Wednesday 29 November 2000

Tom Holt: Only Human (1999)

Edition: Orbit, 1999
Review number: 694

After the rather downbeat Wish You Were Here, Tom Holt has returned to farcical humour for his next novel. It starts with a fairly standard idea in this sort of fiction, when Kevin, disregarded younger son of the Supreme Being (jealous of his successful older brother Jay), accesses his father's computer while he's out fishing. He manages to make some changes to the universe, but can't undo them - the manual is very thin, being designed for use by the omniscient and omnipotent.

What he has actually managed to do is to swap souls around - not one human to another, but non-human and human:- a machine and its operator, an accountant and a painting, a lemming and the British Prime Minister, and so on. Each finds it difficult to fit in to his/her new environment, but things turn more serious when a group of demons starts trying to exploit the situation for their own ends.

Familiar territory this may be, but it is something Holt does better than most; Only Human is consistently funny. Some of the jokes might be a bit Anglocentric for American readers, but it is a return to form.

Juliet E. McKenna: The Swordsman's Oath (1999)

Edition: Orbit, 1999
Review number: 693

The second of Juliet McKenna's trilogy is rather a repeat of the first, with much the same group of characters making their way across the world she has invented to try to discover more about the attackers who threaten to overwhelm it. The Elietimm, as these attackers are named, use and entirely different and almost unknown form of magic, and that is what makes them formidable enemies, with their single-minded ruthlessness.

The main difference in this novel is that we learn a lot more about the events six hundred years in the past which led to the downfall of a huge empire and the general abandonment of etheric magic. Part of the narrative is in fact set in the past, and is the main flaw in an otherwise excellent fantasy novel: it is insufficiently distinguished from the main story, which makes things a little confusing to begin with. (Clearer headings for the sections set in the days of the Empire would be a big help.)

The setting and characterisation remain as strong as in The Thief's Gamble, and I eagerly look forward to the conclusion of the trilogy.

Tuesday 28 November 2000

Sinclair Lewis: Main Street (1921)

Edition: Vintage, 1994
Review number: 692

One of the reviews quoted on the cover of this edition of Main Street describes it as "one of the most merciless novels ever written". It is an apt description of this depiction of small town midwestern America in the early years of this century, but there is an important element in Lewis' writing which it does not convey.Lewis understands his subject through and through, and that makes what he has to say not just merciless but believable. He also doesn't just restrict his attack to provincial petty society, but he is equally clear about the shortcomings of would-be reformers, like Carol Kennicott. She is in the position in the novel that would usually be occupied by the heroine, but there is little that is heroic about her.

Carol is not only from the city, but she is educated and interested in social issues, with a viewpoint distinctly toward the political left of the inhabitants of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. When she marries Dr Will Kennicot from that city - officially, because it had taken the trouble to incorporate itself as one - she does not realise quite how small it is from his enthusiastic endorsements. When she arrives there, she is determined to drag it into the twentieth century, to spread some cultural light and to change its engrained attitudes. As each of her schemes is shown to be hopelessly impractical, or just to put people's backs up, she abandons it for a new enthusiasm. She is ludicrous, and what she is trying to change is also ludicrous. (There is for example, a wonderful section in which Carol attends a meeting of the ladies of the town, in which she expects them to start a course on English literature, only to discover that by the end of the evening they expect to know all that is worth knowing and proper to know about the subject, so that they can move on to a new topic the next week.) Part of her problem is that she wants simultaneously to fit in and be accepted and to radically change things, but the way in which one new enthusiasm after another takes her is the main reason taht she doesn't get anywhere.

The characterisation is good, and it is mostly intended to paint a fairly bleak picture of Gopher Prairie. There is nothing gentle about Main Street; it is a portrait based on real understanding and real hatred.

Monday 27 November 2000

Peter F. Hamilton: The Nano Flower (1995)

Edition: Pan, 1995
Review number: 691

The third Greg Mandel novel is, like its predecessors, obviously flawed; unlike them, it is more a thriller than a mystery. It is set the better part of two decades later, when Greg and his wife Eleanor have teenage children, and Greg's friend and employer (billionaire industrialist Julia Evans) has a husband and children of her own. Had a husband, I should say, for he has gone missing before the start of the novel. The story begins when a flower is delivered to Julia along with a message from her husband; the flower, it turns out, is not from earth but contains alien genetic material. Julia asks Greg to track down her husband and find the source of the flower, which appears to be connected with rumours of an incredible new technology - also possibly of alien origin.

As a thriller, the plot amounts to a race between Greg and Julia on the one hand and unscrupulous unknown rivals on the other to gain control of this new technology. This would be fine, and has obviously been the basis of quite a large number of enjoyable thrillers. However, The Nano Flower has several flaws. The characterisation, particularly of Julia, is inconsistent. Greg's psychic powers are rather different from those he has in the earlier novels, with intuition emphasised rather than empathy. Most seriously, The Nano Flower has a poor beginning, the first fifty or so pages almost completely failing to grip the imagination even for a reader who has already read both Mindstar Rising and A Quantum Murder. Though it picks up in the middle, the ending is also something of a disappointment. The poorest in the series.

