Friday 17 December 1999

Margery Allingham: Black Plumes (1940)

Edition: Granada
Review number: 410

Allingham's novels which are not about Albert Campion tend to have a dark and eerie atmosphere. Black Plumes is one of the best of them, and is almost totally mystifying as a detective story. The point of view from which it is written is to a large extent responsible for this, because the central character is one of the witnesses, who has almost no idea of what is going on. Allingham uses Frances Ivory to convey something of the fear and confusion which must surround becoming involved in a murder investigation, placing the story on a more human footing than is often the case with novels following the detective at work.

Frances belongs to an old London family, owners of a private art gallery and art dealers. In recent times strange things have begun to happen: a series of attacks on the gallery, strange behaviour by the head of the business, Frances' brother in law Robert Madrigal, and his encouragement of the obnoxious Henry Lucar. Then Madrigal's body is discovered, Lucar having disappeared, seemingly the obvious (and welcome) suspect.

Characteristically, Allingham populates the novel with grotesques. As well as Lucar, there is the redoubtable ancient Gabrielle Ivory, Frances' grandmother, applying the standards of a forgotten erat; Frances' invalid stepsister, Phillida; and the hearty explorer Godolphin, rescued from the Tibetan prison where he has lain for years, believed dead.

Thursday 16 December 1999

Diana Wynne Jones: Deep Secret (1997)

Edition: Gollancz, 1998
Review number: 409

There is a simplicity about Deep Secret which reminds the reader that Diana Wynne Jones made her name as a children's author. Despite this, it contains themes which are definitely aimed at an adult audience. Its biggest weakness is the background, which is perhaps not sufficiently differentiated from other fantasy novels. The Earth is one of a collection of worlds arranged in a figure eight - the universal signifier for infinity. One side is Aywards, and magic dominates these worlds; the other is Naywards, worlds where science is supreme. Each world has men and women appointed as Magids, to nudge the world's subconscious to keep it at the appropriate level of magic/science (Earth should be far more Aywards than it is). They do this by releasing parts of the Deep Secrets which underly the universe, in forms such as nursery rhymes which subtly affect the whole culture.

One of Earth's Magids dies, and Rupert Venables begins the task traditional to the most junior of a world's Magids, to find and train a successor. This search becomes caught up with another of his responsibilities, the succession in the Koryfonic Empire, the group of worlds straddling the cross point of the collection of worlds. Both of these sides to the plot come to a head at a science fiction convention in a hotel at a point of occult power, where Rupert has brought the Magid candidates so he can make a decision as to which should be appointed.

The story draws the reader in, and though the background is fairly childish, turns out to be an excellent variation on its theme.

Wednesday 15 December 1999

Paul Feyerabend: Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975)

Edition: Verso, 1993
Review number: 408

Possibly Feyerabend's best known book, Against Method is basically an attack on the idea that science has a single, monolithic 'method', one which has stood the test of time and produced the 'advances' (the advance of science is a subsidiary target) leading to the science we know today. Instead of the close connection between ideas of rationality and scientific method on which many thinkers would base their understanding of science on, Feyerabend points out contradictory and irrational ideas, to his mind not just part of science but at its very core. They are particularly important, he believes, in the challenging of fundamental assumptions which leads to 'revolutions'.

A major part of the book is taken up with brilliant analysis of the example he uses to underpin most of his argument, the writings of Galileo in which he sought to establish the Copernican system as against the accepted Ptolemaic one, and in particular to prove that the earth moves despite immediate appearances.

Feyerabend exposes the logical poverty and propagandist nature of Galileo's argument most convincingly. However, there are reasons which make it a bad example to use as a paradigm of scientific practice. Firstly, it comes from an early period of modern science in which mathematics was not established as the language of argument. Galileo's writing has a literary nature more akin to what would today be considered philosophy rather than physics (the major work quoted by Feyerabend, the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, is modelled after the Socratic dialogues of Plato). To carry conviction, modern scientific reasoning is expected to be couched in mathematical terms, even if new mathematical ideas have to be introduced to express it. (Strong arguments can be introduced against this, though it is not Feyerabend's theme here; not least of these would be the important question as to why mathematics seems to so successfully model the universe.)

