Friday, 6 May 2016

1957 Book: End of Chapter by Nicholas Blake


published 1957


End of Chapter




[Private investigator Nigel Strangeways has been brought in to look at trouble in a London publishing house]

‘My name is Strangeways,’ he told the receptionist. ‘I have an appointment with Mr Geraldine.’…

[They have a short conversation]

Nigel studied the girl. A handsome creature, in a gipsyish way; about 23 and tries to look older: very self-contained behind her horn-rimmed glasses; couldn’t have worked here long, but was already using the publishers ‘we’ to the manner born. Some quality in her speech made him ask:

‘Were you at Somerville?’

‘Oh dear, does it stick out like that?’

‘What did you read?’

‘History.’

‘Do all right?’

‘Well, actually I got a First.’ The admission, accompanied by a gauche sideways jerk of the head, took several years off her apparent age.

‘But you’re stuck at the end of a telephone?’

‘The firm likes one to start at the bottom of the ladder. If I make good with the callers, they’ll promote me to secretary – and some reading, perhaps.’

‘The Victorian regime, eh? I see you’re writing a book in between times.’

Flushing, the girl thrust some MS pages under a blotter.


 
commentary: A book for 1957 and Rich Westwood’s Past Offences meme.

The publishers’ office is a setpiece of a certain kind of novel – the author doesn’t really need to describe the office, or the people in it, as they are all the same. The date doesn’t seem to matter much either. PD James and Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) have both written crime stories set in publishers’ offices – it’s a pity DL Sayers never did, I think she’d have produced a winner. And book production features in many a young woman’s novel – like the receptionist above, that feverish writing, and the hopes of a novel-writing future: see Muriel Spark’s Loitering with Intent, and Mary McCarthy’s The Group. Literary agents are much the same: see Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, while Amanda Craig’s Vicious Circle is in the know about every aspect of arty London. LC Tyler’s sleuthing team consists of a writer and his agent. Angela Thirkell’s books are full of publishers coming down to the country for the weekend, to visit a favoured author. (She is the Mary Sue of all Mary Sues in this respect.)

So we all know where we are in the publishers’ office, and as you might expect from the passage above, this book doesn’t spring any surprises in characterisation. The plot involves a set of libellous military memoirs, a romantic novelist who is causing trouble all over, a poet who produced one masterpiece, and some other stock characters from central casting. I thought it was rather routine, Blake was phoning it in, and I couldn’t muster all that much interest in who had had a relationship with whom 30 years previously.

Half the plotlines seemed unresolved at the end of the book, despite Blake freely giving rather stern and unhelpful advice to everyone about their love-lives and futures. The kickoff for the book, the potential libel, is not mentioned in the ending.

So those are my criticisms. On the other hand, Nicholas Blake was the pseudonym of C Day Lewis, a poet I very much admire, and as part of the plot pivoted on some poetry, it was most interesting to read what he had to say about it.

As a book of 1957, it was refreshing to read that the older characters have no time for the young people of the day, who do not know the difference between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’, and who frown a lot:
how very stern the young are, thought Nigel.
The senior woman publisher is horrified to find that the receptionist above is sleeping with her boyfriend:
‘Miriam?’ exclaimed Liz Wenham. ‘But she’s a First in History.’
There’s a slighting reference to glossy magazines: ‘written by career girls for veneer girls.’ (completely shoehorned in and irrelevant, the author was obviously looking for an opportunity to use this aphorism.) There’s a very dubious young man who wears silk pyjamas and has hamsters running round in his flat.

A reference to National Service sets off a spark in the plot, and there is a junior employee (‘considerably less scholarly-looking than most of the firm’s female employees’) who talks of her heartthrob, the singer Johnny Ray (see the first line of Come on Eileen by Dexy’s Midnight Runners). There are nice descriptions of London – the office is near the Strand, and the Embankment and bridges are carefully featured. And there’s a very authentic feel to the London and office life of the time.

So it was a good read for 1957, though not one I think everyone should rush out to get hold of.

The young woman above is a portrait of Miss M Steele, by Patricia Preece, from the Imperial War Museum, used with their kind permission.
























22 comments:

  1. I have only read the Blake books from the 30s and 40s I think and have mostly liked them - this really sounds a bit dull though, shame.

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    1. Yes Blake's quality does tail off, the later they are published and his final Strangeways novel is just plain disturbing and creepy.

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    2. Sergio, I never dislike them, but I do think the quality varies a lot...

      ...and Kate, I'm off to see which one you mean, and discover whether I have read it.

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  2. Glad to hear this one gives a good picture of the late 1950s, Moira. But I know exactly what you mean about 'phoning it in.' Pity, too, as Blake/Day-Lewis did some terrific novels.

