Sunday, 22 February 2015

Penguin no. 1083: Reputation for a Song
by Edward Grierson

'What was in his mind when he took the weapon in his hand need not concern us, for motive was never necessary to a prosecution of this kind, as His Lordship will direct. I know that this is not generally believed. But you, who are not concerned with fictions or illusions but with the law of England, will be proof against loose thinking and idle popular beliefs. Crimes are often motiveless - at least regarded from the standpoint of the normal man - and the law in its wisdom takes account of that. If the defence is able to explain how and why this youth could be justified in striking these terrible lethal blows, all well and good, but it is no part of my burden to investigate his mind, even if I could.'

We learn in the first few pages of Reputation for a Song that Robert Anderson, a country solicitor in the small fictional cathedral town of Turlminister, had been the subject of a violent attack one evening when he was working late, and that he had died of the injuries he sustained. We also learn that his youngest son Rupert, a slight and effeminate lad of just seventeen, has been charged with his murder. It takes him a few days, but Rupert eventually admits to administering the blows which killed his father. So this is a crime story in which the identity of the killer is never in doubt; the question of interest turns on whether the child is to be hanged for his actions.

The story goes on to relate the details of the family's life during the few weeks that precede Robert's death, and it is difficult not to feel sympathy for the mild-mannered and staid solicitor on account of the path he takes to his grave. He was a man living through a crisis not of his making, trying to act decently and with integrity and to uphold the values which had underpinned his life, while struggling to pass them onto his children. He comes across as a simple, quiet and decent man, but one who is being crushed by the circumstances which surround him.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Penguin no. 1108: Murder in Time
by Elizabeth Ferrars

     'But why should you feel you ought to hate him?' she asked. 'Don't most of us do more hating than we ought to?'
     'Not really,' he said. 'Not the hate that leads to anything. We're all pretty good at hating phantoms - that's why we don't mind making war - but someone who's standing quite close to you, looking at you, talking to you, seeming to like you, not threatening you in any way - it's extraordinary what that does to you, even when you've been choking with hatred. But I think that's mostly weakness and cowardice.'


Murder in Time conforms to a stereotype of the conventional Golden Age mystery insofar as it features a murder at an isolated country home during a weekend party, and a constrained set of suspects for each of whom a plausible motive can be inferred.

But the question of who killed the victim seems barely of interest in this novel, and the police investigation is really only sketched in the background. The real mystery which intrigues those gathered together in the country home is why they were invited to be there in the first place, and just what might have transpired had the murder not taken place. And these are such diverting questions that it is the suspects themselves who take the initiative in the murder investigation.

Mark Auty's initial explanation for his weekend house party always sounds suspicious. His claim is that he intends to celebrate his engagement to the wealthy Miss Barbarosa, but he eschews family and friends as invitees in favour of a select group of acquaintances he hasn't seen or spoken with in many years. It is hard to see how he could ever consider that such a disparate group could form the basis of a successful social gathering: his guests come from different parts of England, from different strata of society, and from differing age groups. In support of this odd behaviour he implies that he wants to parade his lack of embarrassment about his lowly origins so that his fiancée can see that he doesn't consider her family's wealth makes her any better than the people he has known during his life.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Penguin no. 2064: The Premier
by Georges Simenon

Cover design by Romek Marber.
     For a long time the Premier had paid no attention to the deaths of people in his circle, most of whom were his elders. He considered they had had their day, even those who died at fifty.
     Then when men hardly older than himself began to die as well, he had sometimes felt a certain selfish satisfaction, if not downright pleasure.
     Someone else had been taken, and he was spared!


In The Premier, Simenon sketches the inner life of a man who has lived beyond his time and who finds himself to be almost the last member of his generation still to be living. This quirk of fate has left him watching, and having to come to terms with, the process of his own gradually-increasing obsolescence.

And so this is a story about transience, of how things like youth, beauty and influence cannot be held forever, and about how someone who has known the acme of success copes with the inevitable receding of his faculties and his importance.

The Premier has lived his life at the very centre of power. He has been a member of twenty-two governments, and the central figure in eight, so that France during the Premier's era seems - at least to an outsider - a fairly unstable country, moving always away from one crisis and towards another, with a change of government seemingly the only mechanism available to deal with any deadlock. With such a history, the Premier has become accustomed to viewing himself as his country's saviour, and an essential part of any possible solution. The paragraph quoted above makes it clear that he is not the most pleasant man, and that he could readily be described as self-concerned.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Penguin no. 1672: Within and Without
by John Harvey

Cover drawing by John Sewell.
Perhaps it was my duty to marry her? But how can anybody say they're always going to love somebody for ever? They can't, and I'm sure they don't, and then you're stuck. But I did feel we could live together for a long time - say a year or so - and see how it went, and then perhaps we might get married.

