You don’t feel your illusions falling away from you, so much as you falling away from your illusions. It’s different somehow and you do have the sensation of actually falling. It’s you who are no longer a fixed point. ‘Scuse me one second…. you know what holds up really well? The soundtrack to ‘Goldfinger’. I’ve been listening to that and ‘The Good, The Bad & The Ugly’ a hell of a lot lately. “Jesus this fucking guy again!” Who me? I’m just a guy who gets paid to snoop around. Let me bend your ear for a minute. I just came in to get out of the rain for a second.
Now the Bond movies themselves, well they don’t hold up as well, but a lot of that has to do with the fact that they really need to been seen in a theatre with a bunch of other people. Obviously all movies of that period were intended as such but some really need it more than others. I mean it makes a hell of a lot of difference in enjoyment of Bond’s films. At home after the usually spiffy opening graphics one finds one’s attention wandering from the paper thin and repetitive plots, but with an audience all the silliness, gadgets, unsubtle irony and double entendres make for a rousing good time. I have both soundtracks on vinyl but have been listening their CD versions (with extra tracks) bought on the cheap now that that format is supposed to be dead and buried. But physical things have this dogged persistence. They are no longer anyone’s bread and butter or display worthy, but they are all available on the cheap, tucked away in dusty corners.
The cheapness of CD’s really is a boon for those who still like having psychical objects. And we are a dying breed. Searching out different and usually more dynamic masterings of yesteryear is just part of the fun because used CD’s now offer the same pleasant surprises – on the cheap – that vinyl used to back when it was affordable. You can take chances on items you normally wouldn’t have if they were more expensive. I recently bought Sundazed’s reissue of Bruce Johnston’s ‘Surfin’ ‘Round the World’ (1963) for five dollars and boy was it money well spent. The album is surprisingly raw and forward sounding, it has strains of garage rock to come in amongst its surf stomps. And lots of distorted guitars, like a strange amount for 1963. Very early to these ears.
The multi disc player is the way I tend to listen to music most often. Interesting combinations of six discs on random. If done right the different tracks start sparking off each other and even speaking to each other; it’s like getting a group of your favorite compatible people (their very essence) together and letting them converse. You can blend say any number of Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks, Nino Rota (I’m partial to ‘Juliet of the Spirits’), The Doors (‘Weird Scenes’ is a good comp.), Johnny Rivers (‘And I Know You Wanna Dance’) along with any number of Elvis or Gene Vincent compilations and marvel at how well they all compliment each other. I mean you get little startling jolts from many of these juxtapositions – notice how Johnny River’s ‘You Dig’ anticipates the Doors heavy slow organ groove and the influence of Sinatra, Elvis and even Gene (listen to Vincent’s version of ‘Unchained Melody’ hell play Elvis’s too for that matter) in Morrison’s vocals.
Soundtrack composers like Morricone and Rota loom large in the Doors musical influences along with their surprisingly diverse non-musical influences like the beats, film noir, pulp adventure and detective fiction, Greek mythology and West Coast solipsism. The West is the best, you dig. That delicious Roman Catholic erotic surrealism of Sergio Leone’s films, yep that’s in there too. There are sly strains of ‘O’ Come O’Come Emmanuel’ in the ‘Good and the Bad’ track ‘Il Forte’. Let them who have ears hear. You pump enough mescal and mescaline into a pulpy jungle adventure story, along with a touch of Conrad and a heap of film score and exotica records and you basically get the Doors. They were film student beatniks with a jones for adventure and the exotic. Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain and shame. Ask Vic Godard circa ‘Vertical Integration’. That’s my take. Don’t let Oliver Stone ruin something beautiful and complex.
There’s a cover of ‘Run For Your Life’ on the Johnny Rivers record I mentioned, it’s a nice rendition of an underrated Beatle track, but even better is the Cowboy Junkies version which I heard only recently. There’s the kind of obvious gender reversal going on that excites people these days but what really makes it is the weird, almost hillbilly, glam swagger by way of the Doors (again) and Suicide. Hell its even got shouted low budget Clash terrace background vocals and noisy guitar that uses the wah-wah pedal as God intended; for tonal variations rather than the porn style wakka-wakka that has become the cliche. The fact that I was skeptical when I first started listening but was slowly won over as the track preceded and I vacillated through a bunch of different emotions only testifies to the strength of even the lower strata of the Beatles’ songbook. And the Cowboy Junkies take on the song just opens my ears more to its charms.
The American version of ‘Rubber Soul’ is more woody than the British, all acoustic guitars, mid- century modern furniture, suede and campfire vocals, play it with the ‘Beach Boys Party’ album also from that glorious year of our Lord 1965. Take a song like ‘It’s Only Love’ (lifted from the proper British ‘HELP!’ LP for the American ‘Rubber Soul’) what I hear is the art school Lennon, almost beatnik by way of the hillbilly cats Vincent and Presley. I picture Juliette Greco smoking in black tights and Bridgette Bardot bending forward slightly in peasant dress or tied off colorful shirt, it breathes the same air, the same energy as the early 60’s cinema of Italy and France. Very Continental!
‘Girl’ which follows on the American LP treks further afield into Eastern Europe. In my mind I can see Peter Sellers comically hopping around during the cod-Russian bit. ‘Run For Your Life’ and ‘It’s Only Love’ are much better than you may have been led to believe. Really the only clunker on ‘Rubber Soul’ is ‘Wait’ and even that isn’t bad only average but amongst such awesome company it feels distinctly out of place. Though as I’m hearing it now, it does have a killer middle eight; the bit that starts “I feel as though you ought to know”. That sounds like a beautiful McCartney middle eight. So it’s one of those albums that really breathes, creates a universe of its own that you can seep into and always find new things. Let your imagination, not your conscience be your guide.
Hold up the mail just came, or rather the delivery guy from Amazon. Ever notice there’s a bit of a crime scene vibe in Amazon’s delivery pictures, taken from a high perspective straight down to the ground where they threw your package – there is something cold, hard, slightly out of focus and off the cuff that make me think maybe the best ones could be compiled. Often there is a shoe lurking forebodingly just at the edge of the frame, as if just removed from your package. I do see footprints on an awful lot on my packages. So yeah sometimes I daydream the trip my packages have been on and I can’t say it’s a fun trip.
Well I must be on my way. There’s too many eyes around. I fear I am being followed. And I got a case I got to get back to, yet another missing girl to find.
The crown of Christmas lights wrapped round his head blinked on and off as he shot Flash Gordon in the hall of mirrors. Smoke and the sound of shattered glass. They are a fixed point, you are not. So who is the illusion now see. He walked on down the hall just like Bulldog Drummond.
