by, and critical of, books about groups of young people living in houses together and worrying away about a crime – it’s a familiar trope, and one I’ve written about before. The Likeness has an inventive and extraordinary setup: one of the young people has been murdered, but that news hasn’t been released. The dead girl had been using a former undercover ID of Detective Cassie Maddox (whom we know from In the Woods). Maddox looks sufficiently like her to take her place in the house of doom, with the idea of finding out what happened to the victim. This is plainly a ludicrous and impossible project, but somehow French makes it almost believable, and also unbearably tense and riveting. (I have also made it sound more complex than it is – when you are reading the book, it is clear and straightforward what the plan is, however preposterous.)

The main cast are post-grad students in their 20s, studying at Trinity College Dublin and living an hour’s drive away in a big old house in a sinister Wicklow village. Maddox has troubles in her past and a boyfriend on the investigating team. It’s like French has a checklist of great yet disparate crime book tropes, and decided as a challenge to get them into the same unlikely plot. Well - I can pretend to mock all I want, but you could not have paid me to put this book down unfinished, I was desperate to know what had happened in the past and what would happen next.

As ever there are great women characters, wonderful descriptions:
all I could feel was every muscle loosening like I was eight years old and cartwheeling myself dizzy on some green hillside like I could dive a thousand miles through cool blue water without once needing to breathe. I had been right: freedom smelled like ozone and thunderstorms and gunpowder all at once, like snow and bonfires and cut grass, it tasted like seawater and oranges.
Funny recognizable character traits:
Frank has always had a spectacular array of mates in unlikely places: my mate down at the docks, my mate on the County Council, my mate who runs the S& M shop. Back when we first began this whole Lexie Madison thing, My Mate At Births Deaths and Marriages made sure she was officially registered, in case anyone got suspicious and started sniffing around, while My Mate With The Van helped me move into her bedsit. I figure I’m happier not knowing about whatever complex barter system is going on there.
Cutting comments:
Here I had been all freaked out about having one double; he must have run into a clone of himself on every street corner in south Dublin.
More great description:
Lexie was fearless. She was like an ice skater balanced effortlessly on the edge of her own speed, throwing in joyous, elaborate twirls and leaps just for the hell of it.
The impersonation in the book is beyond belief, and yet French forces you to accept it, and then plays games with the characters and the reader, doubling and re-doubling – I certainly had ideas and thoughts whirling in my head, and sometimes lost track of who was Lexy and who was Cassie. A superb read.

The house they live in is easily imagined and familiar from other Irish books, but also familiar if you visit the Irish countryside – there are still many of them around. And in the past the residents liked nothing better than to be photographed on the steps, as in the description above. I found all these photos at the wonderful National Library of Ireland, with its terrific collection made freely available (and much in use on the blog.)

(In case this isn't crystal clear: the book The Likeness is entirely contemporary, early 21st century - I just liked the older photos to capture the spirit of this scene.)

Top picture shows guests at Curraghmore House near Portlaw, Co. Waterford in 1922.

Second picture shows a party at Kilboy, Nenagh, Co. Tipperary.

Seapark House Malahide has a look of the house in the book.

The 4th picture is an engagement photo from 1933: Lady Alethea Buxton (daughter of Earl Buxton) and Mr. Peter Eliot (son of the Hon. Edward Eliot, who is a brother of the Earl of St. Germans), whose engagement has been announced, photographed at Mount Congreve, Waterford, where they were on a visit".

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Dress Down Sunday: Oh You Spanish Ladies....



The Golden Spaniard by Dennis Wheatley

published 1938
Golden Spaniard 2[the Duke De Richleau, Richard and Simon have taken over a hotel room in Madrid at short notice. There is evidence of the previous occupants…]

Richard picked up a silk stocking of cobwebby texture. “I wonder where the owner of this pretty thing is now. I wouldn’t care to be in her place if they lugged her away in the things she stood up in.”

“Don’t be an ass,” said Simon irritably. “Naturally they’d have let her dress but she probably chose tweeds or something sensible. If she’s a foreign visitor she’ll be safe in her own Embassy by this time. If not, she’ll have taken refuge in one of the convents.”

[During the night it becomes obvious that a young woman is still in the room…]

“I saw something move on the top of that wardrobe,” declared De Richleau, grabbing his gun.

