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The 1938 Club : Some Final Thoughts

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So, what an incredible week it’s been for the 1938 Club! When we embarked on this, I didn’t intend to read and review quite so many books from the one year, figuring that we only had a week to look at it. But there were so many wonderful titles that I got a bit carried away and I’ve loved everything I’ve read for 1938.

What’s been fascinating is the variety – from classic crime that seems untouched by the world situation through a novel of American jazz life to books set in the ominous world you would expect in that era. The contrasts have been striking and thought-provoking.

Alas, I didn’t get on to every book I hoped to read – these three in particular never made it:

1938 didnt read

I was keen to tackle all of them – two new reads and one re-read – but there just wasn’t the time. But having made it to the top of the pile, hopefully I’ll now get to them sooner rather than later!

Thanks so much to Simon for coming up with the idea in the first place and for co-hosting The 1938 Club, and to everyone who’s joined in, posted reviews, discovered wonderful titles and made suggestions – there’s been such an overwhelming response, which is fantastic!  If I’ve missed your reviews/posts, please let me know in the comments so I can link. You can read Simon’s wrap-up post here.

It’s been fabulous fun – and Simon has suggested a great year for our next Club in October, which is going to be (drum roll!) 1947. Having had a quick look at the books available from that year, it looks there will many more fantasic choices to be made – so do join us for The 1947 Club in October! 🙂

The 1938 Club : Discovering a classic spy author

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Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler

I’ve always been vaguely aware of the name of Eric Ambler as an author of spy stories, but he’s not someone I’ve ever read. I think I tended to lump him into a group with people like Le Carre, Ludlum et al and think I wouldn’t find their books particularly interesting or well-written. However, Annabel has written about him in glowing terms, which piqued my interest a little. So when I spotted one of his books in a charity shop, I had a little look and discovered that this was might be called a classic rather than a modern thriller and so might be a bit more up my street. And when it transpired that it had been published in 1938, it was ideal for our current reading event!

epitaph

I confess to coming to this a little unready for it in many ways; I’ve been reading the 1938 books fairly intensely, sometimes one a day, and switching so rapidly between different types of writing and genre hasn’t always been easy. “Young Man With A Horn” had a particular setting and narrative style which was very absorbing and I did wonder how I would get on with the Ambler – however, I needn’t have worried.

The book is set in France pretty much in the era it was published, and our narrator is Josef Vadassy; a Hungarian refugee, he’s scraping a living as a language teacher, but is pretty much stateless. Hungary (as I found out with a little research for another book I’ve been reading) was subject to a dramatic number of border shifts after WW1 and much of it ended up as part of Czechoslovakia. Josef has a Czech passport but is on the run from that country; England will not have him, and the French will let him stay but won’t give him citizenship and if he leaves he won’t be allowed back in. So he’s vulnerable and impoverished, but manages to scrape enough together for a short holiday on the Riviera.

Josef’s hobby is photography; and things start to go wrong when he has some photos of lizards developed at a local chemist. Because bizarrely enough there are also photos of secret military installations also on the film, despite Josef’s protestations that he knows nothing about how they got there. The mysterious Beghin, an intelligence man, is inclined to believe him; but if Josef did not take the pictures, someone at his hotel with an identical camera must have done so.

Poor Josef is left in the unhappy position of having to go back to his hotel and try to work out who the real spy is so he can clear his own name. Unfortunately, he’s patently incapable of this kind of work and blunders around making things worse. The hotel is full of plenty of people who could come under suspicion, including the English couple, Major and Mrs. Clandon-Hartley; the Vogels, a Swiss couple; the insufferable M. Duclos, who seems to have a loose grip on the truth; a young American brother and sister, Warren and Mary Skelton; and the unpleasant Andre Roux. Throw in a mystery man who seems to be known under several names plus a deceptively laid-back hotel owner and you have all the ingredients for a real puzzler.