Wednesday 22 November 2000

Jerome K. Jerome: Three Men in a Boat (1889)

Edition: Wordsworth, 1993
Review number: 690

Three Men in a Boat may be one of the best known classics of English language humour, but bits of it have dated quite seriously. The novel tells the story of a short holiday taken by three bachelors (and a dog), rowing a boat up the Thames from Kingston to Oxford and is part commentary on the ludicrous misadventures which are part of the trip and part parody of Victorian travelogues. It is the second aspect which has dated; modern travel writers tend not to be as rhapsodic as the mid-Victorians, nor are they so determined to improve the minds of their readers. This makes them less easy targets. A parodic element which has dated better is the way in which "J." (the narrator) continually derives silly lessons about how to live life from their experiences.

Apart from these sections, the story has retained its freshness and humour. Much of it is rather predictable, pretty much what one would expect of a group of bachelors on a camping holiday (though missing the sexual joking which would probably fill much of any modern equivalent). There are problems with camping equipment, an inability to cook, and arguments about the distribution of work. This last inspires what it probably the most famous quotation from the novel: "Work fascinates me. I could sit and look at it for hours."

The best part of the novel is the beginning, when the three of them are deciding to go for a holiday. One of the main reasons for this decision is "J."'s hypochondria, which convinces him that he is suffering from every complaint in a medical dictionary except for housemaid's knee. (This is typical of the jokes throughout the novel.)

Tuesday 21 November 2000

Stephen Saylor: The Venus Throw (1995)

Edition: Robinson, 1999
Review number: 689

The Venus Throw is probably the best of Saylor's series of novels featuring Roman private detective Gordianus the Finder. Once again, its subject is one of the famous cases for which Cicero was an advocate at the trial. Rome in the first century BC was a fascinating place, full of interesting people and tumultuous events leading to the formation of the Empire. It is a good illustration of the Chinese curse about interesting times; it was a supremely dangerous place to be, as unscrupulous men and women played political games for really high stakes.

The particular trial in The Venus Throw involves some of the most colourful characters of the time, Clodia and her brother Clodius, immortalised as Lesbia and Lesbius in the poems of Catullus. Coming from a distinguished patrician family, the Claudii, they had changed the spelling of their name so that Clodius could sound more plebian, mark working class, and attract the popular vote in elections. The pair were famous for their licentiousness as well as for their beauty, and were rumoured to be incestuous lovers. The devotion and disgust Clodia in particular could inspire is one of the major inspirations in the greatest of Catullus' poems.

Gordianus is involved because part of the trial is connected with the murder of the Egyptian philosopher Dio. occurred on a night when Gordianus was leaving Rome to visit his son Meto, on the staff of Julius Caesar in Illyria; Gordianus feels personally involved not just because Dio was an old friend whom he had met in Alexandria in his youth, but because the philosopher had come to visit him that evening in fear for his life.

Investigating what happened to Dio at Clodia's instigation leads Gordianus in all kinds of directions, including wondering what Clodia's interest is. Dio was in Rome as part of a delegation from Egypt trying to influence Rome's interference in that country's affairs, but the members of this party have gradually been killed off, presumably at the instigation of exiled Egyptian king Ptolemy, now living in Rome. But the difficulties are to prove this, and to work out which of the various Roman political factions are involved.

The background, always one of Saylor's strengths, is particularly well drawn in The Venus Throw; the characterisation of Catullus is one reason for this. The sense that the reader has of being involved in events is one of the strongest of any historical novel I have ever read.The characters, the new ones in this novel (especially Clodia and the brilliant, disillusioned Catullus) as well as the established series ones, are vivid and believeable. The puzzle is difficult, well presented and sensibly thought out. This is historical detective fiction at its best.

Monday 20 November 2000

Edmund Crispin: Fen Country (1979)

Edition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 688

The description of Fen Country on its cover as twenty six detective stories featuring Gervase Fen is a slight exaggeration; only around half the stories are actually mysteries solved by Crispin's famous detective. They are generally, though, of high quality, and several of them are quite funny.

Writing a mystery in short story format is a difficult art. At novel length, the classic murder myster writer has space to introduce six or seven potential suspects, all with backgrounds making them suspicious and giving them motives for killing the victim, as well as clues to mislead the reader. Many novels have denouements which are longer than any of the stories in this collection. To fit enough into a short story for it to have any chance to compete is very difficult, and efforts by even some of the best known mystery authors just show how hard it is (the short stories of Dorothy L. Sayers are a case in point). The achievements of Conan Doyle, who wrote so many classic short stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon, are shown in their correct perspective by this. And it is, thankfully, of the Sherlock Holmes stories that the reader of Fen Country is most consistently reminded.

Their structure is very similar, with the detective usually solving the crime by picking up some small detail - and here the puzzles are sufficiently difficult that I would defy the majority of readers to solve any of the mysteries even with this hint.

