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Mysterious Happenings on the South Downs

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The Hog’s Back Mystery by Freeman Wills Crofts

The British Library Crime Classics series tends to get a lot of love on the blogs I visit – as well as on my own, as you’ll note from my many posts on them – and one particular title that’s been turning up lately is “The Hog’s Back Mystery”. Fortunately, I had a copy lurking, picked up at some point in a charity shop, and I must admit the thought of another relaxing mystery was just what I needed on my return to work after the summer break.

Freeman Wills Crofts is not a name new to me; back in the 1980s when I first had my Golden Age crime splurge and read more books by classic authors than I can remember, he was one of those whose works I tracked down. His Inspector French stories were hugely popular when they came out, and were still highly regarded among aficionados when I was reading him, so I wasn’t sure why his titles had slipped out of sight – and as I couldn’t remember anything about the Crofts titles I’d read I came to this completely fresh!

The book is set in the Surrey countryside, an area apparently well known to Crofts, and it deals with a sequence of mysterious disappearances. Dr James Earle and his wife Julia live in a comfortable country house, with no apparent worries. Julia’s sister and an older friend are visiting when Dr Earle suddenly vanishes from his house, in his carpet slippers and taking nothing with him. There is no evidence of foul play and no explanation, and the police are baffled. Fortunately, the local men are able to call in Inspector French, who proceeds along his methodical way, asking questions, looking for clues and always making sure he gets his breakfast! Earle has been seen up in ‘Town’ with an unknown woman who, when eventually identified, proves to have also disappeared. Was there a romantic connection, as it seems the Earle marriage was perhaps developing cracks? However, when one of the house guests also vanishes, the plot really thickens. The motive for the disappearances is unclear, there are no bodies, anybody who might be suspicious has an alibi; and it will take all of French’s brain-bashing to get to the solution.

Well, I can see why “The Hog’s Back Mystery” has received so much praise: it’s an excellently constructed puzzle, full of twists and turns, and eminently readable. French himself falls into the category of detectives who succeed by sheer graft (much like John Bude’s Meredith who I wrote about recently). There is no flashy detecting, no dramatic set-piece denouement and no Holmes-like disguises and chicanery. Instead, French follows up every little clue, interviews people over and over again, as well as doing a remarkable amount of leg-work. However, he still manages to have those lightbulb moments (which surely every human being gets) when all of the pieces slot into place and it only takes a bit of research and careful checking to prove a theory.

Hog’s Back on the South Downs

Crofts as an author plays fair with the reader, so much so that when we reach the chapter with the solution, each deduction or fact has a page reference so that the reader can pop back and check this. I would think this is perhaps guaranteed to disgruntle the reader a little, as it kind of says that if they had been as astute as French they would have solved the mystery too – and I confess I didn’t! 🙂 I *did* work out something about a guilty party before it was revealed, but the intricacies of the alibis etc were beyond me, despite the clues – which isn’t a problem, as I *do* like to be fooled by a murder mystery!

So, yet another satisfying read from the British Library Crime Classics series. A couple of the early titles I read seemed perhaps a little lightweight but I must admit that the recent books I’ve read have been excellent examples of the genre. And of course, they’re perfect relaxing reading when your brain is a bit frazzled and you want to watch someone else doing all the hard work for you…. 🙂

*****

“Hog’s Back…” has also been loved and reviewed by BookerTalk and HeavenAli, and so you might want to pop over and have a look at their posts.

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Books. Tomes. Publications. Texts. And a marvellous festive treat from @BL_Publishing !

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It’s the usual story on the Ramblings: despite my best intentions, books *will* keep finding their way into the house… In fairness, I have bought very few of them, and I *have* piled on the floor in one of the Offspring’s ex-bedrooms at least 100 volumes to be sold or donated or passed on to friends. So the house rafters will hopefully survive for a little longer, and in the meantime I thought I should share some book pictures – because, let’s face it, we all get vicarious pleasure from seeing other people’s book hauls!

