Friday, 28 January 2000

John Keegan: The Face of Battle (1976)

Edition: Penguin, 1984
Review number: 429

Today, John Keegan is widely known as a military historian, and has quite a reputation both in the field and among the public. The Face of Battle is the book which made his name. He sought to show his readers something of the reality of battle, in contrast to the usual concentration on strategy and technology. This is far more difficult to do, for several reasons. Even in these days of near-universal literacy (in the West, at least), generals are far more likely to write about their careers than private soldiers. On a modern battlefield, which can often cover several square miles, confusion reigns so far as the ordinary soldier is concerned. The air is full of smoke and noise, and any attempt to gain a good vantage point from the ground courts immediate death. Much of what can be said is the product of inference and supposition rather than direct testimony, and also involves and facing of rather unpleasant facts about what men can do to other men. The traditional emphasis is understandable, but it does need to be challenged every now and then.

The book itself contains an introductory essay on military historiography, accounts of three battles, and a concluding essay on the way battles have changed over the centuries. The three battles (Agincourt, Waterloo, and the first day of the Somme) are carefully chosen. They took place in a small area of north west Europe, between soldiers of similar cultural backgrounds. (There are anthropological arguments that imply that these are different from battles between widely differing cultures.) They are all, importantly, well documented for their times. Several independent chronicles include accounts of Agincourt, an effort was made to question all the British officers who survived Waterloo, and the impressions of British survivors of the Somme still alive in the sixties were sought out and recorded.

The opening section is distinctly reminiscent of the historiographical essays of M.I. Finley. This is only to be expected, for ancient history and military history bear similar relationships to the mainstream of the subject. Both are traditionally subjects studied by specialists other than historians, both suffer from poor contemporary documentation.

The accounts of the battles, which do not make pleasant reading, are expertly constructed so that the reader is put into the position of the men on the ground while still having an idea of what is going on at a broader level. The principal lesson, as has been indicated, is that battles are far more chaotic and brutal than is implied by traditional accounts, and that this has always been the case.

The trend seems to be that these factors are constantly increasing, and with them the percentage of soldiers made ineffective for reasons other than death and physical suffering. This is the subject discussed in the final essay, along with the question of why men take part in battles at all. There has usually had to be coercion from the rear; the amount of effort expended to stop men escaping from the Western Front was quite considerable, for example. In the late twentieth century, it has reached the point where traditional battles have become virtually impossible, and increasingly scarce. Most modern wars seem to consist of guerilla style operations - which have the advantage of being far cheaper - or massive air bombardments.

Wednesday, 26 January 2000

James Stoddard: High House (1998)

Edition: Simon & Schuster, 1998
Review number: 428

Were it not for the prior existence of Peake's Gormenghast trilogy and Crowley's Little, Big, High House would certainly seem far more original than it actually does. Like these novels, its focal point is a huge house which has a strange magical atmosphere. (The Gormenghast novels are far more dark than either of these others.) Like Gormenghast, the High House is full of strange people and places; in High House, these are often allusive.

The High House comes under attack from the Anarchists, who seek to harness its power. When the young child Carter, son of the Master of the House, is tricked into losing the keys - by which the doors which should remain locked are kept locked, and vice versa - he is sent away, to grow up in the normal world in which we live. This is as much for his own protection as for any other reason, but when his father disappears some years later he has to return to search without much knowledge of the house and its customs.

As as the House itself being huge, it groups together a large number of countries which are mostly allied with the Master against forces seeking to disturb the House and through it the entire universe, with which it is mysteriously connected. As well as the dinosaur in the attic and the Room of Horrors which terrifies Carter as a child, these countries are inventive little pieces of fantasy. There are subtle allusions to famous classics of the genre, such as the Narnia series.

To say that High House is like the Gormenghast trilogy is to praise it rather than to put it down; I suspect that, like Peake's work, its riches will be revealed again each time it is re-read.

Monday, 24 January 2000

Ngaio Marsh: Black Beech and Honeydew (1965/1981)

Updated version: 1981
Edition: Fontana, 1985
Review number: 427

In the life of Ngaio Marsh, there are three major themes: her New Zealand background, her love of the theatre, and her writing of detective novels. Her autobiography, first published in the sixties and revised a few years before her death, concentrates on the first two to the virtual exclusion of the third. More is said of the journalism which began her writing career than of the Alleyn series. There are many possible reasons why she might do this, but I suspect that it is mainly that writing is not a spectacularly interesting activity to write about. Once a writer has answered the questions "Where do you get your ideas from?" and "Are your characters based on real people?" there isn't much to say. Marsh doesn't really answer the first question, but the answer to the second is definitely yes.The reader is introduced to the Lampreys, close friends of Marsh only marginally less irritating than their fictional versions.

The major interest in the autobiography is the story of Marsh's involvement in the theatre. Her contributions to the development of New Zealand based theatre were important enough for them to be the reason she was awarded the DBE rather than her writing. She was an actress, but was best known for her direction, especially of Shakespeare. Shakespeare was considered too difficult for New Zealand audiences, but British touring companies had some success, and so did Marsh with companies made up principally of students. It always seems that a good production of Shakespeare can be understood and enjoyed by any audience; it is the way that he is taught in schools and the immensity of his reputation that put people off.

In the end, this is not an autobiography which reveals much about its subject; it tells us little that cannot be picked up from the detective stories - the love of theatre and of her country of origin comes across quite strongly in several of them.

