Monday, 20 April 2015

Penguin no. 362: Time Will Knit
by Fred Urquhart

He was terribly ambitious when you got married. But his ideas were greater than his deeds. He didn't try to put any of his plans into action. By the time he had finished dreaming and planning he had got tired of the plan and another idea had crowded it out of his head. He never did anything. He was nearly fifty before he really started to try to do things and then it was too late. He was too old and tired. Rearing a family and working for them had sapped all his strength and courage. Wattie should never have got married at all, really. Men like him, who want to help their fellow-men, shouldn't get married and have obligations. They should keep themselves free so that they'll be able to give all their attention to what they feel is their life's work.

Time Will Knit is about many things, but the idea expressed in the paragraph above - that it is the responsibilities which come with marriage and family life which undermine an individual's ability to achieve anything substantial - could be considered its main theme.  'Having bairns' would seem to be the explanation for virtually every ambition forsaken, and the reason why the working-class never make their way. I know little about Fred Urquhart, but I suspect I could surmise much - I have never read a novel published this early which was so sympathetic towards homosexuals, nor one that was so scathing about women distributing white feathers during the First World War.

Time Will Knit begins in 1929 with Grace's young son Spike leaving Kansas and setting out for Edinburgh to meet his mother's family for the first time. Grace had left Edinburgh when she herself was young and she has no expectation of seeing her parents again, but she wants them to meet Spike before they die. And Spike is keen to go, as he has dreams of being a sailor - like his mother's grandfather - and Edinburgh is where he intends to find a vessel to join. It is through his young American eyes that we see the familiar landmarks of Waverley Station and Princes Street, and that we learn of the idiosyncrasies of his Scottish relations.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Penguin no. 865: The Cambridge Murders
by Glyn Daniel/Dilwyn Rees


                  

'We exist, this University exists, to educate young men, make them take an interest in passing their examinations, make them not want to climb into College, make them less interested in shop-girls with nothing but a pair of legs and pretty face and fair hair and no conversation or brains. Damn it,' he said again as he walked back to College, 'I must have a word with the Dean - a very sharp word. This is all wrong.'

Professor Glyn Daniel was an archaeologist who taught at Cambridge University and published mystery fiction under the pseudonym Dilwyn Rees. My early copy of The Cambridge Murders bears his pseudonym; the later issue bears his name. Here he creates an amateur sleuth somewhat in his own mould: Sir Richard Cherrington is an academic and an archaeologist, and Vice-President of Fisher College. His enthusiasm for detective work seems to derive from its similarities with scientific enquiry; he cares more about the puzzle than the people, and he never doubts that his profession is ideal for developing the skills essential and sufficient for murder investigation.

There are many people whose animosity towards Dr Landon could be considered entirely reasonable simply on account of the treatment he is renowned for meting out. It means that when his corpse turns up, stuffed in an undergraduate's trunk, there are so many plausible motives that the county police find themselves baffled by all the possibilities. It seemed to me a flaw of this story that the police and Sir Richard between them seem intent on examining every one, so that the account of their investigations becomes interminable: the two investigations canvass an exhaustive series of hypotheses and virtually every permutation of the characters as interested parties, until it seems that a case could conceivably be made out against anyone and everyone associated at that time with the fictional Fisher College.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Penguin no. 745: Remove the Bodies
by Elizabeth Ferrars

George was a short man, broadly made, with stubby, pink hands and a pink expanse of face. In its rosiness his features made only gentle corrugations. He had fair hair and mild blue eyes and wore a high-necked jersey tucked into trousers of a worn and shiny blue. Photographs of him, full face and profile, as well as a record of his finger-prints, were in the possession of Scotland Yard; but so, doubtless, are those of many other excellent people.

I have spent a fair few hours waiting in airports or travelling by plane  in the last fortnight or so, going from Perth to Canberra via Melbourne, and then from Perth to Adelaide, so I have had no difficulty finding time to read. But the varying time zones and competing distractions and obligations that come with working interstate have meant it has been a struggle to find time to write about the Penguins I have read recently. And so I have been fairly quiet of late.

Beyond Q, Curtin Place, Canberra
The best thing about having to head Canberra was the opportunity it provided to go browsing at Beyond Q, because the last time I planned a visit I ended up stranded in Katoomba en route by unseasonal snow.

Beyond Q is a below-ground bookshop in a nondescript arcade which has an entire wall of its in-house café (almost) devoted to numbered Penguins. They are sorted by colour, and then within-colour by author's name - rather than by number - which meant it was quite a search to find any I didn't yet own. But they have a great selection of older Penguins, priced around the $6 to $10 mark. This is perhaps not bargain-priced, but it is quite a bit cheaper than you would normally find such old Penguins selling for in Perth, and considerably cheaper than the incomprehensible prices I recently saw vintage Penguins selling for in Singapore.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Penguin no. 549: High Wages
by Dorothy Whipple

She could see the occupants of the first-class carriages playing cards, or fallen into unlovely sleep. They did well to avert their eyes from the landscape they had made. They had made it; but they could not, like God, look and see that it was good. Monstrous slag-heaps, like ranges in a burnt-out hell; stretches of waste land rubbed bare to the gritty earth; parallel rows of back-to-back dwellings; great blocks of mill dwellings, the chimneys belching smoke as thick and black as eternal night itself; upstanding skeletons of wheels and pulleys. Mills and mines; mills and mines all the way to Manchester, and the brick, the stone, the grass, the very air deadened down to a general drab by the insidious filter of soot.

