Reality outwaits us all.

Bird in a Cage, by Frédéric Dard and translated by David Bellos

Albert has been away from home for six years. He returns just before Christmas to an empty apartment unchanged since his mother’s death some four years past. Albert is alone and lonely.

He heads out onto the crowded streets of his Paris suburb and goes to a grand restaurant his mother always dreamed of eating in but never dared to. Now he’ll eat in it without her. Along the way he buys “a small silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter dust” with a tiny velvet bird inside. He has no tree to decorate, but the tiny ornament is a reminder of the past he’s lost.


The restaurant is grand and traditional and packed with families and Christmas shoppers. Dard describes it rather well, including how it doesn’t even smell like an ordinary restaurant:

Chiclet’s smelled of absinthe and snails, and of old wood too.

I loved that little snippet of description. Near Albert’s table is a woman with a small child. He can’t help but observe them:

The woman looked like Anna. She had dark hair as Anna did, the same dark and almond-shaped eyes, the same dusky complexion and the same witty, sensual lips that scared me. She might have been twenty-seven, which is what Anna would have been. She was very pretty and smartly dressed. The little girl didn’t have her eyes, or her hair, or her nose, but in spite of that she still managed to look like her mother.

We don’t yet know who Anna was. The woman flirts lightly with Albert, but eventually their meals come to their end and the woman leaves with the girl. Albert leaves too:

Let me be clear: I was not following them. I picked the same street simply because it was the way to my flat.

Of course, Albert, of course. He follows them to a nearby cinema. They buy a ticket; so does he. The usherette thinks they’re together and sits him next to the woman.

I could feel the human warmth of the woman, and it overwhelmed me. The perfume of her overcoat shattered me.

He’s not sure if she’s inviting his attention or simply indifferent, but he ends up going home with her. After that, things get complicated.

Bird in a Cage is a little gem of a novel. It’s 120 pages just and brilliantly judged. By going to that restaurant, buying that little bird in a cage, Albert has walked into a situation that wouldn’t be out of place in a Clouzot film and I ate the whole book up in practically one sitting.

It’s actually difficult to say a lot more without spoiling this. I’ve not really touched on the plot and I’d strongly recommend against reading any kind of synopsis. This is a book where you want to be as lost as Albert and where you want to discover alongside him what’s really going on.

Bird has melancholy, regret, passion and murder. It’s very much a psychological piece as Albert finds himself trapped between the horror of an incomprehensible nightmare inside the woman’s flat and the dream of some desperately needed human connection in the form of the woman herself. It is very, very good and exactly the kind of book I look to Pushkin for.

There are some stylistic issues. Dard massively overuses exclamation marks and really doesn’t need to since his plot is dramatic enough without them. There was a point where I started to find that slightly jarring, but then the intensity of the story kicked in and I stopped noticing quite so much. It’s a flaw, but not a fatal one and certainly not one that would make me hesitate to recommend this book to anyone with a taste for psychological noir fiction.

I’m conscious this is a particularly short review, but far better here to say too little than too much. I’ve already bought Pushkin’s second Dard, The Wicked Go to Hell, and I look forward to more. Dard was one of these insanely prolific writers (over 300 novels according to Wikipedia) so he should keep Pushkin busy for a while yet.

Other reviews

Guy Savage at His Futile Preoccupations reviewed this here and inspired me to read it. Thanks, as so often before, are due accordingly.


Filed under Crime Fiction, Dard, Frédéric, French Literature, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

I enjoyed universal affection. I was Mrs Hawkins.

A Far Cry From Kensington, by Muriel Spark

Many (many) years ago I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I’d guess that it’s the only Muriel Spark most people have heard of (because of the film). It was excellent, but somehow I wasn’t prompted to read more. It felt like I’d read the essential work. I hadn’t of course. I’d just read the famous one.

Recently I decided to give Spark another try and I chose A Far Cry from Kensington for the simple reason that I grew up in Kensington and it seemed that might lend it some personal interest. It’s a pretty random reason to read a book, but it worked out because Far Cry is quite simply superb.

Superb incidentally is very much a post-reading judgement. Early on in Far Cry I thought it rambling and baggy. It isn’t and by the time I’d finished I realised it was one of the more tautly constructed novels I’ve read this year. Stick with it.


The book opens with the narrator, Mrs Hawkins, lying awake with her mind turning back to her time living in Kensington in 1954. Years have passed. She no longer lives in London and it wouldn’t matter if she did because the Kensington of her today is a far cry from the Kensington of back then. This is a reverie of a lost world.

In 1954 Mrs Hawkins is young and enormously fat (it’s relevant). She works in an upmarket publishing house in the West End, mostly fobbing off authors and print companies who’re all chasing payment. The business is going bust and she soon reveals that her boss Martin York eventually went to jail for fraud.

Martin York isn’t a bad man. He overextended and overjuggled and ultimately comes unstuck committing a stupid forgery in the hope of buying a little more time. At his trial the judge reproves him with the words “Commercial life cannot be carried on unless people are honest” before sentencing him to seven years. A harsh penalty for a foolish misjudgment, but the penalty for honesty is one of the themes of this book.

In the evenings Mrs Hawkins goes home to a rooming house in downmarket South Kensington. Her landlady, Milly, is a charming but still respectable Irishwoman who runs a reputable house. The other tenants include a quietly middle-aged married couple, a medical student, a district nurse, a young woman with family income, and a polish dressmaker named Wanda Podolak. Like the publishing house few of them have much money. The difference between the people at work and at home is one of attitude, or perhaps of honesty:

At Milly’s in South Kensington, everybody paid their weekly rent, however much they had to scrape and budget, balancing the shillings and pence of those days against small fractions saved on groceries and electric light; at Milly’s, people added and subtracted, they did division and multiplication sums incessantly; and there was Kate with her good little boxes marked ‘bus-fares’, ‘gas’, ‘sundries’. Here, in the West End, the basic idea was upper class, scornful of the bothersome creditors as if they were impeding a more expansive view.

Both at Milly’s and at work Mrs Hawkins is much relied upon:

There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in me. I looked comfortable.

There are two more key elements to throw into the mix. The first is at work:

At this point the man whom I came to call the pisseur de copie enters my story. I forget which of the French symbolist writers of the late nineteenth century denounced a hack writer as a urinator of journalistic copy in the phrase ‘pisseur de copie’, but the description remained in my mind, and I attached it to a great many of the writers who hung around or wanted to meet Martin York; and finally I attached it for life to one man alone, Hector Bartlett.

Hector Bartlett: he’s hanger-on to the famous and highly regarded author Emma Loy; a writer of terrible prose who uses his connections to get published; a man so petty that when in one scene a dog in a pub snaffles part of his sausage roll he dunks the remaining bit in mustard before feeding it to the unsuspecting animal.

Bartlett is entirely without merit, but nobody in the publishing world dares say so because Emma Loy is too important to upset. Nobody that is save Mrs Hawkins who calls him a “pisseur de copie” to his face and then repeats the phrase to anyone who asks what she did to offend him. If challenged why she said such a thing she merely replies that it’s true and says it again.

The second key element  is at home. Wanda Podolak receives a poison pen letter:

Mrs Podolak, We, the Organisers, have our eyes on you. You are conducting a dressmaking business but you are not declaring your income to the Authorities. Take care. An Organiser.

