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There is nothing, I say, quite like a Wicked Man. Capital letters and all. And nobody writes them quite the way Georgette Heyer does. I don’t mean evil men, true villains; what I’m talking about here are the Regency bad boys, the ones who do everything they ought not to do by the social codes of the day but have a certain unshakable morality, alternative though it may be. Perhaps it’s just Heyer’s settings, several hundred years away from us, that give them their dash and excitement, the thrill of men who are dangerous and bold. To be sure, a Wicked Man is so much more delectable on a horse, with a sword, and wearing a powdered wig… even the foppish fashions of Heyer’s period romances, presented in loving detail, never make her heros seem anything but all male.

And it’s with those very fashions that she introduces her Wicked Man in These Old Shades. Justin, the Duke of Avon strolls along one evening in Paris, wearing a costume of incredible magnificence. We have just enough time to digest the fact that he is no ordinary passerby when he, and we, are thrown off balance by a red-headed urchin who races out of the shadows. The boy, Leon, is running from his brother, who follows soon after. The Duke looks into Leon’s face, observes his brother for an instant, and decides that he will buy the boy, “body and soul,” for a diamond pin.

The boy is introduced into the Duke’s household as his page; he goes everywhere with the Duke, who he plainly worships, for having rescued him from the sordidity of the existence he had living with his brother. All is not quite as it seems, and a few weeks exposes the truth — Leon the page is actually Leonie, a girl dressed as a boy. But that isn’t the only mystery about Leonie, and nothing will escape the Duke’s sharp eyes and long memory…

This is one of the first Heyers I ever read and I still enjoy it tremendously. It has a plot that is insanely dramatic and has more than a few sharp twists, but it is, ultimately, a search for justice and cannot but drag you in and make you cheer lustily for the side of the right. The book’s hero may not have the purest of histories (with a nickname like “Satanas” this is no surprise), but when he seeks out vengeance, it is much more for somebody weaker than it is for himself.  And if, by the end, he isn’t convinced of his own worthiness, we definitely are. Justin, Duke of Avon, is indeed one of Heyer’s most swoon-inspiring Wicked Men. Just as Leonie, the urchin turned beauty, is an intriguing, brave, and proud heroine, and also one of Heyer’s naughtiest creations.

Still, Justin and Leonie aside, I do think one reason I love this book is because of the supporting cast. Justin’s friend, the kind Hugh Devenant, almost as antithesis to Justin’s Satanas persona; his sister, the vain and silly, but tender-hearted Lady Fanny; his brother-in-law, pompous Edward Marling, who nonetheless has the capacity to be charmed; his brother,  the reckless, handsome, courageous Rupert; his neighbours, who aren’t on speaking terms with him, the Merivales; the wise old priest who has known Leonie since her childhood; Heyer writes them all in most lovingly, and gives them things to say that are charming, funny, delightful, memorable and even occasionally insightful. Even the fringe characters are memorable; for my part, I always grin when I recall Lady Fanny’s maid, Rachel, and her cry of “Lawks!” when she first realizes Leonie is a girl dressed in boy’s clothes. And Heyer’s chief villain here is, in some ways, her most dastardly.

Heyer chooses not to go into any detail on Leonie’s past and her life before the Duke buys her, and this is perhaps the only real stumbling-block. The book loses a certain emotional power by completely omitting any deep discussion of what Leonie may have faced, though it does, in passing, mention these “horrors.” Still, there is something to be said for the fact that we, as readers, and every character that encounters Leonie and loves her, all end up wanting to protect her and hoping that the villain gets his comeuppance. There may be an outward frivolity to the conversation, but these are all people who not only love Leonie but also are outraged by what her life has been made into by villainy before the Duke rescues her. Social justice this isn’t, but, to be fair, that’s never the point of a Georgette Heyer novel.

What this is, is a bit of highly pleasurable nonsense. Everybody larger than life and twice as wonderful — or evil — but with enough good storytelling to make it into a good book. Heyer shows us that a romance needn’t be stupid or boring or predictable; it can actually be full of wit and a grand amusement.

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I’m usually quite thrilled by detective novels set in academia. Something about dons and scholars and professors bumping each other off and stealing each other’s work and nursing grudges against each other, while holding forth on philosophy, literature, social sciences, and so on, pleases me to my bloodthirsty, pretentious core. A hit is a very palpable hit (witness my intense love for Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night); a miss, like this novel by Nicholas Blake, makes me downright gloomy.

