Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Readers of this blog might remember that not long ago I wrote a review of The Price of Inequality, by Joseph Stiglitz, which investigates the increasing economic inequality of American society. Battlers and Billionaires (2013) covers some of the same ground for Australia. Leigh argues that while things are not as bad here as in America, the level of inequality is nevertheless of major concern.

After an introduction which summarises his argument, Leigh gives a brief historical survey of inequality. He argues that despite a belief in Australia that Jack was as good as his master, high levels of inequality prevailed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was followed by what he calls ‘the great compression’, whereby equality increased significantly until the 1970s. Thereafter, inequality rose again in what he calls ‘the great divergence’, so that wealth is rising more quickly among the already rich than the rest of the population, while the wealth of the very richest is growing even faster. This divergence has been accompanied by a decrease in social mobility. Leigh identifies changes in technology and globalisation, de-unionisation and tax cuts which benefit the rich more than the rest as the factors contributing to growing inequality. He suggests that a strong economy with high productivity, an improved education system, a strong union movement, carefully targeted social welfare and progressive taxation are all needed to reverse the current trend. Rather more controversially, he argues that we need to do something about ‘the role that family structure plays in perpetuating advantage and disadvantage across generations’. And he wants to keep egalitarianism ‘at the heart of our national story’.

Leigh differs somewhat from Stiglitz in his assessment of the importance of inequality. For Stiglitz, it is unquestionably a bad thing. Leigh agrees that inequality has adverse effects on social mobility, and may skew political outcomes in favour of the most affluent. He also agrees with Stiglitz that much of the new wealth comes from rent seeking – such as cashing in on high overseas mineral prices – rather than hard work and innovation.  But he argues that inequality is not always a bad thing; unequal countries grow more quickly than equal ones, even though the trickle down effect is very slow. He sees growth as necessary to lessen inequality; you need a bigger pie if people are going to get a bigger slice. So much for the limits to growth.

These arguments are underpinned by a range of statistical and other evidence. Leigh deals with this with a light touch; there is a lot more information and explanation, and details of sources, in the extensive end notes. Leigh is a former Professor of Economics at the Australian National University, and I get the impression that he would have been a very good teacher. He keeps things clear and simple, illustrating his case with interesting anecdotes and analogies – for example, using war time examples and comparing different football codes. This is a much easier book to read than Stiglitz’s.

What I prefer about Stiglitz’s argument, however, is the way his analysis links inequality to the free market economy, which he presents as a construct whose nature has been profoundly affected by political action, or inaction – usually in the interests of the rich. Leigh’s book is not really about politics at all. This is in some ways surprising, since he is now a Labor member of the Australian Parliament, and shadow deputy Treasurer. What he doesn’t say is that ‘the great divergence’ began just about the time that a Labor Government took steps to open the Australian economy to the forces of globalisation, reducing tariffs, floating the dollar and privatising some government assets. This in turn decimated manufacturing industry, consequently weakening the union movement. Leigh might well argue – though he doesn’t here – that the Labor government introduced a superannuation system, and provided a better safety net for those who lost out in the process of globalisation than did conservative governments of Regan in the US and Thatcher in the UK. As a result, the level of inequality in Australia is less than in those countries. He merely notes that the welfare system has a much greater equalising force than the tax system. All the same, it seems at least in retrospect that more could have been done to limit the burgeoning wealth of the very rich, for example by more fairly sharing the profits of the minerals boom. Labor recognised the need to intervene at the bottom end of the market economy in the 1990s, but not at the top end, which was left unconstrained. By 2010, the share of top 1% had grown to 11% of the wealth in Australia, and the share of the rest of the country had shrunk. I’m not an economist, so how would I know, but this looks more like wealth being sucked up than trickling down.

All the same, this is an important book, and worth reading if you value egalitarianism.

You can read more about the politician Andrew Leigh here. If you are interested in his academic work, try here.

