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Following the #1956Club – what next? :D

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I think the #1956Club was a huge success and we’ve naturally been turning our minds to what year we can explore in six months’ time. As I mentioned in my reply to Jacqui’s comment on my previous post, Simon and I had a chat and both agreed it would be nice to have suggestions as to what year to choose for the next club!

As you can see from the menu on top of my blog, we’ve done a good range of years so far:

1920
1924
1930
1938
1944
1947
1951
1956
1965
1968
1977

The next club will be held next April and so if you have a preferred year between 1920 and 1980, stuffed with books  you think would be great for us to read, do leave a suggestion below or on Simon’s blog! Let us know why you think it’s a great year for reading, and Simon and I will have a chat about it! Looking forward to hearing what year takes your fancy! 😀

#1956Club – phew, what a week! :D

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It’s been quite a week of reading, hasn’t it? I thought when Simon and I plumped for 1956 that it would be a good year, but I hadn’t realised at the time just how many wonderful books we would have to choose from; and I think this may well have been the most popular Club so far! Thanks so much to everyone who’s joined in – I hope you’ve enjoyed it too! Do keep commenting with your links – I have had a week of the most awful IT issues, so I am struggling at times to keep these up to date but will do my best! 😀

I started off the week with a big pile of potential reads – here is the initial stash!

Some possible reads for 1956…

And here is what I actually read!

The actual reads!

As you can see, there were a *lot* of books on the original pile which didn’t get read, and I think this is the club which has given me the most problems choosing. I’m really happy with what I *did* read, but I think 1956 definitely deserved a fortnight to do it justice!

Anyway, of the ones which got away, I think these are the three I regret most not getting to:

The ones which got away…

“Zama” was a late entrant to the field; it’s a review copy I’ve had for a while and it sounds fascinating. The Brophy is again one I’ve really wanted to read and as I missed out for All Virago/All August I had hoped to get to it here – nope. As for Beverley – well, you can never have enough Beverley as far as I’m concerned, but time got me again. A busy and stressful working environment at the moment is impacting a bit on my reading, so I am trying not to pressure myself and *enjoy* what I choose to spend time with. And I loved spending time with the books I *did* pick up during our club week, so that’s a success! Here’s to the next one in six months’ time! 😀

#1956Club – High Jinks in the Highlands!

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Marching with April by Hugo Charteris

My final read for 1956 is a book I didn’t even realise qualified at first, and certainly isn’t one I’d intended to pick up. The author is Hugo Charteris, a writer whose work is unfairly neglected and who is being championed by Michael Walmer; he’s reissued three of Charteris’s titles, and kindly provided copies for review. I read “A Share of the World” and reviewed it back in 2015, finding it a wonderful read, full of beautiful and individual prose. Mike reminded me that “Marching with April” qualified for entry into the #1956Club and as it sounded like a quirky comedy set mainly in Scotland, I really couldn’t resist….

While Lionel thought of this period a clerk sent out with letters saw his face and skirted him by a yard.

“Marches” tells the story of one Lionel Spote. A rather highly strung individual, fresh from a course of psychoanalysis, his view on the world is often dour and fragmented; his interactions with the everyday seem never straightforward and his mood can be measured by how out of alignment his shoulders seem to be… Lionel works for a publisher where the most stressful tasks seem to be dealing with the temperaments and eccentricities of the authors. However, suddenly Lionel inherits a country pile (Rossiemurchat) in Scotland from a great-uncle, a life changing event. Travelling north, throwing off (temporarily) the interfering nature of his mother, Lionel determines to sell the place and get back to his normal life. However, he has reckoned without in the influence of the local MP, the landscape and location, and of course his neighbours – the redoubtable April Gunter-Sykes (whose land ‘marches’ alongside Lionel’s) and her lovely but elusive daughter Laura. Quite how the enervated Lionel will cope with all this remains to be seen…

Lunacy, eccentricity – all forms of unrelatedness should be treated clinically. Instead they were elected to Parliament.

It’s clear from my readings of his first two novels that Charteris was a very individual writer, and I love this about his books. “Marching” is a very funny, very entertaining and, it has to be said, very odd read; the narrative is often fragmented and staccato, mirroring I think the state of Lionel’s mind, and following his quirky thought processes is very diverting! There’s also a darkness underlying it all, and I found myself worrying a little about Lionel’s fragile and often detached psyche as the book went on. I commented in my review of “Share….” on the fluidity of his writing , with the narrative often shifting perspective rapidly, and that’s even more the case here. The often elliptical, clipped and allusive prose (references to T.S. Eliot!) is clever though sometimes a little baffling; and though I loved it, I do think you have to be in the mood for this kind of writing! Interestingly, the novel comes with an introduction from Frederic Raphael and also reproduces a review of “Marching” by no less than Elizabeth Bowen. It seems from the book’s dedication to ‘Charles & Elizabeth’ that they may have been friends…

“Marching with April” was a great book to end the week with and I’m glad the #1956club prompted me to read it. It’s a book that warrants close and careful reading, and it’s a very rewarding one, full of memorable characters and locations; also very, very funny in places. Charteris really is an unfairly neglected author and kudos to Mike Walmer for championing and re-issuing his work!