The tragic death of publisher Rupert Heath at the start of this year was hard to take on a personal level, for whilst we had only fairly recently begun to exchange emails and messages he already felt like someone I might have known for most of my life. From an objective perspective too his death has been an immense loss, for his Dean Street Press imprint was such a steadfastly reliable source of great books by often un-heralded and ‘lost’ writers of the Golden Age and beyond. There may have been some I warmed to more than others, but that is to be expected when considering such great ‘labels’. I mean, show me the person who loves every band who released a record on Factory and I’ll show you someone who may be bending the truth somewhat.
I’m happy, however, that the five Moray Dalton reissues planned before Rupert’s passing have seen the light of day, for they are terrific books and firmly in the spirit of what Dean Street Press was all about. Whilst the British Library Classic Crime series may focus on one or two titles by an author being squeezed out at a rate of one per month, DSP’s strength was always in striving to make available a body of work by any given author in a batch decent enough to get one’s teeth into. There are few things in life more rewarding than stumbling on a series of books, after all, and I will be forever grateful to Rupert Heath for giving me plenty of opportunities to indulge that pleasure. Ianthe Jerrold, Robin Forsyth, E.R. Punshon, Molly Thynne, Christopher Bush, Basil Thomson, Elizabeth Gill, the Radfords and the brilliant Francis Vivian. Even Brian Flynn, if you must. Plus, of course, Moray Dalton.
I wrote about the first batch of Dalton books released by DSP back in 2020, when they provided excellent entertainment in the early months of The Virus. I wrote at the time that her serial detective Hugh Collier was something of a wraith in the books and that whilst there seemed to be little character development this was not necessarily a bad thing. Whilst this is still true in most of the Collier series books I’ve read, in ‘The Mystery Of The Kneeling Woman’ there is a degree more colour added to the background of the Scotland Yard detective as he attempts to disentangle a mystery involving the death of a village recluse, poisoned chocolates, church brasses, bitter reflections on The Great War, obsessive revenge fantasies, small children, ‘memory loss’ and characters determinedly Taking The Blame. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that this is the book in which Collier’s love life is laid out for us and his future state of marriage explained, and Dalton confidently paints Collier as a Thoroughly Decent Chap. Perhaps one of the reasons I warm to Collier is that, besides being a fellow Scot, he reminds me of Francis Vivian’s tremendous Inspector Knollis in that he eschews all the fluff and flummery of the amateur sleuth and replaces it with quiet hard graft. Knollis famously disregards notions of coincidence and Collier is certainly hewn from the same stone, pointing out that “What some people call the science of detection is simply the accumulation of apparently irrelevant and unimportant facts.” One can imagine Knollis nodding sagely in agreement.
There is much, then, in ‘The Mystery of The Kneeling Woman’ that appeals, and there are some tremendous little digs thrown into the mix by Dalton through her various characters. The City versus Country trope is well served by the Yard detective sergeant Duffield who, amongst other things, betrays “some ignorance of life in the country” by suggesting that “one day must be very like another in these villages”. Elsewhere he suggests that the furnishings of a Country House now owned by a business magnate “smells of the Tottenham Court Road”, a line which I admit made me snort into my sherry. Indeed, Dalton enjoys playing on the trope of New Money playing at being Gentry, having one of her village characters sniffly say about the aforementioned business magnate that “he’s not one of the old landed gentry” but rather “a retired manufacturer [who] made his pile during the War.” As the book progresses there is certainly a sense that Money might be able to buy one property and titles, but it does not, as Collier later wryly observes “bring happiness.” He does, naturally, unravel all the bizarrely entwined threads of the case and gives us all a satisfyingly brief explanation at the book’s conclusion. None of your tedious extended expostulations of clever deductions for Dalton, thank goodness.
In many ways ‘The Mystery of The Kneeling Woman’ then is a romantic tragedy masquerading as a detective story (or vice versa) and is none the worse for that. The following year’s ‘Death In The Dark’ is every bit as fine and every bit as deliciously bonkers as Dalton gleefully throws circus performers, drugs, disreputable doctors and a private zoo into the mix. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!… There is a nice thread of continuity between ‘Kneeling Woman’ and this one in that it is the same small child from the previous book who pulls Collier into the mystery of this one. The major protagonist, however, is the sister (Judy) of a circus acrobat deviously framed for murder. She inveigles her way into the lion’s den (almost literally – the Big Cat in question is actually a Tiger) in a bid to Learn The Awful Truth, uncover the devilish plot and save her brother from the hangman’s noose. As you can probably tell, it’s a marvellous thriller of a novel as Collier and Judy race to prevent a terrible miscarriage of justice. Bonus points for the South West of England setting, with Seaton and Sidmouth both getting a name check.
The third and last of the Inspector Collier books to be republished by DSP is 1939’s fantastic ‘Death In The Forest’. I say fantastic because it really is fantastical with a central trope of lycanthropy and a rather marvellous section that takes place during a revolution in the fictional South American country of San Rinaldo. Indeed, this part of the book reminds me of ‘Tintin and The Picaros’ with General Alcazar leading his revolution in San Theodoros. These days one could most likely not get away with such a cartoonish portrayal of what used be called ’Banana Republics’ and in some respects it is perhaps surprising that Herge did so in 1974. In 1939 however there were certainly no qualms about portraying these South American countries as a ‘backward’ realm where superstition was ancient and deeply rooted whilst notions of government merely fleeting and transitory and dependent on who had most money/power at any given moment. Which rather sounds like a description of contemporary global politics, but there we are…
‘Death In The Forest’ then continues Dalton’s preference for throwing multiple ingredients into the mix and blending them into a peculiarly delicious concoction. So as well as the suggestions of werewolves we have more poisonings, star-crossed lovers, family betrayals, domineering mothers and self-obsessed sons hellbent on a life of frippery and foppery, plus the kitchen sink besides. There is an also a delightful piece of self-reference when Collier is confronted by the notion of lycanthropy. “I’ve come across some strange things myself” Collier points out. “I was in charge of the Belgrave Manor case, you know. You mayn’t have heard of that. A witch’s coven on the Sussex Downs.” Indeed, as in that ‘Belgrave Manor Crime’, Dalton seems to take enormous pleasure in writing a marvellously entertaining piece of fantasy fiction where the basic form of the detective novel serves merely as a foundation for her active (over)imagination. I suspect that such wild flights of fancy might put off fans of the more, ah, ‘considered’ practitioners of detective fiction, but even they must surely appreciate the genius of Dalton’s deployment of the grounded and reliable Collier as foil to the fantastical. Indeed, it’s this marvellous drama of contrasts that make Moray Dalton and Inspector Collier amongst my favourite combinations.