H.G. Wells seems something of a hero to the protagonist of High Wages. His novels are presented as having made a real difference in her life: she is emboldened by having read them, and in one difficult moment - perhaps the most difficult she will ever face - she argues her case successfully by using arguments culled straight from his books. The many references to Wells suggest that the similarities between this story and Kipps cannot be inadvertent - High Wages seemed to me an extension of Kipps; its premise had been reinterpreted from a female perspective, but it had also been built upon foundations the earlier work provided.

 High Wages begins in 1905, the year Kipps was published, and Dorothy Whipple covers much of the same territory - there is a focus on the unnecessary hardships of the working poor, and on their vulnerabilities, and on the inequities inherent in a stratified society. Jane Carter is exploited by her employer because nothing constrains him from exploiting her, she is underfed and poorly housed by her employer's wife because to speak up would mean being left homeless, and she is harassed by a member of the upper classes because he can misbehave in this way without any consequences. The humiliations Jane is forced to endure are all inflicted by those well-aware that they are behaving unconscionably. But they behave so, and continue to behave so, because there is nothing to prevent them from doing so.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Penguin no. 1083: Reputation for a Song
by Edward Grierson

'What was in his mind when he took the weapon in his hand need not concern us, for motive was never necessary to a prosecution of this kind, as His Lordship will direct. I know that this is not generally believed. But you, who are not concerned with fictions or illusions but with the law of England, will be proof against loose thinking and idle popular beliefs. Crimes are often motiveless - at least regarded from the standpoint of the normal man - and the law in its wisdom takes account of that. If the defence is able to explain how and why this youth could be justified in striking these terrible lethal blows, all well and good, but it is no part of my burden to investigate his mind, even if I could.'

We learn in the first few pages of Reputation for a Song that Robert Anderson, a country solicitor in the small fictional cathedral town of Turlminister, had been the subject of a violent attack one evening when he was working late, and that he had died of the injuries he sustained. We also learn that his youngest son Rupert, a slight and effeminate lad of just seventeen, has been charged with his murder. It takes him a few days, but Rupert eventually admits to administering the blows which killed his father. So this is a crime story in which the identity of the killer is never in doubt; the question of interest turns on whether the child is to be hanged for his actions.

The story goes on to relate the details of the family's life during the few weeks that precede Robert's death, and it is difficult not to feel sympathy for the mild-mannered and staid solicitor on account of the path he takes to his grave. He was a man living through a crisis not of his making, trying to act decently and with integrity and to uphold the values which had underpinned his life, while struggling to pass them onto his children. He comes across as a simple, quiet and decent man, but one who is being crushed by the circumstances which surround him.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Penguin no. 1108: Murder in Time
by Elizabeth Ferrars

     'But why should you feel you ought to hate him?' she asked. 'Don't most of us do more hating than we ought to?'
     'Not really,' he said. 'Not the hate that leads to anything. We're all pretty good at hating phantoms - that's why we don't mind making war - but someone who's standing quite close to you, looking at you, talking to you, seeming to like you, not threatening you in any way - it's extraordinary what that does to you, even when you've been choking with hatred. But I think that's mostly weakness and cowardice.'


Murder in Time conforms to a stereotype of the conventional Golden Age mystery insofar as it features a murder at an isolated country home during a weekend party, and a constrained set of suspects for each of whom a plausible motive can be inferred.

But the question of who killed the victim seems barely of interest in this novel, and the police investigation is really only sketched in the background. The real mystery which intrigues those gathered together in the country home is why they were invited to be there in the first place, and just what might have transpired had the murder not taken place. And these are such diverting questions that it is the suspects themselves who take the initiative in the murder investigation.

Mark Auty's initial explanation for his weekend house party always sounds suspicious. His claim is that he intends to celebrate his engagement to the wealthy Miss Barbarosa, but he eschews family and friends as invitees in favour of a select group of acquaintances he hasn't seen or spoken with in many years. It is hard to see how he could ever consider that such a disparate group could form the basis of a successful social gathering: his guests come from different parts of England, from different strata of society, and from differing age groups. In support of this odd behaviour he implies that he wants to parade his lack of embarrassment about his lowly origins so that his fiancée can see that he doesn't consider her family's wealth makes her any better than the people he has known during his life.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Penguin no. 2064: The Premier
by Georges Simenon

Cover design by Romek Marber.
     For a long time the Premier had paid no attention to the deaths of people in his circle, most of whom were his elders. He considered they had had their day, even those who died at fifty.
     Then when men hardly older than himself began to die as well, he had sometimes felt a certain selfish satisfaction, if not downright pleasure.
     Someone else had been taken, and he was spared!