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    1. Yes, I think I'm disappointed because I know that he can be good. And it was entertaining in its way...

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  3. Yes, some of the later ones are pretty ropy. Still there are always things to enjoy, as you say, and I especially like the idea that a First of History puts you above sexual activity.

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    1. Yes, there are always moments like that, and it's a quote I will remember. But in fact Blake/Strangeways is surprisingly judgemental, you know when the author just starts describing a person's room, and you know at once if the character is good or bad? I expected better of him.

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  4. I just purchased the Rue Morgue Press editions of the first two books in the series, primarily for the introductions that are in those editions. Otherwise I would have gone for vintage editions. I guess I will concentrate on the earlier novels.

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    1. I'd love to hear if the intros are helpful/illuminating, Tracy, let me know when you get to them. I do love a good introduction....

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  5. I feel like I ought to be more forgiving of authors who "phone it in" as I get older and realise that I too am not always putting in 100% effort in my day job anymore...but of course I am human so able to accommodate my own hypocrisy :)

    I have some sense that I've read quite a few books set in/around publishing but I can only think of Julie Kaewert's series from the 90's and a series from the 40's/50's by Frances Lockridge (actually a husband and wife team writing together) - the protagonists are also a husband and wife and he is a New York publisher and I recall at least one of the books taking place mostly in his office. My mum used to have a whole set of these but I've no idea where they disappeared to - how handy it would be now to have them to hand for the Crimes of the Century

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    1. Excellent point Bernadette - perhaps if someone were writing blogposts about my aged activities they might find room for criticism!
      Yes, for Crimes of the Century you need those authors who reliably turned out a book a year.

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  6. I just read this one, and I totally agree. Some of the earlier books are very enjoyable, but this is really dull. The quality of the writing is very good, but it was rather an empty experience. I certainly got the feeling that he wanted to write something about publishing, thought that he could shoehorn it into a Strangeways story, but couldn't work up a good enough plot. I do sometimes think that, by the end of his career, he fell into that habit of thinking that a story is a detective story if it has a detective in it.

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    1. Yes, it annoyed me because I think it could have been much better - and a publishers' office really should be a good setting.

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  7. This one obviously didn't float your boat, but it sounds just dandy for me -- I must try to find a copy.

    I'm a sucker for mystery novels set in book-publishing offices (except for the dull-as-ditchwater PD James one to which you allude). I wish Michael Gilbert had written one!

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    1. Well I would read it anyway, if I read someone else's unenthusiastic review of it (sorry, does that make sense)- I like Blake, and I like office mysteries, and a publishers' would be particularly good. So go on, enjoy! it's not that bad... And yes, once you start to think, plenty of authors should have tackled that. Gilbert SO good on legal office in Smallbone, one of the best office mysteries of all.

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  8. I've just rememnbered...Margery Allingham wrote a whodunnit set around a publishing house. FLOWERS FOR THE JUDGE has books, a murder, office politics amd a hidden manuscript. A possibility for the future?

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    1. A long time since I read that, and had not remembered it was set at a publishers (I have about four clear images from it which intrigue me and possibly spoiler it...). Definitely must get it out! Watch this space...

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  9. I'm not sure if I've encountered Nicholas Blake, I don't think I knew he was C. Day Lewis (I have a funny story about him, apparently an ex-partner's mum used to babysit his son Daniel (yes, that Daniel) and apparently Daniel liked her because she allowed him to have baked beans on toast, which C.Day Lewis thought was rather vulgar.

    Funnily enough I've just started reading a book I picked up, Ten Little Herrings, in which the protagonists are a literary agent and one of her novelist clients who's a bit untrustworthy... So far I'm not absolutely sure if I like it, but it's still keeping me going.

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    1. I'm VERY fond of one of Day Lewis's Magnetic Mountain poems which is such a fantastic vent of spleen against society in general, ending with the superbly ageless couplet, "Closet Napoleon, you'd better abdicate, You'd better quit the country before it's too late."

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    2. What a sweet story about the formidable Daniel! Formidable family I think, there's a scary cook called Tamsin too. And your herrings book is, I think by LC Tyler whom I mention above - I haven't read the one you have.

      There are a couple of Day Lewis poems that I love - don't know the one you mention. Those lines totally belong in a political pop song, you can just hear them being shouted out can't you?

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    3. The whole poem is VERY much a political pop song long before its time. I put it up here 13 years ago. (Yikes.)

      http://maboo.livejournal.com/319338.html

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    4. That's fascinating, and, as you say, very uptodate. Is it Billy Bragg who is in my head singing it, or do you suggest someone else?

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