To Tie Firmly

Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca (1938)

Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)

Rebecca (Ben Wheatley, 2020)

It may be, of course, that I read Rebecca years and years ago — I know I started it and I studied the opening paragraph, the dream of the Manderley mansion from years later, but I’m not sure I got much further. And when I bought two Du Maurier boxsets, I don’t think Rebecca was part of them. It took me a while to track down a copy — although naturally I found several since, as a battered paperback 1992 reprint got more battered as it got carried around.

The conceit should be familiar: lady’s companion Rebecca meets aristocratic widower Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo and the two have a whirlwind romance, before returning to the ancestral pad in … where we take to be Cornwall but it isn’t named in the book. The new bride finds life at Manderley difficult and the ghost of the dead Rebecca hangs over her, especially through the behaviour of housekeeper Mrs Danvers. A ball would be useful, perhaps, but Mrs Danvers persuades her to wear the same costume as Rebecca had and then it seems as if a wedge has been driven between the loving couple. Then a body is discovered in a sunken boat… Continue reading →

Justitia or Dike

Anne Holt, Blind Goddess (Blind Guddine (1993), translated by Tom Geddes)

I’ve temporarily stopped reading Kjell Ola Dahl‘s Gunnarstranda and Frølich novels — which I wasn’t writing up — but then I’ve only read about two books this year, both catalogues. Noodling around Bigsouthamericanriver.con I found Anne Holt, who wrote the books (including Frukta inte, on which the Copernhagen-set Modus was based). A ex-lawyer, ex-journalist, ex minister of justice in the Norwegian government, this is her first novel.

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Sister see, sister do / She’s got to save me

Gunnar Staalesen, Big Sister (Storesøster (2016), translated by Don Bartlett (2018))

Big Sister

He automatically stepped back and tried to close the door, but I could be the pushy salesman if I wanted, so I leaned against it and followed him in before he had a chance to complete his action.

A trope of the series detective is to suddenly find a sibling, never mentioned before, from whom he is estranged. The sibling is in trouble and/or committed a crime and frankly should wearing a red jumper. Continue reading →

Wife Killers

Gunnar Staalesen, The Consorts of Death (Dødens Drabanter (2006), translated by Don Bartlett (2009))

Consorts of DeathHigh above the mountains, the moon had appeared, the earth’s pale consort, distant and alone in its eternal orbit around the chaos and turmoil below. It struck me that the moon wasn’t alone after all. There were many of us adrift and circling around the same chaos, the same turmoil, without being able to intervene or do anything about it. We were all consorts of death.

There are two things to notice about this entry in the Varg Veum series – first, it is the debut of Don Bartlett as translator; two, it is not set more or less contemporaneously with publication. Continue reading →

Privat Øye

Gunnar Staalesen, Yours Until Death (Din, Til Døden, 1979, translated by Margaret Amassian, 1993)

YoursSome crime novels don’t age well.

Too long ago for liking, I bought a boxset of all the Morse novels dirt cheap from a charity shop, and began reading them in order. I’d not seen more than one of the TV versions – ironically, when staying in Oxford with a friend who was busy working – and so all I knew was beer, crosswords, Jaguar, solving the crime having accused everyone else and dubious geography. I read about three, starting with the first, and paused when I decided I didn’t like the way Morse looked down the blouses of his interviewees.
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A Palpable Hytte

Jørn Lier Horst, The Cabin (2018, Det Innerste Rommet, translated by Anne Bruce, 2019)

cabinSo, it has to be said, the original book is called something closer to The Innermost Room, rather than The Cabin, but the cabin seems to be the must-have accessory of your upper middle class Norwegian. The title, I would argue, has a certain amount of ambiguity as to [spoilers!] which room it is.

But maybe it’s Norwegianer.
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The Dull American

Joseph Kanon, The Good German (2001)

I’m not sure why I bought this, although this edition ties into a Steven Soderbergh which I recorded off the telly and still didn’t watch. It has been kicking around for five or six years, and went to America and Ireland and back, with no more than eighty pages read.

So it’s the dying days of the Second World War and the journalist Jake Geismer returns to Berlin in search of a final story and an old girlfriend, Lena, whose husband is a rocket scientist and engineer who both the Americans and Russians want on their side. When a young American is found shot dead in the river in the Russian zone, Geismer begins to investigate who is behind this. And then a female press photographer is shot dead, with Geismer suspecting he is the intended target.

The Guardian compares it to Graham Greene’s The Third Man, a novella about a tenth of the length dealing with some of the murkier business of the war, and a classic film full of memorable moments. This book is, alas, unmemorable, whose titular German I had to double check the identity of. Whilst Geismer is in every scene, it is written in the third person and the shocking revelations seem rather flat. We know the ambiguity of Werner von Braun, and have since before Tom Lehrer satirised it. Here, however, I just wanted them to get on with it. I think this will go back to a charity shop.

No Place Like Holmes’s

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four (1890)

May contain spoilers

If I could bothered to stand up and move a pile of books and a chair, I could probably tell you when I bought or was bought my Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes — I suspect it would have been toward the start of the Jeremy Brett adaptations although I suspect I read The Hound of the Baskervilles from the library at around the time of the Tom Baker one. I associate reading the complete poems of William Blake with waiting for A Level Results; I suspect reading Holmes coincided with my O Levels, and I risked bringing with it the same degree of geekishness I had brought to reading Tolkien — I knew that Watson seemed to have had two wives, his wound was through his leg into his shoulder* and he even seemed to change names. The continuity of “The Final Problem”, “The Empty House” and The Hound of the Baskervilles cause problems as during the period of real people thinking him dead, the fictional characters would know Holmes was actually alive (and the dates of the novel don’t work for its year or … something).