First up, the charity shops. I should just avoid them, I suppose, but *do* pop in every week – and mostly I’m good, reminding myself that I have plenty to read at home.

However, the previous weekend I couldn’t resist another Allingham (I kind of think I might have read this once, but I can’t remember) – it sounds good and was terribly cheap! The Capote short stories is a book I haven’t come across in my second-hand book searching, and I blame Ali – she’s reviewed Capote’s short stories glowingly, and although I’ve read his longer works I haven’t read this, so I had to pick it up.

The rather large volume that is “Middlemarch” is a Bookcrossing book – they have a little selection in my local Nero, and since I always have a coffee there on a Saturday I always check the books out. I have a very old and gnarled Penguin of the book, but the type is so small that it’s off-putting – so I figured this might spur me on to read it. It’s in almost new condition with decent size type and lovely white pages (as opposed to the brown and crispy ones of my old book) so that’s a bonus!

However, the bestest find (so to speak) of recent weeks is this lovely!! I’ve written about Anthony Berkeley’s works before on the blog – I love his Golden Age fictions, as he brings such a twist to the format, and in particular the British Library Crime Classics reprint of “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a really outstanding addition to their range. It seems the BL are not the only ones going in for classic crime reprints (although I would say they are leading the field), as this is a Collins reprint which seems to be part of a series of ‘Detective Club’ reissues. A lovely hardback in a dustjacket, for £2 not to be sneezed at. I can see myself picking this one up very soon!

Then there are the review books…. gulp. As you can see, a few have been making their way into the Ramblings – some rather substantial and imposing ones amongst them, particularly from the lovely OUP. The hardback Russians are calling to me, particularly “Crime and Punishment”, which is long overdue a re-read. Then there’s another edition of the quirky and entertaining Stella Benson from Mike Barker.

As for the Christmas paper… well, you’ve probably picked up on social media and the like that the British Library have a rather special volume planned as their Christmas Crime Classic this year, and this is what popped through my door, beautifully wrapped.

Early Christmas present – has to be good! This will be the 50th British Library Crime Classic, and it’s being released in a hardback with special extra material. Inside, it looks rather like this:

Isn’t it beautiful? The story itself sounds wonderful enough, but the book comes with an exclusive essay on the history of Christmas crime fiction, as well as an introduction, all by the marvellous Martin Edwards. And the book itself is beautifully produced, with the usual gorgeous cover image, plus a ribbon bookmark (I *love* books with a built in bookmark). What a treat! Part of me wants to devour it straight away, and part of me wants to wait until Christmas – what torture. Thank you, British Library!

So – some fascinating incoming books, I feel, and yet more difficult decisions to be made about what to read next. At least there’s not much risk of me running out of things to read…. 😉

An eclectic reader…

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I said recently, after having reintroduced myself to Margaret Atwood’s wonderful books via “Murder in the Dark“, that perhaps I should just have a month of reading her works and nothing else. Well, I’m now thinking that might not be a bad idea; I’m currently making my way through her collection “In other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination”, and it’s absolutely marvellous and very, very thought-provoking. The number of post-its sticking out of my copy already will tell you not only how much of an effect the book is having on me, but also how hard it will be for me to write a cogent and sensible review!

However, I wanted to share one particular quote which particularly resonated with me. Atwood draws on her lifelong love of books as a reader, scattering the narrative with autobiographical references, and this really chimed in with the way I feel about reading:

By the time I was nine or ten, I had become a confirmed under-the-covers midnight flashlight reader, devoting myself not only to adventure stories but also to comic books of an increasingly wide variety. In my daytime life, I would read anything that was handy, including cereal boxes, washroom graffiti, Reader’s Digests, magazine advertisements, rainy-day hobby books, billboards, and trashy pulps. From this you might conclude that I quite possibly have never been an entirely serious-minded person, or perhaps that I simply have eclectic tastes and like to rummage. Given a choice between a stroll in a classic eighteenth-century garden and the chance to paw through someone’s junk-filled attic, I would probably choose the attic. Not every time. But often.

