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the seventh cross

Translated from German by Margot Bettauer Dembo

The most powerful and important accounts of people living under terrifying regimes are undoubtedly those written during the times they depict – whether they be fictional or non-fictional accounts. The Seventh Cross is such a novel – written in France after the author had fled Nazi Germany, it was finally published in 1942, after the author and her family had had to flee the Nazis again. Despite being a novel, this must surely still be an important historical document. It also happens to be a hugely compelling read. Virago’s re-issue of this German classic feels to me like a timely warning from time – showing us how easy the lure of fascism was for some.

It depicts the insidious rise of a regime, the daily realities for ordinary people. Fear is unspoken and tangible, and people disappear and then reappear – and everyone is living by new rules. Criminals of the regime – communists for a start have already started to be rounded up, what this novel shows is that local people would have been aware of the camps, made uneasy by them perhaps – though ignorant of the true horrors.

It is a few years after Hitler has taken power in Germany (I assumed 1936/7 due to the mention of unrest in Spain) and seven men escape from Westhofen concentration camp.

“Probably no trees ever cut down in our country were as unique, as strange as the seven plane trees growing at the gable end of Barracks III. Their crowns, for a reason to be revealed at a later time, had previously been cut off and a board had been nailed across each of the tree trunks at shoulder height. From afar they looked like seven crosses.”

It is a disgrace to the camp officers for such a thing to happen. Fahrenberg, the camp commandant is under intense pressure – he vows that all the men will be caught within seven days. Interestingly, Seghars portrays him – increasingly throughout the novel – as man losing his grip – he loses sleep, becomes obsessed with the men’s capture, he knows his days in charge are numbered.

Six of the men are captured quite quickly, and made examples of, cruelly and with evil relish by the camp officers. However, the seventh man George Heisler manages to slip through the net, crawling on his belly through mud, stealing clothes, hiding in churches, the desperate man feels his pursuers are only ever a few steps behind.

“An uncontrollable wish, stronger than any fear, or hunger and thirst, and stronger than the damned thumping in his hand, which had long ago bled through the rag: to just keep lying there – after all, night would come soon. And the fog was already providing him with cover; the sun was just a pale disc behind the haze covering his face. They wouldn’t be searching for him here during the night. He’s have some peace.”

George is a changed man, just a few years ago he was a handsome, confident man, a bit selfish, he didn’t always treat his friends well. He had let down a friend he had been living with, left his wife had taken up with another girl – one of many we get the impression. People from his old life would barely recognise George now, the years in a concentration camp have taken their toll, he is already looking a lot older. He is less certain of himself now, less assured, he carries the calming words of fellow camp mate and escapee Wallau with him on his perilous journey. Who – if anyone, can George trust? Unknown to George the years have changed those close to him too – his brother is now an SS officer; a former lover turns him from her door in terror. Despite his flaws, maybe in some way because of them, George is a wholly sympathetic character, I was rather glad he wasn’t some kind of two-dimensional angel. We can all sympathise with someone hurt, hunted alone and afraid.

Rumours of the escape are murmured by the people living within sound of the camp’s sirens, soon the escape is being talked about on the radio. George’s former in-laws are worried about what it will mean for them. His ex-wife is certain he won’t turn up there – but both she and her father an ageing paper hanger, are taken in for questioning, and watched closely after their release.

Injured, desperate and with time running out, George slowly makes his way back to the town where he used to live – in the hope that his old friends and contacts help him get away. Meanwhile for the officers of the Nazi regime capturing the last man becomes a matter of pride.

Told from a variety of perspectives – Seghers paints a picture of a country held in the grip of terrible times, but where not everyone is happy to bow to the fear instilled by the Gestapo. We meet extraordinary people, who know full well what helping someone like George might mean – but who look the danger full in the face.

“Only once in her life had Liesel ever had anything to do with the police. At the time, she was a child, ten or eleven years old. One of her brothers had got into trouble; maybe it was the one who later died in the war, for there was never any mention of it in the family afterwards. It had been buried with him in Flanders. But the fear they had all struggled with back then was still in Liesel’s blood today. A fear that had nothing to do with a bad conscience; it was a poor people’s fear, a chicken’s fear under a hawk, a fear of being persecuted by the state. An ancient fear that better defines to whom the state belongs than any constitutions or history books. But now Liesel resolved to fight tooth and claw to protect her family, with cunning and deceit.”