It would be good now, I thought, to be in Paris. The afternoon city heat would have gone. It would be good to sit under the trees in the Luxembourg, the trees near the marionette theatre. It would be quiet there now. There would be no one there but a student or two reading. There you could listen to the rustle of leaves unconscious of the pains of humanity in labour, of a civilization hastening to its own destruction. There, away from this brassy sea and blood-red earth, you could contemplate the twentieth-century tragedy unmoved; unmoved except by pity for mankind fighting to save itself from the primeval ooze that welled from its own subconscious being.

And this *was* a puzzler, and a wonderful one at that! For a start, Ambler’s writing is excellent; this is no badly written pot-boiler, but a real literary thriller, a novel that just happens to have a mystery. And then there’s the setting, which is beautifully conjured; the Riviera comes alive and is entirely convincing. Interestingly enough, the book in some ways reads like a Golden Age country house crime novel, with the confined setting and limited range of characters, all under suspicion; but the added tension caused by the knowledge that one is a dangerous spy and that Vadassy is in danger of losing liberty, a country that will allow him to live there,  or even his life, makes the book quite unputdownable!

Eric_Ambler

So my misgivings were completely unjustified, and I ended up finding myself staying up late at night to finish the book, unable to stand waiting until the next day to find out the solution. If I had any criticism, I would say that the end was maybe a little predictable – I could have done with another twist or two. But the reveal was very satisfying, and Ambler nicely tied up all the loose ends and solved all the little mysteries about the individual characters in a proper, Golden Age way.

As for what was to come – well, that’s hinted about throughout the book, and it’s sobering to wonder what would have happened to the various protagonists in the story during WW2. Josef Vadassy himself would have been quite vulnerable and the plight of non-indigenous people in France during the occupation was often not a happy one.

So my first experience of reading Eric Ambler was a joyous one and I intend to read more of his thrillers from the same era. The excellent introduction explains how Ambler intended to take the thriller genre, much looked down on at the time, and reinvent as a classier product. He certainly succeeded with “Epitaph for a Spy” and I can’t recommend it highly enough – it was the ideal way to end my week of reading books from 1938!

The 1938 Club : Some earlier reviews

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The list of possible reads for 1938 turned out to be a long and fascinating one, and some of the books I’ve already written about on the blog. So rather than re-read or re-post, I though I’d share a few links here to previous reviews.

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham

The original Puffin cover

The original Puffin cover

I read this one as part of All Virago/All August, which includes Persephone, and found it great fun, as well as a real eye-opener about the hard work involved in day-to-day living back in 1938.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

pettigrewcover

One of my favourite Persephones – a real feel-good read, that had me with a grin on my face all the way through – just thinking about it makes me want to read it again!

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

heart

My first read of Bowen, and what a wonderful one it was too. Her prose is quite something – beautiful and complex, sometimes difficult but always rewarding. I really do need to read more Bowen!

The Secret Island by Enid Blyton

secret islandA bit of a blast from the past here – I grew up reading Blyton and these stories were some of my favourites. I couldn’t resist a revisit and was happy to read an original version, not one which had been sanitised and updated.

A Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun

child

This was a wonderful read – my second Keun, and capturing the sense of dislocation and insecurity in Europe in the 1930s. Also a very successful child narrator. Which reminds me that I need to get on to the other Keuns I have on the TBR!

So that’s a few 1938 books I’ve already covered here. I’m really becoming convinced this was a golden year for literature of all sorts, despite (or in some cases because of) the rumblings going on in Europe. One more book to go! 🙂

The 1938 Club : Trent Reaches the End!

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Trent Intervenes by E.C. Bentley

When I started looking around for books to read for the 1938 Club, little did I realise that one of my Christmas gifts from last year would fit in nicely! But as it turned out, the final volume of crime stories from E.C. Bentley, “Trent Intervenes”, was published in that very year – so there was no question but that it would be my next read for the Club!

trent intervenes

I’m still ruing the fact that Bentley only produced three volumes featuring Philip Trent, as they’re such wonderful, classic crime reads. This last book is a collection of twelve short stories and a fine array they are. I wondered initially whether they would follow on from the second story, “Trent’s Own Case”, but it seems that these are actually set in the time before “Trent’s Last Case”, when our detective was attached to the Record newspaper as an occasional correspondent, which gave him the chance to exercise his little grey cells. And much like Trent Investigates, there is little sense of the contemporary events of 1938 with Trent investigating in settings untouched by the upcoming conflict.

