Tag Archives: Fiction

Two old friends

Sometimes, when you go back and revisit something you once loved you are disappointed. But sometimes there’s no difference; you still like whatever it is. And sometimes you still like it, but find new things to enjoy, things you missed the first time round.

Now I know I said I’d be concentrating on non-fiction books, my true and deep love, but I have been tidying up lately (oh, surely not) and that has led me to some other rediscoveries. Hidden away on a top shelf, right at one end, as though I was ashamed of them.

When I was growing up, before I went to Uni, I loved science fiction. I scratted around dodgy second-hand bookshops in order to feed my habit and build up the world’s biggest collection of paperback novels by Philip K Dick. And Arthur C Clark, and Brian Aldiss, and and and…

Kraken WakesMost of these have, over the years, vanished, which is probably just as well, but there are a few survivors. I have no idea what inspired me to get a couple of them down, but I found myself reading books I’d not read for – oh – maybe 25 years. The first was John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes.

Wyndham is better known as the writer of Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos, but I prefer this book. I’ve always had a fascination with the way a familiar landscape can be changed by the weather – snow, floods – and the last third of Wyndham’s dystopian novel is set in a world terribly altered by rising sea levels. These aren’t caused by people driving too many cars – the book was published in 1953 – but by submarine alien invaders melting the ice caps. Nonetheless, the vision of a flooded world is extraordinary. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There are three phases to the book, as the protagonists – a couple, and I’ll get onto that – experience the changing world. The first can basically be summed up as ‘what are those strange lights in the sky, plummeting into the sea?’ (anticipation, if you like). The second is the period of initial investigative attacks from below the sea – disappearing ships and raids on coastal communities, vividly described – and their consequences. And the third is the changed world, where sea levels have risen and society has (partly) broken down, but where the humans finally seem to be winning the battle.

It’s very well written. That was my first surprise; I think I remembered it as more ‘pulpy’, but I may have been remembering my reading as a whole rather than specific books. The second surprise was the almost complete lack of gender stereotyping. The protagonists are a married couple, Phyllis and Mike. They are both broadcast journalists, and – if anything – Phyllis is the better one, something openly acknowledged by Mike. Phyllis drives the story just as much as he does, maybe a little more. Perhaps this is a result of when it was written – the early 50s, with memories of the role of women in WW2 still very fresh. Perhaps, had it been written in 1963 instead, it would have been very different. Or perhaps John Wyndham was just a decent bloke.

AsimovThe other book I picked up was, in some ways, equally surprising.

I was a huge fan of Isaac Asimov: I always tended towards the ‘spaceships and robots’ type of SF, and I think this is why I hung on to some of his books. The Naked Sun is the second book involving his detective, Lije Bailey, solving a crime that involves (or appears to involve) a robot.

Asimov is now possibly most well known for coming up with the ‘three laws of robotics’: that a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; that a robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and  that a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the other laws.  These are vital here, as they are in several of his other books: there are loopholes, loopholes which lead to murder…

The Naked Sun is set in the ‘Outer Worlds’. Earth is overpopulated, heavily polluted, with its crowds of inhabitants living in vast, teeming underground cities, fearing the outside to the point of agoraphobia. The colonised planets, on the other hand, are underpopulated and have no desire to be ‘contaminated’ (literally and metaphorically) by contact with Earth. They have the upper hand, and don’t need vast numbers of people because the work is done by vast numbers of robots (on Earth, robots are viewed with deep distrust).

The situation is at its most extreme on Solaria. Here people have very little contact with each other, to such an extent that being in someone’s actual presence can make people physically ill. They ‘view’ each other: a foretaste of Skype, only rather more sophisticated (The Naked Sun was written in 1958). But now they need help from the outside because someone has been killed. And so Bailey, an agoraphobic Earth detective, with previous experience of working alongside the ‘Spacers’, finds himself on another planet trying to work out how someone could be bludgeoned to death in a world where the merest degree of physical contact is next-to impossible.

The appeal of The Naked Sun lies mainly in its depiction of the alienated Solarian world (the equally distorted Earth is explored in its predecessor, The Caves of Steel), and not in the discovery of the murderer – that plot line, for me, is a little weak.  I don’t find it as engaging as The Kraken Wakes and it isn’t as well written; there is more stereotyping too, with mainly male protagonists and only two female characters, neither leading the action although one is a suspect. (Natch. And characters smoke, though not on Solaria; Bailey loves his pipe.)

