A Bookish Catch-up
Our recent overseas trip afforded me some good opportunities for lighter reading. With very long flights from here to the U.K and back and a about six hours of train travel in between I managed to get through a few books that I took with me plus some others I picked up on our travels.
Light reading for me tends to lean towards detective/spy novels so I’ll start with those.
Passenger to Frankfurt by Agatha Christie (1970)
This was a strange one. It often felt more like a half-baked John Buchan story than an Agatha Christie novel with its international intrigue and bizarre characters. It was promising to start off with at first when an unknown woman approached Sir Stafford Nye, a British diplomat, at Frankfurt airport with a tale that she would be killed if she didn't get to London. She persuaded Nye to give her his cloak and take his place on the flight. Unfortunately, Christie lost the plot a little later which was unfortunate as it could have been a good story if she had stuck to what she was good at.
There was no detective in this story and no crime as such, but there were double identities, spies, fake officials, an assassination, and a romance to top it all off.
An underlying theme was a resurgence of Nazism based on an event which came to light in this story:
As WWII progressed and Hitler was facing defeat, a plan was concocted to get him out of Germany to safety elsewhere.
Towards the end of the war, a German psychiatrist who dealt with megalomaniacs had a visit from a government official and the Führer. The psychiatrist was treating twenty-four ‘Adolf Hitlers’ at the time (as well as fifteen Napoleon’s, ten Mussolini’s, and five reincarnations of Julius Caesar!)
The psychiatrist arranged for the two men to meet and mingle with the most amiable of the Führer patients and retired from the room. The meeting over, the two visitors left hurriedly.
Not long after this visit one of the psychiatrist’s ‘Hitler’ patients started showing signs of agitation, demanding to go immediately to Berlin. His behaviour was so fierce and unlike his usual self that the psychiatrist was relieved when a couple of days later his family took him home and said they would arrange private treatment there for him.
A clandestine investigation in the years after the war resulted in the belief that the real Führer was left in the asylum by his own consent and was not long after smuggled to Argentina, had a son by a ‘beautiful Aryan girl of good family,’ and died insane, believing he was commanding his armies in the field.
The fake Führer supposedly left the psychiatric clinic with the government official and it was his body that was found in the bunker.
At the time of this story a ‘young Siegfried’ arises, supposedly Hitler’s son, but actually a rank impostor. With backing from powerful people in high places, this young man was harnessing the youth of his country to bring about a new world order by means of violence, anarchy, drugs and what not.
It was a rather convoluted story with an equally baffling ending that seemed to come out of nowhere.
This is definitely not a standard Christie novel and I nearly didn’t finish it, but it did have its interesting bits so I carried on. Not one I’d ever bother reading again and definitely not one I’d recommend for anyone new to Agatha Christie. She should have left this sort of story to authors who knew how to write spy/espionage novels - such as John Buchan or Helen Macinnes.
Speaking of Helen Macinnes, I picked up this title from the gift and secondhand shop at the Armitt Museum in Ambleside for £1:
The Snare of the Hunter by Helen Macinnes (1974)
Helen Macinnes was born in Scotland and went to live in the USA in 1937. Her books are usually set during WWII and the Cold War period. Both she and her husband, Gilbert Highet, a classicist who worked at one time for British Intelligence, travelled widely and this is reflected in Macinnes’ books.
The Snare of the Hunter has its beginnings in Czechoslovakia when Irina Hradek, the former wife of Jiri Hradek, a high ranking official in the Czech secret police, leaves the country to make her way to the west. She is astonished that her former husband, an ambitious and ruthless man, doesn’t hinder her defection but it becomes obvious that something sinister is afoot when those who are involved in helping her get to the west die in curious circumstances.
Irina’s father, a famous author living in secrecy after defecting to the west years before has friends who are helping Irina escape. They enlist the help of David Mennery, an American journalist who had lived in Czechoslovakia years before and had known Irina then.
Mennery had wanted to marry Irina but her mother, a Communist offical, had done everything to prevent the marriage. He left the country and put Irina out of his mind.
