Friday, May 30, 2014

Mount TBR #9

I read this book for the Mount TBR reading challenge 2014.

The Perfect Spy – John LeCarre,  1986

“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country,” said writer E. M. Forster. In this character study of a conflicted spy, LeCarre gives an example so that we can consider the implications and complications of Forster’s assertion.

Based in Vienna, Magnus Pym has a stable job as a case officer for spies in Czecho for Britain.  Like many of us in our fifties, he is dealing with the recent death of his father. Magnus is not taking it well. He bolts. The puritan fascists of the CIA think he’s gone over to the Reds. The British espiocrats, concerned about yet another scandal, pull out the stops to find him.

Much of the book is taken up with masterful dialogue as Magnus’ superior, Jack Brotherhood, interrogates Pym's second wife, Mary, and their teen-aged son.  Magnus has disappeared down his bolt hole in a south Devon coastal town. He’s writing his memoirs, which center on his dead father Rick. LeCarre shifts between first and third person in the sections that look at the past, which is mildly confusing. But he brilliantly captures the ups and downs of the criminal milieu of con-man Rick and the excitement of political campaigns and their inevitable dirty tricks. Rick used and disposed of everybody that loved him. Magnus, too, discovers that he himself compulsively charms love from others and then betrays them.  That’s one way, of many, of never letting people get close.

Magnus examines how after WWII he betrayed the best friend of his youth, a German-Czech refugee named Axel. Meeting Axel years later, when both of them had become spies for the West and East, it became impossible not to betray his country instead of his friend. Axel gets to the pith of the question, "Does it amaze you that Pym, by making bonds with the forbidden, should be once more escaping from what held him?"

At 600+ pages, this novel is Dickensian in length, tone and characterization. LeCarre’s tone is too somber and maudlin in couple of passages near the conclusion. Overall, however, the tone is suitably melancholy and often as stirring as it was in the excellent 1977 novel The Honorable Schoolboy.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

2014 Classic #8

Oliver Twist ­ - Charles Dickens

As usual, I approached a novel by Dickens with misgivings. The story of Oliver Twist was one I knew already, having read the novel at age 12 or so and seen the 1948 and 1968 movie versions. Plus, call me a brute, but I did not think I could get interested in a child for 500-some pages. The upshot was, however, that Oliver Twist kept me involved from beginning to end.

Granted, it’s a dreadful story. Poor little outcast Oliver is cuffed about, thrashed, beaten, caned, whipped, battered. The worst abuse is narrated with a kind of playful casualness from Dickens, proclaimed his "biographer ", which further underlines the horror of such cruel maltreatment. Indeed, this is historical fiction in that Dickens criticized laws that punished poor people for being poor. Dickens’ narrator poses as a "philosopher (i.e, political economist)" as he examines hypocritical operators of charitable organizations such as workhouses established by supposedly Christian institutions.  Their policies forced people into workhouses and broke up families. Since they have a stake in exploiting the poor they are unwilling and unable to stop the misery and crime that results from their own terrible laws. Their answer to the problem of poverty is willfully unfeeling cruelty towards most needy and most vulnerable, children. Dickens has a hearty sympathy with the down-trodden and luckless and wants us readers to sympathize too.

Also granted, Dickens’ second novel has its problems. The last Victorian author, George Gissing, said of Oliver Twist, “There is no coherency in the structure of the thing; the plotting is utterly without ingenuity, the mysteries are so artificial as to be altogether uninteresting.” I think it best to approach the plot as if it were a big party, an excuse to get different personalities bouncing off each other to see what happens, suspending belief and expecting devices such as silly mysteries and mysterious illnesses and loose ends.

The good guys are almost entirely bland and unbelievable.  Mr. Brownlow is doddering and kindly. His housekeeper is utterly good-hearted. Brownlow’s friend Grimwig has sparks of cantankerousness that make him perversely lively (like Scrooge) but generally is a bore. The Maylie family features Rose, a Dickensian heroine as incredible and vacant and tedious as Esther in Bleak House or Lucie in A Tale of Two Cities. All the nice people talk in mawkish, far-fetched language that I must describe as nearly unbearable.

