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Happy Hallowe’en!

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The impeccable Carolyn Jones and John Astin as Morticia and Gomez Addams

The impeccable Carolyn Jones and John Astin as Morticia and Gomez Addams

Recent Reads: The Military Philosophers by Anthony Powell

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Yes, I’m still a month behind with my Powell reads, but I have just managed to squeeze book 9 in before the end of October so that I don’t get even further in arrears! The Military Philosophers is the third in the ‘war trilogy’ and contains a lot of events, emotions, changes and losses.

As we start the book, Nick is now working in military liaison, looking after a varied bunch of foreign attaches and dealing with the pettiness and politics of military life.He is based in London, looking after the Polish contingent, working under Pennistone and Finn. Needless to say, he crosses paths with the dreaded Widmerpool, as well as a number of old acquaintances such as Sunny Farebrother and Templer. He also encounters old haunts, and in a chilling reminder of how things are changed goes off on a visit to the Polish HQ in London, which turns out to be Uncle Giles’ erstwhile home, the Ufford Hotel.

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We are memorably introduced to Stringham’s niece, the notorious Pamela Flitton, who is working as a driver for the army; she reveals that Stringham was captured when Singapore fell. The war rumbles on, Nick is promoted to supervising Belgians and Czechs, and then during an air raid he runs into Pamela and her current man, who turns out to be Odo Stevens. Her temperament is rather violently displayed here as they row dramatically. Also present is Mrs. Erdleigh who is in full soothsaying mood.

Then Nick finally makes major and is assigned to accompany a group of assorted foreign attaches round Normandy and Belgium, through war zones, devastation and some very moving Proustian scenery. The book ends with peace at last arriving and a thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The war is over and Nick, like so many others, has to return to civilian life.

Reading TMP is something of an emotional rollercoaster, as we follow the ups and downs of the ending of the war and the corresponding ups and downs of the various characters. Indeed, in the war trilogy Powell paints a brilliant and moving picture of wartime Britain and the effects of the long conflict on people and places. There are so many losses, so many lives turned inside out, and this is really brought home in these books. His somewhat laconic style doesn’t hide up the pain and hurt which is going on around him and I think I’ve come to realises that the books are just not really about Nick, but those around him – he is simply the carrier, the method of telling the tale, so we should not expect any inner monologues about his emotions. Nevertheless, we do come to care about him, despite Powell’s refusal to allow us to get too close!

It’s going to be difficult to write in-depth about this book without giving too much away, but let’s get on with specifics. Once again, there are some really wonderful characterisations in TMP, and my favourite has to be the ultimate civil servant, Blackhead, whose convoluted paperwork and refusal to allow anyone to have anything has to be unrivalled:

“The stairs above the second floor led up into a rookery of lesser activities, some fairly obscure of definition. On these higher storeys dwelt the Civil branches and their subsidiaries, Finance, Internal Administration, Passive Air Defence, all diminishing in official prestige as the altitude steepened. Finally the explorer converged on attics under the eaves, where crusty hermits lunched frugally from paper bags, amongst crumb-powdered files and documents ineradicably tattooed with the circular brand of the teacup. At these heights, vestiges of hastily snatched meals endured throughout all seasons, eternal as the unmelted upland snows. Here, under the leads, like some unjustly confined prisoner in the Council of Ten, lived Blackhead. It was a part of the building rarely penetrated, for even Blackhead himself preferred on the whole to make forays on others, rather than that his own fastness should be invaded.”

Pennistone warns Nick: ‘Until you have dealings with Blackhead, the word “bureaucrat” will have conveyed no meaning to you. He is the super-tchenovnik of the classical Russian novel. Even this building can boast no on else quite like him.’ And later:  ‘Blackhead is a man apart,’ said Pennistone. ‘Even his colleagues are aware of that. His minutes have the abstract quality of pure intention.’

Powell captures him beautifully, as always – he really is a master at nailing character with words! And his writing is just exquisite – for example, this wonderful description of Donners:

“In the seven years or so that had passed since I had last seen him, Sir Magnus Donners had grown not so much older in appearances, as less like a human being. He now resembled an animated tailor’s dummy, one designed to recommend second-hand, though immensely discreet, clothes (if the suit he was wearing could be regarded as a sample) adapted to the taste of distinguished men no longer young. Jerky movements, like those of a marionette – perhaps indicating all was not absolutely well with his physical system – added to the impression of an outsize puppet that had somehow escaped from its box and begun to mix with real people, who were momentarily taken in by the extraordinary conviction of its mechanism.”

