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.

Never Marry Your Cousin

For reasons that escape me, a number of years ago I bought a boxset of Daphne Du Maurier novels. I must have thought this was good plan, because I then bought a second, and a couple of novels not included in either. I also bought the collection which contains the story that was the basis for ‘Don’t Look Now’. The most Hitchcockian of novelists – with perhaps the thought that Du Maurier was a Cornish Patricia Highsmith. The grand plan, being anal, was to read the novels in chronological order of publication, but that never happened and the boxes sat by my bed, gathering dust. So I picked another one at random. Du Maurier Plaque

“This, I suppose, was what men faced when they were married. Slammed doors, and silence.
Dinner alone.”

Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel (1951)

Little Orphan Philip lives on a big Cornish estate at some point in time – it’s never entirely clear when, but the lack of trains would put it at some point in the early nineteenth century. His Confirmed Bachelor uncle, Ambrose, fully anticipates that Phil will inherit everything, the lazy brat, but that is before he goes on a holiday to Italy and meets, falls in love with and marries Rachel. Phil’s cousin.

Before you can say, “Cradle snatcher”, it becomes clear that Ambrose is unwell and Philip makes a mad dash across Europe, only to find his uncle dead and his mysterious cousin absent. He returns to Cornwall and begins to run the estate, blind to the sudden charms of the local unmarried women who are awaiting his proposal.

And after a few months he is joined by Rachel – whom at first he is determined to dislike because, yanno, probable homicide, but who he gets a crush on. If there were justice (and she isn’t just an evil schemer), Rachel would get the estate, and Philip seems to do everything he can to give it to her, made complicated by everything being in trust until his twenty-fifth birthday.

What is not clear here, of course, is how reliable the self-serving Philip is. Is it really wise to want to marry a cousin with a dodgy back story? Is it good taste to marry one’s uncle’s widow? Or is Rachel perhaps just poor at handling money and the victim of an infantile young man brought up in a homosocial environment?

More Majestic Shalt Thou Rise

For reasons that escape me, a number of years ago I bought a boxset of Daphne Du Maurier novels. I must have thought this was good plan, because I then bought a second, and a couple of novels not included in either. I also bought the collection which contains the story that was the basis for ‘Don’t Look Now’. The most Hitchcockian of novelists – with perhaps the thought that Du Maurier was a Cornish Patricia Highsmith. The grand plan, being anal, was to read the novels in chronological order of publication, but that never happened and the boxes sat by my bed, gathering dust. So I picked one at random. Du Maurier Plaque

Daphne Du Maurier, Rule Britannia (1972)

Rule Britannia was Du Maurier’s last novel, even though she died two decades later, and a weird mainstream sf effort which the 1970s was to see a few of — John Sutherland calls them As If Nigel’s and that may well do. Imagine a time forty five years ago and the Conservative Party stood in a General Election committing us the join the European Union that hadn’t wanted us as a member a few years earlier. Then imagine an economic crisis in which we are then kicked out, and the U.S. occupy us as protecting force.

That’s the premise of Rule Britannia, told from the perspective of a small town in Cornwall. The town people largely hate the Americans, presumably can’t abide the Europeans and aren’t that enamoured of Londoners.

How things have changed.

I get the sense that an awful lot of British sf up to about 1980 is refighting the Second World War — the plucky islanders, the sense of an ideal fighting for, the blitz spirit and all that. Survivors, Dad’s Army, Secret Army and “Genesis of the the Daleks” are cousins. Du Maurier in Cornwall during the Second World War would have seen the American soldiers stationed around and the local attitudes to them. I suspect the campaign to win hearts and minds — and a quick how’s your father — would have been similar to that in the novel.

The protagonist is Emma, who presumably isn’t interesting enough to narrate but is in every scene even if that takes some jiggery pokery. Her father is a merchant banker of some kind — absent for much of the novel, a vital link to the powers that were — and her grandmother is Mad, a seventy nine year old former actress, inspired by Gertrude Lawrence, Gladys Cooper and, I suspect, du Maurier herself. And then there are various adopted children, under the age of 18, who can be relied on to keep the plot spinning.

Du Maurier had been recruited to the cause of Cornish nationalism and was aware that — as tin mines and fishing declined — the capital’s big economic plan for the West Country was heritage and tourism, until package holidays destroyed even that possibility. This is the occupying U.S.’s vision of Cornwall, with Welsh and Scottish heritage in the mix. A land of surf and Doombar.

There is resistance — although I think the satirical mood here makes the novel step back from the horrors hinted at in the Resistance in The Scapegoat and attempts to pull the wool over the eyes of the authorities. There’s a pompous local MP, a suspicious American colonel (and tougher colleagues), a pliable GP and a mysterious hermit. If this wasn’t a six part BBC drama it should have been — you could easily cast it.

This was a real page turner, not quite the gothic material I’d expect from my limited sense of du Maurier, but certainly worth a read.

The Secret Scapegoat

Every one of us has his, or her, dark side. Which is to overcome the other?

For reasons that escape me, a number of years ago I bought a boxset of Daphne Du Maurier novels. I must have thought this was good plan, because I then bought a second, and a couple of novels not included in either. I also bought the collection which contains the story that was the basis for ‘Don’t Look Now’. Note “The Birds”, Jamaica Inn and Rebecca. The most Hitchcockian of novelists – with perhaps the thought that Du Maurier was a Cornish Patricia Highsmith. The grand plan, being anal, was to read the novels in chronological order of publication, but that never happened and the boxes sat by my bed, gathering dust. So I picked one at random. Du Maurier Plaque Daphne Du Maurier, The Scapegoat (1957) John, a university lecturer, is on holiday in France, fantasising about the past and Joan of Arc, and imagining a secret life. He runs into his exact double, Jean de Gué, and the two go for a drink, in fact a series of drinks, before retiring to de Gué’s hotel room where John passes out. He wakes, in Jean de Gué’s clothes and is mistaken for the other – a Comte who has failed to negotiate favourable terms for the family glass foundry business, who has a morphine addicted mother, who hates (and is hated by) his brother and who is shagging half the female population of the locality. Rather than saying, Oh my good man, you have mistaken me for someone else, to the chaffeur, John decides to take over de Gué’s life and set about saving the family and the business. We are in melodrama territory – the morphine mum, the swooning pregnant wife, the visionary daughter who is on the one hand disappointed by her lying daddy and on the other hand prepared to lie for him. (There is an incident quite late on, a suspicious death that the daughter alibis as accidental.) It feels curiously nineteenth century – but we are in France and we are in the decade after the Second World War and neither detail is irrelevant. The mechanisms of plot are perhaps a little too visible – and one expects the first Mmme de Gué to burn down the chateau at some point… Note that John is given no surname (remember the central character of Rebecca is nameless), and that we can but wonder if he is a doppelganger or the same person, a psychotic twin (or unpsychotic), the result of some trauma. Is John Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde? I was careful to avoid spoilers whilst reading the novel and avoided the introduction. What I did discover was that it has been filmed twice, once in 2012 with Matthew Rhys directed by Charles Sturridge and previously with Alec Guinness directed by Robert Hamer. Now that is a film I do want to track down – Guinness is perfects casting (and it’s a bit Graham Greene territory as a novel) and Hamer is better known for Kind Hearts and Coronets, with several Alec Guinnesses. Betty Davies plays the matriarch, which also seems like genius casting. And so I’m tempted to have another lucky dip, another Du Maurier.