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I’m eternally grateful to my book club. As I think I’ve explained before, we have a fairly random way of choosing what we’re going to read. Sometimes it’s a disaster, and sometimes it comes up trumps. This is one of the latter times, and I’m very pleased that more of less by chance I’ve been introduced to this author and read this book. The Gingerbread Woman was published in 2000, and Johnston has written a number of novels before this, and several after it. But I found it a perfect introduction to her work.

Clara Barry has returned to Dublin from a stint in New York as a guest lecturer on Modern Irish Literature. ‘Not Synge, Yeats or Joyce. That’s a mug’s game; that’s big business these days, something I’ve got no head for.’ She specialises in writers such as Elizabeth Bowen, Edna O’Brien and John Banville. (I mention this here because these are the very writers Johnston can be compared with, though she self-deprecatingly claims that the Irish literary establishment considers her a second-rate writer.) Clara is recuperating from an initially unspecified operation – though the hurt seems as much psychological as physical – and finding it hard going. One day out walking she meets Lars, a young man exercising his dog; he too is miserable. Against both their expectations they become friends, and manage to get on with their lives the better for having met. I’m not giving anything away here. You can read that much on the back cover.

The story is deceptively simple. What matters is the relationships between the characters. Both Clara and Lars are unhappy and can be difficult; Johnston makes their interactions are wonderfully real. The other main characters are Clara’s doctor, her mother, and Lars’s wife Caitlin, now dead but still very much alive to him; they too have substance and authenticity. The book starts with Clara’s assessment of her mother as someone who ‘makes jam’. She also makes ‘shortbread biscuits, sponge cakes, rich fruit cake, brandy snaps … I’m sure you get the point.’ But Lars has quite another reaction to her when he meets her, and I was left with the feeling that Johnston is cleverly suggesting that Mrs Barry is subtly different from the impressions both have of her. It is she who articulates what is to me the key message of the book; that recovery from tragedy is a willed process. ‘We have obligations, you know, to the people who love us, if not to society,’ she says. Clara’s view of her relationship with the doctor is clearly not the same as his view of it, though this is never something Clara articulates – it’s just delicately indicated.

The structure of the story is also wonderfully subtle. Most of it is told in the first person by Clara; those sections that are from Lars’s perspective are in the third person. But as well as telling her story in the present, Clara is writing ‘notes’ for a novel to be called ‘The Gingerbread Woman’ that explain her recent history in New York, gradually bringing the reader up to date on the reasons for her return to Dublin. And Lars also spends a lot of time thinking about the past – in particular the death of his wife and child. When Clara learns his story, she thinks like the author she is that ‘maybe one day I may use his story; steal it from him,’ which is of course what Johnston in a sense has already done. So the story is operating on a number of levels at once in a very satisfying way.

Though I guess you could call the plot ‘domestic’, it has wider resonance with recent Irish history. Lars is from Northern Ireland, and the tragedy he experienced happened there. Several of Johnston’s earlier books deal with ‘the fading of the Protestant Anglo-Irish ascendancy in the 20th century’. That’s not really the case here, but Clara nevertheless doesn’t want know about events in Northern Ireland: ‘I just don’t want to hear about the North … None of the gutted-by-history-crap’. But she also admits ‘We’re no great shakes here either’, and though history provides the occasion for her meeting with Lars, it is the quality of the relationship between them that is important.

The book also raises the question of what it is in the style of a writer that lifts a book above the level of competent writing – because Johnston’s writing seems to me to be brilliant. Every word seems to be exactly right – though this in itself isn’t an explanation. Why is it right? How much is it that I like what she is saying, that it resonates with me? Consider, for example, this passage: ‘Why do I have … facetious thoughts clogging up my mind? Perhaps this is the reason why I have never become a highly regarded novelist or a major academic.’ But then she goes on the question whether ‘humorous self-deprecation’ is a symptom of ‘that middle class malaise called complacency’. It’s pure genius.

This is another book where Schubert is important – this time it’s Shepherd on a Rock. In a recent post on the crime story Death and the Maiden, I suggested that the cultural details seemed added to make it sound real, rather than somehow being integral to the story. That’s not the case here – or at least I didn’t find it so. You can listen to the song here. There’s not a lot about Johnston on the internet, but you can read a little about her and some of her books here.

