Monday, August 14, 2017

IF THIS IS A MAN - Primo Levi

























It was my good fortune to be deported to Auschwitz only in 1944, that is, after the German government had decided, owing to the growing scarcity of labour, to lengthen the average life span of the prisoners destined for elimination; it conceded noticeable improvements in the camp routine and temporarily suspended killings at the whim of individuals...............

It seems to me unnecessary to add that none of the facts are invented.

The above is from the authors preface.  This like the book itself is so understated its chilling.  The preface further states that he does not go into numbers to any great extent as him doing it would add nothing to to atrocities recounted many times.   The one set of numbers he does recount is there were approximately 640 humans in his train to Auschwitz, within 24 hours 500 of these humans no longer existed.

This book like ...Ivan Denisovich is about the will to survive for some humans.  Many did horrible things to enable their survival, Levi recounts some of these events stating what these people did, he admires them in a way but does not ever wish to see these people again.

This was a death camp, the ever present view of the chimneys smoking was a constant reminder what eventually awaited them all.  The "selections", when a new shipment of humans was due, camp authorities went through the barracks and selected 7% of the camp population, generally because they were failing physically sometimes just on a whim for death to make room.  This was 7% of 12,000 humans; twenty four hours later this 7% no longer existed.

Again, this terror is recounted in such an understated way it makes it doubly chilling.

This is one of those books like Denisovich that should be required reading in schools.  It was initially published in 1947 but did not find an audience until the early 50's.  Even at the time of original publication the denial machine was attempting to re-write events, sadly the denial machine is still trying to deny the monstrosity that was Nazi Germany.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

HIGHLAND FLING - Nancy Mitford

























When the "Bright Young Things" meet the "Old Regime" on a Scottish grouse Moor, the real sport begins...

Jane Dacre felt that Scotland was a thoroughly respectable place- but that was before she encountered Albert Gates at Dalloch Castle.  Though of impeccable family, Albert is a surrealist painter and greatly given to outrageous pranks.

This is Mitford's first novel which was published in 1931.

Its very funny in parts with some acute observations in others.  She writes a couple of pages regarding why the men who fought in WWI should not be mocked for their post war attitudes, this was after one of the young people got a bit smart trying to impress the party. Poignant is the word to describe what she has written.

It is a first book and its  disjointed, Jane our hero doesn't even make an appearance until chapter five. However, this was the start of a learning curve which resulted in "Love in a Cold Climate" , one of the funniest books I've ever read.

Worth the effort, and again I do love this between the wars period.    It is said today many young people are layabout but if you came from money in the times of this book you really had to do nothing for ever.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

MANSFIELD PARK- Jane Austen

























Mansfield Park is the story of Fanny Price, a principled heroine caught between two worlds: one 'mercenary and ambitious'  the other' entirely deficient in self knowledge, generosity and humility.'

Raised since the age of nine at Mansfield Park, the grand home of her uncle  Sit Thomas Bertram and his family, Fanny quickly become vital to the happiness of the house-hold.  But when she and her four cousins- Ton, maria, Julia and Edmund- reach the age of marriage, Fanny is forced to confront the artifice and insincerity of her upbringing as she wards off a serious rival.

I don't know whether I enjoyed this or not, there is amazing detail of family life as there has to be as the book is almost a one scene setting.  I suppose life was like this at the time . There were very few entertainment options, only the wealthy could travel even the shortest distance's, so the smallest things took on importance that would not even be noticed in our enlightened times.

There is humour throughout this book, little asides by Austen that are clearly digs at attitudes of the times.

Our hero Fanny Price has nasty things happen to her, but Austen never goes full Dickensian and has her sent off to a gulag in Siberia by her nasty aunt Mrs Norris.  Its more Mrs Norris is an old bitch and life moves around her.

So, the story is a bit too static for me and it is a formula tale, so the outcome is fairly obvious but I can see why Austen has survived, reading the book time slips away which for me is the sign of quality.

The thing that really disturbs me is this cousins marrying.  This practice may explain a lot of the undershot jaws you see these days.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

THE FOUR JUST MEN - Edgar Wallace

























Manfred, Gonsalez, Poiccart and Thery.

Four men wanted by the police throughout the world- four men dedicated to prevent injustice, and to punish those whom justice could not touch.

Originally published in 1905 this is a short 150 page book detailing the plan to kill a British politician who is to introduce a bill into Parliament which would cause the death of many.

The whole thing is a set up for a locked room murder. Its short, two decent baths sees it read and its fun.  The murder weapon is very subtle and the clues are there if you pay attention.  A decent Sunday diversion.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

DEATH IN ECSTASY - Ngaio Marsh

























The poison was cyanide, slipped into the sacred wine of ecstasy just before it was presented to Miss Cara Quayne at the House of the Sacred Flame.

This is a very ordinary detective story. It is set almost entirely in a  single room.

For this story Marsh has given Alleyn, her detective, a "Watson" in the form of a journalist who continually feeds Alleyn questions like "How in the world did you discover this?' which gives Alleyn the excuse to give an explanation which is the only way of progressing the story.

When the killer is unmasked we find the entire lead up has nothing to do with the solution. Disappointing, one of Marsh's weaker efforts.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

THE TROUBLED MAN - Henning Mankell

























Every morning Hakan von Enke takes a walk in the forest near his apartment in Stockholm. However, one day winter's day he fails to come home.  It seems the retired naval officer has vanished without trace.

Detective Kurt Wallander is not officially involved in the investigation but he has a personal interest in the case as Hakan's son is engaged to his daughter Linda.

This is the last in the Wallander series and like  the entire series for me its more about the journey than the destination. There is no great mystery here, its very solvable but its a joy to read . I like the ruminations on life and the quiet depressive personality of Wallander as he doggedly solves the mystery.

Mankell tends to be a bit preachy with his left wing thinking, but the stories are so good it doesn't detract from any enjoyment.  You have to ration  these books as Mankell died in 2015 so there's no more.

