Sunday, October 23, 2016

Five Roundabouts to Heaven

Five Roundabouts to Heaven - John Bingham

ISBN-10: 141654044X

John Bingham (1908 - 1988) worked in British counter-intelligence. He was also a writer of crime novels, spy novels and mysteries. Readers that like novels by John LeCarre, William Haggard, Patricia Highsmith, or Ruth Rendall’s Barbara Vine novels will like Bingham’s psychological realism and unflinching view of fallible human beings.

In this novel, also known as The Tender Poisoner, the characters feel driven to adultery. This leads to lying, scheming to steal the GF’s of other guys, and plotting murder for tender and compassionate reasons.

Definitely not escapist fiction, but a solid crime story. Not a mystery, but rather an exploration of the psychology that could prompt an average person to contemplate murder, and ultimately to be able to commit murder.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Mount TBR #54

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

Raised on Radio – Gerald Nachman

Radio as popular medium in the US enjoyed its classic days from about the mid-Twenties to the end of World War II. This overview for the general reader is breezily written and enjoyable. It covers all genres, from soap operas to comedy to variety shows to cop and robbers. 

For readers seeking to improve their pop cultural knowledge, he gives the reasons why these figures were popular: Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Walter Winchell, and Jack Webb. His treatments of Amos n Andy, Bob n Ray, Burns n Allen, and Vic n Sade were very informative to me. His discussions of Fibber McGee n Molly and The Great Gildersleeve (“Leee-roooooy” “Ah, unc, for corn’s sake!”) are informed not only by his own warm memories of these shows but also by his understanding that we post-moderns may not grok these shows. 

Any reader into the history of popular entertainment or old time radio will get a great deal out of this book.

Monday, October 17, 2016

All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front - Erich Maria Remarque

The author was drafted at the age eighteen into the German Army. In this fictionalized memoir of the First World War, he describes the lives and endurance of a group of soldiers who were still only teenagers when they experienced the brutality of trench warfare. The battle scenes are gripping and almost intolerably vivid. I think the book is both an anti-war novel and a coming of age story. The youths have not experienced anything in life except school and war so they wonder what they are going to do when the war is over. A lost generation, they worry that they have no skills except soldiering and bear the mental torture of prolonged stress, what Ford Madox Ford called, “immense miles and miles of anguish in darkened minds.”

When this book was released during the Weimar Republic, Germans like Adolph Hitler, for whom the war was an adventure, detested it and sent Remarque hate mail and death threats. After Hitler rose to power, all of Remarque's books were banned in Germany by the Nazi government.  All Quiet on the Western Front was among the works destroyed in public book burnings in 1933.

Mass media tools and hacks accused Remarque of pacifism and defeatism, so he had to flee first to Hollywood with many other German expatriates forced out of their country, such as Peter Lorre, Thomas Mann, Bertoldt Brecht, Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder. In 1958, he married actress Paulette Goddard and they stayed together, living in Switzerland, until he passed away in 1970.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Case of the Solid Key

The Case of the Solid Key - Anthony Boucher

Fans of vintage mysteries express regret that Anthony Boucher (same sound as “voucher”) wrote only three mysteries starring his private eye hero, Fergus O’Breen. Like Nero Wolfe, O’Breen is less a character than a collection of quirks. He drives a canary yellow roadster and his gaudy wardrobe makes people think the circus is in town. In order to think he needs to pace up and down, so when he twists his ankle in this one, he feels hemmed in and bummed out.  He has a super-human capacity for adult beverages.  A well-read scholar, he calls himself an “introspective extrovert with manic-depressive tendencies.” With his eccentricities, red hair and larger than life personality then, we may safely conclude he’s indeed a son of the Emerald Isle.

The second of Boucher’s trio of mysteries, The Case of the Solid Key, was released in 1941. The setting is Hollywood. Not the glamorous City of Dreams showcasing big stars and major studios, but the Tinsel Town of No Pity. The characters are mainly young actors and actresses scrambling to get noticed by agents and talent spotters. They toil at menial jobs to pay the rent and put on plays in a little theater which is mainly a racket run by a sharper. O’Breen’s sister Maureen (really – Maureen O’Breen) is the Head of Publicity for Metropolis Pictures so we get fascinating descriptions of a film studio as work environment during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Boucher must have been writing about milieu – young actors vs. big studios  -  that he knew intimately because setting and characters ring true.

The mystery unfolds gradually, with the murder occurring about half-way into the book. Usually this would be a problem for me, a guy that likes the corpse discovered by the end of chapter one. But, as I hinted, the authentic setting and skilled characterization more than make up for the lack of detecting.
Period touches and heavy themes add interest. Boucher tosses into the mix a spoiled rich actress grousing about the socialistic ways of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and lefty theater managers that connive to make the little theater into a worker-owned cooperative. But Boucher was by no means a heathenish New Dealer because at the end of the story the perp discusses sin in terms of reason, free will, personal responsibility, and the voluntariness of ignorance.  While the Catholic theology takes only a couple of pages of the book, it will surely perk up readers who re-read Chesterton’s Father Brown tales.

This vintage mystery is well-worth reading. I can see why discerning readers wish Boucher had written more mysteries and not turned his attention to science fiction and criticism.  He is remembered so fondly, in fact, that the Anthony Awards are given at each annual Bouchercon World Mystery Convention.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Man Could Stand Up

A Man Could Stand Up – Ford Madox Ford

This is the third novel in the Parade’s End tetralogy, which Anthony Burgess called “the finest novel about the First World War.” The title echoes a remark made by a squaddie (grunt) that once peace finally comes, a man could stand up on a hill without the risk of anybody taking shots at him.

