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“Like Jeeves – but With a Murder”

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Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay

I seem to have been spending a lot of time recently with the British Library Crime Classics collection – thanks to my local library coming up trumps with getting these in for me – and the latest is the first title by Mavis Doriel Hay, the enticing sounding “Murder Underground”. Unfortunately I’ve been reading Hay’s novels out of order (and she only did the three crime titles) but it doesn’t seem to have mattered too much.

murder underground

The title, of course, immediately gives away the subject of the book! Miss Euphemia Pongleton (often referred to irreverently as The Pongle), resident of the Frampton Private Hotel, is found dead on the spiral staircase at Belsize Park underground station, strangled by her own dog leash. Surprisingly, an underground station during the morning proves to be very under-populated although a suspect is soon picked up. There is much gossip and theorising about the killing amongst the denizens of what is actually a boarding house (The Frumps, as they’re called in the novel). These include the novelist Mrs. Daymer, Mr. Slocomb, the youngsters Cissie and Betty (who is engaged to The Pongle’s nephew Basil), Mr. Grange and Mr. Blend – not to mention Tuppy the dog! What follows is a comedy of confusion, as motives and actions get blurred, all sorts of obfuscations take place, and it isn’t really clear who was doing what and when, who had a motive, who stands to inherit under which of many of Miss Pongleton’s wills, and who actually is who!

This was in many ways an odd sort of crime novel, and Hay has an unusual way of telling her story. Much is not made clear by the multiple narrators, the actual crime is revealed gradually and we hear of it by hints and references first, and to be honest Hay really doesn’t play fair with her readers. So much of the action seems to take place off-screen, or is related by characters retrospectively, that it’s hard to get into the story sometimes.

Basil becomes the main suspect but his actions are inexplicable and all over the place, and it’s sometimes hard to follow what on earth he’s up to and what on earth is going on! Of course, this may be what Hay intended and certainly the book is an enjoyable read. However, I guessed the murder and the motive surprisingly early on, which is a shame.

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This perhaps sounds a little negative and it shouldn’t. “Murder Underground” is an atmospheric romp, very much conjuring up the time in which it was written – the classes are firmly in place, the servants all drop their aitches and Basil’s relatives are all snobs. However, the class distinctions can be seen to be falling away in that Basil is planning to settle down with a working girl! But there is a slight tendency to descend into cliché, particularly with the character of Mamie, a “good time girl” with whom Basil has been spending time. Her clothes, make-up and speech are really stereotypical, more so than anyone else in the book; and I found it odd that Basil would spend time with her, and his Betty would just accept this!

When I was up in London recently I was chatting with a guy behind the counter in the London Review of Books bookstore (and what a lovely place that is!). We were talking about the BL Crime Classics and got onto the subject of Hay’s books and how “Death on the Cherwell” suffered by comparison with “Gaudy Night”. However, he came up with a phrase that I think sums up what these books are about, when he described them as “Like Jeeves – but with a murder”. He’s right, of course – this book in particular has a goofy main character who digs himself in deeper and deeper, and has to be rescued by others!

This was in the end an enjoyable, cosy read with plenty of silliness from the main protagonists, lots of red herrings and buckets of atmosphere. I guess my criticisms perhaps come from expecting too much of the book, but it was fun and I’m glad I’ve read it!

Joining in with Mary Stewart Reading Week!

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Mary Stewart, who sadly passed away earlier this year, is an author who’s much loved amongst the blogging circles I move in – so much so, that the lovely Anbolyn at Gudrun’s Tights is holding a second annual Mary Stewart Reading Week, running from September 14th – 21st.

My experience of reading Stewart stems from my teens when I was looking for books to make the transition from the Enid Blytons of my childhood to more adult works. I ended up raiding my mother’s collection of Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt, Georgette Heyer – and of course Mary Stewart. The only ones I can remember clearly (well, relatively so!) were the Merlin novels – The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment – which I absolutely loved. There were still only three titles when I read them though I believe there have been further additions to the series since I read them.

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But I’ve wanted to revisit Stewart, especially after reading so many glowing comments about her work over recent years. So this reading week is the ideal time to do so, especially as I picked up a bargain set of Mary Stewart books from the Book People earlier in the year! I chose one of the books at random from this set, “Wildfire at Midnight”, and as it’s set on Skye it will tie in with my current Scottish leanings! So onward and upward with Mary Stewart Reading Week!

A place or a person; a memoir or an epic?

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Lanark by Alasdair Gray

Q: What is Lanark?