PS Some of my book club friends thought Clara was over-dramatizing her operation. I bow to their greater knowledge, but didn’t let it spoil the story.

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I picked up Death and the Maiden (2011) for no better reason than I liked the title – Schubert’s string quartet No 14 in D minor of the same name is one of my favourites. In this book, however, it is the song Schubert wrote in 1817, for which the quartet is named and which is the theme of the second movement, that is being referred to – though in my view with doubtful relevance. I also discovered that this is not a stand-alone story; there are already five other stories featuring the main characters; the books are collectively referred to as the Liebermann Papers.

The story is set in Vienna in 1903. A singer from the court opera is found dead. Is it an accident, suicide, or murder? Detective Inspector Oskar Rheinhardt of the Vienna security office is called in to investigate, and he is joined, as usual in this series, by his young friend Dr Max Liebermann, a psychiatrist and student of Sigmund Freud. They find that the court opera is a hotbed of rumour and jealousy, in part aimed at the Director, Gustav Mahler. It seems that the Mayor of Vienna, the powerful demagogue Karl Lueger, may also be involved. Then there is the singer’s psychiatrist, who rejects Freud’s theories and has links with the court of Emperor Franz Joseph. Is it sex, or politics, or both that lie behind the singer’s death?

The turn of the century was obviously a fascinating time in Vienna, and Tallis makes frequent reference to contemporary events and movements. On one hand there is the intellectual ferment that produced the theories of Freud, the music of Mahler and the Secessionist movement in art and design. Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze gets a passing mention. Both Rheinhardt and Liebermann are musical – this may have been what brought them together in the first place – and there are lots of references to the music of Chopin, Mozart, Brahms and Mahler. Indeed there is a sub-plot involving the lives of two fictional musicians in which Liebermann unravels a mystery by reference to a composition by one of them. On the other hand there is political turmoil as the tottering Hapsburg Empire struggles against the nationalist forces tearing it apart, and demagogues like Lueger stir up popular discontent, often directing it into anti-Semitic channels. Apparently Lueger really did say ‘I decide who is a Jew’, though not in the context found in this story.

You’d hope with all this material to work with – both real and imagined – that Tallis would have produced an absorbing crime story. But the plot doesn’t really work for me. Some of what seem like non sequiturs– such as the scenes with Liebermann’s former fiancé – may be excused as making more sense in the context of the series. But Liebermann’s role is supposed to be central to the story. He is supposed to use theories about the subconscious as an investigative tool, on the premise that ‘guilty people are always giving themselves away – unconsciously’. Lieberman suggests Freudian motives (hysterical and oedipal) for several of the characters’ actions, but I don’t really find it convincing. His explanations are overly simplistic, and no more compelling than the theory the traditional doctor puts up that the singer had a weak nervous system. Tallis never lets the poor woman speak for herself. He makes the point that forensic science was making great strides just at the same time as psychoanalysis; the relatively new practice of autopsy is important in the story, as are some other forensic details. But overall, Rheinhardt doesn’t have much concrete evidence to go on, placing too much weight on the debatable influence of the subconscious.

Perhaps I would have responded better to all this if I felt the book was truly well written. It’s one of those cases where I find it hard to say just what was disappointing about the style. It’s perfectly adequate writing – but it just doesn’t go beyond that. Neither Rheinhardt nor Liebermann come alive for me, despite Tallis’s attempts to humanise them through music, food and family relationships. And Vienna doesn’t really come alive either; the details have a faintly researched air, rather than one of verisimilitude. This sense that Tallis may be trying too hard is summed up for me by the title. Rheinhardt sings and Liebermann plays Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’, with an English translation that shows the maiden pleading with death to spare her, only to have death reply that she has nothing to fear and can sleep softly in his arms. There is no sense in which these sentiments are represented in the story – so why make it the title?

Overall, I didn’t hate it. I was just a bit disappointed that with such rich ingredients it didn’t turn out better. You can read more about Frank Tallis and the Liebermann Papers here. And you can listen to ‘Death and the Maiden’ here.

This is by no means the only crime novel in which Freud appears. Try, for example, The Interpretation of Murder (2007) by Jed Rubenfeld.