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This book won the 2012 Orange Prize for fiction, but rarely has that award resulted in so much disagreement about the merits of the recipient. A.N. Wilson said he was ‘awestruck with admiration for the quality of its writing, its narrative pace and its imaginative depth’, whereas a reviewer in The New York Times thought it had ‘the head of a young adult novel, the body of the “Iliad” and the hindquarters of Barbara Cartland’.

The Song of Achilles is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad – otherwise known as The Song of Ilian, another name for Troy. The story is narrated by Patroclus, who becomes the beloved companion of Achilles and accompanies him to the war in Troy. The Iliad starts during the last years of the Trojan War. But Patroclus and Achilles don’t even reach Troy until over half way through this book. The first part is taken up with Patroclus’s own story: his childhood, his meeting with Achilles, their growing friendship, their education by the centaur Chiron and the attempt by Achilles’s mother, the sea nymph Thetis, to keep Achilles from the war with Troy by disguising him as a woman. Miller has elaborated on existing legend; she hasn’t actually made stuff up. But she has put the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles at the centre of the story. Its precise nature is never explained in the Iliad; here is clear that they become lovers. Indeed Miller refers to the book as a love story.

The question of foreknowledge operates at two levels in the book. On one hand, the characters have some knowledge of the future by means of prophecy, and information given by the gods. The world Patroclus describes is one where the actions of gods are an accepted part of life, as is the need to propitiate them. Only Thetis – an immortal, if not actually a god – actually plays much part in the story, though Apollo also appears at a crucial point. But the gods and their whims are a constant presence. ‘There is no law that gods must be fair’, Chiron tells Achilles. Achilles is told that he will be the best fighter of his generation, and later that while Hector lives, Achilles cannot die. Achilles and Patroclus know that ‘the best of the Myrmidons’ – the followers who have accompanied Achilles to Troy – will die before Achilles does. Such riddles add tension to the story, and I found it easy to accept Patroclus’s world view. But how can human love stand against the will of the gods?

The second issue of foreknowledge is that of readers, most of whom will have at least some familiarity with the events of the Trojan War. (The best known story of the war – that of the wooden horse and the defeat of the Trojans – doesn’t come into either the Iliad, or this story.) Does this knowledge interfere with the tension of the book? I didn’t find it did; indeed knowing what was to happen only made the tension greater. The story actually extends beyond what happens in the Iliad, and Miller has taken a few liberties with the ending. But it works well enough.

So what is there to cause all the controversy? Miller writes well, in a tone appropriate to her subject, so it can’t be that. There are a few places where her prose slips up – you can see a couple of them here. The story flows, and is easy to read. I guess it’s a question of whether or not you think she has sufficiently humanised her mythic characters. Through Patroclus, she tries to come to terms with the fact that Achilles is being trained, and training himself, to be an instrument of war, a killing machine. But making it a love story has made this hard to do. Achilles accepts that honour in battle is the highest cause – greased, of course, with the desire for plunder. ‘What is more heroic than to fight for the honour of the most beautiful woman in the world, against the mightiest city of the east?’ asks Odysseus. To remain within the spirit of Homer’s epic, Patroclus has to accept this too, and even in the face of all the killing, he offers unconditional love. He presents himself as somewhat passive – a natural follower. What is there interesting enough in him to inspire the sort of love that Achilles feels for him? I find their relationship a bit too bland – though not to the extent of comparing it with a Barbara Cartland romance!

Madeline Miller is a trained classicist who was teaching Greek and Latin to American high school students while writing this book. She certainly clarifies a story I’ve always found a bit confusing, and probably awakens an interest in classics like the Iliad. Some of the story as she tells it has real power. But even though it fleshes out aspects of the legend that aren’t clear, it doesn’t make an imaginative leap beyond it. A strength or a weakness? I’m still not sure.