The only people who know about Wanda’s business are her friends, housemates and clients. The letter must come from someone she knows and trusts and that fact poisons her life. Someone is smiling to her face but intent on harming her.

Emma Loy has Mrs Hawkins fired for the pisseur de copie remark and over the course of the novel continues to make Mrs Hawkins’ life difficult. Loy has power in Hawkins’ world but Hawkins isn’t willing to cover her truth with a convenient lie. Mrs Hawkins suffers for her honesty, but at least knows where she stands and who stands against her. Wanda by contrast is completely lost.

Perhaps at this point you can see why I initially found the book a bit baggy. There was so much going on: the collapsing publishing house; the feud with Hector Bartlett and Emma Loy; Mrs Hawkins’ subsequent publishing jobs; the poison pen problem. Amidst all this Mrs Hawkins constantly makes retrospective asides to the reader commenting on the situations she encountered or the people she met while all this was going on. All I can say that Muriel Spark knows what she’s doing and is in complete control of her material. You can trust her.

What particularly stands out for me in Far Cry is the lightness of Spark’s touch. This is a very funny book. Mrs Hawkins is constantly offering advice, both to those around her and to the reader. She loses weight by just eating half of whatever’s put in front of her and offers this as a tip to the overweight reader “without fee, included in the price of the book”. Every few pages she passes someone “some very good advice”, and much of it is pretty good but there’s certainly a lot of it. My favourite, easily, was this:

It is a good thing to go to Paris for a few days if you have had a lot of trouble, and that is my advice to everyone except Parisians.

Quite. What could one add?

The comedy leavens the tragedy. There’s a lot of serious stuff here: embittered hack writers; an imprisonment for fraud; the poison pen letters; and later some of the characters attach far too much credence to the quack-claims for an obviously fake box-apparatus that supposedly can be used to heal the sick (to me fairly obviously based on Orgone boxes save that here you don’t climb inside).The material could choke, but as with Bainbridge the treatment is so light that even at its darkest the book is a delight to read.

I’ll end with one final quote, taken from one of Mrs Hawkins later jobs where she becomes a literary editor. Her approach is one I would recommend to anyone else considering that profession:

‘When you are editing copy, Mrs Hawkins, what sort of things do you look for?’ said Howard Send. ‘Exclamation marks and italics used for emphasis,’ I said. ‘And I take them out.’

My advice to any aspiring writer who may happen to read this is to do as Mrs Hawkins does. She is, in this and many other things, quite right.

Other reviews

I actually don’t have any noted, but I suspect I may have missed some. If I have please let me know in the comments.


Filed under Spark, Muriel

something about the darkness of the streets has a meaning

Voyage in the Dark, by Jean Rhys

This is England, and I’m in a nice clean English room with all the dirt swept under the bed.

Rhys is the poet of hypocrisy and unspoken disapproval. Voyage is the third in her series of four novels exploring the experience of women facing the indifferent cruelty society reserves for those who don’t quite fit.


Anna Morgan is a teenager recently come to the UK from the Caribbean. Her father died and her stepmother pointedly had no place for her, so to England it was. It’s not a voluntary homecoming, or any kind of homecoming at all for that matter. Anna loved the Caribbean, the warmth and colour of it. She was mostly raised by her family’s black housekeeper and (to her stepmother’s disgust) played with the mixed race children. She sees blacks as “warm and gay”, whites as “cold and sad”, which given she’s white says more about her than it does about race relations.

Anna finds England a dismal and dispiriting place. She works as an actress, barely surviving. Her outlook is bleak, as reflected in this quote where she sees a couple kissing:

A man and a girl were leaning against the railings in Berwick Square, kissing. They stood without moving in the shadow, with their mouths glued together. They were like beetles clinging to the railings.

There’s a lot to pull out there. “A man and a girl”, already a power imbalance. That image of their mouths glued together which seems to me somehow nauseating and nauseated. Then the beetle imagery. Anna isn’t a romantic. Except, of course, that she is. How can you be 18 and an actor and not be a romantic?

Anna shares a room with her friend Maudie, also a showgirl. While walking one evening they meet two men who pick them up and buy them drinks. Anna later goes to dinner with one of them at his club and sleeps with him there. It’s the price you pay for the food and company. It’s expected. He puts money in her handbag before she leaves. It wouldn’t do to give it to her directly, she’s not a prostitute after all.

The man is Walter and Anna’s relationship with him is inherently unequal. He’s older and richer. They meet at his club or other places he chooses. She loves him. He pays her rent. It’s not what Anna was looking for but it’s not as if there’s much better on offer.

Of course, you get used to things, you get used to anything. It was as if I had always lived like that. Only sometimes, when I got back home and was undressing to go to bed, I would think, ‘My God, this is a funny way to live. My God, how did this happen?’

Anna places her hopes on Walter, too young to realise what she is to him. When he dumps her he does so by having a friend write to her (cheque enclosed, naturally). It’s the Edwardian equivalent of dumping someone by text. It’s cowardly, though by his own lights Walter hasn’t behaved badly. Surely Anna wouldn’t have expected him to marry her? He treated her well when they were together, let her down as politely as he could, gave her a reasonable sum to tide her over until she finds another man. What more could he do? All he asks now is that she return any of his love letters that she may have kept so as to avoid potential future embarrassment.

Walter isn’t the only one to treat Anna shabbily. Her landladies judge her; when she visits her family in England they want nothing to do with her; her stepmother’s written her off. Anna has no skills, no contacts, nothing to offer save herself to whatever man might be interested.

In modern parlance Anna is depressed, and Voyage in the Dark is (among the many other things it is) a masterful exploration of depression as lived experience. At night she can’t keep her thoughts at bay, by day she can distract herself until the next night:

When it was sad was when you lay awake, and then it began to get light and the sparrows started – that was when it was sad, a lonely feeling, a hopeless feeling. When the sparrows started to chirp.

But in the daytime it was all right. And when you’d had a drink you knew it was the best way to live in the world, because anything might happen. I don’t know how people live when they know exactly what’s going to happen to them each day. It seems to me that it’s better to be dead than to live like that. Dressing to go and meet him and coming out of the restaurant and the lights in the streets and getting into a taxi and when he kissed you in the taxi going there.

In most books sparrows chirping would be a symbol of hope. Rhys is better than that, smarter. Here the sparrows are just another reminder of exclusion and irrelevance. Depression is a stained glass window all in grey. Everything outside is coloured by it.

The language here brings the reader within Anna’s experience. I opened a page at random while writing this piece and found a chapter beginning as follows:

There were two slices of dark meat on one plate, two potatoes and some cabbage. On the other plate a slice of bread and a lemon-cheese tart.

‘I’ve brought you up the bottle of vermouth and the siphon you asked for,’ the landlady said. This one had bulging eyes, dark blobs in a long pink face, like a prawn.

We move seamlessly from a fairly prosaic description of the meal to the line about the vermouth (which tells us that Anna is drinking) and then to the description of the landlady who has herself become a sort of unappetising food. The text is suffused with disgust. Note too that “This one”. Like the men, the landladies change particulars but not nature.

