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Archive for the ‘***’ Category

Another Ruth Rendell beach read from last week, and it was a very good one. This sees Inspector Wexford on his home ground in Kingsmarkham, where Sergeant Caleb Martin is shot dead during a bank robbery. Then, six months later, a ghastly tragedy unfolds — at isolated Tancred House, home of novelist Davina Flory,  five bullets murder Flory, her husband, and her daughter, spilling blood everywhere. Only Daisy, Davina’s 17-year-old grand-daughter, survives injured, but her memories of the massacre are far from clear. Wexford is convinced that the two cases are linked, but how could they possibly be? And as he tries to get to the bottom of the Tancred House massacre, he finds himself also trying to cope with estrangement from his beloved daughter, Sheila; he disapproves of her engagement to pompous novelist Augustine Casey and this angers her.

There are a large number of characters and Rendell, as usual, throws us a few red herrings, though it must be admitted that after a point, these are weak and transparent. This wasn’t, in all honesty, a difficult murderer to guess; I had part of the solution figured out fairly soon. But it is, in terms of psychologically believable character behaviour, a very fine book. Rendell sets up a world in which a particular sort of morality prevails, motivating her characters to act the way they do. This is verging on a sort of social commentary, though to say that would be to agree that Rendell’s dark vision is our reality; I’m not convinced it is, though it is a plausible organic whole. Particularly fascinating is the insight into Wexford’s own family relationships, as we are reminded that even policemen, who must objectively enforce the law, are not free of their own particular quirks and biases.

Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter‘s prose creates an appropriately brooding, creepy atmosphere around Tancred House, mostly because of Rendell’s descriptions of the thick woods that form part of the estate. The woods and their trees are with us right through the book, mute witnesses to much of importance in this tale, their shadows perhaps inspiring much of it. Rendell is, in some sense, indicting the society she’s created, and it’s not pleasant to watch as it reveals itself deserving of that indictment. Reading this, I was terribly, terribly chilled.

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I must admit it; I’m madly envious of Ruth Rendell. Not because she’s a best-selling and critically acclaimed author, not because she’s a Member of Parliament, not even because she’s a good buddy of P.D. James. My envy is rather directed at one of her skills as a writer; I just wish I could come up with great titles the way she does. This is one talent I most definitely lack; witness my boring “booktitle-author” post headings here. Rendell, on the other hand — I haven’t read much of her work and was not overly thrilled by what I did, but there is no doubt that if ever there was an author whose very titles dragged you into their world and intrigued the pants off you, it is her. The Copper Peacocks, Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter, A Guilty Thing Surprised, A New Lease of Death, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, and my favourite, Shake Hands Forever, from the lovely poem by Drayton — they’ve all got irresistable titles. I love the aforementioned P. D. James, but I’m afraid nobody could ever say that The Black Tower or Original Sin had inspired titles.

Of course, all of this is just leading up to saying that The Speaker of Mandarin has a marvellous title. Which isn’t to say it isn’t a good book, but this particular good book definitely begins with its title — exotic and strange and demanding you pull it off the shelf. As it does suggest, this is a book with a Chinese connection. Rendell’s detective, Inspector Reg Wexford, starts out the book  touring parts of China along with a persistent local guide, and, during the tour, encounters a large tour group of people who have spent six weeks crossing Eurasia by rail. Definitely cause for some stress, even for train-lovers. Things aren’t going that well; Wexford is being followed round by a mysterious old Chinese woman with bound feet, and then, on a river cruise, one of the local men on the boat falls overboard and drowns. Still, it’s not until some months later, and back in Britain, that murder comes into the picture — one of the people on the tour is shot in the head, and Wexford is in charge of the police investigation.

I may not be very fond of Rendell’s psychological thrillers, acclaimed as they are, but I do like her detective stories, and this one manifests some of her best skills. She’s adept at working with plots that hinge on coincidental connections and intuitive unravelling of them and does a truly excellent job of throwing in an appropriate red herring at just the right time. I’m not entirely sure Rendell plays fair on giving us enough information to figure out the solution, but she does give us enough to tantalize and keep us guessing. It’s a clever plot for certain, not an easy one to get to the bottom of.

This is a book that starts out slowly and needs some patience, with Wexford wandering through China, before going on to the core murder investigation. But, not only is China very important to the plot, Rendell also does a fine job of evoking the tourist experience of a strange country. Half of the time Wexford spent in China, I desperately wanted to travel there; the rest of the time, I decided it was just too odd! In the end, it turned out that more hinged on that title phrase than I could have imagined.

It’s testimony enough to Rendell’s skills at play in the Wexford novels to say that after reading this, I decided I had to get hold of some of the others in the series. However, I also decided I didn’t want to get into drinking green tea. Puzzled? Read the book. I’m not telling.