Friday, July 28, 2017

ROOM 40 - Patrick Beesly

























Room 40 was the unofficial name of the British Admiralty's World War I code breaking organisation. Its mastery of the German Navy and Diplomatic codes had as profound an effect on the outcome of the First World War as Bletchly Park's penetration of Axis codes did on the Second.  But for the work of Room 40, there would have been no Battle of Jutland, the Irish Easter Rising of 1916 might have succeeded, the United States would not have joined the Allies in April 1917.

These were the code breakers who broke the Zimmerman Telegram that brought the US into WWI.

When I bought this I thought it would be more about the individuals involved in the code breaking, instead I found that the author had used each instant of code breaking to explain the military action that resulted or did not result because of this.  There are biographical details of the main organizers but this is more regarding the military out come.

Not that there is not a goldmine of information it was just not what I expected.  There were 248 vessels involved in the Battle of Jutland, two fleets hammering each other. Battle on a massive scale.

The most interesting part of the book for me was the sinking of the Lusitania, it appears she was a legitimate military target and the one torpedo happened to hit armaments meant for the Allies. A massive loss of life followed, 1195 civilians, including 94 children, all of whom were unaware that they were travelling atop high explosives.

So, not the book I thought it would be but very interesting all the same.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

THE ZIMMERMANN TELEGRAM - Barbara Tuchman

























In January 1917 the German Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann, sent a cable to his Ambassador in Washington for transmission to the German Ambassador in Mexico.  In it, Zimmermann announced that Germany was going to start unrestricted submarine warfare on all shipping,Allied and neutral, in the Atlantic.  he then made a startling and audacious proposal: the German Ambassador was to offer the Mexican government an alliance directed against the United States and, furthermore, to ask the Mexicans to contact the Japanese to see if they could be persuaded to switch sides ( Japan was on the Allied side in the First World War).  British Intelligence decoded the telegram and passed it onto the Americans, with momentous consequences.

From the introduction by Margaret MacMillan

The momentous consequence was that this was the final catalyst that brought the United States into the First World War at a time when Britain was broke and was only months away from having to reach a settlement with the Germans.

This book backgrounds the German efforts to start a war between Mexico and the United States. Their thinking was if the US was tied up at home they would not have the inclination to fight in Europe even if the submarines were sinking tonnage of neutral shipping.

The US President, Woodrow Wilson , is shown to be so intellectually arrogant that all he could see was his vision for the world, not the reality of what was happening about him and he would not have come into the war without the translation of the telegram being supplied to him.

There is all the details of how the British with Russian assistance managed to obtain all the German codes which with some work enabled them to read all the German transmissions for the years of the war.

The British had one huge advantage which the Germans did not appreciate.  British cable ships had cut all the German transatlantic cables at the start of the war ( day two actually).  The Germans had to use British controlled cables or wireless but they were not duly alarmed because they were convinced that their codes could not be broken.
  
From the introduction by Margaret MacMillan.

This is fascinating from start to finish, its a short read ,170 pages, but reads like a thriller.  Great stuff.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES - Sapper

























Hugh Drummond's wife, Phyllis, is kidnapped by one of the nastiest villains  to have gone around, Irma Petersen.  Petersen has done this to entrap Drummond and his cronies to avenge the death of her husband Carl.

Rather than kill Phyllis outright Irma makes a treasure hunt out of her setting clues for Drummond to locate his wife.

This story is totally over the top as a precursor to the Bond books should be, with "daring do" that makes Bond look like a wimp.

Published in 1928 this is great fun like all this series.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

ANTHONY BLUNT his lives - Miranda Carter

























Miranda Carter traces Blunt's transformations, from young member of the Bloomsbury circle, to left wing intellectual, to camouflaged member of the establishment.  Until his treachery was made public, Blunt was celebrated for his ground breaking work on Poussin, Italian art, and Old Master drawings; at the Courtauld Institute he trained a whole generation of academics and curators.  And yet even  as he ascended from rebellion into outward conformity, he was homosexual when homosexuality was a crime, and a traitor when the penalty was death.

The last part of the above paragraph is a bit melodramatic seeing as he confessed to being a spy in 1964  but this wasn't made public until 1979.

This is an excellent read which the author has set it up in headings School boy, Undergraduate Recruit, Talent Spotter, Spy, Writer etc and has detailed his achievements and  treachery in each part of his life.

He spyed for the Russians and although I've seen written previously that he did not do too much damage and that his spying did not result in any deaths, unlike Philby, the truth is he worked hard for the Russians getting them as much intelligence as he could lay his hands on.

The underlying  story in this as it is in all the "Cambridge Spy Ring" books is Guy Burgess.  Burgess may have been a drunk but he was the true believer and he drew the others around him, especially Blunt it seems, they were true friends, and they always gravitated back to each other.

The second underlying story in this and in all the other books is the sheer incompetence of the British Intelligence Services. These people were all member of the communist party at one stage when Russia really was intent on world domination but they all got work with UK intelligence services or highly sensitive positions within government.  They were all 'establishment' except Cairncross, so they were just taken on.

Blunt worked for the Queen and did a great job as Surveyor of the Queens Pictures getting things is order when things were in total disarray and had a full life as an academic, not always popular but it was work of note and he was highly regarded by many.

What made me smile throughout is human nature, many of his life long friends suddenly could hardly remember meeting him once he was publicly named as a spy.

The author asks several times why Blunt was a spy.just as he was himself after he was disclosed publicly, she has no answer just as Blunt himself didn't, publicly anyway, but this is a interesting book about an interesting man who mastered compartmentalizing his life.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A RIGHT TO DIE - Rex Stout

























Susan was bright, petite, beautiful and white.  When she was murdered, all the clues pointed straight to her dapper, well educated fiance who was black.  The Homicide Bureau thought they had the case sewn up.  Until Nero Wolfe uncovered a new kind of motive for murder.

These are always a good read, the mystery is easily solved but I don't read them for the riddle more for the excellent dialogue and the humour that Stout brought to his novels.

This is of the usual high standard, a short read, perfect for a cold Sunday on the couch.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

THE DAYS TRILOGY- H.L. Mencken

























In 1936 at the age of  55, H. L. Mencken published s reminiscence of his Baltimore boyhood in The New Yorker.  With this modest beginning, Mencken embarked on what would become the Days Trilogy, a long and magnificent adventure in autobiography by America's greatest journalist.

