Thursday 31 August 2000

Giovanni Guareschi: The House that Nino Built (1953)

Translation: Frances Frenaye, 1953
Edition: Gollancz, 1954
Review number: 592

In a similar vein of light-hearted charm to the much better known Don Camillo series, The House that Nino Built seems to have dated more. It is the story of the move made by artist and author Nino and his family from the town to the country. It gives the appearance of being, like most of the Don Camillo stories, originally columns from a magazine.

The main reason that the stories have dated is because of their attitude to women, which is patronising to say the least. Nino views his wife almost like a favourite pet, and is continually writing about her irrationality. Attitudes to children have also changed a lot since the mid fifties.

The annoyance produced by this militates against the charm of the stories, making them seem rather coy. The best few, such as the tale of Nino's daughter's first communion, break through this, but most do not. The fault is generally exacerbated by the exaggerations which creep into what are obviously intended to appear to be semi-autobiographical stories. (These exaggerations are presumably meant to be humorous, but are too overdone to really be so.) This is particularly the case with descriptions of the inconveniences of the new house in the country, which include doors opening onto walls because of the unplanned way in which it was renovated.

Wednesday 30 August 2000

Christopher Stasheff: The Witch Doctor (1994)

Edition: Del Rey, 1994
Review number: 591

The third of Stasheff's Wizard in Rhyme series almost completely ignores the characters introduced in the first two novels. Indeed, it reprises a good deal of the plot of the first one, Her Majesty's Wizard, with a different central character, as Saul Bremener looks into the disappearance of his friend Matt Mantrell, finds the parchment Matt had been working on before he vanished, becomes obsessed with it in turn, and finds himself in a fantasy universe. He is meant to save the kingdom of Allustria from its usurping monarch, just as Matt was brought to the neighbouring country of Merovence to do the same thing there.

As in the other two novels, much of the interest in The Witch Doctor is derived from the way in which Stasheff takes medieval Catholic doctrine seriously. Here, it is much better integrated into the plot than it was before; the earlier novels tended to use it over frequently as an easy way out of a tight corner. Stasheff helps himself through Saul's attitude to it, formed by a rejected strict religious upbringing which leads him to initially be contemptuous of the idea that Christianity could have any meaning, and a strong determination to be his own man rather than doing the bidding of God or the Devil.

At the same time, however, the plotting is very formulaic, as characters move from one puzzle to the next as though they were taking part in a role playing game rather than a novel. The characters themselves are ciphers, even Saul being far too much like a replay of Matt. The novel is rather like the later part of the Xanth series by Piers Anthony in this respect, though it thankfully avoids most of the awful puns that are so important there.

Kip S. Thorne: Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy (1994)

Edition: Picador, 1994
Review number: 590

Picador has the makings of a most interesting series of popular science books. The idea is to get a personal picture on topics of current interest, written by prominent characters involved in the research. However, as a series, it rather shoots itself in the foot by omitting any listing of the other books; this one merely mentions that there are four earlier volumes, information of absolutely no help in identifying them.

There are problems in this book too, particularly the dull first half. I would imagine that, given their importance in twentieth century physics, quantum mechanics and relativity will be explained in every book in this series, and the length at which these explanations are repeated is really unnecessary. I feel that more writers should follow Brian Greene's example in The Elegant Universe, and keep the explanation as brief and to the point as possible, pointing the reader who has never read a detailed account to other books. (There can be few public libraries which would not have at least one good book on this subject.) Certainly, Black Holes and Time Warps could do with a good deal of editing, if not re-writing, in its chapters on these subjects.

There is a sudden improvement as soon as the account turns to the renewed research into black holes following the end of the Second World War, particularly once Thorne himself becomes involved during the sixties. He is clearly quite a character, involved in smuggling manuscripts out of the Soviet Union to be published in the West, and in several bets made about then current questions about the detailed nature of black holes. He is also effectively responsible for the discovery of the possibility that if a stable wormhole could be created and manipulated in a specific manner without destroying it, then it would form a type of time machine. (The mass media coverage of this result included a photograph of Thorne "doing physics in the nude".) As can be expected, his account of black hole research includes much that is about the personalities of those involved; illustrations include private snap shots of dinner parties.

The second half is interesting, well explained popular science; any reader put off by the first four chapters is missing out.

Ian Rankin: Let it Bleed (1995)

Edition: Orion, 1996
Review number: 589

Take out the laughs from the sitcom Yes Minister and you get something of the political world behind Let it Bleed. The Scottish local politics portrayed here are at best self serving and hypocritical, at worst criminal and corrupt.

As crime novels go, Let it Bleed falls squarely into maverick policeman territory, John Rebus being a particularly well drawn example of the streetwise cynical detective who inhabits this type of novel.

The story of Let it Bleed is sparked off by some rather strange suicides: two young men who jump off a bridge when cornered by police after a car chase, and an old convict who, when he is diagnosed as dying from cancer, is released early and goes to see a district councillor, shooting hiself in the head in front of him. Investigating what is going on in both these cases soon gets Rebus warned off, which naturally has the opposite effect to that intended, making him convinced that there is more going on than is immediately apparent.

The novel is extremely well written, and very Scottish in atmosphere, reminding me of some of the more thriller-like stories of Iain Banks, such as Complicity. It paints a dark picture of modern British life, containing many things that a lot of people would like to ignore if they could.

Tuesday 29 August 2000

Derek Lambert: The Yermakov Transfer (1974)

Edition: Arlington Books, 1974
Review number: 588

The Yermakov Transfer is unusal among Cold War thrillers in being entirely set in the Soviet Union, almost all of it happening on a journey along the Trans-Siberian Railway. It is a particularly significant journey, because one of the passengers is the Russian premier, Vasily Yermakov. A group of Jewish dissidents has come up with the idea of kidnapping him, demanding that several prominent Jewish scientists be granted exit visas so that they can emigrate to Israel.

With many Russian characters, The Yermakov Transfer is a novel infused with the fear of the gulag, and it clearly shows the influence of Solzhenitsyn's Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. It is decidedly at the literary end of the thriller market, and, though its ending might be considered predictable, has plenty of excitement.

Christian Meier: Athens (1993)

Translation: Robert and Rita Kimber, 1998
Edition: John Murray, 1999
Review number: 587

The Golden Age of Athens (approximately the fifth century BC) is one of the most amazing times in human history. Western culture owes a great deal to ancient Greece, and much of what formed us can be traced to this one city over the three or four generations during which it was a major power. The role call of great names includes Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Socrates, Plato, Demosthenes, Pericles, Thucydides and Xenophon; and reverence for "the cradle of democracy" ensures it a vast symbolic importance in the world today. Christian Meier's book seeks to show how a city of under 200,000 - even when virtually disregarded slaves, women and inhabitants of foreign extraction are included - rose to such a position; what it was like and how it changed during its Golden Age; and what brought about its downfall.

