Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Some Deaths Before Dying by Peter Dickinson

published 1999






[Rachel is thinking about her dead husband’s war experiences, when he was in a Japanese POW camp]

At Cambi Road reunions veteran after veteran, some of them still half-broken men, had taken her aside to tell that they wouldn’t have made it through, but for the Colonel….

The men at the reunions seemed not to envy Jocelyn his return to fitness. One of them, still in his wheelchair, said as much to Rachel once.

“Good to see the Colonel looking so grand. I’d hate to see him stuck in one of these things.”

For his part Jocelyn would have preferred to miss out on these meetings,. The war was over, and he was in any case almost wholly uninterested in the past. He went, really, because the men wanted him there, but that was something he would have refused to acknowledge. He did it, he said, because he needed to talk to the men and check whether there was any way in which he could help them.



observations: At the beginning of Jo Walton’s Farthing – a book I read and blogged on recently, and loved – she mentions Some Deaths Before Dying in her acknowledgements, though in terms of someone else’s academic comments on it. Coincidentally, I came across a splendid quote from Peter Dickinson in some other reading - apparently, in a piece called ‘In Defence of Rubbish’, he wrote:
Nobody who has not spent a whole sunny afternoon under his bed rereading a pile of comics left over from the previous holidays has any real idea of the meaning of intellectual freedom.
You have to like him for saying that – the signs were good for me to re-read this.

In terms of the puzzle and detection, this is a great book, with a terrific opening concept: A valuable gun appears on a British TV show called The Antiques Roadshow, and some people who see it know that this gun is not where it should be. And they want to know what happened.

There is then a long painstaking process of following this up, tracking down people, contacting them and asking them questions. (I didn’t find this dull, though sometimes the level of ‘well I’ll have to check with him and then get back to you’ seemed pointless, and could have been omitted.) There is an important backstory dealing with the incidents mentioned above, a group of men in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War.

We get the story via three different people, but the most compelling narrative is that of Rachel: elderly, dying of motor neurone disease, and entirely reliant on other people, but very anxious to investigate what has happened. Her story, and her perceptions on age and disability, were absolutely riveting. (Dickinson himself was in his 70s when he wrote the book.) There were some unexpected turns in the story, and I was impressed with the plot twists. And he has some lovely turns of phrase – I liked this, where a character is getting the full force of a conversation with an old soldier: ‘she could see how this look might once have awed paraded regiments, but it had no effect on her. It lacked the password to her controls.’

I am a long-time fan of Dickinson, and admire very much his novelistic achievements (his book Death of a Unicorn is on the blog here), and about 90% of this book was highly enjoyable in terms of following the story and very much wanting to know the explanation. The very final pages were somewhat dislikeable, and contained a copout. It didn’t quite make sense to me, and too much was left unresolved. So I can’t say it’s a five-star must-read – but it is an extremely good book.

This is a picture of some prisoners in a similar situation after they had been freed at the end of the war (although they are RAF), and is from the Imperial War Museum.

Another Japanese POW camp featured in the book The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng, here on the blog

22 comments:

  1. An interesting book which at another time would have me rushing off to find a copy. I think I have a Gilbert (?) on the pile that involves POW's in the Far East.

    A recent book/film read/watched combo involving this particualr war theatre was Eric Lomax's The Railway Man which starred Colin Firth. Either are worth a bit of anyone's time.

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    1. I think the Gilbert is actually a German POW camp, but I could be wrong (or maybe he wrote 2!). You're the second person to recommend The Railway Man so I may have to watch it, even though it sounded too gloomy for me.

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    2. Death in Captivity - set in Italy! You know me Moira, I'm never one to hide my ignorance under a bushel.
      Hmm... Big Bang Theory was recommended to me/us by friends. We managed to sit through about 20 minutes before reaching for the remote. I'm no longer talking to them now - haha

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    3. Both wrong, which is fair enough, and somehow unsurprising. TracyK read it recently didn't she? - we need her to keep us in order.
      We love BBT in our house, I think we've seen every episode. Give it another chance!

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    4. Me more wrong than you, as they could well be prisoners of the Germans. Yes I got it after Tracy reviewed it.
      Re BBT - that's what they said, give it a chance.
      The kids groaned when we put it on the first time and have jeered at us ever since... remember watching the BBT dad, that was great wasn't it? while all 3 of them explode with laughter ...it's horrible being a parent in our house!

