Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading, chosen by the Journal's book review editor
Robert Harris (Hutchison: £20; e-book £9.99)
Last year Robert Harris wrote about the Conclave (reviewed here), seeing the machinations of senior clergy at their sharpest and most ruthless. It was essentially a novel about a gathering of diverse opinion seeking a common outcome. The theme in his latest novel is similar, being based around the Munich conference of 1938 which saw a four way discussion amongst Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini over the cession of the predominantly German speaking Sudetenland, then part of Czechoslovakia, with the representatives of the affected state excluded from the process.
Chamberlain described the situation as “a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing”, but war loomed. Based around historically accurate events, Harris builds a gripping narrative. Hugh Legat is based in Downing Street, one of the Prime Minister's private secretaries, while his old school friend, Paul Hartmann is a German diplomat working closely with the Reich Foreign Office's State Secretary, Baron Ernst von Weizsäcker, a key opponent to war. In the novel, Hartmann encourages Legat to make the PM aware of the plans for all out war by the Nazis, as a decisive document to persuade the PM not to agree terms with Hitler whereupon, it was suggested, the army would rebel.
As we know, Chamberlain acquiesced. Writing in 1938, a UK official said of German approaches on resistance to Hitler, “We have had similar visits from other emissaries of the Reichsheer, such as Dr Goerdeler, but those for whom these emissaries claim to speak have never given us any reasons to suppose that they would be able or willing to take action such as would lead to the overthrow of the regime. The events of June 1934 and February 1938 do not lead one to attach much hope to energetic action by the Army against the regime.” Such was the view at Munich. A worthwhile read.
The Hours Before Dawn
Celia Fremlin (Faber & Faber: £7.99; e-book £4.68)
In Celia Fremlin’s reissued 1958 classic, Louise Henderson is a woman on one side or the other of a nervous breakdown: exhausted beyond endurance by her third child, a baby who refuses to sleep at night, and frustrated by a husband who expects her to cope with the children, and run a house, without assistance. On top of that they have a new lodger, the mysterious Vera Brandon, who claims to be a schoolteacher but appears to be hiding some secrets in her past. Louise becomes more and more convinced that Vera is not what she seems, and represents a threat to her and her family, but in her enervated state is she imagining it?
For a modern audience, used to psychological thrillers with multiple plot twists and unreliable narrators, the relative lack of complexity of The House Before Dawn might take a bit of getting used to. It is worth it, though: the story grips from the first page, the characters are perceptively drawn, and Louise’s bone-tired, terrified confusion is entirely convincing; it comes as no surprise to learn that Fremlin wrote this while herself struggling with caring for a baby. In addition, the book, which in 1960 won the Edgar Award for best novel from the Mystery Writers of America, is an interesting period piece in itself. Fremlin reminds us of a post-war world somewhat different to our own: three-wheeled cars; husbands who come home from work at lunchtime to be fed; suitcases with exotic foreign labels. But her analysis of marriage and parenthood is acute, occasionally very funny, and still remarkably relevant: at least one male reader, a husband and father himself, was left squirming uncomfortably by some of the author’s more penetrating observations, and wondering just how much life has improved for women in the last 60 years.
Aspiring crime writers will obviously have studied the work of their successful peers. A common formula has the central character at inspector level. Senior enough to get tough jobs, with enough subordinates to be insubordinate and, of course, much put upon by their bullying bosses whom we regard with as much distaste as the bad guys. The following two books both have this template interpreted in very different ways, both to great success.
Written in Bones
James Oswald (Penguin Books: £7.99; e-book £4.99)
Written in Bones is the seventh Inspector McLean novel, the first having seen the light of day only four years ago. Nothing is ever quite as its seems. In the acknowledgments we learn that it was written 10 years ago. After the customary problems of getting a first novel out, Oswald self published, to huge success, and is now rewarded with a contract from Penguin.
Tony McLean’s twist is that he is independently wealthy, lives in a gigantic house on the outskirts of Edinburgh and drives a classic Alfa Romeo. Mr Oswald has had fun with names in the past, his DS Stuart McBride a nod to the Aberdeen writer who encouraged him to move from fantasy writing into mainstream crime. I had no issue with that, but I’m much less sure about a villain with the name of Tom Johnston. Although we are both Fifers, Mr Oswald and I have never met. I deny any connection or influence.
The book has the most dramatic of starts, when a charity worker falls out of the sky over The Meadows in Edinburgh. Needless to say, more bodies follow (though not out of the sky). There are twists, there are red herrings, there is high drama and a lot of time in the mortuary. The pace is unrelenting, and there are enough loose ends to make us want more. Soon, please.
Helen Fields (Avon: £7.99; e-book £1.99)
A mere six months have passed since Helen Fields’ first crime novel was reviewed in this column. Her inspector, Luc Callanach, is half French, half Scottish, with film star good looks and a past. A false charge of rape saw him move from Interpol to Scotland, where he is settling in uneasily. Fields has even more fun with names. Callanach’s impertinent sergeant is called Lively, and his bullying chief inspector is Begbie.
For a few weeks Edinburgh seems to become the murder capital of Europe, each one more grisly than the one before. The victims are among the most inoffensive members of society: a charity worker, a nurse, a librarian. Is a serial killer at work? Well, yes and no. And who is the mysterious moderator who controls the website on the dark net which may hold the key to all of them? And what is the connection with the crack cybercrime unit up from Scotland Yard? The day after the last of the Festival house guests had departed I sat down and read this in one day. As imaginative as it is chilling, as accomplished as it is grisly, this novel is a triumph. You will not be able to look at casual graffiti in the same light ever again – might they be signalling another murder?
My experience (with the exception of our own William McIntyre) is that lawyers generally don’t make great crime writers. Helen Fields is fast proving an exception to that rule.
Mary Contini (Birlinn: £17.99; e-book £8.54)
This is the third such work penned by Mary Contini, of Valvona & Crolla fame. The titular Alfonso is her father-in-law’s father, drowned at sea in a boatload of Italian “aliens” in the Second World War. The main tale is that of his son Carlo, from Pozzuoli, near Naples, his life and times, and his transition to Edinburgh. It reads like a novel, details and dialogue added in such a manner as can be mere surmise, no matter how many tales were told by the fireside, or stories passed down from nonna over the kitchen table.
Carlo’s tough upbringing in the poverty of Pozzuoli, and the privations of the war, are counterpointed with his obvious charm and industrious nature. Work experience started at age four, helping his carpenter father Luigi, and included assistant to barber uncle Alfonso, through spells as a coffin maker’s apprentice, French polisher, trainee pharmacist and policeman. Emigration is easy for no one, and Carlo was no exception despite marrying into the by then well established V & C business.
At one level this can be little more than historical fiction, my least favoured genre: yet it is written with considerable skill. At once informative, evocative and charming, it never descends into the realms of the sentimental. The characters, both Italian and Scottish, are always far more than one dimensional (even if they occasionally seem just a little too good to be true, and even if just a little fun is being poked at the native Scots). And what is the glue of every Italian family? The food, of course. The meals created by Carlo’s mother, Annunziata, in her tiny flat 178 steps up perfume many of the pages. Her hatred of waste and her ability to create fabulous flavours from very little are rightly celebrated. In part five, the closing section, we are rewarded with 20 or so of the recipes which have been tantalising us throughout.
This whole book is a gentle delight.