This was a fascinating, compelling read for #WITmonth – which has put Anna Seghers firmly on my radar – I really must read more of her work soon.

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The complete stories murel spark

When I am not reading books for #WITmonth or Virago books for All Virago All August I have carried on reading short stories from The Complete Short stories – and though I am still not finished I hope to be by the end of the month. It is difficult to review a six-hundred-page collection in one, it only ever possible to highlight a few pieces that stand out.

Last month I reviewed the first five stories in the collection – linked as they were with an African setting – they seemed to stand apart. Having read more of Spark’s stories now, those stories still do stand apart. I am still thoroughly enjoying Spark’s shorter fiction though some of the stories fade quite quickly from my mind afterwards.

In these stories we have Spark’s familiar wit, and with her wonderful eye for the absurd, she lifts the veil on the seemingly respectable, exposing what lies beneath.

The Snobs is a story set in Dijon where an ordinary English couple have unexpectedly inherited a château. When former bus driver’s wife Anne meets the Ringer-Smiths outside a gift shop, they are looking lost, struggling with their map – and she invites them to the château for tea. In the Ringer-Smiths, Anne soon detects that dreaded species, the château grabber.

“I could see, already in Anne’s mind, the thought: “I have to get rid of these people or they’ll stay for dinner and then all night. They are château-grabbers.” Anne had often lamented to me about the château-grabbers of her later life. People who didn’t want to know her when she was obscure and a bus driver’s wife now wanted to know her intimately.
(The Snobs)

In her depiction of the dreadful Ringer-Smiths and the poor harried inhabitants of the château trying to get rid of them, Spark is at her humorous best.

In The Dragon – we find ourselves in Italy. A seamstress is hosting a little party – and she is very much afraid The Dragon may spoil it.

“We were in a shady part of the garden. It was six o’clock on a hot evening in the north of Italy. It was my garden, my party. The Dragon came oozing through the foliage. She was holding her drink, a Pimm’s No. 1, and was followed by a tall, strikingly handsome truck-driver whom she had brought along to the party on the spur of the moment. To her dismay, discernible only to myself, he was a genial, easy-mannered young man, rather amused to be taking half-an-hour off the job with his truck parked outside the gate. I knew very well that when she had picked him up at the bar across the street she had hoped he would be an embarrassment, a nuisance.”
(The Dragon)

The Dragon – we discover is an employee – who has not quite turned out to be the paragon of trouble saving efficiency she was employed to be. Here we meet one of those terrible, managing people who take over – making the lives around them quite unendurable.

Themes we see in several of Spark’s novels are present in these stories too. Death, and things unexplained rear their head in stories like the marvellously chilling The Girl I Left Behind Me – which I can’t say too much about – but it has a splendidly Sparkian ending. In Harper and Wilton, two characters from an unfinished story written by the narrator – appear – they are Edwardian suffragettes – they demand that the writer give them substance – or else they will haunt her. Writers appear several times in these stories, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Comforters. In The Pearly Shadow – a doctor is consulted by a shadowy character, who has been tormenting another of the doctor’s patients, it is, quite frankly, bizarre.

Many of Spark’s story openings are great – I glance at the first page, having been about to put the book down, and think oh no I’ll just read this one too. In Daisy Overend – Spark combines this ability to grab her readers instantly -with her ability to portray a character in quite a unique way.

“It is hardly ever that I think of her, but sometimes, if I happen to pass Clarges Street or Albemarle Street on a sunny afternoon, she comes to mind. Or if, in a little crowd waiting to cross the road, I hear behind me two women meet, and the one exclaim: “Darling!” (or “Bobbie!” or “Goo!”) and the other answer: “Goo!” (or “Billie!” or “Bobbie!” or “Darling!”) – if I hear these words, spoken in a certain trill which betokens the period 1920–29, I know that I have by chance entered the world of Daisy Overend, Bruton Street, WI.”
(Daisy Overend)

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Another of my favourite stories; Come Along, Marjorie – introduces us to another memorable character; the silent, Marjorie Pettigrew. –Along with the narrator she is one of the ‘pilgrims’ at a Catholic retreat, where most of the inhabitants were ‘nervous cases’. The narrator is the wonderfully cynical Gloria. Blending Spark’s ever-present wit and eye for the peculiar, with those serious themes she seems always to return to – religion and mental health, she explores how people react to those they deem odd or different.