(Thanks to Mike Walmer for kindly provide a review copy, and for his patience in waiting until the book found me at the right time! If you want to read an excellent piece on the re-issues, the TLS have covered them here)

#1956 – time for a little Beat poetry…

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Howl and other poems by Allen Ginsberg

For recent clubs, I have started trying to introduce the reading of a little poetry. I don’t read enough of it, and so a club week is the perfect excuse. Today’s book is one I’ve owned for decades; it was second hand when I got my copy, and is in a bit of a grungy state; but it was an early acquisition for me of a Beat poet, and has stayed with me since my teens. The book is “Howl and other poems” and the author Allen Ginsberg.

Ginsberg has already made an appearance here on the Ramblings; back in 2016, I covered volume 5 in the Penguin Modern Poets series, where he was joined by two other Beat poets, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I shared then my delight at re-encountering Ginsberg and the musicality of his poetry; and that element was certainly present in “Howl”.

The long title poem is probably the poet’s most famous and notorious work, and was banned and then subject to a long court trial, finally being judged to be not obscene. It dealt with subjects like sex, drugs, mental health and homosexuality, so was of course bound to cause controversy. And the opening lines are justifiably famous:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
     starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for
     an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
     to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking
     in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating
     across the tops of cities contemplating jazz…

(I reproduce the layout and line endings as they appear in my edition)

The poem is a strikingly vivid and multi-layered, full of autobiographical allusions to fellow authors like Burroughs, Kerouac and Neal Cassady, as well as events from Ginsberg’s life. It’s a stunning and memorable work and I can understand the impact it had at the time.

Allen Ginsberg 1979 (Dijk, Hans van / Anefo / CC0 – via Wikimedia Commons)

Other poems in the volume include “A Supermarket in California” and “Sunflower Sutra” , both of which appeared in the Penguin volume. These share the musical quality of much of Ginsberg’s verse, and as I commented at the time, it’s not really surprising he recorded his own work, whether in poetic or song format, as well as appearing on an album with The Clash.

As I mentioned above, I first read Ginsberg (and indeed all the Beats) back in my teens; I’ve not revisited many recently and there is always that question of how well the work will hold up and how much it’s dated (also bearing in mind that when I first read the books some of the writers were alive, and some only recently deceased – we’re talking quite a while ago…) With “Howl” itself, whilst I loved the lyricism, I picked up elements of misogyny lurking to which I might have been less sensitive in the past. The lauding of Neil Cassady because of the number of women he screwed and then abandoned isn’t something I’m particularly comfortable with; and there is an element of scorn for women at times which may stem from Ginsberg’s own sexual preferences.

However, putting that caveat aside, I found much to love in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg. There is some really powerful and beautiful imagery, a sense of despair at the state of the world and, I think, a plea for understanding and the tolerance of individuality. In these modern times where conformity is ever more expected, we could all do with a little more empathy with our fellow humans.

 

#1956Club – a great French artist considers his life and work…

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Journals of Jean Cocteau – edited and introduced by Wallace Fowlie

Today’s time travelling trip to 1956 sees me considering another great French artist – the most wonderful Jean Cocteau. I first encountered his works back in the mid-1980s, when friends dragged me off to a screening in London of two of his films, “Orphee” and “La Belle et La Bete”. If I recall correctly, it was at the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road, on a dreary afternoon, and I emerged afterwards stunned, into a dark rainy night, filled with a sense of wonder at the filmic visions I’d just seen. I’ve loved Cocteau and his work ever since, and as well as his films, I have quite a number of his written works…

Some of my Cocteau collection (there are many more films about….)

However, one thing I didn’t have was his “Journals”, and when I discovered this particular book had been published in 1956 I couldn’t resist searching for a copy. It’s the only book I’ve purchased for our club, and it really is a surprisingly nice edition which was very reasonably priced.

Put together following Cocteau’s election to the French Academy the previous year, this is not a traditional publication of an artist’s journals or diaries (for example, as those of Virginia Woolf have appeared) in chronological dated order. Instead, the entries are drawn from Cocteau’s other published works and gathered together by theme (presumably as a result of Wallace Fowlie’s editing process) resulting in a collection of Cocteau’s meditations and memories. This is no criticism, however, as the contents are fascinating and I believe are the result of author and editor collaborating on what should be included.

Cocteau writes about, and illustrates, his appearance…

Split up into four sections, the book takes a look at Cocteau’s childhood and early influences; he discusses his character; shares thoughts on artists and writers he’s known (such as Proust, Apollinaire and Picasso); meditates on theatre, films and aesthetics; provides some moral essays; and contemplates France and New York. Dipping into these various sections reminded me what a wonderful writer he was, as well as artist and film-maker; he used the work ‘poesie’ as an umbrella term for his oeuvre and it’s a good one.

One of Cocteau’s distinctive drawings

As well as being fascinating reading, “Journals” is also a beautiful book; my first edition hardback has lovely thick pages and features some his wonderful drawings (I adore them…) Instead of going into more detail, I though I would share a few favourite quotes from Cocteau; reconnecting with him was a marvellous experience, and the fact that I have now discovered that there was later publication of some of his diaries threatens to increase the size of the Cocteau pile above even more… ;D

On Proust:

The room of Marcel Proust, on the Boulevard Haussmann, was the first dark room where I witnessed almost every day – it would be more exact to say every night, because he lived at night – the evolution of a powerful work. He was still unknown, and I formed the habit of looking on him, from my very first visit, as a famous writer. In that stifling room, full of clouds of fumigation and dust which covered the furniture with a gray coating, we saw the activity of a beehive in which the thousands of bees of memory made their honey.