We see that as usual with Dickens the nasty characters are always more attractive than the goody-goodies. Especially to a person like me whose boyish part of my soul sees the attractions of a childhood free of school and teachers and rules, filled with smoking long pipes, drinking gin and beer, brawling, stealing, and laughing at all the squares. Like the Artful and Charlie Bates do.

Dickens portrayed Fagin and his merry band of juvenile delinquents with great vividness. Fagin's "droll and curious" stories and that the pocket-picking practice disguised as games which Fagin plays with the boys make Oliver laugh "till the tears ran down his face." More chilling, realistic, and facinating is Fagin’s cynical psychological insight on how to make Oliver bad. First, isolate him in solitary confinement and then provide companionship: Once let him feel that he is one of us; once fill his mind with the idea that he has been a thief; and he's ours! Ours for his life. Oho! It couldn't have come about better!

Dickens' has undeniable power over language, but heavy-handed facetiousness is a problem:

Occasionally, when there was some more than usually interesting inquest upon a parish child who had been overlooked in turning up a bedstead, or inadvertently scalded to death when there happened to be a washing -though the latter accident was very scarce, anything approaching to a washing being of rare occurrence in the farm - the jury would take it into their heads to ask troublesome questions, or the parishioners would rebelliously affix their signatures to a remonstrance.

The aside here “though the latter accident" falls flat through sheer lack of necessity. He was in his mid-twenties and really astute control over sarcasm doesn't come to most bright people until treacherous middle-age.

Dickens’ descriptive powers were amazing, powerful:

Mr. Fang was a lean, long-backed, stiff-necked, middle-sized man, with no great quantity of hair, and what he had, growing on the back and sides of his head. His face was stern, and much flushed. If he were really not in the habit of drinking rather more than was exactly good for him, he might have brought action against his countenance for libel, and have recovered heavy damages.

They say that Dickens invented our ideal image of Christmas with his famous tale about Scrooge. But I wonder if his vision of London back alleys also influences us. I mean, isn’t this what we think of when we think of Victorian slums? A “kennel” is a gutter.

The kennel was stagnant and filthy. The very rats, which here and there lay putrefying in its rottenness, were hideous with famine.

And there are other times when the dialogue is enjoyable even when it rings false. Would vicious stupid Bill Sikes really come up with an exuberant monologue like this?

'What are you up to? Ill-treating the boys, you covetous, avaricious, in-sa-ti-a-ble old fence?' said the man, seating himself deliberately. 'I wonder they don't murder you! I would if I was them. If I'd been your 'prentice, I'd have done it long ago, and—no, I couldn't have sold you afterwards, for you're fit for nothing but keeping as a curiousity of ugliness in a glass bottle, and I suppose they don't blow glass bottles large enough.'

I’m glad I read Oliver Twist, though it is not one of Dickens’ best. Overall it was weak, but some descriptive bits are great. I didn’t hate it but I thought Nabokov’s advice from Lectures on Russian Literature would be suitable to recall:

If you hate a book, you may still derive artistic delight from imagining other and better ways of looking at things, or, what is the same, expressing things, than the author you hate does. The mediocre, the false, the poshlust - remember that word - can at least afford a mischievous but very healthy pleasure, as you stamp and groan through a second-rate book which has been awarded a prize.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Mount TBR #8

I read this book for the Mount TBR reading challenge 2014.

Maigret's Revolver - Georges Simenon, 1952

Like Simenon's ‘hard novels,’ this Maigret mystery has a hard edge to it, harder than the typical story with our favorite French inspector. Baron Lagrange is as pathetic a character as the hapless Mr. Hire in The Engagement. Jeanne Debul is so monstrous that her character is one of the more punishing studies I’ve read of a human being by Simenon. The investigation by Maigret is also atypical in that the Chief Inspector travels to London in his chase of a person of interest. Worth reading.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Vintage Mystery #17

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2014. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written before 1960 and be from the mystery category.

I read this for E-5: Translated Work

Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses -  Georges Simenon, 1959

A century-old family firm once rolled in profits from manufacturing biscuits that Maigret remembers as having tasted of cardboard. But times and public tastes have changed. The firm should have gone out of business long-ago but for infusions of cash from heiresses the sons of the family have married.

One night the eldest son, head of the family is murdered in his bed.

When Maigret comes in to investigate he has to fight three problems.