But there is more to it than that. Earth and Solaria are similar but different; they both inhabit limiting extremes which will eventually lead to their destruction, an insight Bailey gains right at the end of the book. And, rather creepily,  modern readers can see something of Solaria here and now: in our growing presence in and dependence on the virtual world.

Science fiction, at its best, explores apparently exotic possibilities in a plausible way, and the predictive nature of these two books was what stunned me the most. In one, the consequences of a kind of global warming are foreshadowed; in another, the effects of living in a virtual world. It’s one thing to predict things when you are ‘closer’ to them, but these books are now around 60 years old. Maybe I should not have culled quite so much…

 

‘A happy voyage to you…’

MASTER AND COMMANDER, by Patrick O’Brian, originally pubished in 1969
(My copy is from the series published in the 1990s with the wonderful Gary Hunt covers – much better than models dressed up in costume, hrumpf)

Bookcase 3, shelf 7, book 24

It had to happen sooner or later. The dice would select a book lurking in a series, one which could not be explored or explained without reading others. Or they would pick a book which started a series, and I wouldn’t be able to stop reading. There are twenty-one books in Patrick O’Brian’s astonishing Aubrey / Maturin series (If you count the one left unfinished at the author’s death), and I’ve been zooming through them, the dice having happily given me the first, Master and Commander. (And no, it’s nothing like the film with Russell Crowe, thank heavens.)

So what is it about these books, set in a version of Nelson’s Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars? Why are they so addictive? And why do they excite such passionate attachment among their fans?

It may be heresy, but I have to say it: they’re not all perfect, far from it, but M&C is a stonking start. O’Brian sweeps you straight in. The language, even the punctuation – they could belong, sometimes, to the early nineteenth century, and it comes as no surprise that O’Brian adored Jane Austen and collected early editions of her books. You don’t have to understand the nautical vocabulary (I still have absolutely no idea what a ‘dog-pawl’ is and I’m not sure I want to know), but whether you do or not, it all helps to create an atmosphere which encourages readers to become absorbed in this particular world. And O’Brian was meticulous about the language he used, incidentally – it is authentic, substantiated in all the mountains of research and contemporary accounts in which he immersed himself. But that’s not it, though it’s a part of it.

It has to be the core relationship, the one between the comparatively straightforward and bluff Jack Aubrey RN and the considerably more enigmatic Stephen Maturin, and between them and various other characters who materialize and vanish and come back again, or who are relatively minor constants. You come to know these people: Killick the steward, Bonden the bosun, Mr Pullings – and you become involved. Will the delightful Pullings ever make captain, even though he has no ‘pull’ in the Admiralty? Will Killick stop grumbling? Who will get killed in the next engagement? Will Stephen’s spying activities mean he gets tortured again, and will he ever be able to break free from his attachment to – enough… As one reviewer noted, one key to the series’ success was that ‘times change, but people don’t.’ And the people are exceptionally well drawn, even if it is sometimes easy to forget that in all the excitement and the recreation of a vanished world.

Master and Commander is where Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin encounter each other for the first time; the former irritates the latter at a concert by beating time rather enthusiastically. A duel is averted when Jack is promoted and, in the consequent spirit of bonhomie, apologizes to Stephen. He then recruits the financially embarrassed  Stephen as his ship’s surgeon, and that is fortunate – fortunate for us as readers, because Stephen knows very little of the ways of Nelson’s Navy, and can be an ‘interpreter’ for the rest of us, especially in the very early books. He is experiencing things like the sudden uprush of activity when the watches change for he first time, and so are we; to a certain extent we see this world mainly through Stephen’s eyes. And of course O’Brian had no idea, when he delivered the manuscript for Master and Commander, that this would be the first in a series of over twenty books that would occupy the rest of his life and define his literary reputation.

He was already, though, a huge fan of the period and of Nelson, and it’s his knowledge of that, and his deep enthusiasm for it as well, which illuminates all of the books. Some of the action may seem exaggerated or unlikely, but there is scarcely a naval incident that isn’t based in some way on reality, and the subplots are thoroughly researched as well. The actions in which Aubrey’s ship, the Sophie, becomes involved are based on the experiences of Thomas Cochrane, and Cochrane is (largely) the model for Jack Aubrey. Maturin, it has been said, is more like the rather complex and troubled author. It’s a real achievement to take all that thorough-going research and knowledge and transform it into something as exciting and involving as Master and Commander – let alone the other books in the series.

