Sunday, 29 November 2020

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.


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