This is actually three books in one binding an edition by  The Library of America.  It is a great social history.  Mencken starts writing about his boyhood from 1880 right through to when he is famous and travels the world.

As a Managing Editor he wasn't about inventing news to get the circulation ticking over so what is happening today has all been done before.  He admits that he has "gilded the lily'in these memoirs as well but that doesn't matter because what we get is several hundred pages of fascinating writing that at times makes you laugh out loud at times and shake your head in disbelief at others.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

THE BACHELORS OF BROKEN HILL - Arthur Upfield.

























Among the inhabitants of a properous mining town in New South Wales stalks a killer.  two elderly bachelors have already died from cyanide poisoning.

When Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, the half-aboriginal detective, arrives on the scene two months later he is faced with a cold trail- no motive, no clues- only vague descriptions of a woman who was on the scene at the time.

So Bony sits down to wait for what he feels must be the inevitable- a third killing...

This has excellent dialogue , very clever banter between the characters but if you hope to solve the mystery good luck as the solution comes completely out of the blue with no hint in the lead up.

This doesn't make it a dud book, just frustrating for the mystery reader who likes chance to have  a guess at the solution.

Unlike the earlier books in the series (published 1958) there is not the accent on Bony's mixed race which is not mentioned.

Worth the read but like a lot of Christie the cheat by the author is massive.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

WALL OF EYES - Margaret Millar

























Since the accident that left her blind, Kelsey has become more difficult than ever.  At least tis is what Alice told the psychiatrist.

Languishing in a house full of servants and unloving family, Kelsey has become bitter.  She was driving the car that night.  Geraldine did die, and Kelsey will never see again.  but that was two long years ago.  Time enough to heal.  So why wold Kelsey now want to end her life with a grain of morphine.

This is the first Margaret Millar book I have read and it is very, very dark, full of repulsive characters which makes for a fantastic read.

Even the Detective Inspector is next level strange when compared to the British versions of Marsh, Tey etc ( this is set in Toronto).

There is murder, there is a mystery and the solution keeps you guessing until the last few pages.

This is one of the best of this genre I've read in a long time.

Plus I discovered after buying the book that Ms. Millar was the wife of  Kenneth Millar, who under the pseudonym Ross MacDonald wrote the superb Lew Archer series, which is one of the best.

Margaret Millar is on the " must find" list.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Millar

THE CASE OF THE LATE PIG - Margery Allingham

























You go to a mans funeral in January and then he goes and dies again in June.

This is the mystery that Albert Campion and his irreverent man servant Lugg have to solve in this very funny wee book.  Its only 128 pages.

Not a great technical murder mystery but Allingham's stories generally aren't, its very character driven and makes for great reading.  It very nearly goes Wodehousian which is never  bad thing,.

I can highly recommend anything Allingham wrote and she is still in print which says a lot for her quality.  This was written in 1937.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH - Alexander Solzhenitsyn

























Solzhenitsyn's devastating picture of one day in the life of a prisoner in a remote Siberian labour camp has been hailed by the world's critics as an undisputed masterpiece.  This moving novel is a powerful expose of the corrupt conditions that Solzhenitsyn suffered in a concentration camp under Stalin and is a scathing indictment of Soviet bureaucracy.

I first read this many years ago and the idea of a crust of bread being the height of luxury stayed with me and was just as moving with this second reading.

These men are forced out to work in -27 degrees, their wildest fantasy is that the temperature will drop to -41 degrees meaning they don't have to go to work.

They have to build in these temperatures but have great difficulty because the mortar often freezes before it can be laid .

An incredible read, its very short, only 156 pages but it should be read by all generations.

The " great Soviet experiment" to be mocked for eternity







Monday, June 26, 2017

THE FABULOUS SHOWMAN - Irving Wallace

























He hoaxed, humbugged, dazzled and delighted the whole world with his magnificent ballyhoo of the unique and the wonderful!

Inventor of modern high pressure advertising, the man who discovered General Ton Thumb, the twenty-five inch man, P. T Barnum founded the famous circus that bore his name, made two fortunes and died worth a million pounds.

And as he died in  1891 so, a million pounds was a million pounds not a one bedroom apartment.

If there was ever a man who encapsulates the American drive for success it was Barnum.  He had vision, he had a mainline into the taste of the people and he had an enormous work ethic.

His first real success was the American Museum, then General Tom Thumb, then Chang and Eng , the Siamese twins then his big punt and huge earner the Swedish singer Jenny Lind.  This run of success lead to his first fortune.  Then he lost it. But he went at it again made another fortune and then finally the circus.

This book debunks the well known expression attributed to him  -"There's a sucker born every minute"- Wallace states that this slang "sucker" was not in use at the time Barnum was meant to have used it.  What he did say was - "the American people love to be hoaxed".

Barnum was friends with royalty, presidents and the wealthy.  Reading this he was generally fair to his performers and realized if people aren't compensated well, they won';t work well.

He was a very interesting man.  Wallace's writing leaves a bit to be desired, I found it full of fact but a dull read.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

FINAL CURTAIN - Ngaio Marsh

























Agatha Troy, world famous painter, is inveigled into accepting a commission to paint the 70 - year- old Sir Henry Acred, the Grand Old Man of the stage.  But just as she has completed her portrait, the old actor dies.

The dramatic circumstances of his death are such the Scotland Yard is called in- in the person of Troy's long absent husband, Chief-Inspector Roderick Alleyn.

This is an excellent story involving an exceptionally dysfunctional family.  The story of the family and Troy's involvement with them while completing her commission is more entertaining than the solving of the mystery.

As always Marsh is outstanding.

Monday, June 19, 2017

GONEVILLE - Nick Bollinger

























This is a 'memoir' not a history and for me it is a aide memoire.  The book is set mostly in the 1970's telling of Bollinger's growing up in Wellington, joining a band and travelling the country insistently for meals and love, it wasn't for wealth.

The aide memoire for me is I moved to Wellington in 1977 as a 17 year old and this brings back many many memories of how raw and  fun Wellington was for a young chap from Timaru.