So many of our old favourites reappear, with in many cases a certain amount of poignancy, and of course the dreadful Kenneth has a prominent part in the events that take place in the book. Widmerpool’s behaviour and quest for power attains monstrous proportions in TMP; but then he is a completely self-serving egotist, so it is no surprise when he hooks up with Pamela Flitton who seems to be driven by nothing but anger and her own desires. And Widmerpool has been a man driven from the opening pages of the first book, our first encounter with the man where his personality was already on display, and here his nature is fully displayed. His actions, if what is alleged about him is true, are shocking and appalling. Truly, he and Pamela deserve each other.

Presumably the dreadful Kenneth!

Presumably the dreadful Kenneth!

It’s fascinating seeing Nick moving in the higher echelons of power, and his description of a visit to a secure meeting in a bunker-style room is very telling:

“In this brightly lit dungeon lurked a sense that no one could spare a word, not a syllable, far less gesture, not of direct value in implementing the matter in hand The power principle could almost be felt here, humming and vibrating like the drumming of the teleprinter. The sensation that resulted was oppressive, even a shade alarming.”

The military attaches, with their various temperaments and peculiarities, are an engaging bunch and the interplay between them is a joy. And then there is a very unexpected reunion at the end…

Saying much more will risk spoilers so I won’t; all I *will* say is that the more I read of Powell, the more convinced I become of his mastery as a writer – the blurb on the back of my edition calling the sequence “the greatest modern novel since Ulysses” and “one of English fiction’s few twentieth century masterpieces” doesn’t exaggerate!

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

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In memory of Lou Reed – the words seem apt somehow…

Do not go gentle into that good night
  by Dylan Thomas   

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And even more apt as performed by his long-term colleague and sparring partner, John Cale:

R.I.P. Lou Reed

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Another little chunk of my past and my life disappears…..

Sylvia Plath : October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963

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Sylvia_plath

 

Lady Lazarus
  by Sylvia Plath 

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it–

A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot

A paperweight,
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?–

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.

Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me

And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.

What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot–
The big strip tease.
Gentlemen, ladies

These are my hands
My knees.
I may be skin and bone,

Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.

The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

Dying
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical

Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
Amused shout:

‘A miracle!’
That knocks me out.
There is a charge

For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart–
It really goes.

And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.

I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby

That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.

Ash, ash–
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there–

A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Beware
Beware.

Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

23-29 October 1962

(With thanks to Poets.org and particularly to the lovely ileneonwords for reminding me it was Sylvia’s birthday)

Dylan Thomas and John Cale

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Today is the birthday of the great Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. He’s almost better known nowadays for his rollicking life rather than his verse, but his poetry is quite lovely, and “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is essential yuletide reading – try and track down the version with beautiful Edward Ardizzone drawings.

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One of my favourite musicians, the immensely talented genius that is John Cale, made a sequence of songs based on Thomas’ poems called “The Falklands Suite” which was released on an album called “Words for the Dying” back in 1989. It’s an amazingly powerful and moving piece, much of which was recorded in Russia owing I think to producer Brian Eno’s connections.

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Here is my favourite track, “Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed” performed by Cale and an orchestra in 1988:

ETA: And here is a recording of Dylan himself reading “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”.

Recent Reads: Therese by Francois Mauriac

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As I’ve rambled before, one of the joys of browsing books on the Internet is the constant discovery of something new and interesting, an author you’ve never read or an obscure reference you want to follow up. However, the downside to all this randomness is that you often can’t recall where you came across something; and this is the case with “Therese Desqueroux”, as somewhere I stumbled across Francois Mauriac and was shocked because he’s a Nobel prizewinner and I hadn’t read anything by him – but I don’t know where this was! Nevertheless, this has been rectified, as I soon picked up a copy of one of his novels from an online source which shall not be mentioned!

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“Therese Desqueroux” is one of Mauriac’s most famous novels, and a little research revealed that this particular volume contained that novella plus three more pieces (two short stories plus another novella) featuring the same title character – so this seemed at first glance to be the one to buy. TD opens by introducing us to Therese at the point in her life where she has been acquitted of the charge of attempting to poison her husband, Bernard. She leaves the court with her father and lawyer, but it is obvious from the start that all is not clear-cut – her father seems cold and detached, only interest in his public appearance, and there are hints that it was lucky that Therese got off. As she starts her journey back home, the young woman starts to think back over her life, revisiting her childhood and thinking over the events that led her to this point in time, intending to try to explain to her husband why she has behaved in such a way.

