Friday, 30 June 2017

The Vanished Man by Jeffrey Deaver

published 2003

Vanished Man

[The hunted criminal is talking to investigator Lincoln Rhymes]

The Conjurer whispered. ‘There’s a trick called the Burning Mirror. My favourite. It starts out with a vain illusionist looking in a mirror. He sees a beautiful woman on the other side of the glass. She beckons to him and finally he gives in to temptation and steps through. The woman’s now on the front side of the mirror. But there’s a puff of smoke and she does a quick change and becomes Satan.

‘Now the illusionist is trapped in hell, chained to the floor. Flames begin shooting up from the floor around him. A wall of fire moves closer. Just as he’s about to be engulfed by flames he gets out of the chains and leaps through the fire at the back of the mirror to safety. The devil runs toward the illusionist, flies into the air and vanishes. The illusionist shatters the mirror with a hammer. Then he walks across the stage, pauses and snaps his fingers. There’s a flash of light and, you’ve probably guessed, he becomes the devil… The audience loves it…’

Vanished Man 2

commentary: My good friend Bill Selnes, of the estimable Mysteries and More blog, recommended this one to me: he correctly guessed that I would love the many clothes that feature in the book, and the fact that quick changes, disguises, and the invisibility of a man in uniform would all be major features of the book.

It’s part of a series of books – the first one was The Bone Collector, also made into a film – about Lincoln Rhymes: a top NY investigator, paralyzed in a work incident, now surrounded by a team of friends and colleagues, and still helping to solve crimes despite his disability. (I couldn’t tell whether he was still on the force, or in a consultant role.) He specializes in detailed analysis of physical evidence, and is also brilliantly clever at trying to out-think the criminal.

This time he is chasing a killer who seems to be following a Vanished Man 3clear trail, but one that is hard to predict from outside. He is, it quickly becomes apparent, a hugely-talented illusionist, with hundreds of tricks at his fingertips. He uses these in quick succession to target his victims, and then to escape – even if he has been captured. This element of the plot is hugely inventive and imaginative – the reader is breathless from the endless list of different tricks and layers of deception.

I am always pulled in by magic and illusionists, and I absolutely loved reading about the ways magic tricks and shows are constructed. Rhymes recruits a young woman illusionist, Kara, to help them in the search, and her parts of the story are the most interesting.

Vanished Man 4

The book constantly turns the tables, from both criminal and sleuth’s points of view – you end up not believing anything you read. There are tense chases and violent incidents. If the criminal is on the point of being captured/killed halfway through a book – then you do know that isn’t going to happen right now. But Deaver certainly keeps up the interest, and just when you think you are one step ahead, you find you aren’t.

And the costumes and quick changes are, as Bill promised, riveting.

I don’t know if I would read more of this series (Deaver has written SO MANY books, it is quite off-putting) but I certainly loved this one.

You can find more evidence for my fascination with magic and illusions elsewhere on the blog.

Elly Griffiths Mephisto books feature an illusionist to great effect, and have featured some fine pictures of magic posters – see here and here. And then there is The Prestige by Christopher Priest (also a fine film) – another blogpost, and more great advertising images.

I did a couple of entries on Glenn David Gold’s marvellous Carter Beats the Devil – a great book about a magician – a few years back, see here, but obviously hadn’t managed to source good posters back then…

Top magician’s poster from the NYPL.

B/w pictures, also NYPL, show a New York theatrical production from 1974, called The Magic Show.

And then one more rather marvellous theatrical poster. There are SUCH wonderful magician posters on the internet…

Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig

published 2017

Lie of the Land

[Quentin is visiting his mother] He lets himself into rooms crammed with books and his mother’s work. To him, these look like glazed mud, but Naomi has built up quite following, and even exhibits in the craft galleries of Dartington and Tavistock.

‘Hello, dear.’

His mother is wearing her usual uniform of smock, trousers,
wellington boots and a pair of glasses on the end of a long necklace of large lumpy glass beads. Quentin kisses her soft, round crumpled face. She smells of verbena soap.

‘How are you, Ma?’ Quentin asks.

‘So-so. Tea?’

‘Coffee, please,’ says Quentin, remembering too late that this will mean Nescafe.

commentary: If you want to know what England is like right now, read this book.

It’s a very specific story, about a particular family with its own problems, it has a most un-metropolitan setting, and it has at its heart a very strange and gruesome crime. But it describes life in 2017 in the most hilarious, entertaining, wince-making, and real way.

A modern family is facing divorce and job loss: they move to Devon, to save money, and this is how the mother explains it to the children:

Lottie says, ‘Sweetheart, it’s like The Railway Children.' 
‘Is Daddy going to prison?’ 
If only, Lottie thinks. ‘No, we just don’t have much money for a bit. When we sell the house in London each of us will buy a really nice flat, I promise.’ 
‘Can’t you and Daddy not divorce?’ 
‘No, I’m sorry darling.’

