Sherlock Holmes – Arthur Conan Doyle – 1

Last August I completed a reading challenge of all ten books in the first Penguin Books crime set from 1938. So this month I have decided to also attempt more than the expected four books by tackling the complete Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as published by The Folio Society. The set consists of five volumes of short stories issued in 1993 and four volumes of novels which came out the following year. The series has a very attractive binding of an offset wrap around design on each book which makes the spines also display the image and appropriately the books are printed using the Baskerville font. My copies are well read and the titles on the short stories are badly worn, although looking at other examples in various bookshops this does seem to be a common feature of this particular edition.

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Now although this looks like a logical reading order in fact Doyle wrote the first two novels “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Sign of Four” before he produced any short stories so in fact a better reading sequence is those books this week, followed by the short stories then finally the last two novels. Although novel number three “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is set during the time of the first two collections of short stories it didn’t actually come out until much later and it doesn’t affect time lines too much to leave the last two novels until the end as they both are looking back on past cases.

As last year I will be writing about each volume as I go along rather than waiting for completion so without further ado lets jump in with the first two novels

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A Study in Scarlet

This is the first appearance of Holmes and Watson and originally appeared in print in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual before being published in book form in July 1888.

“Dr. Watson, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” said Stamford, introducing us.

“How are you?” he said cordially, gripping my hand with a strength for which I should hardly have given him credit. “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive.”

“How on earth did you know that?” I asked in astonishment.

“Never mind,” said he, chuckling to himself.

and so a partnership was born…

The book fairly rattles along, just ten pages in Holmes and Watson are ensconced in 221b Baker Street and Holmes has started his work much to the puzzlement of Watson. The two men are after all just sharing the property there is no indication that Watson would get involved in anything in fact he is specifically looking for a quiet life whilst recovering from his injuries from the war in Afghanistan. Watson however is intrigued as to what Holmes is up to and creates a list of attributes to try to work it out, these include him knowing nothing of literature, astronomy or philosophy, whilst other things such as botany (natural poisons anyway) or geology (soils and clays) were specialised in the extreme. Chemistry and sensational literature however he was a complete master of; none of these items seem to make any sense though.

Another few pages and Holmes again demonstrates his deductive reasoning and explains he is a consulting detective just as he gets a message from Sergeant Gregson of Scotland Yard asking him to come to Lauriston Gardens; Watson joins him and so starts his journals that the Holmes stories are supposedly taken from. The case, to Holmes anyway, is absurdly simple. In fact so simple that by the eightieth page he has apprehended the murderer with the help of his street urchin employees also known as The Baker Street Irregulars, and there is where the book starts to fall apart. For the next fifty two pages are back story. Doyle writes well with the dynamic of Holmes and Watson along with the bungling Gregson and Lestrade from Scotland Yard but over fifty pages without any of these characters whilst he ranges over the settlement of the Mormons in Salt Lake City and the inter-family rivalries just plods along especially after the pace of the first half of the book. It is not even written as though being told to our protagonists it is just an over long history.

We finally get back to Holmes, Watson, Gregson, Lestrade and their prisoner in 221b with just 22 pages left for Watson’s journal to wrap up and the murderer to explain how and why he did it. Very much a book of two halves but with enough promising material regarding the great detective to make a sequel inevitable.

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The Sign of Four

The second time out for Holmes was in the February 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine issued jointly in the UK and US, and by October of that year it had been published as a standalone book.

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction.

The opening paragraph of The Sign of Four shows Holmes the drug addict, in this case injecting a seven percent solution of cocaine much to the disgust of Dr. Watson. This was turned into a particularly powerful scene in “The Secret of Sherlock Holmes”, a play starring Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke that I saw in 1988 at Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End. These two actors, for me at least, are the definitive Holmes and Watson and to see Brett as Holmes in silhouette at the back of the stage injecting into his arm before the lights were cut at the end of the scene is a dramatic act that has stayed with me for over 30 years.