The summary on the back cover of this Penguin describes Within and Without as the story of a love affair, but I thought it was more the portrait of a selfish and self-concerned man, and of the damage he wreaks in another person's life. I took it down from the shelf because it was short, thinking it would be a quick read (because I was off on holiday to Singapore), but I found the protagonist so irritating that it took me the whole week to make it to the end.

Even before he meets Sue Morley, when he knows nothing about her but how she looks, Mark Fearon decides that he is in love with her. Once having met her, he professes this love at every opportunity, with a frequency that makes her uncomfortable. But it seemed a strange type of love - one principally concerned with holding on to her and having her, and one which never for a moment concerned itself with how she felt or what she might want. Despite his claims, the only person Mark Fearon really seemed to care about was himself.

And what he principally cares about is not feeling unhappy, and - at least in the beginning - being with Sue provides an answer: by giving him something to think about other than himself, this relationship offers him some respite from feelings of boredom and purposelessness. He begins the story as a disaffected and dispirited art student who lacks the motivation to actually work at producing any art, but it seems clear that much of his problem is due to no one expecting him to be any better than he is.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Penguin no. 1006: The Man With My Face
by Samuel W. Taylor

'If you ever get to know a guy really well, you find out something's eating him. Kids, yes. Young bucks with the dew in their eyes, yes. But take Joe Doakes when he's married and has a couple of kids and realizes he's not going to knock the world off its pins. When he sees he stacks up along with other Joes and can count on just about so much out of this life. And then, brother you find an unhappy man.'

Charles 'Chick' Graham plays along at first, thinking that he has been cast as the butt of some feeble joke. But by the evening's end he is aware that things are far more sinister, and that he is the victim of a conspiracy which has been carefully planned and executed over several years by those closest to him. There is only one plausible explanation of the evening's events, which is that his wife and business partner have worked together to enable a man he doesn't know to assume his identity. What he doesn't realise until later is that they had also planned to take his life.

He had arrived home from work to find someone who looked uncannily like him sitting in his place, with no one willing to admit that they knew him. His wife was adamant that she knew the stranger but not him, his dog attacked him at the stranger's behest, his business partner insisted that he and the stranger had come straight from work. When the police attend his home, Graham finds that he has no way of demonstrating his identity: he and the stranger share the same signature, and the fingerprints on his army ID turn out not to be his own. With his wife and his friends united against him, no one will give any credit to the story that he is the real Charles Graham.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Penguin no. 112: Children of the Earth
by Ethel Mannin

Life gave and it took away, and whatever it did to you or failed to do you had to carry on....The lobster and the crab and mackerel fishing, the potato and tomato seasons, the rising up with the sun to go to market, the toiling long after the sun had gone down, and the dark dreamless sleeps that linked day to day; the Spring tides coming with their May flowers and that aching sweetness on the air; the long hot summers, the sadness of autumn, and the long hard winters, year in and year out, the seasons going on, relentlessly, and one with them.

I took this Penguin down from my shelf after I received an email from John Enock, a fellow reader of old Penguins, expressing amazement that something of this quality should have left such a faint online trace. And faint it certainly is - a Google search turned up not one review on Goodreads or Librarything, and only a single contemporary description, and this despite the fact that Ethel Mannin was clearly a prolific and popular author in her day. It is a heart-rending tale:  I cannot recall another Penguin which left me feeling as sad.

Children of the Earth is a family saga telling of the lives of Jean le Camillion and his wife Marie, and of their five children, who live a primitive existence on the island of Jersey. Ethel Mannin uses their story to reflect at least partly on what she seems to consider the smug and self-regarding attitudes of her contemporaries living an urban life, implying that their arrogance is ill-founded. She contends that they have insulated themselves from life, so that while they might preen themselves on account of their possessions and their refinements, and look down upon all those who lack such things, it is all a delusion: those they disdain are more fully alive than they are themselves.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Penguin no. 1870: Two Clues
by Erle Stanley Gardner

Cover design by Romek Marber.
     'I thought so,' the sheriff said. 'You know, I don't know much about these new-fangled things, so us old-timers have to rely on human nature and character, and figuring what a person would do under certain circumstances and...'
     'That,' Walworth announced harshly, 'is all bosh. The man doesn't live who can judge guilt or innocence by physiognomy or by trusting to the perceptions of his auditory nerves. It's merely a means by which the old-fashioned officer gave free rein to his prejudices. It's no more reliable than locating a well by a forked willow stick.'


Two Clues is a volume comprising two short novels, The Clue of the Runaway Blonde and The Clue of the Hungry Horse, both set in the small rural community of Rockville and both relating the well-deserved triumphs of the ageing sheriff Bill Eldon.