Secondly, few (if any) practising scientists today would cite Galileo as a paradigm for scientific reasoning. A hero, yes, but an example, no. To use him as the principal prop on which to base an attack on the scientific method does not make the attack significantly more convincing, particularly as Feyerabend occasionally tends to follow Galileo into propaganda. He does use examples other than this one, but they are not particularly convincing and often trivial (several optical illusions among them).

Feyerabend does have important things to say, but he has a tendency to make rather too much of them. The way in which scientists work is of course not monolithic, nor has it remained changeless over the last four centuries. Of course the assumptions underlying scientific thought need to be made clearer and are not unchallengeable. Of course scientists do not think as clearly in the heat of the moment as they may do later when formalising what they want to say for public consumption.

Leslie Charteris: The Holy Terror (1932)

Alternative title: The Saint Versus Scotland Yard
Edition: Hodder & Stoughton
Review number: 407

By mid 1932, Charteris must have been tired; and The Holy Terror was only in the middle of an amazing burst of work which produced most of the early Saint stories in just a couple of years. The strain shows here, slightly, in the way that some of the originality of earlier stories is missing. While he cannot be said to be just going through the motions, there is little in the three stories in this book that is not standard and by this time well established in the Saintly canon.

The first story, The Inland Revenue, sees Simon Templar pursuing a blackmailer known as 'the Scorpion' for a contribution towards his income tax bill; The Million Pound Day concerns Simon's rescue of an Italian diplomat and subsequent foiling of a plot to destabilise the Italian economy; finally, The Melancholy Journey of Mr Teal is a race between Chief Inspector Teal and the Saint to find some stolen diamonds.

The middle story is one of my favourites of all the Saint stories. Though it contains no new elements, it is an expertly put together, typical Saint story. It could be cited as a paradigm of the early Saint. The most interesting aspect of any of these stories, however, occurs in The Melancholy Journey of Mr Teal when Simon carries his "favourite sport" of baiting Teal a little too far. He miscalculates to the extent that his expected triumph is no triumph at all, and this makes him a more human character.

Tuesday 14 December 1999

Anne Perry: A Sudden Fearful Death (1993)

Edition: Headline, 1994
Review number: 406

The first of Perry's William Monk detective stories to be published in the U.K., A Sudden Fearful Death does not read like the first of a series. The reader is given the impression that they should already know some of the characters, and be familiar with other events and cases. I do not know if there is a precursor to the novel, but if there is not, it is an interesting way to make the reader feel part of something ongoing.

Unfortunately, A Sudden Fearful Death is rather a weak novel, as Perry gets carried away by her mission to expose the unpleasantness of Victorian England. There is no denying that for many people, particularly women, it was a place with much suffering. But the hypocrisy of the period is what marks it out, and it is what obsesses Perry in her other series, featuring Inspector Pitt. Here, it is exposed more publicly, in a trial scene which would surely have become one of the most celebrated cases in the nineteenth century, with at least one extremely unlikely aspect to it dictated by a desire to provide a dramatic ending. (There were surely mechanisms, even then, to present new evidence which comes to light after the conclusion of the prosecution case.)

The other weakness of the novel is that several characters behave inconsistently, particularly the man accused of the murder and his family. Things become known which a much greater effort would have been made to hush up, where Pitt should have a much harder time breaking through the veils of secrecy to find the clues he needs to work out the solution. Most disappointing.

Monday 13 December 1999

Henry James: The Wings of the Dove (1902)

Edition: Bodley Head
Review number: 405

Henry James is generally reckoned to have had a late burst of creativity out of which came The Wings of a Dove, The Ambassadors, and The Golden Bowl. This may be the case, but I suspect that his earlier works are more frequently read today.

The title, and a fair amount of imagery in the novel, comes from Psalm 55. That psalm speaks of the experience of terror, and the desire for wings to fly to the place of shelter. (This is, in the original, distinctly spiritual rather than just a banal idea of physical escape; the presence of God is the place of shelter, and the dove symbolises the Spirit of God.) James secularises the idea, transforming it to fit his story.

