Monday, 25 March 2013

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

What I particularly like about Jane Gardam is her ability to write a serious book raising serious questions,  yet imbue it with a quiet, subversive humour. How she makes this work could be because her writing is so pared down and crisp, or maybe it is the array of quirky characters. Whatever it is, this particular combination  makes her books, for me, among the best there are. And better still, the third book in her Old Filth trilogy is out in a month or two.
    With this in mind I decided to revisit the first. In Old Filth the serious topic is the travesty of what were called Raj Orphans - children born in the far-flung regions of the Empire and sent home to England away from their parents to be brought up by strangers, sometimes not very nice ones.
    This happens to Edward Feathers who is born in Malaya, and with no mother and a father aloof because of the lingering effects of his war service, is sent to live in Wales at the age of five. He and his cousins Babs and Claire, and a boy named Cumberledge are fostered with the cruel Ma Didds. The events that take place are not described until the end of the book, but their effects remain through Edward's long and illustrious career as a barrister and judge and into his retirement.
    In his seventies, Eddie and his sensible wife, Betty, return to England to live in a damp corner of Dorset, having lived in the East for most of their lives. When Betty dies, Eddie begins to dwell more on more on the events of the past. Weaving past narrative with the events that follow his retirement, the novel charts his progress, from Wales to boarding school, his great friendship with a boy called Ingoldby and his family, who adopt him for holidays. Then the disruption of World War Two and the start of his career in law and the attachment of the famous soubriquet, Filth - failed in London, try Hong Kong. 
   It's a wonderful story, and Gardam really nails her character - you get to know Filth so well, not only because of what happens to him, and quite a lot does, but because of the way other characters relate to him. The second book in the trilogy The Man in the Wooden Hat, is Betty's story, which is similarly tragic. The third, Last Friends, will be that of Veneering, Filth's rival, arch enemy and eventual good friend. I can hardly wait.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

House of the Hanged by Mark Mills

Mark Mills' novel House of the Hanged starts off at a fair clip. We are flung into 1919 Petrograd, where a Cheka patrol awaits our young hero, Tom, who is desperately trying to escape Bolshevik Russia with the woman he loves. Things all go horribly wrong, and the young Englishman barely escapes with his life.    
    Next chapter, sixteen years later, we're in the south of France and Tom is collecting his delightful goddaughter Lucy from the station. She's visiting during her summer break from university - her parents have a holiday home near Tom's and it is all cocktails on the terrace, and tennis parties with the neighbours who are all expats or well-heeled emigres. We're between the wars, though, and there's the machinations of Hitler plus the the threat of communism looming in the background.
    Tom has had a fairly intense career with the British secret services, but now he writes travel books. It seems a charmed life until he wakes up in the middle of the night to discover someone breaking into his bedroom intent on killing him. The assassin seems to know his way about the house too. But Tom's secret agent reflexes are still as good as ever, and all that tennis, boating and swimming mean he's in good shape, fortunately, as it soon becomes a fight to the death.
    Like the reader, Tom has no doubt that this attempt on his life has something to do with his past, and whoever wants him dead is likely to try again. Tom begins to suspect the involvement of people he has come to know at the seaside town of Le Rayol: there's Lucy's father, Leonard, a longtime friend and bigwig with the Foreign Office. Or could it be Yevgeny the art dealer and his wife Fanya, or even their charming American guest artist, Walter? Tom is looking over his shoulder at every turn.
    But as he's unable to tell anyone, the house parties, the games of volleyball on the beach continue, as do Tom's problems with women: the beautiful Helene, who sees other men, or Lucy, who seems to have developed a huge crush on Tom. 
    Mills does a great job of recreating the summer atmosphere of the south of France and the idle past-times of the idle rich who live there. This gives the book the colour that makes it interesting - with descriptions of delectable meals and lively characters, in between the bouts of thrilling action. House of the Hanged is a bit like those films they used to make in the fifties and sixties, with gorgeous Riviera settings, glamorous blondes in evening gowns and car chases involving men in tuxedoes. I can almost see a young Audrey Hepburn as Lucy.
    But the book is lot better than that. The interactions between Tom and the other characters, especially with Lucy and Barnaby, his impecunious old school friend, together with the past events that have shaped him, give the book an extra dimension, and the writing is crisp and nicely judged. It is pure escapism on the whole, however, but charming and satisfying escapism for all that.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