“You can dispense with the heavy armaments,” laughed Richard sitting up. “If you saw anything it was only the poor girl whose bed we’ve been sleeping in. Don’t be afraid, SeƱorita. We won’t hurt you.”

Golden Spaniard

Slowly the head of the girl appeared again. “You no hurt,” she said with a frightened look. “You no hurt.” De Richleau quickly reassured her in Spanish and asked her how she came to be up there; upon which any little bird on the window-sill might have observed the strange sight of two gentlemen sitting side by side in bed holding grave converse with a lady clad only in the thinnest of nightdresses perched on the top of a high wardrobe.

commentary: My goodness but this is a book of an earlier time. I was recently describing how I find Tana French’s books unputdownable: my good blogfriend ggary said this in the comments:
I know exactly what it's like to have to reach the end of a book. Some years ago I was reading a Dennis Wheatley thriller called THE GOLDEN SPANIARD. Over the previous few days I had been reading it in a fairly leisurely manner, but the pace hots up incredibly in the last quarter of the book, and instead of reading a chapter before going to sleep I had to read the whole damn before I could go to sleep. It was about three in the morning when I finished, and I felt like death the next day, but at least I knew how it came out!
So naturally I had to find the book immediately - luckily it is readily available on Kindle. It couldn’t be more different from Tana French, but ggary is absolutely right – it is completely compelling as it gets to the end. The good guys are on different sides, and the back and forth in the final pages, as they struggle for possession of something very valuable, is astonishing and beautifully plotted, and very funny – you keep thinking ‘Wheatley cannot have another twist’ – but he can.

Interestingly, there is an announcement at the beginning:
This book has been lightly edited for style and pace, at the request of the Wheatley family.
They didn’t edit it for some other features. This is 1938, and the Duke is trying to convince Simon, who is Jewish, that the Nazis aren’t that bad…
“For God’s sake, Simon, use your sense of proportion. The German Jew-baiting is horrible, I know, but it isn’t wholesale murder.”
If it were me I would have taken that out, but it’s arguable I suppose: presumably that IS what an observer might easily have said at that time.

Wheatley was a very very popular and prolific thriller writer, and wrote a series of books about a dashing foursome performing acts of derring-do: The Duke De Richleau and his friends Simon, Rex and Richard. (The most extraordinary of these books is The Devil Rides Out, which became a much-beloved film: ‘De Richleau had spent many years delving deeply into strange mysteries and much that was hidden to most earth-dwellers had been made plain to him.’)

This is the first Wheatley book I’ve done on the blog, but he has been mentioned before, in relation to weird religion here (Ngaio Marsh), and to long boring passages about weaponry and strategy (James Bond).

This time the four musketeers are split by the politics of the Spanish Civil War. Now, you wouldn’t be in much doubt which side Wheatley’s heart was on, but you have to give him some credit for trying to present both sides of the story, and show that neither side were angels (though there are some pretty nasty descriptions of atrocities, largely on one side). I got my first view of the Spanish Civil War from Biggles in Spain (‘Trouble? Both sides are after his blood!’ as it said on the back of the paperback) and the politics here are approximately at the Biggles level. (No offence to anyone here).

The Duke has this to say:
It would be good to draw a blade again, if need be, in defence of all the principles which he had always considered stood for a sane and decent world.
He is a character whom one suspects Wheatley likes more than anyone else did. Would love to hear the other side of this:
His guests always looked forward immensely to the quiet evenings they spent with the Duke. De Richleau knew so many interesting people and could discourse with wit and erudition upon a thousand topics. Normally it was a joy to listen to his beautifully modulated voice recounting amusing incidents or calling up great figures out of the past to relive the secret history that lay behind the shaping of the modern world.
He sounds a terrific pompous bore, with his great principles and important views of honour and shame. However, he is also a hoot. At one point the adventurers, at loose in Madrid, need dynamite urgently. Where will they find any?
“Don’t worry.” The Duke’s mouth tightened into a hard line. “I’ve often found it useful before. There is some in one of those suitcases which you are holding at the bank for me; only it is coated with soap and made up to look exactly like the shaving sticks I habitually use.”
Later on he comes up with a spacey idea for disguising some gold bullion:
“Take an aluminium saucepan. Say it weighs a pound. Pour thirty-five ounces of gold into its bottom. It will then weigh about three and a half pounds. That’s no more than the weight of an iron saucepan. Paint it over and it will look like an iron saucepan. Get the idea?”
Resistance is useless: you have to enjoy a book with these features in it (look how much I have written about it!). It is, with a little judicious skimming, quite relentlessly entertaining. And there was a genuine surprise in the final sentence – I’d have thought I’d have spotted the plot twist, but no.

