Friday, March 17, 2017

E. R. Punshon's Diabolic Candelabra

It was Curtis Evans' blog The Passing Tramp that let me know of the existence of E. R. Punshon, and even of Dean Street Press, the publisher that has recently reissued all his Bobby Owen mysteries. And it was the fact that Dean Street Press occasionally makes one of their books available as a free Kindle eBook that resulted in it arriving on my Kindle.

A series of very happy accidents.

Bobby Owen is, we are told in the opening paragraph, the "head of the somewhat scanty Wychshire C.I.D." and the "secretary to the chief constable, Colonel Glynne." More immediately in this novel, he's the husband to his wife Olive, who has just two remaining of a sample of "heavenly" chocolates. They're sold at a local shop, a friend of Olive's wants to offer them at the church bazaar, and she needs to find the source with the help of her policeman husband. They've got a name, Floyd, and Bobby Owen has a notion who this might be. Miss Floyd "lives in a lonely sort of cottage near Barsley Forest village, but right in the forest." The main events of the plot take place in that forest.

The year the novel comes out is 1942, but the war is only lightly present. As a policeman, Bobby Owen has an extra petrol allotment that allows him to drive off to the forest. There are blackouts and air wardens. But the novel mostly takes place an amusingly fantastical landscape. There's the cottage right in the forest. There's a hermit named Peter. There's a wild child named Loo, and they've sent a truancy officer after her:

"What happened?" Olive asked, passing over the deplorable incident of the nettles. "I mean, about the school?"
"A lady came," Mary answered. "She had very big boots with square toes, and she made you think she was always saying you mustn't. Loo went into the garden, and the lady followed her, and we told her not to, the lady, I mean, but she wouldn't listen, and Loo went out of the garden, and the lady followed, and I told her not to, and she said to hold my tongue, and I did, and Loo went into the forest, and the lady followed, and next morning I had to go to the village to ask them to send to look for her because she hadn't come back, and we still had her bag full of papers."
"What about Loo?" Bobby asked, interested.
"Oh, we didn't much mind about Loo," Mary explained. "She sleeps in a tree or somewhere and then she comes home when she is ready. It was the lady we were worried about, because we didn't think she would really like sleeping in a tree."
"One never knows," murmured Bobby, "but perhaps not."
This is rather representative of the genial tone of the book.

It's the hermit Peter who has the recipe to the mystery ingredient that makes the chocolates so good, and it's Peter who disappears, making this (possibly) a police matter.

A second disappearance of a local shopkeeper makes it definitely a police matter, but who, if anybody, is actually dead isn't resolved until quite late in the book. There's also a local manor house owned by the Rawdon family. There's also a search on for several family heirlooms of the Rawdon family, lost fifty years before: two El Greco paintings, and the diabolic candelabra of the title, a work in silver by Bellini.

The lightness and the amused tone of the writing worked for me. The only real problem was that there were really at least one too many McGuffins: the El Greco paintings could certainly have been dispensed with, and I'm not really sure even the Diabolic Candelabra was actually necessary.

But it was a successful promotion by Dean Street Press as far as I was concerned. The first one was free and now I'm hooked: I'll be reading other Bobby Owen mysteries.

Golden Age. Policeman Bobby Owen. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger's Hunt. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

W. G. Sebald's The Rings Of Saturn

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.
That is the first sentence and that, pretty much, is all that happens in Sebald's novel. It is nearly 300 pages in my paperback edition, though those pages do include some black and white photos. The narrator visits one acquaintance, the translator and author Michael Hamburger, and meets a few people on his walk, but it is not a work packed with event.

Nor does it much feel like a novel, though Sebald's main works, as is this, are generally described as novels. But the unnamed narrator of The Rings Of Saturn feels very much like W. G. Sebald himself: a German now living in England and teaching there. The narrator is a friend of Michael Hamburger, as was Sebald himself. He takes an interest in a record "still in the Munich state library" of "an old master dyer of the name of Seybolt." Sebald grew up near Munich. And when the narrator offers a picture of himself, the picture is of a younger Sebald.

And yet, and yet. Were there really two English scientists "with the apt names of Herrington and Lightbown" who really investigated the luminosity of dead herrings? If I were to go to the Munich state library, would I be able to find that record of a master dyer named Seybolt? In each of the four sections of The Emigrants, which I read earlier, there's an entirely unneeded allusion to Vladimir Nabokov. If this is humor, if this is even fiction, it is so sly and subtle as to be almost vanishing.