It comes as quite a surprise now to realise how slow-burning the series was. Master and Commander wasn’t immediately picked up by a British publisher, for example, and the early reviews simply compared Jack Aubrey to Horatio Hornblower, usually to the former’s disadvantage. But slowly the word began to spread. O’Brian’s books picked up illustrious fans who weren’t afraid to sing their praises, and so the series grew into what it is today: something of a global phenomenon, if a somewhat select one. And one with something of a catching style for which I must apologize (no risk of duels, anyway)…

Dum di Dum di Dum, di Dum…

THE THIRD MAN and THE FALLEN IDOL, by Graham Greene, my edition 1978

Bookcase 3, shelf 5, book 17

I’m not a Graham Greene fan, really. There’s a limit to the amount of Catholic angst I can take without becoming impatient and advising the characters to stop moaning and make a nice cup of tea . Some do get through. Like this.

I must have bought this because The Third Man is probably my all-time favourite film ever. I’m not sure why I wanted the book because I can recite the script, sing the theme tune, see the images in my mind’s eye and stand around in darkened Vienna doorways with a kitten on my feet. OK, not the latter. I prefer to walk away from besotted men in wintry cemeteries while someone plays the zither.

But I found this fascinating, not so much for Graham Greene’s novella – really a basic film treatment – as for his introduction. And I quite enjoyed The Fallen Idol, the brief short story which accompanies it, an altogether a more finished piece of work (but forgive me for concentrating on TTM here). That’s because The Third Man was never really meant for publication. It was, as Greene says, ‘never intended to be read, but only to be seen’. Greene, asked by Alexander Korda to write a film for the director Carol Reed following their collaboration on The Fallen Idol, wrote a ‘story’ on which to base his script. And this is it. The raw material for one of those films which will last forever.

The seeds of the plot had been sown much earlier, a snippet of an idea Greene had jotted down ages before, a thought about someone who had just heard about the death of his friend – named Harry – and had then seen him on the street. Korda wanted a film about the occupation of Vienna after WW2, and the combination is cinema history. Or not quite – the differences between the film and the original story are what fascinate me. And how much better the film is for those differences, as Greene himself acknowledges.

The novella is narrated by Calloway, played – brilliantly – by Trevor Howard in the film. And Calloway’s voice is perfect; he makes an ideal narrator.

He tells the story of a down-at-heel writer, one Rollo Martins (Rollo? yikes), who is invited by his friend Harry Lime to come and do some unspecified work for him in war-ravaged Vienna. When Martins arrives, as in the film, he discovers that Lime has apparently been killed in a car accident, and that his funeral is taking place at that very moment… or is he really dead? Who was the mysterious ‘third man’ who carried the corpse away from the street? Why did Harry, apparently killed outright, nevertheless have final words for Martins and for his refugee girlfriend, Anna? And was it Lime that Martins saw for a fraction of a second in the dark, standing in a doorway with a kitten sitting on his feet?

The novella and the film do follow each other quite closely – of course, the book is a trial for the script, so that’s not surprising. The penicillin racket that Lime is running, his associates Kurtz and Dr Winckler, the chase through the sewers: they’re all here. The changes do come a s a shock if you know the film, though.

Both Martins and Lime are British here, something which had to change once Orson Welles had been cast as Harry Lime. As Lime’s childhood friend, Martins had to be American too, even if he had not been played – superlatively – by Joseph Cotten. Martins’ bafflement, and general good nature, do come through in both the book and in the film.

And thank heavens they were cast as they were; Wells is perfect, with a combination of sleaze and charm which perfectly suits the character as written here, as well as in the final script. And, even though Holley Martins is a silly name, and was quite intentionally so, it isn’t half as silly as Rollo Martins. That was wrong, even though it was supposed to be ‘absurd’. Just wrong (Greene admits it – and note who changed it: ‘Mr Joseph Cotten quite reasonably objected to the name Rollo…’).

There’s also confirmation in the introduction that Harry Lime’s famous lines about peace and creativity:

‘You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock…’

were indeed written and inserted into the script by Welles. But there are lines that leap out of this novella / treatment / whatever it is, lines which made it into the final script, such as the iconic (if a line can be iconic) ‘I never knew Vienna before the War … with its Strauss music and its bogus easy charm…’. The surprise is that there are so few of them.

