Ten Lords A-Leaping

By Ruth Dudley Edwards

Ten Lords A-Leaping is perhaps the best of the three Ruth Dudley Edwards books I’ve read. A strong plot, a sometimes merciless, but fair, dissection of the characters and motivations of the two sides in the fight for the banning of fox hunting and great descriptions of such institutions as the House of Lords and the English countryside.

As always, I have some problems squaring my lefty tendencies with the stance chosen by Ruth Dudley Edwards. I do think that there are better ways of fox control than having caravans of cars follow cavalry charges that follow a nightmare of dogs that follow one little fox. And I do think, too, that it’s not always necessary to mess with other people’s occupations, no matter how distasteful. It’s like adultery; it’s not something I do, but I don’t concern myself with other people’s proclivities — not even when adultery almost always means someone gets hurt. Likewise, if people want to hunt, let them hunt. And if they hunt an edible animal, so much the better, since a nice game pie with deer, pheasant, mincemeat, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, onions and eggs is definitely a Good Thing.

Anyway, her book, first published in 1995, now has been made into a fantasy by the
British government, so I wasn’t even sure where to file my note of it…

Matricide at St. Martha’s

By Ruth Dudley Edwards

This book is part of the series about Robert Amiss and Jack Troutbeck — this volume is set before Publish and be Murdered, and is another really nice read. It’s clear that Ruth Dudley Edwards’ main intellectual contention is that abuse of language to cover up for small-minded, spiteful, fuzzy thinking is something abhorrent. And in that she’s right, of course.

In this book she makes fun of the academic crowd who confuse the person who performs a certain function in a meeting with a piece of furniture, and very good fun, too. Apart from the amusing invective against the PC crowd, there are some very interesting character sketches, notably Mr. Pusey and Mary-lou, and a horribly believable plot.

On to the third installment — one about fox hunting.

Publish and Be Murdered

By Ruth Dudley Edwards

I’ve got an enormous backlog in reading matter owing to having been rather ill in the last few weeks. One of the books that have helped make the week bearable was this one. A really nice detective, I call it. There’s even a Wodehouse reference in it — rather in the open, but still.

Our hero, Robert (although it takes a few pages before we are privileged with knowing his Christian name, which makes remembering it a bit hard, especially if one’s head is stuffed with wet cotton wool) Amiss, is asked by the roprietor of a magazine that’s a cross between The Economist (and the author has done a history of The Economist) and The Gentleman’s Magazine. The magazine is costing the proprietor a few hundred thousand pounds a year to run, and Amiss is asked to cut that down a bit, within reason and the bounds of tradition. Which means two people are killed.

Nice, persuasive writing. I’m no fan of Tony Blair, but I don’t feel all that antagonistic towards him. I mean — he’s not governing my country, and we’ve got worse to deal with in the Netherlands. But on the whole I’m a far bit more to the left than The Economist, and still the author manages to persuade me when she has one of the characters tell Amiss that it’s perfectly all right if there’s one set of rules for the privileged and one set for the hoi polloi.

Fortunately that spell was broken by one look at my morning paper. Still, nice book, and I’ll read more from Ruth Dudley Edwards (funny, that anyone with a name like that can make so much fun in her own book of a person with a very similar tripartite name).

Murder at the Bookstall

By Henry Holt

Lord John and the Private Matter was a washout, and one that came at a particularly inopportune time, namely the first leg of the train journey from Deventer to Paris. The prospect of having to travel for four or five hours by train without anything decent to read is something that makes the staunchest man flinch and blanch, and while not being particularly staunch, I blanched, and flinched with the best. Fortunately succour was at had, in the form of Murder at the Bookstall, which Irina had bought for 50 cents just before our trip and which she had prudently placed in her bag. This book tided me over to Paris.

It is a puzzle detective pur sang. Nothing very inspired, but written with that command of English that seems to be the usual far at the time but is rare now. There are some interesting twists to the puzzle, too. The detective is a particularly irritating young man, though, and the description of the first love interest is only remarkable because it is the perfect description of a Cluedo token.

Still, I’m grateful to the author for having written this book, because otherwise I would have been stuck with Diana Gabaldon.

Coincidence, I think not!

I’m re-re-re-re-reading Strong Poison, one of the best, most rounded Dorothy L. Sayers novels (The Nine Tailors is good, but this one has a dramatic quality over and above that prime example of the puzzle detective novel). And reading a little more closely than usual, I suddenly found the Dowager Duchess’ remark on page 24 significant:

… I have been reading one her books, really quite good and so well-written, and I didn’t guess the murderer till page 200, rather clever, because I usually do it about page 15.

