Friday 28 May 1999

Iain Pears: Death and Restoration (1996)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1999
Review number: 261

One of Pears' series of art-related detective stories built round the character of art-dealer Jonathan Argyll, Death and Restoration is an extremely well put together crime novel. Argyll is taking a break from his profession to lecture students in Rome on the less well known art treasures of that city. His girlfriend, Flavia, works in the Italian police, in the department specialising in fine art crime. When she hears that an old acquaintance of the couple, charming thief Mary Verney, has returned to Rome, she is concerned to keep an eye on her. Before long, Mary is the chief suspect in a crime that doesn't quite add up. An ageing priest, head of an obscure order of monks, is seriously injured during a robbery at the church of the order; but not only is violence out o Mary's character, but the wrong picture seems to have been taken. The reputed Caravaggio, the order's main artistic treasure, has been ignored in favour of a small icon of the Virgin Mary, probably brought to the monastery hundreds of years before by a refugee from the Turkish conquest of Constantinople.

The story of Death and Restoration is quite ingenious, the novel falling into the category of crime novels where the identity of the villain is not difficult to work out, while the precise nature of the villainy and its motivation is kept obscure and provides the main interest of the plot.

Robert L. Forward: Starquake (1985)

Edition: New English Library, 1988
Review number: 260

Starquake and Dragon's Egg, the novel to which it forms a sequel, contain some of the most unusual aliens ever envisaged by a science fiction writer. Forward, with an engineering background, has written some of the most interesting 'hard' science fiction. This is a term used for strongly ideas based writing, using the latest scientific knowledge and incorporating a great deal of physics as accurately as possible.

Dragon's Egg contains all the interesting scientific background which is in the sequel: the carefully worked out microscopic processes and structures which make life on the surface of a neutron star - so dense atoms are crushed - not only possible but plausible. On the star (named Dragon's Egg because viewed from Earth it could be seen as an egg laid by the constellation Draco), the processes on which this life is based run far faster than the molecular chemistry which makes earth biology possible, with the result that lifeforms on the star evolve incredibly fast, in days rather than millions of years. So as a human spaceship orbits Dragon's Egg, they are able to observe the evolution of the chela from savagery to civilisation surpassing human knowledge.

Starquake contains effectively three stories: a rescue of the humans by the chela when the systems designed to protect them against the tidal effects caused by the star's massive gravity fail; then the humans help chela society revive after a massive star-quake destroys civilisation; finally, the chelas, again surpassing mankind, save the humans from death brought about by their overstay round the star to help the chela.

The problem with Starquake is that the interesting ideas are identical to ones in the first book; character has taken a back seat to the physics in both novels, with the result that there is little to build on here. The chela are not interesting as aliens in a psychological sense: there are no massive differences from human sociology or even earth biological systems (they are two-sexed egg-laying creatures) for the writer to explore.

Thursday 27 May 1999

Katharine Kerr & Mark Kreighbaum: Palace (1996)

Edition: Voyager, 1996
Review number: 259

At a time when many well-known science fiction authors seem to be putting their creations on the market for exploitation by new writers (books based on Isaac Asimov's robot stories or set in the universe of Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang spring to mind), Palace seems to be an unusual, old-fashioned collaboration. Here, the more famous author and the newcomer claim equal shares. The resulting novel is itself evidence that backs this claim; the prose generally is reminiscent of Kerr's solo writing (particularly of Polar City Blues), with distinct touches of another style - though to my mind Kreighbaum's influence is perhaps clearer in the background.

Palace is set in a large city (the name is a corruption of Polis), on a planet in the Pinch, a sector of space colonised many years ago by four of the intelligent species of the galaxy. Since then, they have lost contact with the Colonizers and suffered a considerable loss of technological knowledge - particularly following the religious Schism Wars, during which attacks were made on the artificial intelligences considered blasphemous by some groups.

Following a more recent war, racial tension is high in Palace between humans and the lizard-like Leps. Groups in both species are trying to exploit these feelings for political gain, and this is the volatile situation at the start of the novel.

The physical events are paralleled by a series of attacks on the Map, the computer network which holds together the worlds of the Pinch. It is accessed through virtual reality devices implanted directly in technicians' bodies or through public terminals scattered throughout the city. The destruction of equipment and loss of knowledge during and since the Schism Wars gives a plausible explanation of why the computer equipment is not a great deal more sophisticated than that we see today; the existence of a Cyberguild keeping its trade esoteric to maintain its monopoly explains which the natural language capabilities of the machines are sophisticated in some areas, weak in others (Unix terms turn up occasionally, for example). The technological ideas are those that have been current in much of the cyberpunk sub-genre; many being found in that archetypal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. I rather liked the term "Map" as an alternative to "Net" or, worse, "infohighway".