The most interesting story - not the best, because it is rather obvious - is We Know You're Busy Writing..., which is about the way that people assume that writing is not really work and how frustrating writers find this. The story is one of the amusing ones, and it is probably the most memorable.

Friday 17 November 2000

Lois McMaster Bujold: Komarr (1998)

Edition: Earthlight, 1998
Review number: 687

Following Miles Vorkosigan's surprise appointment as an Imperial Auditor at the end of Memory - they have the full power of the Emperor behind their investigations, amounting to a completely free hand - Komarr recounts his first case. Komarr is a recently conquered planet in the Barrayan Empire, important strategically because its planetary system contains the only wormhole linking Barrayar to the rest of the galaxy. However, it is barely habitable and the Empire is currently putting a large amount of its resources into a terraforming project. Now, though, a strange space accident has seriously damaged the orbiting system of mirrors which are designed to increase the amounts of light and heat reaching the planet from Komarr's sun. The bizarre aspects are the reason for the interest of the Auditors - why did a freighter on a standard trajectory suddenly change course and smash into the soletta (as arrays of mirrors for this purpose are called)? The investigation is not helped by the attitude of many of the Komarrans, who still remember a massacre carried out in the name of Miles' father though against his wishes.

While not quite as exciting as Memory, Komarr is still an excellent novel. In this paperback edition, though, Earthlight's designers seem to have gone out of their way to make it appear as trashy as they possibly could.

Thursday 16 November 2000

Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast (1950)

Edition: Penguin, 1983
Review number: 686

Gormenghast is where Peake's writing all comes together. In contrast to most mid-trilogy novels, it is the best by a long way. It combines an exciting story, one of the most famous and evocative backgrounds of any novel, deeper levels of symbolism, humour, tragedy and a hero who is easy to identify with.

The story tells of the adolescence of Titus, 77th Earl of Groan. He and some others - foppish, apparently foolish Dr Prunesquallor and the dowager countess - have begun to realise that the centuries of tradition making Gormenghast what it is are under threat. The former kitchen boy Steerpike has risen to the place of assistant to Barquentine, curator of traditional observance, as he has worked out just how much power controlling the lives of the castle's inhabitants to the minutest degree will give him.

The background, the castle of Gormenghast, is less self-consciously described than it was in Titus Groan. It is more a background, without the lengthy florid descriptions which fill the earlier novel. Peake makes more of the way in which it affects every part of every inhabitant rather than exhibiting the castle directly.

On a deeper lever, there are clearly meanings to many of the events in Gormenghast and its surrounding countryside. It is easy to read something different into it from what Peake meant - the novel has been read as a Christian allegory, for example - but some things at least are clear. The tradition of the castle has something at least to do with the conventions of society; the freedom that Titus yearns for is represented by his foster sister, the wild forest-dwelling Thing; and her death is clearly important though its meaning is less so.

The humour of Gormenghastis mainly provided by the dusty boarding school at which Titus is educated, taught by fossilised pedagogues, and by the desire of vain, stupid Irma Prunesqallor to marry. (She achieves her aim by inviting the senior teachers to a bizarre party.)

The other side of the coin, tragedy, is acheived through Flay, banished manservant to Titus' father. He has a truer love for Gormenghast as an institution than any other character, and yet for a relatively minor infraction he has to live in a hut on the mountain overlooking the castle, all the time gazing at the beloved home to which he cannot return and which he knows is in grave danger from Steerpike.

Titus is the hero. Aside from conventional attributes of heroism - youth, good looks (which can be assumed since the assembled grotesques of Gormenghast think him hideous), an enemy - he has an ambiguous attitude to the castle which makes him easy to identify with. He is far more a true rebel than Steerpike; Steerpike wants to rule the castle and uses its traditions and puts himself outside the traditions as a means to this end, while Titus wants to escape the traditions entirely. The reasons that Titus opposes Steerpike are simply that he dislikes him and because Steerpike has attacked those Titus holds dear.

Peake has assembled all these elements to make up one of the greatest cult classics of the twentieth century. What is more, Gormenghast really deserves this status.

Wednesday 15 November 2000

Victor Canning: The Whip Hand (1965)

Edition: Heinemann, 1965
Review number: 685

This thriller, though not terribly original, must rank as one of the best written of all Victor Canning's novels. Certainly, it is easily the best of those I have read. It is a well written, well characterised first person narrative; only the hackneyed nature of the plot lets it down.

The narrator is a sarcastic and cynical private investigator. Such narrators are hardly original - in this case, I suspect that the original is probably Len Deighton's Harry Palmer - but Rex Carver is better written than many of them. He is approached to find a girl named Katerina, and then to follow her across Europe; naturally, there are little things which suggest to Carver that something important is going on, and he is being given not only less than the whole picture but not quite enough information to act effectively. In addition to this, Katerina is an extraordinarily beautiful blond, and he more or less looses his head about her.

