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… in which the best laid plans… #warandpeacenewbies

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I know myself as a reader; and I had my doubts when I started my reading of “War and Peace” as to whether I’d be able to stick to the schedule. Well, I haven’t I have to confess – but not necessarily in a bad way… The trouble is that I became so invested in the story of these characters and their lives that I found it impossible to stick to the restriction of reading and reviewing a couple of sections a week. That isn’t the way I normally read, and although it worked at the start while I was busy at work, I found that when I set off for my recent round trip of visiting my Aged Parent and Offspring I just wanted to read the rest of “War and Peace” straight through. Which I have, and it was a wonderful experience.

I was conscious with my previous posts that they were veering towards just giving a summary of the action of the sections I’d read, and I did doubt whether I would sustain weekly posts of any substance. Therefore, I think I’ll just give some overall thoughts in a kind of bullet point way, drawing on my thoughts and reactions to the book. I would say, however, that I can’t recommend highly enough that you read “War and Peace” – definitely one of the reads of the my life. So, some thoughts:

* Plot-wise, after some years of fragile peace, war breaks out again when Napoleon invades Russia. Andrei, Nikolai and Petya fight; Pierre becomes embroiled in the fall of Moscow and comes up with some harebrained schemes at one point; the Bolonsky family flees the French and hooks up with the Rostovs eventually; Natasha and Marie become BFFs; St. Petersburg society carries on much as normal; the common soldier suffers (of course); the Generals and those in charge of the armies attempt to strategise and fail; Napoleon is *not* apparently defeated by the Russian winter alone, but by a number of factors including the fact that his army is human and undisciplined and exhausted; some characters survive, some don’t, some (rather pleasingly) get their comeuppance, and life will eventually resume a calmer course for those who remain.

* Perhaps the things that strikes me most strongly is Tolstoy’s masterly handling of his material, expertly juxtaposing the lives of his characters against the vast panoply of war. In fact, I guess the point of the book is to show the effect of great events on ordinary people, and this he does brilliantly.

On the 12th of June 1812 the forces of Western Europe crossed the frontiers of Russia, and war began; in other words, an event took place counter to all the laws of human reason and human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, deceptions, treacheries, robberies, forgeries, issues of false monies, depredations, incendiarisms and murders as the annals of all the courts of justice in the world could not muster in the course of whole centuries, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as crimes.

* The war sections, even when Tolstoy was pontificating on the point of conflict and how grand events come about, were fascinating; I’d somehow expected these to be a problem, but I didn’t find them so at all. Tolstoy makes no bones about what happens in a war, about the death and horror and gore, and there were some real shocks and tragedies to come. He doesn’t shy away from showing not only the effect on those wounded and killed, but also their families back at home, and some of the events really put me through the emotional wringer. Andrei’s final fate, for example, was perhaps inevitable but no less painful; and the outcome for Petya was hard to take.

Andrei looks a tad poorly

* Much of Tolstoy’s genius seems to me to come from his skill at building up a big picture from small events: there are wonderful little vignettes that stick in your mind, like the three soldiers helping Pierre after the battle of Borodino, and this kind of approach is much more human and approachable than something like, say, “The Glory of the Empire”; this latter took a broad brush approach to grand events, but was much harder to relate to because of that detachment.

War is not a polite recreation but the vilest thing in life, and we ought to understand that and not play at war. Our attitude towards the fearful necessity of war ought to be stern and serious. It boils down to this: we should have done with humbug, and let war be war and not a game… What are the morals of the military world? The aim and end of war is murder…

*Napoleon (and indeed all the historical characters) were entirely convincing; Tolstoy’s version of him was not just a cardboard cut-out villain and I felt that he entertained a certain sympathy with the emperor of France.

Napoleon in the BBC 1972 adaptation

* The book conveys a strong sense of the random forces that come together to cause a huge historical moment. Tolstoy is clear that it is never just one person or happening that causes a war to be started, won or lost, but a combination of factors, from personal ambition and politics, through planning (good or bad) to pure chance.

* The character development is wonderful – we watch each participant on their journey through the story to their final destination, whatever that may be, and I for one became completely involved in their lives and fates.

