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A Dark Tale of Vengeance #1951club

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The Quarry by Friedrich Durrenmatt
Translated by – alas, I cannot tell you because the silly book doesn’t credit them!!

When I was planning what to read this week, it did appear that there was a danger I’d read nothing but vintage crime fiction (which isn’t in itself a bad thing). One the surface, this book might seem to fall into that category, but rest assured – “The Quarry” is no simple detective novel.

Friedrich Durrenmatt is an author I’ve read once before, in the form of his novel “The Judge and his Hangman”; I have a battered old green Penguin I read some years back and I don’t remember a lot about it, apart from the fact that it was quite dark. However, I picked up this Picador volume collecting his 5 novels last year having read about the second book on Jacqui and Grant’s blogs, and as it was published in 1951 it was ideal for the reading week.

Durrenmatt was a Swiss author, and perhaps initially known more as a dramatist, although it’s his novels that have come to us in translation. The story here, translated as “The Quarry” although it’s also been published under what Marina Sofia tells me is the more literal translation of “Suspicion” is billed as a Kafkaesque detective story and there’s certainly nothing straightforward about it. The book is set in 1948 and features Commissioner Barlach (who was an Inspector in “Judge”), a man at the point of death; fighting cancer, he is recovering from a heart attack when he notices that his friend and physician Hungertobel is shocked by a photo in a copy of Life which Barlach is reading. The photo is a horrific one, of a doctor operating on a patient in a concentration camp with no anaesthetic, and after much probing Barlach finds out that Hungertobel thinks he recognises the man. However, the doctor in the picture is apparently dead and Hungertobel’s acquaintance is the respected medic Emmenberger who runs an exclusive private clinic in ZĂĽrich.

It seems impossible that the two men are the same, but Barlach cannot leave his suspicion alone. Calling on his contacts, he learns more about the Nazi doctor Nehle from a mysterious Jewish survivor of the camps known only as Gulliver. Barlach arranges for Hungertobel to have him transferred to the clinic so that he can track down the doctor and find out the truth; but he soon discovers that he may have taken on more than he can handle and met his match.

…one should start sweeping and scrubbing if one discovers dirty spots; but to tear the whole house down right away is senseless and ignorant. For it is difficult to build a new house in this poor hurt world. It takes more than a generation, and when it is finally built, it won’t be better than the old one. It’s important that one can tell the truth and that one can fight for it – without landing in jail.

“The Quarry” is a stark book, and it very much reflects the time it is set in and the time it was published. The war and its effects are still fresh in people’s minds, and the horrific experiences undergone by Gulliver have left physical and mental scars which will not easily heal. The sense of post-War unease reminded me a little of the atmosphere portrayed in “The Lost Europeans“, and it does seem that many who were culpable for their behaviour managed to slip through the net and carry on their lives as it nothing had happened. When Barlach finally encounters Emmenberger the man’s influence over his subordinates is chilling; he’s seen as pure evil and there seems no escape for our detective. Gulliver has had his chance to state his point of view, and now Emmenberger has his, and it really doesn’t make pleasant reading.

I read “The Quarry” almost in one sitting as it was absolutely compelling, and knowing this was the only other Barlach book I couldn’t be sure of the outcome. The end is satisfying (though perhaps in retrospect not entirely unexpected) and the story lingers in the mind for a long time after finishing it. This is a brutal book in some places, but a necessary one – nearly 50 years on from its publication, it reminds us of unspeakable events which we really must make sure are not repeated. So a slight variation to the crime books I’ve read so far this week, and it’s interesting to see 1951 from the viewpoint of writers from different countries – and there may well be other nationalities turning up later in the week.

There are excellent reviews of the book by Grant, Jacqui and Marina Sofia which you can check out.

#1951club – Feeling the heat in Paris

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Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife by Simenon
Translated by Julian MacLaren-Ross

During our last club week (1947) I came to Maigret as something of a treat when I was feeling all read out and not sure what I wanted to turn to next. Simenon was such a prolific author that there’s always likely to be at least one of his books from a particular week, and from 1951 there are several titles. I confess that I sent off for this book when we decided on 1951, and although it’s a bit battered it appears to have an interesting history – I assume from the sticker on the front it was once a file copy at Penguin!