As someone who used to sit and read the HP Sauce bottle over and over again whilst eating my mum’s frankly indifferent cooking, and who loves to rummage, I can empathise… More on this book when I’ve finished it – it really is excellent!

Russian Émigré Short Stories at @shinynewbooks @Bryan_S_K

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I have a new review up at Shiny New Books today that I wanted to share with you, and it’s of a wonderful chunky volume of stories which has been involving me for a few weeks.

“Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky” is a landmark collection from Penguin. Skilfully collected, edited, annotated and mostly translated by the talented Bryan Karetnyk, it collects together a wonderful array of works by authors who were exiled from their homeland by the Russian Revolution and the Civil War 100 years ago.

Translator and all-round clever person Bryan Karetnyk

Some authors are well-known (Nabokov, Bunin), some recently rediscovered (Teffi, Gaito Gazdanov) but many new to me and newly translated and quite marvellous.

You can read my review here – and I can’t recommend this collection highly enough.

Murder in the Sun

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Death on the Riviera by John Bude

Since this summer has been something of a washout, weather-wise (at least where I live, anyway), I was glad of the chance to escape to warmer climes recently; and in a bit of an uncertain state about what to read next I launched myself into this lovely volume from the British Library Crime Classics which I picked up on a jaunt to London over the summer. I’ve read and reviewed several of John Bude’s books on the Ramblings, and he’s definitely one of the successes of the BLCC range. His Inspector Meredith is a down-to-earth and appealing character, his mysteries are always set somewhere specific with a strong sense of place, and the plot is always solid and satisfying. And certainly the sunny south of France had a lot more going for it than soggy Suffolk at the end of August…

“Death on the Riviera”, first published in 1952, sees Inspector Meredith and his young sidekick, Acting Sergeant Freddy Strang, heading off to the south of France in pursuit of a criminal. Interestingly, it’s not a murderer they’re after but a counterfeiter, known as ‘Chalky’ Cobbett, and their visit is part of an international effort to track down forged money which is making the rounds. En route, they encounter Bill Dillon, also travelling south, though he is heading to the village of the ageing Nesta Hedderwick in pursuit of his absent wife Kitty. The villa is a centre for some decadent goings-on with a dodgy resident artist, a playboy who’s also keen on Kitty and various hangers-on. Nesta’s niece Dilys seems surprisingly normal, and it’s not long before the two worlds collide, Freddy falls for Dilys, and it seems that the villa may be more involved with the forgery scam than might have first appeared likely. However, this is no straightforward golden age mystery – it’s not revealing too much to say that murder doesn’t happen until well into the book – and it takes all of Meredith’s ingenuity to untangle the threads of the plot and sort out a solution.

I was reminded how much I enjoy Bude’s books as soon as I picked this one up, and it was one of those golden age mysteries you just don’t want to put down. The setting, both in place and time, was spot on; the south of France, with its rich and poor, trend setters and hangers-on, was very vivid, and the fact that the book was set so close, relatively speaking, to the end of WW2, added a little frisson. In fact, the opening of the story, when Bill Dillon is passing through customs at Dunkirk and casting his mind back to the last time he was there, is very atmospheric. Bude’s descriptions are often quite lovely, bringing to life the sun, the landscape and the area beautifully.

Monte Carlo in the 1950s

The plot itself is clever and complex, twisting and turning all over the place. Bude *does* pretty much play fair with the reader and I sussed one particular twist before the end although the specifics evaded me. And several other twists passed me by until they were resolved, if I’m honest. One of the joys of Meredith is that he usually gets his man (or woman) through sheer hard graft. No flights of fancy, but door-to-door questioning, going over and over the problem – and yes, I suppose in the end he *does* let his little grey cells eventually come to the right conclusion. But watching him going through the process is a delight, and the comical romantic misadventures of Strang were great fun too. The solution to the smuggling plot was very, very ingenious and having this run alongside the murder plot added an extra element.