As well an outline of Nick Bollinger's life it is part social history of New Zealand and a history of New Zealand bands at the time.  If you tried to explain today  to a 25 year old how in the late 70's early 80's you could not go to the bar in a nightclub and get a drink, it was waitress service only, they would think you're mad. Or just ignore you as really really tedious but it was true.

The band he traveled with for two years "Rough Justice' rubbed shoulders with all the muso's travelling the brewery circuit and there are delightful little tidbits , Ricky Ball's band history before Hello Sailor for example. There are great little pieces like this that are news to me.

Rough Justice was a Rick Bryant Band.  I never saw them I don't think but I saw the Jive Bombers lots and I can say Rick Bryant has never taken anything of himself home, he leaves it all for the audience.

There are many Auckland memories for me as well  as I move there as a 19 year old in late 1979. There is a lot of detail regarding the un-licenced clubs that tried to do the right thing for music but could not survive without a liquor licence which was impossible to obtain.  This was a real shame and was the brewery lobby that prevented these entrepreneurs from making a dollar.

I spent hundreds of hours at the Gluepot and all the city pubs that had music.  I had the best nicest piss taking of me in Queen Street by the Topp Twins when I was a young Police Constable.  This book brought all these memories back and I can thank Nick Bollinger for this.

Last but not least Bollinger saw 'Little Feat' play at the Wellington Town Hall, bastard, there will not be many New Zealanders who can say they have seen that outfit.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

THE ROAD TO LITTLE DRIBBLING - Bill Bryson

























Twenty years after Notes From A Small Island was published it was suggested by Bill Bryson's publisher that a follow up be written.  I am very glad that it has been.  I love Bryson's easy rambling style, full of humour and information that you won't find probably anywhere else.

In this book he re-visits some places from his original book but this mostly contains places that he hasn't written about before.

He starts in Bognor Regis and ends at Cape Wrath.  A line is drawn between these two locations and is referred to as the Bryson line.  He works his trip east and west of this  entirely self created geometrical divide.

Bill Bryson is the teacher I never had, full of information with a sense of humour that never stops, read and enjoy.


Saturday, June 17, 2017

CLOUDS OF WITNESS - Dorothy L. Sayers

























The victim was engaged to marry Lady Mary Wimsey, Lord Peter's sister.  The man accused of murdering him is the Duke of Denver, Lord Peters brother.  And his trial - in the House of Lords- is about to begin.  The the Duke refuses to help his defence in anyway.

Published in 1926 this story involves the entire Wimsey clan.  This is one of the first stories by Sayers and she introduces characters that remain until her last Wimsey book.

When it comes to 'golden age' detective writing Sayers is on a totally different level than most and this was at a time when there are many superb authors writing the genre.

This as normal has great language, the usual strong and interesting female leads and Wimsey doesn't go 'full Bertie Wooster " too often.

This is a very good multi-layered story; you can not go wrong reading anything Dorothy Sayers has ever written.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

WHY SHOOT A BUTLER? - Georgette Heyer

























It is a complete mystery why anyone would choose to murder the trusted old butler of Norton Manor. Barrister turned amateur detective, Frank Amberly, has reason to believe the shooting involves the nervy young lady discovered at the scene of the crime, a snooping gentleman in the halls of Greythorne and then a second dead body.

Published in 1933 this is a run of the mill whodunnit and the first I've read by Ms Heyer, who was better known at the time for her historical novels.

The motive isn't hard to figure out and the the killer isn't either, its just a wait to see what some part minor characters play in the whole thing.  The detective Amberly isn't particularly likable either being a bit of a smart arse without any humour.

Not a great tale but the dialogue was sharp enough to warrant reading more of Heyers crime books.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

THE WAR BEHIND THE WIRE - John Lewis-Stempel

























On capture, British officers and men were routinely told by the Germans: ' For you the war is over'. Nothing could be further from the truth.  British prisoners of war merely exchanged one barbed-wire battleground for another.....

It was a war with heart breaking consequences; more than 12,000 PoWs died, many of them murdered, to be buried in shallow unmarked graves.

This books is based on contemporary journals and memoirs of the prisoners that survived and were eventually returned to Britain.

The book is broken down in , "being captured", "being a prisoner", 'the camp world", surviving in the camps", "escaping" and "returning home".  No matter what chapter you read, the suffering is heart breaking.  Large parts of the book are direct quotes taken from diaries etc, stories told without exaggeration, just facts.  Individual Germans showed kindness and some humanity but the regime was almost inhumanly cruel until it was apparent that the war was lost and then back tracking became the norm.

Conditions varied from camp to camp, but in general British PoWs were made to suffer and who without the Red Cross and private care packages many more would have starved to death. Prisoners were put to work in salt mine, coal mines and multi digit sub-zero temperatures, much of which was denied by the German authorities.

Reading how the PoWs were treated is sickening as a whole but as a document it is enlightening.  I've read that the terms of the Versailles Treaty sowed the seeds for the Second World War but this does not explain  the cruelty of the German nation as a whole toward opposing combatants in their custody during the Great War.











Monday, June 5, 2017

TRAIN - Tom Zoellner

























Tom Zoellner travels the globe to tell the story of the innovation and sociological impact of the railway technology that transformed the world- anbd could well change it again.  From the frigid trans-Siberian railroad to the antiquated Indian railways to the Japanese- style bullet trains.

This is more a series of essays that have then been bound into a book.  It starts strongly with a rail journey from the north of Scotland to Lands End with interesting history on development of the steam engine and observations of the passing Scottish and English countrysides.

The second is essay is about the Indian rail system, a system with truly staggering numbers- passengers carried, freight carried, number of schedules trains, staff employed and on and on.  A fact I found that most fascinating is - the steel rails in India, particularly those nearest to urban stations, must be frequently replaced because poor people have the habit of defecating on them..... The uric acid in human feces gradually eats through the steel fasteners... that hold the rails onto their ties.

The third chapter is New York to Los Angels and runs nearly a third of the book.  The Russian section is disappointing, the author gets bitten by a rabid dog and has to abandon the trip half way through it.

There are chapters that follow on China into Tibet, South America and the final chapter supposedly about the AVE rapid trains in Spain but it segues off into Americas plan for rapid rail.