In a decade or so Anna will be Julia Martin of After Leaving Mr Mackenzie. Both live by sharing their emotions and their bodies with men who’ll move on in due course to something more permanent. Both are honest, but nobody wants their honesty. If they were of a higher social class, if they had money, they could live independently but they don’t so they can’t. That doesn’t leave many options.

At the same time Rhys avoids the simplicity of saying it’s all society’s fault. At one point Anna shares with a woman named Ethel, who tries to make a go of herself with a small business. Anna finds that incomprehensible, turning instead to Maudie and another friend Laurie who live outwardly glamorous and inwardly shabby lives wearing clothes bought for them by the men they go out with. It’s another manifestation of depression – Anna finds it easier to drift and to depend on the men she meets than to adopt Ethel’s puritan work ethic.

Novels about teenagers are usually about learning self-reliance, becoming yourself (whoever that might be), finding confidence and discovering the world. Anna discovers the world all right, but she doesn’t like it much and it doesn’t have much time for her. Later in the novel when she meets another man she reflects “My mouth smiled at him.” It’s a true but chilling line (something I could say of a great many of the sentences here). It’s ok though. He only wants her mouth smiling, that outward show. He doesn’t really care if the smile remains once he leaves the room. They never do.

Other reviews

The two I’d immediately single out are by the Lonesome Reader, here, and by Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Blog, here. Both rightly pick out the same key quote:

Soon he’ll come in again and kiss me, but differently. He’ll be different and so I’ll be different. It’ll be different, I thought. ‘It’ll be different, different. It must be different.’

Of course, it won’t be.


Filed under Modernist Fiction, Rhys, Jean

The dead man had been killed by a shot from a revolver. So what was the prussic acid doing there?

The Murdered Banker, by Augusto De Angelis and translated by Jill Foulston

Piazza San Fedele was a bituminous lake of fog penetrated only by the rosy haloes of arched street lamps.

So far there seem to be two very distinct strands to the Pushkin Vertigo imprint. On the one hand there are intense psychological thrillers like Vertigo and She Who Was No More. On the other are highly traditional cosy crime/whodunnit novels like The Murdered Banker, only written by European authors less well-known to an English-speaking audience.

I’m not a huge fan of whodunnits in English so I’m probably not the best audience for them in translation. Despite that I was tempted to try a De Angelis and quite frankly I got the titles mixed up and forgot this was the one that the ever-reliable Guy Savage didn’t particularly rate. Oh well.


Inspector De Vincenzi is relaxing on a foggy night at his Milanese police station with a pile of books kept carefully out of the public’s view. He’s reading Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent and has Plato’s Eros and the Epistles of St Paul standing by in a drawer. Already we’ve established the kind of man he is: an intellectual, but not one indifferent to the impression he presents to those seeking his help.

Unexpectedly, his old friend Aurigi walks in claiming to have spent the past few hours wandering the streets in the freezing fog. Shortly after comes a call: a dead body has been found in Aurigi’s apartment. De Vincenzi is convinced that his old friend couldn’t be a murderer, but he has no alibi and when it turns out that the dead man is a banker to whom Aurigi owed a substantial debt that he couldn’t pay the case starts to look open and shut regardless of De Vincenzi’s doubts.

The problem is that while the police have a corpse, a motive and a suspect with no alibi there are facts at the scene that don’t add up. Why was a full bottle of prussic acid left at the scene given the victim was shot? Why would Aurigi commit the crime in his own apartment and leave himself without alibi? Why is the clock running one hour fast?

The oddest thing with The Murdered Banker is that early on De Vincenzi and another officer comment on how horrifically mysterious and inexplicable it all is, as later do De Vincenzi and Aurigi:

“You can’t trust appearances,” Maccari said, looking at him and shaking his head. “I have a feeling there’s something behind this that’s escaping us at the moment. Something horrible and unnatural. Too awful to contemplate.”

“I’m afraid—do you understand? I’m frightened of knowing what happened in here!

Both men stood looking beyond the door of the room to the door of the apartment. It was opening. From that moment on, the door took on the function of Destiny, determining the course of events each time it swung open like a terrible Nemesis.

I could quote more on those lines. It’s all terribly dramatic, but it quickly turns out that while the facts are complex and need a fair bit of investigation to untwine there’s nothing horrible or unnatural here nor ever any hint (other than the characters’ own statements) that there might be. To add to a slight sense of melodrama there’s also a bit of the stage-play to it all, with almost all the action taking place in Aurigi’s apartment with the characters wandering on and off-stage but returning each time to the same few rooms.

De Vincenzi soon determines that this is a murder with too many clues and, after a while, too many suspects (and more than one doubtful confession). He resignedly observes:

if one dismisses the idea of premeditation in this crime, it couldn’t have happened. And if one allows for it, it couldn’t have been carried out the way it appears to have been.”

It’s mysterious, but at the end of the day it’s still a man shot in a front room and several people who might be guilty (each for fairly understandable reasons). De Vincenzi oversells the horror in a book that (rightly) contains nothing horrific.

It’s all very clearly inspired by Agatha Christie, acknowledgedly so since one character quite directly says to De Vincenzi  “Oh, you have only to get the little grey cells of your brain working!” which is about as clear a shout-out as every you might hope for.

The character that quote comes from is the sadly underused Harrington – a flashy local PI brought in to shadow De Vincenzi’s investigation who adopts an English name for professional purposes. Harrington doesn’t really do much and the story would be much the same without him, which is a bit of a shame since to be honest I’d be more interested in following the adventures of a rather spivvy private investigator than yet another unusually insightful police inspector.

As always with this kind of novel there are some apparent coincidences that turn out to be anything but, and some others that really are coincidences. Arguably it’s a bit arbitrary that so much happens on the same night, but then the novel is about a case that’s tough to crack and if part of the reason its tough is a chance muddying of the investigative waters that’s fair enough. Besides, as De Vincenzi rightly observes: “wasn’t everything about real life and reality a bit arbitrary?”

In the end this is a rather slight affair which doesn’t quite fulfil the dramatic expectations it sets up early on. It’s fun and I may still read The Hotel of the Three Roses (great title if nothing else), but it shows that it’s De Angelis’ first try and I think readers who aren’t completists could happily skip on to some of his hopefully more polished later outings.

Other reviews

Guy Savage’s review, which I really should have read afresh before buying this since I entirely agree with it, is here. If you know any others please do let me know.


Filed under Crime Fiction, De Angelis, Augusto, Italian Literature, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

“There’s a crippled gentleman at the door. And he wants to see you!”

Corrigan, by Caroline Blackwood

Corrigan is a blackly comic novel about an encounter between a bereaved old woman and a persuasive but somewhat untrustworthy fast-talking Irishman in a wheelchair. I expected to love it. I didn’t.


Mrs Blunt is adrift after the death three years past of her husband, the Colonel. Her life revolved around him and depended on him; so much so that after he died she even had to learn how to write a cheque. She still can’t drive.

She lives quietly with the only highlight of her week being her visit to his grave. She barely eats. Her daughter, Nadine, lives in London in a seemingly perfect marriage. The two rarely talk.

Mrs Blunt’s life ended with the Colonel’s death. Now she’s just waiting for her own death – an inconveniently delayed coda.