More modifications were made. Lime’s Rumanian associate is an American in the book; having cast Welles as Lime, it was felt that there couldn’t be another American baddie. Anna, Lime’s devastated girlfriend, is kidnapped by the Russians, rather than arrested. And who knew Lime was an ex-Catholic, whose final words might have been an act of contrition? (I suppose that was inevitable, really.)

And – no! – the ending is different.

Greene’s ending is wrong; it doesn’t work, and he says so in the introduction: ‘One of the very few major disputes between Carol Reed and myself concerned the ending, and he has been proved triumphantly right.’ The ending of The Third Man is, after all, one of the most powerful and restrained in film (or I think so, anyway), and the one in the book would have trivialised everything that had gone before.

And as a final note, reality often matches fiction – and it does so here. Green says that he knew someone who had taken two friends to see the film when it was in the cinemas: ‘He was surprised to find them subdued and depressed by a picture he had enjoyed. They then told him that at the end of the War when they were with the Royal Air Force they had themselves sold penicillin in Vienna. The possible consequences of their act had never before occurred to them.’

Possibly not what Greene or Reed had in mind…

And now I’ll just walk off into the distance with autumn leaves rattling on the ground. Dum di dum di dum, di dum…

‘Somewhere a’ stories are real, a’ songs are true.’

THE WEE FREE MEN, by Terry Pratchett, published in 2004

Bookcase 3, shelf 8, book 16

Well, that’s a bit of a change from the last book!

Before anything else, a confession. Until a few years ago, I’d not read a word of Terry Pratchett. That was because I knew I wouldn’t like him, right?

Then all my books were in storage, and I was living in a friend’s house for six months.  I had to read the books already on the shelves or bankrupt myself, and I was ‘reduced’ to Pratchett. Within half an hour I knew I’d been making a terrible mistake for years, blinded by stupid prejudice and ridiculous assumptions about genre. His books are wonderful.

But, but, but – I’m still not a huge fan of the earlier books, and there are inevitably some weaker ones (Monstrous Regiment went to a charity shop). I prefer the later Pratchett, the angry Pratchett, the Pratchett of the Night Watch. I wondered what I would do if the dice gave me a Pratchett I didn’t particularly like – admit it, or loyally defend it with qualifications? Happily, they didn’t. I got this.

It’s ostensibly a children’s book, following on from his award-winning Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. But this is darker, fitting in more with the overall atmosphere of Discworld. It centres on Tiffany Aching:

a child who is something of an anomaly in her family, having a deep respect for learning (she reads the dictionary for pleasure) and being a witch in the making. In this she is most closely linked with her recently-deceased grandmother, a shepherd of outstanding ability and status. Tiffany sees things as they really are, not as they ought to be. So when she sees a horrifying monster in the river she knows it is real and reacts appropriately. That means using her sticky baby brother as bait (that’s the ruthless witchiness coming out) and whacking the river-sprite – who is similar to a classic British folk horror – with an iron frying pan. This not surprisingly attracts attention, but the watchers are surprising: some of Pratchett’s most wonderful creations, the Nac Mac Feegle, or the Wee Free Men.

Apart from uttering cries of ‘Crivens! or ‘Oh, waily, waily, waily!’, I’m not sure how to describe the NMF. Hm. They’re wonderful. They’re diminutive fairies, except they don’t have wings, they have tattoos; they don’t tend to do good things unless there’s no other option or they’ve been bribed by promises of Special Sheep Liniment; they’re not cute or twee, they’re Glaswegian. They were thrown out of Fairyland, possibly for being drunk and disorderly. The Feeglespotting poster above, by Paul Kidby – whose illustrations of Discworld I absolutely love – comes from The Art of Discworld, where Pratchett comments ‘The Wee Free Men was launched in Inverness, to see if I survived. I did.’

Let’s whip through a bit of plot. Tiffany’s sticky brother disappears; he’s been knidnapped by the Queen of the Elves in one of her repeated attempts to invade the Discworld; she also invades dreams. Pratchett’s elves are nothing like Tolkien’s; they are immensely dangerous, self-centred beyond belief and wickedly tricksy. Tiffany, aided by the NMF, advice from Miss Tick (itinerant teacher and witch), Miss Tick’s ‘familiar’ (a helpful toad – he’s yellow because he’s unwell, but the actual pun is avoided, thank heavens), and her own natural good sense, sets off to rescue him. Which… no, no plot spoilers… it’s not a long book; read it to find out what happens.