To be fair, it has quite a serviceable plot. Blake’s detective, Nigel Strangeways, is staying at Cabot University near Boston (a thinly disguised Harvard), where he has become acquainted with the Ahlberg brothers, Chester of the business school, Mark of English literature, and Josiah of classics; Charles Reilly, an Irish poet; and Sukie Tate, Mark’s student and fiancée. Then, Josiah disappears and Strangeways ends up investigating his murder, assisting the police. Josiah wasn’t well-liked, not even by his brothers, so there are several suspects, including Sukie’s brother John, who was forced to drop his classical studies for a year after accusing Josiah of stealing his work. But something just doesn’t work for Blake here; everything seems tired and bit hackneyed, none of the characters are engaging, and the conversation is truly dull. Eventually, after Strangeways enjoys a strange gratuitous sexual interlude that comes completely out of left field, the book climaxes in an ill-advised chase and attack scene that fails to be at all exciting. But you know, by then, I honestly didn’t care. Very disappointing. I’m hoping that this one was a poor piece of work only because it was one of the last two Blake wrote.

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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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Sometime last year, I read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, a non-fiction reconstruction of the adventures of Christopher McCandless, a young man who chose to drop out of life as most of us know it and lose his identity and background in a new sort of life, one more “authentic” and “closer to nature,” wandering through the USA until his death in the Alaskan wilderness.

I put those quotation marks there quite deliberately and maybe even rather sardonically. Initially, I found the premise of the book fascinating, but somewhere along the way, McCandless lost any possibility of seeming heroic. He was ill-prepared for what he was trying to do and apparently lacking in the most basic common sense — who walks into the wilderness with no maps and no compass?  Krakauer, I’ve read, defended McCandless, saying that he just wanted to explore “a blank spot on the map” and therefore did not acknowledge any existence of a map. That’s one view; but I found McCandless supremely lacking in respect for either the wilderness or those who have struggled over the centuries to live in it and have accumulated knowledge to pass on, and Krakauer’s argument seemed equally so. Either which way, whatever your opinion on McCandless, it seems as if Into the Wild had a certain compelling quality, a resonance that came from McCandless’ aim, whether sensible or not, to transcend the ordinary life he was living at the point when he dropped off the radar and started on his wanderings. For is it not human to fear, in our hearts, that we are ordinary, mortal, forgettable, incapable of achieving anything more than the most mundane of drudgeries in our existences?

Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road (I have not seen the 2009 film) takes this fear of mediocrity and transplants it most skilfully into a suburban American front yard in the 1950s. Frank and April Wheeler are a young married couple, with two children, who suffer from one of the ills of our time — they have the luxury of space and time to move beyond mere seeking after food, clothing, and shelter but without knowing quite what to do with it, the capacity to see that their lives could be extraordinary but not the capacity to actually be extraordinary.  “Between the conception / and the creation,” as T. S. Eliot said, “falls the shadow…” April is beautiful and once was hopeful of being an actress before smart, smooth-talking Frank fell for her and they got married. When the novel opens, April is performing a lead role in a local amateur theatrical production that, unfortunately, falls flat. It is telling that it’s not a disaster or open to broad mocking — it simply fails, not spectacularly so. And her discontentment and restlessness come to a head, so that she and Frank persuade themselves and each other that they have to move beyond this ordinariness, beyond April’s housewifely and motherly duties and Frank’s dull, plodding, paper-pushing office job and live the dream — they decide that to truly make the most of their lives, they have to move beyond the sameness of suburban America and go to Europe.

What follows is told quietly, with a hint of wry, ironic humor and a good deal of attention to the detail of negotiation in the communication that comprises a marriage, but is bleak and uncompromising all the same, with a blunted edge of dead hopelessness to it. Just when their plans are laid, April finds that she is pregnant; and Frank finds that he is finally getting somewhere at work and begins to be unexpectedly comfortable with what is.  Yates isn’t going to give us an easy ending; the novel descends into a place of muted horror when April Wheeler takes a drastic decision that ends in tragedy.

Yates’ writing is, as I said, quiet. There are no verbal pyrotechnics here and his style is purely realistic, in a story told mostly from the third-person omniscient viewpoint of Frank Wheeler; April, thus, is always something of an enigma and this makes the trajectory of events all the more shocking when it is finally completely revealed. That descriptive style, verging on blandness, and the ordinary rhythms of conversation pinned down so accurately by Yates seem faintly nightmarish, as if all the potential for newness had been sucked out of them, leaving an infinite hollowness. It is a writing that underlines the sheer futility of the Wheelers’ dreams and plans for being extraordinary and brings a deeper psychological dimension to the reading of the novel, with a capacity to silently discomfit.

