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.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Penguin no. 1182: Telling of Murder
by Douglas Rutherford

     'Paddy,' Diana said as I set the fresh glass in front of her, 'I've been thinking. Can't you and I do something together? I mean, you are a private detective. I'm sure the police are very good, but you might be able to do something by sort of - using your intuition.'
     She was looking very earnest and trusting; I liked the way her mouth stayed just a little bit open as she watched me. It gave her an eager expression.
     You've been reading too many Green Penguins. Why, Maguire has just warned me to keep my nose clean. It doesn't work out in real life like it does in detective stories, you know.


The idea that someone might seek to bring down a commercial airliner, unconstrained by any concern for the inadvertent loss of life that such a plan entails, may seem unremarkable these days, but in 1952 it was evidently still an unthinkable idea, a clear sign that some fiendish and immoral organisation was behind the plot on Osborne Vandervell's life.

The first unsuccessful attempt at bringing about his death involves a bomb smuggled onto the plane which carries him from Trieste to London; the second involves poison in his morning coffee injected by syringe into the milk bottle left upon his doorstep overnight. Vandervell suspects these murder attempts will continue, and the only way he is going to survive them will be by returning to Trieste to seek information from his colleagues, together with the assistance of the Venezia Giulia Police Force. To increase the odds of his surviving the trip, he hires private investigator Paddy Regan to act as his chauffeur on the drive back.

But Regan has no idea of what it is that he has signed up for, naively viewing the proposed trip to Trieste by way of Paris as his chance to have a paid holiday on the Continent. He finds the journey to be anything but leisurely, as Vandervell's adversaries are indefatigable; the first half of story tells of one murder attempt after another, attempts that only cease when their objective has been attained. And so while Regan is still alive when they reach Trieste, Vandervell is not, and out of respect to his temporary employer Regan then applies himself to solving the mystery of just why so much effort was expended on bringing about Vandervell's demise.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Penguin no. 1391: Patrick Butler for the Defence
by John Dickson Carr

     'It is not at all irrelevant,' he said, 'that Mr Hugh Prentice's hobby should have been the reading of these stories. We've all read them. And very often we have found the same wearisome device.'
     'A victim, murdered and dying, is just able to speak a few words. He would, of course, speak the name of his murderer. Instead, in some of these stories, he blurts out some weird gibberish which nobody would ever say, and which has been designed by the author merely to baffle detection. Such - it appeared! - was our own problem. The difficulty seemed to be gloves. It was raining gloves. And all because, apparently, Abu of Isapahan had gripped Hugh Prentice's wrist and with his dying breath said, "Your gloves".'


I suspect I would have been quite critical of this story had I read this old Penguin at any other time; it is so lightweight that even the author couldn't resist mocking its underlying premise, as you can see in the passage quoted above. But my life has been in such a state of flux recently that lightweight is exactly what I needed, and no matter how implausible the events canvassed here, it has seemed to me at times that those in my own life have been more implausible still. So on one hand I really enjoyed this novel's untaxing quality; on the other hand I found it somewhat ludicrous.

The eponymous Patrick Butler has little to recommend him, although John Dickson Carr seems to have a soft spot for him, and Butler also seems pretty keen on himself. Among the beliefs he takes for granted is a conviction that he is never wrong, although he does have a moment of self doubt when he concedes that he may have drawn an incorrect conclusion, an admission which brings with it the galling possibility that there may be something in the suggestion of his critics that his success to date has been underpinned by the efforts of Dr. Gideon Fell. But Butler's ego is such that his moment of self doubt is fleeting, and by the end of the book he is once again secure in the belief that he is always right.

It is as though he has been given a licence to behave terribly, as he goes uncondemned for behaviour which would never be tolerated in others. He is arrogant, misogynistic and vain, and he approaches his profession as barrister as though it were a sport, admitting that he prefers guilty clients to innocent ones perhaps because the challenge is all the greater and the victory all the sweeter. And like many successful, capable and wealthy men, he seems to have women in his thrall.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Uncertain times

A terrible misfortune befell our family last week without warning. As it involves other people, the story is not mine to tell, but it has left everything uncertain and I have not been able to plan my life more than an hour ahead for several days past.

I have endured some terrible things in the past week but I have also been the focus of some amazing acts of generosity. My freezer has been filled with food, my lawns mowed, my children cared for. I have literally been able to ask for anything and no one has hesitated for a second; it is only afterwards that I learn that people have walked out of parties or meetings or family gatherings to come and help us. This has made all the difference.