I admit then that the lack of Inspector Collier in the final two Dalton novels to be published by DSP filled me with a little apprehension, as did the shifting of setting from the familiar South of England to Italy. I need not have worried though, for Dalton’s sense of place is, if anything, even more at play in her 1945 novel ‘The Death of Eve’ and the following year’s ‘Death At The Villa’. In contrast to her tremendously fantastical mysteries of the interwar years, these two stand-alone yet connected novels are altogether more serious and sombre affairs and admirably display the fact that Dalton is, for all the wild and unbelievable excitement of her earlier books, quite simply a Good Writer.
The two books may be standalone novels set some forty or more years apart, yet they are certainly connected by the notion that history is a thread where events pulse through eras and inform the future. ‘The Murder of Eve’ and ‘Death at the Villa’ may be set in two different Italy’s, but it is clear that Dolton is saying something about how Money and Power corrupt absolutely and that whilst Political Ideology may be used as a cloak, it is essentially the same patriarchal power structure that prevails and that it is women who pay the greatest price. Indeed, the title of ‘The Murder of Eve’ kind of flags this up from the start, just in case you miss the point being made…
Both of these novels, then, feel much more Modern than any of the Inspector Collier books, and whilst Dalton still effortlessly employs her skills to provide well-paced narratives, there is little that is light about these books other than the writer’s deftness of touch. One of these light touches is another of those lovely self-referential comments, where amateur sleuth Roger Fordyce admits that “It was comparatively easy for the detective heroes of the thrillers he most enjoyed. They usually had the resources of New Scotland Yard at their disposal, or, if they happened to be amateurs, they had a faithful, though thick-headed, friend in attendance, or a valet who was also a boxing champion and an expert photographer.” Fordyce does eventually employ the assistance of a friend in the form of disgraced piano teacher Lily who, it must be added, is far from thick-headed. From this point however Dalton rather subverts the usual form for amateur sleuthing, and this is another sign perhaps of a bleaker darkness at work. Meanwhile, for fans of Postcard Records there is a mention of Louis Wain’s cats… The book is fired through with this kind of turn of the (19th to 20th) Century detail and if its central obsession with the idea of so-called White Slavery seems quaint, then re-phrasing it as sex trafficking perhaps makes it feel more, depressingly, relevant and up to date.
‘Death At The Villa’ meanwhile portrays a much more contemporaneous Italy as Dalton sets the story in the midst of WW2. In this Italy the crumbling aristocracy struggles to survive alongside the peasantry, neither being particularly safe against the pervasive evil of fascism. That being said, it is of course the exploited peasantry who suffer most and Dalton isn’t shy about making this observation. Her main protagonists though are Richard Drew – a Thoroughly Decent Englishman (of course) – and Alda, an Italian woman whose status straddles the vanishing world of aristocracy (to which she belongs through blood, if not position) and the harsh realities of living in a fascist state. The English RAF flyer Richard naturally plays the part of the plucky fighter and is straight out of a Richard Hannay novel, which makes me wonder if the character’s name is indeed a cheeky nod to Hannay. You may not be altogether surprised to learn that the book is in part a romantic thriller that builds around the relationship between him and Alda, and in this it works admirably. Yet it is also a bleaker treatise on the savagery endlessly perpetrated by the patriarchy and alongside ‘The Murder of Eve’ it stands as a highly entertaining but essentially sober piece of fiction.
Again, bonus points too for the mention of the South West of England in ’Death at the Villa’, this time the little Devon coastal town (then village, I suppose) of Beer, where Richard Drew recalls a holiday “when he was about eight years old, a holiday when the sun always shone and there were shrimps for tea, and the object of his hero worship, a good-natured fisherman, allowed him to sit by him on the beach and help to mend nets that smelt deliciously of tar.”
It is of course a source of profound sorrow that these Moray Dalton books may be the final bow from Dean Street Press. They are, however, a mighty fine high on which to lower the curtain.
PIL’s ‘Metal Box’ is at root an Old Testament document. Listen, just leave it to couple of Catholics and a Jew to get down to this kind of business. The energy radiating from ‘Metal Box’ is a white hot self loathing rooted in John Lydon’s in time realization that he is a fraud, more of a hypocrite and liar than any musician that has come before him on whom he has projected his own inadequacies – his self righteous tone alone, not rivalled even by Bob Marley, is that of an Old Testament prophet eaten up by God’s holy fire, consumed by his own righteous fury and fear. Wobble’s bass grounds Lydon’s rage long enough for Levene’s guitar and synth to manifest iridescent sparks that rotate and dazzle like Ezekiel’s wheel. Lydon’s voice howls in the pitch and frequency of Yaldabaoth, enchanted and infuriated by his own image, always through a glass darkly. What that which looms above?
Listening to the Kink’s ‘School Boys in Disgrace’. The funny thing about the Kinks concept albums of 1973-75 is that the story, although loosely connected by the character of Mr. Flash, is so besides the point and silly that I’ve never once heard anybody even bother to elucidate it. There’s some great songs on those albums, don’t get me wrong, the pub rockin’ camp of ‘The Hard Way’ and the late period Byrds gospel of ‘The last Assembly’ are unimpeachable in my house. It’s just that the framing device for these records is so theatrical and thin that it doesn’t even merit the discussion that Townshend’s extremely labored concept LP’s of the 70’s receive. I guess THAT discussion is to some point justified by just that, his labors on the story as much as the songs. I like the vague but intriguing sci-fi sketch of ‘Lifehouse’, but maybe Tommy deserved being stuck in a Ken Russell movie. There’s a great ‘Rutland Weekend’ sketch featuring Eric Idle and the great Neil Innes called ‘Pommy’ which deals with the nightmare proposition of finding yourself trapped in a Ken Russell film.
To be clear I own and like all these records to varying degrees. I’m just riffing as I listen, and sometimes you hurt the ones you love the most.