 

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I liked Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl (2012) so much that I included it in my ‘best of’ 2013 list. You can read my review here. So naturally I had to see the movie. One of things I particularly like about the book is the clever way misdirection is used to create suspense, and I was interested to see how this would be translated on film. I think it worked pretty well – though some other things I thought were strengths of the book were missing from the movie.

The film follows the story of the book pretty faithfully, with only slight abbreviations – not surprising, since Gillian Flynn wrote the screen play. On the day of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick arrives home to find his wife Amy has disappeared. It looks like there has been some kind of struggle. Has she been kidnapped? Or, is it, as the police conclude as the evidence piles up against him, that Nick has killed her, and tried to make it look like a kidnapping? In the book, both Nick and Amy admit to being unreliable narrators; this is less clear in the movie. Amy’s diary comes into the book much sooner than it does in the film, removing one source of misdirection, but I think viewers who haven’t read the book will still get the same reaction to the major misdirection that drives the plot that you get reading the book. I knew what was coming and I still enjoyed it. There isn’t much physical violence in the book, but what there is, is presented very graphically in the film; a bit of a look-away-now moment for me. But overall, a clever film, well acted, darkly funny in parts, and exciting in others.

One of the friends I saw the movie with, who hadn’t read the book, felt that the ending was not really credible. She wondered whether the actor who played Nick, Ben Affleck, was too pleasant and sympathetic – even given his behaviour in the story. In the book, the reader learns a lot more about his talent for misdirection, and his psychology, his inner thoughts and the influence of his father, all of which present him as flawed and accentuate his sense of being ‘hollow’, even while they explain it. I also wondered if she might have found the ending a little unsatisfactory if it was assumed that the story could be taken as a realistic portrayal of a marriage – after all, the blurb for the film says it ‘unearths the secrets at the heart of a modern marriage’. I thought the story of Nick and Amy in the book was satire, not an accurate representation. On those grounds, the ending of the book is quite appropriate. But the film wasn’t played as satire, (at least I don’t think so, and maybe I’m wrong about the book anyway), so the alternative of a resolution that is supposed to be realistic and takes ‘modern marriage’ at its face value perhaps didn’t work perfectly.

The other major difference I found between the book and the movie was in the setting. In both the book and the film, Nick and Amy have lost their jobs in New York because of the Global Financial Crisis, and moved to Nick’s decaying home town in Missouri. In the movie, they live in a big, well-appointed house in a pleasant-looking neighbourhood and Nick drives an expensive-looking SUV. It’s true that the shopping mall in the town is shown as derelict, as it is in the book, but I thought the film completely lacked the sense of economic decline that characterised the town in the book – ‘suburbia, post-comet, post-zombie, post-humanity’ and its surroundings – ‘a series of shuttered businesses – ruined community banks and defunct movie houses’. This is a pity, because for me, Nick and Amy’s relationship can also be described as ‘post-humanity’ – rather than a ‘normal’ breakdown of modern marriage. The movie is about what individual husbands and wives can do to each other; the book puts this behaviour into a much more problematic social and economic context. Yes, I said above that the author wrote the screen play …

Even given these reservations, I still enjoyed the movie. There will always be a debate about whether a book is better than the movie made of it, or whether reading the book spoils the movie. In most cases I find I like the book best, though there are notable exceptions to this rule (see Lord of the Rings, where I loved both, and thought the film even added something, and the Harry Potter movies which improved on the books by removing some things). You can read a discussion of this film v this book here. And you can see a trailer for the film here.

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This is the book I mentioned recently when reviewing Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue (2012) – I wrote about it but forgot to post it at the time. So here it is now.

I suppose it had to happen, but it’s always disappointing to find you don’t respond warmly to a book by an author you normally admire. This is the case for me with Gentlemen of the Road (2007). Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is one of my favourite books; you can read my review here. And I’ve also recently enjoyed The Yiddish Policemen’s Union; that’s reviewed here. But I just can’t get my head properly around this one, though I can see there is much to like.

