Sunday, 30 June 2019

Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh (1943)

Colour Scheme by Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) is a WWII crime mystery set in a fictional spot on the North Island of New Zealand similar to the geothermal area of Rotorua with its distinctive sulphurous odour.
Colonel Edward Claire, his wife, and their two adult children, are incompetently running the mud bath resort. Mrs Claire’s brother, James Ackrington, a crusty and disagreeable physician, joins them upon his retirement. Suspicious about the behaviour of one of the resort’s residents in relation to the torpedoing of the S.S Hippolyte off the New Zealand coast, Ackrington writes to Chief Inspector Roderick Allen who had been sent to NZ to investigate the incident.

Into this situation comes Mr Gaunt, a celebrated Shakespearian actor looking for some relief from his bodily ills, accompanied by his secretary, Dikon Bell and Cockney servant, Alfred Colly.
However, everyone comes under suspicion when a man who is making himself unpleasant generally goes missing.
Did he fall accidentally into the geothermal mud pool? Was he an enemy spy? Who would want to kill him?

‘“This War is changing the values of my generation. There are all sorts of things that we have thought funny that we shall never think funny again.” For perhaps the first time he contemplated coldly and deliberately a possible invasion of New Zealand.’

The backdrop of the lush Northland vegetation and the bubbling thermal pools is an unusual setting especially for a book set during WWII. The interaction between the various characters and the local Maoris, their beliefs and veneration of certain artefacts, is what you’d expect it to be considering the time period.

'The Maori people are a kindly and easy-going race. In temperament they are so vivid a mixture of Scottish Highlander and Irishman that to many observers the resemblance seems more than fortuitous.'

Dr Ackrington's opinion:

'The natives of this country have been ruined by their own inertia and the criminal imbecility of the white population. We sent missionaries to stop them eating each other and bribed them with bad whisky to give us their land. We cured them of their own perfectly good communistic system, and taught them how to loaf on government support. We took away their chiefs and gave them trade-union secretaries. And for mating customs that agreed very well with them, we substituted, wth a sanctimonious grimace, disease and holy matrimony."'

This was a light read with quite a bit of family altercations, banter and humour scattered around. I thought Ngaio Marsh had a clever resolution of the mystery. I certainly didn’t expect it!
There was also a nicely handled romance between Dikon Bell and Barbara, Colonel Claire’s daughter.

'Unable to compete with the few neighbouring families whom her parents considered “suitable,” and prevented by a hundred reservations and prejudices from forming friendships with the “unsuitable,” (Barbara) had ended by forming no friendships at all. Occasionally she would be asked to some local festivity, but her clothes were all wrong, her face unpainted, and her manner nervous and uneven. She alarmed the young men with her gusts of frightened laughter and her too eager attentiveness. If her shyness had taken any other form she might have found someone to befriend her, but as it was she hovered on the outside of every group, making her hostess uneasy or irritable, refusing to recognize the rising misery of her own loneliness. She was happier when she was no longer invited and settled down to her course of emotional starvation...'

Something I learned from this book...habeas corpus is Latin for ‘you must have the body.’
I thought this meant the victim’s body but it refers to the body of the accused: 'a writ requiring a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court, especially to secure the person's release unless lawful grounds are shown for their detention.'

'Police not a matter of equally balanced motives, tortuous elaborations, and a final revelation in the course of which the investigator’s threat hangs like an ignis fatuous over first one and then another of the artificially assembled suspects. It is rather the slow amassment of facts sufficient to justify the arrest of someone who has been more or less suspect from the moment the crime was discovered.'

Ngaio Marsh was a New Zealander and one of the ‘Queens of Crime’ alongside Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Her lifelong love of theatre and the arts is reflected in her novels - the characters and dialogue in this novel had a  theatrical feel at times and were a bit over the top. However, there's no mistaking her skill in crafting words. I thought her description of Barbara above was deftly done and showed a deep sensitivity to a young person trying to find her footing in the world.

Suitable for about ages 14/15 years and up. The only reference to anything objectionable is Dr Ackrington's remarks which I quoted above.

Linking to 2019 Back to the Classics: Classic From a Place You've Lived
Photographs were taken at the Waimangu Volcanic Valley in the North Island of New Zealand.

