Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Short Takes: Gavin Lyall's THE SECRET SERVANT

They've tried to inject the Le Carre sort of spy story -- spying is a dirty bureacratic business that tarnishes everything it touches -- with action elements ever since Le Carre plopped onto the stage. One of the better cracks at it is Lyall's Henry Maxim series, which I think debuted with the evocatively titled The Conduct of Major Maxim. It's more energetic than a typical Le Carre book, without robbing the story of a moral seriousness.

I've sadly only tracked one Lyall down, this one. Here's my notes on this one:

The first 3/4 of this is very well done indeed, the best fusion of Fleming and Le Carre I've stumbled across yet. The top European arms negotiator has a secret that could destroy him; the man to save him is Major Harry Maxim, a somewhat mysterious, recently widowed army officer on loan to British Intelligence. Astutely told and very quick-moving, extra kudos for making the goals here very small and reasonable (our heroes aren't trying to save the world, merely one man who might give the West a somewhat small edge in some ways). Falls apart at the end, because unfortunately the big secret, once revealed, turns out to be not that shocking or interesting. (Although it's rather touching Lyall thought it was.) Interesting, and despite it's flaws worth reading

I actually kept a spoiler from myself in my own notes. What's up with that? The big secret


is that the negotiator is a homosexual. See? Kind of naive.

Here's the wiki


He died a few years back -- I didn't know.

Here's an okay review from Mystery Guide that touches on some of the same points I made (although I think the idea that Dick Francis, rather than Ian Fleming, was an influence is better than mine). It ends rather stupidly by suggesting that the British are innately better stylists (they aren't, except to yahoo American ears), but the first part is good.


Here's a blog entry by the esteemable Bill Crider.


And here's a dismissal of Lyall's Midnight Plus One from some yutz who's a little too old to be playing with Live journal, you ask me.


Daphne Du Maurier -- Information

The main thing you have to say about Du Maurier fans is that they seem just so gosh-darned nice. Swell old gals, the kind who might slip you an extra mince cookie or two. Or maybe you can even con them into breaking out the apricot brandy.

Unlike most people I'll be talking about here, Du Maurier actually has her own website.


I'm not sure how well it's updated, and it seems to lack comprehensive coverage, but dammit, it sure is nice.

From the link page we find out that if you ever wanted to go to Manderly again (somebody's missed the point of Rebecca) you can go here


Why do people write these godawful fan-fiction sequels? Or prequels or whatever this is? And why do people want to read them?

Here's the kind of guileless, earnest book report that's impossible to sneer at, though it is what it is:


For once the wiki article is pretty weak, although it did link to this decent interview.


She seems quite nice! The kind of hostess who'd give you a big breakfast with fried eggs and blood pudding or whatever they eat out there in Cornwall, then maybe you get a brisk walk out along the cliffs. And then shoot a pheasant or something. And then tea with crumpets. And that really good strawberry jam, not that weak Smucker's crap you get here in the States.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Daphne Du Maurier Part Two: ECHOES FROM THE MACABRE

I mainly want to use this second part to talk about “Don’t Look Now”, which I think is a genuinely great short story and easily the best thing du Maurier ever wrote, but first let’s clear away the underbrush.

The House on the Strand, if I remember aright, is all about a guy who takes some kind of mumblety mumble secret potion that enables him to silently travel back in time, where he observes a family go through a story in the Middle Ages that I never have had the fortitude to find out much about. This novel has a strange reputation in some circles – I first heard about it in one of Neil Barron’s excellent annotated bibliographies – but I think it’s a perfect trifecta of dullness. An uninteresting narrator with uninteresting modern problems encounters an uninteresting historical story he can’t influence. Well, maybe by the end he somehow can, I don’t know, I’ve never been able to stick it out to the end.

The Scapegoat. A reoccurring theme in Western literature, especially popular literature, is the notion of the “double”. Often the double takes the place of somebody who’s just not quite up to snuff and does a better job of it – whatever “it” is.

The Scapegoat came out in the late Fifties and is, I suspect, influenced by a nifty book that nobody remembers anymore which came out around the same time, Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar. There the impostor settles into the bosom of his new family and discovers that the “original” was likely murdered: while somebody like Cornell Woolrich might use this notion as a springboard to one of his paranoid nightmares, in Tey’s book the realization is an opportunity for the protagonist to really rise to the occasion, become better than he thought he could be. It's a murder mystery variant of The Prisoner of Zenda, but an appealing one.