The family puts up a wall of silence. Though no charges are pressing, they hire an obnoxious lawyer who seizes every chance to get in Maigret’ face. A young whippersnapper of an examining magistrate involves himself too deeply in the investigation and actually wants to supervise Maigret, who is only two years from retirement.

Generally the mystery is dusty in atmosphere and dour in tone, but the black sheep daughter of the family provides lively relief. The reason is that she works dressed in a dinner jacket and monocle in nightclub for women of Sapphic and cross-dressing inclinations.

While worrying about his advancing age, a marker of the late Maigret novels of the late Fifities and early Sixties. Maigret assumes that people are fallible and thus gets to the bottom of the mess

Vintage Mystery #19

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2014. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written before 1960 and be from the mystery category.

I read this for G-1: Locked Room Mystery. Okay, the crime occurs on a boat, good enough, I hope!

The Case of the Crooked Candle -  Erle Stanley Gardner

Very light on characterization and the wartime atmosphere of 1944 but heavy on the absorbing puzzle. Lawyer Perry Mason has to reconcile the position of the murder victim, the action of tides, the crook of a candle, and the stories of his clients. Intellectually engaging without being dismayingly complicated.

At roughly 25% of the book, Chapter 16, day one of the preliminary hearing, could very well be Gardner's longest courtroom chapter. In Chapter 18, Perry falls asleep with his head in his secretary Della Street's lap, which creates a relaxed moment of tenderness between familiar characters. In Chapter 19, Gardner somewhat humanizes homicide detective Lt. Tragg by having him offer an olive branch to Mason.

Written during WWII, Gardner hints about butter rationing, a period touch, along with jump seats in taxis, whatever those might have been. I'm not sure I'd suggest this one to a Mason newbie but aficionados will like it.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mount TBR #7

I read this book for the Mount TBR reading challenge 2014.

The Zebra-Striped Hearse - Ross Macdonald, 1963

Retired military man Mark Blackwell hires PI Lew Archer to investigate the fiancee of his daughter Harriet. Burke Damis claims to be a painter, but opinionated and hard-charging Blackwell has convinced himself that the artist is a phony who's after his daughter's trust fund. To Archer, the case seems straight-forward, but things get complicated enough for him to realize that three unrelated deaths are in fact the same case. This was the tenth Lew Archer novel and it features social observations and lots of plot twists told in language as literary as a mystery gets on this side of the Atlantic. Though he is turning into a neglected writer as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, Ross MacDonald is well-worth reading.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Vintage Mystery #31

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2014. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written before 1960 and be from the mystery category.

I read this for G-6: Set in the entertainment world:

The Case of the Restless Redhead - Erle Stanley Gardner, 1954

For starry-eyed Evelyn Bagby, Hollywood was the Tinsel Town without Pity. Her curves and red hair (but no freckles) attracted the shark Staunton Vester Gladden. He fed her the usual line that with his mentoring and agent wizardry, she could be a star. But under the guise of acting and deportment lessons, he embezzled her money and she ended up waiting tables.

She lands in court, charged with larceny. Her novice attorney recognizes ace lawyer Perry Mason, who chances to attend the trial. Perry’s solid advice enables the greenhorn to upend the testimony that would send Evelyn to the clink and obtains her grateful release.

Thanking Perry in his office soon after, Evelyn tells him and faithful assistant Della that she thinks Staunton Vester Gladden might be Steve Merrill, the second husband of a big Hollywood star. Perry gets her a waitressing job and promises to look into her case. Helping people who aren’t getting breaks is totally consistent with Perry’s way of doing business.

Staunton Vester Gladden ends up with a bullet in his head that he didn’t put there himself. The cops put the collar on Evelyn as the most obvious perp since she had a beef with old Staunton. I don’t think I’m giving away anything by revealing that Perry gets Evelyn off in a dramatic courtroom climax.

This is a better than average Mason story. The reason is that he boldly ignores evidence that exculpates Evelyn. He has figured out a key piece of the puzzle (that I won’t reveal here) which strips story-telling witnesses of their alibi.

A good one for both hardcore fans and newbies, it was the basis for the script for the first episode of the Raymond Burr television series. Whitney Blake, the mother of actress producer survivor Meredith Baxter, played Evelyn.