Hopeless, hapless, helpless

Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño,
Chris Andrews translator 2010
Picador 2011 (1999)

Paris, April 1938
Young widow Madame Reynaud approaches Pierre Pain, war pensioner and mesmerist, with an unusual request. Would he attend to César Vallejo who is dying in a Paris hospital? The doctors have no idea why he is expiring, nor why he is hiccupping. Perhaps Monsieur Pain, with his unorthodox skills, can help?

Thus begins this novella by the late Roberto Bolaño, and the reader is soon plunged into a world of paranoia and mystery set in a miserably wet capital on the eve of war. Can we believe what we read when it’s told by such an unreliable narrator? Especially when he doesn’t seem to know what’s going on either?

Continue reading “Hopeless, hapless, helpless”

A book of delights

The Box of Delights (prop for the TV series: https://www.flickr.com/photos/danacea/491582034)

John Masefield: The Box of Delights
Illustrated by Judith Masefield
Mammoth 2000 (1935)

Imagine a child whose parents have separately died in tragic circumstances; a child who up to the age of ten is home-schooled, living with guardians who limit his reading so that he largely has recourse to just his own imagination; a child who has returned from his first term among strangers at boarding school, able to retreat back into that fantasy world of his own making.

Then imagine that child several decades later, successful in what he really wanted to do — to use his imagination in creative ways — looking back to that childhood. How would he recapture that wonder, the sense of play and the closet anxieties without turning his writing into autobiography?

Perhaps the way forward for John Masefield — given the accolade of Poet Laureate in 1930 — was to turn his past history on its head and make the dreamworld he’d conjured up more real than reality. This he appeared to have done in 1927 with The Midnight Folk, and this too is what he may have also done in 1935 with The Box of Delights.

Continue reading “A book of delights”

A clever apparatus

Burgh Island, Bigbury-on-Sea, South Devon

Agatha Christie:
And Then There Were None
HarperCollinsPublishers 2003 (1939)

“Ought to ferret out the mystery before we go. Whole thing’s like a detective novel. Positively thrilling.” — Tony Marston, not long before he becomes a victim.

Positively thrilling, maybe, but definitely chilling: quite possibly the Grande Dame’s most renowned whodunit, And Then There Were None is justly famous as a puzzler to end all puzzlers. Contrived? Yes. Gripping? Undoubtedly. Keeping you guessing till the end? In my case, absolutely, even though I knew the premise.

Eight decades on one can still appreciate the plot intricacies of how several unwitting people can be invited to an isolated rock and then be bumped off, one by one, according to the sequence determined by lyrics of a popular song. Their crime? To each be responsible for the deaths of one or more people and yet to have avoided justice for the part they played in cutting short those lives, whether from abandonment, reckless driving, wilful manslaughter, drunkenness or perjury.

As we discover, none are totally innocent; but do they deserve to die their gruesome deaths? As the tally rises towards its predicted end we have to admire the perverse dedication of whoever is responsible for judging, sentencing and executing this random set of individuals with such clinical efficiency — much as we of course condemn it.

Continue reading “A clever apparatus”

Not so jolly

Burgh Island, Bigbury-on-Sea, South Devon

Agatha Christie: Evil Under the Sun
HarperCollinsPublishers 2014 (1941)

The Jolly Roger Hotel on Smugglers’ Island is run by the ‘refayned’ Mrs Castle. Not unnaturally she is extremely anxious when a murder in high season threatens the establishment’s reputation as a place for relaxation, clearly unaware that in future years murder mystery weekends may enhance its attraction and increase visitor footfall.

Luckily, famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is in residence, ready to help the local police inspector and Chief Constable when perpetrator and motivation elude their investigation.

An island setting of course increases the chances of the murderer being one of the select company on holiday at the hotel, and this being an Agatha Christie novel we have the usual panoply of colourful characters on display as potential suspects.

Continue reading “Not so jolly”

Smugglers’ Island

I’m nearing the end of a seaside holiday in Devon, reading, lazing, reading, sightseeing and reading.

Now I thought that I’d share a few images with you, specifically of the resort where Agatha Christie set her 1941 novel Evil Under the Sun which, not uncoincidentally, I’ve been chugging through while soaking up the local ambience.