Potentially this could have been much better than its turned out.  There is a standalone book on the Indian rail system, instead we get these essays that have a rushed feeling about them.  There is nothing wrong with the writing or facts but it feels like a series of New Yorker pieces.

As mentioned, I was disappointed the Russian journey was shortened, I was looking forward to comparing it to Eric Newby's The Big Red Train Ride - but I'm assuming the author didn't get bitten deliberately just to annoy me.

This makes the perfect bathroom book, you can dip into into without having to retain any thread.








Sunday, June 4, 2017

SWEET DANGER - Margery Allingham

























Driving home from Italy, Guffy Randall passed by the Hotel Beauregard at Mentone, where ... he saw a small man, armed with pistol, climbing out of a ground floor window.  Guffy, who knew the manager well, stopped to tell him about the incident, and learnt that several other suspicious characters were also in the hotel.  After inquiries these turned out to be Albert Campion and two friends engaged in in a fantastic and fateful pursuit of  a European Crown.

What transpires is a very good espionage tale set in the British countryside . The search for a European Crown is actually British Intelligence Services attempting to locate a deed to a European state that would give them access to a port and oil (sounds familiar).

This an adventure in the style of Buchan, but with lots of humour. Allingham writes great characters; my favourite is Campions man servant Magersfontein Lugg, known simply as Lugg retired burglar, and as usual she has good strong female characters with sundry weird ones thrown into the mix.

Published in 1933 this is great fun






Sunday, May 28, 2017

BREAD - Ed McBain

























Elizabeth screamed again, a long blood curdling scream that echoed through the squad room.  the horror of it gut-wrenched even the detectives of the 87th Precinct;..

Yet they played the tapes of the mass assault again and again.  It could be th best clue yet to a mess of arson, dope, homicide and porn.

The above blurb makes this run of the mill police procedural sound much more interesting that it turns out to be.

McBain is solid but this is one of his lesser efforts and without the outrageously bigoted  and smelly Detective Ollie Weekes it would be totally forgettable.  I'd recommend giving this a miss unless you are a McBain completist.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

CASTLE GAY - John Buchan

























Jaikie and Dougal, two  past members of the Glasgow Street gang, The Gorbals Die Hards adopted by Mr Dickson McCunn visit McCunn at his country retirement home in a novel is set six years after the first book that introduced these characters, 'Huntingtower".

From there the two young men take off tramping. At the first nights accommodation they find a newspaper magnate who has recently escaped from a kidnapping where he was mistaken for a local politician.
.
They are asked to go to the country estate Castle Gay, of the newspaper owner, Mr Craw and arrange for him to be uplifted by his staff.  On arrival at the castle it is found that this is not possible due to citizens of a European country wanting Mr Craw for their own purposes , to legitimize there control of the country and by another group wanting to re-install the legitimate ruler through the use of his newspaper empire.

This is a 'thriller'' but its all boys own stuff, where doing the right thing and being a decent person will see the good guys win in the end.  There is great descriptions of the Scottish countryside, great dialogue and its just 'nice'.  There's nothing wrong with doing the right thing and decency winning, in fact its something I admire.

This isn't in the league of the Hannay books, certainly not as serious but a very pleasant read.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

MR JELLY'S BUSINESS - Arthur W. Upfield

























The car lies wrecked and abandoned near the world's longest fence, the " rabbit " fence, in the wheat belt of Western Australia.  Of its owner there is no sign.  Has George Loftus simply decamped, for reasons of his own? Or is it a case of murder? Detective Inspector Bonaparte suspects the worst, and is determined to find the body - and the murderer.

From 1937 we have this 'Bony' mystery.  This is the first of this series I've read, although I saw the television series many years ago starring James Laurenson.

Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte is half Aboriginal  / half European and a brilliant detective. The mixed race issue is a factor in the story, generally with abuse towards "black fellas"and I assume this was quite a punt having him as the main character in a series written in Australia between 1928 and 1964.

This novel has two mysteries running in tandem which tie in beautifully at the end.  The story is set rurally and centres around the small town pub and weekend dances that were a regular part of Australian and New Zealand life until not that long ago.

Initially Upfields writing took some getting used to, but once I got used to the cadence, I thoroughly enjoyed it,.  There is good characterization for such a short story ( 177 pages) and a lot of humour.

Recommended if you are into this genre.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

KING SOLOMON'S MINES - H.Rider Haggard

























Allan Quatermain is hired to travel into the African interior to locate the estranged brother of one of his client's.

The tale is one of over coming hardship,surviving using their wits when confronted by an extremely blood thirsty tribal chieftain and the location of  a massive treasure.  Even after locating fabulous wealth they still have to escape a final threat to their lives.

This was published in 1885 and as an adventure story it stands up fairly well today.  Attitudes have changed of course but if you are able to read the book for what it is, an adventure yarn, rather than compare today's more enlightened attitudes to whats written you will enjoy it.

The dedication says it all -  To all the big and little boys who read it.

This book is nothing like the truly appalling movie of the same name based on this book starring Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger.


Sunday, May 14, 2017

THE SINGING SANDS - Josephine TEY

























Inspector Grant travels north to Scotland for a holiday by train; he needs the break as stress , manifesting itself as chronic claustrophobia is slowly sending him mad.

As the train berths he is on hand when a passenger in a  compartment near his is found dead.  While observing this discovery he inadvertently picks up a newspaper from this compartment and later discovers a piece of verse scrawled on it in pencil.

While fishing on a friends estate on holiday he becomes somewhat haunted by the dead man and the lines of verse so for his mental well being begins a private investigation into the death.

This is excellent, Tey writes beautifully,with great humour and of course constructs a very good murder mystery.

As the previous owner of my edition has written on the cover- "Jolly good, well written".

Josephine Tey, the pseudonym of Elizabeth MacIntosh is now one of my favourite detective fiction writers. If you see her stuff about, grab it, it will be mostly second hand as unfortunately great swathes of writing talent from the last 100 years are just not  getting re-issued.  This is her last book published in 1952 the year she died aged 56 of cancer.






Wednesday, May 10, 2017

THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS - John Wyndam







































Bill Masen wakes up in hospital expecting his eyes to have their bandages removed and his sight restored after being struck in the face by a poisonous plant.