Now all these years later he again meets the woman he once loved, learns the circumstances of her life since then, and as he desperately tries to get her to safety, his love is rekindled. But Irina is now her ex-husband’s prime target. She cannot be allowed to reveal incriminating evidence about Hradek and his ambitious designs; evidence he discovers that she is carrying with her.
There’s a good bit of suspense in this story although Macinnes is an old school spy/espionage author who places more emphasis on character, place, and ideals than on the action that modern writers in this genre tend to concentrate on.
And now on to the detective novel. Bookshops in the U.K are wonderful repositories of crime classics and detective fiction. Not just the odd one or two but all the Josephine Tey books were to be found on the shelves in shops such as Waterstones and Blackwell Books. I usually have to order these books online and rarely find them at secondhand book sales. They also had the whole series of the British Library Crime Classics that I haven’t seen here at all. Glasgow, Oxford and London especially, are a book lover’s paradise.
I bought this Tey title in Bloomsbury in London and read it while I was away.
The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey (1929)
This is the first in Tey’s Inspector Grant series of which there are only six, which is unfortunate because Alan Grant one of the most likeable detectives in fiction. Now that I’ve read The Man in the Queue I only have one more book in this series to read: ‘A Shilling for Candles.’
The Man in the Queue is a mystery surrounding the stabbing murder of a man who was lined up outside a London theatre waiting to be admitted to the last performance of a popular musical. No one had witnessed his murder and the press of people around him kept him upright until the doors to the theatre opened and he fell forwards.
He had nothing upon his person to reveal his identity and a loaded revolver was found in his pocket.
Inspector Grant is brought in to cover the investigation and by a painstaking process and some good luck, he manages to identify the victim and from there, the prime suspect.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book was the exploration of circumstantial evidence: how facts, evidence, and motives come together to pinpoint a suspect. In Grant’s mind there was a clear case to incriminate his suspect, but something felt wrong. What if all this was merely a series of accidents that were completely unrelated? What if he had arrested the wrong man?
‘Was the man by any remotest possibility telling the truth? If not, he was the most cold-blooded wretch Grant had ever had the unhappy lot to meet. But the man appeared unconscious of Grant’s scrutiny; he seemed wholly absorbed in his story. If this was acting, it was the best Grant had ever seen, and he deemed himself a connoisseur.’
Josephine Tey’s books are always satisfying reads and I enjoyed this one as much as her others. Being the first book in the series I thought it would lack some finesse but she didn’t disappoint.
The only quibble I have, if you could really call it that, is that her description of Detective Alan Grant in her first book didn’t match another description that stayed in my mind after reading The Daughter of Time. In The Daughter of Time Grant is confined to a hospital bed after an accident on the job and was wincing at the indignity of being thrown around by a small nurse he nicknamed the midget.
‘...she dealt with his six-feet-odd with an off-hand ease that Grant found humiliating.’
For years I pictured Grant as a tall, solid, garrulous type of fellow and then I read this in The Man in the Queue, which didn’t sit with the picture I had in my mind after reading The Daughter of Time:
‘If Grant had an asset beyond the usual ones of devotion to duty and a good supply of brains and courage, it was that the last thing he looked like was a police officer. He was of medium height and slight in build, and he was - now, if I say dapper, of course you will immediately think of something like a tailor’s dummy, something perfected out of all individuality, and Grant is most certainly not that; but if you can visualize a dapperness that is not of the tailor’s dummy type, then that is Grant.’
The resolution of this mystery came out of the blue and was as unpredictable as it was clever. Once again Tey has Grant romping around the Scottish Highlands which is always a treat.
Tey's books are available free for Kindle @ebooks Adelaide.
Death Walks in Eastrepps by Francis Beeding (1931)
Francis Beeding is the pseudonym for the writers Hilary St George Saunders and John Palmer who wrote over thirty crime and thriller novels together from the 1920’s up to the 1940’s.
This book is an Inspector Wilkins’ mystery and is set in a quiet English seaside resort and was once called one of the ten greatest detective novels of all time.