And true enough, about page 15 (13 in this edition), we get the scene where Philip Boyes is actually administered the poison. Quite clever. I wish I had a first edition: perhaps in that edition, the fatal dinner is first described on page 15.

Pick-up on Noon Street

By Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler is widely regarded as the best writer of hard-boiled thrillers, and probably rightly so. I don’t care much about the genre, so I don’t own many Chandlers. Pick-up on Noon Street contains four stories from The Simple Art of Murder, and most of them were interesting enough to finish them, especially when read with a writer’s eye.

I am still working on the novel that’s provisionally called ‘Droi’ (no, I’m not much good at titles), even though work on Krita and the current bout of pneumonia rather slows me down, and reading Chandler is a good way to pick up techniques.

It is not that I consider him a good stylist; rather an obvious one. When you get a long, run-on sentence or paragraph in the middle of a story that is mostly composed of short, bitten-off sentences, the story starts to rush, and Chandler uses that device almost painfully blatantly more than once.

Likewise, short, to-the-point introductions to characters are used when most effective; other characters are hardly introduced at all. And in some cases, as with the comic hotel detective in the last story, one wonders whether that character wasn’t just a particular writer’s darling of Chandler’s, which ought to have been excised.

In this way, reading Chandler is a lot like a writer’s education — and good fun while one is at it.

Mortal Spoils

By D.M. Greenwood

Mortal Spoils is a prime example of why you should never trust cover quotes praising a book. Has vigourously revived the clerical mystery, Writes like an affectionate but acid-penned angel’, shiningly different. The Evening Standard, the Sunday Times and the Observer are lying through their teeth.

  • Author: D.M. Greenwood
  • Title: Mortal Spoils
  • Pages: 213
  • Published: 1996
  • Publisher: Headline
  • ISBN: 0-7472-1583-0

As a certain Simon McLeish has remarked about another detective novel by D.M. Greenwood, Greenwood is a bit of a lazy author. Her characters never grow beyond stereotypes, her plot and situations are improbable, and some problems are completely glossed over.

In this book, it never becomes clear where the body is kept between its disappearance and its reappearance, and I guess it’s just temporarily not present in the world of the book…

D.M. Greenwood has worked (or is still working, I couldn’t find reliable biographical information on the web) as a civil servant for the C. of E., and no doubt she knows what she is talking about. No doubt the higher echelons of that church are staffed with self-centered careerists, and no doubt the real inspirational work is done by underpaid, ascetic chaplains. But there’s no doubt either that Greenwood is bitter — perhaps that’s where the ‘acid’ the Sunday Times natters about comes from.

However, the book has some nice features. Tom Logg, a young and enthusiastic man, is pleasant and his enthusiasm infectious. A pity Greenwood spoils that by exaggerating his enthusiasm by putting him down as eager to go to prison, because it would be new, and interesting and good material for a paper. A pity, too, that she doesn’t match him with Theodora (the virtuous chaplain). As far as I know Anglican chaplains can marry if they want to, and I would have liked a bit of romance to go with the pedestrian, Ruritanian plot.

Another thing I liked is the technical quality of the writing: smooth and lively. Engaging enough that I didn’t put the book down; I finished it in about three hours.

N.V. Mateor

By Havank (Hans van der Kallen)

An early Havank, and a fun one. But a quick notice, since I’ve been typing a lot of notices tonight, and I’m getting a bit tired.

  • Author: Havank (Hans van der Kallen)
  • Title: N.V. Mateor
  • Pages: 191
  • Published: 1966 (1938)
  • Publisher: Bruna

N.V. Mateor is about the improbable company of the same name — N.V. is equivalent to PLC. — that has as its business the blackmailing of rich people and companies by threatening their life, or the life of their loved ones.

N.V. Mateor is chiefly famous because Charles C.M. Carlier begins acquiring is PGD, or personal secret service, and because Silvere first meets his future wife, Manon.

The way Havank introduces Manon, the ‘pittige stenodactylo’ is so  thoroughly sexist that it becomes almost painful to read nowadays. In later books Havank declares that he is in favour of more equal friendship between man and woman, but in N.V. Mateor woman is still made to be the cherished plaything of the strong man.

Oh well, autres temps, autres moeurs, and Havank’s language is still as funny as it was sixty years ago. He still is, despite all attempts by newcomers, together with Van Gulik the only Dutch author of mystery novels who can play in the international league.

Havank, schets van leven en werk

By J.P.M Passage

Almost completely forgotten (although the capital of Frisia, Leeuwarden, has named the streets in a new development after characters in his books), the Dutch author Havank has been treated to only one biography; this book.

