Monday, 14 April 2014

Penguin no. 1236: The Big Heat
by William P. McGivern

Cover illustration by Derek McKay,
from the series commissioned
by Abram Games.
That was the essence of police work; checking everything. A cop had to investigate all the obvious details, ask all the obvious questions, plod about doing things that frequently seemed pointless and stupid. The man-in-the-street and the editorial writers on the papers could tell him a quicker way to do it, of course. they knew that such-and-such an angle was impossible, unlikely or foolish. they didn't have to check it; they just knew. But a cop couldn't afford these seemingly logical short-cuts. He had to do all the tedious, useless work, because occasionally the impossible, unlikely or foolish areas of investigation turned out to be the most profitable ones.

Things seem to be awry in Philadelphia in the 1950s. It is suggested here that the police have been co-opted to protect the criminals while they distort the efficient functioning of the administration. It means that someone like Mike Laguna can live in an expensive house in a middle-class suburb with a policeman permanently stationed outside his home, protecting his interests and those of his family, while he continues unimpeded as the head of the mob controlling the city. Every citizen bears the burden of such a corrupted system, as mob-controlled tenders and workplaces mean inferior but overpriced goods, shoddy workmanship, and public assets which deteriorate faster than they should, while costing more.

The Big Heat is in some ways an examination of exactly what it is that allows such a system to develop and then keeps it in place. It is suggested to be a consequence of the interaction of several factors - an uninquiring media, an apathetic population content to be saved from the need to take any action by a belief that all politicians and administrators are as bad as each other. It is also requires the willingness of those occupying high positions to allow their influence to be bought. And it is underpinned by a kind of defensive group-think in which those serving the public, such as the police, reflexively reject the views of anyone who condemns their actions or seeks to hold them accountable.

This story provides a contrast with the contemporary D.A. stories of Erle Stanley Gardner, such as The D.A. Calls a Turn and The. D.A. Holds a Candle, in that this is not quite the story of one honest and courageous man standing up for what is right. It reads, instead, as a call to action - an assertion that everyone must be willing to take a stand against corruption, if the problem is to be solved.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Penguin no. 2028: Maigret at the Crossroads
by Simenon

Cover design by Geoffrey Martin.
      The Prefecture was deserted. A few comings and goings in the Vice Squad. A drug pedlar whom an inspector brought in about four o'clock in the morning and started questioning straight away.
      The Seine donned a halo of milky mist which turned white, and it was daybreak, lighting up the empty embankments. Footsteps sounded in the corridors. Telephones ringing. Voices calling. Doors banging. The charwoman's brooms.
      And Maigret, putting down his overheated pipe on the table, stood up and looked the prisoner over from head to foot, with an irritation not unmixed with admiration.

The short paragraphs are familiar, but I cannot recall having read another Maigret which begins quite this way, with a mass of short sentences, each capturing a single fleeting impression. I imagine the intention is to emphasise just how worn out Maigret is at this point of defeat, reached after a day and a night spent interrogating a witness who stood firm against the offensive. Carl Andersen maintained a quiet dignity throughout the process and never amended a single detail while being questioned for seventeen hours on recent events at the Three Widows Crossroads.

Andersen had found himself at the Prefecture on the Quai des Orfèvres because the body of Isaac Goldberg, a dealer in diamonds from Antwerp, had been found inside a car parked within his garage, with a bullet through the chest. The incriminating car was not the property of Andersen: it was his neighbour's prized new six-cylinder, while his worn out vehicle had in turn been moved to the neighbour's garage, and yet no one had heard a thing. But the sight of the dead man and the foreign car had been enough to panic Andersen into flight: the police had picked him up at the Gare D'Orsay after he fled by train towards Paris in the company of his sister.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Penguin no. 493: Delay in the Sun
by Anthony Thorne

I for one hate our modern civilisation. I hate the standardisation, the characterlessness of honeycomb buildings and furniture inspired by machinery, practicable but uninviting and unpleasant to the touch. I hate the craze for bare unhygenic rooms in which Donatello's David would seem an incongruous dust trap...I hate the hurry and the bustle - the rush to do things which are not really worth doing if one stops to think about them. I hate the people who know what the public wants and insist on giving it to them. I hate dictators, cocktails, canned music, smash-hit films, literary jargon, world-records, commercial titles, aristocracy for sale, and a thousand other manifestations of the Chromium Age.

I am surprised that no one has ever taken this wonderful story and made it the basis for a film, for as delightful as this was to read, I am sure it would have been even more enjoyable to watch. It has the ideal title for one of those English films about travelling abroad, something like A Room with a View but set in 1930s Spain; it also has an ideal plot and setting .