* The behaviour of human beings in the middle of a cataclysmic conflict was another strong element in the story; and when war and peace collided, the contrast between the fall of Moscow and the flight of the Rostovs, set against St. Petersburg society blithely continuing its frivolous pursuits as if nothing had happened, was striking.

* The treatment of the male characters was interesting; they often broadly fell into the categories of superfluous or sneaky and conniving, but even when stereotyped a little were very nuanced. I certainly felt that Tolstoy’s sympathies did not lie with the society characters, but more with the landowners or the lower ranks of the army or the ordinary people; although he is often a little cynical in his outlook generally, and no-one escapes criticism!

*As for the female characters; well, their lot is not usually a happy one. Again, there is often the split of conniving society woman or nice and naive. As usual, different standards are applied for women: a man can behave as badly as he likes, but for a woman to be seen to transgress at all is the end of everything for her. One of the most dramatic episodes in the book is Natasha’s involvement with Anatole Karagin, and his attempt to seduce her. She’s an impulsive, emotional and unworldly girl who’s out of her depth with a serial womaniser like him; so it’s no real surprise that she falls completely under his spell and is prepared to run off with him without knowing anything at all about him. Fortunately, Sonya proves to be a wiser young woman than her cousin, and disaster is averted; but as usual in society of the time, her reputation is at stake while a man in the same position is praised. So a young and inexperienced girl can have her life ruined by a nasty rake for no reason other than being immature; had she been a mature and experienced woman like Helene, able to carry out her affairs discreetly, she would have met with society’s approval. I’m not sure I entirely approve of Natasha’s final place in life, as the solution for her seems a little stereotypical, but we’ll pass that by.

Anthony Hopkins as Pierre

* It seemed to me that Pierre was in many ways the focus of the book; his moral struggles and search for meaning in the middle of chaos, as well as his experiences during the occupation of Moscow, made him a lynchpin of the story, and I grew to love him as a character very much. He comes out of the war changed, but for the better, and is rewarded in a way that is entirely satisfying for him. In fact, spiritual searching is a consistent thread in the story, and both Pierre and Marie end up with a shining happy belief and a new extended family, which perhaps ties in with Tolstoy’s views.

Whatever he tried to be, whatever he engaged in, he always found himself repulsed by this knavery and falsehood, which blocked every path of action. Yet he had to life and to find occupation. It was too awful to be under the burden of these insoluble problems, and so he abandoned himself to the first distraction that offered itself, in order to forget them. He frequented every kind of society, drank too much, purchased pictures, built houses, and above all – read. (Pierre gets his priorities right at the end there…)

* No book can be without criticism and if I had to make one, I would like to have strong words with Tolstoy about some of his characters’ names and their similarities, which really don’t help the reader. For example, Dokhturov and Dolokhov; Kuragin and Karagin; I mean, that latter one is like having two main characters in an English book called Smith and Smythe. Why?!?!

I should state upfront that I took a decision when it got to the epilogues and only read the first one; as I read somewhere (and I wish I could remember where) that a commentator said they wished they hadn’t read the second one as it added nothing, and they advised not reading on. The first epilogue certainly wraps things up nicely; set seven years after the events of the main book, it brings the reader up to date with the lives of the surviving characters and allows us to see how they’ve developed. That in itself is interesting, as they haven’t all necessarily become what we would expect. Natasha, for example, has become a devoted mother and jealous wife; Pierre a happy, saintly husband who loves all; Marie an unexpectedly happy wife; and Nikolai a successful, if somewhat rigid, landowner. All of their basic characteristics have come to a kind of fruition and final stage, and they have the life they want in their re-adjusted family. I was particularly pleased to see Denisov making a reappearance, as he’s such a wonderful and entertaining character!

A final word on the translation; it worked absolutely perfectly for me and I salute Rosemary Edmonds. The book was readable, gripping, the language never got in the way of the story and I felt as though I was reading a book about Russia and Russians. The English is my sort of English (late 20th century no doubt) and I wouldn’t want to have experienced any other version.