To say that I found the relationship between the background of Palace and other science fiction of the past two decades interesting is not to deny the quality of the novel, which is considerable.

Wednesday 26 May 1999

Ted Hughes: Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being (1992)

Edition: Faber and Faber, 1993
Review number: 258

One of the last books written by Ted Hughes, this monumental piece of literary criticism aims to show connections between the plots and imagery of many of Shakespeare's plays. These connections are based around what Hughes calls 'the Tragic Equation', derived from the two early poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The supposed fascination of Shakespeare with this theme is based on Hughes' reading of the spirit of the Elizabethan age, with the barely suppressed warfare between Catholic and Puritan reflected in the unconscious of a sensitive man like Shakespeare. (The two poems are explained as expressions of the central 'myths' of Catholicism and Puritanism respectively, Venus and Adonis dealing with the power of the Goddess - whether the Virgin or the Church is intended, Hughes doesn't say, and The Rape of Lucrece the downfall of the Goddess at the hands of Yahweh. The fact that these interpretations of the poems would be deeply offensive to both devout Catholics - the idea of the Virgin or the Church as a sensualist! - and evangelical Protestants - God as a rapist! - is not even considered.)

The Tragic Equation synthesised from these poems' themes goes something like this. The tragic hero falls in love with the pure woman; a moment of double vision means he sees her also as the faithless "Queen of Hell"; in rage, he destroys her, or himself; sometimes he or she returns to fuller life to end the play on a note of redemption.

There are, I think, many problems with Hughes' general idea. The major problems seem to stem from his own captivation with it, which makes him rather unwilling to consider other possible interpretations of the plays. The offensiveness of his Catholic and Puritan interpretations of the poems which has already been mentioned is a good example of this.

Hughes develops the Tragic Equation from play to play as he sees Shakespeare's use of it growing in understanding (which may be - probably to Hughes should be - unconscious); however, from a sceptical point of view, he ends up tailoring the details of the Equation to fit the play. The play that his analysis illuminates most is Othello, which is probably not coincidentally the play which the bare version of the Equation given above fits best. (The moment of double vision, caused by Iago's false but convincing accusation of Desdemona, and its expression by Othello, is the basis for one of the best sections of the book.)

There is a tendency to argue without supporting evidence, as when Hughes takes the view that the plays Pericles Prince of Tyre and The Tempest, which he views as the culminating use of the Tragic Equation, reflect Shakespeare's integration of mystical Gnostic parables with the equation. Hughes takes the popularity of the philosophical ideas of the Gnostics among the Jacobean intelligentsia on the one hand and Shakespeare's use of similar imagery and themes (to do with rebirth and a spiritual journey to enlightenment) on the other, and says the two must be connected. But, like the Equation itself, there is a lack of evidence that Shakespeare was really doing this. The connecting themes are sufficiently vague - and certainly part of the orthodox Christianity which every Elizabethan and Jacobean was taught as a child - that it would be possible to see them in just about any work of art; and to see a connection in the use of flower imagery is to my mind just silly.

Hughes is strongest, as you would expect from a poet of his calibre, when analysing Shakespeare's language in detail. His linked discussions of Shakespeare's use of neologisms and of the word "and" to create poetic effects are particularly interesting. ("And" is often used to connect two contrasting ideas, instantly creating a vivid picture in the imagination.)

Other than his eye for detail, the strongest points in the book are the analyses of the lesser known plays, such as Troilus and Cressida, Timon of Athens and Pericles. In general, Hughes' ideas are interesting and thought provoking, but just not convincing.

A final, minor, point: a book of this length and complexity should really have been given an index.

Tuesday 25 May 1999

Robert Simpson: Carl Nielsen, Symphonist (1952)

Edition: Dent, 1952
Review number: 257

Robert Simpson's book is the classic study of Nielsen's music; biographical information is relegated to a single chapter by another hand at the end of the volume. From the fifty or so published works, Simpson concentrates on the large-scale symphonic ones which show Nielsen's attitude to musical form, rather than the collections of songs (most of which still little known outside Denmark). Each of the six symphonies has a chapter of its own; these are followed by chapters on the concertos, music for voice(s) and keyboard music.