Therese Larroque grew up in a bleak part of Bordeaux – all trees and marshes, rain and wind, and even the summers are too hot and oppressive. Brought up by her father and surrounded by a hierarchy of local families to whom the status quo and traditions are all, she is trapped before she even starts. An intense friendship with Anne lifts her young life a little, but she is stifled intellectually, out of place and in need of an escape that isn’t there. Marriage to Bernard, Anne’s half-brother, seems the only way forward but brings no happiness or satisfaction, as the two are basically incompatible. The combination of loneliness, boredom and the environment, added to her jealousy of Anne’s love of a local intellectual Jean Azevedo, drive her to the dramatic action that we learned about at the start of the book. Jean’s philosophising fires her heart and her imagination:

“All that matters is to hoist one’s sails and make for the open sea, avoiding like the plague all those who persuade themselves that they have found what they sought, who cease to move forward, but build their little shelters and compose themselves to slumber. I have long mistrusted all such people…”

But unfortunately she does not have the experience or the focus to take these longings and translate them into a sensible plan of action, only a drastic one. However, obviously Bernard is still with us, so she did not succeed – but how will she cope with being back in the bosom of the family?

I loved the novella TD very much – the method of telling the story, starting with Therese’s interior monologue recalling the events leading up to that point, was very effective; and once we had reached the present, and watched the unfolding of the results of the trial, I was thoroughly involved in her life. Mauriac painted a compelling picture of a woman brought up in a bleak landscape, with little love and oppressed by the burden of family, social mores and restrictions. Despite the evil of her act, I could not help but sympathise with her, and understand how she came to behave in this way. The emphasis on her location, the claustrophobia evokes by the damp trees surrounding her, on which her livelihood depended, was brilliantly done. And the portrait of a woman allowed no independence or freedom, despite having her own fortune, was striking – although she had the apparent means to be her own woman, this was not possible because of the environment and other people. The writing was striking in places, evoking landscape and emotion brilliantly:

“Such lovely summer days!… Seated in the little train which now at last had started to move, she admitted to herself that she must go back in thought to them, if she was ever to see clearly what had happened. It might be incredible, but it was true, all the same, that the storms of life were already gathering above the innocent beauty of those dawn days. The morning air, too limped and too blue – bad omen for the afternoon and evening, a warning of ravaged garden beds, of branches torn and broken of mud and filth. Never at any moment of her life had she planned her road or looked ahead. Not once had she made a sudden change of direction. The slow descent has been barely noticeable: only gradually had the pace increased. The lost woman that now she was could be seen as no different from the radiant girl who had lived those happy summers in that very Argelouse to which, at the end of all, she was creeping back, glad of the dark, concealing night.”

I wondered, too, whether the choice of the heroine’s first name was deliberate, as TD’s plight did spark off memories of Zola’s “Therese” Racquin and it did occur to me that Mauriac might have meant it as a tribute. I sensed too a possible underlying issue being hinted at, in the intense girlhood friendship between Therese and Anne, which might have been meant as an unrequited affair – but maybe I am reading a little too much into the story here!

“She had a vision of the girl with her face aglow, while all around the cicadas were kindling into little flickers of flame on each successive pine, and the great furnace of the heath was beginning to roar beneath the sky. Millions of flies rose in a cloud above the blazing ling.”  (Yes, I had to look up ling too – it’s another word for heather!)

I found the book’s ending quite satisfying too, with Therese poised at the start of a new life – there was potential there for freedom, plus intellectual and emotional development, and I did hope that Therese would find some kind of happiness.

Image courtesy Flickr

Image courtesy Flickr

However, as I read on through the other works in this volume, I ended up rather wishing that Mauriac had stopped there. The two short stories, “Therese and the Doctor” and “Therese at the Hotel” give glimpses of our heroine after the end of the first story. The “Doctor” story shows us Therese through the prism of another couple’s tale, the eponymous doctor and his wife, and is more about the impact that Therese’s presence has on their relationship. In the “Hotel” story, events referred to previously are moved on a little and we see our heroine in a slightly different light, as something of a man-eater, fascinating a young man staying there with his family, exercising an almost hypnotic power over him. And then there is “To the End of the Night”…..