What he is initially unaware of is that the previous night the majority of the worlds population had viewed a meteor shower.  This next morning the majority of the worlds population are permanently blind, million upon millions of his fellow citizens are blind.

Being one of the few people still with sight he sees civilization break down within days.

To add to what is already the end of the world as it was known deadly plants with the ability to walk called 'Triffids" are killing anyone who comes within range of them.

This book tells the story of the sighted few and their survival, battling the plants, plague and each other, knowing that they have to start the human race again.  Countries and races no longer exist, the devastation has caused such a loss of life that all there are is humans.

I remember hearing this as a radio drama when I was a kid and it was scary.  I've just read the book as a 56 year old and its scary.  The most unsettling for me is the blindness, something I dread.

This is an outstanding book, there are a few questions asked by the author that some would say are particularly relevant to the world today, the way we treat the planet etc, but mostly this is just a thrilling read.  Its so good it must be due to be made into a movie again and have the story completely destroyed.

Monday, May 8, 2017

A THREE PIPE PROBLEM - Julian Symons

























" Julian Symons provides a stylish spin-off from the Sherlockian revival.  It tells of a fading actor playing the Great Detective in a television series who persuades himself that by following in the master's  footsteps he can solve a string of apparently unrelated murders:  the Karate Killings."

Once you get past the absurdity of the 'hero's fantasy you are still left with a quite absurd story filled with very unsympathetic characters.

This story was published in 1975 and I assume written just prior and as a 70's book its full of slang particular to that time i.e 'birds' 'poofs'.  Language that has been consigned to the rubbish dump as it should be.  I read lots of books published much earlier and they sound more contemporary than this.

So this is a short 'entertainment' which I would recommend giving a miss.  Evidently the author wrote many mysteries that come highly recommended but this is all a bit silly plus its solvable three quarters of the way through.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

THE DOOR WITH SEVEN KEYS - Edgar Wallace

























"Detective Dick Martin is leaving Scotland Yard.  His final job is to bring in Lew Pheeney, who is wanted in connection with a bank robbery.  When Lew confesses to trying to open a dead man's tomb, however, Martin must unravel a mystery.  He races to find the connection between an attractive librarian, a mad scientist and the vanished heir to a vast fortune, as everyone becomes entangled in a web of fraud, deceit, torture and murder".

This started off as a standard murder mystery and then segued into a Gothic horror and then back to a plain old 'who dunnit', which was all very strange.

The story is interesting enough but there are some strange quirks about the writing.  The 'hero' Dick Martin is known on the force as 'Slick', a nick name, Wallace refers to him in some paragraphs as 'Dick' and other's as 'Slick'.  I've never come across this before and for me it was annoying, having the major character known under two different names.

The way the chapters are constructed, they are very episodic,would make for a great television adaptation which was unlikely to have been the authors intention seeing as this was published in 1926.

As stated above it try's to be  a horror story and a murder mystery and falls a bit short on both accounts.  The highlight was some great dialogue between characters but this wasn't enough to save this from a 5/10.


Tuesday, May 2, 2017

THE RED HOUSE MYSTERY - A.A. Milne






























"Far from the gentle slopes of the Hundred Acre Wood lies The Red House, the setting for A.A. Milne's only detective story, where secret passages, uninvited guests, a sinister valet and a puzzling murder lay the foundations for a classic crime caper.

When the local police prove baffled, it is up to a guest at a local inn to appoint himself 'Sherlock Holmes' and, together with his friend and loyal 'Watson', delve deeper into mysteries of the dead man."

The author, best known for writing the Winnie the Pooh books was hugely prolific as a writer who wrote one detective story and this is it from 1922.

This is just great fun, featuring the old 'English Country House' where someone gets murdered early on and then the mystery is solved by some nosy individual.

The nosy individual in this case is a complete amateur who happens along shortly after the killing,and drags in a friend to assist.

I was rapt to find a copy of this, I knew it existed but its not something you would see often in second hand stores.  I assume its available on Kindle so if you like this type of story I can recommend it.




Sunday, April 30, 2017

HAMLET,REVENGE - Michael Innes

























"The murder was planned, deliberately and at obvious risk, to take place bang in the middle of a private performance of Hamlet.

Behind the scenes there were thirty-one suspects.  In the select and distinguished audience twenty-seven. 'Suspicions' said Appleby, 'crowd thick and fast upon us.' "

I read the first 50 odd pages and was on the verge of discarding this but as it's written in four parts- Prologue, Development, Denouement and Epilogue, I decided to hang in until Part 2.  I'm glad I did as the story picked up from there until a very good ending.

The trouble I found with Part 1 was that it is  99.9% about the setting up of this private 'Hamlet' performance at a grand country estate,  Having virtually no knowledge of anything Shakespearean the entire 75 pages was a struggle until as stated Part 2, where it becomes a standard 'who dunnit'.

Innes has created a good 'Inspector' with Mr Appleby who goes about his work with some humour and a lot of patience.  The second niggle however is the 'cast of thousands' that are suspect.  Even though the story is set in a castle bigger than Blenheim Palace thirty odd suspects is a bit many and gives the author the chance to pad the tale out with speculation.

This has a very good ending, with all the information in the story as how the crime is committed; the reader just has to pay attention keeping track of the movements of several dozen people.

Again, these English country estates are lethal, hardly a weekend seems to go by without a murder or two at one.

Michael Innes was the pseudonym of J.I.M. Stewart an academic of some note the author of several novels and biographies under his real name and the 'Appleby' crime series under this assumed name.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._I._M._Stewart

























Friday, April 28, 2017

THE NURSING HOME MURDER - Ngaio Marsh

























" Sir John Phillips, the Harley Street surgeon, and his beautiful nurse Jane Harden are almost too nervous to operate.  The emergency case on the table before them is the Home Secretary- and they both have very good, personal reasons to wish him dead.

Within hours he does die, although the operation was a complete success, and Chief Detective Inspector Alleyn must find out why....".

This is a good solid who dunnit from Ngaio Marsh, she writes very well and the cheat, i.e. the clue that would have given the reader a chance, is no where as outrageous as something Agatha Christie would throw in.  The reader can have an educated guess but without a bit of missing information , that's all it is,a guess.

