Three Types of Awe

wind in the willowsA couple of weeks ago audible suckered me in with a big sale, and I found myself purchasing The Wind in the Willows for a bargain price. I had never read this book as either a child or a mother, although I must have seen countless bits of adaptations on the television. It did have undeniable charm, with Ratty, Moley, Badger and Toad all as I had gathered they would be from osmosis of the general culture. The rather delightful mash-up of fantasy and reality gave me that frivolous feeling, and I couldn’t help but ponder foolish questions, like, who was manufacturing and supplying small armaments to water rats, and how could Mr Toad brush his hair? But I did realise that was beside the point. If you want to read a rational book, you don’t pick one that features talking animals.

After a while, I realised that Wind in the Willows is essentially made up of two different books, which is why it made no great name for itself until A. A. Milne filleted out the plotline concerning the exploits of Toad and turned it into a successful play. The other side of the story is harder to summarize, but it essentially concerns Rat and Mole as they experience certain iconic emotional states – the experience of friendship, for instance, and the pull of home, as well as the lure of wanderlust. Because I was listening to this book at night when I’d gone to bed, it was inevitable that I should drift at certain points, and so it was with some sense of disorientation that I came to in the middle of the chapter entitled ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’.

In this episode, Ratty and Mole have been searching all night for the otter’s lost son, Portly. They take to the river in their boat, and finally, in the mystical light of dawn, come upon young Portly, curled up asleep at the feet of the great Pan. The narration goes completely bonkers at this point, evoking what I eventually understood was a state of divine awe. And it occurred to me to wonder whether awe of this nature, the experience of the sublime, is ever present in contemporary children’s books? Awe seems so much more secular these days, if it exists at all. I couldn’t help but feel that if Portly had been discovered thus in a more up to date book, Pan would have found himself under a paedophilia charge.

the magus of hayI found myself thinking about awe again, however, whilst reading a very recently published crime fiction novel. Phil Rickman’s The Magus of Hay features Merrily Watkins, a diocesan exorcist working from Hereford cathedral. This is apparently the twelfth novel in a series concerning Merrily, which has an interest in alternative spirituality, paganism, and generally unexplained potentially superstitious religious occurrences. Merrily herself held a somewhat wishy-washy position, a good Christian woman who comes to offer a few prayers for those who feel troubled by the dark side, uncertain herself whether they will do any good or not. However, Phil Rickman’s interest in all matters of the occult and alternative spirituality was clearly heavily researched, respectful, curious and exploratory. He provided a lot of information, and whilst the tone is essentially skeptical, this was a much more serious novel than your average outing into the paranormal.

I’d picked the book up originally because the main story was set in Hay-on-Wye where a couple are opening a secondhand bookshop which turns out to have a disturbing atmosphere. Meanwhile, not far away, an elderly man is found drowned in the pool of a waterfall. The young police detective who finds him admits to the investigating officer that as a kid, they all used to call him a wizard and dare each other to run up to his house. It’s a long and quite complicated story that eventually draws these events together and I enjoyed it, though I’m not sure I’d rush to get another in the series, mostly because Merrily didn’t win my heart. But it was well done, and I did appreciate the treatment of the supernatural.

I don’t think I’ve ever told you about my Uncle Graham, have I? Well, I do love my crime fiction, but Uncle Gray is a good excuse to read a steady stream of it. He is a retired widower and a voracious reader; he’s also a man of economical ways, which see him, in winter, in bed reading every evening and night with his scarf and hat and gloves on. This tickles me, probably because I aspire to much the same sort of retirement myself, only with central heating. Well, once Uncle Gray had worked his way through my dad’s not inconsiderable library of crime fiction, my parents asked me if I had any books I could lend him. Did I have books! So now I keep the crime I read to one side, supplemented by the review copies I’m sent, and goodness knows what Uncle Gray makes of some of them (The Magus of Hay will be a good case in point), but he’s never been known to complain.

this boy's lifeA last burst of awe, of a brief but powerful nature: Tobias Wolff. I’ve been on a reading kick of his writing lately and He. Is. Amazing. I read This Boy’s Life, then some of his short stories. The writing is genius – pure, clean, completely without pretention, but he says so much. And he’s funny too. Why is it so hard to write about the books that make the most impact on you? I have no words, but much awe.

 

Crime Wave

A couple of crime fiction novels that I was sent for review.

