Sunday, 21 June 2015

Penguin no. 1323: The Content Assignment
by Holly Roth

In the course of that afternoon I learned a good deal about that particular black line. You could walk Seventy-seventh Street's few miles, from river to river, in not much over an hour. Its east portion - from the East River Drive to Fifth Avenue - was largely elegance. First came beautiful town houses with polished brass, old shady trees, quiet and peace. Around Park Avenue I encountered vast but still quiet apartment houses, equipped with canopies and doormen. Near Fifth Avenue the town houses came again - more formidable now, magnificent stone structures that spoke of wealth.

The Content Assignment features the most enticing summary I have come across in an old Penguin. The synopsis writer would have you convinced that the story is going to be tense and compelling, and it may of been on account of that, or perhaps because the other Holly Roth novel I have read was such a well-written thriller, that my expectations were high when I first took this down from the shelf. But I couldn't take The Content Assignment  seriously, and couldn't believe that an author expected any reader to do so. I kept waiting for it to improve, but it read all the way through as something that had simply been churned out.

John Terrant is a free lance journalist who develops the habit of reading every newspaper he buys from its first word to its last, often a few days after publication. He has little interest in the information he is reading, and only the slight justification that hidden in the text might be something he can use as the basis of an article. He recognises that this habit is a form of procrastination he is using to divert his mind from thoughts of Ellen Content, a young woman he had met in Berlin two years previously and who had since disappeared.

But his newspaper reading is a very convenient obsession from the perspective of the plot, because it means that he reads the list of passengers recently embarked on an ocean liner travelling to New York, and so finds Ellen's name; it is the first clue he has found in solving the mystery of her disappearance. It seemed a bit of a long shot from the perspective of Ellen, however, because she cannot have known of his recently-developed obsession when she used her only opportunity to get a message to the outside world to set in place the series of events which brought about the newspaper item.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Penguin no. 1102: Speak No Evil
by M.G. Eberhart

    'Now listen, Elizabeth. There'll be time for talk later. All I want to say now is this. I heard this noon; there's a boat tomorrow, I've got to take it, Elizabeth - the world is wide. And war changes things. So the real things - love and time - are so terribly important. Elizabeth, I want you...'
     But he stopped then and took her in his arms.
     It didn't matter about the world being wide. She wanted it only as wide as the circumference of his arms. War. She would not think of that, then. She moved closer within his arms.

There were many things I disliked about Speak No Evil, including the paragraph I've quoted above, but I thought the story's main flaw was that its premise made such little sense.

It is clear that the reader is not intended to feel much pity for Robert Dakin, the first murder victim, as he is a violent and abusive man. He frequently drinks to excess, and his wife and a valet live in constant fear of his temper. He punches his butler without provocation a few hours before he is murdered, and the poor man is rendered unconscious and remains that way for days. Robert Dakin liked to make threats and was quite willing to use his wealth, his bulk and his connections to ensure that he always got his own way. There are probably plenty of people who wanted him dead, though there are only a few who could have been guilty of the crime on the night he died. And there is one woman - and not his wife - who does regret his death; the possession of wealth and power can be alluring.

The murderer takes an enormous risk but succeeds in killing Dakin, and in the process leaves ample circumstantial evidence which focuses the police's attention very firmly on someone else. The police seem well-meaning but lacking in imagination, so circumstantial evidence is enough to satisfy them that they have identified the guilty party, although they dally in making an arrest.


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