“‘Neurotics never go mad,’ my friends had always told me. Now I realized the distinction between neurosis and madness, and in my agitation I half-envied the woman beyond my bedroom wall, the sheer cool sanity of her behaviour within the limits of her impracticable mania. Only the very mad, I thought, can come out with the information ‘The Lord is Risen’, in the same factual way as one might say, ‘You are wanted on the telephone,’ regardless of the time and place.”
(Come Along, Marjorie)

So, I hope I have managed to give a little flavour of this collection – which I still have to finish! If you have yet to read Muriel Spark’s stories, then I heartily recommend them. Please forgive the number of quotes, I could have easily included far more than I have.

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cof

Translated by Richard and Lucia Cunningham

In my search for more vintage women writers in translation, I was given the name of Maria Luisa Bombal. Her most creative writing period appears to have been the 1930s and 40s, though this collection seems to have first been published in 1982 – for those following my A Century of Books, publication dates are not always easy to sort out.

I don’t always do well with South American literature because of the magical realism aspect so many writers seem to employ, I have never been fond of magical realism. Still, I decided to give Maria Luisa Bombal a try – and despite the fact there is a little magical realism here too, I enjoyed this slight little volume. A little online research – about a writer I knew nothing about, told me that Maria Luisa Bombal was one of the first Spanish American writers to move away from the realist tradition of storytelling. It seems she paved the way for so many other writers who followed her. Bombal’s writing is beautiful, full of glorious images and she uses these repeated images to great effect.

This slim collection contains just five stories – two of them, the first story The Final Mist and the final story; New Islands, are longer and more substantial. The second story The Tree is apparently one of her most famous.

In, The Final Mist a woman creates her own dream life, in a story where the lines between realty and fantasy become a little blurred. Just a few months after his first wife died, a young woman marries her cousin Daniel, returning with him to his hacienda. Her life quickly becomes one of stifling routine, the relationship with her husband distant and unfulfilling.

“Tomorrow we will return to the country. The day after, I will attend mass in the village with my mother-in-law. Then during lunch Daniel will talk to us about the work on the hacienda. Afterwards I will visit the greenhouse, the aviary, the orchard. Before dinner I will doze beside the fireplace or read the local newspapers. Following dinner, I will amuse myself with the fire – producing small conflagrations by carelessly stirring the coals. Very soon, the conversation will dwindle, give way to an oppressive silence, and Daniel will nosily fit the bars against the doors. The we will go to sleep. And the next day will be the same, and so on for a year, for ten; and it will be the same until old age robs me of any right to love and desire, until my body withers and my face wrinkles and I am ashamed to show myself without artifice in the light of the sun.”
(The Final Mist)

Bombal uses the recurring images of rain, mist and wind to help create the dreamworld this unhappy woman weaves around her. On a visit to the city, one night unable to sleep she leaves the house, and takes a walk – she has a wordless, passionate encounter with a stranger. It becomes the most memorable night of her life – the memory of which seems to sustain her for years to come. The possible twist – suggested by Bombal is what makes this story so successful.

In, The Tree we have another unhappily married woman, who through listening to a series of pieces of music reflects upon her life and marriage. The tree outside her window seems to act as a screen to the realities of her situation, so when the tree is finally felled, and the room flooded with unaccustomed light, the woman makes the decision to leave.

“All night long she could hear the rain thrashing, splashing through the leaves of the rubber tree like a thousand tiny rivers sliding down imaginary canals. All night long she heard the ancient trunk creak and moan.”
(The Tree)

Braids is a rather odd little piece – in which the author reflects on the fabled strength and importance of a woman’s hair. It contains the story of two sisters – one of who takes care of the family hacienda, the other goes to the city. Fire comes to the forest surrounding the hacienda – and the fate of the trees and the woman at the hacienda are linked because we are told her hair and the trees share the same roots.