The Whip Hand's biggest problem is the nature of the mystery that Carver is really being asked to investigate; it hardly motivates the concern of the security forces of various countries which attempt to control, hinder, or suborn Carver along the way. This makes the ending a disappointment, but for most of the novel the high standard of the writing carries the reader on.

John le Carré: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1974
Review number: 684

There are a huge number of spy stories with the basic theme of the investigation of the possibility of a traitor, a mole, in a secret service. After the Maclean/Philby scandals of the fifties, it was probably a subject which automatically suggested itself to writers who wrote about the various British secret organisations. It is perhaps an odd subject for a thriller, because it must involve a large amount of bookish research and less action than many writers would desire - it could never have been the sort of thing James Bond would tackle. However, it is a theme which lends itself to a more literary style of spy story, full of complications, byzantine plots and constant reassessments, and these novels provide a very different kind of pleasure to those who enjoy that sort of thing.

Of all these books, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is one of the greatest. George Smiley has been forced into retirement after a disastrous operation organised by Control, head of the Circus (as the intelligence service of le Carré's novels is known), and Smiley is implicated in the disaster as Control's right hand man, despite his innocence. When a spy labelled a defector returns from abroad with accusations that one of the top men now running the Circus is a mole, Smiley is asked to return to work, to attempt to unmask him. Whoever it is, they are closely concerned with the Circus' star Russian source, codenamed Merlin. The intelligence provided by Merlin is basically the necessary cost incurred by the Russians to enhance the reputation and potential for damage of their mole.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is cleverly written, with enough action to maintain the interest combined with the intellectual puzzle tackled by Smiley. This puzzle is similar to that of a murder mystery, and the first stories featuring Smiley were in fact crime novels in which he was the detective. Le Carré allows himself the space to introduce a cast of contrasting characters, who are three dimensional though they are not allowed to develop. The novel has a believable background, and is a touch less depressing than some of the really downbeat novels which le Carré had written just a few years earlier. As well as being a masterpiece of the spy genre, it is probably also le Carré's best novel.

Tuesday 14 November 2000

Rudyard Kipling: The Day's Work (1898)

Edition: MacMillan, 1982
Review number: 683

Short stories of variable quality make up The Day's Work; it contains some of Kipling's best writing alongside some of his worst. The stories have no feature common to them all; most are set away from India, most have non-human characters - animals or machines are anthropomorphised.

To take the poor stories first, .007 (about railway locomotives) and A Walking Delegate (about horses and Communism) seem twee; the two entitled William the Conqueror are dull and have a sentimentalised ending which makes it obvious that they were originally written for the Christmas market.

However, these failures are set against the first and last in the collection, The Bridge Builders and The Brushwood Boy. In the latter and in The Maltese Cat, the anthropomorphism succeeds as well as it does in the Jungle Book. (The former is one of Kipling's Indian stories.) The Maltese Cat is an enjoyable tale of a polo match from the point of view of the ponies; it is described on the jacket as the greatest of all polo stories, hardly a genre providing much competition, but it must rank as one of the best descriptions of team sports ever written. Another memorable story is The Ship That Found Herself, an imaginative tale of the maiden voyage of a ship as experienced by the various components which make it up.

The best stories make this a collection worth reading; it is a shame that the quality is so uneven.

Michael Innes: An Awkward Lie (1952)

Edition: Penguin, 1983
Review number: 682

An Awkward Lie is more of a thriller than a detective story. It is very short, and contains one memorable piece of deduction and one memorable joke. The central character is Bobby Appleby, Sir John's son who has both won a cap for the England rugby team and written an intellectual "anti-novel" - an unusual combination. He is playing a round of golf, or, rather, intending to do so, when on the bunker near the first hole, he sees a corpse. Upon investigation, he meets a pretty woman apparently taking a walk, and goes to call the police while she stays with the body, an elderly man with a missing finger whom Bobby almost immediately identifies as one of the teachers from his prep school from long ago. However, when he returns with the police (having waited at the callbox for them, per their instructions), the body has gone, the bunker has been raked back to a pristine condition, and the woman has disappeared. All that remains is Bobby's golfball and, as the policeman remarks, this leaves him in an awkward lie. (This is, of course, the joke.)

The deduction works out the reason why the body should be left somewhere where it would obviously be discovered, but then be taken away as soon as the discovery takes place. This piece of cleverness, which I suspect was the first aspect of the novel to occur to Innes, is all that is needed to work out what has been going on, before the abrupt ending kicks in.

Though really a thriller masquerading as a crime novel, An Awkward Lie is not paced very well; it suddenly picks up near the end. Interesting, but not one of Innes' best.

Monday 13 November 2000

Compton Mackenzie: The Rival Monster (1952)

Edition: Penguin, 1983
Review number: 681

When a flying saucer is seen to crash into the Loch Ness Monster, the worst is feared for one of Scotland's greatest treasures. But soon a new monster is seen in the Hebridean Todday Islands, and this causes a great stir - has Nessie abandoned its home in disgust at being the target of extraterrestrial attacks? Or is it a rival taking advantage of Nessie's disappearance?