The end of the war, however, finds our hero Christopher Tietjens in a bad way. He suffers from anxiety and obsessive guilt that he was responsible for a terrible wound sustained by his subaltern. This novel does not develop the plot laid out in the first two novels, except that Tietjens’ harpy of a wife Sylvia sells all his furniture and he returns from the war to an empty house.

But the writing is amazing for us readers who enjoy modernist prose. Ford uses challenging modernistic techniques such as time shifts and what he called “literary impressionism,” the reproduction of life as it is lived. For instance, the novel opens with protagonist and pacifist Valentine Wannop missing the Armistice signal because of a telephone call from her nemesis, the literary poser Edith Ethel:

She didn't even know whether what they had let off had been maroons or aircraft guns or sirens. It had happened — the noise, whatever it was — whilst she had been coming through the underground passage from the playground to the schoolroom to answer this wicked telephone. So she had not heard the sound. She had missed the sound for which the ears of a world had waited for years, for a generation. For an eternity. No sound. When she had left the playground there had been dead silence. All waiting: girls rubbing one ankle with the other rubber sole...

The theme Ford examines is that after the First World War, nothing is going to be same. Men will return from the war in pain:

Hitherto, [Valentine] had thought of the War as physical suffering only: now she saw it only as mental torture. Immense miles and miles of anguish in darkened minds. That remained. Men might stand up on hill, but the mental torture could not be expelled.

But the traditional authority of Late Victorian and Edwardian sages was undermined too: "No more respect! Was that to be a lasting effect of the cataclysm that had involved the world?”

And why not – a couple of royals are snuffed in a provincial town in the Balkans and millions have to die – like Valentine thinks, “Middle Class Morality? A pretty gory carnival that had been for the last four years!

To my mind, the Parade’s End tetralogy is well-worth reading. And re-reading.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

No More Parades

No More Parades - Ford Madox Ford

ISBN-10: 1847770134

The first novel in the Parades’ End tetralogy, Some Do Not, was set in places where the Best People hang out (clubs in London, golf courses at Rye, and the Macmaster Fridays). But this second one is set at Rouen in a transit camp that was accommodating allied soldiers on their way to the Western Front. Ford examines the experience of officers during the First World War and the break-up of the marriage of Christopher and Sylvia Tietjens.

Although there is no mud and blood, Ford evokes the horror of combat with the death of the soldier ‘09 Morgan, who dies in Tietjens’ arms. When awfulness becomes the new normal and is prolonged, it is no wonder that officers lose their minds, as the mad subordinate McKechnie shows.

Also maddening is the ceaseless confusion. The illustration of the fog of war, the bureaucracy of armies, will bring to mind Waugh’s WWII trilogy and Burgess’ A Vision of Battlements. Tietjens can’t quarter, equip, or send on a couple thousand Canadian volunteers because orders from on high are repeatedly  rescinded. The incessant muddle causes strain in Tietjens, whose self-esteem depends on doing things right.

On the personal side, his wife is making life as difficult as possible. Sylvia, so conceited she doesn’t even acknowledge the war, is disgusted that Tietjens should be expected to serve the "ignoramuses" and “gaga old fools” who run the war. In order to embarrass her intensely private husband, Sylvia visits the transit camp in France, much to the consternation of Gen. Campion, who won’t have “skirts” on his bases. When Campion has it out with reticent Tietjens in a painful interview, he compares Tietjens with Dreyfus:

"Damn it; they say you're brilliant. But I thank heaven I haven't got you in my command.... Though I believe you're a good lad. But you're the sort of fellow to set a whole division by the ears.... A regular ... what's 'is name? A regular Dreyfus!"

"Did you think Dreyfus was guilty?" Tietjens asked.

"Hang it," the General said, "he was worse than guilty - the sort of fellow you couldn't believe in and yet couldn't prove anything against. The curse of the world .. ."

Too smart for his own good and too stoic to kowtow to power, Tietjens ends up in deep financial trouble due to his own Christ-like inability to say No to people who cadge money from him. The irony of Tietjens falling deeper into trouble due to his own selflessness reminds readers of the irony of The Great War, too, such as the loss of respect for individuality and the dignity of privacy obscured by prattling cant about honor and freedom.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Mount TBR #53

I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.

The Venus of Kompara – John Masters

Set in 1890 during the period of British rule of India, this adventure novel from 1961 blends archaeology, PG-rated eroticism, strained marital relations, superstition, and mysticism.

The British resident Kendrick sublimates his impotence with his wife Barbara into ruling his small district. His ambition is thwarted by his own misogyny and his uncertainty about the future ruler, Mohan, who has been educated in the UK but feels adrift back in his native culture. The archeologist and mystic Smith joins forces with the contractor Smith who uncovers curious artifacts while digging a dam.  A mysterious dancer, Rukmini, attracts the attention of Mohan, but her agenda is also filled with righting ancient wrongs done to her Dravidian people by Mohan’s Aryan ancestors. Mohan loves her but because of caste rules sees no path for her to become his queen. The locals have secrets to protect and go to great lengths to guard them.

There’s a lot of action in this novel. Masters is also good with the theme, the clash of civilizations in ancient times and our own. Of course, the sensibilities induce cringes in our enlightened age.

The defeated masses were small and squat, their faces somewhat exaggeratedly simian, sometimes beautiful, but always different, with their broad cheekbones and square shapes, from the tall, straight-nosed, lank-haired heroes who destroyed them and their works.

I can’t recommend it as highly as his brilliant novel of an Indian regiment fighting in the trenches of WWI, The Ravi Lancers, but it’s interesting and readable.