  • Author: J.P.M. Passage
  • Title: Havank, schets van leven en werk
  • Pages: 239
  • Published: 1997
  • Publisher: Uitgeverij Passage
  • ISBN: 90-5452-042-6

I still maintain that Havank is the Dutch Wodehouse in use of language, and most people will agree he is the Dutch Charteris in subject matter. But in contrast with Wodehouse and Charteris, Havank never received the recognition he deserved. His publisher made him translate Charteris at a gruelling pace while still demanding one or two fresh, own works a year. In fact, a brief look at Havank’s life shows the portrait of man who was the complete victim of his publisher.

This book is the only work that permits that brief look at Havank’s life. Being the only one makes it hard, perhaps to criticise; still, even for a book that declares itself to be just a ‘sketch of life and work’, and not a biography, it is a meager bit of work.

The style throughout reminds me of nothing so much as a high school essay. Particularly irritating are the sic! exclamations whenever the author encounters an innovative spelling in some quoted document. Passage, when writing about Havank’s gay brother, feels compelled to use the old-fashioned, and nowadays pejorative, adjective ‘homofiel’. Really, it’s only right-wing protestant ministers and Roman-Catholic bishops who use that word, nowadays.

Biography generally demands a certain distance between biographer and biographee, otherwise the biography is in risk of becoming a hagiography.

Passage cannot completely avoid that fate; but the less pleasant facets of Havank’s life, like his drinking (it’s interesting that one can follow Havank’s capacity for alcohol in how much the characters in the books drink, from coffee and little else, to brandy and wine by the litre, to coffee again), or his inability to manage his affairs.

Of course, for an author with sales that ran in the millions, Havank was ridiculously underpaid, and that meant he was always in debt with his publisher. That part of his life is very well depicted.

Anyway, the definitive biography and literary analysis this book isn’t, but it’s doubtful whether that book will ever be written, especially since all the main players in Havank’s life are dead, or dying. So, let’s be glad we have at least something.

De man uit de verte

By Havank (Hans van der Kallen)

Between 1935 and about 1975, Havank was the most popular, most widely read Dutch author. Therefore it’s no wonder that he has never received much critical acclaim. Still, i consider him not only an author of fine, formulaic mystery novels, but also as the Dutch Wodehouse. But where Wodehouse received acclaim for his similes and virtuoso use of language, Havank was derided for his Popish boarding-school type of humour.

  • Author: Havank (Hans van der Kallen)
  • Title: De man uit de verte
  • Pages: 190
  • Published: 1970 (1937)
  • Publisher: A.W. Bruna en Zoon
  • ISBN: 90 229 0110 7

Oh well… It’s been years since I last read a Havank from front to back. My father first put me on to them, just as he first gave me Judge Dee to read. Within two years after leaving home for Leyden, I had a complete collection. Not complete in the sense of having all the various prints, but I did have all the stories, and that’s what counts. Even though I would like the pre-war stories in a pre-war edition with pre-war spelling.

You see, nowadays the main claim to fame of the Havank series is not the story between the boards, but the cover of the pocket editions. These cheap ‘Zwarte Beertjes’ had covers by the internationally renowned artist Dick Bruna, father of Nijntje. Speaking for myself, I don’t care. I care for the pages between the covers.

There is a clear progression in Havank’s output. Not only from stories centered around Silvere to stories centered around his nominal subordinate Charles C.M. Carlier, but also from reasonable tightly plotted to outright outré.

De Man in de Verte (The Man in the Distance) is an early one, almost a police procedural, except that it’s clear that Havank didn’t have the faintest clue about how the police actually did work; he appears to have cribbed it all from Wallace. The novel before this one, the one I’m reading now, Het probleem van de twee hulzen, is worse. Half the book details the investigation of a house — and I don’t believe a word of it.

But, and this is the important bit, where Havank and Wodehouse touch close, even though Havank would have preferred to be compared to Dickens, both Havank and Wodehouse don’t write about the real, gritty, realistic world. They both paint something akin to a musical comedy. Wodehouse lighter, about the English upper classes, Havank seedier, about French criminals and flics, but just as comedic, just as unreal, just as liberating.

Here everyone moves according to his or her allotted place (but that’s not always a pleasure, especially when Havank lets go against Eastern European immigrants, or people with Jewish traits), people can smoke a pipe, a cigar and two cigarettes in the scope of a short conversation — and the attractive Chief Inspector of the Sûreté gets the prettiest girl on the beach, who is naturally innocent.

Good, clean, period fun, that’s my opinion, and I intend to stick to it.