Given the paucity of Athenian resources when compared to the city's ambitions (even given the discovery of rich silver mines on their territory), the eventual fall of Athens is hardly surprising; once a major expedition failed (the attack on Sicily) it was just a matter of time. The rise is more interesting. Meier writes about the foundation of democracy and why it might have overcome the aristocratic oligarchy which preceded it; and why Athens was for a long time one of the biggest and richest Greek cities without the political power which might be expected to go with this position. Given the small number of literary sources, even from the Golden Age, these are issues which can form the basis for endless argument, and Meier concentrates on saying enough to fit in with his theme, the unique quality of Athenian civilization.

The democracy which developed in Athens was radically different from the system that we give that name to today. It was participatory, rather than representative, and vast sections of the population were excluded, either by law or because they were too poor to be greatly involved. The wealthy tended to dominate, especially those who came from the old aristocratic families. After the downfall of Pericles, who dominated Athens for a generation, demagogues took over (including Aristophanes' butt Cleon) and their policy of appealing to the lowest common denominator quickly led to ruin - which could be seen as a warning to many of today's politicians.

Meier does not mention the problems inherent in taking the ancient accounts at face value, but he has little choice but to do so. (It is also hardly feasible to preface every second statement with a warning about its accuracy. In one or two places the danger is spelled out - for example, in deriving a picture of the teachings of the Sophists from the writings of Plato.)

It seems to me that Meier has done a really good job, and has produced a book which is interesting to the layman - and probably contains just about everything they might want to know about its subject.

Thursday 24 August 2000

Lois McMaster Bujold: Memory (1998)

Edition: Earthlight, 1998
Review number: 586

It's rare to pick up a book which is exciting enough that I end up staying up until 1am to finish it, even though I know I need to get up at 7 to go to work. Memory is just that sort of novel. It's really a thriller turned into science fiction. The plot is that of a secret service maverick finally dismissed after falsifying a report - cutting out the medical problems which nearly caused a mission to end in disaster and which would have seen him removed from active service - only to suspect and investigate a major plot at his former employers. This is a little gruesome: a memory chip has been implanted into the brain of the head of Imperial Security, and now he has been infected with an artificial virus which eats into the chip, causing his memory to malfunction bizarrely.

Having a ready made maverick in series character Miles Vorkosigan helps Bujold write an engrossing novel. Almost all the characters occur earlier in the series, and the familiarity is heavily used without being abused - while it may help to read earlier instalments, it is not necessary.

Wednesday 23 August 2000

George Farquhar: The Recruiting Officer (1706)

Edition: Nick Hern Books, 1997
Review number: 585

Today we probably think of compulsory enlistment as a feature of the eighteenth century British navy rather than the army, mainly because it features strongly in such well known fiction as the Hornblower series. However, during the wars of the early part of the century, the Press Act allowed the involuntary recruitment of those with no visible means of support, and so army officers toured the country, to encourage voluntary enlistment with all kinds of specious promises and to press others with the co-operation of local magistrates. The activities of such a group of enlisters forms the basis for The Recruiting Officer, a comedy satirising the abuses for which they were notorious.

The abuses shown in the play include corruption (any bribe greater than the bounty paid for a new recruit secured his release), enlistment of infants so that other soldiers could draw their pay, debauchery (it was said at the time that they made enough women pregnant to replace the men enlisted).

Against this background, Farquhar sets a fairly traditional romantic comedy, with two courting couples delaying the inevitable happy ending, though even here there are digs at the society of the time. The obstacle in the way of Plume and Silvia is conventional (the objections of her father), but that which mars the courtship of Worthy and Melinda is more unusual. Worthy is of higher social standing, and had attempted to make Melinda his kept mistress for the (large) sum of 500 pounds a year. Then she suddenly inherited 20,000 pounds and became his social equal, and naturally resents his attempts to marry her now that it is acceptable to do so. Class plays an important part in The Recruiting Officer - another example is that the original audience would have understood that the lure of promotion held out to get yokels to volunteer was false, as it was not until the Crimean War that non-gentlemen could become commissioned officers.

The emphasis of The Recruiting Officer is not really on satire; it is meant to be a fun comedy. Thus, none of the characters are really unpleasant; they may be weak, tempted into abuses by the absurdity of early eighteenth century society or the system created by the Press Act. The characters are a great strength of this play, the male parts in particular avoiding melodramatic heroes and villains. (The female parts are rather blander.)

The Recruiting Officer remains a classic comedy which has retained its charm and sparkle. Since its satirical targets are long gone, the way that Farquhar made them secondary to the fun has ensured the survival of the play.

Nigel Saul: The Batsford Companion to Medieval England (1983)

Edition: Batsford, 1983
Review number: 584

The introduction seems to imply that this book is aimed somewhere between those with an amateur and those with a professional interest in medieval history. This turns out to be a bit of a problem, and it becomes clear that Saul is not really sure at what level to pitch his writing to hit his target.

The articles are a little haphazard, though the criterion for what is to be covered seems to be related to what might be useful to, say, a local historian trying to make sense of what a church or a charter can tell them of the past of their own area. Thus, the kinds of things that are covered include government and law (terms which might be mentioned in documents such as "advowson"), and artefacts (coins, architecture and so on).

The book could have done with more cross references - the reader is unlikely to look under "government" if they are interested in Chancery, and Chancery has no article of its own. The coverage of some of the articles is rather idiosyncratic; the article on "government" already mentioned concentrates almost exclusively on finance, for example, which is not the only concern even of a medieval national government. (It has nothing to say about local government whatsoever.) There is a pro-clerical bias - quite minor English clerical figures are given articles, while the only non-royal nobleman to get one is Richard Neville Earl of Warwick (the "Kingmaker"). More about England's foreign affairs might have been interesting; information on this subject is mostly to be found in the articles on individual kings, other than the three specific articles on Scotland, Wales and the Hundred Years' War.

The book is rather slovenly produced, even having pages of different coloured paper. Proof reading seems to have been almost non-existent; one man has his name given differently in the title and the body of the article about him.

Though there is much in the book to criticise, most of the problems stem from the task Saul has set himself. Each of the long articles has to summarise material that could easily fill a book of its own, and in many cases the interested reader would want to consult such a book. (The coverage of archaeological subjects is of necessity too sketchy to allow a reader to perform a task like identifying a coin, for example.) This is provided for by the bibliography which accompanies each article, one of the best features of the book for a reader with access to a good library. As an encyclopaedia of the period, The Batsford Companion to Medieval England could be greatly improved, but it does contain much of interest.