1950s suburban America is, to some extent, a staple of texts that mock conservative values and point to inauthenticity and the idea of there being better ways to live. But the Wheelers, with their desperate attempts to reject banality of existence, surely do not belong to that oft-damned milieu. Theirs is a story that has continuing relevance and can still wreak a certain inward havoc on a reader because the Wheelers are the seekers after a life less ordinary that all of us are or might have been, to some extent or another. They believe that they are different from the commonplace people around them, but we, all-knowing readers, can see that they are not, and it puts an uncomfortable mirror up to our own ideas about ourselves. Yates grants them no redemption and us no comfort.

But this book, oddly enough, considering how disturbing it is, has a certain spiritual and philosophical value that is hard to pin down but is somewhat akin to that of suffering. It can’t be defined because it is bound to be different for every reader that sees himself looking out of the eyes of Frank and April and for some, it won’t even be there at all. But it is Yates’ truly remarkable achievement that this book is not a facsimile of depression or a sentimental, romanticised banging against the sky; it never manipulates, it constructs a recognizable reality around its reading and becomes a true experience of despair. And why would anyone want to read a true experience of despair? Perhaps because it is so delicately crafted. Perhaps because it resonates anywhere where there is the dread of banality. Perhaps because it is part of the nature of life itself.

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Cover of 'Swan Song'Well, well, well. So what do you say to a detective novel in which, in response to a telegram saying that his brother has been found dead, a character says “DELIGHTED HOPING FOR THIS FOR MONTHS SUICIDE EH QUERY DONT BOTHER ME NOW CHARLES SHORTHOUSE”? The telegram reply is mad, quite mad; so is the character that sends it; and so, you might think, the man who invented this, Edmund Crispin. Mad, and deliciously so.

And this book is a bit of delicious madness. Crispin’s forte tends to be sheer farce, laced with wicked, clever witticisms and obscure literary allusions. His characters are extremes, for the greater part–extreme eccentrics, extreme geniuses, extreme philosophers, extreme all sorts of things–and this larger-than-life scale on which they operate often results in hilarity.  Gervase Fen, Crispin’s English professor of English Lit. and detective, is rather reminiscent, in approach, of the very silly Lord Peter Wimsey of Dorothy Sayers’ Whose Body, but, if anything, Fen is actually nutty where Wimsey seemed to affect nuttiness (and other novels in which  Wimsey features show us that the silliness masks a troubled mind). To Fen, a nice murder is a puzzle to be solved—there are no moral concerns here. He  seems, in fact, determined to enjoy himself as much as possible, even to the point of indulging in some completely off-kilter deception to get things done and to get information he wants. And of course, Crispin permits such deception for the purpose not of showing anyone what a genius at disguise Fen is—he decidedly isn’t, since he doesn’t bother with it—but simply because the result is good-natured, rollicking comedy.

In this case, Fen is called in to investigate the mysterious death of Edwin Shorthouse, a much-disliked opera singer.  We are in Oxford, where rehearsals are on for the first post-war production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Shorthouse has been found, hanged, in his dressing room, with the door locked. Suicide, eh? That’s what his brother says in the telegram quoted above. As it turns out, this is not suicide, but murder—but how do you murder somebody by hanging in a closed room, with a witness around to testify that nobody entered or left at the time of death? Somebody from among the opera’s cast and production members has been clever enough to do so, and it is Fen’s job to find out whodunit and how.

Suffice it to say that, as well as being a grand comic turn of a book, this is also a deviously plotted one. The investigation is complicated and the identity of the murderer a genuine surprise. It has the signature Crispin (and also John Dickson Carr) flaw of being a little too elaborate to be soved so neatly, but no matter; as it is for Fen, it is supposed to be a puzzle. Right through, Crispin treats us to pithy observations on each of the characters, on Wagner, on singers in general, on composers, and on whatever catches his fancy, really. The only false note is struck, I find, at a point when there is another death and tremendous sorrow for one of the characters. The black-comedic tone doesn’t wear very well all the time. It is murder and death and extreme hatred that we’re dealing with, after all; at times, a certain gravity we feel robs us of any enjoyment.

Still, I forgive a lot for the moment in the book when a little man says, reproachfully, to somebody just rescued from  an apparent suicide attempt: “Think of the nice birds, and the nice trees, and the nice bloody atom bombs, and all the things what make life worth living.” Now that is, most certainly, a worthy sentiment. But give me a nice bird and a nice tree and a nice bloody Edmund Crispin, and keep the atom bomb, dear sir.

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