The dove, in the novel, is a rich young American women, Milly Theale, who travels to Europe when she is diagnosed as suffering from an incurable disease. There she meets the Englishwoman Kate Croy, and they become friends. Kate has a lover, Merton Densher, but they are unable to marry because neither has any money. The opposition of Kate's relatives means that their engagement is a secret, and Kate conceives a calculating and unpleasant plan. Densher will pretend to fall in love with Milly, to inherit her money so that their marriage can take place.

The scheme works, except that Densher's friendship with Milly and her gentleness and goodness mean that he is strongly affected by her death. The idea of profiting it through his deception becomes abhorrent to him. Though he did not fall in love with Milly, he is accused by Kate of loving her ghost, and she perceptively realises that the wings of the dove will always overshadow their relationship. (She was the driving force behind the whole of the deception, Densher being rather passive, like many of James' male characters.)

There are several problems with The Wings of the Dove as a novel. The plot lends itself to detailed psychological study, but James never seems to quite decide which of the three central characters he should concentrate on: Milly dies before the point where Densher is transformed mentally, he is too much of a cipher to be interesting, and Kate is not physically present for the most important part of the book, when Densher pays an extended visit to the dying Milly in Venice. James seems to be most interested in Milly, but she is a little too sweet and good, one of the last of those nineteenth century heroines in English literature.

James' treatment of the story is also very slow, over three hundred rather tedious pages being used to set the plot in motion. This has the effect of making Densher's change of heart towards the end seem very sudden, which is interesting, but it does mean that most of the book is peripheral to the psychological heart of the novel. The Wings of the Dove is based on an interesting idea, but I think it could have been better handled.

Friday 10 December 1999

William Morris: The Wood Beyond the World (1894)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1980
Review number: 404

The earliest of Morris' fantasy stories, The Wood Beyond the World is short and simply told, in the style derived from medieval romance that is his trademark. The story is one which emphasises the psychological world at the expense of the plot, and has the curious feature of an ending which seems to forget about the beginning.

Driven from his home by an unhappy marriage, Walter Goldn is haunted by a recurring vision of a lady, an attendant maid wearing the iron ring of thralldom on her thigh, and a hideous dwarf. Attempting to return home for revenge when he hears news that his father has been killed by his wife's relatives, his ship is blown off course to a deserted region. He makes his way into a primeval forest, the wood beyond the world, where he meets the people from his vision.

It is easy to see Freudian ideas at work in this book, particularly in the scenes with the lady in the wood, hunting dangerous animals together, stalked by the dwarf. (As in many medieval authors including Thomas Malory and Chretien de Troyes, the dwarf stands for impurity and evil.) Yet Morris was writing before Freud's theories about dreams were published, and his images will have come from his medieval sources and his own imagination. They are still disturbing, particularly with the strange resolution in which Walter forgets his revenge totally, being crowned the king of an entirely different nation.

Thursday 9 December 1999

Tom Shippey: The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories (1994)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1994
Review number: 403

This collection of short stories aims to be representative of the history of the modern fantasy genre, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The authors include many important shapers of the genre, though there are odd omissions - Tolkien, Morris, MacDonald and Donaldson, for example. The selection concentrates on the earlier years, probably because the average reader of fantasy relies on the selection in the local bookshop and only ever sees relatively recent literature. The introduction explains something of the importance of the writers, though its thematic rather than historical arrangement makes it difficult to gain a coherent understanding of the history of the genre from it. (It is clearly intended as a discussion of what makes a story fantasy and what elements are contained in a fantasy story.) The book would have been improved by giving a short editorial introduction to each story, to set it into the context of the author's work - some are entirely typical, like Robert Holdstock's Thorn, others not at all, like Mervyn Peake's Same Time Same Place - and to describe the author's role in the fantasy genre in general.

For my taste, the selection ran rather too close to the horror end of the genre, and one or two of the stories are very unpleasant indeed, while few have the lightheartedness so typical of another side of the genre, a tradition running from Pratchett back to de Camp and beyond. (The most humorous stories are the first and last, The Demon Pope by Richard Garnett from 1888 and Troll Bridge by Terry Pratchett from 1992.)