Where Simpson excels is in pointing out the particular aspects of each piece of music which mark it as one of Nielsen's, and describing how tonality is used within the major pieces (particularly the symphonies) in a revolutionary way. The weakness in Simpson's analyses spring from his own prejudices (just as the strengths do). While Nielsen's debt to Beethoven in particular is strongly acknowledged, every effort is made to distance him from later romantics (especially Wagner, though in this case evidence exists to show Nielsen himself had a poor opinion of this composer) and from the avant-garde composers contemporary with him. The influence of Brahms (which is mainly on the structural level) is admitted only with the qualification that it was purged by Nielsen of the excesses of romanticism; several tunes of Nielsen's are describes as 'affecting' (or with similar adjectives), with the saving phrase 'not straying into romanticism'. This is frequently contrasted with the failure of Sibelius to do the same.

The main criterion for success of this book is that it encourages a renewed interest in the music. (And yes, this book succeeds.) In the end, every book on music should have this effect: listening to the music is the primary experience while the best verbal description can only be a secondary one.

Monday 24 May 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Clutch of Constables (1968)

Edition: Collins, 1968
Review number: 256

Instead of the cruise liner so beloved by crime writers, Clutch of Constables takes place on a small riverboat cruise, on a river described rather vaguely as 'in the north country' and in 'the fens'. Troy Alleyn, exhausted at the end of a successful one man show, takes a cancelled berth on this trip, while her husband is in the States at a criminological conference.

When her letter telling him this reaches him - the post to San Francisco must have been remarkably quick in those days - he is immediately concerned, for the berth was originally taken in the name of a Mr Andropolous, a London art dealer murdered in Soho. The police believe the murderer to be a dealer in drugs and art forgeries known as 'the Jampot', and Alleyn suspects he might also be on the boat trip.

Troy herself gradually becomes uneasy, several small events possibly bearing a sinister interpretation - a jumpy reaction to the mention of the painter Constable as apparently visible in the landscapes the boat passes through. (The similarity of several points on the journey to his paintings is the reason for the title of the book.) Then a painting very much in the manner of a Constable is found by one of her fellow passengers hidden in a drawer in some antique shop furniture, and then another passenger is murdered.

Considered as a crime novel in isolation, Clutch of Constables would be an excellent example of the genre; it is its position in such a lengthy series of novels which rather lets it down. Troy has such an unfortunate tendency to get innocently involved in a murder - she would be rather a suspicious character but for her husband.

Friday 21 May 1999

Michael Moorcock: The Sword of the Dawn (1968)

Edition: Granada
Review number: 255

The third volume of the Runestaff series begins in a strange shadow world; to escape from enslavement at the hands of the Dark Empire of Granbretan, the Kamarg region has been shifted into another, uninhabited, parallel world. After a welcome period of peace, Dorian Hawkmoon becomes bored; he is unable to discover what is going on in the real world, and there is little to do in the world where they now are.

So when he comes across a stranger in the marshes, who turns out to have discovered a method of transporting himself between the dimensions, he is almost pleased; if this man could find them, so too could the Empire. Thus, he can justify doing something about it. He and his close companion, Guillam d'Averc, disguise themselves in outrageously alien costumes, and use the stranger's knowledge to travel to Londra, capital of the Empire. There they pass themselves off as emissaries from the semi-mythical Asiacommunista; no one knows what people from that land might look like, and they wear ceremonial masks so that no one will know who they really are.

Like The Mad God's Amulet, The Sword of the Dawn plays a minor part in the development of the series as a whole. It gives a further portrayal of the decadent and evil Empire of Granbretan; it introduces the final important character; it provides the occasion for further episodes of derring-do to enhance Hawkmoon's heroic stature. The role of the two central novels in the sequence is really like the literary methods frequently found in the medieval poetry which is the eventual source material of the fantasy genre. In many of the quests in such literature, the hero has to show himself worthy to attain the main object of the quest through the successful completion of a series of subsidiary quests, usually three in number. Often connected to the main quest (in much the same way that in computer games objects must be collected in a particular order to reach the final goal), they could also have an allegorical significance related to the hero's personal development. In later Moorcock novels, particularly as his ideas about the Eternal Champion developed, this would tend to be the purpose of such subsidiary quests. Here, however, they do seem to indicate nothing more than the collection of objects as in a computer game.

Thursday 20 May 1999

Tom Holt: Grailblazers (1994)

Edition: Orbit, 1994
Review number: 254

By the time he wrote Grailblazers, Tom Holt's style was well established. Indeed, nearly all of his novels since Expecting Someone Taller have followed its successful format: a comic re-evaluation of themes and characters from a well known medieval legend set in the twentieth century, comedy being provided by the attempts of the characters to fit into a culture alien to them (and allowing Holt to satirise the more ridiculous aspects of the modern world). This makes all these novels a little too similar to each other, as is also the case with Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, but you can certainly say that if a reader enjoys one they will enjoy them all: the standard is much more even than the Discworld novels.