So there you go: 1400-odd pages in about 6 weeks and a remarkably powerful and involving read; one that gripped from the start and that I really couldn’t put down. Having read “War and Peace” once, I’m sure that I’ll return to it again at some point, and pull out even more from it than on my first visit. I have to thank Laura for coming up with the War and Peace Newbies read, because I don’t think I would have particularly picked up the book at this time; but I’m extremely glad I did, and now I just have to try and shake off this book hangover I have and move into a new fictional world!

#AllVirago/All August – The Genius of Margaret Atwood

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Murder in the Dark by Margaret Atwood

August is traditionally the month where we on the LibraryThing Virago Group read as many Viragos (and Persephones too, as they often share the same ethos and type of author) as we can. I never commit to reading only these books, although some do, but I know I would fail if I did so – particularly as I’m balancing this with my “War and Peace” read and I want to fit in some translated women for “Women in Translation” month too. And the first book I picked up was a very slim volume by an author I adore but haven’t read for far too long and wanted to get back to – Margaret Atwood.

Atwood needs no introduction from me, and her name is currently to the fore even more than usual because of the current political situation and the recent (and very relevant) adaptation of her great work, “The Handmaid’s Tale”. I have a shelf stacked with her books, and back in the 1980s when I discovered her writing I read most of the novels that were available then, and kept on reading as they came out. I want to revisit them, particularly “Alias Grace” and “The Blind Assassin”, which I remember being particular favorites; however, this time my hand went to a small volume of short pieces entitled “Murder in the Dark” which looked very intriguing. And what a powerful read it was for so small a book.

“Murder in the Dark” is 110 pages of short pieces varying in length from a page to around 7 or 8, and the subject matter is variable and intriguing. The back of the book declares that the work is fiction, yet it appears to straddle a number of genres, reading at times like memoir, at others like short essays on reading and writing, but always with Atwood’s distinctive voice and fierce intellect at play.

I no longer want to read about anything sad. Anything violent, anything disturbing, anything like that. No funerals at the end, though there can be some in the middle. If there must be deaths, let there be resurrections, or at least a Heaven so we know where we are. Depression and squalor are for those under twenty-five, they can take it, they even like it, they still have enough time left. But real life is bad for you, hold it in your hand long enough and you’ll get pimples and become feeble-minded. You’ll go blind.

The title work, for example, was a particular favourite which compared the act of authorship with the game of Murder in the Dark; and in another piece Atwood lays out possible plots for women’s novels, only to come to a devastating conclusion at the end. She discussed the page before us, whether happy endings are essential, how our perceptions change when our imagination takes hold, and riffs on the importance of who does the cooking and how it can affect the whole of society.

Then there are short fragments, almost prose poems, that conjure up brilliantly a situation or event or character in just a couple of paragraphs, leaving you completely involved and wanting more, yet knowing that what Atwood has written is enough to tell you all you need to know. One of the longer pieces, “Raw Materials”, was quite brilliant in its portrayal of claustrophobic locations and made me, as someone who doesn’t like being closed in, feel very jittery.

Have you never seen the look of gratitude, the look of joy, on the faces of those who have managed to return from the page? Despite their faintness, their loss of blood, they fall on their knees, they push their hands into the earth, they clasp the bodies of those they love, or, in a pinch, any bodies they can get, with an urgency unknown to those who have never experienced the full horror of a journey into the page.

Had I forgotten just what a genius of a writer Atwood is? No – I always think of her as that; but not having read anything by her for a little while, it was an exhilarating shock to the system to re-encounter her wonderful prose. Surreal, thought-provoking, unusual and very, very memorable, this slim book showcases just what a wonderful author Margaret Atwood is – and I really must read more of her soon.

A teeny, tiny haul…

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I’ve been slightly off grid lately as I was away making my usual summer round trip visit to my Aged Mother and then the Offspring in Leicester. It was an enjoyable, if tiring, week and not without its issues, as the Aged Mother is getting very forgetful nowadays which causes the occasional bit of friction. But I took her out for several visits, and also of course had the opportunity to visit the Leicester shops, so it was inevitable that I would come into contact with books…

However, I think I was pretty restrained (possibly owing to being completely embroiled in “War and Peace”) and so I came book with only a few volumes:

These first two came from a little hop I took with mum to Market Harborough, one of her favourite places to go. It was a bit of a mission as the buses are erratic, but she enjoyed it, and I did get to pick up a couple of treats from the Oxfam. “Algernon” is a title I’ve heard recommended highly, and I keep meaning to read more sci-fi…. As for the Carey book, I’ve always found him an erudite and entertaining commentator when he’s been on TV; I did borrow this from the library once but never actually read it, so was happy to find a second-hand copy for myself!