This ludicrous premise lies behind Compton Mackenzie's funniest novel (at least of those I have read), which is a sequel to both Monarch of the Glen and Whisky Galore. Many characters from both these novels re-appear here, unchanged in the least. This includes the incredibly self important Paul Wagget, who naturally doesn't believe in anything so unlikely as any kind of monster and seeks to persuade eye witnesses that they were mistaken, to their great annoyance.

Wagget's twin daughters make an entrance here, having been away serving in an anti-aircraft battery in Whisky Galore, and they provide the romantic subplot. Their rivalry mimics that between the Todday monster and the Loch Ness monster, though both of these are fairly low key contests; as far as Elsie and Muriel are concerned, it consists mainly of confusing their suitors, who cannot tell them apart. They also provide more evidence of Wagget's awfulness; I'm not sure what the best word is to describe any father who encourages his grown up children to call their parents "daddo" and "mumsy".

Friday 10 November 2000

Émile Zola: L'Assommoir (1876)

Translation: Leonard Tancock, 1970
Edition:  Penguin, 1970
Review number: 680

Zola's novel caused such a commotion and was considered so immoral that its original serial publication was halted. Over the next century, it has proved sufficiently influential that the reason for this is to a large extent hidden, particularly in translation. Zola's story treats of the Parisian slums, and it is written in the language which would have been used by the characters, not in the equivalent of the exaggerated, cleaned up Cockney used by English writers but one which used the vocabulary of the streets. To use swearing and slang in literary fiction is not now something shocking, but in the 1870s it was totally unheard of to use such words in print.

It is not just the language used in L'Assommoir which was considered shocking. There is a fair amount of sex in the novel, both inside and outside marriage, for one thing; and the whole story is the tale of a woman's gradual degredation through laziness and drink. (The title is a slang term for a shop which sells alcohol.) Gervaise is basically the principal agent of her own destruction; she is not the virtuous saint so often portrayed in novels about working class life from this period - there is no way that she has a strong enough character to rise above her circumstances. (There is one character who is a bit like this in L'Assommoir, a child who is bringing up two younger sisters despite the beatings and starvation imposed on her by her alcoholic father, and typically she does not receive any reward except an early death.) Gervaise is a more realistic character, and her background is also more realistic. It is not the evil capitalist who grinds down the workers and makes their situation impossible. Characters around Gervaise are relatively comfortable, and even she is well enough off at one point to rent a shop. The character who most nearly approximates the grasping capitalist is one of Gervaise's landlords, and he makes a point of his own poor origins.

The two great virtues of L'Assommoir are its rejection of stereotypes and Zola's vivid writing, which even comes through in translation. It is easy to see why it has had such a strong influence. It is a depressing and uncomfortable read, however, and so is the sort of novel one is pleased to have read but would probably not pick up again for a long time.

Compton Mackenzie: Whisky Galore (1947)

Edition: Penguin, 1983
Review number: 679

The best known of Compton Mackenzie's novels formed the basis for a classic Ealing Comedy - which is, of course, why it remains so well known. Like another of the popular films produced by that studio just after the war, Passport to Pimlico, it is essentially a satire attacking the absurdities of rationing, which continued in Britain for some years after the war.

One of the strange events of the war was the export of virtually the entire production of Scotch whisky to the USA, to the point where there was a shortage in Scotland itself. This was particularly hard felt on the fictional Todday islands, which ran dry of their traditional drink, until the US bound vessel the SS Cabinet Minister ran aground of Little Todday, making the thousands of cases of whisky aboard available for illicit salvage. (This is actually based on a true story, the wreck of SS Politician off Eriskay.)

The wily islanders ha cross to bear, in the shape of officious Home Guard commander Paul Waggett. He is forever trying to inspire them with his own ideas of efficiency and the right attitude to the War. He is one of those people who spend ages telling you how they could have won the war in no time - if only he had been consulted. Hurt by the authorities refusal to make guarding wrecks the business of the Home Guard, he tries to stop the pilfering of the Cabinet Minister; it is hardly surprising that he has little effect.

Less happens in the novel than in the film; like Monarch of the Glen, Whisky Galore is a gentle comedy. Mackenzie is described on the cover of The Highland Omnibus, in which these and a later novel The Rival Monster are reprinted, as "the forerunner of Tom Sharpe"; while there are parallels in their humour (ludicrous situations getting out of hand, subversion of establishment and authority figures), Mackenzie does not have the scatological edge that Sharpe has. It would be hard to see a way in which condoms or blow up dolls could appear in a Mackenzie novel, even if it were updated to the year 2000; his writing is more genial and not as aggressive.

Thursday 9 November 2000

Compton Mackenzie: The Monarch of the Glen (1941)

Edition: Penguin, 1983
Review number: 678

Just about the only connection between this novel and the TV series "based" on it is that both are set in the Highlands of Scotland. (I only watched part of the series, because it seemed more like an attempt to repeat the success of Ballykissangel rather than anything worth watching.) The equivalent of the selfish character played by Richard Briers is the blustering but good hearted clan chieftain, Donald MacDonald of Ben Nevis, usually - and appropriately - called Ben Nevis.