The story, which is set in about 950 AD, concerns two Jewish wanderers who scratch a living by thieving, trickery and any other nefarious pastime that comes their way. One, Zelikman, is originally from what is now Germany, the other, Amram, is Abyssinian. They are at this time wandering in the Caucuses. Despite arguing over ‘whose definition of “easy money” was the least commensurate with lived experience’, they agree to transport a dispossessed and fugitive prince from neighbouring Khazaria back to his mother’s family in Azerbaijan, though he wishes to return to Khazaria to avenge himself on the usurper who has killed his parents. ‘A gentleman of the road worthy of the title would convey him to the nearest slave market and see what price he fetched,’ says Zelikman. ‘I fear that explains our overall lack of success at this game, Zelikman,’ says Amram. ‘Because I’m not going to do that.’ Unsurprisingly, fulfilling their agreement turns out to be even more difficult and dangerous than this cynical pair imagined.

To my ignorant surprise, Khazaria, ‘the fabled kingdom of wild red-haired Jews on the western shore of the Caspian Sea’ turns out to have actually existed. Zelikman can hardly believe that there really is a place ‘where a Jew rules over other Jews as king’. Towards the end of the first millennium, the Khazars, whose settlements on the Volga formed a multicultural buffer between Christian Byzantium and the Islamic peoples of the East, adopted a form of Judaism, and welcomed persecuted Jews from both West and East. Jewish Radanite traders on the Silk Road were also welcomed there. I was even more surprised to find that the Rus referred to in the story were actually Vikings originally from Scandinavia; indeed the Rus eventually defeated the Khazars and seized their land, becoming in time ‘Russians’.

I think that my unfamiliarity with the history and geography of the region underlies the problem I had with the book. With the Khrazars, the Arsiyah (Moslims), the Rus and the soldiers of the usurper Buljan, all variously hunting the heroes, or fighting each other, or changing sides, I got confused about who was who and what on earth was happening. I also had to re-read some of Chabon’s very long sentences to catch their meaning – though I did wonder whether reading the book on a Kindle contributed to this. I think Chabon is deliberately writing in a somewhat ponderous style, in homage to the writers of earlier adventure stories like Alexander Dumas. And the long sentences are often quietly funny, as in ‘The African patted the horse’s neck and spoke to it in a velvet language, and Hanukkah caught sight of the broad ax slung across the giant’s back and began to regret his decision to call attention to himself, because kindness to horses was often accompanied in soldiers by an inclination, when it came to men, to brutality.’ The story was originally published as a fifteen-part serial in the New York Times Magazine, which accounts for the disconcertingly discrete nature of each chapter.

Writing swashbuckling adventure stories in deliberately stilted prose isn’t usual territory for Chabon. But a closer look reveals the presence of many of his characteristics. His interest in a historical Jewish state matches his creation of an imaginary one in the Sitka Federal District of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. His subtle humour suffuses this story, as it does in his other books. Who can’t enjoy such wry observations as ‘Mercy was a failing, a state of error, and in the case of children, a terrible waste of time.’ Or Zelikman’s ‘I don’t save lives … I just prolong their futility.’

Having got this far with my review, I find I’ve talked myself round. I do like the book, and suggest it is very worth reading. It’s just a good idea to know something about the setting first. You can find out more about Khazania here, and Michael Chabon here.

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I’ve lost count of how many Detective Inspector Wexford stories Rendell has written, but I think No Man’s Nightingale (2013) is the second since his retirement from the Kingsmarkam police force. You can read my review of the first, The Vault (2011), here. I thought that was perhaps not her best effort, but this one is vintage Rendell.

The vicar of St Peter’s Church is found strangled in the vicarage. Being female, of Irish and Indian parentage, socially liberal, a moderniser of the liturgy and a single mother hasn’t made Sarah Hussain universally popular, but Detective Superintendent Burden is nevertheless struggling to work out who could possibly have committed such a crime. Wexford, still a close friend of Burden’s, is happy to assist, finding that his reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while stimulating, is not enough to fill his retirement. There is also a sub plot, very loosely linked to the main one, about the family of Maxine Sams, who is the Wexfords’ cleaner. The reader knows that the murder must have been committed by one of the characters in the story – Rendell would never stoop to a deus ex machina ending – and there are certainly clues. But I only recognised some of them as such when I found out who dun it, and was intrigued right to the end.