As for the book itself it is much better written than the first although there is again a large section of back story at the end. This time it is much shorter than in “A Study in Scarlet” and rather than being a standalone tale it is given as Jonathan Small telling his involvement in the crimes at 221b Baker Street with Holmes, Watson and in this case Athelney Jones of the Yard. This is a considerable improvement as the three can react to Jonathan Small’s story and there is no massive disjointed section. This is also the first appearance of probably the most famous Holmes quote

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

Still back to the beginning, Dr. Watson is trying to draw Holmes away from the cocaine over breakfast the next day when a young lady by the name of Miss Mary Morstan arrives and lays out a singular problem for the great man. Her father had returned to England eleven years ago and disappeared without trace however each year for the last six she has received a fine pearl from an anonymous benefactor and now she has had a letter from him desiring her to be at the Lyceum theatre and she can bring two companions. Naturally Holmes and Watson are willing to go but for very different reasons, Holmes to solve a puzzle but Watson has fallen for Miss Morstan almost immediately and in this state would do anything for her.

Without giving away the plot, the pearls are quickly revealed to be part of a large treasure and in searching for the remainder Holmes engages the use of a scent hound to follow a creosote trail left by one of the culprits from a house in Norwood after he stepped in some of this highly pungent liquid, and this provides one of the few bits of genuine humour in the books as the dog getting confused by crossing trails eventually comes to its mark…

On the dog raced through sawdust and shavings, down an alley, round a passage, between two wood-piles, and finally, with a triumphant yelp, sprang upon a large barrel which still stood upon the hand-trolley on which it had been brought. With lolling tongue and blinking eyes, Toby stood upon the cask, looking from one to the other of us for some sign of appreciation. The staves of the barrel and the wheels of the trolley were smeared with a dark liquid, and the whole air was heavy with the smell of creosote.

Sherlock Holmes and I looked blankly at each other, and then burst simultaneously into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.

Another funny passage occurs with Watson attempting to take Miss Morstan’s mind off the danger they may be in with some of his tales from Afghanistan.

To this day she declares that I told her one moving anecdote as to how a musket looked into my tent at the dead of night, and how I fired a double-barrelled tiger cub at it.

His tongue-tied behaviour is somewhat explained at the end of the book when less than a week after first meeting her he explains to Holmes that he will no longer be available to accompany him on adventures as

Miss Morstan has done me the honour to accept me as a husband in prospective.

Next week I start on the short stories first printed in The Strand Magazine between 1891 and 1893. Will Watson still be living with Holmes or are he and Mary setting up home together with him merely reporting from the sidelines?

Under the Frog – Tibor Fischer

a béka segge alatt

translation from Hungarian
Under the frogs arse – which indicates that things are really bad

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November 1955

It was true that at the age of twenty-five he had never left the country, that he had never got more than three days march from his birthplace, no more than a day and a half of horse and carting or one long afternoon’s locomoting. On the other hand, Gyuri mused, how many people could say they had travelled the length and breadth of Hungary naked?

The opening paragraph of Under the Frog  raises a few questions. I first read the book whilst working in Hungary in 1995 just six years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and whilst Hungary then was a lot better than when I originally visited in 1987 when it was still very restricted, away from Budapest (which is where I was) it still felt very different. I have come to know and love the country over the decades both from working there and also visiting friends since that time but I haven’t picked this book up again in twenty four years. It will be interesting to see how my reactions to it have changed. Back then I didn’t know much Hungarian history and this was to be the first book that really awakened my interest in that subject. But what little I did know was that less than a year after that paragraph is set roughly two thousand five hundred Hungarians would have died in a failed revolution and many more than that had been imprisoned for their actions so just what is going on in that paragraph?

After the first chapter the book leaps back to 1944 and then progresses to the disasters of 1956. Tibor Fischer was born in England in 1959 to Hungarian parents that had managed to escape in 1956 and this, his first novel, takes his parents background as Hungarian basketball players as a means of informing his text. His mother was captain of the national team and his father was also a quality player, whilst Gyuri and his fellow misfits that we follow through the novel play for the Locomotive team in the Hungarian first division.

Like last week’s book, Lolly Willowes, the novel changes significantly about two thirds in although this time it is because there simply isn’t much funny that can be written about the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and Fischer wisely doesn’t try. Up until then however the book is full of often quite dark humour. As far as possible it also seems to be historically accurate, from the invasion of the country by the Russians in 1944 which pushed out the Germans, but did little to improve the conditions of the populace beyond that, to following the development of the communist state after the war. There are several mentions of the AVO secret police which a couple of the characters have unfortunate encounters with during the novel and the general malaise of life under the regime. The chapters headings are all dates as we trace the passage of time via significant events for either the country or more often the characters interaction with each other or the police state until we get back to November 1955 where if things are not actually going well at least they don’t appear to be getting any worse as long as you stay out of the clutches of the AVO.