Any misgivings? Not really – I would have liked a little more after-story about a couple of the characters; one in particular was left hanging in an uncomfortable situation at the end of the book and it would have been nice to find out what happened to her (and the other character associated with her). But apart from that, “Death on the Riviera” was the perfect, relaxing, end of summer read and at least I got transported to the sunny coast for a day or two – even if it was in the company of criminals! :))

The Vexations of Varying Translations

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Yes, yes, I know I do tend to ramble on about the vagaries of different translations of some of my favourite books; but at the risk of being a bore, this came back into to my mind recently thanks, oddly enough, to OH’s film-watching tendencies!

OH is a real movie buff (proper films, as I would call them, not modern blockbusters that look like computer games…) and he was watching a film called “The Gambler” from 1974, starring James Caan. It seems to loosely draw on Dostoevsky’s book of that name (which is one of my favourite of the great Russian’s works), and in fact the author himself features in a university teaching session Caan’s hosting. OH was intrigued by a quotation given, apparently from “Notes from Underground”, which was rendered as:

Reason only satisfies man’s rational requirements. Desire, on the other hand, encompasses everything. Desire is life.

He asked me about it and to be honest, I was a little dubious as it didn’t ring any immediate bells and sounded perhaps a bit too straightforward to me for Dosty. The credits gave the version as being the Signet edition, translation by one Andrew MacAndrew and despite the fact that I own several editions of “Notes..” already (as you can see from above) I felt compelled to send for this one. I also dug about in my current versions and came up with some fascinating variations!

The MacAndrew version

The MacAndrew version:

Reason is only reason, and it only satisfies man’s rational requirements. Desire, on the other hand, is the manifestation of life itself – of all of life – and it encompasses everything from reason down to scratching oneself.

A David Magarshack translated collection

David Magarshack:

But reason is only reason, and it can only satisfy the reasoning ability of man, whereas volition is a manifestation of the whole of life, I mean of the whole of human life, including reason with all its concomitant head-scratchings.

Two lots of Zinovieff and Hughes

Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes:

You see gentlemen, rational judgement is a good thing – there can be no argument about that – but rational judgement is just rational judgement and satisfies nothing but man’s rational faculties, while desire is the manifestation of the whole of life, that is of the whole of human life including rational judgement and all the head-scratching.

Hugh Aplin version from Hesperus

Hugh Aplin:

You see: reason, gentlemen, is a good thing, that is indisputable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity, while desire is a manifestation of the whole of life, that is, the whole of human life, with both reason and all its funny itches too.

******

Well – that gave me plenty of food for thought and after cogitating for a while I concluded the following before my head started hurting too much:

1. The movie obviously took MacAndrew and truncated him to suit the script.

2. Even the split of sentences is not consistent in translation as some extracts I’ve given have to be longer because some of the translators run the previous sentence into this one (or else it’s not split in the original but some translators split it).

3. I’ve read Magarshack’s translations in the past with no problem, but I don’t fancy his rendering here…

4. I quite like Aplin’s funny itches, although what strikes me is that each translator has interpreted the itching and its cause and location rather individually!

So – basically I’m just going to have to live with the fact that pretty much every translated rendering of a book is going to be very different and I’ll just have to choose the one which speaks to me the most and get on with it. And I now have four versions of “Notes from Underground” which is possibly a little excessive…

Who Watches The Watchers?

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Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss

I was saddened to learn last month of the passing of the great British sci-fi author Brian Aldiss, although of course he *had* lived a long and productive life. I own quite a number of his books as you can see:

And yes, I do have two copies of “Saliva Tree”, and no I don’t know why! I’ve only read a couple of his works so far (“The Brightfount Diaries” and some of the short stories) but I’ve loved what I’ve read, so now seemed a good time to pick up one of his books, and I went for the one which had intrigued me most – “Report on Probability A”.