Thank you to ggary for tipping me off…

Friday, 2 December 2016

Death Goes Dancing by Mabel Esther Allan

first published 2014, though written in the 1950s
Death Goes Dancing 1

[Trouble at a London performance of a top ballet company – the policeman goes backstage]

They pushed their way past a few members of the corps de ballet – girls who wore peasant costume for the first act of Giselle. Seen near at hand their heavily made up faces looked strange and he knew that already a rumour of disaster must have reached them. A murmur rippled through them as he passed with Lucien Darielle.

Death Goes Dancing 3

He caught a glimpse of the stage and the scenery for Giselle – the two cottages and the backcloth of hills and a distant castle – and also glimpsed what he had read of but never seen before; dancers warming up, chatting and wandering about behind the lowered curtains….

Death Goes Dancing 4

[he enters the dressing room] There was something fantastic about the sight of Sarne Saxilby, with her smooth black hair spreading out amongst the pots of greasepaint.

She was wearing Giselle’s peasant costume, the blouse of which left her neck and the upper part of her back bare…
commentary: Some of us round here (and you know who you are, Kate and Bernadette) are getting far too tied up in the Greyladies Press, who have the irresistible marketing line of Well-Mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone. I myself have both reviewed Miss Hogg and the Bronte Murders (I mean, just the title tells all) and lured in Bernadette (I think Kate has only herself to blame). And after this I will have to get The Chimney Murder by EM Channon, which both of them have read. I have also been dabbling in their Susan Scarlett books – the lost oeuvre of Noel Streatfeild. And, there’s a book called Gin and Murder which sounds like a must-read.

And here we have what must be an archetypal Greyladies book. It was written in the 50s by Mabel Esther Allan (whom I associate with children’s books) but not published until Greyladies discovered it recently. We have a splendid Scottish policeman, DI Ewen Gilbride, who happens to be at the ballet the night the prima ballerina is murdered. Luckily he is an expert not only on ballet but on folk customs too, which turns out to be nearly relevant.

He interviews all the friends, relations and colleagues of the dead woman. He visits France and Italy in pursuit of witnesses. And in the end he solves the crime.

I enjoyed the whole thing hugely – it did not shock, or amaze, or startle me, there was nothing complicated or difficult about it. The writing style – and this is not an insult – was rather like a 1950s YA book. But it was a nice comfort read, and absolutely full of fascinating details of its time and milieu. When an up-and-coming but very young star dancer comes to be interviewed, Gilbride
had vague ideas that she might appear in slacks and a pullover. However when she came she wore a black fur coat over a turquoise blue frock
A nice distinction to show a moment in the timeline of the theatrical world.

After another witness interview, Gilbride thinks:
[Dale] looked, on first acquaintance, a man of integrity, but he also looked a man of strong passions. Perhaps not entirely English. Ewen made a mental note to look up [his] history… Foreigners were not always necessarily more passionate than Englismen but he was obviously deeply in love…
When Ewen finally gets home to his beautiful violinist wife
The sight of her slim figure in the graceful full-skirted blue velvet housecoat lifted his heart
It sounds a lovely garment, and the two of them and the housecoat belong to a simpler, statelier time. There is a moment where Ewen uses religious beliefs and practices to get to the truth of something – you just can’t imagine it now.

The book is prefaced by a rather interesting account from Mabel Esther Allan of her writing career: she was amazingly prolific, but also took it in her stride that some of her books remained unpublished.

I will certainly be looking out for more from her, and anything else Greyladies offers.

And this is for Wendy, in memory of a trip to see Giselle, without any murders, but quite as dramatic in its way.

Janet Karin as Giselle and Kaye Goodson as Berthe, 1962. 

Anna Pavlova in her Act 1 costume for Giselle, and dancing Act 2.

All from the archives of the National Library of Australia.

Louis MacNiece’s lovely poem Les Sylphides was on the blog a few years ago with another great picture from the NLA.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

published 2016

Swing Time 1

[London in the 1980s:The narrator’s father is always reading The Communist Manifesto]

‘Some people carry the bible,’ he told me proudly. ‘this is my bible.’ It sounded impressive – it was meant to impress my mother – but I had already noticed that he seemed to always be reading this book and not much else, he took it to every dance class, and yet never got any further than the first twenty pages. 

