Wednesday, September 9, 2020

New searchable includes all 2514 posts from this blog

It's finally happened! My writer website is up and running. Check it out here:

It's been fun using Blogger. 

Existing posts and new posts are now located at my new site. Meanwhile the archive remains visible here too.

Thanks for reading!


Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Punishment She Deserves by Elizabeth George

The consummate novelist, Elizabeth George has done it again. A mystery writer's job is to raise questions in the reader's mind, and the author begins the process by using the title. "Who is she?" the readers wonder, and "What possible punishment could she deserve?" Turns out the title question resonates with a number of characters of differing ages, classes and backgrounds. 

Havers and Lynley are characters I've come to think of as old friends, and the promise of checking up on them tempted me to pick up this 690-page tome. The chance to meet those two again, along with the expectation of a look-in at Isabelle Ardery to see if she's still drinking, tempted me on through the early scenes before the police appear. Like many good mysteries, this one builds slowly, then proceeds not quite apace through dead ends and red herrings. 

In the course of the story, we slowly get to know an enormous cast of characters. Through a particularly Georgian alchemy, those whose egregious misbehaviour we'd initially despised become more sympathetic as we learn what forces and circumstances drove them to become what they are. 

Why do so many disparate women feel they deserve punishment anyway? The answers are far from black and white. As George trots out all the big themes, she's relentless in putting the less savoury aspects of culture under a microscope. First she portrays intricate and twisted family dysfunction. In the name of loving and knowing what's best for their children, some parents presume to own them, claiming the right to use any and all kinds of pressure, secrecy and deception in service of their own illusory goals, not the least of which is the ego-driven fear, sometimes not entirely conscious, of what others will think of them

She reveals corrupt social mores that chain sexuality to shame, violence, brutality, and the unbridled pursuit of power. We're also made to see the lengths to which people will go to satisfy a desperate need to belong -- or at least to be seen to belong. In the course of unveiling these human flaws, readers must also witness the substance abuse people resort to in their failed attempts to cover the pain that results from the willful determination of families and societies to bend individuals to their pattern, regardless of personal cost.

In the end, the author draws together many threads to bring the book to a satisfying conclusion, offering at least the possibility of forgiveness, redemption, and a future better than the past. 

In series news (spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't read a Lynley-Havers since What Came Before He Shot Her): Havers is learning to tap dance, and Lynley has a lady friend he wants to introduce to his family in Cornwall.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Daughter of the Reich by Louise Fein

Louise Fein has chosen an unusual perspective to write a novel that exposes political evil, including the the devastating effects of war. The love story involves Hetty, the daughter of an SS man, and Walter, a blonde German Jew. By following the changes in their lives, the author zeroes in with precision on the systematic corruption of German society in the lead-up to the war. 

The price of silence, the power of propaganda, the incitement to violence of poor, ignorant and frightened people -- it's all there in this well-researched work of fiction. Hetty's experience portrays the unwillingness we feel to believe the stories of evil until we are confronted with the most devastatingly direct evidence. Her character arc also shows how in a moment of crisis, one's natural morality can engender great courage. The refusal of even one individual to comply with an evil regime can and does make a difference.

It's strong stuff, reading about the rise of Nazism in Germany through the thirties, long before the occupation of Poland that set off the war. The author's note sounds a warning, and explains why she spent years pursuing the enormous project of creating an authentic and completely believable story of four children who grow up together, only to be split apart by political forces they are initially too immature to understand.

In Germany in the thirties, says the author, all media were marshalled to create a propaganda machine that managed to silence dissent in order to control and manipulate an entire population. "Today," she says, "we potentially face a similar trajectory with the resurgence of nationalism; the fast-developing far right and far-left sentiments; and extremism in many awful forms." Along with populist leaders winning elections, Brexit, and increasingly open expressions of racist sentiment, she points to "anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head once more," while people rely for news on the "false bubbles of their social media networks."

Yet stories have power. A good book "can reach out and pull a reader int a world they knew nothing about," and emotionally engage readers in the way that facts and news cannot." Stories, says Louise Fein, can live on in readers' minds. I couldn't agree more. The story of Hetty and Walter will certainly live on in mine.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Patrol North Africa 1943 - a Story of the Desert War by Fred Majdalany

My novel research entails seeking out primary sources: writers who published in the era I'm writing about. This quest for such voices has led to some amazing discoveries.

Fred Majdalany's short novel Patrol (1953) takes the reader into the heart and mind of Tim Sheldon, who leads a night patrol in the WWII desert war in North Africa. The story is simple -- seven men go on a terrifying night patrol randomly assigned by ill-informed officers far away in a comfortable club. Only five return. 