You can read more about Madeline Miller and her work here

PS. I always thought that Achilles was invulnerable everywhere else but his heel, which had been gripped by Thetis when she dipped him into the river Styx to try and make him immortal – hence the phrase ‘Achilles heel’. But apparently this is a later accretion to the legend and not part of the Iliad, or this book.

PPS. If you like this book, you might also have a look at Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine (1956), set in 5th century Greece, in which there is another close male relationship – though I didn’t recognise it as sexual when I read it fifty years ago.  Miller is often compared to Renault.


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It’s a rare pleasure to write about a book I like as much as this one. The challenge is to convey what I think is so good about it. Is it the writing? Or what it’s about? It’s both. Kingsolver addresses a difficult problem with rare humanity.

Dellarobia Turnbow lives on a small sheep farm in the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee with her husband Cub and two young children, and in much closer proximity to her in-laws than she might wish. Seeking escape from a life she finds dreary and inhibiting, she sets out one morning to commit adultery. But on the way, she comes across a life-changing phenomenon: a mass of orange monarch butterflies clustering in the trees in a gully above her house. At first it seems like a miracle, a thing of surpassing beauty; only later does she learn that the butterflies are there because of the destruction of their usual winter roosting place, and that their presence signals a dire alteration in the climate. But global warming is a foreign language in Feathertown, deep in the American Bible belt, where ‘weather is the Lord’s business’. How will Dellarobia and her family deal with the complications the butterflies bring into their lives?

Kingsolver has chosen a brilliant way of writing about climate change. She simply shows it in action. She never lectures; rather she allows her characters to see and understand, to attribute it all to God, or simply to find it all too hard. And along the way, related stories are being told. There is the entomologist who despairs of making moral judgements about the science, but finds himself doing so, and the Pastor who preaches human responsibility for stewardship of God’s creation. And then there’s the butterflies, so much in the wrong place, so much at the mercy of the weather, but still a thrilling presence in the book.

There are other stories woven in and out of the climate one, principally that of Dellarobia and her husband Cub– their marriage, their relations with Cub’s parents, the work on their farm, their parenting. All these undergo changes because of the butterflies, but also because of the pattern of their lives before this time. Dellarobia finds to her surprise that her mother in law, Hester, also has a story to tell. Kingsolver writes in a warm, human way; her mastery of dialogue is brilliant. All her characters are afforded the dignity of being taken seriously, and shown as fully rounded; there is no one without some faults, but they also have redeeming features. She never mocks their lives or their beliefs. Dellarobia struggles to explain these to outsiders, and is herself frustrated by much of her world. But she resents people who sneer at them – as northern liberals are wont to do. Reading about the depressed local town, where most of the shops, except for the $2 outlet, are shut, reminded me of two other books I’ve reviewed recently – Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, by Joe Bageant and The Price of Inequality, by Joseph Stiglitz. Flight Behaviour gives a no less graphic picture of poverty than either of these, but Kingsolver does it with more empathy. In a nice touch, an environmental activist wants Dellarobia to sign a pledge to reduce her carbon footprint, but she is too poor to engage in any of the sort of consumption he wants her to give up. One of them is to fly less.

The narrative flows so smoothly it appears effortless, but the book’s title gives a hint about how it is actually all underpinned by the metaphor of flight, as well as the reality of flight that is part of the butterflies’ migration.  Dellarobia is in flight when she comes across the butterflies, which are of course flying around – though they are also clustered in the trees. Her life seems to be ‘flying from pillar to post’. But ‘Whatever incentive she might have for flying away, there it was, family, her own full measure, surrounded by a cheap wire fence built in one afternoon a long time ago’. She has ‘fantasies of flight when there was no flight. Nothing, really, but walking away on your own two feet’. It’s nothing so obvious as one story mirroring the other; it’s rather a series of gentle reminders that the lives of people and butterflies are connected.