The Blackhouse by Peter May

There's something special about crime novels set in cold climates, and it usually involves grisly murders and a creeping sense of menace. I expected this of Peter May's book, The Blackhouse, and for a start it seemed my suspicions were well founded. The book opens with the grim discovery of a body in a boat shed by a young amorous couple, who are out looking for somewhere to be, well, amorous.
    Next we meet grieving Edinburgh DI Fin McLeod on the day of his return to work following the death of his little boy a few weeks earlier. He is sent to the Outer Hebrides island of Lewis to investigate the murder, which has striking similarities to one in Edinburgh. He's a competent detective but on top of that he has local knowledge. Lewis is his childhood home, which he left in his teens, and Fin hasn't been back since.
    On Lewis he is made to feel the interloper by the officer in charge of the case, abrasive Glaswegian DCI Tom Smith, who believes there's no connection between the two cases and doesn't want Fin sticking his beak in. Of course that isn't going to happen. Fin soon finds all sorts of questions to ask, particularly as he knows the people of Lewis so well.
    The death of a man who he remembers as the school bully stirs up a past that has many a dark secret. These include the tragic deaths of his parents and awkward relationships with schoolmates, particularly best mate Artair and his first true love, Marsaili.
    From there, the novel see-saws between the current murder investigation and interviews with locals, and scenes from Fin's childhood that helpfully explain why Fin might have wanted to leave the island all those years ago. Oddly enough there are more grim events lurking in the past than those related to the murder.
    Connecting past and present is the yearly cull of young gannets on the remote island of An Sgeir, a rocky outcrop that is home to seabirds and little else. Every year twelve lucky men make the hazardous pilgrimage to An Sgeir to harvest the gannet delicacy, which is a kind of rite of passage for adolescent males. Fin himself made this journey in his last summer on Lewis, an event that changed his life.
    The trip is just about to go ahead when Fin returns, and on board will be Artair, his old friend, and Artair's son. This is where the creeping menace starts to weasel its way in - as events of the past finally catch up to those of the present and an exciting showdown is in store for the reader.
    The Blackhouse has a gripping storyline that grabs you by the throat and won't let go. Sometimes it seems unimaginable that so much can happen to a young lad on an island settlement like Lewis. What makes the book work is the author's sure touch with setting and characters. This is the first of three books involving Fin McLeod on Lewis and I am looking forward to journeying back to the island for more.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