Wexford not still being a policeman, this is not strictly a police procedural. He misses having his former police powers: ‘When for years you have had authority it is very hard to lose it, suddenly to find that powers you took for granted have disappeared overnight and, perhaps more to the point, stay disappeared’. ‘Not for the first time, but perhaps more positively and tellingly than before, he was realising how insignificant he had become in the great scheme of law and order, of lawmaking and law implementing, of having nothing to do in a society where doing things was all-important.’ But Rendell cleverly contrasts Burden’s orthodox police approach with Wexford’s more intuitive one; he doesn’t need powers other than those inherent in him. Burden discounts the search for causes: ‘We are not going to identify any recognisable sort of motive here,’ he says. ‘And searching for a motive such as jealousy or envy or gain, is only going the hinder any progress we’re making.’ But it is Wexford’s observations of people and what drives them that ultimately solve the puzzle – though not without a few false starts. The ‘possibility [that] had been building up in his mind, increasingly until it had become a conviction … had nothing to do with reason, it was some kind of intuition.’ ‘Ridiculous, he told himself. Like some nineteenth-century novel. Wilkie Collins maybe. But if it was an illusion, it was one he couldn’t get out of his head.’ Ultimately, Burden has to agree that Wexford’s instincts are correct. ‘I hate having to admit it but I think you’re right,’ he says. Rendell comes down decisively on the side of perception and insight into human behaviour over the more limited assessment of means and opportunity.

This is not a fast paced thriller; it at least as much a novel of manners as it is a crime story. Indeed a good deal of the interest for me lay in characters and situations not directly related to the original murder. There is a good slice of English social reality in this book. The issues of sexism and racism inevitably arise; in terms of the latter there is both overt and what Wexford calls ‘apologetic racism’ – defined by one reviewer as the ‘ironic recognition that one has said something inherently open to the charge of racism but can find no way of not saying it’. Themes in the sub-plot echo those of the main story, in particular the question of what people will do out of love for their children. What a woman will do to have a child is also a theme that is explored. ‘People are weird,’ says Burden, and this is true of a number of the characters in this story. But Rendell through Wexford is unwaveringly compassionate, even to those who might not deserve it. ‘We judge people by ourselves, Wexford thought, and by our own beliefs, customs and prejudices.’ His seem based in kindness and empathy, though this is not true of various other of the characters. His reading of The Decline and Fall is an exploration of human behaviour, just as is his everyday observation of those around him. It is no coincidence that Rendell quotes the following passage that he is reading: ‘It is the religion of Zingis [Genghis Khan] that best deserves our wonder and applause. The Catholic inquisitors of Europe, who defended nonsense by cruelty, might have been confounded by the example of a barbarian, who anticipated the lessons of philosophy, and established by his laws a system of pure theism and perfect toleration.’

A minor quibble. As I noted in my review of The Vault, Rendell makes use of ‘teasers’ such as ‘Although they didn’t know it, the laughter was due to stop’, or ‘She turned out to be right’. I’m not sure why she does this, as I don’t think it adds anything. But I can forgive her.

Ruth Rendell doesn’t seem to have a web-site, but you can read more about her here. Her latest book – a crime story but not a Wexford one – called The Girl Next Door, came out this month. Now if I could be a quarter as productive as she is at 84 …..

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MaddAddam (2013) is the third book in Atwood’s dystopian trilogy about a world in which the human race has been all but destroyed by a pandemic. The first two are Oryx and Crake (2003), which I reviewed here, and The Year of the Flood (2009), reviewed here. Although there is a brief summary of the two earlier books at the beginning of this one, I strongly suggest you read the other books first; both characters and situation are much easier to appreciate with a knowledge of what has gone before. Even having read the previous books it took me a while to reconnect with the story.