The final, and longest, chapter is entitled 23rd October 1956 and it certainly starts then with the birth of the revolution but it continues until early November when the Russians totally crushed the nascent republic. Fischer is very good at inserting his characters into the significant moments of the revolution whilst keeping their being there entirely believable. Central Budapest is surprisingly small and easy to walk around so it is highly likely that people did follow Gyuri’s route around the city on the 23rd, being at both the Radio building and also around the fighting surrounding the Corvin cinema. As stated earlier the jokes largely stop here and indeed the tragic aftermath of the fighting is brought more into focus by the contrast with the considerably more jokey style (even when dealing with awful events) that characterises the first two thirds of the book.

I was in Budapest in October 2016 for the 60th anniversary of the revolution, the 23rd is now a national holiday and a few of my pictures can be seen at the end of this blog. Sadly it would be another thirty three years before the Russians went home as painted on the side of the car and the oppression would if anything be worse in the years immediately after 1956. It’s a very good book and it won’t be another twenty four years before I read it again. Under the Frog was, in 1993, the first debut novel ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize and made it to the shortlist of five before losing to Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

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Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

A radio programme I listen to regularly is BBC Radio 4’s “A Good Read”, it’s a book programme with a difference as rather than focusing on new works the presenter and her two guests each choose a book they like; they then read all three and finally meet up in the studio to discuss them. The last episode in June had novelist Nicci Gerrard pick an odd sounding book, but the title seemed familiar to me and sure enough it is on my shelves. Now from the discussion I have a slight idea as to what happens and it sounds intriguing, from the summary on the radio shows website we get.

Nicci’s favourite is Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, a novel which takes a surprising turn halfway through and provokes a debate about the merits of sleeping in ditches

What’s not to like with a precis like that so here I go. My copy is the 1937 first Penguin Books edition, the first ever edition was by Chatto and Windus in 1926. It’s still in print although now as a Virago Modern Classic.

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The book tells the story of Laura Willowes, known to her nieces and nephews as Aunt Lolly and starts with the death of her father leading her to move in with one of her brothers and his wife in London. We then take a step back and learn about her childhood growing up in Somerset; her mother had died when she was in her teens and by the time her father died she was twenty eight, still a spinster and showing no signs of being interested in marriage. The Somerset family home would go to her other brother, James, and his wife and Lolly looks to settle into the role of the maiden aunt to both couples children. Life in the London home of Henry, Caroline and their two girls was undoubtedly respectable as befitting the late Victorian period, but also full of dull routine. So it continued for many years, through the Edwardian period and up to the First World War with even that failing to disturb Lolly’s routine much.

All begins to change in the winter of 1921 when Lolly whilst out shopping has ‘a revelation’, she is now forty seven and she needs a complete change out of London and back to the countryside. She buys a guidebook and map and announces that evening at a family get together that as the children are all grown up, she isn’t needed any more so she is moving to Great Mop in the Chilterns. Upon this apparently random decision the book pivots.

There are hints soon after she arrives about what is going on in the village, groups of villagers standing around in groups late in the evening, the fact that the place is strangely quiet after that. But she soon fits in to village life however without feeling that she is fully accepted. The arrival of her, now grown up, nephew further upsets her hopes of fitting in by his decision to also move to Great Mop.  But one evening Lolly finds a kitten in her room at her lodgings and suddenly her landlady wants to go for a walk late that evening and takes her to a remote field where most of the rest of the villagers can be found dancing and enjoying a witches sabbath.