Cocteau by Francois Bret via Wikimedia Commons – Copyright ACAFRA / Estate François Bret / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

On films:

The cinema is still a form of graphic art. Through its mediation, I write in pictures, and secure for my own ideology a power in actual fact. I show what others tell. In Orphee, for example, I do not narrate the passing through mirrors; I show it, and in some manner, I prove it. The means I use are not important, if my characters perform publicly what I want them to perform.

When years ago I made my first film, Blood of a Poet, I knew nothing about the profession of a movie director. I had to invent a technique. The movie professionals thought I was ridiculous. And yet it is my only film still showing throughout the world and which for seventeen years has been shown intermittently in a small New York theatre.

Cocteau’s desk via Wikimedia Commons – SiefkinDR / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

On Rilke:

In 1912, for a small sum, I rented a wing of the Hotel Biron, on the rue de Varennes, where Rodin lived. In the centre of Paris, five glass doors opened onto a fairy-story park abandoned by nuns at the time of the separation of Church and State.

In the evening, at the corner window of the hotel, I used to see a lamp light up. This lamp was Rainer Maria Rilke’s. He was Auguste Rodin’s secretary. I was to know only that lamp of his, which should have become a beacon for me. Long afterwards, alas, I learned from Blaise Cendrars who Rilke was; and many years passed before Rilke became acquainted with my play Orphee, produced in Berlin by Reinhardt, and before he sent Madame K this touching telegram: “Tell Jean Cocteau I love him. He is the only one to whom is revealed the myth from which he returns tanned as from the seashore.” At the time of his death, Rilke had just begun work on the translation of Orphee. My good fortune in this and my loss in his death cannot be measured.

“…space is colourless and life dead…” #1956Club #Camus

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My phone camera really struggled with the weird silvery dotty cover of this books….

When I was trying to decide what I’d read for the #1956Club, I had “The Fall” by Albert Camus on the pile of books I owned, but I don’t think I really intended to pick it up. However, after powering through the wonderful Christie, I wanted a little space before embarking on the Ed McBain; and it struck me that the Camus is very slim so possibly wouldn’t take *too* long to read. Plus I could remember absolutely nothing about it from my first read, which was possibly in the 1990s! So needless to say, it came off the shelf! “The Fall” was Camus’ final completed novel (my edition is translated by Justin O’Brien) and should by length really be termed as a novella. However, for its length it’s a complex work throwing up any number of ideas, and although I read it quickly, the concepts it raised are lingering on…

I sometimes think of what future historians will say of us. A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.

Taking the form of a series of monologues, the book is narrated by a man who calls himself Jean-Baptiste Clamence. Formerly a high-profile Parisian lawyer, he now finds himself adrift in Amsterdam, a habituee of a bar called Mexico City and a self-titled “judge-advocate”. A chance encounter with another man in the bar leads to him embarking on his life story – and dark reading it can make. Clamence was a self-assured, successful man; regarding himself as above the rest of humanity, he prided himself on his charity, his achievements and most importantly, how he appeared to others. However, his seemingly impermeable exterior is pricked one day – he walks away from a dramatic event, and ever after appears to hear mocking laughter wherever he goes. His self-image is ruined, and his fall from grace is not far away…

Ah, this dear old planet! All is clear now. We know ourselves; we now know of what we are capable.

As I said above, this *is* quite a complex work, though I found it very readable. Clamence is not a pleasant narrator; his arrogance and hypocrisy are quite repellent, and yet Camus has written him so wonderfully that you can’t help but follow him as his life descends into debauchery and finally he retreats to the lowlands of Amsterdam. His character gradually reveals itself, and the clever narrative, with Clamence’s responses often intimating the unheard part of the conversation, leads to a brilliant ending with unexpected implications for his conversational companion.

So we are steaming along without any landmark; we can’t gauge our speed. We are making progress and yet nothing is changing. It’s not navigation but dreaming.

There are, of course, religious overtones to the story, with the life of Clamence perhaps representing a secular version of the Fall of Man. Certainly, his behaviour leads the reader to judge him; but then, maybe *we* are not in a position to judge either? The constant reiteration of height – Clamence preferring things like mountain peaks to the top decks of boats – supports this reading of the story. And of course Amsterdam is itself below sea level, constantly damp and foggy, so a deliberately symbolic choice of location.

I found nothing but superiorities in myself and this explained my goodwill and serenity. When I was concerned with others, it was out of pure condescension, in utter freedom, and all the credit went to me: my self-esteem would go up a degree.

“The Fall” really was a fascinating, if dark, read; Clamence is in the end a cold, detached character reminding me somewhat of Meursault from “The Outsider” (Camus does seem to excel at those, although the cast of “The Plague” are somewhat more human). His cynical attitude, however, often shows cracks and it’s obvious he’s haunted by a guilt he seems unable to acknowledge, a guilt caused by the results of his moral passivity and unwillingness (or inability) to act.

As I said, I hadn’t intended to read this for our club week, but I’m so glad I did. I’ve re-read both “The Outsider” and “The Plague” in recent years and been happy to rediscover what a wonderful writer Camus was. “The Fall” is perhaps a little neglected in comparison to those two works, but it really does warrant careful reading for its explorations of what it means to be human, how much we hate to be mocked or judged, and yet how much worse is the way in which we judge ourselves. A wonderful book and one of my highlights for 1956! 😀

 

#1956Club – a guest post considers a classic spy thriller!