Tiny details carry the reader into Sheldon's mind. We are party to his thoughts as he washes and dries his feet, carefully soaping an incipient blister so it doesn't get worse. Other deftly drawn characters and scenes limn outlines which the reader's imagination can easily fill in. 

Far from where Tim dries his feet in a trench, we glimpse of Divisional Headquarters, a colonial farmhouse turned into "a credible semblance of an English country club." Captain Puttennam-Brown, "a Coldstream officer with a tight, petulant mouth," is obsessing about wine for the mess when the General calls him in to discuss plans for patrols. Eager to complete the transport arrangements for the table wine from White Feathers Abbey, the Captain hurriedly suggests a patrol to White Farm, which he happens in the moment to see on the wall map.  

Accompanying Tim, the reader shares the sequence of feelings flowing through the patrol leader who is responsible for the men. Though he has carefully scouted the route ahead of time, moving by compass in the silent darkness fills him with doubt and fear. "Sustained concentration and the aloneness of responsibility could press on the brain till you felt it must burst and you hated those with which you could not share the burden." Finding the first landmark allows Tim to relax "in a small way," but then fatigue rolls through him "like a shock." As they walk along beside the road, his emotions change again. "While nine-tenths of his mind remain[s] frozen with alertness, concentration, and the burden of leading, the other tenth slipped into...the boredom of the infantryman, mute and sightless, forcing one foot past the other in rhythmical timeless progress through the night from nowhere to nowhere."  

In the "long brown tent" of a hospital, with its "hurt filthy figures lying on baby-blue beds packed closely together," Tim is parked beside a French officer who is trying to teach himself English. He's "a nice fellow" who sets a fine example, but Tim finds his "ineffective diligence" maddening. The hospital padre, "a small bird of a man," always comes in "as though he were already late for six other more important appointments and was fitting you in at great inconvenience." The paperback thriller he provides in response to Tim's request for a book has the last thirty pages torn out. 

The officer class, with their "parched wives from India who love rank more dearly than their husbands," are "deeply receptive to anyone officially classed as an expert." First dismissive of the "new craze for psychiatry," they laugh off the "Trick Cyclists" until the General becomes "very keen" on psychiatry. Then, "uncritically accepting something outside their ken, they litter the back areas with psychiatrists and are pained because the bad soldiers take advantage of them." 

Marching along, Tim thinks about how he heard somewhere that courage is moral capital of which everyone has a limited supply. "How much left in the bank now? Six overdrafts here, Doc." Then his mind wanders to trousers, and to the "getaway bag" devised between him and his batman after the last time he was wounded in the leg. "No more getting caught again bloody kit, no washanshave ten days, ten bloody days, no wash, no shave. Special haversack, we decided...put in books, towel, soap, socks, shave kit, toothbrush. If wounded, tie haversack to body when they send me away. Next time we'll be wounded in luxury, we said. Oh yes: and trousers...Not going to be caught again in Algiers with one trouser leg - no fear, no bloody fear."

In this stark story of the damage wrought by war, the beauty and evocation of the language offers a consoling counterpoint. Algiers represents "the paradise of Leavetown -- glamorous, sordid, beautiful, noisy, vast, crowded, desirable" as the bus groans in low gear "up the rue Michelet, the handsome main street which climbs through half a dozen hairpin turns from the heart of the port" affording tantalizing glimpses, "a kaleidoscopic impression of dense military traffic ceaselessly choking the crowded streets; of three-car trams teeming within, festooned without, with Arabs, so that you wondered how anyone inside the cars escaped or collected a fare; of mysterious smells in which garlic and charcoal and betel could be identified; of ships, warehouses, shops, offices, alleys, steps, cafes, cinemas, and tier upon tier of pretty red-roofed houses rising steeply to the peak of the hill which towered above the harbour." 

Then the town disappears and Tim finds himself in a real hospital, "large and light and antiseptic ...a well-run institution that has little to do with the war." Under the care of "real English nurses," his wound heals, and the initial joy of lying in a clean white bed palls. Sated with the sleep he wanted so badly when he arrived, he now feels the antiseptic bed constrains him like a prison. Lying there, he waits and watches for the visits of Sister Murgatroyd, a nurse he deems to have "too much character" to be beautiful or even pretty. 