Delay in the Sun tells the story of a few days in the lives of a set of ill-assorted English tourists who find themselves unexpectedly stranded in a sedate and ramshackle Spanish town by a bus strike. Querinda is isolated by virtue of its poverty, the widespread somnolence and the limited embrace of technology, and so the travellers are effectively imprisoned: irrespective of what any one of them might have been willing to pay to escape in order to continue the journey, there are few cars and no taxis, and so no method of conveyance to the outside world other than the disrupted bus service, or a long and difficult journey by foot.

The stranded tourists at first cope with this setback by asserting their Englishness, and it is all cups of tea and games of bridge and a steadfast refusal to accommodate themselves or their habits to their altered circumstances - or at least that is how their behaviour is interpreted by Julian and John. This latter pair do not consider themselves to be a part of the group, as in their own eyes they are set apart by a sophistication which is the product of a greater familiarity with European culture, and also by the fact that they had already taken the decision to break their journey towards Corunna, and the ferry back to Plymouth, at Querinda. They were rather dismayed to find that they would be joined in this adventure by seven unwelcome others.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Penguin no. 2096: Dreadful Summit
by Stanley Ellin

Cover design by Germano Facetti.
It waves me forth again; I'll follow it.
What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord. Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff...

When I was a little kid I would go to church parties at St Theresa, and they had a game called blindman's buff. One kid would would have a handkerchief around his eyes so he couldn't see, and the other kids would run around and make noise, and the kid who couldn't see would have to catch one. I didn't like it because my feet were big, and I couldn't get out of the way good, so I was 'it' more than anybody. And then in my head I could see how I must look, bumping around trying to catch somebody, and maybe all the time he was right in back of me. It made me feel dumb.

I found Dreadful Summit a difficult book to read all the way to the end. It has sentences describing events which would be unthinkable if they were true, and each time I encountered one I struggled to read on, appalled by the possibilities. It would take a fair while until I could face the book again, and it was always reluctantly. The book is subtitled 'a novel of suspense', and assuming this indicates the author's principle intention, Stanley Ellin achieves it on every page.

This is the story of one night in the life of sixteen year old George LaMain, a young man tall for his age and easily mistaken for an adult. On this night he burns with the humiliation of having watched as his father was beaten by the well-known sports columnist Al Judge. George knows nothing more than what he has observed: his father being forced to strip to his bare flesh before his customers in the public bar, Judge's cane repeatedly cutting his back, and his father's acquiescence, accepting the beating without any inclination to put up a fight.

George decides to cast himself in the role of his father's avenger; he is determined to set things right, and to him this means that Judge must be killed. But it is not simply Judge's death that he desires; he has a clear image of how it must come about, viewing the death of this adversary as necessary but not sufficient. He wants Judge to die conscious of the motivation of his killer and in full awareness of the reason for his fate. But George gives virtually no thought to what will happen after the killing, as in his conception of the crime, Judge will be dead, the beating will be avenged, and no one will know who it was that took Judge's life; George's life will continue as normal.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Penguin no. 1384: Docken Dead
by John Trench

Cover design by Alan Aldridge
Sooner than expected they saw through the trees the amorphous tangle of the back parts of Aske Place. Moonlight, coldly analytical in its delineation of planes and angles and sharp shadows, heightened the incoherence of the house's forms. It looked like a house where almost anything might happen. Almost anything - but nothing very evil. In spite of everything, it had a sort of innocence, like a tiny town in the background of a monkish painting. And its very extravagance made it somehow vulnerable, like a child's fantasy exposed to criticism.

The back cover of this Penguin quotes Margery Allingham describing Docken Dead as 'a discovery for the civilized reader', which seems to imply, perhaps unintentionally, that if someone fails to find merit in the story the fault lies with them for lacking the necessary attributes, whatever they may be. But I think the fault would lie with the author: John Trench may have been able to develop an interesting and complex (if far-fetched) story, but I don't think he was particularly effective in telling one. Those aspects which may have been interesting have been concealed by a poor structure and some fairly impenetrable prose.

It is an unusual experience to read paragraph after paragraph of a text written in English and yet to have only the vaguest sense of what the author intended to convey. It is not an unknown one - journal articles, at least those about statistics, often have this quality - but I have never before encountered it in what is best described as an adventure story. There were times here when I realised that I had read through the entire description of some event involving action - a search or an attack - yet remained completely unaware of what had actually happened until surprised by some illuminating reference later in the story.

I could identify three attributes of the writing which contributed to this problem. To begin with, there is no option but to read the first forty pages in confusion: the reader is introduced to a series of characters and settings, but with no guide, other than the single name referenced in the title, as to how these people relate to each other and why we need to know about them. The narrative jumps from a marriage proposal to a reference to a long-dead local poet, to an archaeologist lunching with a vicar, and then to a series of military manoeuvres. None of this means anything as you read it, but in retrospect all of it matters - every conversation, every reference to any person, and even down to the detail of where people were standing at the time. It must be read in confusion and then retained if the story is later to make any sense.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Penguin no. 1362: Maigret and the Burglar's Wife
by Simenon

It was the sort of day when one's apt to indulge in pointless speculation. The heat-wave may have been to blame. Perhaps the holiday spirit also prevented one from taking things very seriously. The windows were wide open and the muted roar of Paris throbbed in the room where, before Joseph came in, Maigret had been engaged in following the flight of a wasp that was going around in circles and bumping against the ceiling at invariably the same spot. At least half the plain-clothes section was at the seaside or in the country.