Friday, 28 June 2019

A Mind to Murder by P.D. James (1963)

P.D. James is a mixed bag for me. I love her intelligent literary style of writing and her cool, cerebral, yet sensitive detective, Superintendent Adam Dalgleish. Her plots are intricate, her characters complex, and her depiction of surroundings are extremely detailed. Her books are definitely not cozy mysteries.
What I personally find difficult at times is the disturbing nature of some of her material. There was one book I ditched after a couple of chapters because of this, but I like her writing enough that I’m willing to take her book by book.
She tends to have a rather jaundiced view of just about everybody in her books, except for Dalgleish and his side step, Martin, as she explores the human heart and its motives.
There is no one without sin. Murder is murder and the person who commits this particular sin gets to feel the full force of justice regardless of motive or extenuating circumstances. The victim may have been the nastiest person on the face of the earth but nevertheless his life was sacred.
Apart from Sulari Gentill, P.D. James is the only modern crime writer I read. She writes up to her readers and doesn’t inflict offensive language upon them.
She saw the detective story as ‘a small celebration of reason and order in our very disorderly world.’

A Mind to Murder is set in a psychiatric clinic where psychiatrists struggle to manage their own personal relationships while counselling their clients about theirs. The murder victim was unpopular with everyone in the clinic and hence everyone there is a suspect. There are some rare moments of humour in this story, as well as some sympathetic insights into the background of her aloof detective; i.e. Dalgleish is a published poet and his wife died in childbirth some years previously.

'Mr Burge enlarged on the immaturity, coolness and insensitivity of his wives in a querulous falsetto. Dr Steiner’s clinical judgement, not uninfluenced by the late effects of a large lunch and the unwise choice of a cream donut with his afternoon tea, told him that the time was not yet ripe to point out that the one defect shared by the three mesdames Burge had been a singular lack of judgement in their choice of husband.'

'Dr Steiner doodled on his notepad, regarded his doodle with interest and concern, looked at it again with the pad held upside down and became for a moment more preoccupied with his own subconscious than with that of his patient.'

'There had...been no demur over providing Baguley with a new and highly expensive contraption for shocking his patients out of the few wits they still possessed.'

She has much to say about death and the ‘personal residue of a finished life.’

'During his career (Dalgliesh) had examined with interest and with pity so many petty leavings. The soiled underclothes pushes hurriedly into drawers, personal letters which prudence would have destroyed, half-eaten meals, unpaid bills, old photographs, pictures and books which the dead would not have chosen to represent their taste to a curious or vulgar world, family secrets, stale make-up in greasy jars, the muddle fill-disciplined or unhappy lives. It was no longer the fashion to dread an unshriven end but most people, if they thought at all, hoped for time to clear away their debris.'

P.D. James died in 2014 at the age of ninety-four. This article was written four years before she died:

'"I think that when one writes detective stories one is imposing order, and a form of imperfect but human justice, on chaos." In fact, as with the later work of her hero Dorothy L Sayers, a great deal of the fascination of James's detective fiction lies in the way chaos flourishes in the midst of the novels' rigid structure – the internal psychological mess that brings about murder. "I think there's been a huge change since the novels of the Golden Age," she suggests. "What was popular then was the puzzle: such qualities as psychological truth or even atmospheric location were secondary to it. For me, characterisation is at the heart of my books. From the start, I felt that what I was doing was examining human beings under the strain of an investigation for murder. And such an investigation tears down all the walls of privacy that we build round ourselves and reveals us for who we are. It's a fascinating way of dealing with people."'

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Back to the Classics: Requiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute (1955)

It’s been a while since I’ve read anything by Nevil Shute and this book reminded me how much I enjoy his writing. I thought I’d already read the best of his novels but Requiem for a Wren certainly deserves to be placed on a par with works such as Pied Piper, A Town Like Alice, and Trustee From the Toolroom.
Set partly in the time of WW2 and the years following, it is filled with Shute’s trademark aviation knowledge, which surprisingly doesn’t hinder this non-tech reader’s enjoyment of his writing.
I’ve previously mentioned the author’s ability to get into the skin of his characters who are never ‘standard heroes’ but just very ordinary people whose courage is called upon by unlooked for dilemmas and circumstances; common, quiet folk who rise for a short time, do what needs to be done and go back to their quiet lives. This book is no exception.
From the very first page there is a sense that this story is going to be tragic. There is an inexorable pull in that direction as Alan, the narrator, tells the story of his brother, Bill, and Janet, the young woman he would have married had he survived the war.
All three had met just before the invasion of Normandy but were never to meet again.
The brothers were Australian and the story takes place in Britain and Australia.
After the war Alan sets out on a quest to find Janet, a search that takes him back to England, across to America and then back to Victoria in Australia. What he finds out in his search poignantly reveals Janet’s character and background. Alan is determined to find her and to offer her a home with his parents on their rural property which would have been her lot if circumstances hadn’t intervened to prevent her marriage to Bill.
Unfortunately, Alan always found himself on the back foot in his search. Between Janet’s many moves, the post war confusion, his hospitalisation and rehabilitation after being seriously injured in an air battle, he would arrive somewhere expecting to find her only to discover she had moved on.