After recovering from his first wound, Tim enjoys some time with a fellow officer who takes him to see a unique troop of Berber dancers, and he persuades the nurse to come on a date. After this exposure to the distance between his dreams of bliss and reality, he wants nothing more than to get back to the battalion. There, filled with responsibility and trepidation, he leads his men by night on the ill-starred patrol across landmarks they've dubbed Piecrust, Burnt Tank Ridge, Twin Tits and Bond Street.

By taking us into the minutiae of Tim's thoughts and showing us the context, Fred Majdalany takes us into the heart of deep universal themes, showing us how men lead and obey and bond and cope in war, and revealing how they view duty and responsibility and fantasize about rest and women and the variety of things that interested them -- sports and music and art -- before they were torn in youth from all hope of ever enjoying ordinary lives.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Because of the persistence of grass

Because of the persistence of grass, life goes on
Season to season, generation to generation.

Stubborn grass roots cling to the earth,
Their generations trampled and eaten down by cattle. 

With the relentless persistence of grazing animals,
We humans seek wisdom, our driving desire
As persistent as the growth and regrowth of grass.

The human quest for wisdom is as perennial as the grass.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

The War Widow by Tara Moss

Billie Walker is an experienced war correspondent whose missing European husband may or may not be dead. Back in Australia in 1946, she finds women reporters are getting sidelined to provide jobs for returned men. Needing to earn her living while awaiting news of Jack, who remains incommunicado, she moves into her late father's old office to follow in his footsteps as a private investigator.

Ms. Walker is fashionably dressed and easy on the eye. Her lipstick shade is Fighting Red. She wears a double-breasted trench coat and smokes on occasion, but avoids drinking alone. Her ally in the police is a woman, and her street informer - observant, fearless and Aboriginal - is female. Sam, her assistant, has a war-scarred hand - an asset in a dust-up. Normally shy, he takes to champagne "like some kind of truth serum." 

As well as treating readers to fresh versions of private eye tropes, Tara Moss judiciously tucks in details that reflect the atmosphere of the era. We're told that Billie's mother, like Marie Stopes, is in favour of women controlling their reproductive destinies, "despite what gray-haired men of religion had to say on the matter." We are also informed that "the great divide in Australia and elsewhere" is between those who served in the war and those who didn't.

Though not yet ready to admit her probable widowhood, Billie is well aware of the fate of the war widows of Australia - "some were objects of pity, others considered a threat." Those with children "received but a pittance," while childless widows got no pensions at all, since the men in charge believed they needed nothing more than another husband. 

In contrast to the poor and unemployed of the city, readers glimpse the lives of Sydney's upper crust. Occupying homes with maids' quarters at the top, many show off their furs and jewels at fancy clubs like The Dancers, where gangsters are known to hang out. Unconcerned about provenance, they buy up pricey art at an auction house run by a well-dressed crook. 

It is rumoured that the Australian government plans to flush out cash hoarded by war-time black-market racketeers by calling in all existing banknotes and replacing them with a new issue. As she broods over this, the detective concludes that a certain auction house is a likely place for the dirty money to be laundered before it becomes worthless.

To keep her mind off her probable widowhood, Billie loves to lose herself in the excitement of the chase. She enjoys driving her Willys 77 roadster fast - even if it means using up her petrol coupons halfway through the month. She also carries a pearl-handled Colt in her stocking top in case of need. On receiving a hand-delivered note, she's hit by jolt of adrenalim, as she's unsure "whether to expect a death threat or an invitation to tea."

Tara Moss's book is an alchemy of humour and realism. Periodic references to the recent war are described in bald and  chilling terms with references to veterans walking around Sydney with skin grafts on their faces, the result of "airman's burn." We're also told that Ravensbruck women slaves "made parts for Daimler-Benz or electrical components for the Siemens Electric Company," while others worked on Hitler's V2 rocket or "were made to pull a huge roller to pave the streets." 

Yet except when describing such harsh historic realities, the tone of the prose is generally light. The setting being Australia, there has to be a reference to a crocodile: in this case, one that escaped from a zoo. The author also has fun with double entendres. In one scene where Billie is intent on her driving as and Sam follow a gunman in a high-speed car chase, her assistant tells her he's out of bullets. "Take mine...take it now," she instructs Sam, offering her own gun from her beribboned holster, just as the wind blows her dress up to expose her thigh. 

Later, when the country cops assume Sam is the driver and car owner, we're told the "sun had set on both the day and Billie's patience." She has good reason, as the rural police seem "more suspicious of her [a woman!] driving" than of the testimony of "a soldier's attempts to bring down a couple of criminals with his long-barreled farm gun." 