The Death Season – Kate Ellis

the death seasonAlthough I hadn’t heard of her before, Kate Ellis is a seasoned writer with a long list of D. I. Wesley Peterson novels to her name. This is a police procedural series, set in Devon and featuring Wesley as that rare thing, a black face in a predominantly white and rural setting. The novel opens with the death of a hotel guest, stabbed in the head (beneath the wig he was wearing) by something very thin and very sharp. Not only is the victim travelling under a false name, his DNA links him to an old, cold case, the death of a 10-year-old girl at a local holiday camp back in 1979. Why might the dead man have returned to the scene of his crime, and who would still be around to remember him? At the same time this investigation is taking place, one of Wesley’s friends, archeologist Neil Watson is working on two digs in the local area, one the stately Paradise Court, the other Sandrock, a ruined village from the Second World War. Before long, evidence of foul play is found, and even though it dates from long before the era of Wesley’s current cases, we know from the teasing juxtaposition that somehow the stories will be linked.

When I first began this novel, I found the writing very plain and I wasn’t sure I would get along with it. It also employed the device of beginning each chapter with a brief excerpt taken from a diary dated back to the turn of the century. These were slowly unfolding a tale that would eventually solve the enigma of the excavations. It’s a device that remains very popular in genre fiction although I am tired of it myself. And yet, despite these uncertainties, I was drawn into the story thanks to Kate Ellis’s clever juggling of her plotlines and clear, swift exposition. Before long, it had become the book I kept hurrying back to whenever I had a moment. The ending was highly satisfying; clever, twisty, plausible for once, and it provided a moment of lovely echoing between the story in the present day and the one in the past. I finished it with a lot of admiration for the author’s plotting skills, and the certainty that I would read her novel again.

 

The Replacement – Patrick Redmond

the replacementNow this one was a psychological thriller that was all about the schadenfreude. In the opening prologue, something dreadful has happened to Caroline Randall’s family, bad enough that the press are baying at her gates and she is receiving ugly anonymous letters in the post. When we pick up the story proper, the Randalls are the envy of their local set, wealthy, handsome, and seemingly devoted. Robert and Caroline have grown-up non-identical twin sons, James and Tom, who are now working in the City but have returned to the family home to attend a charity event their mother has organised. Caroline lords it over their friends and neighbours, showing off her enviable family and pretty much tempting hubris in a way we know will incite meltdown.

As soon as we meet the family alone, it’s clear there are ugly fracture lines. James has always been the favoured son, and it’s not surprising; he’s clever, brave and kind, a good loyal boy who has worked hard to please his parents and who has always protected his twin. But far from feeling gratitude, Tom is nursing a deep and bitter resentment, the envy of the permanently overlooked and the compacted rage of the never-good-enough. Robert is a father who cannot help but compete with his sons, and Caroline is worryingly possessive.

Meanwhile in the rougher part of London, Stuart is an estate agent doing his best to get by. Stuart’s parents and his sister died in a car crash when he was only 13, and the attempt his uncle made to foster him went badly wrong. These days, Stuart doesn’t ask much from life, except that he might lose a few pounds by some miracle, keep his job and maybe one day earn a promotion. But maybe his luck is picking up – visiting his elderly grandmother in her nursing home, he becomes involved with one of the carers, and things quickly become serious. And then taking clients to view a flat, he realises that one of them is reacting to him very strangely, and before long, he’s been given a revelation that will change his life.

I don’t want to give any more away because Patrick Redmond employs a very clever twist that catalyses an intriguing and engrossing story. Again, the writing is competent, don’t expect anything more than that, but it gets out of the way and the dialogue is believable. It’s a story of goodies and baddies, but that’s okay too; Redmond uses his characters intelligently and we readers are poised on the edge of the story, waiting to see who might be corrupted and who might escape with sympathy intact. On the whole, the psychological manoevring is well done, and it’s only towards the end that one of the characters behaves in a way that might make your average psychopath think twice. It’s a story about insecurity, at basis, and how over time it can become poisonous, resulting in envy, resentment and a terrible urge to possess people in order to feel secure. I enjoyed it, and if you want a thriller to take on holiday, I would recommend this over The Girl in the Train any day.

 

Pleasantville

PleasantvilleContemporary politics might not be particularly edifying to live through, but that constant whiff of corruption and bad faith that seems to hang around the corridors of power these days, the pervasive belief, fostered by the media, that politicians will do anything to get their way, makes for some pretty compelling fiction. Attica Locke, whose last novel, The Cutting Season, I loved for its willingness to dig down deep into the issues of race relations (the way Eva Dolan digs relentlessly into issues of immigration) has brought her novelist’s gaze to bear on these two themes, in a story about race and politics set in 1996 that subtly prefigures Obama’s entry into the White House.

Houston, Texas, in the final stages of its mayoral race has come down to a run-off between two candidates: Axel Hathorne, an African-American former Chief of Police and Sandy Wolcott, the current states attorney. Crucial to the competition is the district of Pleasantville, a black community founded in the civil rights era that has learned how to consolidate the black vote and can swing a closely run poll. On paper it looks as if Axel ought to be way out in front, but when a young woman goes missing, last seen wearing the blue t-shirt of his campaign volunteers, public opinion starts to shift against him. And then when his campaign manager and nephew, Neal, is charged with her murder, the timing is so bad and the evidence so weak that the most outrageous smear by the other side is suspected. But is it political suicide to say so?

