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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