Tuesday 22 August 2000

Leslie Charteris: The Ace of Knaves (1937)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1958
Review number: 583

The first of this collection of three novella-length Saint stories is closely connected to the events of the time when it was written. The Spanish War is about the ways in which the Fascist supported rebels in the Spanish Civil War (who were the eventual victors) tried to raise funds, handicapped by the fact that the government controlled the country's gold reserves. In this case, they have enlisted a forger to copy bearer bonds, until a young man accidentally picks several up and in turn involves Simon Templar.

Like several other Saint stories from this period, The Spanish War attacks aspects of contemporary politics in a very unusual way for such light reading. Charteris had very little time for Fascism, or any ideology which seemed to demand that followers let their leaders think for them, and he was happy to criticise through his (immensely popular, at the time) stories.

The other two stories are rather more violent than the average of Charteris' stories, and neither is quite as good as The Spanish War. One sees the Saint hijacking a load of smuggled liquor, only to find that the overall-clad van driver is in fact one of the most beautiful women he has ever seen, and the other is about him tracking down a particularly unpleasant extortionist (who targets young film actresses, threatening to deface them so they won't be able to work anymore).

Mervyn Peake: Peake's Progress (1978)

Edited by: Maeve Gilmore
Edition: Overlook Press, 1981
Review number: 582

A collection of Peake's writings (much of which is previously unpublished) and drawings put together by his widow, Peake's Progress seems to give a fuller picture of the man than can be seen in his best known work (his completed novels, especially the Gormenghast trilogy, and the illustrations not included here). By choosing the unknown and little known, Maeve Gilmore has created a volume which is of great interest to any fan.

The written works which make up most of Peake's Progress include poems, short stories, plays, and notes for a projected autobiography. Of these, the poems are perhaps the most accomplished, particularly The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb (whose powerful illustrations are among Peake's very last work) and the Poems of Love. Quite a number of nonsense poems are included, though I feel that Peake was not a master of this genre - it is the illustrations which delight, such as the pear-shaped fairies of O Here It Is, and There It Is.

There are three plays, one being an adaptation of the novel Mr Pye for radio, one a children's play never produced or published about a revolt of some of the animals on Noah's ark, and The Wit to Woo, a romantic comedy which received such disastrous notices when it was produced that Peake suffered a nervous breakdown.

The written work mostly has an unfinished quality, and gives the impression that Peake tended to get bored in the realisation of a good idea; this is perhaps particularly obvious in the plays. The Wit to Woo has a plot reminiscent of Joe Orton, in which a young man fakes suicide in order to show the woman he loves that he is serious; he then pretends to be his own cousin - forceful and brash where he himself is shy - to woo her again. It has a wonderful moment when the undertakers realise that the person they have come to bury is alive, and demand that he kill himself so that they won't have been wasting their time.

However, it is marred by three problems: discontinuities in plotting; a tendency to fall into awkward and artificial verse; and surreal interruptions (such as a head poking in at a window to ask "Is this Cloudyfold?"). This sort of play works better when it is more naturalistic, because otherwise it tends to become heavy handed rather than witty. The idea is good, but the play could have done with at least one more draft. The same is true of Noah's Ark, which would probably benefit from having the first act cut entirely.

Unless the Gormenghast trilogy has turned you into a real Peake fan, this collection will not seem to be terribly good; but to anyone who enjoyed that series and wants to know more about Peake and his work, it will be fascinating. It also has a very good biographical introduction, by John Watney.

Monday 21 August 2000

Virginia Woolf: Jacob's Room (1922)

Edition: Grafton, 1976
Review number: 581

Most of Woolf's novels that I have read seem to be trying something new, and are not quite successful. To the Lighthouse is an exception, though I am not sure that I understood it. Jacob's Room is more a character study than a novel, the new thing that is attempted being to reveal the personality of Jacob Flanders throught the impressions he has of others and those they have of him rather than through his thoughts and actions as in a conventional narrative.

This idea is inherently limited in scope, reducing the components of a traditional novel to just one: character. (This is in itself no reason for lack of success, because reductions to other components have been notably successful in this century: there are crime novels which consist almost entirely of plot, and science fiction novels which consist almost entirely of background.) Other plotless novels had been written in the past, such as that forerunner to so much modern literature, Tristram Shandy, though satire plays an important part in the success of that novel and is really absent from Jacob's Room.

I don't feel (as you may have gathered) that Jacob's Room really works. Jacob Flanders is not a particularly interesting character; he is a Bloomsbury intellectual, yet is too young to have made his mark or even to have formed interesting ideas of his own. Woolf's choice of him as the central character shows a slightly surprising lack of imagination in the author of Orlando.

The idea of using both Jacob's impressions of others and their impressions of him to illuminate his character also does not quite come off. This is partly because Woolf makes a stylistic choice that everything should be in the third person. The forms which would be particularly suited to the aims of the novel would be ones which really do give the impression of multiple points of view, such as diaries, epistolary or stream of consciousness narratives. These would all also require a greater variety of style than Woolf gives the impression that she is capable of acheiving.

Woolf's later novel, Orlando seems to be a more successful character study, enlivened by elements of fantasy (longevity and sexual ambiguity) missing from Jacob's Room.

Alan Furst: The World at Night (1996)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1997
Review number: 580

A French film producer in Paris at the time of the German occupation, the only thing Jean-Luc Casson wants to do is to continue making films, in the same way that millions of other French people wanted to continue their normal lives. Despite his best efforts, he manages to get involved with the Resistance and with the German counter-Resistance, and at the same time falls in love.

A thriller about the French Resistance is nothing new, and neither is the idea of a reluctant hero, a normal person who doesn't want to get involved. Both of these aspects of the novel are very well done. Casson is a believable central character, and the Parisian background is convincing, feeling very French. It is clear that Furst is indebted to writers like Eric Ambler and Georges Simenon, but that is hardly a problem. Just to read this novel is enough to convince me that Furst is one of the best thriller authors writing today.

Friday 18 August 2000

Aldous Huxley: Eyeless in Gaza (1936)

Edition: Penguin, 1955
Review number: 579

The title of this novel refers to the Biblical story of Samson. Having told Delilah the secret of his strength - that it depended on his hair remaining uncut - Samson was betrayed to his enemies the Philistines, and taken with a shorn head to be a slave in their city of Gaza. Blinded to make him harmless, he was forgotten until brought before the crowd on a feast day. By then his hair had regrown, and even blind he was able to pull down the temple on the heads of the celebrating Philistines (and kill himself at the same time).