But that’s just the plot. For me the main themes are more to do with being true to yourself, dealing with bereavement and understanding the power of the land. The high chalk, Tiffany’s country, is almost another character, a perpetual presence which is powerfully described. Pratchett says that ‘there’s a lot of my past in some of the descriptions in the book’, and you can tell. Let’s hope that’s mainly confined to his wonderful descriptions of the landscape, and not to any personal acquaintance with any small, aggressive, smelly (Tiffany makes them bathe), kilted and armed pictsies [sic]…

‘Nae quin! Nae king! Nae laird! Nae master! We willna’ be fooled again!’

Elementary (or not)

THE SIGN OF FOUR, by Arthur Conan Doyle, originally published in 1890; my edition, 1982

Bookshelf 3, shelf 4, book 34

I suppose it had to happen – Sherlock was inevitably going to put in an appearance, especially as I have noticed that the dice seem to select this area of bookshelves more than others (they’re not weighted – honest).

I was quite glad to get this particular Sherlock Holmes book, though, as I’d not re-read it in ages. It’s one of the ones I loved most and may even have been the one I read first – or was that Hound? Either is a rattling good tale and a great introduction to the world of 221b Baker Street.

The Sign of Four is the second Sherlock Holmes book, and like the earlier A Study in Scarlet, it’s a full novel and not a collection of short stories. And like that book, it is also divided into two halves, though not so crudely. Again, one is the crime and the pursuit, and the other is the background. But unlike Scarlet (at least, that is, for me), it’s a cracking read. And it still is.

One of the joys of coming back to this book is the delight I’ve been able to take in discovering all the best Sherlockian clichés developing and maturing with rapidity. Yes, the Baker Street Irregulars had appeared in Scarlet, but here they are again, more developed. 

Here’s Holmes’ cocaine habit – ‘a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?’ – and terrible attitude to women, reported by – as always – Dr Watson:

‘I would not tell them too much,’ said Holmes. ‘Women are never to be entirely trusted – not the best of them.’
I did not pause to argue over this atrocious sentiment. 

And here are some of his most famous – and frequently misquoted – statements:

‘How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?’

Hansom cabs clatter along gas-lit streets through a deepening fog (but of course – and happily as I write this the fog outside my house is getting thicker and thicker), and through it all winds the river, scene of one of the great chases in detective fiction.

So what of the plot, what of the story of the governess, the mysterious Indian pearls, the summons at night and the strange and terrifying death of Bartholemew Sholto at Pondicherry Lodge, Upper Norwood? Well, on one level it’s sensationalist hooey, but it’s enormous fun and – and this is a big ‘and’, because it’s far from being generally true of the detective genre, even today – it hangs together and makes logical sense. And it’s exciting, and I’m not giving away any spoilers!

I’ve been thinking about why it works so well. One reason is that though it is sensationalist – the chase, the fabulous jewels, the Andaman Islander with his poison darts – it is also deeply atmospheric:

It was a September evening and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement…

Another reason why the Sherlock Holmes stories still appeal is that they are rooted in a real world; London’s streets and buildings are frequently named and some things are still recognisable to Londoners today – such as the way that you can look down on a foggy city from the ‘heights’ of South London, and see only hints of it, tall buildings poking through the murk. It all builds – the criminal and his Andaman accomplice are tracked along a route that can still be followed; Holmes, Watson and Miss Morston (the governess) are taken in a cab along roads down which you can still drive – and creates a real world, one which barely seems fictional. And this, I am convinced, is largely why the Sherlock Holmes stories have such an appeal, even now, well over a hundred years since they were written. That and the perennial reason of reader satisfaction at a problem ingeniously solved.

Incidentally, reading The Sign of Four and contrasting it with another book emphasised something which has been bothering me slightly during my dice-reading exercise: language and attitudes which are now offensive.

I have just put the other book, written in the 1940s, to one side because of this. I don’t think I’m being over-sensitive, and obviously it was once just about acceptable – in some sectors of society – to sprinkle around words which are now (and even were, sometimes, then) offensively racist in your work. Writers are creatures of their time, and their work inevitably reflects this, but it can make a book unreadable today. At first I was worried about this in The Sign of Four, with its partial setting during the Indian mutiny, and it wouldn’t be written in this way today. But it surprised me at the end. The Andaman Islander, having been referred to by Conan Doyle / Watson in terms which make him seem more of a monster than a human being, finds his defender in Jonathan Small, his companion: yes, he’s been problematic – killing someone probably counts as problematic – but ‘he was staunch and true, was poor Tonga. No man ever had a more faithful mate.’ The book I rejected, written fifty years later, would never have been so generous.