Du Maurier does something with this same idea, although there’s no actual murder here. There is a patented du Maurier sense of “a ghost story without a ghost”, as our protagonist is haunted by his doppleganger’s presence throughout most of the novel. I found the book mostly rewarding and interesting until the final few chapters, where I think du Maurier tries to force an ending that isn’t justified by what came before. Technically it just doesn’t work: in the ending all of our assumptions are overturned, without any especial evidence, in order I think to force a certain kind of emotional epiphany that du Maurier wanted to give the reader. This is actually a fairly common flaw in books: the writer who’s over-possessed with her idea, so much so that she’s forgotten what the story thread is actually demanding. That is one of the great wonders and mysteries of storytelling, of course: the ultimate realization that the story is beyond anyone’s control, even the author’s, and has a life of its own.

But I wax spiritual. And I digress.

Echoes from the Macabre is du Maurier’s selected story collection, and they range from some pretty forgettable stuff (“The Old Man”), to okay-but-not-as-good-as-you’d-think (“The Birds”, which isn’t much like the Hitchcock movie) to “Don’t Look Now”, which is a seriously great short story.

It is kind of a ghost story in reverse, maybe du Maurier’s definitive statement on the subject. A couple trying to recover from the death of their child are in Venice. The wife stumbles across a couple of strange old women, who are spiritualists and say that they’ve seen the spirit of the child. Then they say that the couple should leave the city – or something bad will happen. At the same time the husband starts to see visions of a small child – that looks something like their deceased child – running through the streets of Venice.

This is one of the great supernatural stories in English, I think. It works so well in so many areas – the sense of place, the unexpectedly brutal ending, the tricks with time (done in a phenomenally interesting way), the terrific, absolutely terrific introduction of the child-figure. It admits to all sorts of possible readings without ever pinning itself down to one. In the context of du Maurier’s work, as I said, it suggests itself as the definitive “non-ghost story” ghost story of du Maurier’s. It turns out that the belief in the supernatural is more “realistic” – indeed survival-oriented – than a superficial materialism. The materialist reveals himself to be so much more gullible, ultimately, than the “believer”. A ghost never clearly shows herself anywhere, yet somehow the tale is smeared over with its presence. Remarkable.

I feel I’m not doing this story justice. In the future I’m going to be doing these analyses a bit closer to publication time, so that if I do stumble upon a genuine literary classic like “Don’t Look Now” , my thoughts will be fresher and I’ll be better able to talk about it cogently. For now, read it.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Daphne Du Maurier Part One: REBECCA and MY COUSIN RACHEL

Du Maurier was one of the writers I thought of when I conceived of this project. It’s striking to me that she could, at one time, be so famous, and now be virtually forgotten. There’s still Rebecca, of course, although I’m not sure how many people really read it anymore. And occasionally there’s reissue projects: some feminist press reissued a bunch of early Du Mauriers, I seem to remember, and U Penn did a few of her more, I guess “famous” isn’t the right word anymore, “known” books.( I have their copy of The Scapegoat, actually). But she doesn’t occupy the place in the popular consciousness she once did.

There’s a lot of Du Maurier out there, and it was harder here than it has been to pick “representative” books. Rebecca and Echoes of the Macabre, which have her two short stories “The Birds” (yeah, the basis of the Hitchcock movie) and “Don’t Look Now” (which became a famous Seventies flick) were easy, but other than that? I decided to skip her straight novels like The Parasites and (for the most part) her historicals like Jamaica Inn, although you can make a good case for both, and I’d be interested to see recommendations along that line.

I decided instead to concentrate on the “uncanny” side of Du Maurier, which meant the aforementioned books, My Cousin Rachel, The Scapegoat, and The House on the Strand. Most of these don’t work – but she does have her moments.

What’s mainly interesting to me about Rebecca is not so much that it’s a Gothic. Quick working definition of Gothic: stories which play around with supernatural explanations but ultimately have rational explanations. (Yes, I know you can define “Gothic” other ways. This is just for here.) I’ve been reading a lot of John Dickson Carr, the Golden Age mystery writer, for example, and he’s a Gothic writer– rather a classic one, in fact. He sets up explicitly supernatural situations that have explicitly rational explanations: it’s a very canny update of Ann Radcliffe and The Mysteries of Udolpho.

What’s interesting to me about Rebecca is that it’s a reversal: it’s an explicitly rational story that yet, kind of, is a supernatural story. It’s a ghost story without an actual ghost – yet that doesn’t make the ghost any less real. Sort of. In a way. Du Maurier walks the tightrope very neatly here through most of this, playing this vibe of “not a ghost/ghost” as long as she can. She’s a real master of atmosphere, and allows the reader to slip from tedious ‘reality’ to something out of a grim fairly tale effortlessly, and you need that in a story like this, which is really nothing BUT the atmosphere. It’s a damn hard thing to make essentially “nothing” work in a story.