Kingsolver’s story is fiction, but there is an element of fact – beyond the terrible fact of climate change. The mountain in Mexico where the butterflies winter was destroyed by a landslide in 2010.  But they didn’t move to Tennessee, returning still each winter to Mexico. It is also a fact that they are increasingly threatened; a report in September 2013 says that the already low North American numbers appear to be falling even further. The butterflies can be found in other parts of the world, including Australia, where the species is known as the Wanderer, but not in such numbers as in North America.

You can read more about Barbara Kingsolver here. I’ve also really liked the other two of her books that I’ve read, and you can read my review of Prodigal Summer here, and The Lacuna, which won the Orange Prize in 2010, here. Flight Behaviour was published in 2012.

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In what feels like a big coincidence, but probably isn’t, my book club has chosen to read The Secret Life of Bees (2001) just the session after we had read Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. The apparent coincidence is that both these books deal with religion, civil rights and racism in rural America. It isn’t really a coincidence, because these are central themes in America’s history, and it is natural that American literature should reflect this. But I find it interesting that two such different books should have all this in common.

The Secret Life of Bees is set in South Carolina in 1964 – the year President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act which outlawed discrimination on the grounds of race (as well as religion and sex). Lily Owens, now fourteen, lives with her bitter and overbearing father, and the belief that at the age of four she was the accidental cause of her mother’s death. She is cared for by Rosaleen, her father’s black housekeeper. As soon as the Civil Rights law has been signed, Rosaleen tries to register to vote, with disastrous results. She and Lily find themselves on the run from the law, and are taken in by three sisters who keep bees.  Lily finds she has a lot to learn – and not just about bee keeping.

The story is narrated by Lily and is in part about her growing up. She is a consummate liar, but they are the lies of a clever child; she learns to make the more adult choice of reality. But the truth can be a burden: ‘I’d traded in a pack of lies for a pack of truth,’ she says, ‘and I didn’t know which one was heavier.’ She can be both naive and wise – possibly a bit too wise for a fourteen year old with her background, though her love of reading – anathema to her father – may have helped her maturity. ‘I realized it for the first time in my life,’ she says, ‘there is nothing but mystery in the world, how it hides behind the fabric of our poor, browbeat days, shining brightly, and we don’t even know it.’ This is a nice idea, but is it a likely one for a fourteen year old? She is, much less surprisingly, unthinking in her racism, until she has learnt to see differently. The bee keeping sisters are black; one of them questions taking Lily in because she is white. ‘I hadn’t known this was possible –to reject people for being white. A hot wave passed through my body.’ But later she feels really good when she realises that her new black friends don’t think of her as being different. ‘Up until then I’d thought that white people and colored people getting along was the big aim, but after that I decided that everybody being colorless together was a better plan.’

Central to the story is a Black Madonna statue. It is actually a figurehead from a ship. The sisters and their friends know this, but nevertheless venerate the statue as if it were Mary, mother of Christ. They have created their own rituals around her and their religious observance owes something to Roman Catholic practices – though as Lily notes, nothing the Pope would recognise. The author had what she describes as a ‘vivid spiritual transformation at mid-life’, as a result of which she became interested in feminist theology, and so it’s not surprising that she gives Mary a special significance in the lives of these women. But I see the Mary story as being as much to do with the value of mothering, which is a theme in the book, as it is with religion. It’s not motherhood itself that matters – it’s mothering behaviour. The life of the bees also centres round the queen, or mother; a hive without a mother soon disintegrates. Kidd doesn’t go as far as saying that working with bees confers grace, but she comes close to it; honey seems almost a magical substance – which perhaps it is.

This book reminds me of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), having some of the same themes such as coming of age and southern racism; even the tone of the writing is similar – which should be a recommendation. It contains humour and tragedy, warmth and wisdom. What is there not to like? And I did enjoy it. But, unlike Gilead – or To Kill a Mockingbird - it didn’t stretch my mind or even my imagination. It may be that the much denser writing that characterises Gilead derives from the fact that it is told by a seventy six year old, whereas the protagonist here is only fourteen, and can’t be expected to have mature insights. Or maybe it just isn’t as subtle. I can imagine it being someone’s comfort book, but it won’t be on my list; I didn’t find it special, as others obviously have.