Detecting Cornwall

WYCLIFFE AND THE FOUR JACKS, by W J Burley, published in 1985 – and WYCLIFFE AND THE TANGLED WEB, also by Burley (but of course), published in1988

Bookshelf 15, shelf 4, books 10 and 11

It’s a bit like Cheddars – you can’t just eat up one detective story; you need more. Well, I do anyway, and the same applies to sequences of novels (heaven only knows what will happen if the dice select one of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books). Oxfam may have been where I found these rather lovely yellow-jacketed Gollancz hardbacks to fuel my addiction.

So not one tiltle here, but two.

Why do we read detective fiction, I wonder? Why is it so very popular?

I think it partly appeals to our puzzle-solving instincts, and partly to our desire to see order come from chaos, and you can’t get more transgressive than murder.

But of course there’s more to a good detective novel than the solving of the crime. Otherwise reading one would be little different to completing a sudoku, only with extra blunt instruments.

Of course you need a stonkingly good plot. But you also need believable characters, sympathetic or not – and your main detective really does not need  to be alcoholic, addicted to drugs or a complete screwball – and you need an interesting setting. Often the best crime writers tend to explore a particular location over several books, and it’s best when it’s one which readers ‘think’ they know, but which the writer then reveals in all its actual grimness or hypocrisy. Think Morse’s Oxford or the Edinburgh of John Rebus.

In the case of the Wycliffe books, it’s Cornwall. 

That’s hardly surprising: Burley (1914-2002) was a complete Cornishman. But though he always sets the Wycliffe books in a recognisable area, he’s also at pains to distort it slightly so there’s no risk of any confusion between fiction or reality. A necessary precaution when you live in the community you’re writing about – especially if you write about nasty little murders and sins coming home to roost…

The first of the two, Four Jacks, is set in the Roseland peninsula. For me, this is one of the books which most conjures up Cornwall, partly because it’s set in the summer, and partly because the landscape is so lovingly described. And it’s a Cornish Cornwall despite the holiday setting – not the Cornwall of the visitors who basically form a backdrop to the action, walking around in the distance and taking, in the case of Tangled Web, boat trips on which they witness arguments. That particular book is set in a version of Mevagissey.

I must admit that I don’t know the Cornwall of the 1980s well enough to comment on how accurate Burley’s representation of it was, but I do know small communities – small rural communities – and they hardly change. Burley has, in many ways, got them sussed. And Wycliffe, Burley’s main detective, understands them too:

‘…he had been brought up in the narrow world of family feuds, squabbles over land, and the conflicting interests of landlord and tenant.’

(This is a world – Tangled Web – in which it seems perfectly reasonable to put an elderly aunt in the freezer when she dies at an inconvenient time. And I don’t find it exaggerated one bit.)

And then there are the ‘incomers’ like the unpleasant David Cleeve – he’s the focus of Jacks – though he is an extreme case: a famous writer with a dodgy past. For me, though Cleeve may be the focus of the book, the peripheral characters are where my interest lies: the Borlases, brother and sisters, whose niece is murdered by accident; Laura Wynn, the new-age protester against an archaeological dig… they can be major or minor, but they’re sketched in well. For instance, Jack Polmear, pub landlord, barely appears – but I’ve met a Jack Polmear or two, he’s so convincing.

Ultimately, however, the appeal of Burley’s books for me lies in the motivation behind the crimes. It’s never overly melodramatic, exaggerated or ridiculous. It’s often derived from mistaken assumptions and muddle, which strikes me as being realistic (though I may be operating under a muddled and mistaken assumption myself, of course). I think it is probably this aspect of his work which has led to comparisons with Simenon. That, and the fact that he’s not at all repetitious.

In many detective novels you can work out who did it well in advance, not because of any clues the author may have dropped – that’s acceptable, and part of the game – but because it’s always the weak young man or the person with the cast-iron alibi or the person who wasn’t even there. That’s not true of Burley’s Wycliffe books at all; yes, you can find clues and shout at Wycliffe ‘It’s a synonym for John!’ or ‘She’s lying!’, but there’s no preordained plot device.

What they do have is a good central detective (who was, I think, well played by Jack Shepherd in the 1990s TV series), an excellent supporting cast and a well-planned, atmospheric plot.