In The Premier, Simenon sketches the inner life of a man who has lived beyond his time and who finds himself to be almost the last member of his generation still to be living. This quirk of fate has left him watching, and having to come to terms with, the process of his own gradually-increasing obsolescence.

And so this is a story about transience, of how things like youth, beauty and influence cannot be held forever, and about how someone who has known the acme of success copes with the inevitable receding of his faculties and his importance.

The Premier has lived his life at the very centre of power. He has been a member of twenty-two governments, and the central figure in eight, so that France during the Premier's era seems - at least to an outsider - a fairly unstable country, moving always away from one crisis and towards another, with a change of government seemingly the only mechanism available to deal with any deadlock. With such a history, the Premier has become accustomed to viewing himself as his country's saviour, and an essential part of any possible solution. The paragraph quoted above makes it clear that he is not the most pleasant man, and that he could readily be described as self-concerned.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Penguin no. 1672: Within and Without
by John Harvey

Cover drawing by John Sewell.
Perhaps it was my duty to marry her? But how can anybody say they're always going to love somebody for ever? They can't, and I'm sure they don't, and then you're stuck. But I did feel we could live together for a long time - say a year or so - and see how it went, and then perhaps we might get married.

The summary on the back cover of this Penguin describes Within and Without as the story of a love affair, but I thought it was more the portrait of a selfish and self-concerned man, and of the damage he wreaks in another person's life. I took it down from the shelf because it was short, thinking it would be a quick read (because I was off on holiday to Singapore), but I found the protagonist so irritating that it took me the whole week to make it to the end.

Even before he meets Sue Morley, when he knows nothing about her but how she looks, Mark Fearon decides that he is in love with her. Once having met her, he professes this love at every opportunity, with a frequency that makes her uncomfortable. But it seemed a strange type of love - one principally concerned with holding on to her and having her, and one which never for a moment concerned itself with how she felt or what she might want. Despite his claims, the only person Mark Fearon really seemed to care about was himself.

And what he principally cares about is not feeling unhappy, and - at least in the beginning - being with Sue provides an answer: by giving him something to think about other than himself, this relationship offers him some respite from feelings of boredom and purposelessness. He begins the story as a disaffected and dispirited art student who lacks the motivation to actually work at producing any art, but it seems clear that much of his problem is due to no one expecting him to be any better than he is.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Penguin no. 1006: The Man With My Face
by Samuel W. Taylor

'If you ever get to know a guy really well, you find out something's eating him. Kids, yes. Young bucks with the dew in their eyes, yes. But take Joe Doakes when he's married and has a couple of kids and realizes he's not going to knock the world off its pins. When he sees he stacks up along with other Joes and can count on just about so much out of this life. And then, brother you find an unhappy man.'

Charles 'Chick' Graham plays along at first, thinking that he has been cast as the butt of some feeble joke. But by the evening's end he is aware that things are far more sinister, and that he is the victim of a conspiracy which has been carefully planned and executed over several years by those closest to him. There is only one plausible explanation of the evening's events, which is that his wife and business partner have worked together to enable a man he doesn't know to assume his identity. What he doesn't realise until later is that they had also planned to take his life.

He had arrived home from work to find someone who looked uncannily like him sitting in his place, with no one willing to admit that they knew him. His wife was adamant that she knew the stranger but not him, his dog attacked him at the stranger's behest, his business partner insisted that he and the stranger had come straight from work. When the police attend his home, Graham finds that he has no way of demonstrating his identity: he and the stranger share the same signature, and the fingerprints on his army ID turn out not to be his own. With his wife and his friends united against him, no one will give any credit to the story that he is the real Charles Graham.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Penguin no. 112: Children of the Earth
by Ethel Mannin

Life gave and it took away, and whatever it did to you or failed to do you had to carry on....The lobster and the crab and mackerel fishing, the potato and tomato seasons, the rising up with the sun to go to market, the toiling long after the sun had gone down, and the dark dreamless sleeps that linked day to day; the Spring tides coming with their May flowers and that aching sweetness on the air; the long hot summers, the sadness of autumn, and the long hard winters, year in and year out, the seasons going on, relentlessly, and one with them.

I took this Penguin down from my shelf after I received an email from John Enock, a fellow reader of old Penguins, expressing amazement that something of this quality should have left such a faint online trace. And faint it certainly is - a Google search turned up not one review on Goodreads or Librarything, and only a single contemporary description, and this despite the fact that Ethel Mannin was clearly a prolific and popular author in her day. It is a heart-rending tale:  I cannot recall another Penguin which left me feeling as sad.

Children of the Earth is a family saga telling of the lives of Jean le Camillion and his wife Marie, and of their five children, who live a primitive existence on the island of Jersey. Ethel Mannin uses their story to reflect at least partly on what she seems to consider the smug and self-regarding attitudes of her contemporaries living an urban life, implying that their arrogance is ill-founded. She contends that they have insulated themselves from life, so that while they might preen themselves on account of their possessions and their refinements, and look down upon all those who lack such things, it is all a delusion: those they disdain are more fully alive than they are themselves.

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