I guess I should be glad that the hole is tight on my copy of Marianne Faithfull’s ‘Come Stay With Me the UK 45’s 1964-1969’, but its a bit of an inconvenience, though that joke occurred to me as I pressed right down on that tight hole. I suppose I need a tussle or I’m just immature. Most probably both. My thoughts keep turning in on themselves. Wow, Marianne’s version of ‘Yesterday’ is awful. Actually it’s the arrangement that is awful, her vocal is fine, and as an aside I always thought Reed and Cale’s criticisms of the additional arrangements to Nico’s ‘Chelsea Girls’ a bit churlish, especially compared to something like this right here. Now ‘That’s Right Baby’ on the other hand is so right on a Graham Bond groovy spy soundtrack that she could have made a whole album in this mode with no complaint. Marianne is such an Elizabethan bird (send complaints to editor)(Ed: yeah, it would be good to know someone is reading) no more so than on Goffin & Mann’s ‘Something Better’ – you know it’s the late 60’s cause even the Old Brill Building writers are swinging with each others partner.
Earlier in my kitchen looking at a picture of Eddie Cochran on the cover of Dylan’s new book I was struck by what a genuinely good guy Eddie seemed to be, you can see it in his face and the stories I’ve heard match the profile. Dylan’s book is fun, no real philosophy, modern or otherwise but much song and craft. He has perfected a particular poignant admixture of insight sprinkled amongst piles of amusing bullshit that keeps you reading just in case this guy might be on to something. His two ‘Playboy’ interviews, one from 1966 and the other 1978 are fragrant and flagrant examples of this frankly heady brew and worth seeking out. Just ask Robert Frost, I mean Robert Forster.
Listening to The Them now, thinking of how Van Morrison’s singing really bugged my Mom. I think it was ‘Astral Weeks’ I was playing one time when she was over that she flipped out a bit over, actually seemed to take offence, personal like. Anyway I didn’t get it then, but sometimes now I do – Van’s at times mannered, often staccato barking is the antithesis of everything my Mom thought of as good singing, and sometimes I feel the same. Chet Baker did. But it’s also the voice that helped launch a thousand worthy American garage bands. It’s the Belfast punk in him showing the crooner the door. Van, thy name is contrariness. And my mom never heard the Them, or more to the point she never heard The Them covering John Lee Hooker’s ‘Don’t Look Back’, some very nice singing, that. And for the record there were plenty of Irish in the hills of Georgia.
Damn this Them record is great, the only thing that rivaled The Them at the time were the first two Pretty Things records and the first four American Rolling Stones records. The Animals and Yardbirds were often in there too. The Who and The Small Faces were later and were of a different though equally addictive strain. You know who wrote some great prose about those bands and their performances in the clubs of London? Jeremy Reed in his novel ‘Here Come The Nice’. The whole time travel aspect and the story set in the present doesn’t interest me as much but man when he gets you down in the Ham Yard describing those bands he really weaves a yarn that puts you in the best possible version of there.
I’ve noticed a critical move afoot to brush aside and tut tut the more thorny side of the Stones, including these early albums that really are, if anything, underrated except by obsessives and those that were there to absorb their primal impact. I remember when I was young (vaguely) and in graduate school (hardly at all) buying a copy of ‘The Rolling Stones Now!’ before class and showing up with it and this older woman in class who was a teenager when it was released gushing over the record and its impact on her as a teenager.
It’s important to understand that art and music, especially folk music and blues has always been used in part to express feelings that are anti-social or socially unacceptable. It’s art Dad and therapeutic art at that. And it’s so much more than white boys trying to play the blues, though it’s that too. The unfamiliar or skeptical are directed immediately to covers like ‘Mona’ ‘King Bee’ and ‘Walking The Dog’ and original songs like ‘Empty Heart’, ‘Play With Fire’ ‘Little by Little’ and ‘Congratulations’ for just how fine those early Stones LP’s are. I like the chopped and souped up American versions of those albums best, but then I would, wouldn’t I.
I’ll leave you with three words: cosey fanni tutti or maybe ‘art, sex, music’. Anyone notice that the title of Cosey’s memoir might be a piss take on Viv Albertine’s own book titled ‘clothes, music, boys’ -maybe something going back to the tension between some of the Slits and an on stage Throbbing Gristle in 1977 or 78? Or maybe I’m just trying to start something. I’m a king mixer! But for the record I’m on the Slits side. Though both bands have members whose names scan nicely. Cue M. Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Starting Something’ (sounds best slowed down a bit) and I’m out the door and on the floor. Ari Up!
As noted in a couple of reviews here in recent(ish) months, there has been a degree of disappointment seeping into the output of the British Library Crime Classics reissue programme. I found John Ferguson’s ‘The Death of Mr Dodsely’ to be dreary, and even the most recent E.C.R. Lorac salvage operation was not amongst that otherwise magnificent author’s best work. As for the seemingly endless stream of titles by John Dickson Carter Dickson Carr, well, don’t me started. No, really, don’t get me started because I couldn’t finish another one. Indeed the recently released ‘The Black Spectacles’ starring series detective Dr Gideon Fell remains the only book in the entire BLCC canon whose covers I have not even cracked. A period blurb from the Times Literary Supplement assures us that the book is “Mr Dickson Carr in his most ingenious and learned form” which I translate as being at his most insufferably smug and ‘clever’. Having said all that, I must point out that I did actually rather enjoy the John Dickson Carr Inspector Bencolin novels that, I think, kicked off the Dickson Carter Dickson Carr BLCC run, stuffed as they were with Grand Guignol melodrama. ‘Castle Skull’ was great fun too, so perhaps my ire ought more accurately to be directed at the fictional form of Gideon Fell, whose pompous self-regard tempted the author into those tiresome exercises in ‘learned’ cleverclogsness.
With such recent disappointments playing on my mind somewhat then, it was with some trepidation that I opened the pages of the most recent BLCC reissue, Billie Houston’s 1935 effort ‘Twice Around The Clock’. As a one-off piece of detective fiction there would, by rights, be even more of a reason to be dubious about this title since, as Martin Edwards notes in his introduction, there are very good reasons why many ‘forgotten’ one-off novels remain out of print and for whom resuscitation ought certainly to be resisted (i.e. they’re a bit poor). Edwards does a fine job in giving us some brief background detail on Billie Houston and it seems that at the time of writing the novel she was a highly recognisable ‘celebrity’, being one half of the Houston Sisters vaudeville act. Edwards rightly suggests that it is too easy to criticise individuals who gain fame working in one medium when they venture into the realms of writing. Perhaps some of these excursions may be little more than casual cash-ins, but certainly not all, and regardless, criticism ought to focus on the work and not the ‘celebrity’. Certainly on the evidence of ‘Twice Around The Clock’ Billie Houston could write an effective detective thriller, for the book is a tremendous quick-fire snapshot of the genre, being riddled with romance, death, betrayal, mad scientists and much, much more besides.