A1: A former Scottish county containing Glasgow and also the town of Lanark

A2: A strange great epic book

A3: The hero (or anti-hero) of the aforesaid book which is set in the aforesaid area (or a weird variation of it)

Intrigued? I was!

Although I’ve spent most of my life living in England, I was born in Edinburgh, and periodically my Scottishness comes out with a vengeance! I don’t quite recall where I heard about “Lanark”, but it struck me as sounding like something big and epic and Scots that I should read, and so I picked up a copy. I’m unsure what provoked me to read it now, though it might have something to do with a certain Mr. Capaldi making his Whovian debut recently….. Not that I’m visualising Capaldi as Lanark or anything, but the former did present a rather wonderful documentary on Glasgow art some years back – and Glasgow is most important to Lanark…..

lanark

At nearly 600 pages “Lanark” is no casual read, and its unusual structure means it’s even less likely to attract the uncommitted.  Of author Alasdair Gray, Wikipedia says: Alasdair Gray (born 28 December 1934) is a Scottish writer and artist. His most acclaimed work is his first novel, Lanark, published in 1981 and written over a period of almost 30 years. It is now regarded as a classic, and was described by The Guardian as “one of the landmarks of 20th-century fiction.” His novel Poor Things (1992) won the Whitbread Novel Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize. He describes himself as a civic nationalist and a republican. Gray’s works combine elements of realism, fantasy, and science fiction, plus clever use of typography and his own illustrations.

Basically, the work is subtitled “A Life in Four Books” and it opens with Book 3. It then goes on to Books 1 and 2 and then finally Book 4. Interspersed at points are a Prologue, an Epilogue and an Interlude. Despite this strangeness, the chapters are numbered sequentially. If the book sounds confusing, surprisingly enough it isn’t!

“Lanark” begins at Book 3 with us meeting the title character in a city we later learn is Unthank, a man with no memories of the past and no idea who he really is. Unthank is a strange not-Glasgow, decaying and permanently dark and grey, and here Lanark falls in with Sludden and his motley crew of followers. All is not well in this city – people disappear without warning, there are strange diseases around, and Lanark himself is troubled by an increasing amount of dragonhide growing on his arm…. As he deteriorates he’s suddenly whisked into darkness himself, to a strange underground institute where the dragonish growth is cured. But who runs the place and will Lanark, who only wants to be alone and see the light, be able to escape?

Book 1, which follows, introduces us to young Duncan Thaw, a boy growing up in wartime and post-war Glasgow. Thaw has parents and a sister Ruth, and suffers from crippling asthma and ill-health. As he stumbles confusedly through childhood, we get a wonderful picture of what it was like to grow up at the time, pulled between religion, politics, the thoughts of school friends, the desires of the body. Thaw’s father is a hard-working man with left-wing tendencies, his mother the anchor in his life. But neither can really cope with or understand Thaw, and his unsettling behaviour often ends in a thrashing or being thrown into a bath of cold water.

Alasdair Gray photographed before speaking at the Edinburgh festival

As we move into Book 2, Thaw’s talent for art, which we saw earlier in the story, has come to the fore and he manages to get into Glasgow’s prestigious art school. However, despite making new friends and falling in love, he’s incapable of knuckling down, toeing the line or playing the game. Instead, his need to create a huge, radical, individual piece of art forces him into conflict with the school’s authorities and even the people he’s making his artwork for don’t understand it. Whatever Thaw tackles seems doomed to failure owing to a combination of his continual ill-health and his stubbornness.

Book 4 takes us back to Unthank where the connections between Lanark and Thaw have become clearer. We follow Lanark through the later stages of his life as he travels to the city of Provan to try to save Unthank from its doom. But the controlling powers are strong and Lanark shares a tendency to failure with Thaw, so things don’t look optimistic to say the least…

That’s by necessity a skimming of the surface and a very brief hint at the scope of this book, because it really is quite massive. I deliberately don’t want to give too much away because I would hate to spoil the discovery of the richness of this work for anyone. Basically, I haven’t got lost in a work of literature like this for a long time, and it was truly stunning. I’m hesitant about revealing a lot of the plot, because for a first read I would definitely recommend approaching “Lanark” with a clear and open mind. Gray apparently originally wrote the Thaw sections, which are somewhat autobiographical, but then decided that he needed to create a really huge, epic piece of art and so the work expanded. The central Thaw sections, the coming of age tale of a Glasgow child, could certainly stand on their own; but they would be much less powerful without the framing Lanark story, with its shifts and changes, its allegories and its parodies of reality.