For those who also appreciate W J Burley, there’s a small website which celebrates his work – check it out. If you’re interested in the technical side of planning detective novel, there’s a page on there specifically looking at how he plotted out Wycliffe and the Tangled Web.

Concerning cow-creamers

THE CODE OF THE WOOSTERS by P G Wodehouse, originally published in 1938

Bookcase 2, Shelf 1, Book 27

Ah – this has revealed one of the problems associated with letting Fate choose from your library (ahem, that gives my collection of books a status they really do not deserve, but let’s stick with it). The rolling dice pick something you just don’t fancy reading.

Well, not at that particular time. Don’t get me wrong; I like Wodehouse – but I was feeling in a much more non-fiction frame of mind, and so, and so – this went by the board. And then I did what I promised myself I would do: picked it up and read it anyway. Unfortunately I was drinking tea at the time, and snorting + hot liquids – not a good combination.

After I’d mopped everything down, I settled into Wodehouse’s splendid language and lost myself in the saga – or rather the ‘sinister affair’ – of ‘Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, Old Pop Bassett, Stiffy Byng, the Rev. H. P. (‘Stinker’) Pinker, the eighteenth-century cow-creamer, and the small brown leather-covered notebook’.

I make no apologies, by the way, for quoting. I’m with Stephen Fry, who said of Wodehouse ‘I am not alone in believing he has come closer than any writer of English to approaching Shakespeare’s complete mastery and transcendency of language’. All you have to do is tune in, and the next thing you know is that tea is coming down your nose. Inelegant but inevitable.

The cow-creamer – ‘a sort of silver cow with a kind of blotto look on its face’ – is critical. Bertie Wooster is sent on a cow-creamer-related mission by his Aunt Dahlia:

“‘Aunt Dahlia, this is blackmail!’
‘Yes, isn’t it?’ she said, and beetled off…”

(who is a wonderful role model, and one I fully intend to emulate when dealing with my own nephew). This unsurprisingly results in the usual confusion, and a chaos which only Jeeves can resolve. Bertie’s aunts are some of Wodehouse’s greatest creations, notably Aunt Agatha ‘who eats broken bottles and wears barbed wire next the skin’. Fortunately this is Dahlia’s book. Not that it helps.

There’s no point going into minute plot details; like all of P G’s Wooster books, The Code of the Woosters builds misunderstanding upon misunderstanding and unwonted assumption upon unwonted assumption. Along the way French chefs have to be retained, lobster is consumed in unwise quantities, and an incriminating notebook is lost.

Of course, Jeeves sorts it all out, but only after Bertie has attempted – disastrously – to act as a substitute. But the absolute joy, for me anyway, lies in the characters. It’s packed with wonderful descriptions. Take Madeline Bassett, Gussie’s fiancée: ‘a ghastly girl … I remember her telling me once that rabbits were gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen. Perfect rot, of course. They’re nothing of the sort’. And there’s Gussie Fink-Nottle, Bertie’s ‘fish-faced friend’ and newt-fancier.

However, my personal fave has to be Roderick Spode. The awful Spode is the ‘founder and head of the Saviours of Britain, a Fascist organisation better known as the Black Shorts’. Yes, that is Shorts:

…’By the way, when you say “shorts”, you mean “shirts”, of course.’
‘No. By the time Spode formed his association, there were no shirts left. He and his adherents wear black shorts.’
‘Footer bags, you mean?’
‘Yes.’
‘How perfectly foul.’
‘Yes.’
‘Bare knees?’
‘Bare knees.’
‘Golly!’

Bear in mind this was published in 1938 (and Spode has the requisite moustache as well as his black shorts), and then fast-forward to what happened after the War when P G Wodehouse was accused of collaboration. I find it difficult to believe that anyone reading his shredding of 1930s British fascism in this book could have actually believed he deliberately collaborated – been ridiculously naive, yes, but not coldly collaborated. Spode, you see, has a shameful secret which I will not reveal here. Needless to say, it is Jeeves who ferrets it out.

And one final word: I love the covers of these old Penguin Wodehouse editions. The illustrator was Ionicus, aka Joshua Armitage, 1913-1998. When I was little I developed a deep love of the covers of my grandfather’s Dalesman magazine, also by Ionicus. What came first, I wonder, in my affections? Maybe I picked up P G W because of the illustrations on the covers. There are worse reasons…