They make the move and try to come terms with country life, after having been rich and very urban. They fight with each other, and try desperately to earn money. The children have the usual problems fitting in, and their mother is called in for a discussion in the headteacher’s office- all too recognizable as parents and children argue, the mothers trying to be Lie of the Land 2reasonable…
…The boys’ mother, a tall and unexpectedly pretty woman in a turquoise raincoat and bright pink wellington boots.. ‘Dexter, Tiger, I’m ashamed of you guys. Say sorry right now.’
There is a strong plot involving a previous inhabitant of their rented house, the local rich guy, a reclusive rockstar, and other villagers that they meet along the way.

They go back to London for visits – ‘ a Britain that is more confident, more tolerant, more civilized, more enterprising and more beautiful than the rest of the country. Even when it drives him mad… [London] is, far more than any woman, the love of his life.’

The characters are complicated and real – Quentin is hideous and vile in many ways, and no-one could not enjoy his attempts to get jobs from his past employees:
Quentin: When I came to work for you as an intern I made your coffee, fetched your dry-cleaning, covered your back and even cleaned shit off your shoes. You didn’t pay me lunch money let alone a living wage, and never once said thank you. You are the rudest person I have ever worked with. So you will understand why I say now, We have no vacancies of any kind that you might fill.
And yet he is rounded, and subtly – through his interactions with his parents, as above – we find out why he might be like that. And although you have to look quite hard, he does have a few redeeming moments. No-one in the book (maybe one person…) is all good or all bad: this is one of Craig’s marvellous talents. She doesn’t tell you who to like and dislike.

More or less, each chapter changes viewpoint – we learn what is going on in the lives of a wide variety of characters. The chapters often end on a low-level cliffhanger – we move on to another person, who will, perhaps, be thinking during a journey. So we get more info about what they are doing, and then they will be thinking back to what has happened since we last saw them. Now, I am the first to complain about this kind of thing - - it often drives me mad in books, and I consider many authors to be rather cheeky in expecting us to keep up with this switching and varying timelines. But Craig is so good at it, I never once felt annoyed or confused, and it was an excellent way to tell the story and to keep our attention and interest.

Throughout there are wonderful apercus about life, about people. The long protracted illness of one character, and the fears and thoughts about death, are particularly well-done. Then there is this:
His love lacks the crucial ingredient of imaginative sympathy. If Sally had to put her finger on the single worst characteristic of everyone who has ever inflicted harm on others, it’s the inability to comprehend that other people fell pain, humiliation and loss just as intensively as you do yourself.
I had to read that over several times, it seemed so perfect and so accurate.

I love Amanda Craig (her book A Vicious Circle is on the blog here), and I think she is a great, great writer, maybe a genius.  While she has plenty of sensible fans like me, I do not understand why she does not get every literary prize going. Could it be because she is funny? Or even, because she is a woman? I am not Jonathan Frantzen’s biggest fan, but he is generally agreed to be a great chronicler of American life, a writer of huge stature and status. But he is not better than Amanda Craig, with her long series of novels presenting recent life. And she isn’t the only writer I feel is very undervalued – look at Lissa Evans, Patricia Ferguson, Marina Endicott, and half the women writers featured on this blog.

The sculptor is Bashka Paeff, from the Smithsonian’s collection of photographs of American artists. Naomi in the book is a potter rather than a sculptor, but the picture seemed right. I do love a smock: see this entry for Arnold Bennett and Calvin & Hobbes and their takes on smocks. And this Patricia Wentworth book featured artsy crafty smocks too - the second picture featured here,  of artist Bertha Wegmann from the Royal Library of Denmark, was first discovered for that entry. 

The wearer of the turquoise coat is Amal Alamuddin, who married George Clooney.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

By Hook or By Crook by Emma Lathen

published 1975

By Hook or by Crook 1By Hook or by Crook 2

There were four pictures – two of them curling with age and two sepia fragments apparently cut from larger photographs.

Paul Parajian said slowly, ‘They’re pictures of the family. My God that’s Veron’s wedding!’

Looking back at his younger self he ruefully shook his head.
In the next picture, the scene was again a wedding, the gathering larger and more informal.

By Hook or by Crook 3

[Another family picture:] Paul Parajian grasped the hand of a boy in shorts. Verone had a small girl and a teenager.

‘Must have been underexposed,’ remarked Muller. ‘It’s awfully dark.’

‘No.’ Paul Parajian was lost in the past. ‘Everybody’s in black. Katina died giving birth to Gregory. I had almost forgotten. Veron and Haig were his godparents.’

By Hook or By Crook 5

commentary: I remembered this as being the best of the Emma Lathen books, the ones featuring banker John Putman Thatcher as a sleuth, and a re-read confirmed it. This is short, smart, satisfying book, and one that tells you a lot about the rug trade, and about life in 1975. It has bankers, rug dealers, family politics, long-lost relatives, possible impersonation, a lot of money, and a lot of jokes. What more could you want in any book, let alone a crime story?

The setup is perfect: a rich family of Armenian rug-dealers is about to welcome a re-discovered sister to their fold – she has been living in Soviet Armenia since WW2, while the rest of the family made their way to the USA as migrants and refugees. Thatcher’s bank, Sloan Guaranty, is involved because they have been looking after her share of the company. But – is it possible she is an impostor? Who is to say? And what are the grown-up children of patriarch Paul up to? Could they be trying to oust the old man? (You don’t have to have read many crime novels – or in fact to have lived in the world for long – to know the answer to that one.) So might this elderly lady’s vote be very important?