You can read more about Sue Monk Kidd here. The book has been made into both a stage play and a film; it received a mixed reception, winning awards for ‘Favorite Movie Drama’ and ‘Favorite Independent Movie’ at the 35th People’s Choice Awards but being considered too maudlin and sticky-sweet by others. You can read more about it here.

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Like The Not Knowing, which I posted on last week, this spy thriller also made it onto The Guardian’s list of the ten best crime stories or thrillers of 2012. It also won the Scottish Crime Book of the Year at the 2012 Bloody Scotland Festival and the Crime Writers’ Association Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for the best thriller of 2012. Cumming comes highly recommended; his second book, The Spanish Game was described by The Times as one of the six finest spy novels of all time, alongside Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, (1974) Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin (1964) and  Baroness Orczy’s  The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905). And Cumming has some firsthand knowledge. After graduating with a first in English, he was approached by the Secret Intelligence Service (M16), but did not join them.

Perhaps all this build up raised my expectations too high, because although I enjoyed the book, it certainly isn’t up to Le Carré’s standards, or probably even Len Deighton’s. Not sure about Baroness Orczy.

The story begins with a sort of foreword about the disappearance of a young women in Tunisia in 1978, then moves to a present day robbery and murder, and a kidnapping. Having put these pieces in place, it then moves to Thomas Kell, a former SIS agent who was dismissed after being blamed for condoning torture in Afghanistan. Amelia Levene, who is about to become head of the SIS, has disappeared, and the SIS wants him to find her. Kell soon discovers that everything is not as it seems, and sets out to investigate further.

It’s easy to see why Cumming is spoken of in the same breath as Le Carré and Deighton; his plot deals with same ‘the double-think and mendacity of the secret state’, that is, the same sort of intra and inter security service rivalries, and same treacheries and betrayals as they do. Thomas Kell expresses some of the same thoughts about spying as are found in Le Carré’s work; he reflects on his ‘flair for deceit’, and wonders why ‘the spy wanted to set aside his own character and to inhabit a separate self’. This is very much the territory covered by The Perfect Spy, which in turn reflects aspects of Le Carré’s own life. Cumming focuses, as do Le Carré and Deighton, on the detail of the working life of the spy, though of course Kell has rather more advanced technology at his disposal than his literary forebears. He even uses words and phrases that Le Carré says he invented to describe aspects of spying, such as ‘tradecraft’ and ‘Moscow rules’. There are also a couple of references to ‘coming in from the cold’, though neither of them carries the same meaning as they did for Alec Leamas in The Spy who Came in from the Cold – in that book, coming in from the cold means dying, in preference to living a lie, whereas for Cumming, it just means being accepted back into the espionage world.

I mention the use –or rather misuse – of this phrase because it seems to me to sum up the difference between Cumming and Le Carré: the former lacks the latter’s subtlety. Cumming writes well enough – for example I liked his description of a hotel as resembling ‘a Mexican restaurant in a suburban shopping mall, blown up to the size of an aircraft hangar’. There are literary references scattered throughout, including the title, which reprises L.P. Harley’s line: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ Kell, though perhaps a little too obviously ‘flawed’, is nevertheless a sympathetic character – he reads Seamus Heaney’s poetry, and agonizes about his unhappy relationship with his wife. But none of this makes up for a fairly predictable and mechanical plot. It would make good TV – lots of good visuals and not much depth.

