So I’ve hit a little pothole here in the superhighway of reading. I suppose it began back when I was reading The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Some novels are just better interleaved with different books or else the sameness of tone can get a bit too much. Well, I found Rand to be like that and diluted her with Cynthia Ozick’s Heir to the Glimmering World (published as The Bear Boy in the UK). Now the Ozick was reasonably enjoyable; excellent quality of writing as one might expect from a Pulitzer prize winner, but highly episodic in structure, something I’ve noticed before as being far more prevalent in American novels than British ones. And the story focuses on a Jewish family of startling unloveliness, all spikes and prickles and subterfuge with a helping of despotism and madness on the side. It was just about holding me intellectually but once I’d reached a point of no return with the Rand, I decided to plow forward with The Fountainhead exclusively, because otherwise one gets the sense with a 700-page novel that one might never finish it. So I put the Ozick down and have been notably reluctant to pick it up again.
After Rand I needed a mental palate cleanser and so read a crime fiction novel by Andrew Taylor, Naked to the Hangman. Now this was fantastic. Taylor is a relatively prolific writer and so has a number of series to his name. This novel was something like the eighth in his Lydmouth series, good old-fashioned police procedural stuff, set in the 1950s in a small town near the Welsh border. The stories focus on Detective Inspector Richard Thornhill, married, ambitious, good at his job, and to some extent on Jill Francis, a newspaper journalist with whom he conducts an affair over the course of the novels (it’s over by this one). The affair is an ongoing subplot that is woven around the different cases that provide the focus for each individual novel and I only mention it because it is so well done. The atmosphere of the 1950s is brilliantly conveyed and I love his writing style, so clean and crisp and economic. This novel saw Jill and Edith Thornhill forming an uneasy alliance to help Richard, who seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. They don’t know it, but some old trouble he got caught up in as a rookie officer in Palestine has returned to haunt him and his life is in danger. At the same time tensions are running high in the town over the annual youth dance and the steadily rising floodwaters. It was a great read and one of those undemanding, thoroughly enjoyable novels.
After that I still had a taste for crime and so I began In The Woods by Tara French. I’d heard so much about this novel and everything positive, but after the neat, concise style of Andrew Taylor the writing seemed a bit overheated at first. Not that I mean this in a particularly critical way; it was just an abrupt change of style. So I put it to one side briefly to read Molly Fox’s Birthday, which as you know I loved. After the Deirdre Madden, the writing felt fine in the French book and I quickly got into the story. Now those of you who regularly visit this blog know I have a bit of a problem with terrible things happening to children. And because it’s dramatic and designed to keep readers turning the pages, the plotline of terrible things happening to children is utterly pervasive in crime fiction these days. You have to go fifty years back in the past to a time when children weren’t the intolerably precious commodity they are now to find a story where they’re irrelevant. For those people who haven’t already read the French novel, the narrator is Rob Ryan, a detective in the Dublin police force, who was involved in an unresolved crime during his childhood. At the age of twelve he and his two best friends went into the local woods and the two best friends disappeared, never to be found again. Rob – or Adam as he was in those days – was recovered much later on, apparently unharmed but covered in blood and suffering from amnesia. Now another crime has been committed in the same place, the murder of a twelve-year-old girl whose body has been found on an ancient sacrifical stone altar, which disquietingly shows faint traces of blood that may come from the old crime. Rob has never recovered his memory, but as the detectives hunt down the killer, and Rob continues to hide his former identity, so the sense of both external and internal menace intensifies.
This is a very good book, as many other bloggers have testified. So piercing is the sense of intolerable threat that I found myself having nightmares about it last night. Now how embarrassing is that? To be my age and still to be prone to nightmares after scary books! And of course now I don’t know what to do. I want to keep reading, as it’s usually best to go through the fire and out the other side, and I’d like to know what happens. But at the same time, I have a strong inclination to set it aside again for a couple of days because frankly I’m shattered and reading is supposed to be fun. The obvious thing to do would be to retrieve the Ozick and keep going with that, but I can’t say that it appeals right now. It’s also a spiky, uncomfortable sort of book, and what I would like is something soothing and, if possible, funny. Has anybody got any good ideas? I’d prefer something short, fiction rather than non-fiction, and I don’t really want something frivolous, like P. G. Wodehouse, more something charming and kind. Any thoughts?