'Like some infernal monster, still venomous in death, a war can go on killing people for a long time after its all over.'

This is a sad book with a mix of mystery and WW2 events. Somehow Shute imbues his tragedies with a not altogether bleak outlook. There is some hope within the pathos.
An achingly beautiful read. Highly recommended!

For my thoughts on other books by Nevil Shute see here and here.

Linking up to the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge: Classic Tragic Novel

Monday, 17 June 2019

Back to the Classics: The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1924)

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher is a unique book; intelligent, thoughtful, and beautifully written. The author is probably better known for her children’s book, Understood Betsy (1916), a story that demonstrates her knowledge and understanding of children, so it’s not surprising that The Home-Maker also explores this aspect, delving even more deeply into the needs of children and the importance of the home atmosphere.

It has been described as a feminist novel as the mother gets the chance to follow a career rather than be confined at home doing work that frustrates her no end, but the author told her publisher that the book ‘should be taken as a whoop not for “women’s rights” but for “children’s rights.”’

Dorothy Canfield Fisher examines the roles of mothers and fathers in a small American town setting with a great deal of sympathy. Eva, the mother in the story, is a vigorous and highly capable woman, a perfectionist, who feels thwarted by the never ending duties of her household. She loves her children but is so caught up in the minutiae of everyday life that she has no time to enjoy or understand them. Lester, her husband, is a poet and a thinker whose workplace is a misery to him. He has no time for the thought life he needs and hates the materialistic focus of his work. They are both frustrated by his inability to advance and bring home a decent wage.

The real strength of this book comes from the author’s perception of the inner worlds of the couple’s three children, Helen, Henry, and Stephen. I think a book from a purely feminist point of view would have made Eva’s predicament the primary focus but everything that happens in the story is filtered through the children and their needs. Even the father and mother grapple with what is best not just for themselves but for their children.

Lester felt that his employer was exploiting the home-maker by hammering the idea that it was all about good furniture, fine table linen, expensive rugs and well-made clothes. This conspiracy to force women into the  slavery of possessions sickened him:

' about keeping alive some intellectual or spiritual passion in the home? How about the children? Did anybody suggest to women that they give to understanding their children a tenth part of the time and real intelligence and real purposefulness they put into getting the right clothes for them?'

When Lester has an accident that almost kills him and is left crippled and confined to a wheelchair, Eva goes out to work while he stays home and they both find great satisfaction and purpose in their new roles.
After a period of time Lester begins to have signs that signal his recovery. He keeps this to himself and considers the future, feeling that Tradition was against him. The Tradition that said:

' are in the world to get possessions, to create material things, to sell them, to buy them, to transport them, above all to stimulate to fever-heat the desire for them. It decreed that men are of worth in so far as they achieve that sort of material success, and worthless if they do not.’

He wonders how they could work around this problem:

'Would it be possible for both of them to work, he and Eva? Other parents did sometimes. The idea was that with the extra money you made you hired somebody to take care of the children. If before us accident anyone had dreamed of Eva’s natural gift for business, he would have thought the plan an excellent one. But it was only since his accident that he had had the faintest conception of what ‘caring for the children’ might mean. Now, that he had lived with the children, now that he had seen how it took all of his attention to make even a beginning of understanding them, how it took all of his intelligence and love to try to give them what they needed spiritually and!

You could perhaps, if you were very lucky - though it was unlikely in the extreme - it was conceivable that by paying a high cash price you might be able to hire a little intelligence, enough intelligence to give them good material care. But you could never hire intelligence sharpened by love. In other words you could not hire a parent. And children without parents were orphans.

'...You can’t ‘hire’ somebody to be a parent for your children!’ he thought again, passionately. They are born into the world asking you for bread. If you give them a stone, it we’re better for you that that stone were hanged about your neck and cast into the sea.'

The more he was immersed in the care of his children and the running of the home, the more aware he became of society’s lack of respect for that unpaid work.

'Why, the frantic feminists were right, after all. Under its greasy camouflage of chivalry, society is really based on a contempt for women’s work in the home. The only women who were paid, either in human respect or in money, were women who gave up their traditional job of creating harmony out of human relationships, and did something really useful, bought or sold or created material objects.'

The Home-Maker is a timeless gem of a book. The issues the author tackled in 1924 are still relevant. We hear so often that we can ‘have it all’ in the context of career and children but this story questions that notion. Rush and hurry, timetables and rigid schedules, can be obstacles to communication and understanding, as is so poignantly shown when Lester discovers the reason for his youngest son’s savage behaviour.