This story may not seem immediately relevant to Huxley's novel, which is about the confused arguments of thirties intellectuals, mainly left wing, and the events which shaped their ideas. This is particularly the case when we remember that the novel was published several years before the Second World War broke out, so that the war cannot be seen as the bringing down of the temple unless we credit Huxley with an uncanny gift for accurate prophecy. (Additionally, Samson deliberately brought down the building to destroy others, and this cannot be said of the origins of the Second World War in the political debates of the thirties.)

The real meaning of the title must be a pointer to the way in which the characters in the novel think that they are doing something new and revolutionary, something that will destroy the outdated society around them. This would of course give it an ironic twist, since Huxley must have been aware that this feeling was shared by the radical intellectuals of every generation and of every political viewpoint.

The novel is centred around Anthony Beavis, and tells the story of his life by picking out the important events in the development of his personality, from the death of his mother during his childhood onwards. The arrangement of these events is not chronological, but parallel - dated chapters, like entries in a diary, are arranged so that the significant events are revealed together, alternating between the different periods of Beavis' life. Some days have several chapters - a description of a party in 1926 occupies six of them - and the main concentration is on the period from autumn 1932 to spring 1935, which sees Beavis involved in an uprising in Central America and in public speaking for the pacifist movement.

An oblique connection is made between the events of the novel and the First World War. One of the most important sequences of events, which leads up to the suicide of one of Beavis' closest friends, takes place in July 1914 between the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the declaration of war on Serbia by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This war was of course the one which entailed the self-destruction of the former world order, as the major colonial powers tore themselves apart. The War itself is hardly mentioned directly; Beavis' part in it was minor and overshadowed by the suicide.

The clear symbolic nature of this event leads one to look for connections between historical events and other important turning points in the novel. The most prominent of these are accompanied by two of the most repulsive descriptions in modern literature. The end of an affair between Beavis and Helen Elberley is caused by her repulsion when a dog falls from an aeroplane onto the house where they are staying, covering them in blood; and the revolution in Latin Anerica causes another old friend of Beavis', Mark Staithes, to lose a leg when a wound becomes gangrenous. (Other important moments are the abduction of Helen's later lover, the Communist agitator Ekki Giesebrecht, by Nazi agents in Switzerland, and the final event of the novel, in which Beavis goes to speak at a pacifist meeting in the fact of death threats.)

None of these events actually coincides with important dates in the history of the thirties, as far as I can tell, but they certainly have a symbolic air about them, particularly the dead dog. Whatever the meaning of these events individually, taken together they symbolise the ferment of the thirties, the opposition between political extremes (communism/fascism, pacifism/militarism) that was eventually resolved by the war.

John Cheever: The Wapshot Scandal (1959)

Edition: Vintage, 1998
Review number: 578

In the second half of The Wapshot Chronicle, the members of the Wapshot family central to the story had mostly died or moved away from the small New England town of St Botolphs. The Wapshot Scandal continues the story of Miles and Coverley Wapshot, the brothers who have moved away, and of their great aunt Honora, who remains. The town itself is much less important than in the other novel, except as the place which formed the personalities of the brothers, which meant that I found the sequel more accessible and enjoyable than the original.

The outside world makes its way into St Botolphs, too, as Honora is discovered by the IRS to have paid no taxes for many years; she flees to Europe. The Wapshots are no longer in their place, and it is the bewildered manner in which they try to make sense of the world that provides the charm of this novel. Coverley becomes involved with the Unamerican Activities Committee, and Miles has to face up to his wife's infidelity, so there is much to bewilder them.

The reason that this seems to work better, to me at least, is htat the descriptions of the town and what happened there - the parade which begins The Wapshot Chronicle, for example - tries hard to be amusing, sophisticated about the unsophisticated. Here, the people are more important, and less effort is made to describe their backgrounds at length.

Thursday 17 August 2000

Charles Dickens: Little Dorrit (1855)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 577

As in The Mill on the Floss, many of the characters in Little Dorrit are studies in different kinds of selfishness. There's the self-contained happiness of the Meagles, who don't realise the effect of the way they spoil their daughter on the foundling brought up to be her maid; there's the obsessive gentility pf William Dorrit and his eldest daughter; there's the thoughtless carelessness of Ned Dorrit. There is also a selfless heroine in Amy Dorrit, like Eliot's Maggie Tulliver.

The story which these characters act out, along with the hero, Arthur Clennam, is one of the most formless in Dickens, even the point at the end when everything is meant to be explained being curiously incoherent. Essentially, when Arthur's father dies, he returns from abroad to the mother whose hardness had driven them away. He is strangely struck by the young girl employed by her as a seamstress, in an uncharacteristic act of charity. The girl is secretive about her origins, but he discovers that she is the daughter of one of the inmates of the London debtors' prison, the Marshalsea. Clennam decides that her family must be the victims of some sort of injustice perpetrated by his father's firm, so he sets out to help them as much as he can.

The lack of definition to the plot is part of the general air of melancholy listlessness in the novel, established in the very first paragraph after the story moves to London - "gloomy, close and stale...melancholy streets in a penitential garb of soot, seeped the souls of the people who were condemned to look at them out of windows, in dire despondency". This is of course appropriate in a novel whose central image is that of a prison; the dreariness and hopelessness of the Marshalsea infects almost the whole novel. The early chapters set in the south of France are the only ones to escape this; even the other scenes set in Switzerland and Italy later have something of the prison about them.

The Marshalsea is the main centre of the novel, with prisons being used as metaphors throughout. People in debt were put into a debtors' prison until they were able to repay what they owed until about the middle of the nineteenth century. The regime was more liberal than that for a criminal incarceration, but the prisons were generally hopeless places; many prisoners had no way to pay off their debts. The mood is far more sobre than in Great Expectations, the other Dickens novel in which imprisonment has a major part to play.

The other important institution in Little Dorrit is the Circumlocution Office, a government body devoted to "how not to do it". It is the embodiment of the inflexibility of a bureaucratic government, the inertia of a Civil Service opposed to anything new. It is full of men who has positions in the Office because of family and society connections rather than through merit and ability of their own. It is an easy target for satire, and Dickens clearly loses interest in it after a while.

Though there are passages to treasure, and Dickens' genius for portraying small characters is fully present, Little Dorrit is one of his more unsatisfying novels. The spirit of the prison is so strong that its grim drabness is the major impression produced by the novel, and not even Dickens can overcome what he has so powerfully created.

Robert A. Heinlein: The Number of the Beast (1980)

Edition: New English Library, 1981
Review number: 576

As Heinlein got older, his books became more self-indulgent; Number of the Beast is interesting when tracing his development as a writer because it marks out the particular ways in which that would become manifest, though there are traces of it in some of his earlier writing. It is easy to criticise this book, which only hangs together very loosely, but it is still in the main an enjoyable read and has some interesting features.