She sees nobody save her working class Irish housekeeper Mrs Murphy. If Mrs Blunt is nearly a ghost, Mrs Blunt is all too alive:

Mrs Murphy never climbed Mrs Blunt’s stairs, she always stormed them like a military unit making a headlong charge to gain some useful vantage-point. She was very short and her squat body carried enormous weight. Yet she still moved around the house with a pointless but frenetic speed. When she charged up Mrs Blunt’s staircase, she always managed to make the carpet slippers that she wore, since shoes hurt her swollen feet, sound just as menacing as the running tread of regimental boots.

This drab and declining status quo changes one day when a thin Irishman comes wheeling up to the house raising funds for St Crispin’s care home. He explains that when he lost the use of his legs St Crispin’s looked after him and gave him a sense of purpose, as it does for others left maimed or disfigured. He now wheels door-to-door raising collections as while the home’s staff are skilled and compassionate its facilities are depressingly run-down and decrepit.

Corrigan is a persuasive fellow, loquacious and passionate. He refuses to take money from Mrs Blunt saying that he can’t take donations from a widow who must be struggling herself. It’s obvious though that she’s rich, and from that moment he cannily refuses her Mrs Blunt is hooked.

Nadine meanwhile has her own problems. Her husband Justin writes newspaper opinion pieces and appears at times on TV again spouting out his great and good opinions. Her two young children are wild and spoiled. Her life is a facade. She hardly ever speaks to her mother now, feeling excluded by the intensity of her mother’s grief:

[Nadine] felt that her mother was depriving her of her father in death, just as she had always seemed to deprive her of her father in life. The Colonel had always been very kind to Nadine. She couldn’t remember a single occasion when he’d ever been angry with her. But although he had treated her with courtesy and gentleness, he had given her a sense of defeat. All through her childhood she had endlessly striven to become the centre of his affections, and she had always failed.

Isn’t that last sentence devastating?

Corrigan gets Mrs Blunt writing to another crippled man still resident at St Crispin’s, and she finds herself sharing her thoughts and feelings with this never-met correspondent in a way she’s so far been quite unable to do with anyone in person. She starts to question how little she does with her money and her remaining time, and decides that if Corrigan with nothing can wheel himself from house to house why can’t she with so much do something?

Soon she’s having the downstairs of her home converted so Corrigan can move in; is turning the garden into a vegetable allotment to provide fresh produce for the home; she learns to drive and discovers that she has a sharp eye for spotting bargains in antique sales, reselling her finds to raise yet more money; she and Corrigan eat richly, drink champagne and quote poetry to each other. Before him she’d barely read a book. She takes up painting and discovers a talent for it.

To the reader (and you don’t have to be an attentive reader) Corrigan is plainly not quite all he seems. He’s appeared from nowhere and now everything Mrs Blunt does seems to be about him. She sends large amounts of money as he directs. But Mrs Blunt is alive again, and what price isn’t worth paying for that?

What works here is the characters. Corrigan may be a con-man, but he’s one who at least in part believes his own fiction. He’s living off Mrs Blunt’s generosity, but he clearly genuinely likes her too and he’s desperately jealous of her showing loyalty or affection for anyone else. He’s a passionate rogue; a likeable villain; controlling and insecure yet somehow forgivable all the same.

Mrs Blunt could feel the champagne fizzing in her brain. Corrigan’s voice was mellifluous. She was mesmerised by the intensity of the stare of his blue-green eyes.

Nadine by contrast is a desperately sad figure, marginalised in her own life. Here she’s shocked near-senseless by an unexpected letter from her mother describing how Mrs Blunt has started buying up neighbours’ land on which to grow even more vegetables for the disabled:

Justin came into the kitchen while Nadine was trying to absorb the unexpected contents of her mother’s letter. He sat down at the pine breakfast table and started to read the papers with the nonchalance of a man in a restaurant waiting to be brought a meal.

Nadine made him some coffee and fried him some eggs.

Mrs Murphy is a bit of a cliché, but she’s a likable one and the descriptions of her war-whooping with Nadine’s children or dropping cigarette ash into her baking were small details that brought much needed (and skilfully inserted) life to the scenes where Nadine visits Mrs Blunt. I thought the depiction of her a bit patronising, but like Corrigan she’s a vital force set against the sterile insularity of Nadine and Justin and (initially at least) Mrs Blunt.

So why didn’t I like it? In short, it over-explained. With the notable exception of Corrigan the text constantly told me what people felt and why they felt it. Look back to that quote above regarding Nadine and her parents. It’s well written, but it’s basically exposition. Most of it is much more obvious than that.

If I’m reading some plot-driven thriller then I don’t mind if the author explains everything because it’s all about the story and I’m just looking to be entertained. With serious fiction though I like to have something to do, something to contribute. Here I felt extraneous.

As the book nears its close Nadine’s best friend gets involved trying to resolve the situation and is there to see how things finally shake out. She then sits down with Nadine and literally explains how she sees the other characters’ motivations and how Nadine should view them all. Of course, the friend is just another character in the fiction, but there was no unreliability in her and it seemed very much that Blackwood was essentially telling me what to think about what had happened. I didn’t disagree, but I’d have liked the chance to form my own conclusions.

Corrigan leaves nothing for the reader to do. There’s nothing to interpret and no ambiguities – most motivations are bluntly described as they arise and those that aren’t are summed up by the friend at the end. It’s obvious that Corrigan’s not what he appears and it’s equally obvious that ultimately his lies don’t matter against the new life he gives Mrs Blunt. Blackwood though spells all that out, and in doing so makes this a lesser book.

The afterword and other reviews I’ve read make a great deal of the fact that nobody here turns out to be quite what we expect; that relationships may not be as they appear. I think that’s oversold. Corrigan’s twisted dishonesty with genuine affection is clearly better than Justin’s pompous honesty with genuine indifference, but that’s obvious and I thought the book was too.

Other reviews

Only this one that I’ve seen, from Seraillon, who says absolutely loves this and says that only the “most rigid of teetotalers” might not find it enjoyable. Hopefully for most that’s right, but I was bored.


Filed under Blackwood, Caroline

“I’m a scientist, not a not a bloody politician.”

The Small Back Room, by Nigel Balchin

Nigel Balchin is one of a great many authors who were once highly popular and are now largely forgotten. The public move on, tastes change, and writers who were once household names fade from view.

To an extent that’s a good thing. We have to let go of some of the old writers to make space for the new, and forgetting writers allows us to discover them again as if they were new themselves.

From that perspective I can say that Nigel Balchin is one of the most exciting new writers I’ve read this year. The fact his The Small Back Room was first published in 1943 doesn’t change that at all.


Sammy Rice is a scientist working in a small quasi-official research group. The group’s headed by the “Old Man”, Professor Mair, but Mair’s past his best and Sammy is now easily the most technically adept of the team and quite possibly the brightest. He’s an extremely talented man.

Unfortunately, he’s also a fairly self-destructive man. He’s struggling with a drink problem which he keeps in check, but only just; he’s in a relationship with the number-two’s secretary which neither of them can admit to since it’s a workplace romance; and while he’s an unsentimental sort he’s dangerously prone to self-pity.

Here’s how the novel opens:

In 1928 my foot was hurting all the time, so they took it off and gave me an aluminium one that only hurt about three-quarters of the time.