Leicester has a bookish area in Queens Road, with Loros and Age Concern charity bookshops, and I persuaded Eldest Child to accompany me for a visit to them this year. Let’s not talk about the detour we had to take because Victoria Park was closed for a festival, or the rain; suffice to say that the local Costa was very welcome! However, I did find a couple of nice treasures – a collection of interviews with Margaret Atwood, and a nice edition of a Colette. I already had an old edition of the latter book, but it’s very fragile, and I’m a bit nervous of reading it again, so this one was just the ticket.

The final find was from a little secondhand bookshop in The Lanes at Leicester. There was a very tempting section of Golden Age crime, including a lot of Green Penguins, but I was strong and only came away with a John Dickson Carr. Really, I’m enjoying his books so much that I’m likely to pick up whichever one comes my way, and this one has such a wonderfully lurid cover!

So those were my bookish finds while I was away; I could have picked up many more volumes, but of course I would have had to lug them back on the train, and as it was my very small suitcase was already half full of reading matter…. ūüėČ

Week 5 – Natasha grows up… #warandpeacenewbies

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Perhaps that’s a slightly trite heading to choose for a section of “War and Peace” so packed with action, but it *is* something pivotal to this part of the epic journey I’m on with the book; which also contains one of the iconic scenes of Tolstoy’s great works.

Nearing the end of book 1!!!!

This section opens with the fragile peace between Napoleon and Alexander still in place, and meanwhile life goes on as normal for the majority of people. Andrei is still living in the country, running his estate very competently and emancipating his serfs; in fact, he achieves everything that Pierre sets out to do but cannot, simply because he is so able and Pierre is totally¬†impractical. However, Andrei is cold and emotionally locked away, and it’s only an encounter with the young and beautiful Natasha that draws him back to society and the more practical world of the court. For a while, Andrei comes back to life a bit whilst mixing in these circles again, but a re-encounter with Natasha at her first ball changes his outlook again quite dramatically.

Pierre, meanwhile, is as troubled and lugubrious as ever, spending most of this section in a haze of moral and spiritual soul-searching. The Masons are proving to be a little too worldly for him, most definitely not what he thought; and despite having agreed to live under the same roof as his estranged wife, there is no proper marriage. He is not ‘being a husband’ to her, and that seems to suit Helen perfectly, leaving her free to flirt and spend time with young men such as Boris. The latter seems to have changed for the worse as he’s matured, and despite his young infatuation with Natasha, it’s clear that neither wish to carry that relationship on as they grow up.

In the eyes of the world Pierre was a fine gentleman, the rather blind and ridiculous husband of a distinguished wife, a clever eccentric who did nothing but was no trouble to anyone, a good-natured, capital fellow – while all the time in the depths of Pierre’s soul a complex and arduous process of inner development was going on, revealing much to him and bringing him many spiritual doubts and joys.

Natasha Rostov herself comes much more into the fore in these chapters; at 16 she attends her first ball, and becomes the belle of it, spending much time danced with Andrei, who is completely smitten – just a bit of an age difference there, though…. She’s a vibrant character, injecting life into the story and her surroundings, although still very immature. She responds strongly to Andrei’s declaration of love, although she sees the good in Pierre too; and an engagement is agreed between Andrei and Natasha, although with the stipulation they must wait a year, leaving Andrei free to swan off abroad for his health.

In fact, the Rostovs and their fortunes are a troubling element here; through mismanagement they are lurching towards genteel poverty and it’s in the interests of the Count and Countess to match their children off to rich spouses. Eldest sister Vera has married a lowly soldier and so hopes now lie on Natasha. Interestingly, the inability of the nobles to deal with business and sort out their issues is a strong thread in the book; old Count Rostov is being systematically cheated, Pierre is totally fuddled by it all and only Andrei seems to have a business head.