If that was a little strange, The Unknown is stranger still in my opinion. A pirate ship trapped in the vortex of a whirlpool, lies at the bottom of the sea. The captain and his men seem totally unaware of where they are. Chico a young boy voices his concerns:

“‘Captain,’ the boy said quietly, ‘have you notices that our feet leave no tracks in this sand?’
‘Nor do the sails throw any shadow.’ The captain added in a dry, cruel whisper. Then his anger seeming to abate before the boy’s naïve and puzzled gaze, he laid his rough hand on Chico’s shoulder and said, ‘Let’s go, son. The tide will be in soon.’”
(The Unknown)

What meaning lies behind this story – I really couldn’t say.

new islandsNew Islands is a story with some similarity to The Final Mist – there is a long-held obsession and a hacienda. A hunting party gather at the hacienda of Yolanda and her brother Frederico. One member of the party Juan Miguel develops a passionate obsession for Yolanda, following her around, forcing her to kiss him. Meanwhile another member of the party, a man of late middle age – was engaged to Yolanda thirty years earlier – but she broke off the engagement suddenly and with no explanation. Juan Miguel muses on Yolanda’s age – she doesn’t appear to be the age of her former fiancé. Meanwhile – some new islands have emerged mysteriously out of the lake waters nearby which the group go to look at. Yolanda is a mystery – particularly to Juan Miguel – and after the few days at the hacienda are over – he heads back to the city with the mystery unsolved. The new islands sink slowly back into the lake.

I really enjoyed these unusual stories, Maria Luisa Bombal is a fascinating writer. I need to find to find out what else of hers is available in English translation.

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open the door

My first book for August and the Virago group’s All Virago all August was Open the Door! By Catherine Carswell. It accompanied me on a short trip to Belgium – which was lovely – but during which I didn’t get a huge amount of reading time. Another thing about travelling – and why do I always forget this – but the ‘mood’ lighting in hotels is not good for readers. I really should always take my kindle which at least has its own back light.

Anyway, on with the book – which I thoroughly enjoyed – the kind of novel I think of being ‘a proper Virgo book.’

The author of Open the Door! published only one other novel, like the heroine of this novel she was born in Glasgow. This her first novel is apparently very autobiographical. In the company of Joanna Bannerman – who we follow from childhood to when she is thirty years old – we visit, Edinburgh, London and Italy. Joanna is a brilliantly drawn character, I have seen a couple of reviews of this book, saying she was an unsympathetic character, I didn’t think so. Joanna is flawed – she makes some selfish decisions, but she is warm – craves love and is capable of great kindness. Aren’t we all capable of small acts of selfishness? We all hide from the world our little vanities and caprices, but they make us human, and Catherine Carswell shows us the truth of this in her character of Joanna Bannerman particularly, but in all her characters.

“She was poised and keen, a hawk in mid-air, a speck of perfect bliss upheld in perfection of readiness for the predatory swoop”

As the novel opens it is 1896, Joanna her older sister Georgie, and younger brothers Linnet and Sholto are accompanying their mother Juley on a dreaded visit to their Edinburgh relatives. Juley is a little vague and a little disorganised, even then, she relies on her children to help her organise themselves. As the years pass she will come to lean on her children more and more, while also wanting to retain some control of the household affairs. Juley is another wonderfully drawn, complex character.

This Edinburgh visit is especially memorable, for it is here that the family first learn that the children’s father has died suddenly of pneumonia. The Bannerman children have been brought up within a religious evangelical environment, and the children’s mother Juley – is a particularly strident believer – though she changes churches regularly. There is one last family holiday at their holiday cottage in Duntarvie a place of rural perfection and happiness for Joanna that she is destined to carry with her through life.

As she grows older, the artistic Joanna begins to pull against the conventionalities of this evangelical Glasgow life. She seeks life with a great energy and passion – longs to free herself of the restrictions of her background. Her studies at the School of Art open new horizons for Joanna – she is ready to grab at life and eager for love. She enters into a sudden failed engagement, and then shortly afterwards marries a man she barely knows, an Italian, Mario. She leaves everything she knows and travels to Italy, with her new husband, experiencing sex for the first time, and is less than impressed.

‘This droll device, this astonishing, grotesque experience was what the poets had sung of since the beginning’.