There are two strands to the plot of the novel. Chester Royde is an American millionaire who has recently married, and who has come to Scotland to visit something of his bride's roots (she is descended from crofters evicted by an ancestor of Ben Nevis in the Highland Clearances). He is also accompanied by his young, unmarried sister, and it seems to the MacDonald family that nothing would be better in this era of rising costs for the landed gentry than for Myrtle Royde to marry one of Ben Nevis' three sons.

The second strand begins when Ben Nevis takes his guests shooting on the Twelfth, and discovers that the grouse on one of his best moors have been frightened off by a group of hikers. Furious because the trespassers have spoiled his sport, he carries them off, with the help of his brawny children, and imprisons them in the dungeons of his ancestral castle. When saner counsels prevail and the hikers are released, his action prompts the National Union of Hikers to declare war on the Ben Nevis estate, and this provides most of the comedy of this amusing novel. It is a gentle humour, though as the war escalates it loses some of its restraint.

Wednesday 8 November 2000

Neil Gaiman: Stardust (1999)

Edition: Headline, 1999
Review number: 677

Stardust is a remarkable homage to Lord Dunsany and other Victorian writers of tales about the lands "beyond the fields we know". Wall is much like other isolated English villages of the mid nineteenth century, except for the wall which gives it its name and for the unusual fair held there once every nine years. That is the only time that the gap in the wall is left unguarded, and sellers of all kinds of wonders come from the land of Faerie beyond the wall.

Tristram Thorn is typical of the village's young men, and like the rest of them he has fallen in love with the local beauty, Victoria Forester. While he is walking with her, they see a star fall in Faerie, and she promises him his heart's desire if he retrieves it for her. The plot seems to develop along standard fairy tale lines until he reaches the star, which turns out to be a young woman with a broken leg from the fall and not the stone he was expecting. To bring back a young woman - who objects strongly - instead of an inanimate object is not the task he expected, and it is from this point that Stardust begins to offer a new slant on a familiar idea.

There is the odd joke here and there, and Stardust is generally a light-hearted novel, but it is atmospheric as well. The major characters are believable, and the whole thing manages to delight in the way that the best children's fiction does while being clearly an adult novel. It works far better than Neverwhere, where Gaiman is struggling to describe what is a strongly visual experience without swamping the rest of the ingredients of the novel.

Iris Murdoch: Under the Net (1954)

Edition: Chatto & Windus, 1954
Review number: 676

The story of Jake Donaghue's aimless London adventures gives the reader the feeling all the way through that it has more meaning than is readily apparent. I found it difficult to see what this hidden significance might be, but still enjoyed the novel. The title probably has something to do with this; it has no obvious relationship to any of the events in the plot.

Jake is a writer who, at the beginning of the novel, is thrown out of the flat in which he's living, as the female friend who owns it has just become engaged to a man she thinks might object to a male flatmate. Seeking refuge with a series of friends, Jake is forced to take stock of his life, his past and his future. Various factors conspire to make this happen, including an affair between two of his friends, and the French novelist whose mediocre works have provided most of Jake's income in the last few years through translations suddenly winning the Prix Goncourt for his latest book.

Subtly funny, Under the Net manages to be both easy to read and cleverly literary. It is well written without showing off, containing interesting and differentiated characters. In its understated way, it certainly deserves to be considered one of the greatest English novels of the century.

Josephine Tey: The Daughter of Time (1951)

Edition: Penguin, 1954
Review number: 675

The idea for the setting of this famous detective novel was perhaps stimulated by a desire to imitate Mycroft Holmes rather than his better known brother. Tey was not by any means the first writer of a novel where the crime scene is never seen by the sleuth, who has to rely on reports rather than statements or forensic evidence. There is a minor series of stories by Baroness Orczy, for example; but it is Tey's novel which defines the subgenre. The Daughter of Time has been extensively admired and occasionally imitated, most notably by Colin Dexter.

Tey's sleuth Alan Grant is stuck in hospital; looking a pictures of faces to while away the time - he is interested in the reflection of the personality in the face - he becomes fascinated by Richard III, as shown in his best known portrait. Not seeing the monster who murdered his nephews in the picture, he begins to investigate, with the help of various friends who provide books, or spend time in the British Library.

The Daughter of Time is by no means the first vindication of Richard III - there is a fair amount of evidence suggesting Henry VII as the instigator of the deaths of the princes in the Tower of London - but it is certainly the best known. While never pretending to be an academic history, it does contain a lot of information, which is presented in a remarkably entertaining if somewhat one-sided manner.

The title is ironic, for the daughter of time is truth (the quotation is from Aulus Gallius, though he attributes it to someone else, saying he can't remember who), and time has tended to blacken Richard's reputation rather than reveal what many believe to be the truth. Perhaps if Shakespeare's play had never been written, it would have proved easier for campaigners to re-establish his reputation.