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One trend I haven’t really kept abrest of is that of the glut of fantasy series written for kids in the aftermath of the Potter phenomenon. I like a good adventure story with some inventive magic thrown in as much as, and perhaps even more, than the next person (I still adore Edith Nesbit, one childhood favourite I’ll never grow out of), but walking into the children’s section in book shops and seeing very little other than the fantasy authors du jour is a little tiresome. 13-year-old Cousin Kimmy had, however, suggested Jonathan Stroud, so he was on a to-read list — and the trip we took last week to Goa seemed like a great excuse to pick up the first in his Bartimaeus Trilogy. Nothing like a fat, exciting, low-stress beach read, eh?

And Stroud did deliver, with a novel that was great fun to read and has me wanting to get hold of the next in the trilogy as soon as possible. The basic premise might sound very similar to that of the Potter books — young boy, no family, being trained in magic in a world where magic coexists with ordinary life. But that’s where any semblance of similarity ends. While Harry had a definite renegade villain in the shape of Lord Voldemort, Stroud gives us a world more complex, where everyone seems to exist in a grey moral area. The magical government of Stroud’s Britain isn’t necessarily streamlined; there seem to be a variety of factions and power struggles within its hierarchies. The so-called “enemy” in fact, isn’t actually outside the system. This throws, as you can imagine, all sorts of codes of behaviour into uncertainty; and you can never tell where the next “villain” is going to come from. Perhaps, in fact, the villain is actually the one from whose eyes we peer out at this world…

We do all of this peering from two perspectives — that of Nathaniel, a young apprentice magician, and that of Bartimaeus, the djinni he summons to do his will. Ah, you’d say, he probably wants to rid his magical world of some dark menace and needs a djinni to do the work for him (in Stroud’s magical world, most magical tasks are carried out by magical beings; humans only give the orders). This is where I was first startled and intrigued; Nathaniel isn’t intent on dispelling some evil, not at all. What he’s after is revenge — he wants to get back at Simon Lovelace, a powerful senior magician, at whose hands he has suffered humiliation. It’s true that Lovelace is ruthless and attempting to wrest power for himself… but this isn’t Nathaniel’s primary concern and he only realizes it later. Something very interesting is happening here, because it really is impossible to tell what sort of magician Nathaniel is going to grow up into. There is a humanity, a capacity for caring in him, but it seems circumstantial, evident only in certain contexts, and there’s no telling what adverse circumstances could do to him and what sort of moral centre he will develop.

This dark vision of youthful magical initiative is conveyed most effectively by the use of two voices — an omnicient third-person narrative telling us the story as Nathaniel experiences it and a first-person one that is the voice of the djinni Bartimaeus. Nathaniel is a complex and enigmatic character, but it is Bartimaeus who really carries the book, with his sharp-tongued, jaded commentary and his breadth of knowledge of Nathaniel’s magical world, coming from his great age of 5000 years. The third-person parts of the story are usually full of adventure and Stroud’s own brand of highly vivid description that draws you in, but it’s Bartimaeus who is always funny and readable; I found myself perking up every time I turned a page and found him speaking on the other side.

My one serious quibble with The Amulet of Samarkand is just that it lacks a certain philosophical balance. Bartimaeus, like every other magical servant, is aware that he can’t escape human orders, even while he might have an opinion on them, and hence, tends to be detached from the moral dilemmas of the tale. This gives us only a view of an approach that is largely opportunistic, aggressive, intent on self-preservation, and even somewhat petty; there is no denying that Nathaniel lacks (in this first part of the trilogy at least) a certain morality. This is interesting, up to a point, but there is also a further point at which having some sort of contrasting vision embodied in some way and drawing Nathaniel into inner conflict would really propel this book far out of the ordinary; there’s only so much that physical chases and confrontations can do. I have my hopes that Stroud might do this in the second and third installments. For now, well, I enjoyed this; and no, it wasn’t just because I was reading it in the shade of palm trees at the beach.

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Noel Stretfeild

Noel Streatfeild (from the Lewisham Heritage collection)

One of my favourite books as a child was Noel Streatfeild’s Party Frock, inherited from my mother via my aunt, in an old hardcover edition, the pages brown with dust and age.  It was a book to ease gently into and wallow in, a book full of odd little characters trying to do something distinctly strange. It is wartime in England and a family of children is trying to put up a village pageant to give a 14-year-old cousin the chance to wear a lovely party frock sent over from America by a godmother who has no idea that such party frocks no longer have any uses in an England under rationing, where parties no longer happen on a grand style. The book is all about the details of how such a production comes to pass, no more. But it is charming and completely delightful, in an uneventful, calming sort of way, as a group of perfectly ordinary people start coming together in an effort to achieve a small success.