In the case of Grailblazers, the medieval myth is that of the quest for the Holy Grail. In the fifteen hundred years since the quest of the Order of the Grail began, those knights who remain have become resigned to their lack of success, and are holding down normal twentieth century jobs (insurance salesman, pizza deliverer and so on). The major skills of the medieval knight have got rather out of date: who needs chivalry today? Then, when their leader retires to set up an estate agency, a new broom is appointed by Merlin to take over.

Boamund is an anachronism. He drank drugged milk, and has spent the last fifteen hundred years asleep in a cave (where his armour rusted so solid that he had to be released from it with an oxyacetylene torch). He immediately brings new enthusiasm to the knights' quest, to their dismay (especially as they all remember him as a priggish prefect at the school of chivalry).

Wednesday 19 May 1999

Dorothy Simpson: Once Too Often (1998)

Edition: Little, Brown & Co, 1998
Review number: 253

Dorothy Simpson's Inspector Thanet novels are built around the contrast between Thanet's beloved family and the generally idyllic Kent background, and the violent murders which often have unpleasant origins (such as incest). Thanet is a policeman in the tradition of Marsh's Alleyn rather than Dexter's Morse, though all three characters share a devotion to justice as a concept.

From the family side of things, the main event is the rapidly approaching marriage of Thanet's daughter Bridget to the unsatisfactory (as Thanet sees it) Alexander, who has jilted her in the past - because, he says now, of a fear of commitment.

The frantic preparations for the wedding form the background to a classic murder mystery. When an ambulance responds to a normal 999 call, Jessica Dander's dead body is found at the bottom of the stairs of her home, neck broken, with her husband mourning over it. What raises suspicions that all is not what it seems - an accidental fall - is that the call was made by someone (a man) at a time when the husband said he was out of the house.

It turns out that Jessica really dominated her husband (to the point of beating him), and that the reason he had left the house was to avoid meeting her lover. (She didn't force him to leave, but she tended to flaunt the other man in front of him, so that he preferred to be elsewhere.) She had also had a child twenty years earlier, put up for adoption, and Thanet thinks it may be possible that the child has been trying to meet Jessica. This provides several possibilities for the reader's mind to work on.

All in all, Once Too Often is a typical Inspector Thanet novel: a classic detective story with a strong central character and believable supporting cast, both among the regular series characters and those who only appear in the one book.

Tuesday 18 May 1999

Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence (1920)

Edition: Penguin, 1974
Review number: 252

Edith Wharton's novel of New York Society in the 1870s, the time and background of her own youth, was the product of her experiences during the First World War. It is not a nostalgic backward look at an order that was fast disappearing, even in America; Wharton viewed the artificial innocence (born of a refusal to see unpleasant things) as something better shed. It is perhaps too much to say that she rejoiced in the downfall of the nineteenth century in the battlefields of France, but she certainly felt that it was past time for humanity to move on.

The story basically describes Newland Archer's gradual disillusionment with the society around him, in which every action is circumscribed by the rules of propriety, and where infringement of these rules can be severely punished. Engaged to the extremely conventional May Welland, he becomes fascinated by the beautiful Countess Olenska. She has recently returned from Europe, where she had scandalously left her aristocratic husband when she felt unable to live with his ill-treatment of her any longer.

Because Countess Olenska has spent much of her life in Europe, and has indeed carried out an action almost too scandalous to be imagined (running off with her husband's secretary), she does not just accept New York customs and morality without question, the way the others do. Because of her, Archer begins to see the ideas he grew up with in a different way. This may seem like a necessary part of growing up, particularly after several generations of intense questioning of parental ways of life which precede our own, but Wharton is depicting a society so privileged and sheltered - and cut off, in the days before fast Atlantic crossings, the telephone, when much railway traffic stopped the far side of the Hudson so that a further journey by ferry and carriage was necessary to get to New York itself - that many of its members never went through this process.

The innocence portrayed in this novel has its attractive qualities, but Wharton is more interested to show the reader its stifling and airless nature; it is an innocence only achieved at the cost of the ruthless exclusion of anything that might disturb it.