She arrives, there is a magnificently bad-tempered lunch, and then they all troop over to the bank. And someone dies. There is a whole family-full of suspects, and the question marks over origins. More and more suspicious circumstances emerge. And then another murder…

John Thatcher of course takes a hand, along with his regular collection of colleagues, each with his own character, a fruitful source of jokes. The useless bank chief Brad Withers makes his usual hilarious cameo. When the stiff, ultra-correct Everett has to go to a wedding straight from a bank meeting we get this:
‘Worried about whether you are wearing the right thing, Ev? These days, anything goes,’ Charlie said, making a summer-weight business suit sound like rhinestone-studded blue jeans.
In fact this is one of the tiny details of the book that I found interesting, outside the crime content. This is a rich family, and a fancy wedding, but there really is an implication that weddings are somehow becoming weirdly informal – the bride and groom have been living together, they don’t need serious clothes for their lives, and a guest wears a pink pantsuit. I think people thought then that weddings would become more and more casual affairs, but this is far from the truth in the UK and in the US, I would submit. And now more than ever guests would be expected to submit to a spelled-out dresscode…

One thing that has (we like to think) changed since 1975, to some extent – there is a comparison between the Executive Dining Room and the employees’ canteen, and one issue is that there will be no female company in the senior restaurant.

There are marvellous descriptions of buying and selling rugs By Hook or by Crook 7at all levels: a warehouse in Tehran, a mysterious spot in Lansing, Michigan, loading bays and customs sheds, an upmarket store on Fifth Avenue. Rug-dealing always does seem to be a trade that hasn’t changed in a thousand years.

The rug photographs here were taken at a market near my home last week…

Lathen (which was a pen-name for two women writers) always researched her subjects carefully, and passed the results on to the reader in an entertaining and informative way without being pushy. There was a different trade or topic for each book, and she really excelled herself with this one: I loved all the detail of the rugs. And it was interesting that in 1975 there were prescient worries about the future of Iran, and fears that the supply of rugs from there was going to dry up.

More quiet but enjoyable moments: one business associate says he wouldn’t put it past Paul Parajian to have stage-managed the whole imbroglio. His wife appears for two minutes in the book, with this:
This was too much for a woman who frequently made pot-roast for Paul Parajian with her own two hands. ‘Homer!’ she chided. ‘Nobody but you would think that!’
Couldn’t be a shorter cameo, but how perfect is that?

And there is a magic moment where a man hums a snatch of music to our banker friends:
Thatcher was no romantic about the 30s; nobody on Wall St is. And Everett was not romantic about anything. But as they stood outside the customs shed looking vainly for a cab, both men fell silent, recalling something lost in the mists of youth – a clear, haunting sliver of sound piercing the night.  

Briefly Everett forgot he was a banker. ‘You know,’ he said. ‘They don’t make music they way they used to.’
This book is the jewel in the Emma Lathen crown, and I am so glad to have read it again.

There’s a blogpost on the 1969 Lathen book When in Greece here on the blog.

Armenian bride and wedding procession from the NYPL.

Engraving of a bereaved Armenian family from the British Library via Flickr.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Dress Down Sunday: What Happened at Hazelwood by Michael Innes

published 1946


What Happened at Hazelwood 1

[Nicolette, Lady Simney, is roused late at night by the butler]

When Owdon came stumbling out of the study calling murder I was in the bathroom… There I was trying (you may say) to wash Hazelwood off myself at midnight – when I head Owdon’s voice raised in a ghastly yammering. Nobody could have mistaken the gravity of what such an uncontrolled hullabaloo must portend. I didn’t stop to dry but grabbed what was no more than a towel and was out in that corridor in a flash… I was at once struck by the immensity of our butler’s dismay.

Somebody had to be controlled, more or less; and I pulled myself together. The first consequence of this was the reflection that even if the whole of Hazelwood was dissolving in chaos that was no real reason for looking like an advert for bath-salts. I dodged back got rather damply into my wrap. And then I came out again. “Come, come, Owdon,” I said. “What’s all this?”

What Happened at Hazelwood 2

commentary: I read this because of last week’s Verdict of Us All - the meme whereby a group of us all answer a question concerning crime fiction books, giving our important opinions. The question this time was ‘Is there an author whose work you generally can’t stand but who has nevertheless written one book you absolutely love?’ In my case the answer was Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train the exception).

My friend Kate over at Cross-Examining Crime came up with a Michael Innes books she liked:
It is What Happened at Hazelwood (1946). For once I found Innes’ prose lively and entertaining, his characters engaging and gripping, as you try to figure out what they are really like. The murder method is unusual to say the least, yet fits beautifully with the setup and location Innes picks... the different narrators all bring their individual stance on events. This is indeed an Innes novel I can confidently recommend.
I have a similarly shaky relationship with Innes – I do like some of them (see Hamlet, Revenge! here), but seem to have read a lot of long, dull ones, so I was curious to see what I would make of Kate’s choice.