The problem with the book is that once you get the major reveal, that Rebecca was loathsome, not wonderful, the energy just deflates, like a balloon losing its air. Maxim’s subsequent efforts to avoid getting nabbed for Rebecca’s murder just aren’t that interesting – all of a sudden we’ve stepped into another, lesser story. The last bit of Rebecca is not good, although the very last scene is haunting and memorable. So, not a perfect book, I think it falters at the end, but a near-masterpiece in its way.

My Cousin Rachel is essentially Rebecca told from Maxim’s point of view. It’s too derivative to be very interesting, although it is sort of interesting as a commentary on Rebecca. One aspect of Rebecca that’s not much thought about is that we only have Maxim’s word for the awfulness of Rebecca, and he’s not exactly the most reliable of narrators. Try looking at that story again, with this in mind. Or try looking at it with the sense that the unnamed narrator herself is not reliable – at least, not in all respects. She's insecure and jealous, and it's interesting how eagerly she falls into the conniving at the climax.

Ah, well. You can go on like this forever, it's the glory of the book. Rebecca is really just a magnificent achievement in many respects – a story built almost completely out of whispers and echoes and unstated implications and wisps in the wind.


Saturday, July 01, 2006

Short Takes: Ouida's UNDER TWO FLAGS

Once famous adventure novel from a once famous writer was, I remember, dull dull dulldulldulldull. I like adventure/swashbuckling novels from this period and can take a lot of the conventions (the languid pace, the snobbish fixation on the aristocracy, the florid styles, etc.) but even I skimmed large sections of this.

There is an argument -- or really it's more vague than that, call it a point of view -- that popular literature of the past was just better than it is today. I'm sympathetic: I think it's fair to say that the average novel of 1867 (when Flags came out) is better than the average novel of today.

Unfortunately that's about worthless as anything more than a feeling. "Literature" is a generality that's meaningless except as it relates to this book or that book; it only has meaning in the examination of individual works. And it's not hard to pick out great books from today. Or crummy books from the past, like Flags.

It might not have helped that I read this in conjunction with PC Wren's absolutely masterful Beau Geste, a superior novel in every respect. Geste has a lot of the same conventions -- a sort of veddy British acceptance of Empire main among them -- but it's big advantage is that it's much more sharply written and told, with an admirable bluntness and drive. (Wren is actually an author who needs another look: I'm curious if other novels of his hold up. ) Even the introduction to my Oxford UP reprint ends up reluctantly talking about Wren before getting to Ouida herself (although John Sutherland -- I don't know either, some academic -- rather sniffily rates Wren an "inferior novelist").

(Actually it's pretty funny: this is the first time in a long time I've seen the Sutherland intro and I've forgotten the amount of apologies the poor bastard makes for Ouida. After a lengthy discussion of the text's history he eventually admits that Flags is "one volume too long". Ha!)


The Wiki article, most interesting for the Punch caricature. I don't get the joke, though. Oh, obviously 'Ouida' was a pseudonym (real name Marie Louise de la Ramee).

A great sniffy excerpt from some ancient literary encyclopedia. God, they knew how to write 'em in those days. You can almost hear the guy harrumphing.


You can read Flags online through Project Gutenberg and some other sites. Since I don't actually want you to read it, I'm not going to link to any of that. It's out there, though, if you must.

That's about it. On a usenet group I found a thread about this novel which has the following long quote:

"With the strength that lay under the gentle languor [!] of his habits and with the science of the Eton Playing Fields of his boyhood, he wrenched his wrists free ere the steel had closed, and with the single straightening of his left arm felled the detective to earth like a bullock, with a crashing blow that sounded through the stillness like some heavy timber stove in; flinging himself like lightning on the Huissier, he twisted out of his grasp the metal weight of the handcuffs, and wrestling with him was woven for a second in that close-knit struggle which is only seen when the wrestlers wrestle for life and death. The German was a powerful and firmly built man, but Cecil's science was the finer and more masterly. His long, slender, delicate limbs seemed to twine and writhe around the massive form of his antagonist like the coils of a cobra; they rocked and swayed to and fro on the stones, while the shrill, shrieking voice of Baroni filled the night with its clamour. The vice-like pressure of the stalwart arms of his opponent crushed him in till his ribs seemed to bend and break under the breathless oppression, the iron force; but desperation nerved him, the Royallieu blood, that never took defeat, was roused now, for the first time in his careless life; his skill and his nerve were unrivalled, and with a last effort he dashed the Huissier off him, and lifting him up - he never knew how - as he would have lifted a log of wood, hurled him down in the white streak of moonlight that alone slanted through the peaked roofs of the crooked by-street."

I rest my case.