Mair’s number two is Waring, a former ad-executive. Mair has the ear of the minister and that’s what gives their little outfit its reach and clout, but Mair’s an ivory-tower sort with no instinct for politics. Waring by contrast is all about the salesmanship. Mair and the rest of the team come up with the ideas and Waring makes them happen.

The problem is Waring doesn’t understand the science and sometimes makes promises the scientists struggle to deliver. Recently he’s promoted a new type of anti-tank weapon that Mair was quite fond of, but Sammy’s researched it and the weapon’s a dog. The army is already complaining it’s too complex and will cost lives, but the minister’s been briefed and wants it to happen and nobody wants to say no to the minister.

That’s all very wartime and specific, except of course that if you just change the details a little nothing’s really changed. For the minister read a CEO, for Mair senior management, for Waring middle management, and for Rice someone on the front line trying to tell a lot of very senior people that they’ve got it wrong…

For Rice the question isn’t what the minister wants or who’s fond of which device but what the science says. He’s aware that departmental politics can mean one project gets approved and another canned and he knows that which is which can have little to do with their quality. Even so, he disdains politics, is loyal to the Old Man and rather looks down on Waring. It’s because of that he keeps finding himself blindsided by him:

As I went upstairs I wondered whether the point was that Waring was clever or that I was dumb. It was always the same story. He’d say something in his careless way that got you darned angry. Then as soon as you tackled him he’d open his eyes very wide and explain that he’d meant something else quite innocent. The trouble was that other people only heard the first bit. They didn’t hear the explanation.

Meanwhile, Rice has been asked unofficially to help look into a new type of bomb the Germans have developed. It’s a small device and particularly lethal as it lies on the ground until picked up and then detonates. So far it’s killed everyone who’s encountered one, including several children.

The bomb project is exactly the sort of thing that interests Rice: a purely technical challenge with no messy interdepartmental issues to worry about. Back at his day job though powerful forces within the Ministry of Defence are moving against Mair and his little outfit and Rice’s refusal to play politics could cost him.

Small Back Room has one of the best portrayals of the quiet viciousness of internal politics that I’ve seen. There’s a tremendous scene where various scientists, army officers and officials are gathered to consider the new anti-tank weapon. Mair is too grand and remote to realise that the meeting’s a power play and that his job could be on the line. Rice is too honest to lie when asked point-blank what he thinks of the weapon. It’s an avoidable disaster. Waring of course was the weapon’s chief champion so logically you’d think he’d be most damaged. He gets promoted.

At the same time Small Back Room is an astute psychological portrait of self-sabotage. Rice prefers to stay above the fray, let things go wrong and then complain rather than take control and risk getting his hands dirty. It’s clear from the start of the book that Mair’s days are numbered and that he’ll soon be put out to grass, but Rice would rather wait for it to happen than position himself as a potential successor – a role he’s amply suited for and which is his for the taking.

Rice’s long-suffering girlfriend, Susan, can see that he’s unhappy but can’t force him to take responsibility for his own life. She worries that her presence gives him just enough comfort that he doesn’t feel the need to fix the rest of his life, but she can’t leave because they do love each other and she can see his ability even as it frustrates her that he wastes it.

Rice battles his drive to drink with little rules and games and mostly succeeds. In fact it’s one of the best illustrations of someone successfully fighting alcoholism I’ve seen, but while he seems mostly to be winning he hasn’t won. He’s stuck; not moving forward and not happy where he is.

Rice has a lot to prove: to himself; to Susan, to the world. Increasingly the problem of the bomb starts to look like an answer. If he can work out how this new bomb is triggered, why it’s so dangerous and how to disarm it perhaps that one success will make the rest of his life a success. Perhaps.

There’s much more I could say (and in an earlier draft, did). What’s important though is that I thought Small Back Room absolutely exceptional. It manages to make an interdepartmental meeting almost as tense as a scene of a single man desperately trying to defuse a type of bomb that’s killed everyone else who’s come near it. It’s tightly written, convincing and genuinely tense. It deserves rediscovering.

Other reviews

I discovered this thanks to Guy Savage of His Futile Preoccupations. His review is here. Interestingly Clive James also wrote about Balchin and this novel here, though he discusses more of the plot than I do (and I don’t entirely agree with his take on the ending).


Filed under Balchin, Nigel, Military Fiction

Talk and cock is all I got

The Transmigration of Bodies, by Yuri Herrera and translated by Lisa Dilllman

Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World remains the leading contender for my book of the year. I was blown away by his use of myth and language to create something that seemed both archetypal and yet wholly new.

The Transmigration of Bodies isn’t in that league, but it’s still well worth reading. Signs married classical Greek and Aztec mythology to a contemporary plot; Transmigration does something similar, save that here the mythology is that of Sam Spade and Lew Archer, the mythology of hardboiled and noir fiction.


Love that cover. Here’s the opening sentences, as hardboiled as you could wish:

A scurvy thirst awoke him and he got up to get a glass of water, but the tap was dry and all that trickled out was a thin stream of dank air. Eyeing the third of mezcal on the table with venom, he got the feeling it was going to be an awful day.

That him is “The Redeemer”, a lawyer and general fixer who gets things done for people who need things doing and who doesn’t ask too many questions. He’s a man who “excelled at nothing but the ability to diminish malediction; to free folks from cell blocks, or their own promises.” Right now he’s holed up in his apartment long on hangover and short on food and water, but unwilling to go out since an epidemic which the government has indicated “may be a tad more aggressive than we’d initially thought” is sweeping the country leaving bodies and chaos in its wake.

He whiles away the time drinking mezcal and fooling around with his neighbour the “Three-Times Blonde”. Her boyfriend’s not at home and nobody wants to travel and risk exposure to infection. The Redeemer may never get another opportunity to screw the Three-Times Blonde, but there’s no condoms and anyway local crime boss the “Dolphin” (so nicknamed for having “burned a hole in his nose snorting too much blow”) calls up with a job. Down these mean streets a man must go…

The job’s a messy one. They always are. The Dolphin’s son’s been kidnapped by a rival crime family, and in return he’s kidnapped one of theirs, Baby Girl. Problem is she’s dead, killed by the epidemic. That’s bad, but it turns out Dolphin’s son’s dead too of a hit and run. Both families have kidnapped corpses, but they still need an exchange so they can bury their own and for an exchange to work you need middlemen to make the necessary arrangements.

The Redeemer takes local heavy the Neeyanderthal along by way of muscle, but mostly he does his job through a mix of attitude and chat:

He helped the man who let himself be helped. Often, people were really just waiting for someone to talk them down, offer a way out of the fight. That was why when he talked sweet he really worked his word. The word is ergonomic, he said. You just have to know how to shape it to each person. One time this little gaggle of teenage boys had gone to the neighbor’s on the other side of the street and stoned the windows and kicked the door for a full half-hour, shouting Come on out, motherfucker, we’ll crack your skull, and the pigs hadn’t deigned to appear; that was one of the first times the Redeemer had done his job. He went out, asked in surprise how it was they’d yet to bust down the door and added You want, I’ll bring you out a pickax right now, and that sure calmed them down; see, it’s one thing to front, to act like a big thing, but burning bridges, well that’s a whole ’nother thing. Soon as he saw what was what the Redeemer added: Tho, really, why even bother, right? Man’s in there shitting himself right now, and they all laughed and they all left.