Burgh Island, facing Bigbury-on-Sea, is thinly disguised as Smugglers’ Island, Leathercombe Bay, while the Burgh Island Hotel stars as The Jolly Roger Hotel.

Here is where Hercule Poirot and an assortment of guests are vacationing towards the end of August in the late 1930s. Strange to relate, murder seems to follow the Belgian like a faithful hound.

Continue reading “Smugglers’ Island”

Disintegration and deception

A Paris street in the 1930s

Eric Ambler: The Mask of Dimitrios
Introduction by Mark Mazower
Penguin Modern Classics 2009 (1939)

Charles Latimer is a full-time writer of what we might now called ‘cosies’, detective novels set in English country houses and the like, with lurid titles such as A Bloody Shovel, Murder’s Arms and No Doornail This. Having given up a post in academia to dedicate himself to his new métier he is travelling around Europe contemplating a new plot when he unexpectedly meets up with a fan in Istanbul.

It turns out Colonel Haki is a police inspector, who happens to mention that a body has just been retrieved from the Bosphorus, identified as a man called Dimitrios. Latimer is intrigued and, while surreptitiously investigating further, finds himself embroiled in a complex web of drug smuggling, human trafficking, political intrigue, financial corruption and murder. Too late he finds himself liable to become another murder victim as his amateur investigations take him around the Balkans and then back across the continent via Geneva to Paris.

Europe between the wars was volatile, to say the least. Whether on the margins — in Turkey, say, or Bulgaria — or nearer the west there was in the late 1930s an undercurrent of dark doings under the deceptively still surface of everyday affairs. That undertow had been evident for some time: in the third chapter, entitled 1922, Ambler actually gives a synopsis of the bloody events in Smyrna (modern Izmir) involving Turkish and Greek soldiers in massacres and reprisals. Out of this turmoil appeared the character known as Dimitrios. He left behind an interrupted trail of murder and assassination before the watery emergence of the body viewed by the Englishman on a Turkish mortuary slab in 1938. Latimer decides to try to fill in those gaps, seeking the dubious help of a Polish agent, a Danish colleague of Dimitrios and others whose affiliations should have put a more sensible man off the whole enterprise.

Continue reading “Disintegration and deception”

Beautiful schooldays and friendships

Vintage postcard of Achensee, Tirol, Austria

Elinor M Brent-Dyer: The New House at the Chalet School
Collins 1980 (1935)

Head Girl Jo Bettany returns to the Chalet School for the summer term, her last one, only to find she is based at a newly built annexe called St Clare’s. It will prove a momentous term for her, involving victimisation but also strengthened friendships, near death and hilarious goings-on, midnight escapades and chance encounters.

Boarding schools have long been a staple of children’s fiction, from Tom Brown’s Schooldays to the Harry Potter books, and enthralled authors such as Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens and Enid Blyton, to name writers from just the British canon. Elinor Brent-Dyer’s girls school was different: set up first in the Austrian Tyrol in the 1930s, it moved first to Guernsey and then to Herefordshire to escape the Nazis, next to Wales and then finally Switzerland in the 1950s.

Jo, the main focus of this particular title, happens to be the sister of the founder of this multinational establishment, but she will still have had to earn her place as Head Girl; no doubt this has been recounted in previous volumes, this being number 12 of some sixty volumes and published in 1935, three years before Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria in 1938. There is, however, no hint of such clouds on the horizon in these pages.

Continue reading “Beautiful schooldays and friendships”

Curious and convoluted

Pendragon design by Nick Bristow / Chris Bristow

Antal Szerb The Pendragon Legend
Pushkin Press 2006

Szerb’s novel is a curious hybrid, a mix of murder mystery and ghost story, romantic comedy and Gothic chiller, social commentary and humour. While the whole is never more than the sum of its parts (the resolution, for example, doesn’t convincingly meld these disparate genres) this is still an impressive first novel, self-assured and wittily expressed.

According to the helpful Afterword, Antal Szerb was a polyglot academic who diverted some of his scholarly interests, along with other more unorthodox delvings, into fiction. He was very well regarded as a scholar until his anti-fascist stance led to an untimely and brutal death in a labour camp in 1944. The Pendragon Legend resulted from a year he spent researching and people watching in Britain, and was published in Hungarian in 1934.

The reluctant hero, Janos Bátky, is a Hungarian Continue reading “Curious and convoluted”