As in Clifford Witting’s ‘Subject: Murder’, there is a disturbing scene involving a kitten that many readers will want to skim or skip, but that is nevertheless crucial in prompting almost every member of the cast to threaten violence on the shortly-to-be murdered victim. Again as in Witting’s novel, this victim is portrayed as a sadistic figure whose death we may not exactly celebrate (for we are, after all, educated and cultured 21st Century sophisticates) but certainly do not mourn. In Houston’s case we are additionally treated to the delights of that obsession of the age, ‘madness’ and the paralysing fear of ‘inherited madness’, which results in at least one of the cast of suspects confessing to the crime. It’s a catching disease too (confession, not madness), for very quickly it seems like everyone is in on the act. Maybe it’s a gentle poke of fun at ‘Murder On The Orient Express’. Or maybe not.
In essence, ‘Twice Around The Clock’ is a classic country house murder mystery in that the cast are ‘trapped’ on stage with no escape, in this instance by a raging summer storm that, the author cheekily suggests, is the kind of thing only found in cinematic features. Indeed it’s this marvellously self-knowing pleasure that drives the book along at a terrific pace (the entire short book encompasses a period of 48 hours, hence the title) and which makes it such a treasure. It’s hilariously bonkers, it knows it, and it’s damned if it’s going to apologise for it. Indeed, if anything it just keeps ramping up the gloriously ridiculous tempo. As Sir Anthony Fane retorts: “I will be damned, sir! What with murders and sudden deaths and illness and engagements… what’s going to happen next, I should like to know?”
It’s barely a spoiler to say that what happens next is the narrative being taken to the next level of hysteria, as foreign agents bind and gag everyone and attempt to force the secret of the deceased mad scientist’s poison gas formula. Will they succeed? Will plucky England succeed in foiling its foes? Will Love Prevail? Will the denouement include the unexpected unveiling of facts never hinted at upon which everything will hinge? Perhaps it is a spoiler to say that in the case of this last question the answer is that yes, yes there will be, and yet whilst in many cases such twists seem frustrating and weak, in Houston’s hands it seems entirely natural. OF COURSE there is something cloaked in the history of these characters that must eventually come forth and OF COURSE it is preposterous and melodramatic and serves the duty of Love. How could it not?
It is certainly tempting then, on the strength of ‘Twice Around The Clock’, to wish that Billie Houston had written more in the same vein, yet equally it is gratifying to know that she didn’t. Like the band who make one triumphant Pop single and split up, ‘Twice Around The Clock’ may not be Great Literature, but it is fantastically fine entertainment and a perfect antidote to a surfeit of Dr Gideon Fell. In my universe, praise doesn’t come much higher than that.
‘Subject: Murder’ by Clifford Witting Originally published in 1945. Reissued in 2023 by Galileo books. Buy from Hive in the UK here.
Regular readers (if such a thing exists) will no doubt know of my enormous enjoyment of the Clifford Witting novels reissued in the last year or so by Gallileo Books. Each one has been a treat of sprightly detective fiction at its best, and as a result I have had high hopes of the newly republished ‘Subject: Murder’. Originally published in 1945, the book ostensibly belongs to the Inspector Charlton series of books, although in truth Charlton does not appear until the final third, and even then appears oddly like a satellite character, plugging the evidential gaps and asking those all important questions that bite to the heart of things. At times it’s easy to see Charlton as a prototype Columbo, but without the cigar and with a clean suit and raincoat. “Oh, one other thing…”
It’s to Witting’s credit that we don’t particularly mind Charlton not being centre stage in this novel, as the spotlight instead falls on one of the supporting cast from previous books, one detective constable Peter Bradfield. Indeed, Witting lays this out from page one, indulging in some of that mild meta-fictional playfulness that is in evidence in previous books, as his narrator begins:
“My name is Peter Bradfield. Before I became a soldier I was a policeman or, to be more precise, a detective-constable. Glancing through the various cases of Inspector Charlton, who was the Big White Chief of my pre-Army days, I have found myself mentioned here and there in what is known in the world of entertainment as a small supporting role. In one place there is a whole paragraph devoted to me, so, with no little trepidation, I am going to copy it out.”
Witting/Bradfield does indeed proceed to give us a pen (self)portrait before immediately getting to the heart of the matter, which is to inform us of the upcoming “death of Sergeant-Major Yule”.
Such an immediate allusion to the critical crime of the book is one of my favourite ways to start such a novel. No faffing around with half a book of character build up and sowing of clues and having to wonder who is going to be knocked off. Bam, Pow, straight to the point. Let’s get on with it. Bradfield/Witting even assure us that, although this crime is to happen sixteen months in the future, the “book is not going to be just another rookie’s war-diary,” and that “these first chapters are not to be random military recollections, but the opening scenes of a comedy-drama that ended in tragedy”. The irony of which is that (spoiler alert of sorts here) the actual crime is not going to happen until two thirds of the way through the book, and that in some respects, the book IS a war-diary of sorts. Certainly there is a vast amount of detail about the structures of Army battalions and the differences between Infantry and Artillery terminology, and there are too a lot of descriptions of the everyday humdrum of training and life as a recruit (the books is dedicated to Witting’s own Battery Sergeant-Major so there is clearly a lot of first hand experience in all of this). It’s again to Witting’s credit that the book doesn’t get bogged down in this detail and he does a sound job of balancing what is effectively a docudrama about life as an anti-aircraft gunner in the home front with the traditions of the detective novel. Witting’s lightness of touch is crucial in achieving this balance, and he manages to weave elements of romance, humour and grim sadism with skill.
Much of the grim sadism is quickly established as belonging to the character of Sergeant-Major Yule, ensuring that when his death does finally come, we feel little pity for his rather unpleasant end. Witting drops references to De Sade early in the book, and there is a sizeable extract quoted from a book about Tomas de Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition later in the novel, just in case we were in any doubts as to Yule’s particular penchants. There are some deeply unpleasant events involving pets in the book too, and any lovers of kittens and dogs with a sensitive disposition (the readers, I mean, not the kittens or dogs) might want to skip some paragraphs. Yet it does, if nothing else, heighten the awareness that behind or beyond all of these events there is, indeed, a war raging and that unimaginably worse crimes are being committed against human beings.