Back in Sydney, she has to report to Central Police Station, where she feels the male stares at her back "as palpable as hands" and can "almost smell the testosterone." This sexist attitude greatly annoys her, because she knows that her friend Constable Annabelle Primrose "could have wrestled bank robbers with only one arm, if only they'd let her."

Throughout the book, Moss's use of language surprises, delights, and reflects the character of the feisty detective. A corrupt cop clenches his fists "tighter than a pauper grips a coin," and the auctioneer "conducts himself in a sedate and formal manner that wouldn't have been amiss in a mortician." The paid thug who makes the mistake of kicking Billie looks "underfed and over-beaten." After she pushes her hatpin into his ankle, we see him "standing on one leg like a cowardly flamingo."

Billie also shares occasional terse philosophical observations. The motivations for murder, she opines, are "money, jealousy and power." Considering the relationship between war and wealth, she thinks about "those who did well out of the debacle," and comments to Sam that "'wars wouldn't be nearly so common if no one made money from them.'" On the sober topic of mortality, she realizes how "the proximity of death taught you that you only had this moment."

A classic of its type, this book lightens the tone and shakes up the trope. As a bonus, reading this mystery includes a chance to learn a bit of history. I hope we'll soon be hearing more about the cases of Billie Walker and her sidekick Sam.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Cairo during the War by Artemis Cooper

During the period this book describes, the world was a very different place from the one we inhabit now -- indeed, even from the era in which the work was published, in 1989. "The British occupation was not popular," the author says, and  Cairo, technically a neutral city, seesawed between support and resentment of the colonial power. Today it is jaw-dropping to witness the racism, sexism, and classism that prevailed as a matter of course.

The human antics of an immense and varied cast of Cairenes and foreigners alike are most absorbing. We learn how the GHQ desk jockeys claim membership in ironically named imaginary units like Groppi's Light Horse, and we hear how Lawrence Durrell had to work to persuade the parents of his second wife -- the model for Justine in The Alexandria Quartet -- to marry him.

We are present at a famous New Year's party hosted by Princess Shevekiar, and learn that King Ahmed Fuad of Egypt was one of her four ex-husbands. We also glimpse the drunken revelries hosted at "Tara" by SAS operative David Stirling. At one of these, his eccentric roommate, a Polish aristocrat, gets into an argument with neighbours after her pet mongoose bites their cat.

We learn of The Gezira Sporting Club with its polo and racing, and many other kinds of clubs. We learn how British Egyptian official and art collector Sir Robert Greg, nicknamed Pompy for his alleged pomposity, approached the Howard Carter estate and persuaded them to return King Tut's treasures to the Egyptian Museum. Cooper also relates the sad story of King Farouk's fabulously expensive gift of chocolates, a kind of low-key political bribe which he orders from Groppi's and which is sent to the UK via Khartoum, Lisbon and Ireland, only to remain unopened on arrival in London.

Indeed, we witness the more fortunate occupants of Cairo eating and drinking sumptuously, while remaining somewhat lackadaisical about following blackout regulations. On the other hand, we learn of bread riots, sugar and paraffin shortages, and how falling cotton prices cause immense hardship to poorer Egyptians.

We learn of the Flap, a temporary period when officials, considering the fall of Cairo to the Axis powers imminent, send their wives and children to South Africa for safety, then frantically burn papers in the British Embassy lest the enemy capture them. We are told tales of spies and of drunken soldiers in the streets, including Australians with a reputation (deserved or not, we do not know) for throwing prostitutes out the window of the brothel when they finish with them.

In this meticulously researched work we also watch Cairo pass through different phases. The chaos of war plays out against internal political upheavals, affording readers a close view of the events that shook the city. We see how the attitudes and actions of King Farouk, routine British political interference, and a series of ineffective Egyptian governments caused resentment, strengthening national aspirations. 

The Epilogue offers a glimpse of the rampaging "Black Saturday riot," when many of the buildings described earlier in the book were burned down in a single afternoon. A military coup followed on July 23, 1952, and the newly appointed Prime Minister was soon asked to deliver an ultimatum to King Farouk. According to the will of the people, he must abdicate in favour of his infant son Fuad, and his family should leave the country. It was a peaceful departure; as Farouk's yacht sailed out of Alexandria, the General in charge bid him a polite farewell in the form of a 21-gun salute. 

Encouraged by Hugo Vickers to embark on this vast project of history combined with mini-biographies, author Artemis Cooper FRSL has done a brilliant job of giving readers a powerful sense of having witnessed the history of Cairo during WWII.