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As has become tradition during our Club weeks, Mr. Kaggsy has volunteered to write about a book from the year in question, and this time it’s what I would call a spy thriller! Mr Kaggsy’s review does reveal the story’s main elements along the way, although not the outcome of closing events. He says this is essentially an adventure novel, providing action and escapism, as opposed to plot suspense, twists, mystery, or revelations. The novel’s ingredients have been covered in reviews during sixty five years, including in more recent times ones online, as well as e.g. Wikipedia. Quotations from the book appearing below are the copyright of the Ian Fleming Estate. I’d recommend hunkering down with a hot drink for this – it’s a long’un!

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming

Ian Fleming’s fourth James Bond 007 novel was Diamonds Are Forever (DAF), first published in hardback in March 1956, by Jonathan Cape in the UK. The initial run of 12,500 quickly sold out and well-kept editions fetch high prices. Cape had already published the author’s preceding three Bond novels (Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Moonraker) and would continue to put out his subsequent titles in the years ahead, some being short stories. DAF was also the first Bond story to appear in the Daily Express, in an abridged serialised form from April 1956; the paper then followed up with a daily comic strip version during 1959/60.

A Thriller Book Club hardback was also provided in the UK, soon after the original, its cover almost matching the Cape design. The cinema film of the same name did not appear until fifteen years after the book and did not closely follow the novel. This was the seventh Bond movie, being also the sixth and final one in the official series starring Sean Connery, who returned after a gap of four years.

In the United States, DAF was also published in 1956 in hardback, by Macmillan. There was no original US DAF book club edition, but the company later issued two ‘trade’ editions with new wrapper designs. The first of these was part of a run of several titles having themed covers, intended for US libraries in the mid-1960s; the DAF cover inventively used the book’s events at sea, denoting the Queen Elizabeth liner. The second version appeared at the time of the 1971 movie, its cover corresponding with the lavish cinema poster, a world away from the original story.

UK first edition hardback, Jonathan Cape, 1956. UK Thriller Book Club hardback, 1956, with almost identical Cape cover design. US first edition hardback, Macmillan, 1956.

The novel was not Fleming’s only involvement with the diamonds. His non-fiction work The Diamond Smugglers (published in 1957 UK by Jonathan Cape and 1958 US by Macmillan) dealt with the illegal exporting of diamonds from Africa each year worth many millions. The author’s interest in the illicit trade had grown from 1954, when he first became aware of the magnitude of the problem. He met with a former head of MI5, now appointed commercially to investigate the trade through the International Diamond Security Organisation. Fleming’s connected research and interviews led to his DAF fictional account of smuggling and dedications at the front of the book relate to friends who helped the author while in the US; much of the American events in the story reflect this time. At his Goldeneye home in Jamaica, Fleming wrote his ensuing novel in early 1955. The title reportedly came from his seeing a US Vogue magazine advertisement with the caption “A Diamond is Forever”.

The story opens in French Guinea, with a nocturnal scorpion’s attack on a beetle, setting the scene as a hostile patch of ground at the juncture of three African states. “On all horizons there were hills and jungle, but here, over twenty square miles, there was flat rocky ground which was almost desert…” However, across the frontier with Sierra Leone lie the great diamond mines of a powerful mining empire, the reader is enlightened, and the book’s title takes on an early and powerful significance. Soon the venomous predator is itself exterminated, at the rock wielding hand of a diamond smuggler anxiously awaiting his moonlit helicopter ride out of the area. A valuable haul of illicit crystals is handed over to the pilot and the craft flies off, the latest monthly deal completed under cover of darkness. The lone man hastens from the spot, “… where the pipeline for the richest smuggling operation in the world started its devious route to where it would finally gush out on to soft bosoms, five thousand miles away.”

Chapter two finds Bond in M’s office, examining a precious gem in the bright July sunshine. He is being educated about a fifty million pound legitimate trade, mostly carried out in London. However, an expensive leak has sprung up and a New York merchant is implicated. This allows Fleming to display his knowledge of and fondness for the big city, having often visited and holidayed there. As a digression, he wrote the 1964 short story 007 in New York for the New American Library edition of his Thrilling Cities global travelogue. The brief addition to the chapter on New York had not appeared in the Jonathan Cape UK first edition the previous year and while all later US versions of the book included the short tale, there was no printing of it in the UK until 2002, when it was added to the Penguin Octopussy edition. All Bond stories by Fleming have now also enjoyed audio adaptations.

UK first Great Pan ‘painted cover’ edition paperback, 1958. UK Great Pan first ‘red band’ edition paperback, 1961. UK Pan first generic edition paperback, 1963.

Continuing the DAF story, Bond is about to become a courier, acting on behalf of his government, in a matter too sensitive for the usual UK and US covert services. Dismissed by his superior, Bond visits the section’s Chief of Staff, where his knowledge is to be extended. The assignment extends to the operations of the American criminal underworld and as 007’s briefing ends he is told he’ll be on his own. Soon he is reacquainted with Assistant Commissioner Vallance, whom he met during the previous Moonraker affair. Bond will be impersonating a small-time but career crook by the name of Peter Franks. The criminal has recently been offered a tidy sum to smuggle “Hot Ice” into America. Accordingly, 007 is shortly to link up with one Tiffany Case, a woman linked to the underworld and having only a brief description of Franks, he being about to be held by Scotland Yard on some trumped up basis to keep him out of the way.