It’s against that wider context, however, that Witting makes one significant miss-step, by falling into the sort of casual anti-semitism that, whilst commonplace in (detective) fiction pre-WW2 almost completely disappears in post war efforts. So when Witting/Bradfield writes about events in 1915 where, after the sale of a run-down and failed hotel, “Nineteen disgruntled estate agents snatched their boards away [whilst] the twentieth, whose name was Greenbaum- or it may have been Schultzberg- pasted across his, with his own fat hands, “Sold By.”” we can’t help but feel more than a little disappointed. Worse is to come though, as Bradfield/Witting inform us that “Mr. Finklestein (or Guggenheimer, or just plain Cohen)” did not refurbish the hotel and instead waited patiently for a government requisition order for the building. The de-personalisation of individuals to generic names is bad enough, but when Witting/Bradfield tells us that after the conclusion of hostilities in 1918 the hotel was again left un-touched because “Mr. Finklestein (or Guggenheimer, or just plain Cohen) was waiting for another war” then disappointment turns to disbelief. True, the full horrors of the Nazi’s Final Solution would not have been uncovered at the time Witting was writing the book, but he must surely have been aware of the forced labour concentration camps and the systematic persecution of the Jewish people even before 1939. One would rather think that an intelligent editor/publisher in 1945 might have taken a blue pen to the extract and suggested it was a bit beyond the pale, so perhaps Hodder and Stoughton’s failure to do so says more about the publishers than it does Witting. Indeed, if one were being outrageously conspiratorial one might suggest that Witting included this particular extract as a test of the publisher’s religious and cultural preferences. There are, after all, several references in the novel to the ‘Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam’, about which Matthew Hodder was apparently sceptical about publishing…
Such uncomfortable expressions of racism, sexism, anti-semitism etc are not unusual in ‘Golden Age’ fiction of course, and for the most part I have no major difficulties with them within the context of their historical setting. This particular excursion, however, feels inexcusable even (especially) within the historical context. It certainly knocks Witting down several notches in my estimation, which is a great shame, because otherwise ‘Subject: Murder’ is another excellent example of his oevre: The narrative kicks along in a sprightly manner; the characters are nicely sketched and, in spite of that unconscionable explosion of anti-semitism, Peter Bradfield comes over as a rather likeable and entertaining chap; Inspector Charlton eventually steps in and puts all the pieces together in the correct order. There is even another neat piece of the self-aware wink to the reader near the conclusion of the book when Charlton reminds Bradfield of the old creed where “the most obvious suspect is almost invariably the criminal, [and] that the ‘least likely’ murderer is found only in fiction.” Whether this turns our to be the case in this particular work of fiction I will leave unspoiled, although I will just say that one of Witting’s best qualities is for not indulging in extended explanations once the denouement has taken place. The action has finished and people want to go home. The author does not need to show how clever they might (or might not) be.
As crime novels set (and written) during WW2 go, then, ‘Subject: Murder’ has a lot going for it. Witting’s appalling lapse in judgement with the anti-semitism notwithstanding, it is an entertaining and informative read. It may not be quite up to the standards set by the likes of ‘Measure for Murder’ and the fabulous ‘Midsummer Murder’, but it will be a welcome addition to any detective fiction lovers’ shelves.
After my recent discovery of Stella Gibbons courtesy of her rather marvellous 1946 novel ‘Westwood’ I thought it only right to take in her ‘classic’ debut novel ‘Cold Comfort Farm’. And at the risk of coming over all “mumble mumble… I actually prefer the demos… mumble mumble” it’s… pretty good. I mean, I can understand why it would have been such a breakthrough hit at the time of publication, and I can just about get why it should have remained in print and bundled up under the ‘classic’ tag, but, on the other hand… really? Again, I wonder if it’s An English Thing, for much of what Gibbons supposedly parodies in the book is that terribly earthy and inescapably English infatuation with Nature and the whole Garden Of England thing, with barely suppressed sexual urges, ahem, erupting everywhere. So perhaps that Englishness is the reason I cannot quite fully connect, although equally I know that this excuse is largely ludicrous as I have spent the majority of my adult life living deep within the folds of England’s South West.
Perhaps then it is something more to do with the nature of successful parody, which relies on a strange closeness to and a certain affection for the thing(s) one is poking fun at. So if ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ seeks to sneak a giggle at the likes of DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and Mary Webb then it also necessarily embraces something of their style, content, themes etc. Enjoyment of the parody on the readers part, then, must surely to some extent rely on a degree of enjoyment of the source texts, which means that on a personal level, the ‘joke’ here for me rather quickly wears thin. This is perhaps why I could not help feeling that ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ might have been more enjoyable if it had been shortened by a third, or even a half. I freely admit that whereas ‘Westwood’ held my attention throughout, ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ rather outstayed its welcome. It’s a strange kind of book too in that it doesn’t seem to quite know what it wants to be and as a result rather falls between stools. I appreciate that saying this will surely Go Against The Grain, and I also willingly surrender to the accusation that I haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, but there it is. The ‘science fiction’ aspect is thin and, I rather suspect, something that has only been highlighted by readers from the second half of the 20th Century onwards. Gibbons barely acknowledges the notion of it being ‘science fiction’ though, and the pointers to the book being set at some point in the indeterminate (near) future are few and far between. Something about an Anglo-Nicaraguan war of 1946 and descriptions of airplanes landing and taking off in the field as if they were buses… Yet these hints of The Future are unconvincing, particularly when viewed through the lens of history. So whilst air travel appears to be as workaday as bus trips or train journeys, there is no suggestion that the technology might have improved much, for passengers still need to don warm leather outfits as if the aircraft of the future will still be open to the elements, or at least will not have discovered pressurised cabins or heating. There is too a strange need to call cinema films ‘talkies’, as though in this near future the notion of silent cinema will still be popular enough to require distinctions to be made. Surely even in 1932 no-one much bothered making that distinction? It might just be another means of showing up the supposed gulf in ‘refinement’ between the urbane city dweller and the un-educated country bumpkin, but I don’t think so.
Such criticisms are largely nit-picking pedantry, of course, yet they do diminish ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ to some extent, as does the notion that it is down to the ‘civilised’ city types to ‘rescue’ or liberate the ‘backward’ farm workers, supposedly stuck in their ways and trapped in a world of nonsensical folklore and superstition. Once upon a time I would have been wholeheartedly behind the idea of Modernism transforming the rural world but I’m afraid those days of believing that ever newer technologies might Solve All Our Problems are long gone. These days I’m more likely to side with the Starkadders and rather want to tell Flora where to get off and to Stop Interfering.