The one thing I cannot do in the midst of this turmoil is read, and so I am going to put this blog aside for a while. I will return to it as soon as I can.


Sunday, 12 October 2014

Penguin no. 1476: Hide My Eyes
by Margery Allingham

     'I never let anything tear the skin. I've never been faintly fond of anything or anybody in my life.' He spoke lightly but with satisfaction. 'I'm deadly serious about this. I spotted the plain mechanical truth of it as a child. You could almost call it the Chad-Horder discovery. Any kind of affection is a solvent. It melts and adulterates the subject and by indulging in it he loses his identity and hence his efficiency. By keeping myself to myself in the face of every conceivable attack I have remained successful, bright, and indestructible. It's a simple recipe for a hundred per cent success. I hand it to you gratis, Richard. Consider it a token of my esteem. Ah, here are the crumpets.'

The title of Hide My Eyes is a reference to one of the themes of this novel, being the idea that evil can be abetted by well-meaning people reluctant to contemplate a possibility which might appal them, or which might imply that their view of the world is naive. Rather than face a truth which seems terrifying, a few of these characters seek their solace in appealing fictions which serve to explain their fears away.

But as the truth with which Polly Tassie will be forced to contend through the course of this story is appalling, it is perhaps no wonder that she shies from it for as long as she can. The reader is aware from the beginning of something Polly cannot know: that this caring elderly woman has been supporting, in her kindly way, the actions of a man so self-concerned and lacking in principle that he will kill without the slightest qualm if it will help him avoid a problem, or if it will result in a financial reward. This is a murderer who has been quietly supporting himself for many years on cash and assets lifted from those he has killed.

The story begins with Gerry Hawker, variously known as Horder and Chas-Horder, driving an old country coach, curtained and dimly-lit, into London's theatre district and then parking it carefully in Goff's Place. Only the two passengers seated at the front are visible from outside and though it is odd that they fail to alight, and that they are never seen to move, they are the kind of elderly folk who excite little interest. And this is all to Hawker's plan; he intends to commit a murder and he has taken some fairly elaborate precautions to  make sure that he blends with his surroundings and so passes unnoticed.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Penguin no. 1068: Essays and Poems
by G.K. Chesterton

But in order that life should be a story or romance to us, it is necessary that a great part of it, at any rate, should be settled for us without our permission. If we wish life to be a system, this may be a nuisance; but if we wish it to be a drama, it is an essential. It may often happen, no doubt, that a drama may be written by somebody else which we very little like. But we should like it still less if the author came before the curtain every hour or so, and forced on us the whole trouble of inventing the next act. A man has control over many things in his life; he has control over enough things to be the hero of a novel. But if he had control over everything, there would be so much hero that there would be no novel. And the reason why the lives of the rich are at bottom so tame and uneventful is simply that they can choose the events. They are dull because they are omnipotent.

It seems that the newspapers for which G.K. Chesterton wrote permitted their journalists considerable freedom in the choice of subject matter, and that this was a liberty of which Chesterton took full advantage. This collection of 29 essays and 28 poems, selected by William Sheed, covers a wide range of topics including the trivial - such as the correct pronunciation of the word tomato; the literary - considering David Copperfield and the Browning love letters; and the religious, in his discussion of the protestant attitude to Mary.

But such a slim volume can only provide the smallest sample of Chesterton's work, as he was an unusually prolific writer: he wrote hundreds of poems and thousands of essays during his journalism career, in addition to his novels and his plays and the short stories which recount the experiences of the amiable priest-detective Father Brown.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Penguin no. 572: Love and Mr. Lewisham
by H.G. Wells

Lewisham had a strong persuasion, an instinct it may be, that human beings should not be happy while others near them are wretched, and this gay glitter of prosperity had touched him with a sense of crime. He still believed people were responsible for their own lives; in those days he had still to gauge the possibilities of moral stupidity in himself and his fellow-men. He happened upon 'Progress and Poverty' just then, and some casual numbers of the 'Commonweal,' and it was only too easy to accept the theory of cunning plotting capitalists and landowners, and faultless, righteous, martyr workers. He became a Socialist forthwith. The necessity to do something at once to manifest the new faith that was in him was naturally urgent. So he went out and (historical moment) bought that red tie!