And I agree with her completely – this one took a very standard trope and made something quite unusual of it. A country house, the head of the family is killed, the place is full of relatives with motives, including a batch of cousins unexpectedly turned up from Australia. So far so normal.

But Innes experimented with different narrators, and with having Nicolette, Lady Simney, doing the first section. I thought he made a brave stab at doing her voice, and she was an interesting character – she seemed terribly nice, but because of the way the book went you knew that perhaps she wasn’t telling everything, you couldn’t be sure of her innocence. 

As Kate says, the annoying Inspector Appleby doesn’t appear, though he is mentioned: the sleuth here is not named (so far as I can tell) but his activities are tracked by his assistant Harold, in the form of letters to relatives. I did enjoy all this, and although I guessed some of what was going on (any crime reader would) there were enough surprises to keep my interest, and the weird atmosphere of the house was nicely done – funny and entertaining. And it was short, always a good point.

An old incident in Australia forms a part of the plot, and this was related in terms that would be quite unacceptable now, though at least there was an assumption that this treatment of the original residents of Australia was unconsciable.

There was a somewhat subversive take on the toffs, inheritance, family bloodlines – Innes is often over-respectful in these areas, in my view, but no such nonsense this time. At one point Nicolette says
A fire had been lit in the study – I can’t think by whom, for it was my impression that by now pretty nearly all the servants had quit.
I thought the book resembled more the books the author wrote under another name, JIM Stewart (actually his real name, Innes was a pseudonym), such as The Last Tresilians.

It was a pleasant afternoon’s reading on a very hot day in England, and so particularly enjoyable that snow blanketed Hazelwood for the duration of the book. So - opportunities for footprints, signs of scuffle, no-one could have gone HERE, even a mention of a ski in a completely ludicrous suggestion, instantly dismissed, for how the crime could have been committed – now was this a tip of the hat to an Agatha Christie, a much earlier book? The ski is a spoiler in that case, so don’t click on the link if you don’t want to know which book it is. there is also a second connection between the two books, in the name of the setting (US title of Christie would be the giveaway here.)

So thanks Kate for the tipoff.

The top picture is by Whistler, from the Athenaeum website.

The kimono picture is by Frederick C Frieseke, is in the Indianopolis Museum of Art, and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.

Much is made of Lady Simney’s appearance in this section of the book, there is quite some disussion of how revealing the towel and wrap are.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Koreatown Blues by Mark Rogers

published 2017

Koreatown Blues 1

As usual, I was the only white guy in the place. I watched as the cordless microphone was passed down along the bar to Ban Gu, a pale-faced Korean with huge bags under his eyes. I looked up at the wall-mounted TV behind the bar. A Korean ballad began to play—words I couldn’t understand. Ban Gu got deep into the tune—he was a good singer. Once or twice, when I got really drunk, I’d try to sing in Korean. No one ever told me to shut up. No one ever grabbed the mic out of my hand. Instead they’d smile and slap me on the back as I gutted their language. I looked over at the front door where a tall floor fan whirred and buzzed, doing its best to cool off the bar...

Koreatown Blues 2

I glanced over at Ms. Tam, the owner of the bar. She was smiling. She liked it when I sang. The Koreans were middle class and were pleased when a white guy showed them respect—even a white guy like me, in jeans and a black T-shirt. Ms. Tam looked to be in her fifties, still put together well, always wearing a sheath-like dress. I think her black hair was a wig, since it never changed shape. She always had a Marlboro pasted to her lower lip. The rest of LA had won the war against smokers, but you’d never know it in Koreatown.

commentary: I discovered this book via my friend Col at his Criminal Library blog. I loved the cover, and the idea of a book set in the LA Koreatown – a place I knew little about. And the setup is great – this is from the publisher’s blurb:
Wes buys a carwash in LA’s Koreatown and gets a young Korean wife he’s never met as part of the bargain. The catch? Her five previous husbands were murdered before the honeymoon. Now Wes has a ring on his finger and a target on his back…and is caught in the middle of a centuries-old blood feud that won’t end until he’s either dead or the last husband standing.
Intriguing… and it was indeed a highly enjoyable book. As expected, I loved the details and descriptions of Koreatown and the life lived there. The weird blood feud aspect of the plot was great – like a supercharged Godfather.

There was this after someone is killed:
I hadn’t been that surprised to find the Saja Room open after last night’s bloody shooting. If it’s one thing Koreatown understands, it’s business. The flow of dollars must be kept open and constant. There was no time to mourn. Cart off the body, bag the evidence, and scrub away the blood. Do it fast—overnight if possible—so you can open the next day, pouring beer and soju and cranking out the karaoke. And anyway, the guy who got his head blown off wasn’t a regular.
The plot varied between routine violence, beatings, alpha male parading, and some more interesting aspects. The feud that our hero Wes gets caught up in is 300 years old, so he asks what caused it:
“Bon-Hwa, a Nang merchant, gave Hyo Doko a short measure of rice—five hundred grams.”  
“Is that a lot?”  
Soo Jin did the metric conversion in her head. “A little more than a pound." 

“The Dokos and the Nangs are fighting over a pound of rice?”

The answer is: Yes.