Case is American and her passport reveals: “27. Born San Francisco. Blonde. Blue eyes. Height 5 ft 6 in.” The substance of Bond’s assignment is beginning to develop and he is introduced to Sergeant Dankwaerts under his correct title, “Commander Bond of the Ministry of Defence”, about to be masquerading as the fictitious “Sergeant James”, an assumed member of Dankwaerts’ team. Under a disguise, Bond will be taken by Vallance to the “House of Diamonds in Hatton Garden”. A minimal facial transformation is carried out by another officer applying the required degree of make-up. “Sergeant Lobiniere held up a pocket mirror in front of Bond. A touch of white at the temples. The scar gone. A hint of studiousness at the corners of the eyes and mouth. The faintest shadows under the cheekbones. Nothing you could put your finger on, but it all added up to someone who certainly wasn’t James Bond.”

A little later the two ‘sergeants’ are calling upon the London merchant, on the pretext of making inquiries about certain stolen diamonds. The broker “looked contemptuously from one to the other of these two underpaid flatfeet who had the effrontery to be taking up his time.” Here, Fleming shines like the gems themselves, with the sharpness of his dialogue and descriptions of characters. The shady merchant has no intention of assisting the police, insisting that he has no knowledge of the matter in hand and showing his visitors the door. Undismayed, Dankwaerts has not only enabled Bond to form an accurate mental picture of the broker, but can now also disclose to him that the man is no diamond expert. “When I read out that list of missing stones,” Sergeant Dankwaerts smiles, having mentioned some particular types of stones, “It just happens that there aren’t such things.”

Suitably clued-up, Bond is at the Trafalgar Palace Hotel, about to start his infiltration by meeting Tiffany Case. He enters Room 350, where: “She was sitting, half naked, astride a chair in front of the dressing-table, gazing across the back of the chair into the triple mirror. Her bare arms were folded along the tall back of the chair and her chin was resting on her arms. Her spine was arched, and there was arrogance in the set of her head and shoulders. The black string of her brassière across the naked back, the tight black lace pants and the splay of her legs whipped at Bond’s senses.” Fleming presents a realistic scene of the first encounter, the woman going to dress and Bond checking over the room in her absence, after which a conversation ensues when Case emerges. The author’s description of her is detailed and Bond’s thoughts are also transmitted.

“’So you’re Peter Franks,’ she said and the voice was low and attractive, but with a touch of condescension.” Talks gets down to business, travel arrangements and other relevant factors. Bond is able to reveal his true name, as shown on his passport, and he will be travelling under the ruse of a golfing holiday, thereafter adopting the Franks alias. Flight, hotel and driver pickup arrangements are confirmed, at which time Bond will be receiving some ordinary-looking, but extremely valuable, golf balls. He leaves the hotel, his thoughts conflicted; he feels drawn to the woman, but also treacherous, in that he needs to develop a friendship which he can later use to penetrate the smuggling pipeline. Elsewhere, Case reports the plan to her contact next in line, confirming the new mule as satisfactory.

Bond’s packing is done in his Ritz hotel room and Fleming always gives a clothing summary, everything being “…appropriate to his cover. Evening clothes; his lightweight black and white dog-tooth suit for the country and for golf; Saxone golf shoes; a companion to the dark blue, tropical worsted suit he was wearing, and some white silk and dark blue Sea Island cotton shirts with collars attached and short sleeves. Socks and ties, some nylon underclothes, and two pairs of the long silk pyjama coats he wore in place of two-piece pyjamas. None of these things bore, or had ever borne, any name-tags or initials.”
Other essential items included are a golfing instruction book, shaving and washing gear, tickets and passport, plus a special attaché case prepared by Q Branch, with a concealed compartment containing a silencer and ammunition for Bond’s gun. The weapon itself, a .25 Beretta automatic, once given to him by M, will be holstered below his left armpit. Fleming was a connoisseur of weapons and gives a detailed account of Bond laying out the gun’s working parts on the hotel bed and checking its action. Now the agent was ready for his clandestine departure.

Bond driven to London airport, the arranged chauffeur having the golf balls which are to be taken to New York by the undercover courier. Eventually aboard the plane, with Tiffany Case seated not far away, 007 watches through his window the giant aircraft leaving the ground. A break in the journey occurs with a stopover at Shannon, before the BOAC flight is airborne over the Atlantic. Hours later, “Bond’s ears began to block with the slow descent towards the pall of haze that was the suburbs of New York. There was the hiss and sickly smell of the insecticide bomb, the shrill hydraulic whine of the air-brakes and the landing-wheels being lowered, the dip of the plane’s nose, the tearing bump of the tyres on the runway, the ugly roar as the screws were reversed to slow the plane for the entrance bay, the rumbling progress over the tired grass plain towards the tarmac apron, the clang of the hatch being opened, and they were there.”

Bond is driven to Manhattan, arriving at the US division of The House of Diamonds. The designated transaction takes place and he will be billeted at the Astor, having been offered more work. He will later bet on a fixed horse race and collect his winnings as pay. Meanwhile, as Bond later walks around Times Square he is aware of being followed, reacting by grabbing at his pursuer. The man is Felix Leiter, an ally in the form of a US agent, the two men having met before. The pair’s ensuing drinking and dining is another author-led trip around the area; the passage of conversation is one which so often is Fleming’s way of bringing the reader into the story and its setting. Leiter enlightens Bond about Tiffany Case, how she was drawn into crime, but was once violated by members of a gang, since when her stance has been anti-men and one of self-protection. As a parting comment, Bond is warned as to how dangerous the mob is that he will be dealing with.