I’m less clear when I bought a pile — I think two piles — of Oxford Sherlock Holmes volumes, which presumably were busting UK copyright. I’m not sure I have a complete set of these, but I did find the second novel that is set in September 1887.

This is possibly a problem. Continue reading →

What we want is Watney’s

Andy Weir, The Martian (2011)

So there are exceptions — the Watership Downs and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Clenchers — which get rejected by dozens of publishers and then become bestsellers. And there’s the self-published which become bestsellers when they’ve gone mainstream. One has to admire Andy Weir for his success — which seems to have been ordained even before we learned that Ridley Scott was going to get his mitts on the manuscript.

Lots of books get optioned.

Some writers live on this — hoping the bloody film never gets made.

This time it did, but I haven’t seen it yet.

So, we have an astronaut, Matt Watney, on the red barrel planet, who gets separated from the rest of his crew in a sandstorm and is left behind. Or, since he’s telling us the story in the first person, possibly he’d nipped for a slash behind the yurt and got distracted. Anyhow.

Because he’s never read Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About Too…, he decides to Rebuild Civilisation by planting potatoes and keeping going until NASA can send a rescue mission. He sits there and does all the calculation in a sort of rivet-counting engineer in Heart of Darkness way, but we have not sense of jeopardy because it’s in the first person and it would be really naff to suddenly switch viewpoints and add This is the last of the tapes we found and Watney’s body was found buried under the sand. On wonders a little about the balance of amino acids he’s going to get with rations and potatoes, and surely the lunacy induced by just eating potatoes is higher than the lunacy of being on your own for four hundred days or being forced to watch nothing but seventies reruns and listening to disco.

Oh yes, yet another sf novel where the protagonist know no culture produced after the date of the novel being written.

There’s a certain kind of purity that comes from a tight focus on a single character.

…and then the action suddenly switches to Earth and NASA and what they want to do with it. They begin to anticipate what Watney will do and how rescue him, and set a new deadline for him to survive to. There are convenient other spaceships around to borrow and presumably extra rations for the rescue team and at least now we have a sense of jeopardy because we don’t know what Watney’s up to…

… only we do cut back to him and we aren’t really allowed to think he’s dead for more than half a page. At least once we get to the third person — and sometimes we see Watney from the third person and in italics if I recall correctly, so there is hope that he might die after all. At any point it could all go horribly Pete Tong.

It reminded me of two earlier novels — but not the exoticism of Barsoom or the nostalgia of The Silver Locusts or the ontology of Martian Time-Slip or the social richness of Red/Green/Blue Mars. Rather it took me back to Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, which confuses pedantry with verisimilitude, and Ben Bova’s Voyagers, which has that international glossiness. Every one is competent, there are no real antagonists except the universe itself.

You might argue there are no people.

Hmmm.

It’s a long time since I saw Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but I suspect that was a lot more fun. But this is that reasonable novel that does its job and yes, does keep you reading. But I’ll forget it within the week.

Ingen Flyr På Ham

Hans Olav Lahlum, Menneskefluene (Human Flies (2010))

Norway was neutral during the Second World War, but was invaded by Germany on 9 April 1940 and occupied by the Wehrmach until 8 May 1945. About a third of the Jewish population was deported to the camps in German, whilst others fled into exile. Some Norwegians signed up to fight for the Nazis — mostly on the Eastern front — but there was also a resistance movement. This left a bitter legacy for Norway, some of which formed back stories for the Harry Hole novels of Jo Nesbø, all of which I have now read.

So, whilst there are non-series novels to be read, I found a copy of Lahlum’s Human Flies, a locked-room mystery set in 1968. Harald Olesen, a hero of the resistance, is found shot dead in his flat in an apartment building, but no one has seen anybody leave his front door. It is up to Detective Inspector Kolbjørn Kristiansen to investigate and the building is full of secrets — a former Nazi, an American ambassadorial official, people orphaned by the war, those having affairs… K2 (as the detective is known) is aided in this investigation by Patricia, a beautiful and intelligent woman confined to a wheelchair.

Lahlum is a historian by training and it turns out a relative (a great great aunt?) was Dagmar Lahlum, an Oslo member of the Norwegian resistance recruited by Eddie Chapman to work for MI5 — his exploits were recounted in several biographies, including Nicholas Booth’s Zigzag – The Incredible Wartime Exploits of Double Agent Eddie Chapman (2007) and Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman, Lover, Betrayer, Hero, Spy (2007). This clearly had an impact on the novel — of the relationship forged in the war and lost in peace time.

And yet I don’t think I can recommend this. I’ve not read enough Agatha Christie to make the comparison — but there’s a series of one-to-one interviews, a couple of points where the suspects are gathered together (“I suppose you are wondering why I gathered you all here together…”)… It, frankly, drags. The first person narration doesn’t help and the nods to historic events seem perfunctory. Perhaps in 1968 a policeman could work alone and share information with a civilian without trouble, but it’s a novel that feels set in the 1930s rather than the 1960s.