Mario seeks to control her, imprisoning her within the walls of his home, with his own personal wardress watching Joanna – Maddalena his devoted sister.
Thankfully, it isn’t long before Joanna is free again, and back in Glasgow, living again with her mother and siblings. Her dream though is to go to London. She surrounds herself with artistic, interesting friends and lovers including Phemie, Lawrence and the much older, married Louis Pender.

“Ah, how remorselessly the stream swept away all the debris of winter it could reach! As Joanna watched it in fascination she was one with it, and she rejoiced. Her life – was it not as that flood? Was it not muddy, littered, unlike the life she have imagined or chosen? But it was a life. It moved.”

mdeJoanna finds employment and happiness in London, living in two small rooms in the home of a family whose disabled children she becomes particularly fond of. Holidays are spent in Scotland with the family, but in London there is always Louis Pender – her married lover. Louis will never leave his wife, they will always be subject to the little lies and intrigues of an affair – and in time these begin to tell on both of them. Will Joanna ever find the loving fulfilment she craves?

Open the Door! Is the story of a young woman’s awakening, her search for love, independence and happiness is brilliantly and compellingly told. Joanna is both trapped and in time released by her large capacity for love.

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cof

Translated from Portuguese by Adam Morris

July’s offering from the Asymptote book club was I didn’t Talk by Brazilian writer Beatriz Bracher, which I read at the end of July, so I could review it for the beginning of #WITmonth.

Beatriz Bracher is the latest of the new, strong voices the Asymptote book club has introduced me to. Bracher was born in Săo Paulo, she grew up living under a military dictatorship. It is clear that her upbringing in that environment has informed her writing.

Gustavo is a professor who has just retired and is preparing to leave Sao Paulo for the quiet of the countryside. As he sorts through his papers, Gustavo is assaulted by the ghosts of the past.

In 1970 Gustavo and his brother-in-law Armando were arrested by the authorities and tortured. Later Gustavo was released, hurt but able to continue his work as a teacher. Armando was killed, and no one could ever be really sure that Gustavo didn’t talk. ‘I didn’t talk’ he tells himself – as he told his family at the time. Yet, the torture never really stopped – Gustavo has been haunted by this period of his life ever since.

His wife Eliana had been away when he was arrested – she died of pneumonia – leaving him to raise their daughter. Eliana had died before her husband could tell her he hadn’t talked – died away from him in another country – a loss he has carried ever since. He remembers a time when his daughter had liked to walk happily through the cemetery imagining the lives the dead had lived, death held no fear for her. The child had inevitably wondered why her mother’s name wasn’t there.

“I wished to conserve for what little time I could my happy ballerina for the dead. Dancing for the memory of the dead. I said, it’s true, you’re right, we’ll find your mother’s grave. The next Sunday I took a box of coloured chalk and wrote Eliana’s name and dates on the grave under which Armando, Dona Esther, and my father-in-law Dom Estevăo, lay buried. Ligia drew little flowers and hearts.”

Gustavo has lived his life rather on the fringes, ever since 1970 – always there has been that unspoken accusation – that his release was the result of a betrayal. There is a sense that Gustavo’s life has been stunted by this incident.

“Look, I was tortured, and they say I named a comrade who was later killed by soldiers’ bullets. I didn’t snitch – I almost died in the room where I could have snitched, but I didn’t talk.”

The novel is told in several voices, Gustavo’s first-person narrative is the main one. Yet alongside that are fragments of Gustavo’s brother José’s unpublished, autobiographical novel, his own notes and educational reports from earlier in his career and short extracts from other writers. In José’s writings, we get glimpses of the brothers’ upbringing, the kind of lives they lived growing up. Gustavo remembers his wife, his friendship with Armando, and what he knew back then and what he didn’t understand or didn’t question. These voices help to form a kind of collective chorus – in the midst of a story that is full of silences. There is so much that exists in the past, things not said or merely implied.

There is an ambiguity to Gustavo’s storytelling – not everything is clear – memories are fragile and emotional.

I liked this novel, but I didn’t love it – I wasn’t particularly drawn to any of the characters, but I couldn’t work out why– and I like a stronger sense of place than I felt existed here. What Bracher does do well though, is to portray a life lived in the shadow of one terrible place in time.