Wednesday 8 December 1999

Michael Jecks: The Leper's Return (1998)

Edition: Headline, 1998
Review number: 400

The treatment of lepers in the medieval period is something distasteful to a modern viewpoint, an example of extreme inhumanity driven by fear. It is a part of our history which makes the homophobia sparked by AIDS pale into insignificance (though parallels can be drawn); and it went on for hundreds of years. Such a terrible disease, not just incurable (at the time), but bringing horrific deformity, must have been (they thought) a punishment from God, a judgement for some terrible sin. It didn't take much imagination to make the assumption that lepers were monsters of depravity. This provided the excuse for persecution, as the supposed extreme infectiousness of the disease provided the excuse for making lepers into outcasts.

The official attitude of the church was slightly different, and it was thought to be a duty to provide some sort of shelter, in the form of leper hospitals. These were often pretty squalid, and little care and treatment could be provided. They also formed focal points for persecution, and massacres of lepers are recorded in times of misfortune, alongside persecution of Jews.

This is a sombre subject for a crime novel, and is reasonably well handled by Jecks. It is the attempts to relieve the mood with low comedy that are the biggest failures - a clumsy dog and its battle with a tyrannical maidservant. In the end, they (and the romantic subplot) spoil the novel. Of course, it is intended as a piece of entertainment, and it succeeds on this level, but it could have been much more without the soft edges.

Romain Gary: The Dance of Genghis Cohn (1969)

Translation: By the author
Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1969
Review number: 402

Romain Gary's novel of the Holocaust is like no other. Instead of directly portraying the suffering of the Jews, it looks at the effect it had on those who carried out the tortures, the massacres. Depending on how you look at it, the novel has either one or two major characters, and both they and those around them are symbolic of other things. Police Commissioner Schatz of the small German town of Licht has a shameful secret in his past, shared with hundreds of other Germans of his generation: during the war, he was a sergeant in the SS, and ordered the massacre of Jews. But now he is haunted by the ghost of one of the men whose death he ordered, a comedian who had the stage name Genghis Cohn. A constant reminder of his guilt, Cohn has driven Schatz to the point of secretly keeping Jewish festivals and eating kosher food. At the moment, he is also under severe stress because a mass murderer is at large: over twenty men have been discovered in the forest of Geist around Licht, with no trousers on and expressions of ecstasy: they have been loved to death.

Gary is looking at how, towards the end of the sixties, the Holocaust began to be forgotten as new injustices took its place in the public consciousness: the civil rights movement in the US, the Vietnamese villagers massacred by American soldiers. Jews are no longer the victims they have been throughout history. They are even being invited to accept brotherhood with those who once persecuted them (and Gary quotes the Pope and Charles de Gaulle to show that this was really happening). Cohn is suspicious of this offer, for he realises that this means sharing the guilt of the oppressors.

This is the serious side of the novel, which is also hilariously funny, with a very black style of humour. A comedian in the Warsaw ghetto can hardly have been a "feel good" act, and Cohn's ghost continues to make the reader uneasy even when laughing at his wisecracks.

Dennis Kay: Shakespeare: His Work, Life and Era (1992)

Edition: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1992
Review number: 401

As yet another biography of Shakespeare, a book needs to have something different about it to fight its way through all the others. Apart from his eminence which means that there is much competition, his life also suffers from a scarcity of hard facts as opposed to legends. Kay's particular slant is to aim to place the plays and poems in the context of the life and the times. It is almost more a work of literary criticism than a biography, if unfashionably centred on the author rather than the reader. He has little to say about the life that isn't well known, his descriptions of Elizabethan and Jacobean politics and theatrical history are more interesting, but it is his summaries of the themes and circumstances of the plays themselves that are the finest parts of the book. Each play gets about four pages, little enough space to describe them; but Kay is able to illuminatingly set out the themes which show Shakespeare's concerns and development as a writer. He is unfailingly orthodox, keen to avoid the strange obsessive flights of the imagination that characterise many writers on Shakespeare, most obviously (recently) Ted Hughes. He does not want to use the writings to illuminate the life, a dangerous but common practice, but vice versa.

The book has a terrible index (but even that is more than Hughes' Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being). Every play is given space in the book, but some are not listed at all in the index.