The language here is a mix of high-end and slang. Words get thrown in like dieresis, ergonomic, but though is shortened throughout to tho. Everyone who can be given a nickname has one, so much so that when a character is described by their actual name I wondered why they didn’t stand out enough to get called something new.

The Redeemer’s equivalent working for the other family is the Mennonite. Dolphin’s daughter is the Unruly. Names here have power. A name captures character while providing protection and camouflage. If you call the Redeemer you expect redemption, his name is his calling card, but his personal life stays screened behind it and he can remain both public and anonymous. That’s useful whether you’re dealing with criminals or the authorities (assuming you can draw a distinction).

The epidemic has stripped their world back to its essence, but there’s a sense it hasn’t changed anything. Even before the police and government withdrew they were never in charge. If you have a problem you go to one of the families or you go to the Redeemer or the Mennonite or someone like them. If you know something you keep your mouth shut about it, and if you don’t know anything you pretend you do. It’s a world of connections, favours owed and repaid, social currency.

As with Signs there’s some lovely imagery. I’ve discarded more quotes than I’ve used here, but I couldn’t resist this one from a brothel the Redeemer visits while working out what happened to the dead son:

One girl was dancing before a cluster of liquored-up fools, naked but for the mask over her mouth; each time she leaned close she made as if to take it off, and the boozers whooped in titillation.

Sex and death. There’s nothing like a crisis to take us back to the essentials. The epidemic allows Herrera to cut away everything but that he wishes to explore: existence in anarchy; the use of informal social networks where formal ones are inadequate; navigating a world where potentially lethal violence is rarely more than a wrong word away. The parallels with Mexico as it actually is today are obvious. The epidemic will burn itself out, nobody here thinks it’s the end of the world, but when it does all that will change is more people on the streets. That and it’ll be easier to find an open pharmacy in which to buy some condoms.

While I don’t think this has quite the depth of Signs it’s still a fun read that works well as noir novel and reasonably well as social allegory. I was left with a sense of futility; all this effort to exchange people already dead. At the same time there is a nobility here; all this effort to exchange people already dead. It’ll be interesting to see how this one settles in memory.

Other reviews

Unsurprisingly, there are many. Tony of Tony’s Reading List reviewed it here; Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes here (I absolutely agree with his final two paragraphs); and David Hebblethwaite wrote two posts on it, one on the use of names in the fiction here and the other on networks and conversations here. I also rather liked this James Lasdun review in the Guardian, which is a little more critical of it than I am (though still overall positive). I’m sure there are many more, and if you wrote one or know of one please do leave a link in the comments.


Filed under Hardboiled, Herrera, Yuri, Mexican Literature

Being a man was too difficult.

She Who Was No More, by Boileau-Narcejac and translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

A year or so back I saw Clouzot’s superb Les Diaboliques, a film which beats Hitchcock at his own game. What I didn’t know then is that it’s based on this novel, by writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac who also wrote the novel Vertigo was based on.

The plot of Les Diaboliques is pretty well-known now, despite the film famously having a plea before the end credits asking audiences not to spoil the ending for others. Just in case anyone reading this doesn’t know it though I’ll avoid spoilers here. Boileau-Narcejac meant the reader to be uncertain what was going on and if you get the chance to read this cold I suspect it’ll be much more effective.


I love these Pushkin Vertigo covers.

Ravinel is a travelling salesman. He sells fishing gear, and is so good at making artificial lures that there’s an entire page in his company’s brochure dedicated solely to his creations. It’s the only thing he’s good at.

Ravinel is married to the pretty and pleasant Mireille. There’s no great reason they shouldn’t be happy enough, save for their doctor Lucienne who’s having an affair with Ravinel and has persuaded him to kill Mireille for the insurance money. Ravinel is too weak to say no or to ask why he’s planning to kill a perfectly decent woman at the behest of another he doesn’t even particularly like.

Lucienne is the driving force here. She’s cold, ambitious and greedy. When Ravinel has sex with her it’s hasty and functional. He has a poor heart and afterwards she often checks how his pulse is faring. Personally I’d find that a little off-putting. There’s little sense she loves Ravinel.

The plan is a simple one. Ravinel and Lucienne drown Mireille in a bathtub then place the body in a lavoir, an outdoor wash-hut, so that it’ll look like she had an accident. The next day Ravinel will come home and discover her there. After a suitable period of grieving he’ll claim the insurance and he and Lucienne will go off into the sunset.

Lucienne does all the hard work. All Ravinel has to do is drug a decanter Mireille drinks from so that she passes out. After that it’s Lucienne who has to push her down into a bath, load weights on her chest to keep her under, make sure she’s dead and then wrap the body in a rug for transportation. Ravinel doesn’t even have the strength to admit what they’ve done let alone do it himself.

It wasn’t he, Ravinel, who was guilty. No one was. Mireille had drunk a soporific. A bathtub was filling up. That was all. There was nothing terrible about it, and nothing which had anything to do with crime.

The murder comes off. The next part is down to Ravinel. He has to discover the body and he has to do so without Lucienne as if she’s there it’ll raise suspicion. The problem is, when it comes time to discover the body it’s gone missing. Left trying to explain the inexplicable Ravinel’s mind begins to unravel. The structure of the lavoir means it couldn’t have washed away, but there’s no reason for anyone to have stolen it and it could hardly have wandered off on its own…

As theory after theory passed through his mind, he became once more overwhelmed by a sensation of helplessness. After a while he decided that the body hadn’t been stolen after all. But it wasn’t there. So it must have been. But nobody could possibly want to steal it… And so it went on, round and round in a circle. Ravinel felt a little pain beneath his left temple and rubbed the spot. No question of his falling ill at this juncture. He simply hadn’t the right to! But what was he to do, Bon Dieu, what was he to do?

It gets a lot worse, a lot more puzzling, from there.

She Who Was is very much a novel of psychological suspense. It’s an intensely moody book, with noirish lines like “she lifted her little veil, in which raindrops had been caught as in a spider’s web.” Ravinel though is the one caught. Boileau-Narcejac fill the book with fog, thickly but effectively laying on the atmosphere. The fog lies so heavy that Ravinel can barely drive his car or find his way down the street, but it’s the fog in his head he’s really lost in.

She Who Was clocks in at a little under 200 pages making it a concentrated café noir of a book. Ravinelle is weak and confused and Lucienne’s not the sort you’d look to for comfort. She practically bullies Ravinel into murder and he never has the wit to question what his fate is likely to be once they’re married and she’s set to inherit all that insurance money. There are also hints that he might not be the only one she had an affair with – when he looks at photos of a holiday he and Mireille took with Lucienne all the photos are of the two women happy together, none are of him. Mireille’s body isn’t the only thing Ravinel can’t see.

There’s no denying that She Who Was would be a stronger book if you don’t know what’s actually going on, which I did. The ideal reader would be as lost in the fog as Ravinel himself, only emerging from it as he does. It’s still effective even so and features a particularly chilling final line which ties the book up as neatly and disturbingly as one might wish.

