Sunday, 29 November 2020

Book: 'Clouds Of Witness' (Lord Peter Wimsey) (1926) by Dorothy L Sayers

Now this is rather awesome and a huge improvement on 'Whose Body?'. Huzzah! In the second Wimsey novel, we get a massive chunk of the Wimsey family history, a much more personal story and connection to Wimsey himself, the establishment of Parker's own backstory, and a great and totally unexpected ending moment with everyone least favourite detective, Inspector Sugg! And Sugg is partially redeemed. Huzzah!

'Clouds Of Witness' is the great second entry into the Wimsey series, in which Peter's decidedly dim elder brother ends up accused of murder (which means trial by the House Of Lords!). Is he guilty? Probably not, but he won't provide his alibi and probably has secrets of his own to protect and other people to shield. It's up to Wimsey and Parker to find the truth about who killed the amateur sleuth's sister's fiance and try to duck scandal if at all possible.

Wimsey is much more of a relatable person in this instalment in the series, and further rehabilitated from the shell shock and heartbreak inflicted on him prior to the beginning of the stories. In fact, he is pronounced cured of his heartbreak, and even reconnects to his family in the form of his slightly wacky sister Mary, fiancee of the mysterious and dubious dead man. But did anyone really like the victim, including Mary herself? There is peril in the form of bog holes and rushed transatlantic flights with pioneering aviators, covert affairs of the heart, and also all the pomp and ceremony of the trial of a peer of the realm. And lots of breakfasts too. Breakfasts are important.

Recommended. We get much close closer to all the main characters. Excellent. Add ten to whatever score you think this all means.


Books: The Literary Reflection, XXIII

The cursed era of the Big Nasty continues, and the Quirky Muffin has suffered while I descend into mild depressions and strange moods. There has been some reading, but not a lot, and so it's time for another Literary Reflection, a non-comprehensive summary of some of the books that have passed through the stacks.

Let the odd ramblings commence!

'Police At The Funeral' (Campion) (1931) by Margery Allingham

The British tradition of filling stories with eccentrics, oddballs and noble matriarchs is in full evidence in 'Police At The Funeral', wherein Campion is asked to help out at a town house in Cambridge. The house in question is inhabited by an aged matriarch and her almost totally useless children, nephew and one useful great-niece. Well, perhaps that should be 'late nephew', as murders seem to be happening and no-one is clear on what is going on. Discreet help is needed, and no-one is more discreet than Albert Campion, called in by a friend of the family. The question is this: Can he stop the killings, and save Great Aunt Caroline from a hideous prodigal's return? 'Police At The Funeral' is not one of my favourites of the Campions I've read so far. That would be 'Sweet Danger', the following story, but this is solid. Ultimately, it's just too gloomy and the shadow of the television version hangs over it too much for this to be viewed independently. The beginning sequence in London is rather good, though. Is it a good book? Definitely yes, with a sordid undertone. (These notes written after far too long an interval.)

'Rumpole And The Golden Thread' (Rumpole) (1983) by John Mortimer

This set of six stories aligns with the fourth series of the vintage, classical and unparalleled television series also written by John Mortimer. Which came first, the episodes or the stories? I really have no idea, as it has all become unclear with time and may have varied, year by year. In this set, an eccentric artist seems determined to be convicted of forging, Rumpole is summoned to Africa to defend an opposition leader facing death, a couple are arrested for running a very very middle class brothel, Horace plots to get Miss Allways into Chambers, Allways' sister is accused of murder, and finally Rumpole resorts to extreme measures during a case before the Mad Bull. It's a nice collection of stories, but I'm so late in collecting these remarks (perhaps six months late) that it's not all entirely clear in my mind, especially having watched the television versions so recently. 'The Last Resort' does stir a memory, however, as it is the only prose version that I've read so far which includes a passage not written by Rumpole himself. I will not explain why that is so, but it does mark a high water mark in the set. I wonder what happened to Miss Allways, anyway? (These notes written after far too long an interval.)

'Sweet Danger' (Campion) (1933) by Margery Allingham

The Campion stories are adventures instead of mysteries, which is obvious to anyone who actually reads them or sees the television series. This entry, the fifth, both wonderful for its story but also for introducing the love of Albert's life, the sparky Amanda Fitton. As an early novel, it does have a television episode counterpart, which influences the reading, but it's jolly good by itself too. That said, it's impossible to not see Lysette Antony firing up the scene when Amanda is involved in the episode. In 'Sweet Danger', Albert and some companions set out to save a tiny European valley in the middle of nowhere, which is now valuable as it has acquired a coastline, and restore it to the ownership of a long forgotten British family. There are riddles, quests, a villainous financier, several brushes with danger, strange black magic motifs and more inside this book. Be warned! It is extremely readable! And absolutely wacky in the combinations of incongruous elements. A primitive electric car? Oh, oh, how much more interesting and less homogenous things might have been back in history... Maybe... Rose-tinted spectacles at the ready, everyone!