“Maigret and the Burglar’s Wife” is a short book, but absolutely compelling. Set in a sweltering summer Paris, the great detective and his colleagues are struggling to cope with the weather while getting on with their job. Maigret is visited by ‘Lofty’, the burglar’s wife of the title; many years ago, when he was a rookie cop, she stripped naked in an attempt to resist arrest by him for her involvement in a crime. Nowadays, however, she’s married to well-known safe cracker, Sad Freddie, and she brings Maigret a strange and intriguing story. Whilst out burgling, her husband stumbles upon a dead body in the house he’s attempting to turn over. Figuring that it’s dangerous to stick around, he does a runner and, after phoning Lofty to tell her, leaves Paris with no forwarding address. Both Freddie and Lofty reckon he’s in danger from the murder and so Lofty wants Maigret to solve the crime and get her husband off the hook. However, with no reported death in the area, no body, and no real certainty about where the murder is supposed to have taken place, Maigret is faced with an almost impossible task.

This is a classic Maigret set-up; so often, the detective is lured into a case by the slightest of hints or connections, uncovering an unexpected crime, and it’s where he (and Simenon!) excel. After a bit of hard graft, the house is identified as one occupied by a wealthy respectable dentist Guillaume Serre and his controlling mother. Serre is large arrogant man who is dominated by mother; married twice, his first wife died of a heart condition and his second, Maria, has apparently recently returned to Holland. There is no body; there are no forensics; there is no evidence of a crime of any sort. Any other detective would walk away, but Maigret’s instincts will not let him. After finding the slightest shred of a thing that might allow him a way into the case, he hauls Serre in for one of his epic interrogation sessions; a battle of wills between two big men that will end in perhaps a surprising way.

Rupert Davies as Maigret in the BBC adaptation of the story

MATBW was, of course, pure joy to read; I’m not sure I’ve ever been let down by a Maigret title. The atmosphere of the squad room is brilliantly conjured; the odd domestic setup of the Serres with the petty little everyday tyrannies is chillingly portrayed; the usual ensemble cast enliven the narrative; and Maigret’s interrogation is masterly. All this is told in Simenon’s spare, economic style which still manages to convey so much. There are regular tropes in the Maigret books – the undiscovered or uncertain crime; the hot weather; the team ferreting about to no avail and starting to have little doubts about the wisdom of their superior’s actions; and Maigret producing a result with a clever interrogation. But they never get dull or tired, which is another tribute to Simenon’s writing.

I said at one point in my comments that I could easily spend the whole week of the 1951 Club reading classic crime; actually, I could happily have spent it in the company of Maigret and I’d never have had a dull moment. So another successful read for our club this week, and I’m rather convinced that my Maigrets need to survive any library downsizing attempts…

 

#1951club – revisiting some previous reads?

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Normally, during one of our reading weeks, I can go back over books I’ve previously read from the year in question and point you to older reviews. However, strangely enough, there seems very little on the Ramblings from 1951 and a limited number of books I can direct you to!

One of the major works I’ve covered from 1951 is the first book in the sequence by Anthony Powell now known as “A Dance to the Music of Time” – “A Question of Upbringing”. Back in 2013 I read through the whole series of 12 books a month at a time, and a very rewarding experience it was too. If you ever have the time to undertake this I’d recommend it!

Another major book from the year is “The End of the Affair” by Graham Greene but I hesitate to send you to my review as it was one of the first I did on the Ramblings and it’s hardly in depth. I loved some parts of the book but struggled with the endless guilt and agonising – though my Middle Child tells me that’s the whole point! I don’t imagine I’ll get to a re-read this week, but maybe another time I should give it another chance.

And I began the Ramblings midway through a year of reading Elizabeth Taylor’s novels along with members of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group; and had read “A Game of Hide and Seek” before I started blogging. It ended up being one of my favourite Taylor books and I can highly recommend it too!

Of course there are other books I’ve read from 1951 – “The Daughter of Time” and “Forbidden Colours” are the other two I can be sure of – but it’s so long ago that I can’t really offer substantial opinions! I don’t think there will be much re-reading this week – the new titles are very appealing, particularly the crime ones, and I can feel they’ll be grabbing most of my attention! Looking forward to hearing what everyone else is reading! 🙂

#1951club – Off to a cracking start with Mrs. Bradley!

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The Devil’s Elbow by Gladys Mitchell

And so we start another week of reading and talking about books from a particular year – and this time we’ve chosen 1951! As we’ve mentioned, there’s plenty of reading material to pick from, and I decided to begin with some classic crime in the form of a title from the very prolific Gladys Mitchell. I’ve written about the Great Gladys (as Philip Larkin called her) before, when I reviewed the first novel featuring her detective, Mrs. Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley. A marvellous creation, Mrs. Bradley went on to feature in a staggering 66 titles and “The Devil’s Elbow” is number 24.