Within the context of the marriage it was a romantic gesture: they’d first encountered each other at a meeting of the SWP, in Dollis Hill, but even this was a form of misunderstanding, for my father had gone to meet nice leftist girls in short skirts with no religion, while my mother really was there for Karl Marx. My childhood took plane in the widening gap. I watched my autodidact mother swiftly, easily, outstrip my father. The shelves in our lounge – which he built – filled up with second-hand books, Open University text books, political books, history books, books on race, books on gender, ‘All the “isms”,’ as my father liked to call them, whenever a neighbour happened to come by and spot the queer accumulation.

commentary: Swing Time jumps around all over the place (perhaps like someone dancing, as dance is such a major theme of the book?) It has an irritating triple time scheme: the framing device is that the unnamed narrator has done something terrible, is in disgrace, is watching out for the consequences. So she is looking back at her childhood as a mixed-race little girl in North London, taking dance lessons with her new friend Tracey. And then we get chunks of her life in her 20s, leading up to whatever-it-is that happened. Dancing is the connecting line throughout: Tracey is a terrific dancer, and hopes it will mean she gets on in life. The narrator’s mother wants the way out to be via education and political knowledge.

In paragraphs and in pages, in lines and sentences and chunks of dialogue I enjoyed a lot of this book: Smith is such a very good writer, and can be entrancing. But overall I thought it was a mess, because none of the sections linked up. The two girls’ friendship was seen as a key element of their lives, but actually it wasn’t. The only really important incident seemed to be when Tracey told the narrator a bad story about her (ie the narrator’s – can you see how irritating this namelessness becomes?) father, which is instantly and undoubtingly believed by the narrator and acted on in a completely unconvincing manner. We are told portentously how important the friendship is, but without evidence. Tracey pops in and out of the later parts, but there is no connection, no reality about it. Her affair with another actor is never fully explained or given any closure.

swing time 2The narrator goes to work for a world-renowned music star – one who resembles Madonna in some ways – and the description of those years is very convincing, completely believable, rather like an insider tell-all story. There is a whole section in Africa, a country unnamed but apparently the Gambia, where the popstar, Aimee, wants to do good. Again, these sections seem very real.

The scandal, the bad thing the narrator did, is ridiculous when it finally turns up: I can’t explain why I think that without spoilers, but it seemed not serious enough, and the way it played out didn’t seem likely at all.

There were so many enjoyable parts to the book – the narrators’ parents’ relationship, as indicated above; the scenes describing dancing and films and various entertainments; the consideration of black culture and black contributions to dance; and the many excellent jokes and witty lines.

swing time 3

But to me there was a great yawning hole in the middle, where the separate parts just didn’t link up. I kept thinking Zadie Smith was going to pull it all together, make more sense of it, but it didn’t happen for me.

I had a similar conflicted reaction to Smith’s last book, NW, here on the blog.

The top picture is a 1970s fashion advert. The other two are entertainers Sammy Davis Jr and Pearl Bailey.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Tuesday History: Boston 1918

The Tuesday Night Club has chosen history as this month’s Tuesday Night Bloggers History & Mysterytheme, in any way the blogger likes to interpret it.

Bev at My Reader’s Block has, as ever, produced a great logo for us, and she is also collecting the links this month.

Anyone is welcome to join in, either as a one-off or on a regular basis. Just contact one of us.

Originally the Tuesday Night Club concentrated on Golden Age detective stories, though we’ve become more loose about this as the months roll by. For this particular topic I have very much been looking at more modern books, and this week is not going to change the trend. 

But not only that – it’s actually not that much of a crime novel. I have loved Dennis Lehane books: Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone and Moonlight Mile were particular standouts. I knew The Given Day was a historical novel, but I assumed it would at least resemble his crime novels. Well, I thought wrong, buddy – though it certainly featured a lot of crime, and policemen. 

But I am committed to writing about it (it’s 700 pages long, for goodness' sake,  there was no time to work up something else historical), so here we go.