When I read Streatfeild’s most famous book, Ballet Shoes, I was a little older but not too young to realise that it was very different from Party Frock. The children of Ballet Shoes were also interested in the stage, but they were complete professionals, driven by ambition. To dance; to act; to sing;  to be the best at this and to earn money for doing it—that was what they wanted and it was a world very far from the slow village setting in which the pageant is attempted. I liked it but never loved it the way I loved Party Frock.

Streatfeild has never been easy to find, and I’ve read only a couple of her other books, also about highly ambitious little dancers and actresses. They are human, all right, but they’re all incredibly talented. And frankly, their earnestness  and drive was mildly alarming, almost an admonishment to the laidback child I was. I forgot about Streatfeild for years. Then, quite recently, I found The Painted Garden in a pile of used books being sold on the street and bought it on a whim. And this one, as stilted as it is in parts, finally takes me back in some sense to the ordinary children of Party Frock.

The Painted Garden is about Rachel, Jane, and Time Winter, who live in London but are just leaving for a trip to America; their father has been depressed after being involved in an accident that killed a child and the doctors believe that if he goes off to sunny California for the winter, he might get much better. The family is out of money, but the children’s governess (also their mother’s school chum) decides to spend all of an inheritance she has just received on their tickets. The children are reluctant to go at first; Rachel, a gifted dancer, has just got a part in a professional show, Tim, a prodigiously talented pianist, is going to be given lessons by a sought-after teacher, and Jane doesn’t want to leave her precious pet dog Chewing-gum behind. But they go, eventually. Rachel and Tim both manage to practice and learn, in some form or another, even so far away from home. But it’s Jane who is the surprise; the ordinary, untalented Jane, by a random chance, lands a leading role in a film of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. She’s delighted to finally be the important one, the one who can do something as well as the other two.

But acting  isn’t easy, and nor is being good-natured enough to work with lots of other people, even those you hate.  Suffice it to say that Streatfeild, with great insight, gives us a child character who is deeply flawed and yet lovable. Jane responds as a child would to the pressures of being a professional. She has a hard time at the studio and is child enough to throw a few tantrums and sulk considerably herself. Somewhere in the middle of the book, it is entirely uncertain whether Jane will finish her film. She isn’t like a lot of Streatfeild’s other child characters–for her the pressure is not what comes in the way of her career on the stage but rather the career itself, something she may have thought would bring her to an equal footing with her brother and sister, but which actually turns out to be something she doesn’t enjoy. For once, Streatfeild’s protagonist is an ordinary child. I enjoyed this and sympathised with her. And was surprised and pleased to find that Streatfeild, even when she writes about children in show business, knows better than to think that all of them ought to be there.

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Sometimes a book cover can really draw you in. I know my Ngaio Marsh–when I read something by her, I expect the urbane gentleman-policeman Roderick Alleyn, his artist wife Troy (if I’m lucky) and a bit of insight into how she works, Fox, his assistant, maybe an excellently drawn setting in the theatre world (nobody does that quite like Marsh), maybe a dab of New Zealand, maybe an English country house, and, of course, a murder or two for Alleyn to solve … it’s a set of fairly predictable elements. Which is why this cover was so dramatic– “the cat with eyne of burning coal” staring out… it’s almost hypnotic. And it hints at a theme or a setting not typically Ngaio. I grabbed the book.

And it did deliver on the cover’s promise.  An assassination takes place at a party at the Ng’ombwanan embassy in London—the lights go out, a woman screams, and when they come up again, our host, the Ambassador from Ng’ombwana (a fictional African country), is found dead in the middle of the Ng’ombwanan president’s pavilion, with a ceremonial spear sticking out of his back. It’s a complex investigation for Alleyn, not least because the president, his old school chum, also known as “the Boomer”, is determined to get the wheels of Ng’ombwanan justice moving, alongside and in fact overtaking those of British justice. How could a policeman tell a head of state that a tribal court would be a nuisance?

But ultimately, neither Alleyn nor the Boomer get to the first major clue. This is where one — oh, actually, two — of Marsh’s most endearing creations come in. Around the corner from the embassy lives the retired diplomat, Mr. Whipplestone, and his little stray cat, Lucy Lockett. And it’s Lucy who really kickstarts this investigation…

Mind you, it’s  not Marsh’s most finely plotted or characterized novel–it actually feels a bit slapdash. But both Mr. Whipplestone and Lucy are irresistable. Marsh lets us watch as Mr. Whipplestone, recently retired, strolls into a street, falls in love with a cottage, and impulsively decides to buy it; and then, again, as he repeatedly encounters a half-starved stray cat and decides that she will share his new home. It’s very cosy, almost twee, and yet, rather touching–it takes a real love of cats to write about human and animal bonding the way Marsh has here, even if she’s done it with a sense of amusement.