The plot is quite complex but I actually had an inkling later in the book about the identity of the murderer, which is so unlike me! I’m usually hopeless at predicting things like and this was probably a first for me.
At its roots, this is a story of unbridled ambition and festering resentment and the lengths such a person in their pride will go to achieve their aims. The Eastrepps Evil, as the real murderer came to be called, framed a man for the murder of a number of people before he was finally caught but it was too late for the accused...
A good old page turner published by Arcturus Crime Classics who publish unjustly neglected works from the 1930’s (the golden age of crime writing) to the 1970’s.
The Lakes District Murder by John Bude (1935)
This is a book I found on the shelf at a place where we stayed while in the Lakes District. I’d never heard of the author before but when I saw the title and that the book was published by the British Library I got stuck into I so I could finish it before we moved on.
Bude’s detective is Inspector Meredith, a well-respected and hardworking policeman with a quiet domestic life that includes a teenage son who helps his dad out with some sleuthing and a wife who doesn’t want their son to go down the same path as his father. Apart from a couple of mentions, Meredith’s family life is kept in the background and gives him no trouble.
The story begins with the apparent suicide of a young man who is part owner of a garage and petrol station situated in an isolated location. What at first appears to be a fairly straight forward investigation turns into a complex puzzle as Meredith finds that there are things that don’t add up: there is no apparent motive; the young man was happily engaged to a young woman and had no financial difficulties. The circumstances surrounding the death suggested an elaborate pre-meditation, but the man had made his dinner, set the table and left the kettle on the stove just before his death occurred which just didn’t fit in with the suicide theory.
What follow is a fairly complex and technical investigation which unearths a possible fraud. Some of this went over my head as it involved mathematical and mechanical calculations but I took a liking to Inspector Meredith and was interested enough to try another of his books.
A great aspect of a book like this is the insight it gives into the life of a policeman in the days before mobile phones, the Internet, and decent transportation. Meredith could use a landline if it happened to be available but otherwise he had to send someone off on a bike with a message. He relied mostly on a motor bike or the train to get around. In a place like the Lakes District, travel was slow and only the larger towns such as Carlisle were accessible by train.
Police work was a difficult occupation and sleuthing required a steady mind, a dogged persistence, and lots of leg work.
A good read if you like mental gymnastics but don’t let me put you off trying another of his books because this next one is a cracker:
Death Makes a Prophet by John Bude (1947)
A visit to a Waterstones bookstore in London presented me with a dilemma: a wonderful display of neglected old British Crime Classics recently reprinted. I think in all there are about seventy-four books by a variety of authors including Freeman Wills Croft, George Bellairs, E.C.R. Lorac, John Bude and others, but I had to limit myself to one as I already had other books earmarked and the exchange rate between the Aussie Dollar & the U.K Pound leaves us decidedly worse off.
I decided in the end to try another John Bude title and thought this one looked promising. I didn’t regret my pick and thoroughly enjoyed this droll, and at times a little dark, crime novel.
The Children of Osiris was a cult created and led by the High Prophet, Eustace K. Mildmann, a widower with an only son, Terence, who was twenty-one years of age at the time of this story.
The cult, adopting the initials of their full title, referred to their doctrine as the Cult of Coo, or Cooism. Their dogmas included a mixture of Ancient Egyptian beliefs and bits and pieces of lesser known religions with a modern twist.
The Cult of Coo believed in ‘magic numbers, astrology, auras, astral bodies, humility, meditation, vegetarianism, immortality, hand-woven tweeds and brotherly love.’
Mildmann was a sincere, dreamy man who believed Cooism was the key to all life’s mysteries.
‘His best ideas had always come to him when sunk in a self-imposed trance, or, as he pithily expressed it, “during a phase of Yogi-like non-being.” (“Non-being” figured as a very important factor in the Cult of Coo, though nobody seemed able to define its exact significance.)’