As always, very entertaining for those of us who like our detective fiction from a simpler, more well mannered time.




Tuesday, April 25, 2017

PIGEON PIE - Nancy Mitford

























"At the outbreak of World War II, Lady Sophia Garfield dreamt of becoming a beautiful spy..

But she never imagined having to cope with a nest of German agents in her own home.

Or they would murder her maid, and hold her beloved bulldog hostage.."

This is very funny, not as sophisticated farce as her friend Evelyn Waugh was writing but still very good.  She has a good crack at the Upper Class and all religions, especially "Popery".

This was written in 1939 during the "phony war" period and Mitford apologizes in this second edition for any perceived flippancy.

This was Mitford's third book written before her two best known, "The Pursuit of Love " and " Love in a Cold Climate" and you can see with this effort she just about had the formula right.

Not a deep read but again an insight into the how the Upper class lived between the wars.


















Sunday, April 23, 2017

BULLDOG DRUMMOND - Sapper

























"Hungry for adventure following the First World War, Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond begins a career as the invincible protectorate of his country.  He is sent racing off to investigate what at first looks like blackmail but turns out to be more complicated and dangerous.  The rescue of a kidnapped millionaire, found with his thumbs horribly mangles, leads Drummond to the discovery of a political conspiracy of awesome scope and villainy, masterminded by the ruthless Carl Peterson".

This is very good, published in 1920 it is the first of this series and you can see why Ian Fleming used these Sapper books as a blue print for his James Bond.

There is of course  amazing luck for our hero and his associates but this is fiction so you go along for the ride. The criminal mastermind is here as is the "femme fatale" along with the love interest for the hero, great fun to read.

Something that surprises me is how violent these books are given their time but thinking about it many readers were only two years out of the trenches so these stories are nothing to what they will have experienced.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

PERIL AT END HOUSE - Agatha Christie

























' Accident Number Four:  the bullet that missed her head by inches.

But the would be murderer makes a grave mistake- he shoots at his victim within a dozen yards of Hercule Poirot.

Published in 1932 this is an above average Christie, she has good humour and general banter between Poirot and Hastings.  This was written before she got sick of her hero and started writing by rote.  The plot is clever and doesn't have an outlandish Christie cheat.

I've been reading these since I was about thirteen,  some are dross , some are great stories but  they are never too taxing and an all round fun read at the end of a busy day.

Fun fact about this copy, its a 1973 edition and the previous owner has put a plastic cover on it  like dear old mum used to have to on the school exercise books, so it is pristine,-who ever it was was a total fan.


Monday, April 17, 2017

HARP - John Gregory Dunne

























A memoir or the best conversation you will ever imagine.

This starts with Dunne receiving the dreaded 4.30 a.m. phone call informing him that one of his brothers has taken his own life.  He ruminates on his  and his brothers life, being the two youngest they were close.  This first stanza ends with:

"Stephen had a funeral mass with all the trimmings.  The priest who had christened him nearly forty-fours years earlier delivered the homily. I had hired a car and a driver and we left for New York and our flight back to Los Angeles a few hours after the service.  On the ride to the airport there was one terrible moment.  I started to doze in the back seat, and suddenly just before I feel asleep, I fought myself awake.  I wondered and wonder still, if poor Stephen, dear Stephen, had one last moment like that, one moment when he realized he was slipping away, one moment when he wanted it all back."

After read that, one of the saddest paragraphs I've ever read, I was hooked and went along for the journey.  Dunne is startling honest about his relationship with his family and the writers life.

He was ( deceased 2003) a relentless observer and note taker of his observations.  He revisits his notes recalling the time and place he made the notes.  Most never make it to a novel or screenplay or book but they are all important at the time and the explanation is fascinating.

This is a 10/10 and I recommend his novel "True Confessions" its one of the best.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

CHAMPAGNE FOR ONE - Rex Stout
























\
"Archie Goodwin, was invited to a lavish dinner party - even though the billionaire hostess did not have fond memories of him.  It was a casual evening among gorgeous society girls - until champagne became a murder weapon."

The usual high standard of banter between Wolfe and Goodwin with great subtle humour.  Its not in the top rank of Wolfe stories but its still better than most.

An excellent Easter Saturday read.

Friday, April 14, 2017

A PASSAGE TO INDIA - E M Forster

























This revolves around Dr. Aziz  and three British citizens in India between the wars.

On a trip to the Marabar Caves one of the group, Miss Adela Quested believes she is sexually assaulted by Dr. Aziz who is subsequently arrested and put on trial.

His arrest and trial brings to the surface all the racism and prejudices that already exist but are usually kept hidden behind a thin veil of manners. The people of different races revert to their own race in  their attitudes.

What surprised me most is how the Indians didn't murder most of the British in their beds and kick any remaining out.  So many of the British that lorded it over the 'natives' were third rate little despots who thought they were gentry.  The arrogance is terrible; I found the same thing in Orwells 'Burmese Days".

Once I picked this and started it I was drawn in immediately, the writing is fantastic and it is an effortless read.  I found even though I enjoyed this I had no empathy with any of the characters even Dr. Aziz the victim.  I think this was mainly because they are all so human with their petty prejudices bred into them by race and religion.

This is a fantastic book and deserves its place on all the " best/ greatest novels lists".



Sunday, April 9, 2017

TEMPLE TOWER - Sapper

























Bulldog Drummond is back.  Out of 1929 Hugh Drummond and his pals stick their noses into the business of new neighbour who behaviour is 'strange'.

This "sicking their nose in" uncovers a 25  year old crime which is leaving a trail of corpses in in wake.

Again, a good light read and a time capsule of behaviours and thinking from the time period this was published.

Friday, April 7, 2017

THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD - John Le Carre

























" Alec Leamas is a 50 year old professional who has grown weary and stale in espionage.  he longs to 'come in from the cold'.  One by one his agents in East Germany have been systematically liquidated- with an uncanny deliberation- by Mundt, his opposite number on the other side of the Berlin 'Wall'.....

Recalled to London, Leamas is given a chance of re-in-statement. A subtle and torturous plot has been evolved.