Desperately dull modern cover

By the time she wrote this book, Mitchell was well into her stride with the Bradley series, and in some ways dropping into a sequence of books randomly like this leaves you at a bit of a disadvantage; there are regular characters you aren’t quite up to speed with, and you don’t have the whole history of the series at your fingertips. I felt that occasionally here, but it certainly didn’t spoil the enjoyment of reading!

The crime takes place on a coach trip to Scotland, and this is indeed the perfect setting for a murder mystery – a kind of updated version of the country house murder. However, Mitchell very cleverly rings the changes by having much of the action happening to, and narrated by (in extracts from letters) a young man who is the tour guide, George Jeffries. Fortunately for all concerned, when a murder takes place and George falls under suspicion, it transpires that his young lady is currently working for Mrs. Bradley. The latter takes off for Scotland hot-foot to investigate, with her regular Scotland Yard sidekick Detective-Inspector Gavin in tow; fortunately the latter is on leave and the local Scottish detective, Inspector Mactavish, is happy to have as much help as he can.

On the coach, of course, is a wonderful cross-section of society: some married couples, some unmarried lady couples, older people on their own or travelling with relatives (including a very enterprising and resourceful young man who will become a large part of the story), some man-mad young women, the odd spinster or two, and one particular character who is what we used to call ‘not quite right in the head’. This array of humanity gives Mrs. Bradley a chance to analyse merrily as well as giving the reader plenty of food for thought when it comes to working out who killed the victim.

Beautiful vintage cover

Once the murder has taken place and Mrs. Bradley becomes involved there is plenty of action, particularly as the waters become muddied with the complication of a group of coach party members who went off for an impromptu boat trip (why? and is this significant as far as the murder is concerned?) There are plenty of red herrings, lots of energetic running around Scotland and detecting by George (accompanied by Robert, the enterprising young man, and Miss Carter, from one of the ladies’ couples), and meanwhile in the background Mrs. Bradley cackles away merrily, seeming to know just about everything and being able to hit the nail on the head every time with her deductions. I’m not going to say anything else about the plot (let’s face it, you can’t say too much about a murder mystery without risking spoilers), except to say that towards the end of the book I *did* pick up who the guilty party was – although that didn’t spoil the denouement at all!

“The Devil’s Elbow” was a wonderful read; cleverly written, entertaining and enjoyable, it was also surprisingly funny in places. Mitchell gets in some lovely asides, such as a sly reference to “Miss Joyce Grenfell’s portraits of exotic spinsters” and a telling discussion of the likelihood of a writer of crime novels actually committing a murder! If I had any criticism to make it would be the tiny one that the ending was perhaps ever so slightly rushed. Mind you, as I devoured the book in a couple of sittings, absolutely loving it, that might well have been my fault rather than the book’s! The device of the letters works well and helps the suspense build; the introductory scene at the beginning, where the letters are handed over to the detectives to read, has the corpse present but it isn’t identified, so the reader doesn’t know who’s going to be killed for some time.

The actual Devil’s Elbow with a wonderful vintage coach!

As for Mrs. Bradley, she took a little bit of the back seat for chunks of the book, which was understandable in that she could hardly be expected to chase villains round the Scottish countryside, taking all sorts of physical actions I won’t go into! She’s a wonderful detective, and as I got myself reacquainted with her I found myself wondering again who in their right mind chose the very lovely Diana Rigg to play a crocodilian, wizened old woman in the TV adaptation! One thing did occur to me, though – Mrs. Bradley’s voice is meant to be a thing of beauty, a quality that recurs throughout the books. How is it, then, that she’s constantly described as ‘cackling’…?

So, a wonderful start to the #1951club! If you’ve never read any Gladys Mitchell I really can’t recommend her books highly enough – her work spans six decades and she was writing about Mrs. Bradley right up until her death in 1983. Let’s hope all the books this week are as good as “The Devil’s Elbow” – onward and upward!

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It’s worth mentioning that Bill Bibliomane is a regular reader and reviewer of Mitchell’s work, both under her own name and pseudonyms; so if you have an interest in her work, pop over and have a look at his blog here.

Virago Author of the Month – but which book to read??