If I’m honest, I’m still assimilating much of the book, but it seems to me to be very much a cry out for the individual, for humanity against the huge forces that control us. Published in 1981, “Lanark” is even more relevant today, in a world where the individual matters for very little. It’s as if Gray wanted to take the epics of the past, where heroes made journeys, fought against strange monsters and forces, finally reaching some kind of resolution, and bring them up to date with a modern Scottish epic of his own. Certainly, Glasgow takes centre stage, and possibly Provan is meant to represent Edinburgh (although I’ve seen that debated).

Glasgow School of Art

Glasgow School of Art

Lanark is full of profound thought, shooting out phrases that make your brain go into overdrive and question everyday life:

Faint sounds came from the kitchen where his father prepared a breakfast. Hundreds of thousands of men in dirty coats and heavy boots were tramping along grey streets to the gates of forges and machine shops. He thought with awe of the energy needed to keep up a civilization, of the implacable routines which started drawing it from the factory worker daily at eight, from the clerk and shopkeeper at nine. Why didn’t everyone decide to stay in bed one morning? it would mean the end of civilization, but in spite of two world wars the end of civilization was still an idea, while bed was a warm immediate fact.

Thaw struggles to express his art and his emotions, but he’s out of step with so much and unable to complete what he started, ruing his failure and returning to his constant questing for answers about religion, another recurring theme in the book:

Why didn’t you give me a railway station to decorate? It would have been easy painting to the glory of Stevenson, Telford, Brunel and a quarter million Irish navvies. But here I am, illustrating your discredited first chapter through an obsolete art form on a threatened building in a poor province of a collapsing empire. Only the miracle of my genius stops me feeling depressed about this, and even so my brushes are clogged by theology, that bastard of the sciences.

What I loved also was the cleverness of the writing. Gray is remarkably inventive and the fantastic elements, though almost sci-fi in places, are somehow believable. The twists and turns in the plot, the constant surprises and action, made for a very compelling and surprisingly quick read of a long book – I couldn’t wait to get back to it! Gray’s writing is also very funny, and he plays around with the genre, even breaking the fourth wall at one point and having author and character have a discussion! Gray also provides the occasional illustrations to the book and he’s obviously something of a polymath. I also loved the Scotticisms, so many of which brought back memories of the language of my childhood… The writing is beautiful and evocative, conjuring up people and places so clearly:

His dark skin, great arched nose, small glittering eyes, curling black hair and pointed beard were so like the popular notion of the devil that on first sight everyone felt they had known him intimately for years. (Aitkin Drummond, one of Thaw’s art school friends)

They crossed the shallow arch of the wooden bridge and climbed past some warehouses to the top of a threadbare green hill. They stood under an electric pylon and looked across the city centre. The wind which stirred the skirts of their coats was shifting mounds of grey cloud eastward along the valley. Travelling patches of sunlight went from ridge to ridge, making a hump of tenements gleam against the dark towers of the city chambers, silhouetting the cupolas of the Royal Infirmary against the tomb-glittering spine of the Necropolis.

“Lanark” is very much a sum of its parts, containing myriad allusions and influences; in fact, the author is honest enough to list all of these ‘plagiarisms’ as he calls them at one point in the book, but I’m not going to say where! And what matters most is the synthesis, the story that Gray has woven together from all these disparate parts of his life and his influences, turning them into this fascinating, fantastic tale.

Is Lanark/Thaw hero or anti-hero? Probably a bit of both, if I’m honest. He tries to do good as much as he can, and fight against what he perceives as wrong, even while questioning why he’s doing so.

I don’t care what happens to most people. All of us over eighteen have been warped into deserving what happens to us. But if your reason shows that civilization can only continue by damaging the brains and hearts of most children, then… Your reason and civilisation are false and will destroy themselves.

“Lanark” is a work that deserves numerous re-reads to pick up the references and the subtleties, and work out all that Gray was trying to say – but my first reading of this epic book was certainly dazzling. It’s a huge great sprawling undisciplined rebellious brick of a book and I loved it!

A birthday thought….

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Leo Tolstoy

“All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.”

Today is the birthday of the great Russian author, Leo Tolstoy (9 September 1828 – 20 November 1910). Google has produced a rather nice doodle for the event and it’s worth searching out. Tolstoy was an amazing writer and also a compassionate man in many ways.

“A man can live and be healthy without killing animals for food; therefore, if he eats meat, he participates in taking animal life merely for the sake of his appetite.”