The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

published 2008

Given Day 1

Joe was dressed in his Sunday best— a chocolate brown knickerbocker suit with button-bottom pants cinched at the knees, white shirt and blue tie, a golf cap set askew on his head that matched the suit. Danny had been there when his mother had bought it, Joe fidgeting the whole time, and his mother and Nora telling him how manly he looked in it, how handsome, a suit like this, of genuine Oregon cassimere, how his father would have dreamed of owning such a suit at his age.

Given Day 2

Nora stood by the foot of the bed in her factory uniform— Ladlassie stripe overalls with a beige blouse underneath. She gripped her left wrist with her right hand. Danny poured three whiskeys and gave a glass to each of them, and his father’s eyebrows rose slightly at the sight of Nora drinking hard liquor. “I smoke, too,” she said, and Danny saw a tightening of his father’s lips that he recognized as a suppressed smile.

Given Day 3

commentary: I fully expected to love this book, and I really wanted to. But I didn’t. It was too long, too detailed and I found much of it very dull. And yet, it should have been a winner, and there were some excellent parts.

It is set in 1918/19, mostly but not entirely in Boston, and deals very much with real events, including the aftermath of WW1, and the influenza epidemic. As the book ends, Prohibition is about to come into force. (This occasional strand of the book was certainly thought-provoking: a legal decision made, a huge change in the lives of the populace, an idea that many people think is ridiculous, unworkable and will have unintended consequences. Various aspects of modern life came to mind...)

Normally this kind of a book is a 'sweeping saga', covering many years and generations, but this is far from the case here: he has chosen his tiny canvas and sticks to it. (Just like Jane Austen and her few families in a village.)

There are three main plotlines:

Danny Coughlin, from an immigrant Irish family steeped in police culture, finds himself torn between family loyalty, his respect for the police service, and the awful treatment of the police by their superiors. His struggle, and the book, will culminate in the Boston Police Strike of 1919, a dramatic and shameful series of events. He also falls in love, despite various travails.

Luther Lawrence is a black man from Ohio, who ends up in Boston on the run from his past. His story – which was the most compelling part of the book for me – shows the difficulties and endless humiliations of black life. He is trapped by the customs of the age, and by his own past.

Babe Ruth, famous baseball player, is a character who appears in bridging chapters in the book: his thoughts and feelings are imagined, and he has one meeting with Luther and a glancing encounter later.

A long way into the book, Danny and Luther become friends and their future will then be entwined. (Apparently there are two more books by Lehane, this is a trilogy, though I’m not sure how much these two characters will feature – the other books seem to be about Danny’s brother.)

There were some great things about the book. Sentences like these:
This terrible smallness of men was bigger than him, bigger than anything. 

How did two people vanish from each other’s sight in the same house? 

He wished he could have died on any other day but this. This one had carried too much defeat with it, too much despair, and he would have liked to leave the world believing in something.

--and there is a very fine passage where one man reminisces about his dead colleague and childhood friend, even though both are very flawed characters, and one is downright wicked.

On the downside - it is far far too long at 700 pages. There are hardly any women characters of any note. One, Nora, Danny’s love, is well done, but the others are wasted – particularly the woman terrorist who provides the only real surprise in the book.

The baseball sections are meaningless to those of us with no interest, and it isn’t really clear what any of the Babe Ruth sections are for.

It was readable in its way, I didn’t want to cast it aside, but it didn’t catch fire for me, I never minded putting it down, and I didn’t long to pick it up (unlike Lehane’s other books). It did seem to be immensely well-researched, but Lehane most certainly did not push his findings too hard at the reader. On the other hand, we did have the issue mentioned in one of my previous History &Mystery pieces: all the nice good characters were magically non-racist, believed in their fellow-men, respected women and their rights etc etc.

Some people think this is a Great American Novel. I wish I could recommend it more, given my high regard for the author.

Last year I read another very long book about policemen (this time in a 1960s setting) The Death of the Detective by Mark Smith, a book that infuriated and charmed me in equal measure. I would be a lot more likely to read that one again than this, which didn’t provoke any very strong feelings, apart from faint boredom at the dull passages. The good stuff (and I hope I have made it clear that there was some) was buried too deep.

Children gathering firewood in Boston in 1917, from a collection of child labour photos at the Library of Congress.

Young woman working in a factory, also 1917, same collection by Lewis Hine. (It is a very striking set of pictures of young people on the streets and at work in Boston in that era, well worth a look.)

Picture of Babe Ruth in 1919, when the book was set, playing for the Boston Red Sox, also from the LOC.