Monday 17 May 1999

Victor Canning: The Mask of Memory (1974)

Edition: Heinemann
Review number: 251

One of Canning's better novels, The Mask of Memory is about a man who leads a double life. Bernard Tucker has two completely separate existences. In Devon, he has a wife with money of her own, still good-looking but neglected by him; she basically lives alone with him as an occasional visitor. Eventually she meets another man, and reaches the point when she is ready to leave her husband. She tells him when he next visits; he isn't happy about it (more because of the background of the other man than because he wants to stay with her himself), but later that same day he is discovered dead, having apparently slipped and fallen while on a walk.

This is where the two strands of Bernard's life begin to come together. His job is, in fact, with the security services; at the time when he married Margaret, the men in his service were not supposed to have families. This was the original reason that he separated his life into two compartments. When he died, he was in the middle of a mission, and had gone to his Devon home to work on some papers crucial to its success. Thus, when he does not return to London, his department is somewhat concerned, particularly given the fairly remote possibilities that he may have defected to or been eliminated by the opposition.

The plot is not especially dramatic for a thriller, and Canning is thrown back on his abilities to flesh out his characters. He does this fairly successfully for Margaret and Bernard, and they are what brings interest to this novel.

Friday 14 May 1999

O. Henry: Heart of the West (1901)

Edition: Doubleday
Review number: 250

In O. Henry's second collection of short stories, the location shifts from New York to Texas, at the end of the era which inspired the Hollywood "Wild West". As in most of Henry's work, the stories are brief with a romantic ending (though this collection includes some that do not even have a happy ending). His West is not as remote from reality as Hollywood's, but his reliance on the good side of human nature does make his stories appear to inhabit the realms of fantasy.

The life in these stories is not as violent, not as ruled by the gun, as it is in the Hollywood version, nor is it quite so simplistic. There are no real bad guys, just unfortunates who have allowed circumstances to get on top of them, or drink to rule their lives. They are generally redeemed through exposure to the honest, open-air life of the country, which Henry seems to have regarded as one to admire and which he certainly seemed to use to take people out of the way they lived before into a morally clean world.

Henry's general theme, the mysterious ways of men and women in love, is apparent in may of the stories in this collection. (A plot shared by several, for example, is the rich man not permitting his daughter to marry the poor but honest man she loves but whom he believes is a fortune hunter.) This emphasis, which seems to be on the sentimental and arch side to a modern reader, makes Henry's writing seem old-fashioned; but it cannot be denied that he was a master of the short story genre.

Thursday 13 May 1999

Anthony Powell: A Question of Upbringing (1951)

Edition: Penguin, 1962
Review number: 249

The first volume of Dance to the Music of Time sets a fairly comfortable tone. After all, narrator Nicholas Jenkins and his set have many advantages in the England of the thirties, going from minor public school to Cambridge (with a summer in France in between to improve their French). The book is correspondingly uneventful, as they grow up in an environment where little effort is demanded from them and where, indeed, great effort would be considered rather strange. A Question of Upbringing is about their growing up, from the sixth form to university, and the lack of incident in their lives is perhaps indicated by Powell starting his story at that comparatively late age; no hint is given of their lives in the lower school.

The serene background is a contrast to the sequence of novels to which it is perhaps most tempting to compare Dance to the Music of Time, C.P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers. There, conflict is introduced through a character who does not fit in, who attends the public school and university despite his class background rather than because of it. The principal impression left by the first novel in Music in Time is one of serenity, despite the crises of adolescence portrayed in it. There is, of course, the depression and then the war awaiting these young men, but they don't know that yet.

Wednesday 12 May 1999

Robin Dunbar: The Trouble With Science (1994)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1996
Review number: 248

The title of Robin Dunbar's book leads one to expect some kind of attack on science; instead, it is actually a defence, his major criticisms of the supporters of science being reserved for those involved in education. His major target is the fashionable sociological view of science as subjective and relativistic, purely a product of Western culture.

The main thrust of his attack is to produce evidence of a similar mode of thought in other cultures, both past and present, and even in animal behaviour. He also illuminatingly discusses the various philosophies of science which have been influential in recent years, as well as the nature of religion (because primitive religions are frequently compared to science as providing an explanation of the world around us).

The second major subject area covered in the book, which leads into the attack on the British educational system, is an examination of the ways in which the culture we live in views science. Dunbar looks at several kinds of evidence: the standards by which the media in general reports science (and his verdict is that these are astonishingly low), the amount of coverage in the media (vanishingly small), the attitudes of legislators (publicly supportive but slow with financial backing), as well as the attitudes in educational establishments, both schools and universities.