Events move on to an evening with Bond back in Tiffany’s company and he has progressed to using her first name, beginning to fall in love with her. After a lengthy talk over dinner and drinks, the pair taxi to the Astor, where both are booked. Case has become fond of her contact and is teary-eyed as they part. “And then she pulled his face against hers and kissed him once, hard and long on the lips, with a fierce tenderness that was almost without sex. But, as Bond’s arms went round her and he started to return her kiss, she suddenly stiffened and fought her way free, and the moment was over. With her hand on the knob of the open door, she turned and looked at him, and the sultry glow was back in her eyes. ‘Now get away from me,’ she said fiercely, and slammed the door and locked it.”

UK Pan movie tie-in paperback, 1971.
US Macmillan movie tie-in hardback, 1971.
US Bantam movie tie-in paperback, 1971.

Bond is about to travel with Leiter some two hundred miles to the designated racetrack. The journey, meals, vehicle details, conversation, passing geography and eventual Saratoga racing experience fill many more pages. The men develop a plan to strike a blow against the organisation being secretly targeted by them on behalf of both their governments. The next stage involves 007 visiting mud and sulphur baths, where he must undergo an extremely hot and disagreeable ‘healthy’ ordeal. The ordeal is a cover for handing a large cash payment in dollars to a jockey who was bribed to throw a race upon which heavy bets had been placed. The unexpected arrival of two gunmen leads to a ‘burning’ experience for the jockey, whose suspected deliberate racing foul has not been appreciated.

At least Bond’s cover is still intact and his payment for services is now being rearranged as winnings at a Las Vegas Blackjack table. A casino set piece is ahead, the stuff of 007 legend. The drive along the Strip to the booked hotel is potently described. “The great six-lane highway stretched on through a forest of multi-coloured signs and frontages until it lost itself downtown in a dancing lake of heat waves. The day was as hot and sultry as a fire opal. The swollen sun burned straight down the middle of the frying concrete and there was no shade anywhere except under the few scattered palms in the forecourts of the motels. A glittering gunfire of light-splinters shot at Bond’s eyes from the windscreens of oncoming cars and from their blaze of chrome styling, and he felt his wet shirt clinging to his skin.”

Inside the air-conditioned Tiara Hotel Bond settles in and later visits the gambling hall where there is an outlet of The House of Diamonds and a surprise awaiting him, “The dealer at the centre blackjack table nearest the bar was Tiffany Case.” He realised that it was she who was “… going to false-deal him to win five thousand dollars.” In a long and descriptive gambling sequence things work out as planned and hoped for, but Bond unwisely wins more money than permitted. Later 007 cashes out, putting his gains in a sealed package which he address it to “The Managing Director, Universal Export, Regents Park, London, N.W.1, England,” before dropping it into a US Mail slot. Midnight arrives as Bond leaves, noticing that a new dealer has taken over from Tiffany.

A car chase and gunfire are not far off, after which Bond finds himself en route to be hauled up before the organisation’s leader, displeased with his non-adherence to arrangements. He is taken to a fantasy Western setting in the desert, amusingly named Spectreville (Fleming presents the criminal organisation SPECTRE in future 007 novels), later boarding an old style locomotive with a splendid Pullman coach. “Bond… stepped up on to the brass-railed observation platform with the shining brakeman’s wheel in the centre. For the first time in his life he saw the point of being a millionaire…” Fleming describes the interior of the carriage, glittering with Victorian luxury.

The mob head and owner of the desert hideaway sums up the situation for Bond, who is now suddenly on the wrong side of things. “‘You’re a cop or a private eye of some sort and I’m going to find out who you are, and who you work for, and what you know, what you were doing in the Acme Baths alongside that crooked jock; why you carry a gun and where you learnt to handle it… You look like an eye and you behave like one and,’ he turned with sudden anger on Tiffany Case, ‘how you fell for him, you silly bitch, I just can’t figure.’” Bond’s hope now is that Case will be able to convince his captors that he is on the level. However, he is about to experience a “Brooklyn stomping”, involving his aggressors misusing football boots.

A badly injured and dazed Bond is rescued by Tiffany, she operating a railroad handcar away from the base where they were held, it having been torched by the escapers. “They had been going nearly an hour when a thin humming undertone in the air or on the rails made Bond stiffen. Again he looked back over his shoulder. Was there a tiny glow-worm glimmer between them and the false red dawn of the burning ghost town?” Disturbingly, they are being chased by an engine and their lowly machine is now running out of fuel, starting to freewheel. The limping agent and his aide take to the hills, but not before switching the railway points. A further gun battle takes place, in which Bond shoots the arch enemy, sending the gangster lifelessly riding his engine to destruction and, for him, the end of the line.

As 007 and Case trudge along the desert road they are picked up in a car driven by saviour Felix Leiter. Bond listens to the woman telling the incredulous US agent what has been happening as they are motored away to safety. Having later been fed and patched up, Bond travels with Tiffany as Leiter drives them into Los Angeles, along Sunset Boulevard. Eventually he leaves them behind, the pair ready to catch a flight and then board a boat to safety. They were anticipating “… climbing up the covered gangway into the great safe, black British belly of the Queen Elizabeth and were at last in their cabins on M deck with their doors locked against the world.” Fleming had himself sailed on the liner during US trips.

However, two Americans who had been eyeballing Bond at an early stage of his assignment, unnoticed by him, were now boarding the ship. “Punctually at eight, the great reverberating efflatus of the Queen Elizabeth’s siren made the glass tremble in the skyscrapers and the tugs fussed the big ship out into midstream and nosed her round and, at a cautious five knots, she moved slowly down-river on the slack tide.” During the voyage Bond reveals his true status to Tiffany and their already romantic relationship grows stronger. After meals and further deck wagering games, the animated couple are free to consummate their union.