Tuesday 7 November 2000

Robert Heinlein: The Door Into Summer (1956)

Edition: Gollancz, 1985
Review number: 674

One of the most well known of Heinlein's early novels, The Door Into Summer is typical of the best of them. It is about the use of that staple of science fiction, cold sleep, to outlive a difficult situation in the present. Most candidates for this treatment are terminally ill patients who want to be woken when a cure has been found; but Heinlein's hero wants to escape the consequences of the theft of his business.

Some complicated adventures ensue, as his former partner drugs him to attempt to get his remaining assets through post-hypnotic suggestion, and then sends him through cold sleep anyway when his most recent invention - he is an engineer who has created the first household robots - goes missing. Eventually, he is able to return using a time machine and sort a lot of things out.

There are clear holes in the plot (why has his partner let him get away rather than drugging and hypnotising him immediately, for example), and it is a little difficult to keep track of what is going on, but the first person narrative is quite compelling. To someone interested in new technology, it is fascinating to see just how over-optimistic Heinlein could be in 1956 - household robots and cold sleep in 1970, while here we are in 2000 with neither of these developments. In the case of the robots, it is not exactly an overestimate of the rate of development of technology that Heinlein got wrong; the ones in this novel are based on vacuum tubes rather than integrated circuits - it is that the problem of fully automating housework is far more difficult than he imagined.

The Door Into Summer is entertaining if shallow classic science fiction.

Monday 6 November 2000

Jonathan Sumption: The Albigensian Crusade (1978)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1978
Review number: 672

Of all the facets of medieval culture which differ from their modern equivalents, the one which is the most difficult to understand is the most important. The Catholic church and western European culture were literally synonymous - with the name Christendom - and the church was totally dominant in every area of life. One of the most important rights that many people today take completely for granted - and I am aware that it is not one which everybody possesses - is freedom of religion, not just the freedom to practice whatever religion chosen, but to practise no religion at all. This right is so familiar to most of us that we hardly realise that we practise it. And yet, it would have been completely incomprehensible to a medieval peasant.

This means that the Albigensian Crusade, which seems to us to be a great crime, was at the time considered not only desirable but absolutely necessary. To be a heretic, defying the church, was to be denying the fundamental core of society, was to be attempting to destroy society completely. Heresy was an illness which had to be eradicated, whatever the cost.

Sumption's book is a fairly direct description, as much as one is possible, of the campaigns which make up the crusade. The qualification is due not just to the usual obscurity of medieval chronicle, but because the contemporary and near contemporary histories sometimes contradict each other irreconcilably; history as propaganda is not a new idea. It is difficult to go beyond this kind of straightforward account; descriptions of the beliefs of the Cathars are even more partisan. Orthodox writers tended to ascribe similar beliefs and practices to just about every group of heretics. About all that can be said with any certainty is that they were dualists (with God and the devil as fundamentally equal opponents) who tended to reject the real world as evil, which meant in practice extreme asceticism and the embracing of martyrdom and suicide by the famous Cathar adepts known as Perfects.

This is a different kind of history from that which makes up Montaillou, also about the Cathars; that is a reconstruction of medieval village life from the records of the Inquisition, which first began its terrible work in the wake of the Crusade. As far as the religious and political statements in these records are concerned, they cannot be trusted because they are shaped by what the orthodox expected to hear and because they were extracted by physical or psychological pressure. Clearly, though, when they talk of everyday things as familiar to the inquisitors as to their victims, they will be far more trustworthy.

The religious element to their lives did not mean that the motives of those who fought on either side of the war were pure. There was much that could be gained or lost materially, for the crusaders had been promised the lands of dispossessed heretics. The motivation of greed adds to the reasons why the modern viewpoint tends to sympathise with the Cathars rather than the crusaders. However, it is also a reason why the events of the Crusade are surprisingly obscure, because it motivated a lot of behind the scenes political manoeuvrings, particularly as the main driving force behind the military campaigns was the will of Pope Innocent III, who kept on trying to control what was happening around Toulouse from weeks' journey away.

Sumption's concentration on the overt military activity of the Crusade is understandable, but does make the book both rather dry and superficial. The medieval mind remains obscure, the personalities involved hardly come alive, by comparison with many of those who took part in the Crusades in the Holy Land. It is difficult to see how a different book could have been produced based on the available resources. Sumption is not to blame; he has at least shed light on what would be interesting to know.

Mary Stewart: The Moon-Spinners (1962)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1964
Review number: 673

In this Mary Stewart thriller, the exotic location is Crete (before mass tourism); the young heroine works at the British embassy in Athens, and is taking a holiday with the older cousin who brought her up - at least in her teens - when she comes across a man in the middle of the countryside who has been shot.

In many ways, The Moon-Spinners is too much a rewrite of My Brother Michael to be really successful; it ends up being one of Stewart's most lacklustre novels. The Greek background is gorgeous, but she has written the same story too often for it to work this time. This is the last time she sticks so closely to the formula, and it was probably about time she moved on.