Monday, 28 November 2016

You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming

published 1964

12th book in the James Bond series

You Only Live Twice

And then, following the path on the other side of the lake, two strolling figures came into his line of vision and Bond clenched his fists with the thrill of seeing his prey.

Blofeld, in his gleaming chain armour and grotesquely spiked and winged helmet of steel, its visor closed, was something out of Wagner, or, because of the oriental style of his armour, a Japanese Kabuki play. His armoured right hand rested easily on a long naked samurai sword while his left was hooked into the arm of his companion, a stumpy woman with the body and stride of a wardress. Her face was totally obscured by a hideous bee-keeper's hat of dark-green straw with a heavy pendent black veil reaching down over her shoulders. But there could be no doubt! Bond had seen that dumpy silhouette, now clothed in a plastic rainproof above tall rubber boots, too often in his dreams. That was her! That was Irma Bunt! Bond held his breath. If they came round the lake to his side, one tremendous shove and the armoured man would be floundering in the water! But could the piranhas get at him through chinks in the armour? Unlikely! And how would he, Bond, get away? No, that wouldn't be the answer.

You Only Live Twice 2

commentary: What a strange book this is. It has a memorable, dream-like feel to it, and the Japanese setting is very well-done and intriguing. Fleming, as was his wont, includes plenty of local colour and explanations, with his safe assumption that 99% of his readers had never been to Japan and were not likely ever to go. So the multiple details include James Bond dressed up as Japanese (!!), and the local ways with raw fish, fugu and even live lobster (which crawls away from Bond).

In the usual mystifying manner, Bond at one point ‘finds a Palomar pony to run with’, which seems to have the meaning of finding a drinking companion, and also needs to have the word ‘poofter’ explained to him.

There is an extraordinary passage on the kamikaze phenomenon (as described by the Palomar pony):
It was a terrible and beautiful thing to see an attack wave going off. These young men in their pure white shifts, and with the ancient white scarf that was the badge of the samurai bound round their heads, running joyfully for their planes as if they were running to embrace a loved one. The roar of the engines of the mother planes, and then the take-off into the dawn or into the setting sun towards some distant target that had been reported by spies or intercepted on the radio. It was as if they were flying to their ancestors in heaven.
I’m going to pinch the Wikipedia description of the main plot: ‘Tanaka asks Bond to kill Dr. Guntram Shatterhand, who operates a politically embarrassing "Garden of Death" in an ancient castle; people flock there to commit suicide. After examining photos of Shatterhand and his wife, Bond discovers that "Shatterhand" and his wife are Tracy's murderers, Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Irma Bunt. Bond gladly takes the mission, keeping his knowledge of Blofeld's identity a secret so that he can exact revenge for his wife's death. Made up and trained by Tanaka, and aided by former Japanese film star Kissy Suzuki, Bond attempts to live and think as a mute Japanese coal miner in order to penetrate Shatterhand's castle.’

Dr Shatterhand! What a great name.

We are helpfully given a long boring list of plants that might be poisonous, and there does seem to be one hole in the plot: we are repeatedly told that the Japanese care nothing for death, while actually respecting suicide, so it doesn’t make sense that they are so anxious to get rid of what is excellently described in the book as ‘a Disneyland of Death’. Also, could Bond not have infiltrated the garden by pretending to be a would-be suicide?

But it is churlish to ask these questions, as there is so much to enjoy. I liked this description of the debased British who have lost their moral fibre:
we now see a vacuous, aimless horde of seekers-after-pleasure - gambling at the pools and bingo, whining at the weather and the declining fortunes of the country, and wallowing nostalgically in gossip about the doings of the Royal Family and of your so-called aristocracy in the pages of the most debased newspapers in the world.
With a few changes (lottery instead of pools, pop stars and celebrities instead of aristocracy) it sounds like a newspaper editorial of today.

Bond has a go at haiku, and uses Freddie Uncle Chuck Katie as a euphemism while discussing the Japanese lack of swear words. He eats pemmican (just like the Swallows and Amazons of recent blogging). There is a fascinating encounter with some huge and worrying statues.

The whole thing is terrific fun, with a surprising ending including James Bond’s obituary. But there is still another Bond novel to come…

Photo of Japanese warrior from the National Museum of Denmark.

Archer drawing from a 19th Century book on Japan.