Lolly realises that she also is a witch and that must have been what drew her to the village with the help of Satan who appears to her in the guise of a gamekeeper and also a gardener during the rest of the book. Now you can read the book as a mystical adventure but it really is a feminist novel about a woman finding herself and escaping her fusty background. She gets her independence from the family to whom she will always be just dependable old Aunt Lolly and realises just what she can become. In the last twenty or so pages where she is discussing this with Satan you could, apart from the setting obviously, be reading from works by the great feminist writers such as Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I’ll finish with an extract where Lolly is describing the position of women at the time which gives a good example of the quality of the writing as well.

women living and growing old, as common as blackberries, and as unregarded. I see them wives and sisters of respectable men, chapel members and blacksmiths. and small farmers and puritans…
Well there they are, there they are, child rearing, home-keeping, hanging washed dishcloths on currant bushes; and for diversion each other’s silly conversation, and listening to men talking in the way men talk and women listen. Quite different to the way women talk and men listen, if they listen at all. And all the time being thrust further down into dullness when the one thing that all women hate is to be thought dull. And on Sundays they put on plain stuff gowns and starched white coverings on their heads and necks – the Puritan ones did – and walked across the fields to chapel. and listened to the sermon. Sin and Grace and God and the – (she stopped herself just in time) and St Paul. All men’s things like politics and mathematics. Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair. And on the way back they listened to more talk. Talk about the sermon, or war, or cock-fighting; and when they got back there were the potatoes to be cooked for dinner. It sounds very petty to complain about, but I tell you, that sort of thing settles down on one like a fine dust, and by and by the dust is age, settling down.

An Old Man’s Love – Anthony Trollope

Twenty years or so ago I collected all forty seven novels plus the autobiography of Anthony Trollope in the lovely edition printed by the Folio Society which was the first ever complete edition to be illustrated. These are now long out of print but can still be obtained easily on the second hand market. I admit to having bought them far faster than I have ended up reading them in order to complete the set at the time. I have now read over half but have decided for the purpose of this blog to tackle his final work of fiction, completed before he died in 1882. He was still working on The Landleaguers which was published as an unfinished work in 1893 oddly before An Old Man’s Love which didn’t actually get published until 1894. Both of these are amongst his less well known works, indeed I cannot find an edition of An Old Man’s Love currently in print. Trollope suffered a decline in popularity towards the end of his life and it took sixty or seventy years before his reputation as a great Victorian novelist was restored but even so only about half of his novels are read to any extent today.

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The vast majority of An Old Man’s Love is written as as you would expect although there are passages where the author is talking directly to the reader and Trollope can get quite chatty as in the opening paragraph to the third chapter when we are properly introduced to The Old Man’s love interest.

There is nothing more difficult in the writing of a story than to describe adequately the person of a hero or a heroine, so as to place before the mind of the reader any clear picture of him or her who is described. A courtship is harder still—so hard that we may say generally that it is impossible. Southey’s Lodore is supposed to have been effective; but let any one with the words in his memory stand beside the waterfall and say whether it is such as the words have painted it. It rushes and it foams, as described by the poet, much more violently than does the real water; and so does everything described, unless in the hands of a wonderful master. But I have clear images on my brain of the characters of the persons introduced. I know with fair accuracy what was intended by the character as given of Amelia Booth, of Clarissa, of Di Vernon, and of Maggie Tulliver. But as their persons have not been drawn with the pencil for me by the artists who themselves created them, I have no conception how they looked. Of Thackeray’s Beatrix I have a vivid idea, because she was drawn for him by an artist under his own eye. I have now to describe Mary Lawrie, but have no artist who will take the trouble to learn my thoughts and to reproduce them. Consequently I fear that no true idea of the young lady can be conveyed to the reader; and that I must leave him to entertain such a notion of her carriage and demeanour as must come to him at the end from the reading of the whole book.

But the attempt must be made, if only for fashion sake, so that no adventitious help may be wanting to him, or more probably to her, who may care to form for herself a personification of Mary Lawrie.

And so he continues to give a basic description of the young lady who finds herself an orphan and is taken in to the home of Mr Whittlestaff, initially as an act of kindness because he was a friend of the family and she had nowhere else to go. At the start of the book Mr Whittlestaff is fifty and Miss Lawrie is twenty five although we quickly leap about a year and a half to two years so that she is well settled in the house and Mr Whittlestaff decides to ask her to marry him. Now this she is willing to do, although in truth she loves another, a certain John Gordon who vanished from her life three years earlier without actually declaring his love for her but promising to one day return. Then, on the very day that she agrees to her engagement to William Whittlestaff, John Gordon does come back and arrives at Croker’s Hall intending now that he has made money in South Africa to ask her to marry him.