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cof

I am fully prepared to admit it was this gorgeous new 40th anniversary edition of Heartburn that made me buy a book I had shamefully overlooked for years. I am a sucker for a pretty edition.

Nora Ephron is a name you can’t help but be familiar with, even if you haven’t read any of her books. An academy award nominated screen writer for films such as When Harry met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle, though one of my personal favourites she wrote was Silkwood. Ephron first made her name as a journalist. Her collections of essays were bestsellers in the 1970s, and then in 1983 came Heartburn, the novel she wrote based largely on her second marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein (you know, the Watergate guy).

This is a novel however, not an autobiography, still it is clear that there are plenty of parallels with Ephron’s own life.

“Sometimes I believe that love dies but hope springs eternal. Sometimes I believe that hope dies but love springs eternal. Sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals love, and sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals good sex. Sometimes I believe that love is as natural as the tides, and sometimes I believe that love is an act of will. Sometimes I believe that some people are better at love than others, and sometimes I believe that everyone is faking it. Sometimes I believe that love is essential, and sometimes I believe that only reason love is essential is that otherwise you spend all your time looking for it.”

Our narrator is Rachel; a cookery writer, who seven months in to her second pregnancy (she already has a young son Sam) discovers her second husband; Mark, has been having an affair. Naturally Rachel is devastated – but Ephron allows Rachel a surprisingly humorous tone, and she is very, very funny. Behind these laughs – as so often is the case with humour – is something very serious, the reality of betrayal, the ending of a marriage, being a mother, and just coping with all that stuff that goes with it. Here there is heartbreak, but it is disguised, wreathed in humour and Ephron’s observations are every bit as brittle as you might expect them to be.

When she first discovers that her husband is having an affair with Thelma Rice, a woman Rachel describes as having: “a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb”. Rachel leaves her home in Washington, for her father’s New York apartment – her father having been ‘carted off to the loony bin’ – Ephron’s words not mine!

“I look out the window and I see the lights and the skyline and the people on the street rushing around looking for action, love, and the world’s greatest chocolate chip cookie, and my heart does a little dance.”

In New York, Rachel intends to go back to her therapy group – which she hasn’t needed during the period since her first marriage ended, a period in which is she was happy and settled with Mark.

In New York, Rachel is involved in a jewel robbery, when her group are held up by gunpoint, and the ring Mark bought her when Sam was born is stolen. Returning to her father’s apartment, she finds Mark waiting for her, with promises to not to see Thelma again. Can she believe him? Can she forgive his betrayal and stay married, as if Thelma Rice never happened?

““Vera said: “Why do you feel you have to turn everything into a story?”
So I told her why.
Because if I tell the story, I control the version.
Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me.
Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much.
Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.”

heartburnBack in Washington, Rachel keeps a suspicious eye on her husband, while juggling motherhood, food writing and keeping up with the local gossip – one recurring topic being who Thelma Rice is sleeping with. Rachel adds her own little titbit to the local grapevine – telling everyone that Thelma has an infection! Ephron hilariously depicts the life of an upper middle-class couple – both Mark and Rachel have their issues – their friends are similarly self-absorbed.

Light as a souffle, bright and breezy Heartburn is more serious than it pretends. Nora Ephron understood the pain of an affair, and there are many poignant moments as Rachel struggles with the reality of her marriage and whether she should stay in it or leave for good. Deliciously sharp, Ephron combines food, love, loss and marriage in a novel that is touchingly honest.

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excellent intentions

So, July has been a bit of a slow reading month for me, more of that in my round up post on Wednesday. So last weekend, feeling very over tired I reached out for a little bit of vintage murder, ticking of 1938 in my A Century of Books in the process. I do love these British Library Crime Classics – admittedly they vary in quality, but they are perfect for lazy Sundays. I have several more on my radar as well as two or three tbr.

Excellent Intentions had particularly appealed to me because I had heard that it was structured a little differently to the usual Golden Age Crime novel. It is, and I thoroughly enjoyed Hull’s storytelling twist. It works well – however I guessed the truth very, very early on. When I say guessed, it was a guess formed by one line in the early pages (I can’t say more than that) – but as the novel progressed, I stuck firmly to my guess and it proved to be correct. None of that spoiled the novel for me, I found it highly entertaining.