There is also a great deal of real learning: the story of Roger Casement is brought to mind by a BBC documentary. The meeting of Casement and Joseph Conrad leads first to a long discourse on Conrad and the travails of Conrad's family in Poland. Conrad then meets Casement in the Belgian Congo, where Conrad is undergoing the experiences that will lead to Heart of Darkness and Casement is gathering information on the misery that Leopold and the Belgians inflicted on the Congo in the late 1800s. Casement becomes famous for the report he issued; it was the beginning of his career as a humanitarian reformer. But the mention of Belgium leads Sebald to discuss Waterloo mostly by way of the ugliness of the Lion Monument. Finally he returns to Roger Casement, and Casement's fatal decision to seek German aid in support of the Easter Rebellion for Irish independence in 1916. German aid did not materialize; the rebellion failed; and Casement was caught and hanged by the British government. When a movement began to seek pardon for Casement for the good he had earlier done, the British government released Casement's diary proving he was a homosexual.

And that is representative of Sebald: his emphasis on loss. For Conrad, there is the loss, first by his parents of their homeland, and then of his father of his life, and finally of Joseph Conrad himself, of Poland. There is the loss at Waterloo and its replacement by ugliness. There is loss of life by the black workers in Belgian Congo. And Roger Casement's lost life and honor.

So why exactly is it that I like W. G. Sebald? For I do. This is the fourth of his four novels that I've read, and while this one has been on the shelf for a year and a half, I did always intend to finish it, and I did. It is, I think, that struggle between loss and memory that I admire; that ability to hold on to a few well-intentioned, or sometimes even just whimsical, successes, or if not quite successes, at least resistances, against the tide that will wash us all away. It is a melancholic pleasure, and not one for every day of the week. But it is real all the same.

Read, among other reasons,... for My Reader's Block Mount TBR Challenge.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Rex Stout's Where There's A Will

Two Nero Wolfe novels came out in 1940; this was the second. Where Over My Dead Body was very much a novel of its year, with contemporary political concerns, Where There's A Will feels much less fixed in time. As you might guess, the case turns on a will; by the standards of Golden Age Mystery wills, this will isn't completely crazy, but it does leave all the money to Noel Hawthorne's mistress and not to his wife. The wife plans to raise holy heck to get her money, and the family, mostly in the form of the dead man's sisters, the fabulous Hawthorne girls, engage Wolfe to solve the problem without scandal.

Within pages District Attorney Skinner announces that Noel Hawthorne was murdered, and didn't die in a hawk- or crow-hunting accident. All hope of avoiding scandal is out the window.

Wolfe, who famously never leaves his home, (except when he does) heads off in a taxicab, unescorted by his goad and chief assistant Archie Goodwin, to the house of one of those fabulous Hawthorne girls. There he asks questions until a second murder occurs and he sneaks off back home, letting Archie deal with the irruption of policemen investigating the second murder.

In the end, of course, the suspects are assembled in Wolfe's office, a trick is played, and the murderer revealed.

For me, this one didn't work as well as the previous. The introduction the Hawthorne sisters was not as witty or as swift as that of Carla Lovchen in Over My Dead Body. Some elements seem oddly unnecessary: there's confusion whether the dead man was out to shoot a hawk or a crow, a confusion that has no bearing on the plot. (It's clearly a crow on the cover.) Nearing the end, in a ploy that Stout uses elsewhere, Wolfe keeps secrets from Archie for no particularly good reason, but so that he can also keep them from us. Oh, well. Even on a bad day, there's nothing quite like a Rex Stout novel.

I'm seeking out well-paced, comic mystery novels, more even than usual, at the moment to distract myself from reading the news. Alas, in a novel written in 1940, with an introduction by Dean Koontz from 1992, it's not entirely possible to escape:

Twenty years ago, when I was struggling to find my own voice as a writer, I was reading five novels a week in addition to putting in full days at the typewriter. (We didn't have the great blessing of computers and word-processing software back then. But we didn't have freeway shootouts or Donald Trump, either, so it wasn't altogether a less appealing era.)
I'd definitely trade away my computer and word-processing software if we could roll back six months...

Whether Noel Hawthorne went hunting for a hawk or crow, there's definitely a bird on the cover.

Golden Age. Bird. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger's Hunt.