All this has occurred in the first forty or so pages of the book and so the stage is set for the rivalry between the two men for the hand of Miss Mary Lawrie which is to be played out in the grounds of Victorian manners. Some of the characters favour her becoming Mrs Whittlestaff and yet more favour Mrs Gordon and none are shy about coming forward with their opinion even in front of the three main characters. There are numerous twists and turns before the final conclusion and there is also a sub-plot concerning the housekeeper at Croker’s Hall and her drunken husband which also needs to be resolved in the 172 pages so there is a lot going on considering the relative shortness of this book in the grand scheme of Victorian novels.

Romance is not normally a genre that I would choose to read but I definitely enjoyed this story and whilst Trollope is clearly not at the height of his powers as he was in The Chronicles of Barchester books or the Palliser series, both of which consist of six novels each, it is well written and draws you into the tale of the love triangle.

The Antipope – Robert Rankin

The first in the increasingly inaccurately titled Brentford Trilogy (currently eleven books with at least one more to come, which is claimed to be the last of the series) The Antipope also has the most straight forward title. Rankin has a passion for punning titles but as this was also his first ever book, originally published in 1981, maybe he felt something more mainstream was required. My copy is the 35th anniversary limited edition privately published by Rankin and signed by him, it is also the first time the book has appeared in hardback. Rankin himself describes his work as far fetched fiction, indeed his privately published volumes are by Far Fetched Books, at the time of writing the limited edition of The Antipope was still available and is illustrated internally by the author, the cover is by the brilliant Josh Kirby

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The full list of Brentford Trilogy books so far is as follows; and from this you can see his love of wordplay with other book titles and songs:

  1. The Antipope (1981)
  2. The Brentford Triangle (1983)
  3. East of Ealing (1984)
  4. The Sprouts of Wrath (1988)
  5. The Brentford Chainsaw Massacre (1997)
  6. Sex and Drugs and Sausage Rolls (1999)
  7. Knees Up Mother Earth (2004)
  8. The Brightonomicon (2005)
  9. Retromancer (2009)
  10. The Lord of the Ring Roads (2017)
  11. The Chronicles of Banarnia (2018)

The Brightonomicon and Retromancer (2009) are included above although they aren’t in the list of Brentford Trilogy books at the front of this book which only has the first seven but equally on the dust wrapper it says:

The Antipope was the first book in the Brentford Trilogy which now includes at least nine books and will feature one more with the launch of The Lord of the Ring Roads – the first book in a new Brentford Trilogy – some time in the not too distant future.

The reason for the confusion in the number of books to be officially counted in the series is probably due to the appearance of several characters from the set appearing in other books by Rankin which means that those may, or may not, be part of the canon. The books also do not appear to have a specific reading order; things that happen in one book are ignored in later volumes, characters even reappear when they were apparently killed off or written out in earlier books and never with any explanation. Individual volumes are consistent within themselves however just don’t expect a sweeping narrative across them all.

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Brentford itself is one of the least eventful places in the UK and certainly contests strongly for the top spot for this amongst towns within Greater London. Looking on the time line on the wikipedia page reveals that the only act worthy of mention in the last ninety years is the 1965 opening of the elevated section of the M4 motorway, an opportunity the express road took to bypass Brentford entirely. This makes the location all the funnier for the ‘far fetched fiction’ that Rankin has take place there and the cast of odd characters that populate the books. Chief amongst these are John Omally and Jim Pooley who are the reluctant, and frequently drunk, heroes of the book. They are never happier than when enjoying a pint of large in The Flying Swan served by Neville the part time barman at that establishment. It should be noted that Neville appears to be the only barman at the Flying Swan so he does seem to be full time although is always described as the part time barman. The other main characters for this tale are Professor Slocombe who understands more than most what is going on and guides the characters to the ultimate defeat of the Antipope; Norman Hartnell (always described as not to be confused with the other Norman Hartnell) who is a mad inventor and runs the newsagents; Soap Distant explorer of the inner Earth; Captain Carson from the Seaman’s Mission and Archroy who, at least at the start of the book, is working at the local rubber factory.