Other reviews

Guy Savage reviewed this at His Futile Preoccupations here as effectively as ever and there’s a very good review at the Pretty Sinister blog here that goes into a lot more plot elements than either Guy or I do (if you know the movie there’s no spoilers, if you don’t you might prefer to read that review after). My review of Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo is here.



Filed under Boileau-Narcejac, Crime Fiction, French Literature, Pushkin Vertigo

This is my city, look at it now!

City of Spades by Colin MacInnes

Colin MacInnes is one of those classic London writers now slipping slightly from view. I tend to think of him in the same mental breath as Gerald Kersh (though Kersh was a generation earlier). Both share an interest not just in characters but in capturing a time and place.

MacInnes is best known for his London trilogy, three thematically linked novels about youth culture and black culture in 1950s London. It’s a time as far from us now as the Victorians were from MacInnes and a decade that’s often oddly ignored. We skip from the war to the ’60s, leaving the austerity years as unexplored archives of conformity; a breathing space between the struggle for survival and the arrival of the counter-culture.

Of course, that’s nonsense. The 1950s were a period of tremendous social change. The Empire Windrush brought its first West Indian immigrants in 1948, but it was the closing of the US to Afro-Carribean immigration in 1952 coupled with a desperate local labour shortage that led to the arrival in the UK of large numbers of Afro-Caribbean immigrants throughout the ’50s. There had long been a black British population, but never in such numbers.

CityofSpades CityofSpades2

The second cover is the one I have, but is completely misleading and rather notably doesn’t include any black characters. The first is a bit melodramatic, but I at least recognise it as relating to the book I read.

City of Spades opens with Montgomery Pew starting his first day at his new job at the Colonial Department. He’s responsible for helping settle new Commonwealth arrivals to the UK. In practice that means Africans and West Indians, people Pew has never met before and has only the vaguest generic impressions of. He admires their “sleek, loose-limbed appearance” and “elegant, flamboyant style of dress”, but deplores “their dismal spirituals and their idiotic calypso”. He draws no distinction at all between African and West-Indian, and isn’t even aware there might be further distinctions within those categories.

His first client is the newly arrived Johnny Fortune, come to England to study meteorology for a year. Montgomery, a quiet sort, is slightly dazzled:

I observed that he was attired in a white crocheted sweater with two crimson horizontal stripes, and with gold safety-pins stuck on the tips of each point of the emerging collar of a nylon shirt; in a sky-blue gaberdine jacket zipped down the front; and in even lighter blue linen slacks, full at the hips, tapering to the ankle, and falling delicately one half-inch above a pair of pale brown plaited casual shoes.

Johnny refers to himself as a Spade. Montgomery is something of a liberal and as such is concerned that this might be an offensive term. Johnny admits it’s a bit “cheeky” but much preferred to most of the other local terms. To him Montgomery is a “jumble”, adapted from John Bull. It’s all getting a little out of hand, particularly when Johnny inquires why there’s a problem placing him with a white landlady when back home nobody has an issue with Jumbles staying with Spades. Montgomery moves the conversation along:

I took up the Warning Folder of People and Places to Avoid. ‘Another little duty for which I’m paid,’ I said to him, ‘is to warn our newcomers against … well, to be frank, bad elements among their fellow countrymen.’ ‘Oh, yes, man. Shoot.’ ‘And,’ I continued, looking at my list, ‘particularly against visiting the Moorhen public house, the Cosmopolitan dance hall, or the Moonbeam club.’ ‘Just say those names again.’ To my horror, I saw he was jotting them on the back page of his passport.

Montgomery decides to look into the immigrant-only B&B Johnny’s been housed in to see if it’s really as bad as Johnny complained. From there he finds himself drawn into Johnny’s life, and an unlikely friendship develops.

The chapters alternate between Montgomery’s and Johnny’s viewpoints. Johnny’s father visited London years past himself and asks Johnny to look in on his old flame, Mrs Macpherson. She’s now an embittered woman, her life ruined by an illegitimate child left her by Johnny’s father, a half-brother Johnny never knew he had. She has two daughters, the older now turned to prostitution after getting involved with a sinister Gambian named Billy Whispers and the younger catching Johnny’s eye.

Montgomery meanwhile introduces his neighbour Theodora to Johnny. She has a highly paid job at the BBC and while Montgomery’s a diffident sort Theodora is ambitious and driven. She’s attracted first by the intellectual puzzle Johnny and his acquaintances present, what they want and why they’re “here”, but before long she’s attracted too by Johnny’s charm.

MacInnes draws out a world of late night bars, underground clubs and petty crime. To Montgomery and Theodora Johnny and Billy Whispers and the others they meet in Johnny’s world are all blacks, part of the same undifferentiated culture. They don’t pick up the tensions between the Gambians and the Nigerians, the mutual mistrust between the Africans and the West Indians, the disdain the city-Africans hold for the country-Africans, and the way all of them prey on the innocence and relative wealth of the black GIs.

Montgomery and Theodora are both sharply drawn characters, but it’s the black characters here who mostly stand out. Perhaps that reflects Montgomery and Theodora’s own fascination, or perhaps it reflects MacInnes’ experience. Whatever the reason, most of the whites are rather grey characters, whereas among the blacks there’s Billy Whisper and his gangster-cohort Jimmy Cannibal and Ronson Lighter, casual drug dealer Peter Pay Paul, serious-minded intellectual Karl Marx Bo, calypso artist Lord Alexander and many more.

The book follows Johnny’s adventures as he gets mixed up with Billy Whispers and his crew and finds himself in trouble with the police, who make rather a point of rounding up everyone sooner or later. In parallel, Montgomery finds there’s a cost to getting too close to the “colonials” he’s supposed to be looking after, attracting his superior’s suspicions without ever truly becoming one of the people he so admires. When challenged Theodora thinks it’s ok for whites to marry blacks, but not for blacks to have self-rule. Montgomery is fine with the political freedom, but not with inter-racial marriages “For the child’s sake.” Both mean well, but as Karl Mark Bo rightly observes:

‘Well,’ he said, ‘you are both nice people, I am sure, but I think you also are what we despise even more than we do those who hate us – you are full-time professional admirers of the coloured peoples, who like us as you like pet animals.

The obvious difficulty with City of Spades is that it’s a book that’s in large part about black British experience, but written by a white author. While that could be a problem, MacInnes’ particular interest is in how the communities bump against each other, changing and being changed. He shows too the sheer complexity and diversity of experience, the fact that it isn’t two communities as commonly described but a small myriad. Just as Johnny has little in common with the “Bushman” he mocks as being from the interior Theodora has little in common with the embittered and working class Mrs Macpherson.

MacInnes is strong too on the clash of expectations. Theodora asks “why do they flock here to England?”, as if there were one single reason motivating so many different people. In a later scene a West Indian named Tamberlaine imitates the typical conversations he encounters, the banal questions such as ‘“Don’t you miss the hot weather over here?”’ and well-meant comments such as “You may find, sir, that there is sometimes a certain prejudice in England, but believe me, sir, that some of us are just as worried about it as you.”’

Most mocked of all though is when the whites say “I like coloured people, myself.”’ None of the black characters here mind being liked for themselves, but unsurprisingly none of them take too kindly to being liked just for being black.