Fleming’s following narrative may be thought, more than sixty years later, to be akin to more recent bedroom potboilers, but at the time no doubt the scene fizzed for Fifties’ readers. Bond “… kicked the door of his cabin shut behind them and they… stood locked together in the middle of the wonderfully private, wonderfully anonymous little room. And then he just said, softly, ‘My darling,’ and put one hand in her hair so that he could hold her mouth where he wanted it. And after a while his other hand went to the zip fastener at the back of her dress and without moving away from him she stepped out of her dress and panted between their kisses. ‘I want it all, James. Everything you’ve ever done to a girl. Now. Quickly.’ And Bond bent down and put an arm round her thighs and picked her up and laid her gently on the floor.”

US Permabooks Inc paperback, 1957.
US Macmillan ‘trade’ edition, 1966 (with ‘Queen Elizabeth’ design).
US James Bond Classic Library; Fine Communications, 1997 (with opening scorpion design).

There are two chapters remaining, although the resolution of events and the ending are not given away here. Suffice to say that there are assailants aboard posing a threat and Bond only belatedly realises the danger they pose. It is time for the 007 Beretta and silencer to be deployed, stuffed into the man’s waistband while he goes ‘over the side’ of the liner to attempt a pre-emptive strike and a Tiffany rescue mission, via a lower level porthole. The action-packed last moments aboard the Queen Elizabeth close the book’s penultimate chapter. The last one involves a clear-up operation back at the original African diamond pipeline location – scene of the opening scorpion sequence – bringing a final fatality. A few words conclude the book:

“Death is forever. But so are diamonds.”

******

Phew! Well done to everyone who’s made it this far on what must be one of the longest posts ever on the Ramblings… Tomorrow’s post will, I promise, be shorter… 😀

#1956Club – a look at some previous reads…

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As is my usual habit with our reading clubs, I thought I would take a look at a few previous reads from the year; and a quick trawl of the piles I pulled off the shelves revealed these lovelies:

There’s quite a range of different texts there, and interestingly almost all of them are titles I read pre-blog. C.S. Lewis was a huge favourite when I was a child – I loved the Narnia books – and as a young adult went on to enjoy his adult fictions. I’ve still to revisit them – one day… Ed McBain made an appearance here yesterday, and I’ve read all of his books; I’d love to revisit more, including the other two 1956 titles, but I suspect I will run out of time…

The Mishima and Baldwin titles are ones I discoved more recently, in my 40s, and both are fine works which again I would love to have the time to go back to. The Maigret I considered re-reading, as I often choose one of Simenon‘s works for our reading weeks; but the story felt too familiar, having made an appearance on the blog in one of my early, amateurish posts, and so I decided against it in the end.

As for Mervyn Peake, this wonderful collection of his work includes the short story “Boy in Darkness”; a strange and disturbing work, first published in a sci fi anthology, it tells a dark tale of a boy who may or may not be Titus Groan and a disconcerting encounter. I remember it as being odd and unsettling and I confess to being tempted to sit down and read this whole collection again.

However, one book I would really like to highlight is “Every Eye” by Isobel English; this is a lovely Persephone release which I read just before starting the Ramblings, and it’s one of my favourite from the publisher. A short and evocative work at just 119 pages, the narrative tells the story of one woman’s life in alternating sections; looking back at her past and evaluating how she has got to where she is currently, it’s a compelling story with a killer last line (*don’t* ever cheat by looking at it) and I so recommend it. I would love to read it again for 1956, but I think time will be against me. A really great novel(la) and one of Persephone’s finest!

So – those are a few of my previous reads from 1956. Have you read any of these? Which books from the year remain in your mind and your heart?

#1956Club – starting the week with Contrasting Classic Crime!

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And we’re off!!!

I’ve dropped into the habit of starting off my reading for our club weeks with a revisit to an Agatha Christie; she’s one of those authors, much like Maigret, who seems to have a book published in just about every year we choose! The novel she published in 1956 was “Dead Man’s Folly”, a book I probably haven’t read in decades; but I thought I would add a slight twist to my reading by also revisiting a very different crime writer – Ed McBain.

In 1956, Christie was probably at the height of her repuration; she had numerous classic titles like “Murder on the Orient Express”, “Death on the Nile” and “And Then There Were None” (with its former “Ten Little….” titles) behind her, and many more great mysteries to come. In contrast, Ed McBain, although an experienced author, would make his first step into releasing his police procedural series featuring the detectives of the 87th Precinct with the book “Cop Hater”; and his work is very different from Christie’s, just showing the range there can be in crime writing.