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The plot starts with the arrival in the Flying Swan of

a beggar of dreadful aspect and sorry footwear

All those who encounter him feel compelled to cross themselves even if they are not Catholic and he slowly encounters most of the main protagonists most especially Captain Carson as he moves in and then takes over the Mission house. Quite what a seaman’s mission is doing in Brentford is also a mystery, the town is on the Thames but a long way from the sea. The plot gets odder and odder with each flight of fantasy by Rankin including ‘magic’ beans, vast underground chambers, an attempt to wade the English Channel and a cowboy night nobody will ever forget amongst other things.

Now I’m going to have to read the others in the series…

To conclude with Robert Rankin’s own explanation of Far Fetched Fiction from a 1999 interview in Dublin

 I’ve said this before, when I went into writing I wanted to create a new genre of fiction that wasn’t like anybody else’s. It was going to be called Far Fetched Fiction, I would have my own book shelf in Smiths, with just my books in them and it would be bliss. But it didn’t quite work out like that, I ended up in a general fiction section, and then they realised that I didn’t write general fiction and I ended up in science fiction, which I feel a bit of a fraud for being there. Because people who write science fiction don’t know what I write, and… I’ve forgotten what I was going to say, what was I going to say?

Storm – George R Stewart

Way out here they got a name
For rain and wind and fire
The rain is Tess, the fire’s Joe
And they call the wind Maria

Maria blows the stars around
And sends the clouds a-flyin’
Maria makes the mountain sound
Like folks were up there dyin’

Maria, Maria
They call the wind Maria

Lyrics from probably the best known song from Paint your Wagon, the 1951 musical by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe and the song was inspired by the book that is the subject of this review. For Stewart names his storm Maria and gave rise to the whole idea of naming cyclones and hurricanes. In a later edition Stewart addresses the issue of how to pronounce Maria, originally he was thinking of Ma-Ree-Ah but changed his mind as he though she needed the harder sound of Ma-Rye-Ah so Lerner and Loewe were correct in rhyming the name with ‘fire’. Maria is very much the heroine of the book, to such an extent that the usual disclaimer at the start of a novel is in this case:-

The characters of this book – including Maria – are imaginary.

The book was first published in 1941 by Random House in the US, my copy is the Fighting Forces Penguin Special numbered S238 printed in June 1944 part of a series of books printed for American troops during WWII in a collaboration between The American Infantry Journal and the British Penguin Books. Almost all of the titles from this joint venture were factual and dealt with aspects of the war such as aircraft recognition, army handbooks, military history and exploits during the conflict. There were a total of three novels included though

  • S211 The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek
  • S219 The Moon is down by John Steinbeck
  • S238 Storm by George R Stewart

An excellent selection of titles and one I will probably come back to in future articles for this site.

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The structure of the novel is unusual, there are twelve chapters, one for each day of the storm and within the chapters there are numbered sections each of which follow a particular group of characters. These range from the meteorologists, to the telephone company repair crews, the dispatcher at air traffic control, railway workers and for myself the most interesting group which is the snow plough crews charged with keeping route 40 over the Donner Pass clear of snow.  Theirs is probably the best written story in the book and you really get to feel for their struggle to keep the road open. There are also various groups of travellers on roads, ships and trains that we keep track of and sometimes a section just deals with one incident on one day so we never hear of the characters involved again. Some of these people survive the storm, some don’t, but we follow their story in their own episodes as the book progresses, it’s like watching numerous daily soap operas before the days of binge-watching where you have to wait until the next day to find out what happens but meantime here is another story to keep track of. At the peak of the storm, through days six to nine, there are fourteen or fifteen separate stories being told in this manner for each day.

Stewart casually mentions small incidents at the beginning of the book that later become major hazards like a piece of wood falling off the back of a lorry, or somebody shooting at a junction box for a bit of fun and these later on are shown to have consequences far beyond their initial triviality. Likewise we follow Maria from a small squall off the coast of Japan across the Pacific and see her interacting with other weather systems some of which divert her route others of which strengthen and then after twelve days ultimately destroy her. During the time she gives birth to other storms and affects places right across North and Central America. One issue with the book is that in order to make sense of it you really do need a good functional knowledge of the geography of the US to follow what is going on and this may be one reason for the apparent lack of an edition in print at the moment. Fortunately I have travelled extensively across America so do know the relationship between most of the places mentioned but it could be confusing if you don’t have that knowledge. The book was a best seller in the 1940’s and 50’s so it’s a pity that it is now largely forgotten especially considering its two influences on contemprary culture beyond the books own boundaries.