I loved, also, the Boomer. Oh, how he booms. He’s a madly memorable character, and Marsh does him the honour of having her artistic genius Troy wish to paint him and get the chance to, because the Boomer also wishes to be painted by her. And yet, he’s not entirely benign; old school chum he may be, but there’s a sense of enormous authority that he carries on every page. He both is and isn’t a caricature; he slips out of the African leader in the west mould in subtle ways, and you can see him as a human being as well as a symbol, albeit a human being rather larger than life.

Marsh, unlike Agatha Christie, is not overtly racist. Where Christie allowed favoured characters to subscribe to and express negative stereotypes about other races and nationalities, Marsh is actually very careful to make her Alleyn and Troy comfortable with the black characters. They acknowledge difference, they’re to some extent fascinated by it, but they’re able to look beyond it too. Racism is, in fact, a major plot point. It’s a different sort of tension in this Marsh—and an exciting one. This is, ultimately, uneven and Marsh doesn’t quite succeed in tying everything together neatly. But, if nothing else, I now do want a cat.

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Cover of 'The Devil's Novice' I have grumbled a bit about Ellis Peters recently and said that I am not sure why I bother reading her novels. Yesterday told me why. It’s because they’re not taxing. You don’t have to think too much. You could fall off to sleep somewhere and still continue reading. Perfect for reading when feeling under the weather, as I was.

That said, though this was an easy read, it is a more impressive outing than The Heretic’s Apprentice. The mystery centres on the connection between Brother Meriet, a new entrant to the monastery, who is deeply troubled by nightmares, and the disappearance of Peter Clemence, a cleric with friends in high places. One gripe is that it was too easy to figure out why Clemence had disappeared; Peters’ red herrings didn’t work on me. But who had done it and exactly how Meriet came into the picture–that was deviously plotted. And a nicely delineated prime suspect; Brother Meriet is given at least a tint of grey and allowed some interesting interaction with the other monks. A stimulating and simultaneously relaxing mystery–the freshly scrubbed cleanliness of Peters’ medieval world is a little more open to sullying than it normally is in her books.

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cecildaylewis
From left to right: W.H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis and Stephen Spender in Vancouver, 1949.

When it comes to detective novels, I am a self-confessed junkie. And, by now, a junkie with good taste–there are authors I won’t read and authors I just don’t like at all. But being a junkie means you’re always looking for your next fix–a bit of a problem if, like me, you’ve read your way through all the usual suspects and there’s no more of Christie or Marsh or Sayers or Allingham or James or Dexter left unread.

I end up browsing and re-browsing the detective novel shelves at Blossom, in the hope of finding something new and highly readable. That’s where I landed up with Nicholas Blake–I peeked in, thought the books seemed good, and walked off with a couple. It was only when I got home that I realised who Nicholas Blake was–he was actually Cecil Day-Lewis, British poet laureate and father of actor Daniel, writing detective fiction under a pseudonym, presumably to pay the bills so he could write poetry.

And, you know, I think I’ve found a new author to hunt down (and, thankfully, he wrote 20 detective/crime novels, which means he won’t be exhausted soon). Blake–or Day-Lewis–or Blake, I suppose–writes a superb murder mystery. He’s no John Dickson Carr–the plot wasn’t so devious that the murderer couldn’t be identified by the reader–but that’s not a bad thing at all. What he did here was write a tightly plotted, well-paced tale, set in the upper-class English environs that Christie and Sayers favour, with a set of characters that fit types but are rather more than mere stock. There’s the Loudron family: father Piers who disappears and then is found dead, daughter Rebecca and her “mountebank” painter lover, Walter; son James, another doctor who is mostly concerned with how things appear to his clients; Harold, the colourless younger son and his wife, Sharon, who completely overuses her sex appeal; and Graham, who, in the eyes of Blake’s detective Nigel Strangeways, resembles a fruitbat.

Strangeways himself, an assistant-at-large to the police, isn’t as strongly written as he could have been–there’s an impression of cynicism combined with astute observation skills and the ability to draw people out from behind their suspicions and expose themselves for what they are–and neither is his partner, sculptor Clare Massinger, though they’re both servicable enough to hold up their ends of the action. Blake’s real achievement here is in his loving, detailed etching in of the background to the novel–Greenwich and the banks of the River Thames. The novel employs a precision in description of these settings that does point to its writer being a poet; he combines utility, with the landscape important to the murder plot, with delight in this edge of the city of London. I most definitely look forward to digging through the shelves at Blossom for another Blake.

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