Friday, 23 May 2008

The Mysterious Mr Quin

Strange book this one - not at all what you expect from Ms Christie.

Twelve short stories - all featuring Mr Satterthwaite,; snob, elderly English Gentleman and knower of anyone who is 'Anyone': An observer of people - and friend to Mr Quin. The later character was apparently Ms Christie's favourite and originated in her book of poems, 'The Road of Dreams'.

In the first story, The Coming of Mr Quin, we meet the pair - and they meet for the first time. It is a basic 'crime' with a wrongful suspicion hanging over the head of one of the characters - Slaterthwaite, with the prompting of Quin, resolves the situation through observation the clarity distance in time brings.

And that is basically the model for the rest of the collection.

Sometimes, as in the second story, The Shadow on the Glass, there is a good murder - and twisty end; sometimes there is only an echo of a crime and the story is more about resolution: The Soul of the Croupier, for example.

I read them in short succession and found them to be a little too much - I think dipping in to one of the stories and having a break between might be a much better way of treating the material. Individual I found them to be well written and quite satisfying.

Love features strong. I am tempted to suggest they are in fact love stories dressed up as something else.

There is a mysticism and vaguely religious air to them - Mr Harley Quin, by the final chapter, has become less and less of human and more and more of a wish fulfilment. There is also a sting in the tail.

I enjoyed them - and will return, but one at a time, with a healthy dose of murder and detectives in between each one.

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Thursday, 15 May 2008

The Pelican Brief

I’ve known of the book for some time and even, on one or two occasions picked it up and considered reading it – always to return it to the shelf: For some reason I thought it was a ‘lawyer’ story.

Now, with it firmly on the CAE reading list, as a matter of duty, I’ve read it.

I am tempted to name a new literary genre:

The Time Filler.

A good time filler is strong on plot, adequate with language, sufficient with character and not too far from realism to cause concern. It will roll along never pausing for too long in any one place or with any one person, love affairs are reduced to brief encounters, killings are counted in serial-numbers and enough petrol and aviation fuel is burnt to raise the Earth’s average temperature another degree.

The Pelican Brief is a good time filler.

I took four sessions to finish the 420-odd pages, and didn’t feel pressed for time – it is a rapid read.

The plot is sort of realistic in that you can imagine someone wanting to bump off a couple of American Supreme Court justices to change the ‘political’ make-up of the Supreme court – but the book does stretch credibility a little with the descriptions and personalities of both the victims and their executioner – it seemed as though Gresham had gone through a check list of ‘most likely to make a best seller’ qualities and selected them for inclusion.

The same too with his heroine, Darby Shaw, who is a least female and intelligent – more intelligent than most of the other characters in the book. However, she never really escapes the clichĂ© of female as victim in need of a good man to support her. Why did she have to be a blond bombshell? Why couldn’t she have been short, stumpy even, and ugly? Why does the book have to end in such a ‘happy ever after’ way on a beach?

One answer is the sales figures – and film rights.

All the way through I felt I was getting exactly what I wanted – no surprise other than a needed plot twist, no truly ambiguous character – just good guy and bad guy (and a very obvious – you got it wrong, good guy portrayed as bad).

And some very film-able locations – including Washington, New York and a pre-deluge New Orleans.

It occupied me pleasantly enough, but I ended with a – that’s it? and so what? Turned the light off, and slept well.

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Tuesday, 13 May 2008

P. G. Tips

P. G. Wodehouse

There are certain books and certain authors one is coy about naming in the realms of favourites – Mr Wodehouse is one.

Ever since teenageness I’ve been drawn to the chaos of the phantom upper-class world he scratched out – less enamoured, I have to say, of the American excursions. What attracts is difficult to say – maybe the downright silliness of them.

Wodehouse was a writer of copious amounts – included lyrics for musical comedies (some 30 all told – around 250 songs). And therein lies the first clue to enjoying a Wodehouse – a good one will be like spending a couple of hours in the theatre – a ‘musical comedy’ approach is necessary, a ‘between-the-wars’, musical comedy approach in fact.

Love and ridiculous complications, mad uncles and tart aunts, rich old fogies and poverty stricken young things … warm balmy, never to be repeated summer days, and policemen (who appear solely for the purpose of knocking their helmets off in order to be captured and dragged along to the local magistrate – who will turn out to be the offenders, as-yet-un-met father of newly affianced fiancĂ©).

Uncle Fred in the Springtime has most of these elements or a variation thereof – and the Blanding’s Pig.

The story is not really essential – in this case it revolves around one Uncle, Fred, trying to get another Uncle, the Loony Duke of Dunstable, to behave in a reasonable manner and cough up lots of money to support his poetry writing nephew in the enterprise of an onion soup stall in Picadilly, which will facilitate the said poet’s marriage – to the dance teaching daughter of a private detective. There is also the sub plot of preventing the removal of Lord Emsworth’s pig by the poker wielding Duke, who is convinced Emsworth wishes to enter the pig in the Derby, and the supplying of even more money to Fred’s nephew who is in danger of several broken limbs and a long stay in a hospital bed on account of debts unpaid.