As stated at the start of this blog when Stewart decided to have one of his characters (the Junior Meteorologist) name the storm this was not something that was done at the time. The JM, as he is referred to throughout the book, is somewhat ashamed of his habit of naming storms and when halfway through the story he accidentally calls the storm Maria whilst talking to his boss he is mortified. His boss however quite likes the idea and the book is cited as the main influence on the decision of the United States Weather Bureau to start naming storms using women’s names in 1953. Maria was not part of the original series of names but was added in tribute to the book and is now officially retired after Hurricane Maria killed over 3000 people in 2017.

As for its impact on music you can hear Bryn Terfel singing They Call the Wind Maria by clicking here.

 

Brother Cadfael – Ellis Peters

Finding myself abroad last week, but having fallen and badly sprained my ankle so forced into inactivity, I picked up a copy of the Brother Cadfael Omnibus volume two which my host owned. I chose this because I have the Cadfael stories in their individual volumes at home so if I didn’t finish a book then I could do so on my return. Omnibus volume two consists of books four to six of the series i.e. Saint Peters Fair, The Leper of Saint Giles and The Virgin in the Ice and I finished the first two and got most of the way through The Virgin in the Ice which I have now completed. I have read all twenty one of the books in the series several times so knew I was in for a fun time even though I could remember most of the plots.

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For those people unfamiliar with the stories Brother Cadfael (the name is Welsh and pronounced Kad-vile) is a monk at the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury, Shropshire and the books are almost all set from 1137 to 1145 during the civil war between King Stephen and his cousin Empress Maud for control of the English crown. The one exception is A Rare Benedictine which is actually a collection of three short stories exploring Cadfael’s life before the first book going back as far as 1120 when he was a crusader. This book is also not included in the standard numbering of the series, it should be number sixteen but is skipped in the sequence by most publishers and when the omnibus editions were put together it was assigned the final place in volume seven further emphasising that it is not really part of the story arc. Apart from that the books follow on from each other so this is one series where it really does pay to read them in order. The character is a herbalist within the monastery and is seen by his superiors as a useful link to the secular powers such as the sheriff and especially his deputy Hugh Beringer due to the long time he spent in the world before withdrawing to the monastic life. His knowledge of herbs and remedies is also very useful both within the abbey and to the town and the surrounding area and this leads him to be involved in poisonings and murders as the basis of a lot of the plots.

I would be very surprised if the Estonian medieval detective tales of Apothecary Melchior tales by Indrek Hargla  were not heavily influenced by the Cadfael stories as although they are set a couple of hundred years later the two characters are very similar in skills and ways of approaching crime.

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Ellis Peters was one of the pseudonyms used by Edith Pargeter for her in excess of seventy five books along with dozens of short stories written between 1936 and her death in 1995. She lived almost her entire life within 5 miles of where I now reside being born in the small village of Horsehay and dying just 3½ miles from there in the town of Madeley at the age of eighty two, so she was very much a local celebrity round here. There is even a window dedicated to her memory in Shrewsbury abbey (about fifteen miles from here) and the Cadfael trails around Shrewsbury are still a popular tourist draw to the town. As well as a novelist she was a historian and translator and it is her historical interests that adds so much character to the books. Numerous real people are mentioned including the two abbots and the prior of the abbey who were indeed there when she says they were

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The covers I have included are from my own copies, there are numerous sets of covers that you can get the books in, I particularly like this version although it is mildly annoying as you cannot get all the books in exactly the same format as the publishers (Futura) decided to change it to include the book number on the cover near the end of the series which messed up the design. However the ‘parchment’ background with decorated lettering I think is very satisfying for books set in a medieval monastery. The books have fallen out of popularity since Pargeter’s death and the TV series which ran in the late 1990’s but they are well worth a read and you will also learn quite a but about ‘The Anarchy’, a period of English history that also doesn’t seem to be known about in modern times.