'The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted' (Stainless Steel Rat) (1987) by Harry Harrison

When last we heard from Slippery Jim DiGriz, the titular Stainless Steel Rat, we had discovered his origin story and the fate of his mentor, the mysterious man known only as The Bishop. Now, in the wake of past events, Jim sets out to escape prison and exact revenge on the villain responsible for the Bishop's fate. In typical fashion, that involves Jim enlisting in a planetary army, becoming involved in an interplanetary invasion, subversion on a massive scale, the discovery of an ancient artificial intelligence, a wholly new social philosophy, and confusion at every turn in the narrative. This is definitely one of the messier Stainless Steel Rats, but it's good. Probably very good. Harry Harrison was a writer who had not problem pushing against his own genre, and I'm wondering when or if this series falls apart.  This is the seventh instalment, published twenty-six years after the first. Where next? And will Harrison avoid the trap of trying to top himself every time now we're skipping around in DrGriz's timeline? Time will tell... (These notes written after far too long an interval.)

'An Antarctic Mystery (AKA The Sphinx Of The Ice Fields)' (1897) by Jules Verne

This is an odd one. Having been used to the famous Verne novels, it seemed like time to get a bit obscure and so we end up with 'An Antarctic Mystery', which is apparently a direct sequel to the Edgar Allen Poe story about some guy called Pym. Pym had a (it sounds rather gruesome and morbid) maritime adventure in the Antarctic Circle, which ended in disaster (Poe!), and Verne's story features a geologist hitching a ride home from a remote island with a ship whose captain's brother died during the Pym story. This ride ultimately converts into a trip to the as yet unreached speculated continent of Antarctica, in search of survivors from that trip many many years before. The chief weakness of this story is that it would be completely non-existent without the earlier work, is ultimately just pointless flotsam if, like myself, you are not a fan of Poe. However, there are good points. The gigantic lodestone at the South Pole is interesting, destroying vessels by extracting all the metal fasteners and equipment, and destroying whatever (or whoever) happens to be between those items and this 'antarctic sphinx'. Some of the geographical knowledge about the near Antarctic islands is quite good too. However, there are far too many coincidences, and mutinous crewmen have been so overdone as to cause torpor at this point. Overall, it was a very erratic experience.


Book: 'Whose Body?' (Lord Peter Wimsey) (1923) by Dorothy L Sayers

The first Lord Peter Wimsey novel doesn't feel like the first. It feels like the second or third. That's a good thing. We don't get the exposition of the various characters' backgrounds, but learn by example. Lord Peter already knows his police partner Parker, Bunter is already his valet and confidante, and the mystery is the thing.

The first time I read through the Wimsey series I was both impressed and a little deterred by its core strength: Its sheer intellectual power. Sayers was a reasoning machine in her writing, and what flashes of emotion we get are brief and powerful. 'Whose Body?' is excellent and impressive while still being disposable in some strange way, but it was more appealing the second time through. The crime, a classic case of corpse switching, is one that takes a while to unravel in the reader's mind. In my case, I didn't work out until a short while after Wimsey did, despite having read the story before.

The curious nature of the Wimsey series is difficult to really articulate. In this book, you might perhaps be reading about people while looking through a stainless steel shield, held by a reverent knight intent on guarding their little universe. Or is that too fanciful? Perhaps it's all in my mind. The notion of post traumatic stress disorder was barely developed in the years following the Great War, but here we have a nobleman, an ex-officer of the battle line, stranded in a now peaceful land and looking for excitement to fill up his life and incidentally help his recovery from what was then called 'shell shock'. We never really get to know Wimsey, but we do know of him.

'Whose Body?' is not the best in the series (you might need the character of Harriet Vane to qualify for that distinction), but it is a very solid opener. This read through will continue...



Book: 'The Last Templar' (Medieval West Country Mysteries) (1995) by Michael Jecks

This is the first entry in a fantastically long series of medieval mysteries that have been championed by the 'In Search Of The Classic Mystery Novel' blog run by the Puzzle Doctor. It's nice to see these stories reaching new eras of history, and not just languishing in the Victorian era and later. Jecks' writing is good, with some imagery thrown in to avoid the bland bestseller style you find in so many modern-ish novels.

'The Last Templar' tricked me, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. Yes, there are spoilers ahead. There are several murders, which according to classical mystery story telling should all be connected, but I can't decide whether the actual solutions to the various intrigues breaks an important rule of these kinds of books or not. Or whether it is ultimately satisfying. The high quality of writing means I'll definitely come back for another one or two in the series, though. The trick behind the title is also very misleading, but feels much fairer in how it works.

The world of policing in the medieval age is so completely different as to be fascinating. There are essentially no policemen apart from a few sheriffs and a bailiff or two, and they have to organise a posse if they ever need to investigate trouble. Yes, a posse, often referred to as 'The Hundred'. It is also a world without light, and one with an awful lot of fire. Fire was the high technology of the time, and was a more common method of murder. It's also a world where people would still be crucified and burned at stakes. How strange it all seems now, even while our hero, Simon Puttock the newly chosen Bailiff  of Lydford Castle investigates the murders in his area and meeting his new friend, and suspicious newcomer, Sir Baldwin Furnshill.