Wes is living on the edge, in constant danger – so he asks his crew at the carwash to keep an eye out for him:
“Anybody hanging around?” 

“Just the crew, man.” 

“Look around. You see a Korean guy watching you?” 

“We’re in Koreatown,” said Manuel. “There’s a bunch of Korean dudes.”

The book is well-plotted: and it made me realize something. Usually in a thriller – no matter how thrilling and twisty – you have a pretty good idea of how it is going to end, how good will prevail, who needs to die, and how the hero will end up, and who with. In this case I was kept guessing as to how Wes was going to get out of the feud, the threat and certainty of death. And also how he was going to resolve a strange and difficult situation that had arisen in his lovelife. 

Well, the author certainly achieved this, in surprising and entertaining ways. In an interview with Col, he said:
I’m also proud of the ending, which has been singled out by reviewers as being unexpected and contemporary.
Fair comment indeed. I could be snarky and say I wasn’t sure about some of the sex scenes, but that would be my only complaint – this was a really good thriller, short sharp and to the point, with some surprising and charming scenes in it, and a look at another way of life.

Top pictures is, obviously, the book cover.

A picture of karaoke actually in Korea, with this attribution ‘by Uri Tours (, CC BY-SA 2.0.’

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

House of Names by Colm Toibin

published 2017

House of Names 1

[Clytemnestra is speaking]

I have been acquainted with the smell of death. The sickly, sugary smell that wafts in the wind towards the rooms in this palace. It is easy now for me to feel peaceful and content. I spend my morning looking at the sky and the changing light. The birdsong begins to rise as the world fills with its own pleasures and the, as day wanes, the sound too wanes and fades. I watch as the shadows lengthen. So much has slipped away, but the smell of death lingers. Maybe the smell has entered my body and been welcomed there like an old friend come to visit. The smell of fear and panic. The smell is here like the very air is here; it returns in the same way as light in the morning returns. It is my constant companion; it has put life into my eyes, eyes that grew dull with waiting, but are not dull now, eyes that are alive now with brightness.

House of Namees 2

commentary: These are the opening lines of the book, and really he had me at the first sentence. This is the story of the Oresteian tragedy, an Ancient Greek myth which has resonated down the ages. Toibin tells his own version: concentrating on certain parts and filling in some of the gaps and uncertainties of the original stories, which link up with the Trojan War. Toibin follows three lines: Clytemnestra, who murders her husband Agamemnon in revenge for his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia. Elektra is another daughter, Iphigenia’s sister, and she wants revenge for her father, and hates both her mother, and her mother’s new lover and co-conspirator, Aegisthus. Orestes is the young son of the family, at the beginning playing with toy weapons and not fully aware what is going on – his will be a long and difficult journey. (His part is told in the third person, while the two women narrate directly.)

I admire Toibin’s work, he is a great writer, but I haven’t loved his previous books the way I love this one: Brooklyn (on the blog here) I found flat and passive, and in the end I preferred the film. But these strange Ancient Greek women, with their passions and their weird ways and their honour and their shame were to me far more convincing and real and human than Irish Eilis of the 1950s. And at the same time his distancing style suited this story very well.

House of Names Agamm

The book is terrifying and sweeping. The strange story Toibin gives to Orestes is hard to pin down: the obvious questions of Where? What? Why? Who? are rarely answered, and he just expects you to believe that no-one ever questions what happens, nor discusses it at all over a period of many years. Yet it digs itself into your brain. It’s so lacking in detail it is hard to visualize, and yet somehow it stays with the reader.

The women have their very individual characters. Electra tells her mother:
‘I want my father to return. Not until then will I feel safe.’ 
Clytemnestra says ‘I was about to tell her that her father’s interest in the safety of his daughters was not something that could be so confidently invoked...’
Later Orestes reports this:
Sometimes Electra spoke of the gods and her belief in them, invoking their names and speaking of the power they had. ‘We live in a strange time,’ Electra said. ‘A time when the gods are fading. Some of us still see them but there are times when we don’t. Their power is waning. Soon, it will be a different world. It will be ruled by the light of day. Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting. You should feel lucky that you were touched by the old world, that in that house it brushed you with its wings.’
The gods do not feature in the book at all, this is a human story. One of the final sections features a ghost, one of the characters who is dead: it is a haunting and brilliant tour de force, dead person walking.

I was very sorry that Toibin missed out another sister, Chrysothemis, who appears in other versions – I read the Sophocles Elektra in pursuit of this blogpost (in English – Ancient Greek is possible but slow, though you can see translations from Ancient Greek by me here and here.) And then there is the Strauss opera Elektra, with its discomforting, desolating and wild music.

There are many reasons why I would never have been an opera singer, but if it were possible I would have loved to play Elektra, who is demented and in a permanent state of outrage in the Strauss version, and also has the best stage directions ever:
Elektra flings herself about…
She is dancing a mysterious dance round him and suddenly stooping low…
Elektra descends from the threshold. She has flung back her head like a Maenad. She flings her knees and arms about. It is a nameless dance in which she comes forward

I feel I could have given quite the performance.