All this criticism will, of course, be meaningless if he doesn't offer some way to improve matters. Dunbar views scientific theory as a complex entity; there are, to start with, different levels of explanation, from quantum mechanical at one end to biological/ecological at the other - each process at one level is explicable (to some extent) by processes at lower levels, and at each level we tend to see emergent properties as predicted by the mathematics of complex systems. (It would be foolish to directly describe the mechanics of evolution in terms of the motion of subatomic particles, for example.) At each of these levels, science proceeds by formulating theories which have several important properties. These include explaining past and current experimental results and suggesting new avenues of experimentation. New evidence builds up to go with each theory, and as experimental results begin to conflict with the theory (there are several reasons why they will do so, such as increasingly sophisticated experiments), the theory is either modified or a revolutionary new one takes its place.

Together with this theory of science - to which the brief description above hardly does justice - Dunbar suggests changes in scientific education. He thinks that school science teaching should begin at the largest scale, with biology, and that other kinds of science are introduced as the pupil begins to be interested in the other types of explanation, and these can be referred to processes they have already been studying. Since this would lead to a lower level of achievement attainable in physics and mathematics in particular, he also suggests longer degree courses.

I find it difficult to believe that science in general would benefit from such changes. (It does seem likely to me that the general level of scientific understanding among non-scientists might increase.) The first reason for this is purely personal: it would have been pretty hopeless for me. Biology and chemistry were the best-taught of the sciences at my school, but I never enjoyed biology at all and was far more interested in mathematics and physics (I tended to learn by reading at home). The second reason is that biology is a particularly controversial part of science, and so such a change would meet opposition from all sorts of pressure groups: religious groups, those opposed to classroom dissection (a rather wasteful way to kill lots of animals), and the like. Personally, I feel it would be more constructive to change the nature of the teaching at school so there is more emphasis on the explanatory power of science than on the experimental and cataloging side (in physics/chemistry and biology respectively). This may reflect my mathematical background as Dunbar's suggestion does his biological one, but I think that understanding explanations of how things work (and what makes a good explanation) will be more useful in later life, whether a pupil goes on to study science or not. After all, science is about explanations; why shouldn't scientific education also be about them?

Tuesday 11 May 1999

C.S. Forester: Payment Deferred (1926)

Edition: Penguin, 1955
Review number: 247

Most crime novels are about the process of detection. Payment Deferred the novel which made Forester's name, is about the effect that a crime has on the unsuspected criminal.

The Marble family are sinking into debt; their miserable suburban lower middle class existence is about to reach the point when it will have to be exchanged for something even worse, as credit is no longer extended to them, and threats of legal action are being made. If those threats materialise, they will lead to Mr Marble's position in the local high street bank being lost, and the family will be ruined. Salvation suddenly appears in the guise of an Australian cousin, coming to England after the death of his parents. He has made his fortune, and he knows no one in England; suddenly, Mr Marble is tempted to murder (with the potassium cyanide kept for his hobby of photography), when he sees the vast amount of cash being carried by the young man.

Burying the young man in the back garden, Marble becomes gradually destroyed psychologically, like Macbeth, by paranoid fantasies that his crime will be discovered. Occasionally, these fears drive him to acts he would not normally be capable of: a brilliant coup on the foreign exchanges to provide the money to buy his rented house so he can prevent the garden falling into another's hands, for example. Generally, they fuel his drink habit and lead to depression, sleeplessness and so on.

There are no strong characters in Payment Deferred; it is a study in weakness. There is no one with whom the reader would want to identify. By this avoidance of the heroic, Forester creates more believable characters than he ever did in his later career. The novel is a tragedy in the sense of Greek drama: Marble's one act of hubris brings a punishment from within himself (it is a long time before even his family start to suspect what has happened), as though haunted by Orestes' Furies. Payment Deferred may well be Forester's best work, though it is certainly not pleasant reading.

Monday 10 May 1999

Iain Pears: An Instance of the Fingerpost (1997)

An Instance of the Fingerpost coverEdition: Jonathan Cape, 1997
Review number: 246

Iain Pears' current best seller is something of a tour-de-force of historical detective novel writing. It is the story of the visit made by a Venetian, Marco de Cola, to Oxford during the 1660s - the early years of the Restoration of the monarchy after the rule of Cromwell. Politically, these were days of shifting loyalties (due in large part among the upper classes to Charles II's somewhat inconsistent rewarding of services made to him and punishment of attacks against him during his years of exile). It is also an exciting time for science in England, seeing the formation of the Royal Society and the emergence of modern scientific methods. Specific aspects that make themselves apparent in An Instance of the Fingerpost include: more and more pre-eminence accorded to experiment; almost daily advances in medicine as dissection of human bodies becomes more acceptable; the feeling that ideas and knowledge should be made public.
During Cola's stay in Oxford, one of the fellows of New College dies in somewhat suspicious circumstances; using some of the new scientific techniques, it is discovered that he drank wine poisoned with arsenic. Suspicion falls on a young woman, a former servant dismissed by this man; she is in the end hanged on her own confession.