More or less coerced into helping the Hathorne family is Jay Porter, the small town lawyer who featured in Attica Locke’s first novel, Black Water Rising (which I haven’t read and it didn’t seem to matter). Jay is unwilling to take on the case; he is still coming to terms with the recent death of his wife and his difficulties in parenting their two teenage children, Ellie and Ben. For a year he has been treading water and can scarcely bear the thought of entering a courtroom again. Plus, he has more than enough work to deal with, as he is still chasing the money promised his clients by Cole Oil, a petrochemical firm whose thoughtless practices were causing dangerous pollution. The $56 million that the firm is still finding ways to avoid paying out is causing his clients to lose faith in him and to seek other lawyers. It’s this issue which the Hathorne family’s patriarch, Sam, manages to hold against him until he agrees to help with the murder case.

What I especially like about Attica Locke’s novels is how real they are. Pleasantville actually exists, a community based on political activism who ‘endured the worst of Jim Crow, backs of buses and separate toilets; and yes, they paid their taxes, driving or walking for miles each Election Day, waiting in lines two and three hours long. Yes, they waited. But they also marched… holding out the collective votes of a brand-new bloc as a bargaining chip to politicians previously reluctant to consider the needs of the new Negro middle class’. And Jay Porter is such a plausible protagonist. When we first meet him, he is waiting for the police outside his broken-into offices, strenuously avoiding any act of derring-do. ‘There was nothing in that office that he couldn’t live without, not a thing in the world he would put before the need to get back home to his family in one piece. He wasn’t trying to be a hero.’ Some have heroics thrust upon them, however, and inevitably as the mayoral fight gets dirtier and the investigation into the murder comes closer to its perpetrators, it’s Jay’s family that gets put on the line.

This is a twisty, complex legal thriller, reminiscent in some ways of John Grisham, but a great deal more serious and literary. It’s crime fiction for grown-ups, if you like, the sort of novel that is definitely going to inform and enlighten you while it takes you on a tense quest for a killer. Occasionally, I thought Locke risked burying her action with her beautiful prose, but she is such a talented writer the story manages to be compelling throughout. I was also glad to have been educated by The Good Wife about American politics, as I felt I got more from the book because I knew something about state’s attorneys and campaign managers and the general atmosphere in which politics is conducted. But that being said, you could pick this book up in all ignorance and still enjoy it. At the end of the day, there’s a murderer to catch and a two-person race for a high ranking job between teams of politicos whose ambition risks outweighing their ethics. When you get to the final section of the novel, set in the courtroom, there’s a terrific momentum carrying the reader along. Attica Locke is definitely a subtle, clever and insightful writer to watch.

Boarding School Murder, Then and Now

What an interesting comparison it made, reading Tana French’s 2014 novel of murder in a girls’ private school, The Secret Place, and then not long afterwards, Josephine Tey’s 1946 version of the same thing, Miss Pym Disposes. What has changed in 70 years, you may well ask? And the answer in a weird way is: not much.

the secret placeIn Tana French’s novel, the murder is already a year old when the action of the novel begins. Chris Harper, a charming and confident young stud from the boys’ school up the road, has been found dead in the gardens of exclusive girls’ boarding school, St Kilda’s. The inquiry into his murder has stalled and might have remained that way except for a surprising occurrence. One of the pupils, Holly Mackey, makes her way to the police station and asks to see Stephen Moran, an ambitious detective whose career is festering in cold cases. (French’s books feature an interrelated set of characters and Holly and Stephen met many fictional years ago in Faithful Place). Holly has brought with her a photograph taken from ‘The Secret Place’ a noticeboard in the school where students post images and notices and artwork as a safety valve: ‘If you’ve got a secret, like you hate your parents or you like a guy or whatever, you can put it on a card and stick it up there.’ The photograph is of Chris Harper, and in ransom note letters across it is the legend: ‘I know who killed him.’

So Stephen Moran and the original detective on the case, spiky, bad-tempered Antoinette Conway, return to St Kilda’s together, embarking on a day-long investigation that will cover almost 550 claustrophobic pages, and will be told in alternating chapters, one dealing with the investigation in the present, one following the events that led up to Chris’s death in the past. You’ll be familiar with this sort of structure – it’s very popular of late.

miss pym disposesIn Josephine Tey’s novel, the establishment in question is the Leys Physical Training College, a place with a reputation for excellence in its discipline and teaching. Here high school-aged women come to learn about everything to do with a healthy body; they are rigorously trained in gymnastics and dancing, take advanced anatomy and physiology classes, run their own clinics and give classes in local schools. The eponymous Miss Lucy Pym is a writer who has had an unexpected success with a book on psychology. She is also a old school friend of the headmistress, Henrietta Hodge, who has invited her to be a guest lecturer at the school. Charmed by the health and vitality of the students, Miss Pym decides to put off her return to London and stay until the end of Summer term. She will be an interested witness as the students sit their final exams, receive offers of first-job teaching posts and prepare for the great Demonstration of their skills to their parents. We will be on page 186 of 249 before any murder is committed, which is a very old-fashioned way of organising a narrative now, but used to be more popular when it was enough for the writer to produce a set of intriguing characters and it was enough for the reader to watch a situation move to boiling point.