Jacob Burroughs is an engineer and physicist who has created a time machine, which also allows access to a multitude of alternate universes as called for by his theory of time and space (in which there are three time co-ordinates to match the three spatial ones). Enemies - aliens already familiar with this mechanism - discredit his work and then try to kill him, and he only escapes with his family by the skin of his teeth.

Making Jacob the centre of the story is convenient for summarising how it begins, but he is not the dominant character of the novel. The four members of his family are all more or less equally important for most of it, though his wife Hilda gradually occupies the spotlight more and more of the time.

Though the arch style in which the first part is told is frequently annoying - occasionally it is as amusing as it is intended to be - the real self indulgence only become apparent when Heinlein begins to chronicle the other universes to where his central characters travel. Without justification (and that is important in science fiction), he makes these universes worlds which are described in the fiction of the Burroughs' home universe, and so they include Oz, Lilliput, Camelot and various pieces of science fiction. Then, in the third part, the universe is that of much of Heinlein's own writing: they meet characters from others of his novels, most importantly Lazarus Long, a long term favourite of the author.

It is from this point that the novel really begins to fall apart, until it ends on an incoherent note at a vast conference attended by delegates from an incredible number of fictional universes. Having many characters from other Heinlein novels does not really help matters, as it merely emphasises how few different ones he was capable of creating.

It is possible to criticise the physics behind the novel, even from a pre-string theory point of view. Burroughs' model of the universe has six co-ordinates, of which four are experienced at a time (three spatial, one temporal). He is able to rotate relative to these, and so for example experience duration on what is normally a spatial co-ordinate. The time axis is different from the others. It has a direction associated with it and, assuming some variant of big bang theory to hold, a minimal value. Neither of these properties holds for the spatial co-ordinates, and this makes a transformation which turns one into the other rather suspect. The original motivation for the idea of six co-ordinates is that there shouldn't be an asymmetry between the number of spatial and the number of temporal co-ordinates. However, this asymmetry is no sooner removed than it is re-introduced, as it is pointed out that we only experience one temporal dimension at a time, even though we see three spatial ones.

Another problem may only lie in the way that things are explained. Heinlein uses the system as though the co-ordinates for the universes need to be what is called orthogonal - at right angles to one another. This is not the case; they only need to be linearly independent - none of them able to be made up as combinations of the others - to ensure that six co-ordinates can pick out any point. There is also no particular direction which is more important than any of the others; we only tend to think automatically in the (approximately) orthogonal set up, left and forwards because we live oriented by a gravitiational field (so up and down make sense).

There are other, less critical errors: Heinlein seems to have misunderstood Cantor's set theory so much that he really should not have used it, for example.

I suspect that for many the annoyances in The Number of the Beast will outweigh its merits, but I still find it enjoyable, one of those books to which I return when I am ill or tired.

Tuesday 15 August 2000

Elizabeth Peters: Crocodile on the Sandbank (1975)

Edition: Cassell, 1976
Review number: 575

The first Amelia Peabody novel is perhaps the sharpest that Elizabeth Peters has written; it is astringently funny rather than romantic. The heroine is an opinionated feminist in mid-Victorian society, with no time for the stupid conventions of the world around her (and rich enough to avoid some of the more serious consequences which could arise from this attitude).

Travelling in Italy, she befriends a young woman on the point of suicide: she had run away from her family with the man she loved only to discover that he was really only after her for her money. Amelia and Evelyn travel to Egypt, with Evelyn in the guise of paid companion. In Egypt, they become involved in the amazing archaeological discoveries taking place at the time (accompanied by rampant treasure hunting, theft, and vandalism).

Elizabeth Peters was an archaeologist before taking up writing, and it is her enthusiasm for this which makes this novel one of her best, catching the reader up, rendering them less apt to notice the absurdities of the plot. Like all her novels, Crocodile on the Sandbank is unashamedly light reading, though written with an intelligence and humour which is unable to take the clichés of romantic fiction seriously. This is always true of the best of one of the more absurd genres of modern fiction, whether the writer is Mary Stewart, Dorothy L. Sayers or Elizabeth Peters.

The rather strange title is taken from a piece of ancient Egyptian poetry, quoted in the novel, in which a lover vows to cross a river in which there is a crocodile waiting on a sandbank to be with his beloved.

Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon (1930)

Edition: Avenel Books, 1980
Review number: 574

The Maltese Falcon is one of those novels which it is difficult to disentangle from an incredibly famous film version, like (for example) The Postman Always Rings Twice. The film in this case conveys the atmosphere of the book extremely well, with the casting in particular being very apt with the exception of Humphrey Bogart, who, while he gives a wonderful performance as Sam Spade, is not like the character depicted in the novel.

In the novel, almost the only things the reader can be sure of are, firstly, that the major characters are looking out for themselves alone and, secondly, that they are not concerned about the immorality or criminality of what they do for their own benefit, whether it is lying or murder. The tale is about the falling out of thieves, and there is certainly no honour among them.

Although one of the classics of crime fiction, The Maltese Falcon is more a thriller in tone rather than a whodunit. The tension as Spade becomes more involved in the shady dealings surrounding the falcon is exceptionally well handled, and even though the reader almost forgets the question of who killed Miles Archer (Spade's partner), Hammett does not and reveals everything at the end in classic whodunit style. This puzzle, which is quite subtle, is only a minor part of the novel, and this nod in the direction of the whodunit is one of the reasons it is a classic.

Monday 14 August 2000

Mary Stewart: My Brother Michael (1960)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1962
Review number: 571

Background is always important in Mary Stewart's thrillers, and this is particularly the case for My Brother Michael. The plot is broadly the same as it has been in all her novels up to this point, with a normal young woman getting involved in something very unusual. The setting for this novel is Delphi, and the protagonists are both classics teachers; the background is really the incredibly resonant nature of ancient Greek literature. This is conveyed extremely successfully, and makes the novel's atmosphere very similar to Donna Tartt's Secret History.

The strength of the background makes My Brother Michael one of Mary Stewart's best novels. The plot into which Camilla Haven is drawn is particularly suited to the background, an Oresteian tale in which Simon Lester is investigating the mysterious death of his elder brother Michael, SOE operative working with wartime resistance groups in the Delphi area.

This is the Mary Stewart novel in which every ingredient comes together successfully to create a really satisfying whole.

Michael Innes: Death at the President's Lodging (1936)

Edition: Penguin, 1983
Review number: 573

It is hardly surprising that this novel (about the murder of an Oxbridge college president) was retitled Seven Suspects for its American edition; its original title would clearly give a completely different impression from its actual content.