Nikolai makes a lengthy reappearance and reconnects with his sister, spending happy hours hunting with her and celebrating Christmas. I’ll confess here that I skimmed some of the hunting pages, because I really *don’t* want to read them; but after the hunt, the group visits a local eccentric known as “Uncle” and it’s here that the famed dance of Natasha takes place. As a balalaika is played, Natasha taps into her unconscious heritage and performs a native Russian dance from who knows where, and it’s a powerful moment.

Tolstoy introduces another interesting aspect in the form of Pierre’s diary; he takes up the writing habit and Tolstoy treats us to regular extracts which plot the tortuous state of Pierre’s mind. It’s clear the poor man needs to be loved, but there seems to be no prospect of that on the horizon. Instead, he frets about his friends, uncertain for example whether the engagement of Andrei and Natasha is a good thing. Actually, no-one feels she is right for Andrei, and I felt a little uncomfortable about an old widower marrying a 16-year-old, particularly when she’s portrayed here as so childlike. However, towards the end of these chapters I felt that the cracks were showing slightly, with Andrei showing no inclination to rush back from abroad and visit his betrothed, and so I’m not sure whether this marriage will go ahead. By the end of this section, Nikolai had rekindled his childhood love for Sonya, but I feel a little trepidation about that too – Tolstoy doesn’t seem to want to portray happy relationships!

So another cracking couple of sections, packed full of action and an absolutely wonderful read. I’m constantly impressed by how well Tolstoy handles his material and keeps you involved at all times; and also by his powers of description. I felt I was actually living alongside the characters at times, racing through the snow in sledges, watching Natasha sing or dance, laughing at the mummers entertaining local children – the narrative was so vivid, and I’m absolutely hooked and desperate to find out what happens next!

 

Some surprisingly downbeat delights

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A Village in a Valley by Beverley Nichols

I had a lovely trip to London last month where I met up with J, my oldest BFF, and we spent happy hours visiting the Moomin exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall, the Russian exhibition at the British Library, plus some general gallery visits and a little bit of shopping. J came bearing gifts, in the form of two lovely Beverley Nichols books, and it was just too tempting – I was supposed to be reading another part of “War and Peace”, but I couldn’t resist picking up this Beverley book!

The edition J kindly presented me with is a first edition from 1934; no dustjacket, of course, but in pretty good condition for a book of its age (apart from one oddity – more of which later in this post). “Village” is the third in Beverley’s Allways sequence, set in the fictional place of that name (which is apparently based on his home in Glatton), and I read and loved the first two here. Nichols’ writing is so engaging and funny, yet often lapsing into the lyrical, and I was hoping for some more of that kind of thing – which I did get, but the book is often rather different in tone from the first two.

All the characters we loved and loathed from the first books – Mrs. M, the competitive neighbour; Undine Wilkins, the ditsy, artsy type; the Professor, as absent-minded as you could wish – are present and correct and the lovely location is the same. However, there is a new distraction, in the form of Miss Hazlitt; stated as Nichols’ former governess, she’s an impoverished and saintly woman who everyone feels the need to protect, and much of the plotline revolves around her. There is also Mrs. M’s visiting nephew, Leo, who provides a wealth of humorous distraction, and an entertaining side-plot about the missing church windows.

However, the tone of the book is more thoughtful than the earlier ones, and this is flagged up early on. It’s clear that we are living in the 1930s, where the Depression has had its effects and people are struggling with reducing incomes. These are not the ‘lower-classes’ (although they do feature in the book) but those living and coping in genteel poverty, and Nichols casts a sympathetic eye on their attempts to keep up standards as best they can. The financial squeeze has had its effects in other ways, as those who own the land are having to sell it off (and one particular chapter allows Nichols to pour scorn on Lady Osprey, who is obviously still rolling in it, but is happy to sell land to developers). And it is this change in the nature of Allways that is causing most concern; the arrival of a nasty modern bungalow is met with horror and there is a strong sense that the quiet village way of life is a world under threat from encroaching modernity.