The political thrust of the book – though it isn’t a major theme in the story – is also different from Le Carré’s. When Kell explains how he was made a ‘fall-guy’ for the SIS’s implicit condoning of torture, he does feel ‘the shame of his own moral neglect’. But he is also angry that ‘too many people on the Left were interested solely in demonstrating their own good taste, their own unimpeachable moral conduct, at the expense of the very people who were striving to keep them safe in their beds.’ Le Carré’s shifting world has no place for such moral certainties.

While this is Cumming’s sixth book, it is the first in a series which will feature Thomas Kell. You can read more about Cumming here. I might go back and read some of the earlier ones – maybe they are as good as claimed.  You can read my review of Tinker Tailor here.


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Recently I was looking for a good thriller, so I checked out the Guardian 2012 ten best crime stories. (Why not 2013? The 2012 ones are more likely to be available from a library. You don’t think I buy all of these books, do you?) Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, which I reviewed recently, was top of the list. Of the others, I thought Cathi Unsworth’s Weirdo looked interesting. But taking my own advice, I decided to start with her first book, The Not Knowing (2005), though in fact I need not have, since all four of her novels are stand-alone.

The story begins with a clearly psychotic murderer leaving the scene of his crime, but moves quickly to the narrator, Diana Kemp, who describes herself as ‘a journalist on the make’. She works for an edgy new magazine called Lux, which covers all of the trendy cultural currents that were new in 1992, when the story is set – ‘comics and deviant film making … crime-writing and rock’n’roll’. She is preparing to attend a crime writers’ festival specialising in the ‘nouveau noir’. Her boss, Neil, is big on ‘the role of the degenerate in overthrowing the establishment’; he has just done an interview for the magazine with Jon Jackson, maker of a highly successful gangster film. But why has Jackson now disappeared? The story crosses at times to the murderer – initially unnamed – and it is left to the reader to work out that his story is happening a bit before Diana’s – though of course they soon intersect.

One character notes that most crime stories are about either how clever the detective is, or how cunning the criminal, whereas ‘no one ever writes about what it’s like for the victims.’ That’s a good point, but it’s not an intimation of what Unsworth is doing here. This is a crime story – but not from the victim’s perspective. Nor is it a detective story. I usually prefer not to reveal anything about how the story unfolds, but in trying to understand the book’s strengths and weaknesses, I’m saying a bit more than usual. The police are involved, and do finally identify the criminal, but the reader is never told how. And Diana is not the ‘ordinary person’ who solves the mystery; the puzzle, in so far as there is one, is worked out through events. But there are clues. What is it about his interview with Jackson that Neil is hiding from Diana? There’s some quite clever misdirection going on here, but the plot feels like it hasn’t quite gelled. Or maybe I’m missing something.

What Unsworth does well is suspense, created when the reader knows more than the narrator. You want to shout to Diana ‘look behind you!’ but of course she never does.

Another of Unsworth’s strengths is her ability to create the part exciting, part sleazy cutting edge of film and music ‘noir’ culture – the pubs and clubs, the markets, the mix of aficionados and fans and wannabes, the films and bands, most of which I’ve never heard of. (For example I had to look up what psychobilly was.) Diana is fully a part of this scene; sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll are an integral part of her life. This no doubt makes her an authentic character – though perhaps not one all readers will warm to.

This brings me to the main question I have about the book. It isn’t just about ‘nouveau noir’ culture; it sets out to be an example of it. The excerpt from the book of one of the writers she meets at the crime writers’ festival is very nasty – but highly acclaimed. (The book in the story is called ‘Weirdo’, which is the name of Unsworth’s most recent novel.) There are several very unpleasant scenes, and one that I skipped over altogether because it was clear what sort of violence was coming. In a story about a psychopathic killer, there is bound to be a lot of violence, and the sorts of crimes described are horrendous. The very first lines of the book – ‘The moon was in the gutter … Reflected in the sky’ set the tone. But is it simply pastiche, contrived for effect? I’m just not sure.