In both cases, the lure for the crime writer is the difference between the gilded surface of life in exclusive establishments and the darkness lurking beneath. Having marvelled at the beauty and vivaciousness of the young women around her, Miss Pym is told that ‘It is not a normal life they lead. You cannot expect them to be normal.’ In the approach to the end of their school careers, with so much at stake in terms of exams and jobs, one teacher explains that

I should say that five Seniors out of six in their last term are so tired that each morning is a mild nightmare. It is when one is as tired as that that one’s emotional state ceases to be normal. A tiny obstacle becomes an Everest in the path; a careless comment becomes a grievance to be nursed’.

The scene is set for an unexpected injustice to rock the school, when a plum first job is given not to the school’s best student, but to a young woman who may have been cheating in her exams.

At St Kilda’s 70 years away, the gilding is more about money and class. Stephen Moran, ambitious himself, is awed by the gorgeous grounds and buildings in which the students live and work. When he views the Secret Place for the first time, covered with images of self-harm, verbal abuse and covert bullying, he is horrified:

That there was what was giving me the off-cider feel. That gold air transparent enough to drink, those clear faces, that happy flood of chatter; I had liked all that. Loved it. And underneath it all, hidden away tight: this. Not just one messed-up exception, not just a handful. All of them.’

Strangely similar also is the focus on over-close friendships as being both admirable, something that we might all aspire to or hope for, and simultaneously diseased and over-heated, dangerous to the emotional stability of those concerned. In The Secret Place, the action focuses on two groups of four friends; one headed by the rich bitch Joanne, who demands obedience from her acolytes, the other group containing Holly and her friends, who become the strange, shining centre of French’s book. Their friendship is portrayed as so perfect and intense and extraordinary that it seems to release supernatural energy. This was a very odd if intriguing element of French’s otherwise orthodox police procedural. The middle part of the book is fascinated by a magical energy the girls can produce together, which can make the lights go out, or levitate small objects. That same energy is dispersed in hysterical ways in Joanne’s group by girls who claim to see Chris’s ghost, something the police officers will use repeatedly to their advantage in questioning overwrought young females.

Even the dialogue isn’t so very different, if you pay attention just to the cadences, though it must be said that, overall, French’s characters are obsessed with boys, clothes, friends and swearing, whilst Tey’s are obsessed with exams, being good and getting the right jobs to go to. Here’s one of Tey’s more frivolous characters:

Oh, Greengage, darling, you are an unsympathetic beast. I’ve bust my suspender, and I don’t know what to do. And Tommy took my only safety-pin yesterday to pick the winkles with at Tuppence-ha’penny’s party. She simply must let me have it back before – Tommy! Oh, Tommy!’

And now we take a deep breath for Tana French:

I mean, just for example, right? You should have seen them at the Valentine’s dance. They looked totes insane. Like Rebecca had on jeans, and Selena was wearing I don’t even know what it was, it looked like she was in a play!… Everyone was like, hello, what are you like? I mean, there were guys there. The whole of Colm’s was there. They were all staring. And Julia and all of them acted like that didn’t even matter.’ Jaw-dropped face. ‘That was when we realised, um, hello, weirdos?’

So what does separate these two novels? Well, I’d say in terms of the content of the story it was mostly attitude – Tey’s young women are essentially good-hearted, hard-working, admirable creatures, whilst French’s are dissolute and cynical for the most part, self-obsessed and all too busy with power games. In terms of organization of the narrative, the difference is 400 pages of padding in the French novel. Not that it isn’t good and enjoyable padding, used to ratchet up the tension as the girls are questioned over and over about the events of a year ago. Both are psychological thrillers, essentially, fascinated by the energy and recklessness of youth. But Tey’s is written from the viewpoint of the analytical and thoughtful Miss Pym, whilst French’s is a God’s-eye-view, up close and personal with the rival groups of girls or with the mismatched officers as they try to solve the case. Tey packs as much into her 250 pages, but most is the rich silt of Miss Pym’s contemplation. In Tana French we are taken over and over the events of the past as we wait for one – or more – of the girls to crack. I very much enjoyed them both (though in all fairness, the ending of Josephine Tey’s was better) – though what Enid Blyton and the girls of St Clare’s would say about it all, I don’t know.