¬†¬†¬† The storm broke that night, and though there was little sleep for most of us, I did not care. For there are not many better things in life than to lie in bed, in a sturdily timbered room, under a thatched roof, while one’s own garden thirstily drinks the welcome rain, and the wind whistles down the chimney, and under the crack in the door.
¬†¬†¬† It is at moments like this that one is inclined to count over one’s blessings.

And events take a darker turn towards the end of the book, with one particular character’s health becoming an issue, which leaves Beverley in philosophical mood; the end chapters are moving and poignant, where he reflects on mortality and how the world will change, but glories in his great love, which is the beauty of flowers.

The book is beautifully illustrated by Rex Whistler’s peerless line drawings.

It’s easy to criticise Nichols for his snobbishness and elitism (which I recognise); nevertheless, I think he’s very right in his love of beautiful things and his wish to embrace the everyday wonderfulness around us. There’s a touch of the Betjeman about his lamentations about the invasion of uncouth elements into the loveliness of Allways and you can’t help but wish that these small English oases of calm still existed.

‘Civilization’ is the death of the finer senses of man. If a cigarette is always between your lips, you can’t ever smell the sweetness of the bean fields, on a summer evening. If you begin to drink cocktails at twelve, you forget, for ever, the keen, silvery taste of cold water in a clear goblet. Which sounds like on of the most embarrassing moralizations of Eric or Little by Little but it happens to be true.

However, the book is not all downbeat, and there are some wonderful humorous exchanges, snarky comments and hilarious situations which had me laughing out loud. And Beverley is not averse to mocking himself; his father makes another appearance, giving out wise and sensible advice, while the son paints himself as an impractical dreamer; he also makes reference to his tendency towards purple prose!

The gentlemen of the press who parody me may now draw an elegant picture of me shrinking in horror from the thought of being alone in a room with a rampant poppy. The idea is, as they say, ‘a gift’.

With this book particularly I felt the need to do a bit of digging into the background, particularly Miss Hazlitt, to see if she had any basis in reality. She did indeed draw on Nichols’ old governess, although the events in the book are pretty much non-factual as far as I can tell. It seems that Nichols’ publishers wanted another book about Allways to follow the success of the first two, although I’m not sure how much Beverley wanted to write it, which may explain the slightly more downbeat tone and the elegiac feeling of the writing. I imagine that most of Nichols’ gardening/house books are very well embroidered, but I don’t really mind – I love his adventures and characters, however invented they are!

*****

I read “A Village…” in a couple of settings one day, and later that same day went on to revisit a film I loved in my 20s but haven’t watched since, and it seemed to have a relevance and a connection with the Nichols book.

The film is the Ealing classic “Went the Day Well”; released in 1942, it was a propaganda film to warn the British public of the dangers of invasion. Set over a Whitsun weekend, a small English village discovers that the British troops billeted on them are not what they seem, and the film sees them fight back against the threat to the war effort. Based on a story by Graham Greene, it’s still an incredibly powerful film and the small threatened village resonated with what I’d been reading in Beverley’s book. I love Ealing films anyway, and I did wonder how this one would stand up all these years later; well, I was on edge of my seat all the way through, and both Beverley’s book and this film rather reduced me to a jelly in several places.

I really recommend “Went the Day Well” if you haven’t seen it – it captures a Britain and a way of life long gone.

*****

And now for the strangeness in my first edition of “A Village in a Valley”. Early on in the book I came upon four pages that had missing text and odd blank areas with just a few asterisks, looking something like this:

There was definitely text missing, as some parts stopped mid sentence, and I couldn’t work out what was going on. In one place, it looked a little like a page could have been stuck in and then removed, and I wondered if there was some kind of printer’s error that was rectified and then removed. Whatever had caused this (and the rest of the book was ok) I was a little frustrated at having missing bits, so I sent off for a cheap later edition.

It arrived a little tatty but intact, and when I compared the missing sections, all the text was in the later edition:

1st edition on the left vs later edition on the right

So I’m a little flummoxed, but at least I’ve been able to read all of Beverley’s book. There seems no reason why the text should be missing from the first edition, as it simply relates some funny extracts and comments by Beverley on a local newspaper – most peculiar indeed, and I haven’t been able to find out anything about this online! =:o

High(land!) Jinks!