Here are some more stage directions from the opera:
(A hurried procession rushes and staggers past the luridly lighted windows; it is a wrenching, a dragging of cattle, a muffled scolding, a quickly choked shouting, the hissing of a whip in the air, a struggling of fallen men and beasts, a staggering onwards. 

In the broad window appears Klytemnestra. Her sallow, bloated face appears, in the lurid glare of the torches, still paler over her scarlet robe. She is leaning on her trusted Confidante, who is draped in dark violet, and on a begemmed ivory staff. A jaundiced figure, with black hair combed back, like an Egyptian woman, with smooth face, resembling a rearing snake, carries the train of her robe. The Queen is covered over and over with gems and talismans, her arms are full of armlets, her fingers bristle with rings. The lids of her eyes are larger than is natural, and it seems to cost her an unspeakable effort to keep them from falling.)
--- so there are the roles for my later career as an opera singer (‘resembling a snake’!), and I think you can all see why it is one of my favourite operas: it has music that sounds like the end of the world.

But amid all the drama and shouting, there is the sister Chrysothemis. Elektra is trying to make her fight for revenge, kill people, swear a life-long feud. But Chrysothemis wants something else:
Ere I die
I crave for life; and children would I bear
Ere all my body fades, e'en were't a peasant
Chosen to wed me; children will I bear him
Rejoicing; to my bosom will I clasp them

House of Names E and C 
 Basically (although her complaints would not be the same as a woman today) she is saying ‘Please can’t we just forget all this and live our life and try to be happy, and get on with Mother’s new lover, and stop causing trouble? I want to have a life and get married and have children.’ But Elektra is implacable. They are like so many children of divorced families, with one sibling trying to keep up the feud - one of the ways in which this strange and ancient and foreign and un-modern tale resonates with modern feelings.

So – Colm Toibin, House of Names, opera, Richard Strauss, Elektra – all wonderful and compelling and deeply relevant to us even now… And indeed the plot is in many ways similar to Hamlet: often on the blog in a variety of ways.

And last month I read Madeleine Miller’s terrific Song of Achilles, and did a post on poems about Odysseus. A good time for Ancient Greece.

Engraving of one of the many deaths, from NYPL
.. and another death also from NYPL.
(more detail of murderers and murderees would be a spoiler).
Elektra and Chrysothemis on the NY stage from NYPL.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Dress Down Sunday: The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery

published 1926, set some years before that


Blue Castle

Valancy took off and hung up in the closet her nightdress of coarse, unbleached cotton, with high neck and long, tight sleeves. She put on undergarments of a similar nature, a dress of brown gingham, thick, black stockings and rubber-heeled boots. Of late years she had fallen into the habit of doing her hair with the shade of the window by the looking-glass pulled down. The lines on her face did not show so plainly then. But this morning she jerked the shade to the very top and looked at herself in the leprous mirror with a passionate determination to see herself as the world saw her. The result was rather dreadful. Even a beauty would have found that harsh, unsoftened side-light trying. Valancy saw straight black hair, short and thin, always lustreless despite the fact that she gave it one hundred strokes of the brush, neither more nor less, every night of her life and faithfully rubbed Redfern's Hair Vigor into the roots, more lustreless than ever in its morning roughness…

commentary: There’s a new TV adaptation of Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables around at the moment, called ‘Anne with an E. It is very much a version of the book: it has been extended, all kinds of things added, and it has produced very mixed reactions. There are many things to like about the episodes  that I have watched: the casting and the acting are absolutely terrific: Anne, Matthew and Marilla are unimprovable, and the setting is beautiful. I have my doubts about some of the additions, and think the 21st century language is unnecessary (‘What’s your problem?’ as one the of the characters improbably says…) This blogpost by Doretta Lau (recommended by my friend Marina Endicott) sums up some of the problems, although the writer feels more strongly than I do.

But: Anne always does catch you. Another blogfriend, Samantha Ellis, wrote in the Guardian about the original book, and in the subsequent Twitter discussion Jo Ouest was one of several people who recommended this book.

And what a strange and splendid read it is. Half of it is entirely predictable (and none the worse for that of course – we’re talking comfort read here) and half of it is wholly unexpected.

Valancy is a miserable old maid (her own description) living in a small Canadian town: she is bullied or ignored or dismissed by her family, and there seems to be no-one rooting for her. She takes refuge in a fantasy life in the Blue Castle of the title. She is 29, very plain, and knows no-one will ever marry her. Everyone is mean to her, even her lovely cousin who has everything Valancy would like in life. After all this has been thoroughly established, Valancy takes herself off to the doctor, and hears that she has a near-fatal heart condition, and probably a year at best to live.

So this finally pushes her into action: if she only has a year left, she’s going to do something sensible with it. And this is where the real surprise of the book comes: the reader expects that she might move to the city, take an exciting job, or travel. But


--her way out is to go and live in a horrible shack in the woods, to look after a young woman who is dying, along with the girl’s reprobate drunken father, Roaring Abel. She looks after them very well – but even here she doesn’t (as, again, the modern reader would expect) expend much energy in beautifying the shack or doing it up to be a luxury home. Everything is comfortable and clean and tidy, and she cooks for them, and that’s it.