There’s a minor theme about censorship running through the book, and at one point, Diana asks the writer of Weirdo about how he sees the violence he describes. ‘There seems to be a lot of empathy in your book,’ she says. ‘A lot of compassion … It wouldn’t be so powerful if there wasn’t that feeling there … It would be a gratuitous pornography of violence.’  Well yes. Are we sure it isn’t anyway?

You can read more about Cathi Unsworth here.

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I picked up this book (2009) simply because I saw the name Josephine Tey on the cover. She has long been one of my favourite crime writers of the Golden Age. Two of her books in particular stay with me; The Franchise Affair is one of the best pieces of fictional detection I know of, and The Daughter of Time showed me for the first time how the historical record  – in this case the guilt or otherwise of Richard III – can be manipulated by the victors. And here she is, a character in a book – which turns out to be the second in a series.

Josephine Tey has gone to stay on the family estate of her friend Inspector Archie Penrose in Cornwall so she can get on with her next book.  But the peace of the village is disturbed by the recovery of a body from a lake on the estate. Accident, suicide or murder? Who knows more than they are telling? Everyone seems to have a secret. As one character says: ‘It gets complicated, doesn’t it, trying to remember who knows what. Sometimes it’s easier not to say anything at all, just to be sure you don’t make a mistake.’ When a second death occurs, Archie becomes professionally involved. He finds a ‘complex web of misplaced certainties and false logic’ – as does the reader.

Josephine Tey acts very much as an observer and sounding board for Penrose; she does not display any particular detective qualities herself. She is, however, a version of the real Josephine Tey (which was actually the pseudonym of Elizabeth Mackintosh, who also wrote as Gordon Daviot). Her relationship with Archie – who somewhat resembles Tey’s Inspector Grant – seems to have been more fully discussed in the first book in the series. Upson says that her character blends ‘some of what we know’ about Elizabeth Mackintosh, and some of the personality ‘which emerges so strongly’ from her crime stories. You can read more detail about Mackintosh, and how she might have reacted to being used as a character in a book, on Upson’s webpage here. In this story, she is starting to write the book that became A Shilling for Candles (1936), and it is probably no coincidence that a horse that plays an important part in this story is called Shilling. I found the information about Mackintosh interesting, but if I’d never heard of Josephine Tey, I doubt if having her as a character would actually add anything to the story.

The setting in Cornwell, which is lovingly described, is real, the estate being now the property of the National Trust. The book is set in 1935, but apart from the absence of modern forensic technology, there is nothing much to date it, apart from references to World War I. Some of the social attitudes seem more modern than I thought would have been the case in rural England in the 1930s, but maybe this estate really was a special case. It doesn’t come alive for me as history.

The setting in the 1930s and presence in the story of one of the writers of the Golden Age of crime writing lead to an expectation that somehow this story will resemble a classic puzzle mystery of that period. But this is not really the case. Indeed I think it falls between two – or even three – stools. The mystery is not solved by detection, but rather by the unfolding of events. So it’s not a classic puzzle which the detective – and the reader – can solve. Though one of the main characters is a policeman, it is not a police procedural, where the detective catches the criminal after following series of clues. It has more in common with some modern psychological thrillers – but because everyone has a secret, their inner thoughts cannot be revealed, leaving the whole question of motive very under-developed. Perhaps what lies behind the events could have a psychological truth to it, but certainly I don’t find the presentation of it convincing. The story potentially has elements of tragedy – but the writing, while perfectly competent – isn’t strong enough adequately to convey it.

Still, having said all that, it was quite an enjoyable book. And I do get overly picky about how the crime or mystery is resolved. The first Josephine Tey book in the series, An Expert in Murder (2008) was praised by PD James as marking ‘the arrival of a new and assured talent’, and coming from her, that’s a strong recommendation. There are now several more books in the series.

You can read more about Nicola Upson here. Some of the real Josephine Tey’s stories are available through the Gutenberg Project if you can’t find them in a library; here is Daughter of Time (1951).

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