Innes uses the way that colleges like St Anthony's were shut off from the world at night time to isolate his small group of suspects - like a "submarine" as one of the characters puts it. These boundaries are usually fairly permeable; most people who have lived in a college will probably know of at least one way to get in after the gates close. St Anthony's is made more secure, so that the list of suspects is essentially the same as the list of key holders. The idea that someone may have got into the college or through another internal division is repeatedly introduced, teasingly, only to be rejected each time.

The mystery in Death at the President's Lodging must be one of the most convoluted in the whole genre of detective fiction, with several plots and deceptions carried out both by innocent and guilty parties. Innes is scrupulously fair, but I would challenge anyone to put together all the details of the solution correctly before Inspector Appleby reveals them in the last pages of the novel.

If you like this style of detection, something closely related to Agatha Christie, then you'll like this novel; if not, then you'll probably find it rather tiresome.

Thursday 10 August 2000

Jane Langton: God in Concord (1992)

Edition: Penguin, 1993
Review number: 571

God in Concord is a detective novel about two things I find difficult to understand. The story is about an attempt to build a new development in Concord, Mass., threatening the Walden Pond which inspired Thoreau. I personally find it difficult to get excited about any heritage less than two hundred years old - I was amazed to find a Canadian cousin of mine just as excited about the Victorian terraces which can be seen from the walls of Lincoln castle as by the castle itself. The pond itself might be worth saving from an ecological point of view, though it sounds unpleasantly neglected, but the Thoreau connection seems particularly unimportant. The pond is no longer what it was when Thoreau saw it, which means that without a restoration programme, the literary reference is meaningless. The second thing I don't really understand is why some people revere Thoreau to such an extent. Yes, he could put words together, and he was in part the inspiration of Gandhi's civil disobedience campaign, but the majority of the thoughts expressed in his writing seem to me to be banal.

Nevertheless, an emotional attachment to the pond certainly exists for some of the residents of Concord, while against it stands the developer's desire to make money. The developer is willing to use almost any method to gain permission to build, and so a somewhat stereotypical clash is inevitable. Unusually for the genre, the truth of what is going on comes to light in the course of events, rather than being deduced in a masterly fashion by the sleuth. All the Homer Kelly mysteries seem to be like this to some extent, and this makes them nice and gentle. God in Concord is perhaps a little to comfortable, but this perception may be partly due to my antipathy towards Thoreau.

Wednesday 9 August 2000

Edmund Crispin: Love Lies Bleeding (1948)

Edition: MacMillan, 1999
Review number: 570

We used to have Speech Days at the school which I attended, days on which prizes were given out and the boys and parents had to endure some of the most boring speeches imaginable. (The one in my final year, which I did not attend because of university entrance interviews, was easily the most lively: the headmaster unexpectedly declared that with government interference it was no longer possible for the school to offer a good education, and effectively resigned.) At Castrevenford, where this novel is set, the event is just as dull, and also contains a play and a sports demonstration.

Speech day in the year in which Gervase Fen, Professor of English at Oxford and amateur detective, gave the prizes was of course (this being a crime novel) distinguished by the murder of two teachers at the school and the disappearance of a pupil from the girls' school connected to Castrevenford. (One of the dead teachers is named Love; hence - partly - the title of the novel.)

Love Lies Bleeding is typical of Crispin's detective novels, with a complex puzzle combined with knowing and ironic use of the conventions of the genre. (This goes right up to the point of declaring that events chronicled would not make a good detective novel.) To some readers, Fen may seem rather tiresome, and he is certainly unbelievably secretive. His refusal to tell the police what he has worked out almost allows the murderer to escape, and it has no motive other than his own vanity. (The real reason, of course, is to inform the reader that they now have the clues needed to work out the solution without giving it away before the very end of the novel.) Nevertheless, the novels have a unique place in the genre and a charm of their own which makes them well worth reading.

Aristophanes: Lysistrata (411 BC)

Translation: Patric Dickinson, 1957
Edition: Nick Hern, 1996
Review number: 568

One of the reasons that Aristophanes' plays still work - even though the situation and people they are satirising are thousands of years out of date - is the way that they develop their ideas. The modern equivalent in feel to his humour would probably be a combination between political and absurdist stand-up comedy. This usually works by taking a sensible idea and developing it to the point of absurdity, while Aristophanes does almost exactly the opposite. He takes an absurd idea (becoming a bird because you're fed up with human politics, making a private peace treaty with the enemy in a long running war) and develops it as though it were serious.

In the case of Lysistrata, the absurd idea must have seemed completely ludicrous in a society in which it could be seriously debated whether women had minds at all. As in Women in Power, the play is about women taking over masculine politics. (And it should be remembered that another level of absurdity is provided by the fact that all the female parts would originally have been played by men in drag.) What they want is an end to the long-running Pelopponesian War - a motivation in several of Aristophanes' surviving plays - and the way that they intend to achieve this is to deny sex to their husbands until they see sense.

The potential for comedy in this scenario is fairly obvious, and Aristophanes makes a good deal out of it. The funniest moments are the women - desperate for sex themselves - trying to sneak past Lysistrata; Myrrhine - the name is the equivalent of something like 'sexpot' in then current Greek slang - working her husband up to a peak of frustration; and the delegation of Spartan men bent double to try to hide their erections. Not subtle, but very funny.

Not as clever as The Frogs (my favourite Aristophanes play), Lysistrata is continually funny and must have been extremely hard hitting as satire when first performed, by men to an audience of men telling them that women could run public affairs better than they were.

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (1999)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 2000
Review number: 569

The third Harry Potter novel, describing his third year at Hogwarts school for wizards, continues in the same vein as the previous stories. Driven beyond his tolerance by a visit to the awful uncle and aunt who look after him from an even more awful aunt, Harry flees home in the last weeks of the summer holidays after inflating her like a balloon. (Of course, he is forbidden to practice magic in the holidays, and to reveal magic to a Muggle - non-magical person - is a serious crime.) Travelling to London, he stays in the magic market area of Diagon Alley, relieved that he is not being expelled from school or even arrested. He discovers that this is because a mass murderer Sirius Black has escaped from the magical prison of Azkaban and is thought to be trying to track down and kill Harry, and the authorities are more interested in protecting his life than anything else.

Returning to school, Harry not only has this to worry about, but he is also extremely sensitive to the Dementors, monster guardians of Azkaban designed to protect the school from Black, and his is depressed because alone of the third years he has been unable to persuade his guardian to sign a permission form allowing him to spend time in the nearby, purely wizarding, village of Hogsmeade. (The effect of the Dementors on people is in fact distinctly similar to the symptoms of medical depression.)