This is a great book, not just a great spy novel.  The only reason I rate "Tinker Tailor.." higher is that book has Smiley in a starring role, whereas he is only a bit player in this and I have soft spot for George.

The plotting in this is outstanding, if you are reading it for the first time, you'll be thinking about what is happening right until the end.

The sign this is a classic is even though I know the story the book stands multiple readings.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

THE FRANCHISE AFFAIR - Josephine Tey

























In her introduction to this edition Antonia Fraser states:

..."that Josephine Tey, whose life was outwardly sad in many ways, including her early death from cancer, did find fulfillment in her books.  Certainly they will live so long as classic crime fiction is read." 

On a spring evening Robert Blair , a small town solicitor is contemplating going home for the day when he receives a telephone call from one of two women who life at a local house called The Franchise.

Marion Sharpe wishes to engage his services to represent her and her mother who have been accused of abducting and torturing a 15 year old girl.  As the accusation sound so ludicrous Blair accepts.  It is not until he finds that the victim can describe minutely details within the house that could only be known by someone who has been inside. The problem is his clients deny that she has ever been inside the premises.

This scenario sets off a trail of events until the story reaches in climax in Court.

This is a good story, there is a couple of loose ends not very well explained away, but over all a great mystery and very well written, it kept me guessing until the last few pages.


Sunday, March 26, 2017

THE RIDDLE OF THE SANDS - Robert Erskine Childers

























This is one of the original great spy stories, published in 1903.

Davies is yachting off the Friesland Coast and meets a German who attempts to wreck him on a sandbar.  After this incident Davies contacts his friend Carruthers to come an assist on finding out what is happening in the area.

The two explore the coast and come to believe that Germany is planning to use the area to launch an invasion of Britain.

This is not a James Bond story, its more a sea story but the tension mounts in small increments until the finale.

Erskine  Childers wrote this book in an attempt to alert the British Government to the idea that it was Germany that posed the big threat to Britain rather than France.  In this he was successful and Britain put in place mechanisms to protect its self in the North Sea.

This is highly entertaining, informative and is a classic spy story but not guns, women and wine.

Erskine Childers was an interesting man in his own right, author, soldier and politician.  He was executed by firing squad in 1922  aged 52 for the unlicensed possession of a pistol that had been gifted to him by Michael Collins.  His son Erskine Hamilton Childers served as Ireland's fourth President.




















Sunday, March 19, 2017

CARDS ON THE TABLE - Agatha Christie

























I enjoy a  good Agatha Christie, the accent is on "good" here, this is not a good one.

Five people are in a room. four are playing cards, one is observing; the observer is murdered  during the card game.  So, there are four suspects all who are believed to have previously murdered.  Poirot and an exceptionally dull policeman set out to find out the killer.

Even for a poor Christie this is ridiculous, it feels like it was dictated while she was peeling potatoes. There is even a character, a female writer of detective fiction who spends the entire book disparaging the genre.

The saving grace is this was a short read, one trip on the Interlander ferry saw it off and it was only finished as it was all I had to hand.


Monday, March 13, 2017

WITHIN FOUR WALLS - Major M C C Harrison & Capt. H A Cartwright

























In 1914 the two authors were taken prisoner by the Germans and both then spent the next four years making numerous escape attempts, being recaptured many times before finally being successful in 1917 & 1918.

Part of this book is part of an official account they had to provide to the War Office.  The remainder of the book was written by the authors in 1928-29.

The tales of ingenuity used are amazing, as is the courage displayed by these two and others who continually wanted to get "home" with the sole purpose of re-joining their regiments to get back fighting.

One particular frustrating attempt ended when after walking across Germany one of the authors thought he had made it to Holland; he walked into a village very pleased with himself and was promptly arrested, he had made it to Holland but had got confused and walked back in Germany.

Materials for the escaped were manufactured in camps and prisons, sent in relief parcels from wives and families, items were sent in ingenious fashion.

Every time they were caught they were sentenced by criminal courts to terms of imprisonment so they spent years in various forms of detention.

Many of the escape attempts sound like Boys Own Adventures and it is easy to forget the slaughter that was occurring at the time. Prior to his capture one of the authors was with a group of 1000 men on Monday by Tuesday there were only 300 of them still alive, truly unimaginable this type of killing.

This isn't  well written, its tedious in patches but its true and was occurring only 100 years ago.

The book was published in 1930 and the edition I have is a Penguin from 1940.









Thursday, March 9, 2017

BULL-DOG DRUMMOND AT BAY - Sapper

























Another preposterous adventure from H C McNeile aka 'Sapper'.  Published in 1935 it finds our hero Hugh Drummond involved in a plot that has military secrets, nasty Germans and a Russian killer.

Its totally over the top but as with all these stories very entertaining and a 'time capsule' of the between the wars period.

Harmless fun and the author is nowhere near as derogatory towards Jews and the non white races in this volume, which removes much of the cringe factor of the earlier stories.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

MEMOIRS OF A BRITISH AGENT - R.H. Bruce Lochart

























The story of a young British diplomat posted as a vice-counsel to Moscow in 1912 and where he stayed under various guises until his arrest and expulsion in 1918 after the Bolshevik Revolution.

His first posting was an official one where he met and mingled with the Tsarist Government and was present into the Fist World War. He was then sent home for an extra-marital dalliance.

He then returned in an official unofficial "neither confirm or deny" capacity to act as a liaison between the Bolsheviks and the allies.  He stayed in this role until he was arrested where he was accused of  plotting to have Lenin assassinated.

This was published in 1932 so has none of the intelligence work that Bruce Lockhart was involved in in Russia.  The details of this may never be known as his papers as of 2003 "disappeared". He worked in Russia with fellow agent, Sidney Reilly and it his son, Robin Bruce Lockhart wrote the book  Reilly :Ace of Spies and who supplies the Introduction to this edition.

But despite no detail of his spying this is fascinating.  The author met regularly with Trotsky and other members of the revolutionary government and gives great insight into the mentality of the committee.

The book contains a huge amount of information more than a casual reader like myself could understand without  real background knowledge but its still worth the effort as a time capsule.
Very interesting.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R._H._Bruce_Lockhart