Christie needs no introduction; McBain may well do, because I actually don’t know how much he’s read or how he’s viewed nowadays. He was born Salvatore Albert Lombino, but legally changed his name to Evan Hunter in 1952; under that name, he’s probably best known as the author of “The Blackboard Jungle” and he continued to write as Hunter (as well as other aliases). However, as Ed McBain he produced a series of 56 books featuring the 87th Precinct squad and I confess to owning them all… (plus several other little spinoffs…)

The 87th Precinct was located in an unnamed fictional city (generally reckoned to represent New York) and was a real ensemble series which inspired the hit TV show, “Hill Street Blues” (as well as an earlier black and white TV series which is very sweet but not as hard edged as the books!) I read them all decades ago; so I did wonder how I would find a re-encounter, and whether my tastes would have changed or I would find the books dated…

Dead Man’s Folly by Agatha Christie

This particular Christie was published about two-thirds of the way into the writer’s career, and her famous detective Hercule Poirot was well-established. “Dead Man’s Folly” sees him partnered again with the crime novelist Ariadne Oliver, a character generally agreed to be based on Christie herself and who would often share the spotlight with Poirot in later books. Mrs. Oliver has been invited down to Nasse House in Devon to stage a murder hunt at a summer fete held by the lord of the manor, Sir George Stubbs; however, her woman’s instincts tell her something is not as it seems and she summons Poirot down to help. Under the guise of visiting celebrity prize-giver, Poirot is introduced to the motley crew of what will become suspects, including Mrs. Folliat, the previous owner of the house; the Legges, a couple experiencing marriage difficulties who are staying nearby; locals including the MP Mr. Masterton; and Sir George’s vacant and fickle wife, Hattie. Inevitably, there is a murder, which Poirot is chastened not to have prevented; and the tangled plot, with alibis and secrets stretching long into the past, will take all his ingenuity to untangle.

One of the joys of reading this book (apart from knowing you’re in the hands of the Queen of Crime!) is the portrait she paints of Nasse House; because this was based on Christie’s own beloved Greenway in Devon, and her love for the location shines through (and is perhaps reflected in the attitudes and behaviour of one of the characters…) The mystery itself zips along entertainingly, and it’s the kind of plot she does so well; she’s so brilliant at building those twisty-turny stories where everything links into past events and it takes all her detective’s power to unravel them. This is no exception, and I had forgotten the plot completely so the reveal was a treat. What I also loved being reminded of was how funny an author Christie is; she’s not afraid to send up her characters and detectives, and so reading “Dead Man’s Folly” was just perfect. It probably doesn’t rank among her top mysteries, but even lesser Christie is good in my book!

Cop Hater by Ed McBain

Impressively enough, McBain published *three* 87th Precinct books in 1956, but this was the first and introduced readers not only to the setting but also to some of the regular characters. The main detective, who will feature all through the series, is Steve Carella, and as a seasoned reader I recognise several names who will recur! The setting is a July in the city, where the heat is oppressive and tempers short. In these days of primitive air conditioning, everyone is suffering and matters are not helped when someone begins to kill cops…

These are hard crimes to solve; is it a maniac who just hates the police? Is there a connection with a criminal who’s had dealings with each victim? Or is this the work of one of the teenage gangs causing havoc in the streets? Carella and those close to him will be put in danger trying to solve the case, and things will get very tense before any resolution is found.

One thing I remembered straight away was just what a good writer McBain generally was. His prose is economic yet often evocative; he can nail character brilliantly in a few words; and his characters and the city quickly come alive for the reader. The crime itself is an interesting one and I shan’t say too much about it except to note that McBain uses a particular crime-writing trope which appears in a very famous Christie book so there’s a strange connection between two very different authors! The narrative was often spare and effective, the denouement came along more quickly than I expected (in those days McBain wasted no words, though that did change later), and the characters in peril didn’t suffer too much fortunately!

This is of course a first novel in a series, and in many ways it’s a gentle introduction to his writing but it also lays out a template for where the series will go. The police are human and flawed; there are no black and white lines of good and evil; and the city will be as much a character in the stories as the various players. Already, in what is something of a scene-setting book, the various detectives are starting to fall into the roles they’ll mostly stay with during the series; and I do think I would love to re-read the books in publication order one day (rather as I would like to with Christie!)

There was, I have to say, one element I thought I might struggle a little with, and I was right; McBain’s portrayal of women is not something with which I feel entirely comfortable. It has to be borne in mind that this book was written a *long* time ago, when attitudes were different; nevertheless his women are very objectified, defined often by their physical attributes and in relation to their sexuality; and towards the end of the book this element becomes even more pronounced. I was probably less sensitive to this when I was younger but I find it less easy to deal with nowadays. It won’t stop me reading McBain, but it’s something I wish he’d toned down a little.

So, my first reads for 1956 were an excellent pair of very different crime books, and I loved re-encountering both authors. Re-reading can be a dangerous thing; you never quite know if an author will live up to your memory of them and their books. Fortunately, though, Christie never fails to please, and “Cop Hater” has reminded me how much I love Ed McBain’s writing. Now, if we’d made this Club a fortnight long, I might even have been able to read the other two 1956 87th Precinct books! ;D

Counting down to the #1956Club!

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I hope you’re all looking forward to the start of the #1956Club tomorrow as much as I am! I’ve spent a good part of this week reading and exploring books from the year, but that *has* thrown up a few anomalies…

Lots of lovely online people have been coming up with suggestions of what we can read, and I was excited to find that I owned a couple of titles I hadn’t considered before; so I went and dug them out and this is them: “The Lost Steps” by Alejo Carpentier and “A Charmed Life” by Mary McCarthy, both in somewhat gnarled old Penguin editions.

However, both of these present challenges… Below is an image of the copyright page of the Carpentier, and as you can see, although the translated version was first published in 1956, the book itself came out originally in 1955. So in my mind it’s disqualified for the club, which is a shame as I’ve had it for ages and was intrigued…

The McCarthy has similar issues. As you can see below, it was first published in the UK in 1956, but originally in the US in 1955; once more I think this definitely isn’t one I think I can include in the club, although McCarthy is an author I really want to explore more.

So – two near misses for the #1956Club. Let’s see tomorrow what I *did* end up tackling as my first read of the week! 😀

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