I thought I was going to hear you say that (X) had made dishonourable proposals to you, or that he drinks laudanum, or that he has a private delusion that he is a weasel.

However, that really doesn’t matter, as these are quite wonderful stories; pure escapism, and each cleverly written and containing enough twists to keep the average Golden Age crime fan very happy! The subject matter is varied too, with Bentley not sticking to only murder mysteries – there are tales of revenge, fraud, assault, disappearance and mysterious marks on furniture that lead to so much more! Each is a shining gem of storytelling, and the writing is so good that I once again found myself wishing that Bentley had given us more of Philip Trent and his “reputation as an unraveller”. Bentley’s also a very witty writer, and I was chuckling at several points during the book; for example, of a missing millionaire’s rough tweed hat, he says that “After a day and a half in salt water, it still had an aroma of Highland Sheep”.

All in all, this book was a delight to read, and I devoured it almost in one sitting – while telling myself all the time to slow down, because once I’d read it there was no more Trent to come! However, I’ve loved reading these books so much that I can tell I’ll return to them. The best of Golden Age crime is the books and detectives you can read over and over, and E.C. Bentley’s Philip Trent stories certainly fall into that category. My first full length foray into 1938 has been a winner – let’s hope the rest of my reads are up to this standard!

The 1938 Club begins!

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The 1938 Club

Yes, drum rolls please, as today we start our week of reading wonderful books from 1938 and sharing them round the blogosphere. This of course was Simon at Stuck in a Book’s idea – he came up with The 1924 Club and it was immensely popular, and so we’re repeating the experience with another year.

And 1938 promises to be a fascinating choice; there are so many great books that were published during that year that one of the hardest things has been whittling them down as you can only review so many books in seven days! I confess I’ve been reading up a little in advance (because I know how Real Life can often get in the way of books and blogging) – and there are some very exciting titles coming up. I’m having a separate page once more where I’ll put links to other reviews and blog posts, so please do leave a comment if you feature something from 1938.

address

I’m going to start the week with a little review of my first read from that year; it’s a book I’ve had for decades and I read it back in the day but hadn’t realised it was from the year in question. “Address Unknown” by Kressmann Taylor is probably one of the shortest hardbacks I have (just over 50 small pages) but my goodness, does it pack an emotional punch.

The book is an epistolary one, consisting of correspondence between two business partners in an art gallery. The men are also long-time friends – one is a German, one is Jewish, and this is 1932. The German, Martin Schulse, has returned with his family to his homeland. His partner, Max Eisenstein, remains in San Francisco running that end of the business. The initial short letters re-establish contact and are friendly and cordial. But Max is concerned – rumours are starting to come out of Germany about the treatment of Jews and his sister Giselle, an actress, is touring in Europe. As Max’s worries about her increase, the tone of Martin’s letters changes. It becomes clear that he is developing into a full-blown Nazi, and when Giselle turns to him for aid, things do not go well. Max’s revenge for this is chilling and effective…

You wouldn’t think so much could be got into one small book, but this is a powerful piece of writing and a remarkable achievement. The gradual realisation of what is happening in Germany; the horror of the change in the tone of the former friend; and the cold-blooded cleverness of Max’s response take your breath away. But what shines out here is the human cost of the conflict; Giselle’s fate, and that of all of her people, is heart-breaking and by focussing on the effect on just one family, Taylor makes her point even stronger.

kressmann taylor

Kressmann Taylor was the pen name of Kathrine Kressmann Taylor Rood, and an afterword by her son gives the history of the book and a little of her life. Although she wrote other works, this is the one she’s most remembered for now, and as the blurb says, it really does show the power of the pen as a weapon.

1938 was a year when what was happening in Nazi Germany could no longer really be ignored. Whether any of my other reads will be informed by events there remains to be seen, but “Address Unknown” was certainly a striking way to start off the week.

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