Another reason why ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ doesn’t quite do it for me is that whilst, yes, it is quite comedic, it is not convincingly so. There are moments when Gibbons is almost Wodehousian in her flair for dialogue and believable ridiculousness, but it is not sustained. This was really brought home to me by following my reading of ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ with Wodehouse’s ‘Mr Mulliner’ stories, the vast majority of which are prime Wodehouse and therefore enormously funny and engaging. Wodehouse is very definitely An English Thing of course, and a specifically Upper Class English Thing to boot. There is always something in his stories, though, that neatly punctures the very Englishness that they inhabit, like Bertie Wooster popping a hot water bottle in a fellow Country House guest’s bed. Indeed, this particular Wooster prank is referenced in one of the Mulliner tales, where it is joined by various other characters and names from the Jeeves and Wooster realm. This kind of Balzacian/Marvel Universe approach is one of the things that makes Wodehouse so, ahem, marvellous, as is the manner in which he so deliciously celebrates and eviscerates the very characters and environments he creates. The Englishness that Wodehouse conjures is as illusory and mythical as the one later created by Ray Davies in that it is both informed by reality and transformed by the artist’s mediation. It is an England as sculpted by the needs and expectations of Hollywood as it is by the ‘truth’ of The Country House Weekend. Nothing is real. Everything is tarnished. Isn’t it hilarious? Have another hot scotch and lemon and pull out that copy of the ‘Cowkeepers’ Weekly Bulletin and Milk Producers’ Guide’. And, incidentally, did the goat die?
If Flora’s goat did die then who killed it? Was it murder? Can animals even be murdered according to English law? Might Agatha Christie have written a mystery around it? ’Poirot and the Goat’ perhaps, though I would prefer it as a Marple mystery myself. Preferably with all the juicy discomfiting racist and sexist language of the period left intact. It’s part of what makes those old ‘Golden Age’ novels so interesting, after all, at least for me. Seeing something of the historical period through the written words of those who were living through them. Understanding that language which we might, quite rightly, now deem unacceptable and offensive was once commonplace. It’s interesting to see how we got here from there, and if such Errors Of Our (collective) Ways are airbrushed from existence then what does that say about our (collective) contemporary paranoia and weakness? But commerce must prevail, and if one needs to rewrite text in order to protect the profits from the sale of old books to new generations, then so be it. Heaven forbid that those new generations might read something offensive to their sensibilities and therefore decide to buy something else. Regardless, the media attention of the very act of such retrospective censorship will Create Attention and surely encourage sales. Safeguard the profit margin at all costs.
There are certainly some uncomfortable notions filtering through Christie’s 1939 novel ‘Murder is Easy’, a book that I read recently after hearing that there is apparently a new BBC dramatisation in the offing. It will be interesting to see what is made of the story and what kind of treatment it receives. Will it continue the trend of highlighting the supposed Dark Side of Christie’s writing? I can see why that temptation might hold, for ‘Murder is Easy’ is at root a Serial Killer thriller, but I rather hope too that the producers pick up on the humour of the book, which is richly, darkly (but not DARKLY) funny. It reads like Christie having a bit of fun with the thriller form, blending it with her more familiar ‘whodunnit’ mystery genre. Indeed, as a ‘whodunnit’ it is not particularly convincing, as even I had worked out the perpetrator quite early in the book (and I am so dim that I rarely work these things out, even on re-reads). Instead there is something humorous about wondering just how long it is going to take the (male) detective figure to cotton on, and indeed there is a lovely moment during the denouement where a female character explicitly voices this frustration. So yes, it’s partly a book about gender stereotypes and laughing at the incompetence of the male, but it is also a book where one feels a certain tension between Christie simultaneously playing up to those stereotypes and societal expectations and confronting/exposing them. There is, for example, a degree of homophobia that ripples whenever the Mr Ellsworthy character appears. He is first described as “a very exquisite young man” with “a long pale face with a womanish mouth, long black artistic hair and a mincing walk.” Another character murmurs “The artistic temperament” to which Ellsworthy turns “with a flash of long white hands” and says “‘Not that terrible phrase, Miss Conway. No – no, I implore you.’” Later he is described as a “Nasty bit of goods” with “A nasty mind and nasty habits”. Later still he’s described as “the only one who is definitely queer. He is queer, you can’t get away from it!” Yet whilst it might be a spoiler to say that Mr Ellsworthy is not the serial killer (you’d have to be even dimmer than me to really suspect him) it’s interesting that ultimately these descriptions come from characters who are either untrustworthy, a bit stupid, or just rather unpleasant.
Christie may not be as obviously humorous as Wodehouse or Gibbons in ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, but she is nevertheless adept at wielding the odd barb with flamboyant precision. When one character professes “a somewhat illogical prejudice against lawyers in general – based on the grounds that so many politicians were recruited from their ranks” I admit that I did indeed LOL, as I did when another is described as being “dressed in careless-looking country clothes” that “were unkind to his figure, which ran mostly to stomach.” Ouch.
Now ‘Murder is Easy’ is not a Marple mystery, and indeed Christie had written only one Miss Marple novel when it was published, but one rather thinks that Jane was on her mind. The books is filled with old ladies about whom there is “something very cosy and English” but that “are as sharp as nails in some ways”, and one can’t help but wonder if the book might have begun life as a prototype Marple before Christie decided that the serial killer theme leant more towards the blood thirsty realm of the thriller than the more subtle disquiet of the Jane Marple universe. Indeed, the book does rather get lost in its latter stages, falling a little too much into the rampaging action of the thriller genre for my tastes, but it is all carried off exuberantly well regardless. And this is the crux of the thing with Christie, and with ‘Murder is Easy’ in particular. For whilst it is too easy (and lazy) to think of Christie books as being ‘cosy’, so too is it to play up the darkness that underpins the (multiple) crimes committed in their pages. Christie (like many Golden Age crime writers) is more complex than that, but crucially, only slightly more so. It’s the combination of those contrasting flavours and the injection of the intangible Entertainment ingredient that make them so enjoyable. As Christie says herself in this book: “Gossip and malice and scandal – all so delicious if one takes them in the right spirit!” Quite the cocktail.