I'd been putting off reading Hilary Mantel's hugely successful, double-award winning book, Bring Up the Bodies, even though Wolf Hall had been one of my favourite, most recommended books for the year it was published. Possibly this was because I'd been saving it for a quiet spell, so I could give it the attention it deserves.
    But mostly I think it was because with the first book I'd become oddly fond of Thomas Cromwell, unlikely as it seems, and having learned about Tudor history over the years, I know a bit about what happens. This is always the problem with historical novels about famous people - there's no chance of a surprise ending.
    Bring Up the Bodies focuses on just a few months among the people of the court of Henry VIII when he was tiring of his marriage to Anne Boleyn and her inability to produce a son, and when he had become besotted with Jane Seymour. As usual Henry turns to Thomas Cromwell to fix things for him so he can get his way.
    Actually Henry sounds somewhat nicer than that in the book, while it is Anne who comes out as haughty and waspish, attributes that make her hugely unpopular at court, especially with her ladies in waiting. Her flirting with the men of court, including her brother, and the potential for infidelity, real or imagined, lead as we know to her downfall.
    The all-knowing, all-seeing Cromwell, tasked by the king to find a way out of the marriage, easily finds people willing to dob the queen in - although much of this doesn't take place until the second half of the book. Earlier chapters focus on the characters and politics within court and Cromwell's household, the personalities and how they interrelate as well as Henry's growing interest in Jane.
    For this reason Bodies doesn't have the pace of Wolf Hall, which covered huge changes in the order of things in England - the Reformation, the royal divorce, the deaths of major figures such as Thomas More and Thomas Wolsey. While it may take longer to get going, the tension and unease that build page by page become excruciatingly intense.
    As Cromwell puts his considerable talents towards getting witness statements to prove Anne Boleyn's treason, he appears as a menacing figure with a veneer of reasonableness. He knows it would be dangerous to disappoint the king and to the modern reader a lot of what he does is extremely discomforting.
    Bring Up the Bodies is immensely absorbing none the less. Mantel is a wonderful storyteller, and her style makes these characters from the past very real and believable. Her use of the present tense and very natural, modern language make it easy to read, while the characters are still allowed to be witty and comment interestingly on what is happening.
    It is easy to see why Mantel is now so well thought of among the novelists of our time. She has pulled off something quite remarkable, making the distant past come alive, but somehow with Bring Up the Bodies, I didn't feel quite as impressed as with the first book. It will be interesting to see how she goes with the third - I envisage something pretty special.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Watchers of Time by Charles Todd

I don't know if it's just me, but it seems amazing how many American authors there are writing period or cosy murder mysteries set in England. With some of them, you're hard pressed to tell they're not English themselves.
    One of these is the American mother and son team that writes under the name of Charles Todd. They have a couple of series on the go. The Bess Crawford series follows a plucky young nurse during World War One with connections, through her father, with British Intelligence (spies, that is).
    The other series, which I particularly like for a bit of light reading, is the Inspector Rutledge series, set in the years just following World War One. Ian Rutledge is a police officer with Scotland Yard, recently returned from the front. He's youngish and one assumes, fairly attractive, but unable to get close to women because his relationships are marred by the fact that he is always accompanied by the ghost of a fellow officer, a Scot by the name of Hamish McLeod.
    This is the officer he had shot for disobeying an order - the kind of order that had men sent 'over the top' into a barrage of machine-gunfire. Rutledge had to fire the 'coup de grace' from his own revolver. So not a happy memory. And now, whether real or imagined, Hamish is always there, lurking in Rutledge's head, passing on his opinions about whatever Rutledge does and the cases he handles.
    In spite of all this, Rutledge is an excellent policeman - tenacious and sensitive to the nuances that make different people tick. But Rutledge isn't the only star of the show. The small towns and distinctively British landscapes that feature in his cases are lovingly described in vivid detail.
    In Watchers of Time, Rutledge investigates the bludgeoning of a parish priest in a small town near Norfolk called Osterley. This is marsh country with farms and old country inns and big open skies.
    The locals are so upset by the death, they cannot believe the murderer is to be found among the townsfolk, so a scapegoat - in this case a dodgy fairground strongman, who was just passing through - is hauled in. He supposedly was after the money taken at the fair - a burglary gone wrong. But the clergy are not so sure, and Scotland Yard is called in to check that they have indeed caught the culprit.
    Rutledge soon uncovers more potential motives. Father James happened to hear an unusual confession from an aging coachman on his deathbed. There is the disappearance of the pretty young wife of the local squire's son. There is the erratically eccentric woman who is the only person to admit to hating the priest. And what is the secret of the attractive yet haunted looking holidaymaker, who spends a lot of time in the church?
    It is all classic whodunnit stuff, in the great Agatha Christie tradition. Thrown into the mix is a bit of social comment and grim ruminations on the horrors of war. Fortunately these don't interrupt the plot too much and Rutledge gets on with the job of solving the crime, and there's a bit of action at the end that beefs up the pace. Which is how these Rutledge books usually go. You probably wouldn't want to read this sort of thing all the time, but every so often, it's just the ticket.