Reading his “Anna Karenina” last year was an intense and wonderful experience – maybe soon I’ll be able to make my way through “War and Peace”!

The Wonders of Classic Crime from the British Library

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Bank Holidays in the UK are notorious for having bad weather, and the most recent one was no exception – so it was a delight to have these books from the local library to fill the time while the rain was falling and it was feeling decidedly autumnal! All three are from authors whose works have been really quite unjustly neglected, and all turned out to be very enjoyable. First up was:

A Scream in Soho by John G. Brandon

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Brandon, it seems, was a prolific writer, contributing Sexton Blake stories, and churning out many thrillers. In fact, I felt that this book straddled the line between thriller and murder mystery, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The events take place in the middle of the blackout (it was originally published in 1940) and our protagonist Detective Inspector McCarthy is a policemen with a great commitment to his work, as he actually lives in the area he’s responsible for (Soho) and is well-known to all its denizens. The scream of the title is heard during one blacked out night, and although there is initially no body in Soho Square, there is enough evidence of bloody deeds to convince McCarthy that murder has been done. And soon after an innocent constable is killed, so the hunt for the perpetrators begins. But this is no straightforward domestic affair – there is the Soho underworld to deal with, alongside German spies, stolen papers and all sorts of dirty deeds.

I enjoyed “Soho” very much indeed – it was atmospheric, packed with action, rattled along at a breakneck speed and was very engaging. The characters were perhaps a little stereotyped, but it was still great fun and Brandon really caught the feel of the area, what it was like to live during the war and put in wonderful little touches like sympathetic portrayals of the refugees that serve to remind you what McCarthy is fighting for – freedom and the British way of life. A very good read.

The Lake District Murder by John Bude

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You couldn’t get much further away in setting from Soho than the Lake District I suppose; but this is not the Lake District of tourists, more that of everyday people, working and making a living in that area (though we are allowed some musings on lovely scenery at points in the story). Bude wrote a number of crime novels, and they’re considered to be part of the police procedural school, exemplified by Freeman Wills Crofts; and as I’ve read a number of Crofts books in the past, that wasn’t a problem for me!

Our detective is Inspector Meredith, not exactly a plodding policeman, but nevertheless a solid, reliable and methodical man, called in to investigate an apparent suicide at a lonely country garage. However, Meredith is astute enough to realise that there are flaws here and this is in fact a case of murder. But who would murder a harmless garage owner? His shiftless partner has a solid alibi, his fiance is distraught and he seems to have no enemies. However, as Meredith probes further, aided by his photography mad teenage son and prompted by his superintendent, it seems that there is something much bigger going on here and that the murder is only the tip of the iceberg…

Bude certainly knew how to write a police procedural – this was a good, solid, enjoyable mystery packed with lots of deducing and checking times and alibis, as well as much whizzing about the Lake District on motorbikes and sidecars. The pleasure in this book comes with watching Meredith patiently working his way towards a solution, gradually piecing things together, amongst ordinary people living ordinary lives. If the resolution is perhaps slightly anti-climactic that’s because in real life these things probably are! Again, a good read and I’ll no doubt be searching out the other title of his that the British Library’s published.

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay

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I confess I was probably looking forward most of all to this book in the series – I mean, Oxford Ladies’ college, murder in punts, detecting undergrads – what promise! Mavis Doriel Hay only wrote three detective novels, all of which have been reprinted by the BL, before going on to a different life after WW2, and this is the second.

The book opens with a gaggle of female undergrads gathering on a deserted boathouse to set up a society dedicated to sorting out their rotten Bursar, who is universally loathed. Lo and behold, a punt comes floating by with the Bursar dead in the bottom – wish fulfilment or what! However, the alarmed girls manage to muddy the waters (!) around the case for quite a while, with their attempts to investigate, which makes the job of Detective-Inspector Braydon from Scotland Yard all the more difficult. There is, of course, the worry of the publicity and the effect on women’s colleges and their perception by the public. But who would have actually killed the Bursar? Does the local eccentric, from whom the college wishes to buy more land, hate women enough to take this kind of action. Or maybe the local farmer who wants to sell his land to Persephone college? Or is this simply an undergrad rag gone wrong?