An Instance of the Fingerpost (the title is a quotation from Francis Bacon's Novum Organum Scientarum about the feature of a puzzle which points the way to a true explanation of it, which in the original context is to do with the foundations of modern science which so concern this book) consists of four accounts of these events from the points of view of different men. Each writer has his own concerns and obsessions, their own reasons for recording or suppressing (or forgetting or misunderstanding) parts of what happened, and Pears manages the literary feat of making each seem to come from the pen of a different personality.

As with any historical novel, the main ingredient by which the reader judges An Instance of the Fingerpost is the evocation of the period in which it is set. It has a very strong seventeenth century atmosphere; the accounts may be in modern English, but they are full of ideas and modes of thought which are typical of the period, akin to the writings of the early scientists who are the major characters of the book. A word of warning, though: descriptions of seventeenth century medical practice and experimentation are not for the squeamish reader.

The novel of which An Instance of the Fingerpost most reminded me is Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose. There are several reasons for this, including similarities in genre (both being at the literary end of the historical detective novel market) and setting (among those involved in the philosophical developments which led to modern science - and among celibate communities, Oxbridge college fellows being forbidden to marry until well into the nineteenth century). It is the quality of the writing within the genre, though, which is perhaps the most important link.

Thursday 6 May 1999

Ngaio Marsh: Death at the Dolphin (1967)

Edition: Fontana, 1972
Review number: 245

In Death at the Dolphin we return to familiar Ngaio Marsh territory, and to a higher standard of writing, after a sequence containing some of her worst novels. Like some of the best of her earlier works, Death at the Dolphin is set in the London theatre world, or rather, Marsh's slightly fanciful, old-fashioned version of it. The Dolphin is an abandoned theatre, damaged by bombing during the war, which is more or less on the point of being redeveloped by its current owner, the tycoon Vladimir Conducis. The moderately successful director and playwright Peregrine Jay, while in the area, goes to see round it, borrowing the key from the estate agent. While there, he falls into the water-filled hole left by the bomb explosion, and nearly drowns. He is rescued by Conducis, who takes him home and shows him his greatest treasure, a Jacobean child's glove which is accompanied by documentation purporting to show it to have been made for Hamnet, the son of William Shakespeare who died still a child.

Inspired by the glove, Jay writes his best play to date, dealing with the relationships between Shakespeare and his family and those people mentioned in the Sonnets, Mr W.H. and the Dark Lady. Conducis allows the refurbishment of the Dolphin, and Jay's play is put on there (directed by the writer himself). The only interference made by Conducis is to insist on the casting of one Hartly Grove as Mr W.H.; in some ways, this works well (he is the actor Jay had in mind when writing the part), but it introduces a divisive element into the cast. This is because Grove's main hobby is to spend his time winding up other actors, particularly the lead Marcus Knight, famous for his temperamental nature.

The play goes on, and is a success, particularly with the glove as an exhibit in a glass case in the theatre. But then disaster strikes, as an apparent robbery goes badly wrong with the murder of the night watchman and serious injury to the child actor playing Hamnet Shakespeare.

Death at the Dolphin is something of an exception to the general rules that tend to govern the quality of Marsh's novels. It is set in one of her standard backgrounds, and one that is somewhat stylised in her portrayal; and it contains a reference to death in the title. Its success is perhaps due to the fact that despite Marsh's love of the stage, there is a considerable gap separating the previous theatre novel, Opening Night, from this one. (False Scent, which falls about midway between the two, involves members of theatrical professions, but is not really set in the world of the theatre in any essential way.)

Wednesday 5 May 1999

Michael Moorcock: The Mad God's Amulet (1968)

Edition: Granada
Review number: 244

The second of the four Runestaff books begins with the hero, Dorian Hawkmoon, in Persia where he has travelled to rid himself of the Black Jewel which betrays his every move to the Dark Empire of Granbretan. He now has to fight his way back to the Kamarg, through a Europe which has fallen to the ever-expanding Empire, hoping that his family are still holding out.