How’s this for a description of the angry little boy?

‘He...sat...dry-eyed, scowling, a magnificent sulphurous conflagration of Prometheus flames blazing in his little heart.’

Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote from her own experience in this area. Her husband, John Fisher, volunteered in the Ambulance Service in Paris during the First World and afterwards was physically immobilised for some time, losing status and opportunities for advancement. At the same time Dorothy’s writing gained a large audience and invitations to speak around the country. John supported her role as the celebrity and breadwinner while finding ways to express his own interests and skills.
Dorothy believed that whatever the convictions or fashions of society, if a man and woman are able to construct with their children a life in common which keeps them reasonably happy, healthy, good and strong, with a permanent affection for each other, then they have made a successful marriage, no matter what pattern it might take.

Persephone Books is one of my favourite publishers. I have a tendency to judge a book by its cover and the Persephone covers are definitely attractive!

The Home-Maker is my choice of a book in the Classic From the Americas or Carribean category for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge @ Books&Chocolate.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child by Anthony Esolen (2015)

‘How do you raise a child who can sit with a good book and read? Who is moved by beauty? Who doesn’t have to buy the latest this or that vanity? Who is not bound to the instant urge, wherever it may be found?’

Life Under Compulsion is a follow on from Anthony Esolen’s previous title, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, which I read a few years ago.
When one of my sons saw these two books in the bookcase he said: “Mum, you read some weird books! What are you trying to do to us?”
My youngest's reaction was, "No wonder some people think homeschooling's a bad idea...trying to destroy our imagination?!"
If you don’t already know, Dr. Esolen played the devil’s advocate with Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, which is a little reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, minus the humour.
Life Under Compulsion continues the combatative tone of his previous book but focuses on the ideas of freedom versus compulsion.
Freedom is a buzzword of our times but it is a word that has been mis-used.
Dr Esolen argues that our children are anything but free - they are slaves to compulsions that come either from outside of themselves (e.g. government mandates that control what children are taught in schools) or within (the itches that must be scratched, the passions that master them).
He examines modern culture, explains how our idea of freedom is warped and dangerous, and draws on the great thinkers of the past to help us understand what freedom truly means:

‘To be “free” is not to do as you please but rather to realise the fulfilment of your natural created being, without impediments.’

Thomas Aquinas

Esolen is scathing about the education system and their ‘courses in compulsion.’ When he was Professor of English at a Catholic University he wrote an article for Crisis Magazine on the university’s ‘diversity’ stance:

…a vision that pretends to be “multicultural,” but that is actually anti-cultural, and is characterized by all the totalitarian impulses to use the massive power of government to bring to heel those who decline to go along...

His incisive comments and criticism of the politically correct practices of  radical university professors resulted in student protests and faculty members calling for his dismissal in 2016. No wonder he sounds grumpy when he writes.

In Life Under Compulsion, the author examines the school system and its courses in compulsion where children must be segregated by age and must move to the next classroom at the ringing of the bell. Education is based on a utilitarian foundation and is reduced to a tool; students have to adapt themselves to the 'factory' or Teaching Machine, which is not for teaching children but for ‘socialising them.’ It doesn’t impart virtue because virtues set a people free but the system wants a ‘managed’ people.

Freedom is the movement of the heart to embrace what is good, or beautiful, or noble. 
A man who cannot admire is a slave.

Dr Esolen refers to a wide variety of literature in both books I’ve read which I really appreciate: works by Sigrid Undset, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Pieper, Bradbury, Kipling, Dickens, Hugo, Orwell, and Chesterton, for example, but he doesn’t always provide references so if you don’t recognize the characters he’s referring to you’ll have to do some Google Searching.

Systems of Compulsion breed the unnatural, just as the unnatural requires systems of compulsion to confirm it. Consider communism, a system so insane that it could survive only by compulsion - through show trials and executions and the Gulag.

We must not think that these acts of compulsion were merely imposed upon a defenceless people, from without. They also rose from within.

Here he references Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago (which I’m in the very slow process of re-reading) where the author cites the Soviet criminal code that dealt with any failure to make a denunciation of certain actions. The powers that be demanded enthusiasm for their revolution and not just a passive acceptance.

Life Under Compulsion is an important book for parents, anyone who is involved in education, those concerned about the outrage trend in society or the attempt to subject curriculum to the demands of a current political aim.
Considering the reaction to Dr. Esolen’s 2016 article, the book is even more relevant now than when it was when it was first published.

‘How do you get people en masse to submit to madness? By compulsion.’

This is a book I've chosen for the Christian Greats 2019 Challenge: No. 5)  A Philosophical Book by a Christian Author