When he moved to the trendy Welworth Garden City in the 1940’s he found the right soil for his ideas and before long a group of intellectuals ripe for the picking. When the Hon. Mrs. Hagge-Smith came on the scene she totally embraced Cooism and became Mildmann’s patron and financial backer.
The author spends the first half of the book building the scene for a murder by introducing the various characters associated with the cult; their backgrounds, quirks, ambitions and petty jealousies. The second half of the book is more serious, although it still has some sparks of humour, and it's here that Inspector Meredith makes his first appearance.
There are some bizarre and baffling circumstances for Meredith to untangle. This book was quite different to The Lakes District Murder, mostly because of the humourous aspects that Bude scattered throughout, but also because the plot didn’t go into intricate details about things that I knew nothing about.
Some of my favourite parts are those that deal with Terence. Here was an athletic, practical young man with the appetite of a horse and the physique of a boxer. He was the very antithesis of his father who ‘had done everything to undermine his normality.' From clamping down on his tremendous appetite with a strict vegetarian diet, giving him a very small allowance of sixpence a week, requiring him to wear ‘rational clothing’ which included shorts in the middle of winter, and making him a Symbol-bearer in the Temple.
One day Terence met Denise, Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s secretary and immediately fell in love with her. She didn't mind him either.
‘Terence...shot a quick glance at the miracle in his midst and asked abruptly:
“I say, don’t think this is rude of me, but do you have manifestations?"
It sounded as if he were referring to insects or pimples.
“Yes, you know - astral visions and all that sort of thing. Spirit shapes.”
“No - I cant say that I do. I dream rather a lot after a late supper. But I’m not at all psychic, if that’s what you mean.”
“I am,” announced Terence, to Denise’s surprise. “I’m always having astral manifestations. I get quite a kick out of it.” His eyes assumed a dreamy expression and then suddenly narrowed, as if he were trying, there and then, to penetrate the Veil. “Its marvellous sometimes how clearly I see things. They’re so terribly realistic.”
“Things?” enquired Denise. “What things?”
“Steaks mostly. But sometimes its mutton-chops or steak and kidney pudding. I just have to close my eyes, relax my mind and body, and there they are...You think it’s blasphemous of me to see things like that, don’t you? I know it’s not very high-minded, but -”
“I don’t think anything of the sort. I think its very clever of you to see anything at all.”
Terence just couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for peanut cutlets and raw cabbage and he confessed to his new-found friend that he went on the binge the week before and spent ten-weeks pocket money on a good feed.
Inspector Meredith always considered this investigation involving the Children of Osiris to be one of the most interesting, bizarre and exacting of all his cases.
At the same time I was getting my first introduction to John Bude, Sharon @Gently Mad was getting hers. She has written a review of another of his titles, The Cheltenham Square Murder, which sounds good.
And lastly, I read my first western:
Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey (1913)
Apparently this book was a bestseller when it was published and has never been out of print. It made the author famous and created the new Western genre.
Set among the canyons and sage plains of Utah in the early 1870’s, this book has a strong romantic element and plenty of action.
A long running feud between Gentiles and Mormons comes to a head when Jane Withersteen, the daughter of the man who founded the Mormon settlement at Cottonwood, ignores the dispute and offers hospitality to an outsider.
A Mormon elder who plans to make Jane one of his wives threatens vengeance but he underestimates her courage and determination.
One day a lone rider of the plains comes to her house and with the help of the man who experienced hospitality at Jane’s hands, they try to help her hold out against those who seek her ruin.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from a Western and was surprised it had such a strong romantic element. I thought it was a bit melodramatic at times and ‘Lassiter,’ the lone rider who comes to Jane’s assistance was a little larger than life in his shooting and fighting abilities.
A fairly enjoyable read but I can’t say that I love the Western genre. I’d have to read some more of them to determine that.
Free online at Gutenberg.
What would you choose if you wanted a light read? I probably wouldn’t have picked up a book like Riders of the Purple Sage to read at home but I appreciated a book that wasn’t too demanding while we were travelling. I did contemplate taking a doorstopping epic like Les Mis or War & Peace for the plane trip but I’m glad now that I didn’t.