In Rockville, the prospect of publicity, eagerly sought by some while determinedly avoided by others, is a constraint on how life is lived, and this gives power to those who make spreading information their business, from gossiping housewives to the proprietors of the town's two newspapers. When Lew Turlock's teenage daughter is found not to be at the home of a friend she said she was visiting, for example, it is keeping her deception quiet which is of uppermost concern to her father because he fears for her reputation; no one seems too concerned about ensuring she is safe.

It is as if every action in this small town must be conditioned on the possible consequences of other people hearing of it, or on how details could be misinterpreted or misused to advance the agenda of a rival, whether this concerns the behaviour of a teenage daughter or the actions of those seeking to retain public office. Information is a weapon, but it is all spin, and those with influence seem very willing to intentionally distort facts for advantage or revenge. At present the Sheriff finds that he is the target of this kind of concerted effort.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Penguin no. 1353: The Sleeper
by Holly Roth

'By God, Kendall, what a strange hold it is - to be able to get and guide a young man of promise to his triumphant death! To make him negate his birthright of intelligence, charm, handsomeness, the American chance of wealth, love, and pursuit of happiness - for what? A country he's never seen? A doctrine that has been constantly perverted for years? A group of people who lie so shamelessly that they are constantly being caught flat-footed - and then, when caught, lie again with open contempt?

This seemed to me a paragraph which captures the brevity of historical memory, as I am sure that had I read The Sleeper a year ago I would have found its premise - that a young man of exceptional promise would willingly give up every prospect in pursuit of an idea foreign to his culture and beyond his experience - implausible. But this year the story is a familiar one.

The context here is different though: The Sleeper is set in New York during the Cold War, at a time when there was heightened concern with the possible threats posed by Communism and the advent of nuclear weapons. It was to facilitate the spread of Communism that a young American teenager named Francis Burton Hollister was willing to sacrifice everything he might have been.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Penguin no. 1634: After the Rain
by John Bowen

Cover drawing by
Quentin Blake
'What makes a god?' Arthur said. 'Any thinking person will tell you that men make their own gods. They do so by worship. Whatever you worship is God, whether it be a tree, or the sun, or two sticks, or a ring of stones, or a bull, or a lamb, or a river; it does not matter. Simple men worship the things themselves. Complicated men worship the ideas that the things express, or the spirit that infuses the things, but in terms of behaviour it makes little difference. The behaviour - the ritual, if you prefer - is what matters, because, while interpretations change, the ritual endures.'

After the rain begins as a kind of apocalyptic novel, but an unusual one, with events following each other just a little too quickly, and with its focus on appalling events counterbalanced by an equal focus on the absurd. I have read that John Bowen wrote this novel aiming to be for apocalyptic fiction what Michael Innes had been for the crime novel, and it seems to me that he achieved his aim for that is very much how the story reads: it is more fantasy than science fiction.

The unusual duality is there from the beginning, with this surreal story beginning in the most concrete and easily-visualised location - the lower floor of Foyles in Charing Cross Road. It is here that John Clarke meets a putative rain maker intent on selling his entire rain-making library to Foyle's book buyer before he heads to America. Clarke is a copywriter temporarily trying his hand at journalism and he elects to follow the rain maker to Texas where he has been hired on a fee-for-success basis to engineer the end of a nine year drought. The rain maker succeeds on a scale beyond anything he could have imagined, but it is his final act; as the rain maker plunges to his death the entire world is plunged into an extensive period of unceasing rain.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Penguin no. 780: Seven Against Reeves
by Richard Aldington

While Mr Reeves dozed quietly after the holocaust of Mr Houghton's gospel, the rest of the house quivered with an activity particularly unusual on a Sunday. There was a certain tension, resembling on a tiny scale that of an army before an attack. The slumbering Reeves was unaware of the fact that, if he was incapable of solving the problem of what to do with himself, others were prepared to do it for him. With the quiet but deadly obstinacy of the philanthropist, who so often succeeds in squaring his interests with his altruism, Mrs Reeves was convinced that what Mr Reeves needed was to know the 'right people'. Besides, she wanted to know them herself.

I took this book down from my book shelf on one of those days when the title amused me because it seemed apposite, though I'm not sure I understand it's use in this context, for there are no seven pitted here against Mr Reeves. And if it is an allusion to Seven Against Thebes I cannot see that it makes things any more comprehensible, as Thebes was a city, while this is the story of a man who sets out, after much hesitation, to subdue those who would take advantage of him and in doing so wrestles back control of his life.

Mr Reeves is conservative in his outlook and conventional in his tastes, and so he seems an unlikely hero. But while everyone in the story looks down upon the poor man, the author seems almost to champion him, for Mr Reeves is the only character being portrayed here as having integrity, and also the only one who is decent and true to himself; everyone else is after something, typically something they don't really deserve, and it is Mr Reeves they are determined to manipulate into providing it.

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