Perhaps having looked forward to this one so much, it was inevitable that it wouldn’t be quite so good as I thought. It’s very well written, and the atmosphere of the Oxford college is strongly portrayed. However, the undergrads do come across more like schoolgirls than university students, and the plot is perhaps a little slim. It’s not that this book is not enjoyable – far from it, I really had fun reading it – but unfortunately for it, “Death on the Cherwell” can’t help but suffer from comparison with that other great Oxford ladies’ college murder story, Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Gaudy Night”. In many ways, it’s unfair to compare the two, because Hay was obviously just writing a murder mystery in a setting she knew, whilst making the odd point about attitudes to female learning. Sayers, however, took the crime novel to new heights with “Gaudy Night” – I always need to remind myself that Sayers was a great novelist who just happened to write crime. Both books came out in the same year, and although both authors obviously had concerns about education for women being taken seriously, Sayers is the one that uses her novel to the greatest effect to get this across (as well as writing an outstanding novel).

Putting comparisons aside, however, DOTC is a good read – full of lively characters, plenty of local colour, twists, turns and red herrings. I had an inkling of the solution reasonably early one, and once again found the ending a little anticlimactic; nevertheless, if you love Golden Age crime this book (and any of the others from the British Library Crime Classics collection) are ideal for you! And they certainly gave me many enjoyable hours over a wet bank holiday weekend, so kudos to the BL for bringing these lost works back into print, and in such lovely editions!

A Twisty Tale of Twins

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Murder in the Maze by J.J. Connington

Obviously reading all that modern fiction has been just too much for me, as I confess I fairly flung myself into this lovely green Penguin vintage crime book! J.J. Connington was the pen-name of Alfred Stewart, about whom Wikipedia says “Alfred Walter Stewart (September 1880 – 1 July 1947) was a British chemist and part-time novelist who wrote seventeen detective novels and a pioneering science fiction work between 1923 and 1947 under the pseudonym of JJ Connington. He created several fictional detectives, including Superintendent Ross and Chief Constable Sir Clinton Driffield.” His novels don’t seem that easy to find, and so I guess this one, which cost me £3 from Claude Cox a while back, was a bit of a bargain!

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The book is pure Golden Age crime fiction – set in a country house, it opens with a pair of twins, Neville and Roger Shandon, who really aren’t that pleasant. Neville is a barrister, handling a high-profile case, whereas his brother Roger seems to have made his money from dodgy dealings in South Africa. Also present at Whistlefield is a third brother, the rather feeble Ernest, plus the usual motley crew of distant relations, friends, secretaries and servants. As the twins go off to the maze, each planning to work in one of its two centres, the unwary reader is probably confidently predicting that one of them will be killed and mistaken for the other – but what transpires is not quite so straightforward as that! Fortunately, the Chief Constable of the area, Sir Clinton Driffield, is staying locally and can be called upon to investigate. He seems a sharp enough man, although he is a little hindered by a Watson-like bumbling sidekick, Wendover. Then there is the somewhat sinister local poison expert, Dr. Ardsley, who they need to identify strange poisons on weird darts – despite Wendover’s great dislike of the man…

As Sir Clinton and Wendover continue their investigations, there are further murder attempts and killings. But it isn’t clear what the motive is, who will gain from the deaths, and there are some unshakeable motives in place. Will the two detectives succeed in tracking down the killer in time?

ConningtonJJ

This was *such* a good read – Connington seemed to put as many twists and turns into the books as there were in the maze, and it was remarkably well plotted. I started to get an inkling of who the murderer might be towards the end, but the resolution surprised me in a lot of places and was very satisfying. The writing and characterisation were excellent, and the author wasn’t averse to having a little dig at the detective genre:

“What’s wrong with your outlook on the business, Squire, is that you want to treat a real crime as if it were a bit clipped out of a detective novel. In a ‘tec yarn, you get everything nicely sifted for you. The author puts down only things that are relevant to the story. If he didn’t select his materials, his book would be far too long and no one would have the patience to plough through it. The result is that the important clues are thrown up as if they had a spotlight on them, if the reader happens to have any intelligence.”

I have one more Connington, but alas I think it’s earlier and doesn’t feature Clinton Driffield, who is a very endearing detective! However, I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for his books, as I usually find I can rely on a green Penguin….

… in which I encounter some *modern* fiction!

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Which is not a phrase you encounter that often on the Ramblings, as I do have a tendency to read older works. However, a couple of review volumes have come my way recently, wrenching me slightly out of my comfort zone; but nevertheless, the experience has been quite rewarding!

Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie

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I was quite excited to receive one of a limited number of proofs from Bookbridgr of this new novel – particularly as its subject matter is the art of printing itself! The premise is fascinating, telling the story of the birth of print through the eyes of an apprentice to the great Gutenberg himself. The story is fascinating, covering the conflict between advocates of the printed word against lovers of beautiful writing, and how the two can be reconciled in the use of decorative fonts; clashes over the financing of the enterprise; and the difficultly of dealing with the priests who think this is a kind of blasphemy. And Christie writes well, and certainly knows her stuff. However, if I’m honest I struggled with this book a little for a couple of reasons. Firstly, in certain parts she slipped between present and past tense, which was a very uncomfortable literary device and one I didn’t really like. Secondly, I didn’t really feel that the characters came alive enough for me, never developing quite enough depth. There was a little repetition and the book could have been slimmed down a bit, reducing the endless amount of typesetting that was going on (yes, I know the book is about just that, but once it’s established it doesn’t need to be endlessly reprised). I ended up feeling that with her obvious knowledge of the subject, Christie might have been better off writing a non-fiction book about the coming of printed books, rather than wrapping all this up in a fiction that I found it hard to engage with. Nevertheless, I did learn quite a lot from the book and it may be that others will enjoy the story more than me – wrong book at wrong time, perhaps, and I’ll give it another try when the mood feels right!

2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helen Bertino

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This seems to be have been popping up everywhere online recently, and then I read quite an interesting little piece online by the author here. I was intrigued enough to seek out a copy from the publishers (many thanks!) and I did enjoy this book more of the two. “2 A.M.” is a very cleverly constructed book, which all takes place on Christmas Eve Eve starting at 7 a.m. that day and going through in real-time to the title location and beyond. It tells the story of Madeleine Altimari, a sassy 9-year-old who can sing jazz like a dream; Sarina Greene, her teacher at St. Anthony of the Immaculate Heart school; and Lorca, owner of The Cat’s Pajamas jazz club in Philadelphia, where this is set. All three are dealing with a kind of crisis during the day, and all three stories will come to intertwine.

Madeleine has recently lost her mother, and her father is not coping; so the girl is being kept together, body and soul, by a number of agencies and people, but only just. Mrs. Santiago, who runs the nearby cafe, is feeding her and generally keeping an eye on her (while trying to keep her dog Pedro under control). And when Madeleine needs things during the story, it’s mostly taken care of by local people who knew her mother – there’s quite a community feel in the area. But all Madeleine wants to do is sing jazz, and she’s not even allowed to sing at school, where she has a bad reputation for cursing and not conforming – and it doesn’t help that the school principal knew her mother for years and they didn’t get on.

Meanwhile, Sarina has gone through a divorce and runs into her old flame and prom date Ben. The prom did not go well, but she still loves him and he still loves her. It appears that his marriage is also failing – so how will the day go for them? And Lorca and his club are also in trouble, from numerous violations to various local laws and their friendly local copy who turned a blind eye has been promoted. Can he pay the fine and save his club, while also mending his bad relationship with his teenage son.

Alongside these main strands are a horde of other characters and plots (including the life of Pedro the dog!) and this is where perhaps a slight criticism could be made – there are *too* many side issues that don’t get developed or resolved, and if they’d been pruned a little it would have allowed for more focus on the rest. Madeleine herself is a wonderful character – alive and lively, feisty and very believable in her attempts to cope with life and deal with a father who’s basically zoned out from all responsibility. That element of the plot worried me a little, because I thought that surely some kind of outside agency would have been intervening at that point, but let’s just suspend disbelief for a while. Sarina and Ben were sweet, and Lorca and his jazz club cronies great fun. And Bertino’s command of the material was quite brilliant, particularly in the way she developed all the strands and drew them together. I don’t usually favour books written in the present tense, but this worked for a tale taking place in real-time, and in fact there were a couple of places where she went into flashback that threw me a little because it wasn’t initially clear what was happening.

In the end, all the plots come together and there’s a kind of resolution for all of sorts, and a feel-good time for Madeleine. However, I was rather taken aback by the concluding pages which, without giving any spoilers, suddenly went off into a totally unexpected place and really threw me. I’ve seen other readers comment on this and wonder whether maybe this element, which I didn’t see hinted at earlier, really worked in the context of the book. If the author intended us to read “2 A.M.” as that particular kind of tale, I didn’t, so it was unexpected – I’ll say no more and let others make up their own minds!

I enjoyed “2 A.M.” very much in the end – it’s funny, poignant and very entertaining, and a good read for the evenings as the colder weather draws in!

(Review copies provided by Bookbridgr and Picador, for which many thanks!)

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