Where will this series go? We will have to wait and see. I'll keep going until either the end or the onset of fatigue.


Book: 'The Merchant's Partner' (Medieval West Country Mysteries) (1995) by Michael Jecks

There are so many exclamation marks at the end of dialogue! Yikes! It's sometimes as if the characters are speaking in an episode of 'Batman'! How's that for a cold opening, huh? We return to Michael Jecks, and on this occasion I will be less positive, if only because 'The Merchant's Partner' has some structural similarities to the first book in the series and because of the exclamation marks! The temptation is to put the quibbles aside and lump it all into the 'second book problem' category of woes, which has afflicted so many authors and series. The first book is usually a labour of love, but the second book is often a labour of toil as the author tries to work out what on Earth to do next, given the success of the first instalment.

In that first book, 'The Last Templar', there were were three murders and the strong presence of darkness, which was a major problem back in history. When you only had fire as a source of light, the night time was a dangerous time indeed. This time, there are two murders and the natural problem of coldness, as this is definitely a winter's tale, with snow and potential death by hypothermia around every corner. There but for a few gadgets would we all be. On the other hand, the much deeper symbiosis with the environment seems a far more natural way of life that the sterile isolation from all things animal we have now. Anyway, back to the plot. Sir Baldwin Furnshill, Keeper of the Peace, has invited his old friend Simon Puttock, Bailiff of Lydford, and his wife to visit, but unfortunately two murders complicate matters tremendously. In addition, snow is falling by the yard, Baldwin the unhappy bachelor is desperately pining for a love to call his own. Oh, and one of the victims is supposed to have been a witch...

This one is curious. Overall, it's very solidly constructed and written. The second string narrative of the visiting stranger and his wanderings is quite similar to that in the first book, and exists mainly as a potential red herring to keep us guessing. The medieval setting is still fresh and unusual for a mystery novel, but the long narrative journey to get us to the conclusion seems a bit drawn out and burdened with exposition. It seems a bit far-fetched that neither Furnshill nor Puttock could have guessed at the real nature of the potion that Spoilery Person Number Five took, and Furnshill fell in love so ludicrously fast that his heart may have broken the sound barrier. Still, that could well be my cynicism seeping through.

Second books are always difficult, and this is pretty solid and good on many levels, so the third shall be the real test. It's not time to leave Devon yet...


Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Book: 'The Big Clock' (1946) by Kenneth Fearing

Spoilery times ahead.

It's going to be difficult to talk about this without making a comparison to the rather excellent Ray Milland movie version, but let's try. In 'The Big Clock', we are introduced to our main protagonist George Stroud, who is an editor of the crime magazine 'Crimeways', part of tycoon Earl Jaroth's publication group. He's an average guy, except for being a bit sleazy at times, who gets involved with Jaroth's mistress and then witnesses his boss at her home on the night she is murdered. What follows is a thriller, where the murderer Jaroth tells Stroud to employ the entire magazine group staff on a manhunt to catch... Stroud. There are other wrinkles to it all, but the (mostly) innocent Stroud has to protect himself while trying to deflect the investigation toward the true culprit.

Maybe we should talk about the movie, after all, as the differences are important. Here, in the book, Stroud is saved by a freak event which gets the manhunt called off, and is then mysteriously considered in the clear. He is also clearly a philanderer, which is a real flaw to add to the main protagonist. In terms of the climax and likeable characters, the movie is much much better, since Stroud is instrumental in the climax and fate of Jaroth, instead of being the recipient of good but dumb luck. Also, in the movie, he spends the evening with the doomed lady in bars and antique shops, but it is nowhere near being the grand weeks long infidelity depicted in the novel. Ultimately, the novel is hard-boiled noir, and the movie is filled with more likeable characters.

In an unusual move, each chapter of 'The Big Clock' is written from the point of view of a character, most of them George Stroud. There are, however, several narrated by other characters in the story. At the moment, I can't think of another novel that does that in my collection, although it seems as if there is at least one, currently hidden away by memory. Is it necessary, or a gimmick, or both? There are definitely versions of this story which could successfully be told exclusively from Stroud's point of view, leaving the machinations of Jaroth to the reader's imagination.

All in all, this is a good and short thriller. There is an issue with the ending being so sudden and incidental, leaving Stroud in the clear for no reason, but this is purely a subjective problem. The ending of the movie is definitely preferable. It's more satisfying to tie the ending into your protagonist than not, after all. Still, it is a famous crime novel, so Fearing probably knew what he was doing! It's well written, humorous and serious, but a bit brief. Also, there is an eccentric artist! On the other hand, it's a bit too preoccupied  with sexuality and mores for me, but that's not an uncommon problem.