Later in the day, after he has spoken with Ernestine, the burglar's wife, Maigret notes that the wasp mentioned in the passage above has still not found its way to the window. I suspect its continuing circular and pointless journey is an allusion to the frustration Maigret feels with the investigation which begins with Ernestine's visit. This is a story about Maigret being uncertain: he is never sure if his investigation will succeed, or if he is investigating a murder which has actually taken place. The motives and actions which interest him and which he seeks to analyse here are his own.

Alfred Jussiaume, known as Sad Freddy, is a safe-breaker who is slowly working his way through the dozens of safes he installed in Paris as an employee of Planchart, and he cracks them with such skill that even the police speak of him with awe. Nothing will divert him from his quest, not even the risk of capture or the years he inevitably spends in gaol, as he believes that at least one safe in Paris must have been installed for the purpose of storing valuables rather than documents. If he just persists with his safe-breaking the day must come when he will uncover the perfect haul, and that haul will allow him to retire to the country. Perhaps the wasp provides a metaphor for Sad Freddy's quest as well.

But what Sad Freddy possesses in skill is offset by what he lacks in luck. His haul to date has amounted to a great many title deeds and very little cash. And on the very night that he sits on the floor of a dentist's study in Neuilly-sur-Seine, and before a safe holding more gold than he could ever spend, and that not even legally obtained, he finds that he is sharing the room with the dead body of a middle-aged woman, one who has clearly been murdered. Sad Freddy panics: he abandons his attempt on the safe, leaves behind his tools, discards his bicycle in the Seine, and immediately leaves Paris by train, stopping only for a brief explanatory call to his wife. This is the story that Ernestine tells to Maigret.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Penguins no. 164 & 165: Queer Street
by Edward Shanks

He was not in love with her. Love? No, but warmth and comfort, companionship, and distraction. What, he wondered, too, would become of her? She was twenty-five and she was - easy. He was, he knew, her third or fourth lover. She had told him nothing, except by implication, about the others, but the implications were frank enough...He had dimly come to understand that state of mind since he had taken a bed-sitting room in Queer Street. What did become of girls like Mona? She was one of Post-war's experiments. Did Post-war know what it was after with this pleasant flesh and blood?

In its earliest years Penguin published longer books in two volumes, each sold at the standard six-penny price, and with pages numbered consecutively to make it clear that the two volumes comprised a single book; Queer Street was the eighth such Penguin edition.

It was an approach which had several drawbacks. First volumes typically outsold second volumes, and there was always the risk of annoying customers who had purchased just the first volume only to find the narrative suddenly truncated, and of even more seriously annoying customers who had inadvertently purchased only the second. In 1947 Penguin decided to replace this two-volume approach with double volumes which sold at twice the standard price, and which could be identified by two dancing Penguins standing back to back on the front cover.

I assume that the title of this set of Penguins is meant to refer to a new trend rather than a genuine 1920's London location, although it is difficult to be sure as Queer Street is mentioned infrequently and obliquely - but it doesn't connote what it would today. I think Queer Street is an allusion to what is suggested as the post-WWI phenomenon of young adults moving out of their parents' home and into bed-sitting rooms in the central parts of London, sharing bathrooms and heating up their evening meal on a gas ring.

Euan Cartaret takes this step when his only sister is married, as until this time her role in the family had been the rather limited one of staying home and 'keeping house'. His friend Mona Fenwick is also living in a bedsit, although this is perhaps a more interesting and novel state of affairs because she is female. The life she leads in consequence is not an easy one: she needs to evade the unwelcome sexual advances of her employer, and she must nightly seek out men willing to pay for her drinks and her meals if she is to have sufficient left to pay the rent at the end of the week. Such men often want something in return, and so an easy virtue helps her cope with her financial dilemmas.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Penguin no. 1160: The Egg and I
by Betty MacDonald

Cover illustration by Peter Probyn.
Even with the continual rain, July, August, September and even October were bad fire months in the mountains. If you were unfortunate enough to live on a ranch near the Kettles, any month was dangerous. It was said that the Kettles set the original peat fires in the valleys and that one summer, Paw, to save himself the effort of mowing the lawn, set fire to the grass and burned off the front porch. The Kettles burned brush any old time of year and if the brush fire got away from them and burned five or ten acres of someone's timber, that was too bad.