In recent weeks I have mentioned how easy it is to feel thrilled at discovering something ‘new’ and yet utterly uneducated in the same instant. So it feels with Stella Gibbons, an author I have only ever been vaguely aware of as the author of ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, a book that always felt outside of the orbit of my interests, although quite why that ought to be so I am not sure. Part of the dismissal would likely be simply to do with the fact that it was deemed to be A Classic, which might translate as Too Mainstream and/or A Bit Uncool. Ridiculous of course, but there we are. There may also have been something to do with it being somehow Very English, of somehow being entangled with The Establishment and hence to be sniffed at. I’m not even certain that I was aware of it being a comic novel and a parody of the whole D.H. Lawrence thing (having been forced to read a wearisome D.H. Lawrence novel in school I feel sure that knowing ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ was taking the piss would surely have piqued my interest). These days though, almost all of the things that would once have turned my nose are now guaranteed to tickle the hairs delightedly. Not that I actually have picked up ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, you understand. It has joined the ‘to be read’ list, naturally, but shaking off the baggage of Trying To Be Cool is difficult. It’s that desperately sad need to be able to respond to someone asking if you have read/heard/seen (insert title of acknowledged ‘classic’) with ‘oh yes, it’s marvellous of course, but have you read/heard/seen (insert titles of obscurities by the same artist)?’ Not that I have anyone to ask such questions, and the only person I may be trying to impress would be myself, blogs being the equivalent of mumbling to oneself when the cats have gone to sleep and the rain and wind keep one indoors. It fills the days.
All of which is by way of saying that the first Stella Gibbons book that I have read has been her 1946 novel ‘Westwood’. Republished by the Vintage imprint (didn’t it used to be called Virago and have those lovely green covers?) alongside a number of other Gibbons’ titles, ‘Westwood’ is an assured glance back at the war years as lived in London and a rather pointed critique of, well, any number of things really. At its core the book is a neat assault on the nature of the male artistic gaze, but the book also necessarily connects this theme to those of class, nationality (the default intrinsic racism of the English psyche is laid bare), gender and fidelity. It’s a heady mix, but Gibbons balances them all with ease, expertly interweaving the themes to show their interconnectedness.
Like Margaret Kennedy’s ‘The Feast’, ‘Westwood’ draws lines in the sand between the pre-WW2 world and the one that will follow, although there is a sense in this case that things are not viewed quite as optimistically, with Gibbons pointing more to a settling back into a status-quo rather than breaking new ground and overturning systems and structures. Given the nature of history’s unravelling, one might argue that Gibbons was more accurate in the long term, but that’s an argument for another time. The difference in viewpoints might simply be down to the gap between the novels. Four years may not seem like a long time, but in the immediate aftermath of the war, the space between 1946 and 1950 might as well be generational.
This closeness to the war experience actually lends ‘Westwood’ a few moments of awkwardness, mostly caused by Gibbons making reference to ’the Second World War’. This feels clumsy and I’m not at all certain that anyone not explicitly involved in journalism or historical academia would have said anything more than simply ‘the war’. It’s a minor detail, but it does jar. Perhaps it was added by an over-zealous editor in a later edition, eager to make the historical context clear. There is too, though, a strange dissonance in some of the period detail which makes it difficult to position the novel. It’s obviously post-1941, for whilst an occasional bomb lands (one of which takes out the front of a painter’s cottage in Highgate) we are clearly no longer in the midst of the Blitz, nor yet into the realm of the Baby Blitz or the V weapons. Americans are also in town (cue English upper-class disdain: “what an unpleasant language American was; at once low, confusing and illogical”) so we’re likely between 1942 and 1944, but it’s summer and there is no mention of great activity, so perhaps 1943… In many ways of course pinning the book down to a specific time is irrelevant and most likely evidence of my male infatuation with detail. Much more pertinent is the fact that Gibbons makes the war a tertiary element in the narrative. The war is something that may always be there and might indeed (as with the aforementioned bomb in Highgate) explicitly determine actions, but it is also curiously an aside, a temporary irritation in the timeless storyline of love, passion, rejection, deceit, illumination, whatever. There is a notion posited here too that whilst artists might be unpleasant as people, their work can transcend those limitations and mean something immeasurably more than the sum of the individual’s traits and foibles and/or the specificity of their creation in time and space. Then again, this does not mean those same artists cannot make the most appalling doggerel and utterly fail to see their missteps, and it does not mean that the value of the work does not diminish in light of their failings as human beings. Naturally this happens with philandering playwright Gerard Challis and Margaret: “Margaret no longer felt a strong interest in him or his plays. When her respect for him as a human being had been destroyed, her admiration for him as an artist had been destroyed also.”
Margaret is the key character in the book, as is her prolonged infatuation with Challis, but Gibbons is marvellously brutal in describing her as “unlovely and heavy in manner, and craving for beauty both earthly and divine that could never be hers.” Margaret’s own mother is equally pragmatic, saying “I’m afraid you aren’t the type that attracts men, so we’d better face it.” So much for poor old Margaret. She might end the novel experimenting with a bit of lipstick, a black dress and calling herself ‘Maggie’ but any transformation is clearly never really going to stick.
Then there is Hilda, who “would always have that place in her affections which is reserved for the oldest friend; the friend with whom there is often no link surviving save the twenty-five or so years which have elapsed since a mutual youth”. In many ways Hilda is one of the most enjoyable characters of the whole book, most of the time coming over as a kind of prototype ‘liberated’ woman, quite determined to enjoy the company of young men and to live for the moment. Her ultimate response to the duplicitous attentions of the middle-aged Gerald Challis is sharp and perfectly aimed. Hilda may be utterly knowing (when Challis first meets Hilda he remarks that she “look(s) like a painting by Signorelli”. To which Hilda says – aside – “There we go again,”) but she is also naturally open and, until the denouement, shows him a degree of kindness and friendly affection he assuredly does not deserve. It’s hopefully not a spoiler to say that her final appearance in the book is something of a let down, though, as she wanders off in the bliss of engagement with the eager flirtations of youth left behind.
This vague sense of disappointment in Hilda being ultimately subsumed by the mainstream expectations of society is reflective of a cloaked gloominess under which the entire novel concludes. Margaret, in her red lipstick and black dress, may ultimately emerge as a more self-confident character strengthened by her varied disillusions, but there is too something rather sad about it. In her conversation with Gerald Challis’ mother, Lady Challis, Margaret is told that “the only “thing” that a human being can go on wanting all their life, and be satisfied with just wanting, is God”. To someone like Margaret who disclaims religion, this is surely a thoroughly depressing thought, particularly since it is couched within the expectation that the “things” which they might find themselves wanting will invariably (and perhaps by design) be forever out of their reach. Lady Challis also suggests that Margaret is “not one of the people who need tragedy.” Instead, she needs “the Gentle Powers…. Beauty, and Time, and the Past and Pity (their names sound like a band of angels, don’t they?) Laughter, too”; needs “calming and lifting into the light, not plunging into darkness and struggle.”
It may be an odd note on which to end an otherwise deliciously catty and humorously insightful novel, but it works very well in letting us know how Gibbons sees the role of (her) art in the aftermath of war. Reminds us too that Gibbons’ humour has its edge.