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I seem to be suffering from a plague of indecisiveness at the moment – I’m finding it hard to make up my mind which particular book I want to read! Having eschewed most challenges this year, I am of course reading from 1951 for our forthcoming #1951club, but I’m also trying to keep up with the LibraryThing Virago Group’s author of the month – it’s a good way to read books already on my shelves and as I have a *lot* of unread Viragos this has to be something positive!

This month’s author is Elizabeth von Arnim, and I’m pleased that I have plenty of her works to select from:

As you can see, there are plenty of her well-known works here and of the seven lovelies I own, I have read three:

Of the three, I read “German Garden” a long time ago pre-blog and remember loving it; “The Solitary Summer”, which is a kind of follow-up, was equally wonderful; and “Mr. Skeffington” was unexpectedly deep, as I came to it with memories of the Bette Davies film.

These are the four I haven’t yet read:

The obvious title to choose would be “The Enchanted April”, of course, and I have read good things about it; however, the others look appealing too. “Vera” I think is a little darker, and I don’t know anything about “Love” or “Fräulein Schmidt…” So – any recommendations? Has anyone read any of these four titles and if so, which would you suggest? I really do need to get out of this indecisive phase! 🙂

Some late entrants to the field! #1951club

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The starting date of the #1951Club is getting closer and I’m still pondering on what to read next. A comment from HeavenAli reminded me that I have another lovely crime title to consider in the form of Nancy Spain’s “Not Wanted on Voyage”. I picked it up second hand and posted about it a while back, as there was an intriguing old photo tucked away inside; but certainly it would chime in well with my current enjoyment of classic crime. Here it is, next to another possibility:

Yes – gasp! – an e-book!!! It’s not a format I’m fond of, but I find I have Victor Serge’s “Memoirs of a Revolutionary sitting on my iPad, and it was published in 1951. I’ve loved all the Serge books I’ve read so far, so this is a strong candidate for a 1951 read. Watch this space to find out what I actually *do* pick! :))

Yevgeny Yevtushenko 1933-2017

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I learned yesterday of the passing of Russian poet Yevtushenko; of course, I have several of his books, and here they are:

I first became aware of the poet in my early days of reading Russian lit, back in the late 1970s/early 1980s, and he was still very much a presence, having been something of a cult hit, particularly with 1960s youth.

What’s amazing is that he kept working up until his death, still speaking out and making his views know. Here’s a poem called “The Heirs of Stalin”. RIP Yevtushenko.

Mute was the marble. Mutely glimmered the glass.
Mute stood the sentries, bronzed by the breeze.
Thin wisps of smoke curled over the coffin.
And breath seeped through the chinks
as they bore him out the mausoleum doors.
Slowly the coffin floated, grazing the fixed bayonets.
He also was mute – his embalmed fists,
just pretending to be dead, he watched from inside.
He wished to fix each pallbearer in his memory:
young recruits from Ryazan and Kursk,
so that later he might collect enough strength for a sortie,
rise from the grave, and reach these unreflecting youths.
He was scheming. Had merely dozed off.
And I, appealing to our government, petition them
to double, and treble, the sentries guarding this slab,
and stop Stalin from ever rising again
and, with Stalin, the past.
I refer not to the past, so holy and glorious,
of Turksib, and Magnitka, and the flag raised over Berlin.
By the past, in this case, I mean the neglect
of the people’s good, false charges, the jailing of innocent men.
We sowed our crops honestly.
Honestly we smelted metal,
and honestly we marched, joining the ranks.
But he feared us. Believing in the great goal,
he judged all means justified to that great end.
He was far-sighted. Adept in the art of political warfare,
he left many heirs behind on this globe.
I fancy there’s a telephone in that coffin:
Stalin instructs Enver Hoxha.
From that coffin where else does the cable go!
No, Stalin has not given up. He thinks he can cheat death.
We carried him from the mausoleum.
But how remove Stalin’s heirs from Stalin!
Some of his heirs tend roses in retirement,
thinking in secret their enforced leisure will not last.
Others, from platforms, even heap abuse on Stalin
but, at night, yearn for the good old days.
No wonder Stalin’s heirs seem to suffer
these days from heart trouble. They, the former henchmen,
hate this era of emptied prison camps
and auditoriums full of people listening to poets.
The Party discourages me from being smug.
‘Why care? ‘ some say, but I can’t remain inactive.
While Stalin’s heirs walk this earth,
Stalin, I fancy, still lurks in the mausoleum.Translated by George Reavey

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