Ma and Pa Kettle (or Maw and Paw Kettle as they are called here) are characters I associate with my childhood, even if I can recall no personal enthusiasm for watching their films. I remember them, possibly unreliably, as being shown on Australian television every Saturday afternoon when I was young, and so I was interested in finding out how my recollection of their depiction compared with how they were originally described.  Given that they tended to feature in fish-out-of water tales, or at least that is how I remember them, I like the idea that they first featured in a book where someone was writing a fish-out-of-water tale of their own. In The Egg and I it is the Kettles who at least partially inform the standard against which Betty MacDonald judges herself.

Betty MacDonald was only 19 and living in Seattle when she married an insurance salesman named Bob Heskett. It was during their honeymoon that she first learnt of his ambition to own his own chicken ranch, and she unexpectedly found herself starting out upon married life on a forty acre property situated on the back roads of a small town on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, and living someone else's dream of rural self-sufficiency in a run-down home lacking all basic amenities, including electricity and plumbed water. In some ways her tale is a celebration of the conventional suburban American life of the time, with all its labour-saving devices, because she sets out to describe what life is like without them.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Penguin no. 2140: Henry's War
by Jeremy Brooks

Cover drawing by Charles Raymond
He had been in London too long. The place was beginning to take on that nightmarish quality, in which every face looks maddeningly familiar, every sentence seems to have been said a dozen times before, every establishment to be a slavish echo of its fellows. This pub, now that he reviewed it dispassionately, was clearly no worse than any of his own locals...Nevertheless it was ghastly. In it could be seen every manifestation of the Great Sin of London: waste: waste of time, waste of money, waste of effort, waste of imagination, waste of human ingenuity...The horrible murals were a waste of talent, paint, and good wall-space, the customers were a waste of what must have been good human material.

Perhaps Henry's war is the one which his government has initiated by invading the Castillian Islands, and for which he has been called up to fight. Henry has no intention of taking part; the five years he has already spent in the army have left him with an abhorrence of violence and an unwavering conviction that he will never again participate in any activity which requires him to take another person's life.

Or perhaps his war is the more immediate struggle he faces each day as he works in his small London flat to complete his sixth book detailing the adventures in far-warmer climes of Peter Colchester and his adversary Krossov. Henry, known to his readers as Henry Hywel Hughes, writes thrillers, and he must complete his current project if he is to earn some money and repay the publisher's advance. But Henry is suffering some type of mental block and he knows his recent efforts have lacked quality. It seems to be part of a general torpor which has settled upon him lately, and which has him seeing the world differently, and finding fault in things which previously left him unconcerned.

I suspect the war of the title is probably a reference to an even more private battle, for Henry is fighting for the right to be independent, to live by his own conscience and to not feel compelled to abide by the strictures of others; it is a battle he must fight against his government, who would compel him to fight when he would choose otherwise, and against friends who insist he must agree with them, and condition his behaviour accordingly, or justify his refusal. In considering Henry's friends, this story seems to be examining a kind of progressive mindset which knows nothing of pluralism; it is about people who cannot abide those who refuse to agree with them.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Penguin no. 1981: Daughters of Mulberry
by Roger Longrigg

Cover design by Milton Glaser
     'He's trying to make his fortune, stupid. Been trying since God was a boy. So what he does, he lets his winnings add up. Won't touch them, won't take a cheque, puts it on the next one, see?'
     'That's sensible, far as it goes.'
     'Ah, but he wants his killing, see? One big lump, making his fortune. So he goes and has a bust on a long-shot, maybe in the fifth or the last, hoping he'll get it short-cut, like, all in a bang. But he won't, poor old Des.'
     'Lumme, s'pose he did?'
     'We'd be moaning, George.'
     'Funny way to live.'
     'I dunno. He'll be doing it till he dies, poor old duck.'

Mulberry has two daughters who look very much alike but who vary considerably with respect to ability: they are racehorses, and Daughters of Mulberry is the story of one man's quest to confirm a suspicion that one daughter will be substituted for the other in the upcoming Prix du Général de Gaulle. His interest is not motivated by any concern with the ethics of the substitution, however: he just wants know what has been planned. The suspected deception may offer to anyone who knows of it the chance of a lifetime to place a killer bet.

The story is something of a caper, clearly exaggerated and meant to be funny, and some readers must find it so, as I have seen Daughters of Mulberry described as "dazzlingly written, outrageously funny and propelled by edge-of-your-seat tension". But I felt much as I do when watching something like The Plank, which is somewhat dismayed by my inability to be even slightly amused by something (some) other people find hilarious. This story features a man who needs whisky to get through each day and a woman who regrets the life she would have led had her sweetheart survived the war. They are unhappy but entirely accepting of the way life has turned out, each doggedly pursuing a course which has never yet delivered happiness, but continuing on with a simple faith that one day it will. It all seemed a little sad.


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