This book starts where The Year of the Flood finishes. Toby has met up with the handful of other survivors of the pandemic – some of the MaddAddamites and God’s Gardeners from the previous book – and the group of ‘gene-spliced quasi-humans’ created by Crake – hence called Crakers. Not all the survivors are friendly; there are also two semi-crazed ‘painballers’ on the loose. Some of the genetically modified animals now roaming free are also dangerous. The Crakers love stories, and it becomes Toby’s role to tell them. But, she realises, ‘There’s the story, then there’s the real story, then there’s the story of how the story came to be told.’ These three elements make up the book. The on-going ‘story’ she tells the naïve and trusting Crakers is a much modified version of the reality of things before the ‘waterless flood’. The ‘real story’ behind what she tells them is mostly flashback told to Toby about the pre-catastrophe lives of Zeb, the leading MaddAddamite, and Adam One, head of the God’s Gardeners. And the ‘story of how the story came to be told’ takes up the struggle to survive in a perilous world where everything has to be improvised: ‘physical objects have shucked their tethers’. ‘Once there were too many people and not enough stuff; now it’s the other way round’ – though little enough of the scavenged ‘stuff’ is useful. What sort of future can be possible for them?

MaddAddam has been criticised on the grounds that depicting a dystopian reality after a world catastrophe is a commonplace in science fiction. ‘It is not simply a question of the broad outlines being well-worn,’ writes one critic, ‘but of the numerous tropes deployed: the mad scientist releasing the virus; the millenarian cults and cannibal gangs; the survivors subsisting, ironically, on throwaway consumer items; the tech-noir and cyber-punk stylings; flooded cities; the vine-wrapped skyscrapers.’ This criticism seems to me to miss the point; Atwood isn’t really writing science fiction. ‘If I were writing about Planet Xenor, that would be different. It is our world, except with a few twists,’ she says. In the acknowledgements, she writes that: ‘Although MaddAddam is a work of fiction, it does not include any technologies or biobeings that do not already exist, are not under construction, or not possible in theory.’ So this isn’t the creation of an imaginary world – which I take to be an essential ingredient of science fiction. It is written as a dire warning about the directions we are taking today, and where we could well end up.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some problems with the book. Having the three ‘stories’ is a bit clunky, especially the stories Toby tells the Crakers. And though Zeb and Adam’s story is interesting, it seems like a diversion rather than an integral part of the ongoing story. Then there’s the Crakers; what is Atwood saying about quasi-humans? Maybe that we should accept differences without too much prejudice? Certainly in this story they are going to be a part of any ongoing human race. And the Crakers do evolve during the story – as someone says, their brains seem more malleable than might have been anticipated – and they have unexpected powers. On the other hand, Toby – whose Gardener name was Eve Six – wonders if teaching them to read and write might ultimately harm them. Is Atwood making a sly allusion to the forbidden apple of knowledge in the Garden of Eden? It’s as if Atwood is throwing off ideas like sparks – a dramatic show, but ultimately a bit of a fizzer. There’s also rather a lot of coincidence and a lot left unexplained; the device of Zeb telling his story to Toby means in theory that Atwood gets away with gaps in what Zeb knows, particularly about Adam, but in practice this can be frustrating for the reader.

Atwood is a great writer, and no unease about the structure and intention of the story can undermine my pleasure in her use of language, which is sometimes expressive, and sometimes sharp and acerbic. Describing the pleeblands: Zeb looks out of a sealed bullet train window and sees ‘gated communities … fields of soybeans, frackware installations, windfarms, piles of gigantic truck tyres, heaps of gravel, pyramids of discarded ceramic toilets. Mountains of garbage with dozens of people picking through it; pleebland shanty towns, the shacks made of discarded everything.’ Zeb says of his crooked father: ‘You have to give the guy some credit. He was twisted as a pretzel, he was a tin-foil halo, shit-nosed frogstomping king rat asshole, but he wasn’t stupid.’ But I agree with the critic who suggests that Atwood’s tone in this book is ‘whimsical rather than moving’.

Overall, I didn’t think this was up to the standard of the first two in the trilogy, or to her usual standard, for that matter. In the end, I couldn’t help but agree with the critic in the Guardian who wrote: ‘MaddAddam is slightly crazed, usually intriguing and often great fun. I would have enjoyed it even more, however, were it not for the nagging voice that said: instead of this, we might have had another Alias Grace, or another The Blind Assassin.’ You can read what I said about The Blind Assassin  – one of my favourite books – here.

You can read more about Margaret Atwood here.

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A while ago now I wrote a blog about Thrones, Dominions, the unfinished 1936 Dorothy Sayers mystery that Jill Paton Walsh successfully completed in 1998. For all that the world of Lord Peter Wimsey could be called dated and snobbish, I enjoyed the clever story and the continuation of the love theme between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane. It seems that lots of other people liked it too; now there are three more Vane/Wimsey novels from Paton Walsh, A Presumption of Death (2002), The Attenbury Emeralds (2010) and The Late Scholar (2013).