Once again, the combination of humour, excellent writing and an interesting plot make for a delightful read for children and adults alike. (There are certain small elements, like the Dementors' similarity to depression, which are unlikely to be picked up by children, but they add to the enjoyment of adults.) All the Harry Potter novels rank among the most enjoyable I have read for some time.

Tuesday 8 August 2000

Richard Wright: Native Son (1940)

Edition: Picador, 1995
Review number: 567

The best word to describe this novel of black civil rights in the USA is grim. The main character, Bigger Thomas, has no hope, condemned by the inequalities of his upbringing as well as the prejudice he suffers from others. The resentment his inferior treatment causes leads him to a belligerent attitude when he can get away with it, and eventually to murder. A one-sided trial, only marginally more concerned with legality than the lynch mob outside the courthouse, sends him to the electric chair. Never given a chance, the closest he ever comes to feeling that he means anything is in a conversation with his lawyer who treats him like a person. The best his family can offer him is the Christianity that he sees as a consolation of the defeated, without dignity, and not offering him any real hope.

The novel is motivated in part by Wright's Communism, though even the Party does not escape criticism. Native Son deals with a serious and emotive subject, and is a campaigning novel, but Wright takes himself too seriously at times, becoming boring and preachy.

The worst part of the novel in this respect is the summing up made by the two lawyers at the end of the trial. The arguments given amount to emotive rhetoric; it is clear what both of them will say long beforehand. The establishment position put, of course, by the prosecutor, is barely rational, rather a travesty of what any competent lawyer would say (I hope). (The issue, but this point, is not the guilt of Thomas, but whether any mitigating circumstances could save him from the death penalty.) What he has to say is motivated mainly by the knowledge that a successful outcome to the trial (from his point of view) will inevitably boost the standing of conservative candidates in the imminent municipal elections.

By contrast, the best section of the book is the introduction, a straightforward essay (by Wright) explaining the origins of the character of Bigger Thomas. The journalistic retelling of events which influenced the formation of the character in Wright's mind is almost as effective as the whole novel in putting the case for civil rights, and has the definite merit of being a good deal shorter.

Anthony Trollope: The Eustace Diamonds (1873)

Edition: Oxford Text Archive, 1993
Review number: 566

The third novel in the Palliser series is probably the least political of all of them. It shares characters and the background of London society with the rest of them, but little else.

The novel is dominated by the amoral Lizzie Eustace, whom Trollope keeps on insisting is the heroine. The gentle, submissive and not very bright Lucy Morris fits the stereotypical part of nineteenth century novel heroine better, but Trollope gives her a much more subordinate role. Lizzie is effectively an adventuress, who has made a rich marriage. When her husband dies, she keeps the famous Eustace family diamonds, inventing a story that he had given these heirlooms to her.

The family rather naturally attempts to regain the jewels, but it looks as though Lizzie will manage to keep hold of them, until they are stolen. By this point, she has become really tired of the diamonds; her original lie was only prompted by a kind of instinctive acquisitiveness, but it has got her into all kinds of unwelcome difficulties.

Her character is the main unconventionality in the novel, which is predominantly not particularly unusual. Trollope is always entertaining, but not as challenging as the best of his contemporaries.

Monday 7 August 2000

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones (1749)

Edition:  Everyman, 1998
Review number: 565

Tom Jones was inspired by Richardson's Clarissa; Fielding wanted to compete with the new depth of its characters. To modern readers, Tom Jones (and Fielding's writing in general) is far more readable than anything by Richardson. Fielding is a less limited writer; his tone is satirical rather than serious; and he doesn't constrain himself with an epistolary structure. The biggest barrier to enjoyment of Tom Jones is its enormous length (eight hundred pages divided into eighteen books); even in the eighteenth century criticism was made of its inclusion of incidents unnecessary to the plot, such as Tom's meeting with the Man From the Hill.

The plot is fairly basic and romantic. Tom Jones is a foundling, brought up by the rich and virtuous Squire Allworthy, causing his nephew and heir Mr Blifil to feel hatred and jealousy. As a teenager, Jones falls in love with Sophia Western, daughter of a neighbouring squire, but a roving eye and the calumnies of Blifil lead Allworthy to banish him. At the same time, Sophia runs away from her home to escape a match arranged by her father with the odious Blifil. Comic complications ensue, and everything is sorted out in the last four pages.

Though there is humour in the situations, such as the outraged husband trying to surprise his wife with a lover but going to the wrong room in an inn, most of the amusement is produced by Fielding's ironic commentary on events. It may be longwinded at times by modern standards (the entirety of the first chapter of each book is given over to it, for example), but it certainly works well most of the time.

In this edition, there are many notes. Most will be helpful to almost any reader - for example, few will realise without them that most of the Latin tags applied (and misapplied) by Jones' servant Partridge are not evidence of learning, but are taken from popular textbooks of the time. However, some of the notes are useless. To be told that Socrates was a Greek philosopher of the fifth century BC will not be useful either to those who did not know this nor to those who did.

David Gemmell: Knights of Dark Renown (1989)

Edition: Legend, 1989
Review number: 564

David Gemmell's Celtic-flavoured fantasy is a variation on the common "band fighting the evil rulers" theme which goes back at least as far as the legends of Robin Hood. The regime of king Ahak, who began his reign with military conquest, has gradually become more unjust and tyrannical. Traditional champions of justice, defenders of the poor against the rich, the Knights of Gabala have disappeared, to be replaced by the cruel and evil Red Knights.

The subject matter may be a little hackneyed, but it is drawn from a rich source. Gemmell adds in many ideas. The background mythological structure (as I have mentioned) is Celtic, rather like a less New Age-y version of Katherine Kerr's Deverry series. He describes a pogrom clearly paralleling the Holocaust. Themes of corruption and abuse of power are well handled. All these things make up for a general lack of originality.

Thursday 3 August 2000

Michael Moorcock: The Sword and the Stallion (1974)

Edition: Berkley, 1978
Review number: 563

The second trilogy of Corum novels ends on a distinctly bitter note. The Sword and the Stallion is sombre throughout, and almost amounts to a campaign against the idea of the hero, particularly against the concept of the Eternal Champion so important in Moorcock's work. This trilogy is particularly influenced by Irish mythology, which seems to have a more ambivalent attitude to heroism than that of many cultures.

Continuing his seemingly hopeless struggle against the Fhoi Mhore, Corum needs to seek new supernatural allies before the humans he is aiding are destroyed. Captured in an illusion by those whose aid he sought, he is rescued by the arrival of an enemy, the evil wizard Calatin. Then he discovers that in the months that have passed in the outside world, Calatin has created a double of Corum, who has fought against his friends, convincing them that Corum has become a traitor.