This latter is actually longer than the initial novella, and rediscovers Therese in her dotage. Yes, the way Mauriac describes her, she is a physical and emotional wreck, constantly referred to as old – so it is something of a shock to find out that her age is only 45! Therese has led something of a rackety, debauched life if we are to believe the hints, which may be why she has a heart condition and is at death’s door. She is living on her own in Paris, is rediscovered by her daughter, enchants her daughter’s beloved (how, if she is such a wreck???) and goes through a lot of moral and emotional angst before coming to a kind of peace.

I’m afraid I have to say that I found this latter story somewhat unconvincing on many levels. For a start, the Therese presented here just doesn’t work. She seems a completely different character to the trapped woman in the first story, now being a predatory man-eater who has simply existed to gain the love and admiration of men because she is incapable of love herself. This seems to me at odds with her character in the initial novella, who was a stifled woman craving mental stimulation, and whose flirtation with her friend’s love was in the form of an intellectual one rather than an emotional one. It stretches credibility to have her constantly having young men falling at her feet, and the trajectory of her behaviour after the first story really didn’t appear to be such a dissipated one. She seemed to crave the intellectual life and stimulation, not just degeneracy, but maybe the author was unable to envisage a women who wanted freedom but not sex!

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Mauriac states in his introduction that he wanted to “save” Therese, and maybe this was a kind of way of coming to terms with an evil heroine. But she becomes less believable in this story – a monster, in effect, which she actually wasn’t in the first book. TD was tightly written and plotted with an excellent portrait of a women driven to extreme behaviour by a combination of circumstances, but in the latter stories she seems to become merely a cipher for Mauriac to present moral agonising. It’s too simplistic to say that things are different for men and women, because in many ways Therese’s husband Bernard is just as much a prisoner of convention as she is. And despite their being quite a lot of food for thought with regard to male and female roles and expectation, most of this is in the first novella.

Additionally, the prose becomes really overblown in the last story, which is a shame because the writing of TD itself is lovely. There are occasional pieces that stand out, but so much of it is overwrought and intense that it actually becomes too much to take.

“During her periods of insomnia she would wander in thought about the battlefield of memories, turning over the corpses, seeking some face that still was recognizable. How many were there now of whom she could think without bitterness? It had needed no long time for most of those who once had loved her to discover the power she wielded for destruction.”

And all of this we are meant to accept blindly, with no real demonstration of what has gone on before and no real understanding of how Therese operates as a women and what destruction she has wrought with these powers!

I found myself comparing Mauriac’s heroine with Colette’s women and wondering why she ended up quite such a state. If this story *had* been written by Colette, Therese’s experiences would have had a very different perspective and she would have made a new life in Paris after the events of the first book. She might well have had the same kind of bohemian, debauched existence but Colette, with her zest for life, would have put a very different spin on it! Maybe women writers are better on women’s lives or maybe Colette’s heroines were made of stronger stuff?

In essence, I *did* enjoy reading this book very much, but in some ways I can understand why the TD novella is often published separately. I thought I was being clever by getting the ‘complete’ Therese but actually I think I might well have got more out of just reading “Therese Desqueroux” on its own!

The Launch of Hesperus Minor!

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Following on from their competition to find a lost children’s classic (which I posted about here), today sees the launch of the children’s imprint from one of my favourite publishers, Hesperus Press!

The first three titles from Hesperus Minor are The Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne:

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The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit:

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and The Princess and the Goblin by George Macdonald:

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All three are much-loved children’s classics, and it will be great to have them in beautiful Hesperus editions – the covers alone are worth having on your bookshelves! I have my copy of “The Coral Island” sitting on Mount TBR waiting to be read and I’m really looking forward to it!

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Hesperus tell me they are also bringing out two beautiful hardback editions of classic fairy tale collections by Andrew Lang – The Blue Fairy Book and The Red Fairy Book. These influential anthologies were first published in the late 19th century and I’m embarrassed to say I can remember very little about them – so it will be wonderful to be able to have brand new, beautifully produced editions, and with the original illustrations I believe. Just in time for a Christmas gift for any child (or adult!) who loves fairy tales (and I can think of a few I know!) Well done again Hesperus!

Hesperus Book Club: The Best Book in the World by Peter Stjernström

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“The Best Book in the World” is the second volume to be part of the Hesperus Book Club, and they have been kind enough to provide proof copies for interested readers (of which I am one!) There seems to be a wealth of good fiction coming out of Sweden at the moment – not just crime novels – and this story is in complete contrast to last month’s featured book, “The Merman”.