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    5. It's the same everywhere - in our house it was the opposite - 'what, you mean you've never watched this? You poor uncool souls.' Can't win, but we knew that, didn't we?

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  2. Moira, I was reading your review when I was completely waylaid by Peter Dickinson's quote "In Defence of Rubbish." I'd like to think he'd me in mind when he wrote it down except I read my comics everywhere, and still do. Thanks for sharing it. Comics has had a history of being labelled as "rubbish" and "alternative trash." Only a dimwit would decry good ol' comics and cartoons.

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    1. Prashant, I literally thought of you when I found that quote and inserted it into the post at the last minute. I think we should all copy it out and have it hanging over our desks because it is a great thing to say! I also thought of the TV programme Big Bang Theory, whose characters all love comic books - do you ever see that programme?

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    2. Moira, we are watching "The Big Bang Theory" currently and we enjoy it a lot, especially the deadpan humour and sarcasm. I also envy the comic-book store. Here, in India, a small section in a bookstore is devoted to comic-books and graphic novels but nothing on the scale of those in the West. What I like about Sheldon and the gang is that they have a great time, playing games and buying comics, in spite of not being there, if you know what I mean.

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    3. I think it is a charming programme and it really makes me laugh.

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  3. That take on intellectual freedom -- wonderful! And this sounds like a book I will need to track down.

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    1. Well worth it Vicki, and yes, you can safely expect a lot from someone who can say that about intellectual freedom.

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  4. Moira - I love that comment about intellectual freedom! And I love the idea of the perspective in this novel. It's innovative and sounds as though it's also quite revealing. Interesting premise too - a gun seen on a TV episode. That's quite believable. Sorry to hear you felt a bit let down by the ending, but this certainly sounds worth a read.

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    1. I did feel the ending was absurd, but I also enjoyed the rest of the book so much that I was prepared to forgive....

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  5. Very interesting review and comments. He is a very distinctive and elegant writer. I've read a few of his books only, but was impressed by his willingness to try something different and once attended a talk he gave, in which he discussed the overlap between his children's books and his mysteries.. The Michael Gilbert novel is set in a POW camp based on the one where he was held himself and is truly excellent.

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    1. Thanks Martin - I think Dickinson is interesting for being so very establishment (old Etonian) and writing books that seem as though they will be very classic, but then he subverts your expectations.

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  6. For Orwell it was back numbers of the Girl's Own Paper - from 1910.

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    1. I was thinking about Orwell, another Old Etonian, wrote about boys' weeklies too. He was interested in Frank Richardson, who wrote the Billy Bunter stories and comics - he suggested that it must be a cover name for a team of authors, as the output was too great for one person. He was greatly surprised to get an affronted note from Frank R himself, testifying that he personally wrote everything with his name on.

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  7. Wow, this just came out today and there are still loads of comments. I cannot keep up with it all. I love Dickinson's books. (I haven't read this one yet but have it on the stacks.) I think I had the same problem with the end of The Last House-Party, but I love his writing so much I have to try every book, although I have not yet tried any of the Young Adult books or the sci fi / fantasy ones.

    I love Big Bang Theory as do the rest of my family. We have watched every season (except the last) twice and I could do it again. I think it is a love / hate thing... some people just don't get it.

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    1. Tracy I agree exactly with what you say about Dickinson, and exactly about The Last House Party. His YA books are very different, but one called Eva was very memorable. But I prefer the crime fiction.
      I'm sure Col would love Big Bang if he gave it another chance. We did start watching it because our son liked it, but it definitely won us over completely.

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  8. Moira: I think every photo I have seen of Allied soldiers in Japanese prison camps has the men barely clad. As in this photo most have the simplest of clothing and quite a number are without shirts. The absence of clothing is telling of the cruel conditions they endured.

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    1. Bill, I looked at a number of pictures of released prisoners, and chose this one because - relatively speaking - the men looked cheerful and not too dreadful. There were some very affecting ones, similar I'm sure to the ones you have seen, but I felt that however respectfully I intended it, it would not be appropriate to use them for a (again, relatively) light-hearted purpose.

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