Sunday, 17 May 2015

Penguin no. 1009: Aphrodite Means Death
by John Appleby

For us in Germany, who had a continent at our feet, the war was a much greater opportunity than it was for you, cooped in your crowded islands. To Hersfield and me Greece, of course, was no strange country, but never before had we been able to work so thoroughly and unhampered. With the co-operation of the German army we had no trouble in acquiring manpower for our digging, and the peasants who worked for us, though unskilled, were not expensive. Nor was there any of that tedious negotiation with the Greek authorities about the ownership of what we discovered. You may say it was an archaeologist's paradise.

Aphrodite Means Death has an unusual structure so that reading it could be likened to watching as a blurred image is brought slowly into focus. Everything begins in disarray and confusion, with none of the three characters introduced in the first section having a clear idea about what is going on or about whom they can trust. They form a triangle of suspicion, each trying to construct an understanding of the complete picture from the small sample of things they have seen and heard, but inevitably misinterpreting the events and reactions to which they have been witness.

We meet these characters through the eyes of Jane Arden, an Englishwoman living and working in Athens a few years after the Occupation. She goes for a walk in a pine wood on the last morning of a quiet holiday on an Aegean island, and in doing so she leaves behind the predictability and safety of a formerly uneventful life. One unanticipated event follows another in quick succession - bullets fly far too close to her for comfort in the morning, she is temporarily taken prisoner in a barricaded house in the afternoon, and in the evening she notices that her hotel room and luggage have been searched during her absence. This series of adventures seems to be triggered by having met a fellow compatriot during her morning walk. She is only slightly perturbed by the unusual events, however, believing that she will leave the excitement behind when she returns to the mainland in the morning.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

A collection of Penguins

I seem to have reached have reached yet another Sunday without managing to find the time to read a vintage Penguin and prepare a review, and so I am instead posting a photo of the project which has been diverting me of late.

I recently bought a house and my first priority was the bookshelves. The greater part of all recent weekends has been spent boxing, sorting and transporting books, shopping at Ikea and assembling flat-pack furniture - particularly bookcases.

Many of these books have been in storage for years, and others have been left in random piles while I waited for the opportunity to sort them properly. My daughter and I are still slowly working through them to make sure they are in order and that my lists of what I own and what I don't are up-to-date.

And there are still more bookcases to be built, as I have quite a few boxes of Pelicans and non-Penguins books which are yet to find a home.

Hopefully, I will be back on track by next weekend and in a position to resume posting on a vintage Penguin each week.

My Penguins in 2011:

My Penguins in 2012:

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.


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