Tuesday 7 December 1999

Colin Renfrew: Archaeology and Language (1987)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1987
Review number: 399

It is very obvious that Romance languages such as Italian and Spanish are very similar, and the reason that this is the case is not hard to find - Roman domination leading to Latin dialects becoming the main languages spoken over much of south western Europe. It was only from the beginning of this century that scholars began to realise that many more languages were related to a lesser degree, covering most of Europe and, surprisingly, India - the Indo-European group of languages. This realisation immediately begs the question of what the reason for this might be, and this has been the subject of much speculation ever since.

By the thirties, the theory that became the consensus view was established. This was that there was a single race, the Indo-Europeans, which had, at some point in the prehistoric past, suddenly exploded from their homeland (thought to be in the Russian steppes) and established rule over a large area, changing the local language through a process known as "elite dominance". This theory rather unfortunately gained the attention of Adolf Hitler, and formed the justification (such as it was) for his view of the Aryans (from the name Aryas given to Indo-European speakers in the Sanskrit oral tradition in India) as a superior race.

By the seventies, the traditional view was strongly questioned, though the alternatives presented also seemed rather implausible. The problem is basically that the connections between the linguistic and archaeological evidence is tenuous at best, and often involves circular reasoning (the linguistic ideas are assumed when the archaeology is interpreted, and the results are then cited as evidence for the linguistic theory). Many of the arguments originally used to establish the theory are now considered simplistic, such as the assumption that a change in culture (in the archaeological sense of a distinctive style of surviving material goods) implies a change of language, and vice versa. In particular, no real evidence has been found of the destruction that would accompany a successful invasion of the type proposed.

Renfrew used this book to propose a new theory, one which seems a lot more convincing than those it sought to replace. Instead of elite dominance, which doesn't always change the language (think of India post independence, for example), he looks at other mechanisms by which the language of an area could change.

His theory is to do with the ways in which agriculture could well have spread in the early Neolithic period. Instead of conquest, this would have been more by infiltration as each successive generation created new fields a few miles beyond their parents'. As agriculture would have brought a vast increase in population density, the dominant language of a region would become the farmers', rather than that of the hunter gatherers they replaced. Pockets of non-Indo-European languages in Europe - the Basque still survives; others such as Etruscan were still spoken in historic times - mark places where the Mesolithic peoples learnt agriculture for themselves.

Renfrew puts forward many arguments to support his hypothesis, but the most telling is that it doesn't suffer from the problems of the standard theory. He says that it is untestable, but I suspect that useful evidence could perhaps today be obtained through DNA testing of prehistoric human remains.

Wednesday 1 December 1999

Michael Moorcock: The Condition of Muzak (1978)

Edition: Fontana, 1988
Review number: 398

Michael Moorcock waited several years before completing the Jerry Cornelius series. In it he underlines the themes of the series as a whole, without really bringing things to a conclusion. He also brings out a new emphasis, the identification of Jerry with Harlequin, and the other characters with traditional Harlequin roles, and the relationship between Jerry and Moorcock's concept of the Eternal Champion.

There is very little plot in The Condition of Muzak. Even more than the preceding stories, it is made up of unrelated and inconsistent tales - fantasies, in more than one sense - of Jerry's adventures. In the earlier novels, these are different dystopian ideas of the sixties and seventies, but now he also turns up in the past, in the Boer War or the Indian Raj. The episodes containing his brother Frank and his mother are now more mundane, as though these are fantasies more closely related to reality (a North Kensington estate). (At the same time, both characters are more exaggeratedly unpleasant.) His sister Catherine is almost totally a symbol rather than a person; she spends almost the entire novel unconscious, a Galatea to be admired by her brother.

This series had a strong emotional effect on me when I first read it a decade ago. It is still one which could do this, though re-reading it I have tended to admire the way that Moorcock produces his effects rather than letting them act on me. This is partly because I have read it before, and partly because I am rather older. Despite never writing about the real sixties and seventies, the novels have a strong sense of that period. That doesn't mean they have dated, but that one of the most importa nt themes they explore is the replacement of the optimism of the sixties with disillusionment.