Confused? – you are allowed to be. And yet there is a clarity in the confusion – you never get confused enough to lose track, (either that, or you are laughing too much to care) and something new pops up so quickly you do not notice any confusion in yourself whilst noticing it in the story.

And that’s my next tip – take a chair into the garden, a bowl of strawberries (peppered) and an ice bucket with a bottle of champagne and one flute. Position yourself – and read. Don’t ‘do’ a Wodehouse in too many sessions – it’s a two act-er rather than five. Just let the whole silly story flow over you and worryeth not about following every detail. Being tipsy helps.

Most Wodehouses have a central character around whom things fly (revolve is far too sedate a word). Here it is Uncle Fred – not surprising really, given the title.

He’s a lovely old buffer – Shakespeare quoting, so an instant success with me – although not so with his nephew and niece, nor his fortunately absent wife. He has an aging Puck-like quality of solving problems in a way which causes maximum difficulties for all around, including ‘Uncle Fred’. Rarely does he doubt himself – everything will resolve satisfactorily, by magic it seems.

Fred is very ‘hands-on’ – preferably his nephews or other gullible young tyke, or co-operative young tyke-ess (who knows a good plan when she sees it). Nice young things fall for him instantly – sour prunes not so (one is left with the suspicion his absent wife is more the former than latter – but plays a good part in appearing shrivelled).

Fred’s biggest challenge is his contemporaries – who seem to have grown crabbed with age. Principle is Emsworth’s wife – who is the sort of woman who’d take a hairbrush to the backside of some poor nephew at the drop of a cricket ball (through the greenhouse window). Her biggest weapon is knowledge – of Fred’s wife – and access to a jungle telegraph more effective than e-mail. A minor danger, swiftly dealt with, is his neice – who is apprentice sour prune.

In a similar class to the niece, is the secretary – male. I suspect Wodehouse had problems with one of these early in life and consequently took a hatchet to the species whenever the opportunity arouse. Dishonest, devious, cowardly, ganging up with the united forces of vinegar-women and Loony-Dukedom. Fortunately he gets truly egged.

And there is the passion-for-taking-money-off-other-people-with-a-card-game, Private Detective – who just happens to be the father of a wanna-be poet’s bride.

How could a story fail with such a classic bunch of caricatures? Quite easily – but not on Wodehouse’s typewriter. Lesser writers would find it very difficult to assemble an entertaining castle on such foundations.

Wodehouse’s cement is a wit with language – and spare, effective, cutting dialogue (no doubt sharpened in the fifteen plays he joint wrote). It is not surprising adaptations of his novels and stories make such good television.

Comedy is part of the double faced mask of Drama – the Ancient Greeks gave it equal status.

Somewhere in the Judeo-Christian European Middle Ages it seems to have been demoted to trivia and superfluity: I’m a pagan in this.

Give me a Wodehouse … and I want it now!

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Saturday, 10 May 2008

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Some books are just straight disturbing – this is one of them.

I initially thought it was only a tacky thrill getter – bit of sex, bit of violence and a ‘tough talking dude’ – but once I broke through that (and it did take some breaking through) I realized this is quite a well written book.

It is about violence – it is about alienation – it is about deprivation and emotional screw-up: It is about justice and the perverseness of morality.

That is a pretty strong cocktail, and the language, of necessity, is harsh, unforgiving and downright brutal at points.

So too the plot – with an economy to be admired, there is an attempted murder, a successful murder and an accident resulting in another kind of murder … all in the space of around 120 pages.

Women get slapped around – and like it: Men get beaten-up - and don’t. It is the ‘film-noir’ world beloved of the gangster genre. But this is not a gangster book.

The chief character is a drifter – he bums around America - scratching a living here, stealing there, spending short periods in jail before moving on.

He drifts into a situation where his animal driven lusts and craftiness allow access to what I am tempted to say is a perfect partner for him. There is the problem of her husband – and their attempt to remove him forms the spine of the story.

But, ‘As flies to wanton boys … ‘

The God’s agents are the forces of law and order – who are playing a game with lesser mortals. Any sense of justice or basic human decency is soon swept away once we encounter the petty motives fuelling both defence and prosecution.

I have to admit, I am reminded of Tess, of Lear and Heathcliffe … pretty strong company for a pot-boiler to evoke.

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Friday, 2 May 2008

Shakespeare Experience: Forget Shakespeare!

The second part of my 'review' of Peter Brook on Shakespeare:

Shakespeare Experience: Forget Shakespeare!

I posted it over there as it seems to me to be more to do with Shakespeare and experiencing him in performance than reading him.

I must admit - I tend to read Shakespeare for performance anyway, so a touch of bloody-mindedness in the decision.

It is a book I was reluctant to buy initially as it cost so much for so few pages - Mind changed: It was worth every penny.

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