The blurb is interesting, and the plot – well, the plot as such is hard to pin down… The action is set around a house in which live Mr. Mary and his wife. As the book opens, we meet G, the ex-gardener who lives in a derelict building in the grounds of the Marys’ house and who is intent on watching the place even though he’s no longer employed by them. His fascination seems to be with Mrs. Mary (or Mr. Mary’s wife, as she is often referred to) and he watches the house for glimpses of her and pops over the road to the nearby cafe at one point. The second section of the book introduces S, Mr. Mary’s ex-secretary who is lurking in the loft of the Marys’ old coach house. He too is watching the house and Mrs. Mary. Then there is C, the ex-chauffeur, who lives above the garage and yes, you’ve guessed it, is also fascinated with Mrs. Mary and observing away merrily. Add into the mix a pigeon known as X and a black and white cat who stalks the pigeon and you have something of a disquieting set up.

Yet little seems to happen to these people. It rains (and roofs leak); Violet the charlady gives food to some of the watchers; Mrs. Mary goes out and comes back; the Marys have a row. The narrative is repetitious, with details and descriptions being played out again and again with slight variations, and this is unsettling. And then we have the other watchers… Because the descriptions of the events at the Marys’ house are actually a report being read by some observers. However, they in their turn are being observed, as are those watchers, and the chain of surveillance goes back and back until it’s not quite clear who is real and who is not and who is watching who. And will anything of substance happen in this strange little world?

He stared through the window at a road. The road ran south-east. On the other side of it was a wide pavement; a tall man wearing black overalls and a grey felt hat passed along the pavement, followed at some distance by two men in blue carrying a stretcher on which lay a bicycle with two flat tyres; the frame of the bicycle was covered in blood. The surface of the road was of a dark crumbling texture. Cars passed along it, four of them bearing black crepe ribbons tied to their radiators.

“Report…” is a thoroughly intriguing, thoroughly unsettling and very sophisticated book which left my brain buzzing with ideas after reading it. Although ostensibly set on Earth it isn’t really clear if this place is our world or another. Superficially the location seems normal enough, but there are places where there are little jolts, like the sudden insertion of a burrowing, live garden hose, that makes the reader wonder. Unexpected and surreal paragraphs with no explanation are dropped into the narrative and perplex. The repetitions, in themselves, give a sinister flavour to the narrative and there are times when you think you’re encountering something familiar which is then twisted and becomes something else. A case in point is a painting, a reproduction of which appears in the dwellings of G , S and C: “The Hireling Shepherd” by William Holman Hunt. The picture is described in some detail throughout the book, and a number of the watchers appear to know who Hunt is – but the Hunt in their domain is a very different one from the Pre-Raphaelite painter we know!

The Holman Hunt pic

So what, actually, is the book about, and is there a conclusion? Well, not as such, no (although Pigeon X and the cat reach closure); we can make inferences, draw certain conclusions from the oblique narrative, but there can be no real absolutes and I think that’s Aldiss’s point. I’ve seen the book described as an anti-novel and certainly it seems to deconstruct the usual constraints and structure of such a work. The various observers could be real, could live in parallel universes or could simply be figments of somebody’s imagination. Nothing much actually *happens*, yet the book is somehow gripping, and very much draws on the basic sense humans have of something else in the universe, of being watched by outside forces. Often, when alone, we think someone or something is looking at us, and in this book they really are!

Now they…were subjecting those objects to a second scrutiny. They were having to determine WHAT WAS OF VALUE; until that was decided, this life was valueless. Find significance and all is found.

I felt the need to do a bit of research on the book after I’d finished it, and apparently Aldiss wrote it in 1962 but no publisher would touch it and it eventually appeared in New Worlds in 1967. I certainly found it a stunning read, a refreshingly original tour de force and very thought-provoking, making me appreciate that actually everything *is* relative and there may well be no absolutes. Our view of the world around us is entirely subjective, depending on our own individual perceptions of it, and how do we even know others see things the same way? I’m no doubt going to keep thinking about “Report on Probability A” for some time, and also pondering on what finally happened to Mr. and Mrs. Mary and their watchers…

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