The trilogy, because of its downbeat tone, is one of Moorcock's most impressive works, unusual in his output. It is a depressing read, however, with its message that heroes are no longer necessary or even desirable. From here on, Moorcock's novels become much more ambiguous and literary in character; he has shaken off some of the ideas from popular literature which inspired his earlier writing.

Catherine Gaskin: The File on Devlin (1965)

Edition: William Collins
Review number: 562

A competent, gentle thriller, rather like those of Helen MacInnes, The File on Devlin is set at the edges of the world of espionage. Lawrence Devlin is a well known writer, whose efforts to help people understand different cultures have gained him the Nobel Peace Prize. On his latest trip into the wilder parts of the globe, he has gone missing, presumed killed when his light plane crashed in a remote area of Afghanistan.

Josh Canfield, a journalist who also works for British intelligence, becomes suspicious that something more sinister is going on when he sees a known Soviet agent breaking into Devlin's London flat. The novel is basically the unravelling of the Russian involvement in Devlin's disappearance, as Josh juggles the needs of his espionage work with his developing feelings for Devlin's daughter Sally.

This tension is the heart of the novel, and Gaskin handles it well to produce an enjoyable read.

Judith Cook: Death of a Lady's Maid (1997)

Edition: Headline, 1997
Review number: 561

Simon Forman was a real Elizabethan doctor, prominent enough to earn an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography and a biography by A.L. Rowse which mostly disagrees with the DNB entry. The series which starts with Death of a Lady's Maid makes him a detective in addition to his medical and astrological pursuits. This is an interesting premise (though it is not by any means the only historical crime story with a real detective or with a medical detective). The plot itself has a connection to themes found in the drama of the period. It centres around a body found in the Thames which is a young woman earlier treated by Forman. He discovers through post mortem examination that she was bound before being thrown into the river, so that the death was not the suicide it appeared to be. By bringing scandal to the wealthy family which employed the young woman as a lady's maid, Forman creates an enmity which could cause him a lot of problems as one lacking in influence by comparison. He has to solve the murder before he loses his livelihood.

The problem with Death of a Lady's Maid is that despite being an academic specialising in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, Cook has a really bland writing style. The novel is cardboard which never comes alive, and it reads like a pale imitation of Ellis Peters (who is not an author I admire). Cook is perhaps more knowledgeable about her chosen period, yet the background remains unconvincing for the same reasons that Peters' do: an inability to really think in a pre-twentieth century mindset.

Wednesday 2 August 2000

Kim Stanley Robinson: Green Mars (1993)

Edition: HarperCollins
Review number: 560

The second of Robinson's trilogy continues the story of the colonisation of Mars where the first left off. The series fits very snugly into an established science fiction tradition; colonisation of other planets has long been a favourite theme in the genre. As the years pass, we have come to know more about the other planets in the solar system. Conditions on Mars, for example, have gradually become understood to be harsher and harsher, so that Edgar Rice Burroughs could write about a dry and warm Mars with a breathable atmosphere, while Robert Heinlein could still write of a planet on which a human could walk unaided by insulation and breathing apparatus for a few hundred yards. Both of them envisaged a planet inhabited by ancient civilizations. It was really the Viking and Mariner probes which showed that this was not the case, and that Mars was far colder, more barren and had less water than had previously been supposed.

At the same time, the technology which could be used to colonise a planet has advanced, as well as our idea of what could be done. This has meant that there is space for a new vision of Martian colonisation every few years, each with greater detail and less vagueness compared to its predecessors. Robinson may well stand at the end of this line; the beginning of the process as he describes it is generally close to current technology. Most of the extrapolations are small and obvious enough, at least in the first two books (which take the story up to 2127). The possible exception to this may be the gerentological treatments, drastically increasing the span of human life (at least, for the rich and important). Since the main uses of this are not germane to the colonisation process (it's major purpose is structural, to make it possible to have a group of characters who span the entire trilogy), it is not a particularly important issue.

The importance of the trilogy as a whole is clear, but the stature of the second part is distinctly (and inevitably) lower than that of the first. In Red Mars, the scene is set, the major characters introduced and the terraforming process set off; the challenges to be faced and overcome are in many ways greater. The main issues here are political, as those living (and, indeed, born) on Mars become more and more bitterly opposed to the rapacious exploitation of Martian resources by the ruthless metanational corporations of Earth. Robinson hands the character based political interaction far less well than the astronomy and engineering of Red Mars - a traditional failing of science fiction writers.

Tuesday 1 August 2000

Margery Allingham: Traitor's Purse (1941)

Edition: Penguin, 1993
Review number: 559

Traitor's Purse is one of my favourite Campion novels, notwithstanding the absurdities of the plot. Campion struggling with amnesia while trying to save the country from a sinister plot of some kind - though he can't remember what - is one of Allingham's most human creations, transcending the cold caricature of her early novels. (It is not that I don't enjoy the earlier novels, it's just that it's here that Campion becomes real.)

The novel's big problem is connected with the amnesia. It is hardly believable that Campion should refrain from telling the woman who appears to be his fiancée - whom he actually recognises as someone he knows well - that he cannot remember a thing from before he woke up in hospital. It adds to the poignancy of his situation, as he cannot remember the in jokes and shared experiences that are so important in a close relationship, yet it is an extremely unlikely situation.

There are other unlikely aspects to the novel, including the scheme that Campion is meant to be investigating. It is more a thriller than a detective story, because of the character of the investigation, yet it has a special place in the sequence of crime novels in which it falls.

Leslie Charteris: Saint Overboard (1936)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1951
Review number: 558

Today, Saint Overboard seems one of the most dated of all the Saint stories. It relies heavily for plot and atmosphere on a form of technology which has undergone great development in the past sixty years - diving equipment. In the late thirties, diving suits were cumbersome and expensive; neither the aqualung nor the wetsuit had been invented, and the diver relied on massive metal helmets connected to the surface by an all important air hose which could easily become entangled or cut. Diving was not, as it is today, something which could be undertaken as a leisure activity by any reasonably fit person after a short course of training; it was the province of specialists.

Saint Overboard is probably the earliest mainstream thriller to use what was to become a fairly commonplace plot: a conflict between legitimate and criminal attempts to salvage treasure from a wreck, in this case from the strongroom of the Chalfont Castle, on the seabed near Guernsey. Simon Templar becomes involved when he rescues a pretty girl, an investigator for maritime insurers Ingerbecks. There is a strong romantic element in the novel, as indeed there was in the previous one in the series (The Saint in New York); no mention is made of Simon's long time companion Patricia Holm. In The Saint in New York, romance plays an important part in the plot, but here it is more of an encumbrance, and it is not the sort of writing which suited Charteris.