In Dorothy Sayers’s novels, the recovery of the Attenbury Emeralds is occasionally referred to as Peter’s first case, but she never wrote about it. This Attenbury Emeralds is set in 1951, though nearly all the first half of the book concerns the fate of the emeralds, lost twice and retrieved both times with Peter’s involvement in the 1920s. The rest of the book is about his third involvement with the jewels post World War II, and relates back to their earlier history. The emerald that is important in the story was once owned by an Indian Maharaja; now he would like to buy it back. But it mysteriously disappears at an upper-class house party. Shades of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (which I wrote about here)? Well yes, Paton Walsh makes the connection, though this jewel wasn’t stolen from India; ‘Attenbury owned it with a clear conscience … it was no moonstone.’ The second loss echoed the first. But it is the third involvement that creates the real mystery in the story, and I’m not going to tell you what that’s about –it’s a genuine puzzle story of the ‘golden age’ variety. There are clues scattered throughout, though mostly of the kind I only recognised after I found out what happened.

I think Paton Walsh must enjoy writing as if she were Dorothy Sayers, as she certainly seems to have some fun doing it. Because the earlier history of the emeralds is being recounted to Harriet, Peter and his assistant Bunter are telling her what they remember happening – meaning there is a lot of dialogue. Harriet asks my favourite question about how people can remember long ago conversations so accurately. ‘Unless you have been making half this up, you have an extraordinary memory,’ she says. ‘Of course I’m not remembering everyone’s remarks verbatim,’ Peter replies, ‘I’m making a good deal of it up, but the drift … is all right.’ Well, nice to have that admission. Peter expects to have to run ‘the gauntlet of literary criticism’, and Harriet, a detective novelist herself, is well placed to notice that they have reached ‘the Little did they know juncture’ – a ‘good teaser’. She also comments on coincidence: ‘You can’t have coincidences in detective stories … Readers simply can’t accept them.’  But she goes on: ‘Though in real life they do keep happening’ – as they do in this story. ‘Clever readers,’ says Harriet of her own work, ‘would have seen through the whole thing’; as noted above, I didn’t see the main twist coming in this story, though I’m not sure even a ‘clever reader’ would have done so. Peter is right; in puzzle mysteries, ‘when you know how you know who.’ And I loved Paton Walsh’s faintly self-mocking comment when Harriet is complemented as having ‘the finest mind in detective fiction’; she replies ‘I can’t compare with Conan Doyle, or Agatha Christies, or Dorothy Sayers …’

Peter at sixty and Harriet, who is a bit younger, are very much the same characters as they were in the original Dorothy Sayers stories of the 1930s, though marriage and parenthood have mellowed them. There is however, a considerable change in the world they live in. ‘That vanished world … all seniors talk so fondly about’ is the time before World War I, rather than between the wars. Paton Walsh has Wimsey talk quite bitterly about the lack of real change post World War I: ‘the fact was,’ he says, ’that all the suffering and death had produced a world that was just the same as before. It wasn’t any safer, it wasn’t any fairer, there were no greater liberties or chances of happiness for civilised mankind’. The real change, for the upper classes at any rate, seems to be occurring as a result of World War II (which is dealt with in A Presumption of Death). Death duties are breaking up the old estates, social relations are changing: ’the iron age of distinctions between servants and family was over’. ‘I think I can feel the social weather changing as we speak’. This doesn’t mean that there is a change in the relationship between Wimsey and Bunter: they still ‘sound like a script by Noel Coward.’ But Bunter wants a different life for his son – including a degree from the London School of Economics.

Paton Walsh says at one point that Peter and Harriet’s old fashioned habits are a form of ‘affectionate nostalgia’ for the old ways. I rather think my fondness for the book is rather similar. Who writes puzzle mysteries these days? Who has an aristocratic detective with a supremely resourceful and self-effacing servant? This is comfort reading. And after all, who wouldn’t like a Bunter of their own?

You can read more about Jill Paton Walsh, who, by the way, is 77, here, and an interview with her about channelling Sayers here.

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