The dangerous return journey is the subject of this book. The Empire is not the only enemy faced by Hawkmoon. Crossing the Black Sea, he is attacked by the fanatical, drug-crazed followers of the Mad God from the Ukrain, finally seeking out the (self-proclaimed) god at his fortress. He has to decide whether Guillaume d'Averc, the Empire general who appears to have abandoned his employers to join Hawkmoon, is sincere. He has to begin to puzzle out the mysterious plans of the Warrior in Jet and Gold, servant of the even more mysterious Runestaff, who appears at intervals to help Hawkmoon.

The Mad God's Amulet - named after the jewel which gave the Mad God his power but also maddened him since he was not the one destined to own it - is really an interlude in the history of the Runestaff. Having journeyed to Persia, Hawkmoon has to return; but almost everything that happens on this return is irrelevant to the main plot of the series. From that point of view, the most important feature of the book is the introduction of the strange character of d'Averc, the affected Frenchman, hypochondriac yet a formidable fighter.

Tuesday 4 May 1999

M.I. Finley: The Use and Abuse of History (1975)

Edition: Hogarth, 1986
Review number: 243

The Use and Abuse of History is a collection of articles written by Finley in the early seventies on the subject of historiography, many dealing with the relationship between ancient history (in the sense of the history of classical civilisation) and other subjects. His views are often critical of standard viewpoints on his subject, and they are always interestingly and cogently argued.

The three articles which are most concerned with the philosophy of history and its applications are also those that, judging by the back cover of the book, the publisher expected to be of the greatest interest. The Ancestral Constitution is about the way that history - or, more accurately, cultural traditions about history - have been used in political debate. Finley chooses three examples where those on one side of an issue had been advocating a return to an "ancestral constitution": Demosthenes cited by both sides of an argument over the abandonment of democracy by Athens near the end of the Pelopponesian War; supposed Anglo-Saxon ideas - based on faked documents and misunderstandings - about common law and the royal prerogative used by Royalist legal theorists at the time of the Restoration; and ideas attributed to Thomas Jefferson at the time of the American New Deal. Finley is interested in questions including why historical precedent was considered so important, how they got away with such bad history, why they chose these particular examples. The title of the essay Utopianism Ancient and Modern speaks for itself (this article has a fair amount in common with those which criticise the methodology of ancient historians) while The Heritage of Isocrates concerns the influence of his categorisation of the knowledge needed for adult life as a man of affairs, and the way that (through forming the basis of the Roman and medieval trivium) it has influenced education ever since.

The major theme of the remainder of the articles, which I personally found more interesting, is an examination of and criticism of the methods used in ancient history. This can be divided into two main categories. First, there are essays about the relationship between ancient historians - distinct, Finley argues, from the historians of other periods because their training is primarily literary rather than historical - and other disciplines, specifically anthropology and archaeology. Both of these subjects seem to an outsider to have a clear relationship to historical research, particularly when analysing cultures like classical Greece which have strong connections with the pre-literate cultures that preceded them. However, in both cases, ancient historians regard practitioners of these subjects from a somewhat jaundiced viewpoint, and vice versa. There is a tendency for archaeology to try and emancipate itself from history (for example, by classifying itself as a science rather than as part of history). This, Finley argues, tends to focus it on cataloguing rather than explaining artefacts. Ancient historians tend to know little about anthropology, and tend to view it as bringing in dangerous points of view to sully the purity of the classics. (In somewhat Nietszchian terminology, you could say that classicists have concentrated on the Apollonian side of ancient Greece and Rome, the serene, ordered beauty, and are suspicious of the Dionysian, the wild unruly and dangerous, to the point where they have tended to virtually deny its existence.)

Secondly, there are articles dealing with problems within ancient history itself, including specific issues which arise from mistakes in method (articles on legal issues, claiming that too great a use is made of very late documents to make up for the scarcity of earlier information, and an article on Sparta, which is just about the only Greek state which tends to be analysed through anthropological parallels which Finley believes to be misapplied).

Other articles include one on Generalisations in Ancient History. With scarce source material, these are difficult (if not impossible) to avoid, but professional historians should at least be aware that they are making sweeping statements which may not be universally true. A specific example of this is attacked in The Ancient Greeks and Their Nation, the use of the word "Greek". To us today the word implies a similarity of culture and institutions far beyond what was in fact the case. It is quite problematic to understand what being Greek meant to an ancient Greek; what is easiest to see is that it was of profound importance to them.

Each essay is thought provoking; Finley's writing is never an end in itself, but contains many intriguing ideas which could be fruitfully investigated further.