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BBITW, as you might infer from the title, is a satire, taking pot-shots at the literary world and the conceits of authors, publishers, agents and the media. Our hero, if he can be called such, is Titus Jensen, a washed-up, past-it author who hasn’t written anything worthwhile for years and who has sunk into a permanent alcohol-and-cigarette fuelled haze. He is reduced to reading improbable books (“Handbook for a Volvo 245”, anyone?)) in a theatrical manner at festivals and the like to make a living, a way of life that is beginning to pall. At one such festival, hanging around afterwards in drunken haze, he encounters the younger poet Eddie X, who also appears at these events fronting a bizarre band called the Tourettes. In their rather wild and random conversation they hatch the idea of the BBITW – a book that will top every bestseller list, somehow encompassing every genre from cookery to crime. But there can only be one such book and so a race develops between the two authors – who will get the book done first?

This book is a real hoot (to use an old-fashioned phrase!) Titus is a dreadful and yet endearing character and you really want him to succeed in writing something serious again. His agent provides him with a rather bizarre computer that is somehow combined with a breathalyser and will only let him write when he’s sober! Will the drive to write the book overcome his addictions and dependencies? The contrast between Titus, staggering about all dressed in black, and romantic poet Eddie, who wafts about in silk pyjamas and the like, is very funny and well observed, as are the changes that take place in them as the book progresses – I shall say no more…

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Author photo courtesy nybookreviews.com

The roller-coaster ride takes in all sorts of shenanigans, including kidnappings, more alcohol and cigarettes, Titus’s publishers who are of course looking for a big-bucks earning book, and of course the bizarre Tourettes, a band which features Lenny (who really does have Tourette’s). There are extracts from Titus’s writings and of course the lines are blurred between author(s) and characters at several points in a clever way. The end is very satisfying and maybe a little surprising (I don’t want to give too much away) and there are plenty of laughs to be had along the way.

If I had any gripes with this book (and it would only be a tiny one) it would be on a stylistic level – the book is written in the present tense, which is not a format I tend to read much, although it works well for this tale; and the book does reflect the modern trend for shorter sentences. However, this is only a very minor issue and didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book. BBITW is a fun, enjoyable read with a bit of a dark side and highly recommended – another winner from Hesperus!

Recent Reads: The Mystery of the Yellow Room by Gaston Leroux

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I have Ali’s lovely review of this book here  to thank for introducing me to this wonderful author (and character!). I’d only ever heard of Leroux in the context of “The Phantom of the Opera” which I’ve never read, so I was intrigued to learn about his crime novel from Ali’s post.

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Wikipedia says:

The Mystery of the Yellow Room (in French Le mystère de la chambre jaune) by Gaston Leroux, is one of the first locked room mystery crime fiction novels. It was first published in France in the periodical L’Illustration from September 1907 to November 1907, then in its own right in 1908.

It is the first novel starring fictional detective Joseph Rouletabille, and concerns a complex and seemingly impossible crime in which the criminal appears to disappear from a locked room. Leroux provides the reader with detailed, precise diagrams and floorplans illustrating the scene of the crime. The emphasis of the story is firmly on the intellectual challenge to the reader, who will almost certainly be hard pressed to unravel every detail of the situation.

Which sums the book up quite nicely!

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It certainly is a remarkably good read – the characters of Rouletabille and his Watson-like sidekick Sainclair are appealing and entertaining (I believe Leroux acknowledged that he was inspired by both Conan Doyle and Poe). The plot is fiendish and complex and it’s impossible to say too much about it without giving a lot away – certainly, the denouement took me completely by surprise. However, leaving aside the detectives, the book tells the tale of a murderous attack of Mme. Stangerson, daughter of an eminent scientist alongside whom she works. Her fiance Robert Darzac is behaving in a somewhat strange manner, Old Jacques the servant seems to have something to hide, and the womanising gamekeeper is causing ructions amongst the local ladies, including the beautiful wife of the local inn’s landlord. The famous detective, Frederic Larsan, is sent to investigate and a rivalry develops between him and Rouletabille to see who will solve the mystery first. The characters are lively, the setting well-drawn and the puzzle beautifully perplexing.

I’d highly recommend this novel for any aficionado of the detective genre – it’s quite essential! I really needed something like this after the long journey through “The Brothers Karamazov”, and found myself reading much too late into the night to find out whodunnit! A great read and thanks Ali for pointing me in the direction of this wonderful mystery!

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