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The Case of the Constant Suicides by John Dickson Carr

I seem to be spending a reasonable amount of time nowadays in the company of JDC and his marvellous detective Dr. Gideon Fell; but I feel no guilt at all, as these books are Golden Age crime at their best, and such satisfying reads! I was casting about recently for something to read on the train during a short hop to London for a day out with my BFF, and ruing the fact that I didn’t have any of Dr. Fell’s adventures to hand, as that was what I fancied reading. However, a rummage amongst a pile of old green Penguins revealed that I *did* have one lurking, even if the title did sound like it should belong to a Perry Mason story! The first chapter seemed familiar when I picked the book up, which was a bit worrying till I remembered that I started the book once and then got distracted; so I was sorted for my train reading!

Isn’t that cover just wonderful???

“The Cast of the Constant Suicides” is, of course, a locked room murder; what else would you expect if you pick up a Carr? Published in 1941, and set in the early days of WW2, the book opens with Alan Campbell, a young professor of Scottish extraction, making his way by (slow and erratic) train up to the land of his ancestors. A distant relative, one Angus Campbell, has taken a fatal plunge from a tower in his remote Scottish castle, and so the solicitors have summoned all the remaining members of the family. Alan is happy to get away from London, and from an intellectual feud he’s been having with a fellow professor. However, an encounter en route with a distant cousin causes mixed emotions, and on arrival in the depths of Scotland they encounter Angus’s larger than life brother Colin as well as a strange American called Swan. Throw into the mix the local lawyer and a troubled insurance agent, along with the fearsome Aunt Elspat, and you have a wonderful cast of characters all ready to explore the complexities of the plot – and complex it is! Old Angus took out a new insurance policy (his third!) just a few days before his death, and all of his policies have a suicide clause. So if Angus threw himself from the window the policies are null and void. However, he must have done because he had locked himself inside the tower, and it’s inaccessible from outside. But why would any sane man take out such an insurance policy and then kill himself?

Yes, I know it’s not Scottish but it has a lovely tower!!

Fortunately, brother Colin has a friend who may help – Dr. Gideon Fell! The latter arrives post-haste from London and begins his investigations. However, there is plenty more skullduggery to come before we reach, rather breathlessly in my case, a very clever and satisfying conclusion. And en route we’ll have a hint of the supernatural (of course!), a little romance, plenty of a very strong whisky known as the Doom of the Campbells, all sorts of tortuous twists and turns in the plots, as well as plenty of humour!

“Constant Suicides…” was a wonderful read, and confirmed me in my belief that Carr really is one of the greats and that any of his books will be worth picking up. Here, we were actually presented with a number of locked-room problems, all ingenious, all seemingly impossible and all solved by the great Dr. Fell. Interestingly, the War was a discreet presence in the book; some parts of the mystery hinged on a particular war-time element; but perhaps because the action took place in the Scottish highlands, it never dominated.

JDC by Howard Coster

If I had to rate this book against the other Carrs I’ve read recently, I would have to say that it doesn’t quite reach the standard of those stories. That’s not to say that this one wasn’t entirely engrossing and enjoyable, because it was – it was quite impossible to put it down. But there was perhaps a little less darkness in it than in the other two books, and there was quite a lot of slapstick humour. I enjoyed the latter too, and I did wonder if Carr lightened his tone a little as the book came out in wartime and perhaps it was thought that the public needed this kind of distraction from the darkness of real life.

These are minor quibbles, however; Carr was obviously a master of his art and it’s quite clear I shall have to read any of his books I come across. Interestingly, my BFF tells me that she has one of his Carter Dickson titles that I loaned her some time back. I actually can’t recall that at all, but I shall look forward to having it back and reading it at some point in the future! :)))

 

Rapturous – and just a little strange… #ShinyNewBooks

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Even the most casual reader of the Ramblings would be aware of my love of all things Russian, and also of rediscovered lost works. So these two elements came together wonderfully in a book I’ve just reviewed for Shiny New Books.

The author went by the pseudonym Iliazd, and was an √©migr√© writer who made an alternative career for himself in design. “Rapture” is an early, experimental novel which has just been translated into English for the first time and it’s a fascinating, if odd, read. My full review is¬†here¬†on Shiny New Books – do take a look!

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