It may be that Mr. Lewisham holds fairly romantic notions about the brightness of his future prospects; the narrator certainly thinks he does. He mocks poor young Mr. Lewisham all the way through this story on account of what he judges to be an evident naïveté, but I was never sure that the narrator was really as worldly-wise as he supposed himself to be. It seemed to me a case of the very-green mocking the slightly greener.

Mr. Lewisham is an industrious eighteen year old pupil-teacher employed at Whortley Proprietary School, and his first problem with love comes from his having failed to make any allowance for it in his grand scheme. Mr. Lewisham intends great things, but they are all conditioned on his achieving his B.A. degree—with honours in all subjects—at the London University a few years hence, and to this end he has mapped out a schedule of study which involves almost every waking hour of every day for the next few years. He has pledged himself to rising each morning at 5am in order to study French before breakfast, to reading literature through every meal, and to devoting his afternoons to maths and science before heading out to his 'preparation duty'. As the narrator wryly notes, with so much set to be achieved at such a young age, '[w]here Mr Lewisham will be at thirty stirs the imagination'.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Penguin no. 1398: A Perfect Woman
by L.P. Hartley

Cover illustration by Charles Mozley.
     Love is its own torturer; and, like cruder tortures, it makes its victim want to tell the truth — the truth about itself. It is by nature self-betraying; if nothing else, the eyes give it away. Denying Irma, Harold had denied the thing that meant most to him; now, instead of a sweet thought of her, he had only this monstrous lie, which came between him and his image of her, threatening it with extinction. In a panic, feeling she would be lost to him unless he testified, he said:
     'You were right, Alec. I am ... well, I am interested in Irma.'
     Relief came instantly. So might the victim feel when the thumb-screw is loosened.


Harold and Isabel Eastwood are a conventional middle-class couple living in a coastal town with their two young children. They share a married life which has been largely uneventful until now, and which they accept without too much reflection. But A Perfect Woman tells the story of a crisis in their marriage—or perhaps it could be described as an adventure—which occurs after Harold meets the moderately-successful novelist Alec Goodrich while travelling by train.

Until that day their marriage had served to give their lives structure, and provided a way for them to define themselves within their community. Isabel had devoted herself to being an enlightened mother and housewife, and had never reflected for a moment - or perhaps had carefully refused to reflect for a moment - on whether she was personally fulfilled in these roles. And being a husband and father gave Harold a sense of his own importance, and provided a platform from which he could look down upon all those who had failed to achieve such steps. But this all changes when Harold meets the author on the train; soon after both Harold and Isabel seem prepared to abandon everything which had served to give their lives meaning, without a second thought.

Goodrich is engrossed in a book for much of the journey and so there is little conversation - it turns out to be one of his own, for he is ever-hopeful that a fellow passenger will notice his choice of reading material and be effusive in praise, and so we learn early on that this is a man who is unusually self-concerned and in need of affirmation. But this is one pleasure that Harold cannot offer him, as he is not a reader, and he certainly knows nothing of Goodrich's novels.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Penguin no. 585: Rex v. Anne Bickerton
by Sydney Fowler

Well, he must make the best of the facts as he had to face them. He must decide which of the two women was the murderer before to-morrow was over, and after that there must be no looking back. Guilty or innocent, she had got to hang. But the thought did not perturb him. He had too great a confidence in his own ability.

"If you take at random half a dozen of the most famous murder trials of recent years, and read the evidence carefully, you'll probably find that not more than two were really proved—not to the degree of proof which would satisfy a bank or an insurance company in a business deal."

Sydney Fowler was clearly no supporter of the death penalty for those convicted of committing murder, and it would seem that he had many reservations about the process in use in 1930 to deliver people to that end.

He tells, in Rex v. Anne Bickerton, a story of three ordinary people who inadvertently find themselves involved in an unexpected death which appears to have been brought about by an intentional act: they face together the ordeal of having the case examined by the coroner, and then Anne Bickerton, as noted in the title, faces the subsequent ordeal of a murder trial on her own. He uses their story to canvass the many flaws he identifies in the process, flaws which are often underpinned by an incompatibility between the personal priorities of those who work within the system and its overarching intention.

He also focuses on the imperfectness of a process which makes no allowance for the uncertainty about what is known and what is not: when the facts seem incompatible with any feasible explanation of the crime, it is assumed without question that one of the suspects must be lying or keeping something hidden. But these witnesses are perfectly frank, at least about the things that matter (and where they are not, it is only to protect themselves from the avaricious inclinations of the lawyers); the problem stems from something else, perhaps a lack of imagination, or a conceit about infallibility.

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