Her family is horrified and tries to get her back, but she is enjoying herself far too much. She meets one of Abel’s friends, a younger man,
Their eyes met--Valancy was suddenly conscious of a delicious weakness. Was one of her heart attacks coming on?--But this was a new symptom.
So you can guess quite a lot of what is coming next in that direction.

She buys some clothes:
When Abel paid Valancy her first month's wages--which he did promptly, in bills reeking with the odour of tobacco and whiskey--Valancy went into Deerwood and spent every cent of it. She got a pretty green crêpe dress with a girdle of crimson beads, at a bargain sale, a pair of silk stockings, to match, and a little crinkled green hat with a crimson rose in it. She even bought a foolish little beribboned and belaced nightgown…

Blue Castle 3

She got a pale green bathing-suit, too--a garment which would have given her clan their deaths if they had ever seen her in it.

And she also goes to a very low-rent dance in a rough neighbourhood and nearly gets into trouble.

One of my Twitter friends compared it to Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and while no detail of surroundings, settings or character is at all similar, you can see exactly what she means.

All in all a tremendous read. I particularly liked the character who was
rich as wedding-cake. 

This IS a comfort read, but that's not all it is: it has an un-marshmallow, pro-woman, steel thread running through it, and is unexpectedly non-judgemental and open about sex. An excellent book.

There is an interesting literary byway here: best-selling Australian author Colleen McCullough (author of The Thorn Birds) wrote a short book called The Ladies of Missalonghi which would seem to bear a striking resemblance to The Blue Castle. ‘Unconscious influence’ was McCullough’s explanation. I read the McCullough book a long time ago, and the only thing I remembered didn’t seem to fit with this. So I re-read it, and my goodness ‘unconscious’ influence sounds unlikely: there are some differences, but a huge amount of the plot is exactly the same, and it would be completely impossible for McCullough to have written Missalonghi if she hadn’t read Blue Castle – that would be totally unbelievable. So weird – especially as McCullough was such a successful and imaginative writer in her own right.

Plenty more LM Montgomery all over the blog. 

The top picture is by Richard Bergh, from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, 16 June 2017

The Big Houses of Ireland

Treasure Hunt by Molly Keane

published 1952

Treasure Hunt  4

They were the clothes of 1907 without exaggeration. The skirt of her orchid-coloured coat and skirt was long, but not to the ground. The coat was gently sloping down the shoulders and faintly egg-boilered at the waist. Naturally there was a certain amount of soft lace at her throat, but not a shred at her wrists. She wore little doeskin gloves with a wrist button—her pink palm bulged like a peardrop through the gap. She leaned on a thin duck’s headed umbrella with bright eyes. On her head she wore a particularly soft and becoming hat with a bird in it, a cross between a dove and a seagull, curiously complete throughout graceful wing-spread and soft breast, it was a bird not just feathers in a hat.

Treasure Hunt

commentary: An Irish entry for Bloomsday, though James Joyce was not the man for the big house.

But this entry does link up with a couple of different themes. I recently read a biography of Molly Keane, a great writer of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, and one whose book Good Behaviour is a great blog favourite. I’ve read most of her novels, but then this one popped up – it was originally a play (and a very successful one) by Keane, and then she turned it into a novel, and to be honest it isn’t her finest moment.

I found myself on the side of the serious young people worrying about money – and very much with the character who ‘was at the end of his patience with these spoilt, doting old aristos’ – they had no charm for me. They are shown as dishonest, cheats, and thieves as well as being infantile. The plot (such as it is) starts after the funeral of the head of the family: he has left generous bequests all round, but in fact was close to bankruptcy. The only hope of keeping the family home, and keeping the family in food and whiskey, is to take paying guests. The older generation are horrified, and plot to get rid of the guests by being as obnoxious as possible (not a stretch). There is another plot strand which you can guess from the title of play and novel.

Treasure Hunt 3

There are some nice moments – discussing funeral wreaths:
The young girl said with a quaver: “Mine was just a bit of white heather, made up into a horseshoe—just for luck.”
“Quite unnecessary, my dear.” The mother’s rebuke was light but sure, “your Uncle Roddy will have the best in every sphere—I’m sure of it.”
And the clothes are described beautifully – presumably some of it for the benefit of the stage designer. Aunt Anna Rose, who is described above, spends most of her time in a sedan chair in the middle of the drawing-room (you can just see it on stage and I like the ‘egg-boilered’ waist as a variation on an egg-timer), and is living in the past…

The book did make me think about the importance of the big old house in novels about Ireland. Molly Keane (under that name and as MJ Farrell) is the Queen of the dilapidated Anglo-Irish. In March we had JG Farrell’s Troubles, a true masterpiece, although that is set in a hotel. Henry Green’s haunting Loving, 1945, takes place wholly within an old Irish house, looking at the servants’ intricate lives.

Treasure Hunt 2

WG Sebald has a marvellous old Irish house and family in his Rings of Saturn (which might be a novel or might not). Elizabeth Bowen came from the background herself, and dealt with it in The Last September, while Kate O’Brien wrote about the Catholic gentry in books such as The Last of Summer. John Banville’s The Newton Letter takes a sideways look at a house – from the lodge. And – bang up to date – the young people in Tana French’s marvellous and hypnotic The Likeness are living communally in an old family house.