Friday 3 November 2000

Gavin Lyall: Midnight Plus One (1965)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1965
Review number: 671

Lewis Cane was once a hero; under the nickname Caneton he was an SOE operative in the French resistance. After the war, he hasn't really found what he wants to do, until an expensive lawyer hires him to transport a businessman across France. Magonhard can't just travel in the usual manner; not only are his enemies seeking to stop him, but then have also arranged a false accusation of rape to ensure that the police will also be looking for him. He needs to arrive in Liechtenstein as soon as possible, to save a business that the death of one of his partners seems set to destroy.

The journey is partly about Caneton showing that he is still competent in this kind of work, but more interestingly also about him coming to terms not just with his own history but with the realisation that the past is past and that this is no longer what he does. It makes the novel more than a run of the mill thriller, as Lyall examines a side of "the hero" not so commonly part of the genre - what happens when the time for heroism is past. Cane is a contrast to the other man accompanying the party across France: an alcoholic bodyguard unable to cope psychologically with the work that he is supremely gifted in - another interesting character.

An excellent thriller, well worth reading.

Paul Harding: The Assassin's Riddle (1996)

Edition: Headline, 1996
Review number: 670

There are two mysteries in this novel from Harding's medieval crime series, one a locked room puzzle, a genre which has already cropped up several times in the Sorrowful Mysteries of Brother Athelstan, and the other a serial killer who leaves riddles with the bodies of the victims. The first puzzle is the death of rich banker Bartholemew Drayton, who is found killed by a crossbow bolt in his strongroom, locked on the inside. The pressure is on Sir John Cranston, Coroner of the City of London, and his friend, the friar Athelstan, to swiftly discover the killer, particularly are five thousand pounds of silver is missing, instead of enriching the regent, John of Gaunt. The other is the murder, one by one, of the clerks working in a particular office in Chancery (which ran much of the bureaucratic administration of medieval England). The riddles left on their bodies are not in fact too difficult to work out (though they use some dubious linguistic trickery which I suspect depends on aspects of the English language which are anachronistic), and neither is the identity of the killer. The locked room is a much harder puzzle.

Having two mysteries means that the novel has to concentrate on them, rather than on the background of late fourteenth century London. Mind you, most of the readers of The Assassin's Riddle will probably already have read earlier novels in the series, so this doesn't matter as much as it might do.

Mary Stewart: The Gabriel Hounds (1967)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1967
Review number: 669

Lady Hester Stanhope was, at least when seen from a distance, a romantic figure. Her background was the English Regency nobility, and yet she ended up in a palace in Syria, playing the role of the (male) Arab potentate. She is the basis for the character around whom this novel rotates, but in this case at least the reality behind the romance is rather more shabby - ostentation is not cheap in the twentieth century.

After many years during which Harriet Mansel has hidden herself away in her valley in the Lebanon, two relatives on holiday in the Middle East decide to try to visit her. (Her eccentricity makes them rather unsure of their welcome.) But when they do get in to see her, it looks as though something is wrong - they just can't quite put their finger on what it is.

The Gabriel Hounds is not Mary Stewart's most successful thriller, even though all the usual ingredients are there. Though the background is the same kind of exotic location shared by all her thrillers up to this point, it is more perfunctorily sketched in. By 1967, she probably needed more work
to come up with somewhere evocative, yet not already familiar to her readers; she did eventually abandon this part of her formula in favour of a nostalgic version of rural England. Her plotting also lets her down a bit this time, and the ending is particularly disappointing.

Thursday 2 November 2000

Hammond Innes: The Doomed Oasis (1960)

Edition: Collins, 1961
Review number: 668

The legend of Lawrence of Arabia plays a large part in this thriller about oil and politics in the peninsula. Colonel Charles Whitaker is a figure clearly based on Lawrence, a European who has accepted Arab customs and who has a great deal of influence in the politics of the various small states which are mostly today subsumed into groupings such as the United Arab Emirates. Here, it is oil rather than war which is the aim, but Whitaker as he has become older has managed to destroy his reputation with the oil companies as he has put forward a theory that oil is present in vast quantities in places where it was never found.

Whitaker is not the central character in the story. This is his son David, who came out to Arabia once he had discovered his paternity. David becomes passionately involved with the desert kingdom of Saraifa, the doomed oasis of the title. Water is brought to the inhabitants through ancient aqueducts, the falajes, but now the slow process of neglect which is gradually destroying them has been accelerated by the vandalism of enemies from the neighbouring emirate. David comes up with a desperate plan to stop this brutal destruction, which the Whitakers have themselves motivated by their conviction that oil is to be found in a border area disputed by the two countries.

The Doomed Oasis has the potential to be a far better novel than it is. The contrast between the motivations of greed and romance is something which could be the basis of an interesting story. The relationship between the Whitakers, one of several broken father-son relationships in Innes' novels, has dramatic potential which is not exploited. Also like other Innes' novels, it centres around poorly written courtroom scenes; there are far better devices to use in a thriller.