Richard Hull writes with a good deal of wit – as well as huge amount of knowledge about all thing philately (more of that later) and the plot fairly skips along.

“‘May it please your lordship – members of the jury, on Friday, July 13th – a combination of unlucky days – Launcelot Henry Cuthbert Cargate died in a railway carriage between Larkingfield and Great Barwick stations on the borders of Essex and Suffolk at approximately eleven fifty-seven in the morning. On Thursday August 9th the accused’ – with a melodramatic gesture which threatened to arouse anew Mr Justice Smith’s latent prejudice, counsel pointed to the dock and rolled out unctuously the full name of its occupant – ‘was arrested and charged with wilfully murdering him by administering poison to him, and it is on that charge that the accused now stands before you.”

The novel opens as a court case gets underway – someone is on trial for murder, only we don’t know who it is.

From here with the help of the excessively voluble prosecution barrister, various witnesses and the defence we see the events which led up to the trial. It is a particularly clever way of structuring a crime novel, the reader looking for clues as to who it is in the dock.

The victim was Henry Cargate, a typically loathsome golden age victim. A wealthy man who had not long moved into the big house in the village of Great Barwick. He had quickly become its least favourite resident, rude, obnoxious and favouring outsiders to workers from the village, he quickly puts the backs up of almost all the locals. On the day of his death, Cargate’s car won’t start and so he is forced to get a train from the tiny local railway station, Cargate is a man of easily roused temper, and this is enough to excite his irascibility. At the station he is seen, attempting to take snuff, as he waits huffily for the train. A porter causes him to drop his pinch of snuff onto the floor. The resulting fuss and bad temper made something of an impression on fellow traveller; Mr Hardy. Hardy’s curiosity roused, he watches Cargate, in the window reflection as the train leaves the station, taking another pinch of snuff – this time successfully. Only seconds later he is dead, and Mr Hardy is obliged to stop the train.

Enter, Doctor Gardiner whose suspicions are roused – despite everyone assuming natural causes. Thankfully Gardiner had thought to secure a sample of the snuff that had spilled from the tin onto the carriage floor for analysis. Gardiner had detected an odour in the railway carriage that he wasn’t entirely happy about. Inspector Fenby is called in to investigate further – and it is soon established that Cargate had been poisoned.

“It was a constant complaint of Inspector Fenby’s that he had to spend a great part of his time examining some subject which proved in the end to be irrelevant. He was always on the look-out for the danger and he tried hard to avoid entangling himself in such things. But you could never be sure. There were frequent traps. Certainly the actions of those concerned during the long central period of Thursday, July 12th were a good example of such a state of affairs.”

It appears there are four main suspects; the local vicar Mr Yockleton is one, he absolutely loathes the new squire, and his worship of money, whose only interest in the village church is what archaeological properties it might unearth. Cargate enjoys bating Mr Yockleton and they had a heated argument on the morning of Cargate’s death. Cargate is a very difficult man, and so the two members of his household staff Raikes the butler and Miss Knox Forster Cargate’s secretary must surely have motive too, they certainly had opportunity. As did everyone around the house that day, a bottle of cyanide had been purchased by Cargate for the destruction of a wasps nest by the gardener, the only local man Cargate employs. The bottle was in full view of everyone throughout the day.

excellent intentions2

Additionally, we meet Macpherson – a dealer in stamps. Cargate is a keen philatelist – but MacPherson has had reason to doubt his honesty but Cargate counteracts MacPherson’s accusations with accusations of his own when Macpherson travelled to Great Barwick to meet him. One of these two men is a cheat.

The amount of detail that Richard Hull goes into with regards to philately is quite astonishing – some may feel a little wearisome, I was completely bamboozled about various colours, marks and the amount of perforations a particular stamp had which made it valuable or utterly worthless. Whether Hull himself was a keen stamp collector or not I don’t know – perhaps he simply didn’t want his research to go to waste.

Excellent Intentions (the use of that title becomes clear) was a really great little mystery. I now have more Richard Hull books on my radar – I enjoyed the way Hull structured the story, and his ordinary, no nonsense Inspector Fenby is the kind of fictional policeman I like. A normal, reasonably intelligent man, doing his job well.

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