Treasure Hunt  5

There’s Lissadell House, which features in a beautiful poem by WB Yeats, and was visited on a Clothes in Books holiday recently – blog entries here and here. (‘Nothing says fun holiday day out like a trip to a dead poet’s grave.’)

I’m sure there are many more, and look to my readers to suggest which literary Irish houses I have missed out…

And of course the whole post is almost an excuse to show some photos from the wonderful collection at the National Library of Ireland, a resource that I haunt.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Mystery of the Missing Book by Trevor Burgess

published 1950

Mystery of the Missing Book

The boys filed out, slamming their desk-lids with the sweet abandon of felons released from their bonds… The form was in a light-hearted mood on this summer’s evening, as the echoes of the last bell died among the rambling roofs of Monks Court.

Except for Reginald Aloysius Martin. As he followed the rest of the chaps out of the room, he glanced strangely at Mr Jackersby's desk, as though his eyes were trying to pierce the woodwork and read again the title of the book, The Case of the Screaming Shadow.

For Reginald Martin had seen this book before; and his excitement was ill-concealed. No one had been watching himn when Mr Jackersby first read the six words of the title. Had any seen Martin’s expression they would have seen a catch of the breath and a start of surprise.

“You having tiffin in the study, Martin?” asked Andy Brown, hurrying along the corridor beside him.

“M’mmm?” muttered Martin absently. “Er – no, thanks.”

Mystery of the Missing Book 2

commentary: My reading this book and writing this post is a case of my missing the point in a large-scale way.

I was visiting the splendid Pretty Sinister Books blog back in January, and saw the picture above. I was instantly entranced by it, and thought ‘well that’s a book I must get hold of and read. Right away.’

But then I actually read the blogpost, and it turned out that the picture was just making a point about the rarity of the book John Norris was actually blogging on. That book – and I am moderately interested, by the way – was Danger Next Door by Q Patrick. (The whole Quentin/Patrick pot-pourri is beyond explanation: I touched on it in this entry, but you really need to look it up on Wikipedia to get the full lowdown on these authors.) You can read John’s blogpost about it here.

When I commented, John said this:
I only used that D[ust] J[acket] photo as an illustration for the post. I don't own that book and had never heard of "Trevor Burgess" until yesterday. Turns out that name is one of the many pseudonyms used by British novelist Elleston Trevor who wrote (among hundreds of titles) The Flight of the Phoenix and the Quiller spy novels as "Adam Hall." You ought to track down a copy of The Mystery of the Missing Book and review it yourself, Moira. It'll be easier for you to find than for me since it's one of Elleston's three juvenile mysteries written as "Trevor Burgess" that were published only in the UK.
So I did what he said, and have now read it.

And, I have just started reading Mike Ripley's Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang: it's a look at popular thrillers in the 1950s-70s, and Elleston Trevor is featuring because he wrote quite a few of them... Though also, Ripley talks in some detail of schoolboys and masters sharing books and being equally interested in the latest thrillers. He's talking about real life and his own youth, but it does  chime with the action of The Mystery of the Missing Book

It is a boys’ boarding-school story, and starts with a Fourth Former caught in class reading a thriller under the desk. The book is confiscated, and then goes missing, and it becomes apparent that there are forces of darkness after it. The main schoolboys are a predictable set of heroes, trying to find out what’s going on, breaking bounds and sneaking out after dark in a very dashing way. They ‘borrow’ a car at one point and drive it some distance. Strangely, one of the four heroes is called Dresley Burgess, thus sharing part of his name with the author’s pseudonym.

They talk in a very tiresome manner, and not one that seems convincing - “Well I’m blithered” and “Tell us all, unutterable ass, or suffer the consequences.”

It is reminiscent of the Frank Richards school stories about Greyfriars. Those featured Billy Bunter, and here again there is a fat boy who is the butt of many jokes: Podger Pepys. It is, I suppose, pointless at this distance (and given that the world of this book does not resemble any reality) to worry about the fact that he is fairly ruthlessly bullied both physically and mentally. But his treatment (at one point he is accused of having “fat blood”) does not shine an attractive light on his tormentors, who are undoubtedly meant to be the heroes.

I was more taken with the mysterious Reginald, above, whose role is not so clearcut. He disappears at one point, and when his father is informed he comes to the school and says
“I have had a great deal of trouble in this direction before. If you remember, Reginald was a week late for the Summer Term only last year, because he took himself off to Switzerland during the holidays, on the spur of the moment.”
The mind boggles somewhat – the boys are meant to be 14 or at most 15 - I think we can perhaps guess that the author was missing the freedom of his books about spies and secret agents, who can wander all over Europe at will. Apparently he wrote three books about crimes at Monks Court School: this was the second. (Perhaps Reginald's spectacular truancy was explained in one of the books?)

As a crime story it was entertaining, with some tense moments. But curiosity value only, really. And if John at Pretty Sinister wants to read it himself, I would be delighted to pass my copy on to him.

The photo of the cheering schoolboys is from the State Library of Queensland, and I pinched the book jacket pic from John – though my copy does have the same one.