Montgomery and Theodora aren’t racist in the manner of Mrs Macpherson or Montgomery’s predecessor at the Colonial Office, but through all that happens they still see the characters they meet not so much as individuals but as representatives of a type. Montgomery thinks of Johnny as a friend, but Johnny’s more circumspect on the point seeing too clearly Montgomery’s tendency to stereotype and to lecture him for his own imagined good.

For all the seriousness of its intent City of Spades is generally extremely funny. Montgomery and Johnny are both likable characters and their London is an enjoyable place to visit. The future’s being born, a new and better Britain, and both MacInnes and they know it.

I’ll end with a little calypso, courtesy of Lord Alexander. Montgomery wouldn’t approve, but Johnny probably would:

“This little Miss Commercial Road she say to me,

“I can’t spend much more time in your society.

I know you keep me warmer than my white boys can do,

But my mother fears her grandson may be black as you.”

Somehow it captures the book for me.

Other reviews

None on the blogs that I know of, but I found a tremendous review at a site called London Fictions here. For a different perspective on the period I can’t recommend too strongly Sam Selvon’s spectacular The Lonely Londoners, which I reviewed here.


Filed under MacInnes, Colin

He was a moral agent—that was settled in his mind.

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale, by Joseph Conrad

Back in April I reviewed Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I liked but didn’t love and which I found rather racist in its execution. Many of the comments challenged my interpretation (always welcome). There was enough skill in Heart, and enough enthusiasm for Conrad in the comments, that I decided to give him another go before too much time passed.

Fast forward and not too long after the BBC decided to screen an adaptation of The Secret Agent, starring the marvellous Toby Jones. I didn’t want to watch it before reading the book, and I wanted to read more Conrad, so…


For those wondering if they’re about to read another not-so-positive Conrad review, you’re not. The Secret Agent is exceptional and quite easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s claustrophobic, psychologically astute and told in a wonderfully laconic narrative style. It is, quite simply, brilliant.

Mr Verloc runs a small pornographic bookshop with the help of his wife, Winnie Verloc. He fancies that she loves him, which she does to an extent but less for himself than for the protection he can provide to her mother and to her mentally fragile younger brother Stevie. Mrs Verloc and her mother have devoted their lives to looking after Stevie, an impressionable and excitable young man who feels the pain of the world so keenly that he can’t cope with it.

Mrs Verloc is an incurious soul and never enquires how their small shop manages to supply the needs of four adults. The answer is simple. Mr Verloc has another occupation as spy for a foreign power. The difficulty is that his old employer at the embassy has retired and his replacement wants concrete results.

“A dynamite outrage must be provoked.  I give you a month.”

Verloc has spent years embedding himself in a circle of ineffectual anarchists, back-room radicals who meet regularly to discuss a revolution they do nothing to bring about. They don’t know Verloc is a traitor to them, but fortunately they do nothing worth betraying. Verloc’s new employer wishes him to provoke an outrage so as to excite public opinion into supporting new authoritarian measures and abandoning old freedoms. The anarchists Verloc knows are not the sort to act so precipitously. Matters must be forced.

I knew nothing about the plot of The Secret Agent, and if you’re very lucky neither do you. Verloc finds a means to attempt his outrage, and Conrad then examines both the precise events leading up to it and the consequences. This is no thriller; it’s an exploration of the psychology of extremist thought and act.

The Secret Agent is filled with memorable characters. Among the anarchists there’s Comrade Ossipon, a former medical student who still seems engaged in university-level debates while living off women he seduces. There’s also Michaelis, the angelic “ticket-of-leave apostle” who spent years in solitary confinement where he developed a harmless and rambling theory of bloodless and inevitable revolutionary progress. Their politics are radical but born mostly of their own dreams and failings. As the omniscient narrator dryly observes:

The way of even the most justifiable revolutions is prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds.

The anarchists are a varied lot. Ossipon is an opportunist, Michaelis an idealist, and then there’s the aged Karl Yundt who’s simply a vicious old man full of bitterness and resentment. They are all watched closely by the police, but it’s quite clear that left to their own devices none of them will ever do anything.

More sinister than all of them is The Professor, a nihilist who despises the other anarchists for their innefectuality and the rest of humanity for what he sees as its blind weakness. He’s a physically frail man convinced of his own genius, but what intelligence he has he wastes designing bombs that he gives out freely to any who ask for them. He dreams of destruction, but has no vision of anything to build when the smoke clears over the rubble.

The Professor is genuinely dangerous, and he too is known to the police. However, they do not arrest him for they know that he goes everywhere with a suicide bomb upon his person capable of blowing up everyone near him and with the detonator permanently held in his pocket. The Professor exults in his his ability to pointlessly kill at whim. He is comforted by dreams of outrage, by imagined headlines and public panic. He is terrified that even such an extreme act would be swiftly forgotten, that the world would continue unchanged save for those whose lives he took or ruined.

On the side of law is Chief Inspector Heat, a man who holds the anarchists in utter contempt and so is amazed when an outrage finally happens. Above him is the Assistant Commissioner, “looking like the vision of a cool, reflective Don Quixote”, who takes personal control of the investigation. Yet higher up is the Home Secretary, Sir Ethelred, to whom the assistant commissioner reports between Sir Ethelred’s attempts to steer a fisheries bill through parliament. It is absurd; it is credible.

Perhaps the best character though is Conrad himself. The book is full of laconic observations and descriptions which appear sympathetic to their subjects while subtly undermining them. Some examples:

The cabman looked at the pieces of silver, which, appearing very minute in his big, grimy palm, symbolised the insignificant results which reward the ambitious courage and toil of a mankind whose day is short on this earth of evil.

Toodles was revolutionary only in politics; his social beliefs and personal feelings he wished to preserve unchanged through all the years allotted to him on this earth which, upon the whole, he believed to be a nice place to live on.

A man somewhat over forty may be excusably thrown into considerable disorder by the prospect of losing his employment, especially if the man is a secret agent of political police, dwelling secure in the consciousness of his high value and in the esteem of high personages.  He was excusable.

I could quote vastly more. I had more quotes noted for this than any other book I’ve read for a very long time.

Conrad’s prose is of its period, he’s fond of long sentences and commas, but it’s highly effective and there are some lovely moments such as when he says of a street that “It was not actually raining, but each gas lamp had a rusty little halo of mist.” That would be a very ordinary sentence, save for the addition of that one word “rusty” which lifts it suddenly into poetry.

This is an intelligent and surprisingly funny novel, and while it’s a cliché to talk about how it remains relevant it’s true all the same. What’s particularly clever is how Conrad firmly roots the political in the personal. As the Assistant Commissioner observes, “From a certain point of view we are here in the presence of a domestic drama.” Nowhere else have I seen the psychology of self-justification so well explored.

One final note. One of the smaller pleasures of the book for me was the familiarity of its locations, not least when a late chapter showed “Mr Verloc, sitting perplexed and frightened in the small parlour of the Cheshire Cheese,” a pub that’s just over the road from where I work and where I’ve drunk myself. I don’t go there often, but next time I do it will be hard not to imagine Mr Verloc tucked away in one of its many corners.

Other reviews

None I know of, probably as it’s such a classic everyone but me read it long ago.


Filed under Conrad, Joseph