Friday, 21 January 2000

James M. Cain: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)

Edition: Bloomsbury
Review number: 426

A Steinbeckian novel of the American poor written in American vernacular, the film of The Postman Always Rings Twice is far better known than its book. Short and easy to read, it still manages to give an insight into the psychology behind Frank Chanbers and Cora Papadakis' attempts to murder Cora's Greek husband Nick. It is narrated by Chambers, and his attitudes are quite subtly exhibited to the reader; perhaps the most obvious of these is the casual racism of the poor white man of the early twentieth century.

The quality of the writing is high, both in the way that its style fits the background of the narrator and in the way that so much is fitted into a short space. There are many crime novels which take a much greater length just to describe a murder plot without worrying much about characterisation. Nick is the major character whom Cain makews least effort to establish, but even there there is the feeling that his sketchiness reflects Frank's guilt over what he has done.

Thursday, 20 January 2000

Francis Iles: Malice Aforethought (1931)

Edition: Pan, 1999
Review number: 425

Malice Aforethought is touted as the first modern crime novel. This is because it dropped the central feature of the genre from its beginnings to the twenties, the puzzle, to concentrate on the psychology of murder. This is clear from the very first sentence, which announces the identity of the killer. However, though innovative, I don't think Malice Aforethought particularly good. I found the psychology unconvincing and the surprise ending both contrived and not today particularly surprising. (A reviewer of the time said that not one person in ten thousand would guess it, even in the middle of the last page.)

Dr Edmund Bickleigh, a country GP, is driven by an inferiority complex fed by the British class system (he has risen above his background but doesn't feel that he fits in) and by his wife, Julia, who bosses him unmercifully. He takes refuge in low key affairs, but when his latest flirtation goes disastrously wrong Julia's contempt makes him decide to murder her.

The problem with the novel is really that the focal character, Edmund Bickleigh, is not particularly interesting, and the ways in which his feelings of inferiority make themselves apparent are not sufficiently subtle or varied. Julia seems potentially a much more interesting person, but we don't get much insight into her character as she is just there to grind her husband down. Edmund is too one dimensional to be a good basis for psychological study.

I'm not so sure about the claim that this novel pioneered the modern crime novel. By the early thirties, there were writers around who had a greater interest in psychology and character instead of the obsession with the mechanics of plot which marked the work of authors such as Christie. And Malice Aforethought has not stopped the production of much plot led crime fiction to this day, almost sixty years later. I would also feel that the modern crime novel is more characterised by gritty realism than psychological insight, a legacy from American writers like Raymond Chandler.

I wouldn't go so far as to dismiss Malice Aforethought with the "0 out of 10" someone has written on the public library copy I read, but it certainly didn't live up to its reputation so far as this reader is concerned.

Wednesday, 19 January 2000

Paul Davies: About Time: Einstein's Unfinished Revolution (1995)

Edition: Viking, 1996
Review number: 424

About Time is an eminently readable popular account of the current ideas about time in physics, with a short historical section examining philosophical perceptions of time from the ancient Greeks to the time of Newton. The main concerns of the book are to explain the role played by time in the keystones of modern physics, general relativity and quantum mechanics. Since much of physics is concerned with processes, time can be used as a single theme to motivate a discussion of many of the more interesting aspects of modern physics.

The nature of time and its role in the cosmos also lie at the heart of some of the unsolved problems of physics, many people thinking that these issues will provide the key to the next generation of physical theories. Most prominent among these is the asymmetry of time, a major problem when underlying theories would be unchanged if time ran backward rather than forward. In slightly different areas, issues of human perception of time are briefly touched upon as well as what exactly we might be measuring with different kinds of clocks.

The descriptions of relativistic and quantum effects are now the commonplace of popular physics, and the most interesting parts were those dealing with more unusual matters, such as the nature of the interior of black holes or the asymmetry in kaon decay. The device of having a second voice used as a sceptic to facilitate the discussion is slightly annoying but not a big problem.

Tuesday, 18 January 2000

Rafael Sabatini: Scaramouche (1921)

Edition: Pan, 1961
Review number: 423

Like his contemporary Jeffrey Farnol, Sabatini was an immensely popular author of historical thrillers. Sabatini, however, seems today to be less dated, possibly because his novels are more literary and better researched, giving a greater sense that they are anchored in the periods in which they are set than Farnol's. His dialogue in particular is not so artificial.

Scaramouche is probably Sabatini's best known novel (though a couple of others were made into films which themselves are much more famous - Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk). Set in revolutionary France, it tells the story of the transformation of cynical Breton lawyer André-Louis Moreau into radical orator, fugitive, play actor and fencing tutor as he is swept into the turbulence following the murder of his friend Villemorin.

Unusually for popular fiction depicting the Revolution, no attempt is made to romanticise the aristocracy. They are frequently portrayed as a cultured contrast to a bestial peasantry. (This is what Baroness Orczy tends to do in the Scarlet Pimpernel novels, for example.) Instead, in keeping with Moreau's cynical outlook, neither side is drawn in a very positive light; mankind in general is bestial.

The troupe of actors joined by Moreau is a travelling group of improvisers, a traditional commedia dell'arte company. This section is the most interesting part of the novel, and the quality of Sabatini's research is shown by the way that he gives an excellent (one of the best short accounts I have read) summary of the traditional characters which make up such a troupe and some of the scenarios they used as the basis for their performances. He also, being a good writer, brings alive these pages with a sense of the atmosphere that these performances must have produced. Moreau eventually ends up playing the part of Scaramouche, the cynical plotter, both in the company and in his own life, hence the title of the novel.

Michael Frayn: The Tin Men (1965)

Edition: Fontana, 1971
Review number: 422

Michael Frayn's first novel is like the comic novels of J.B. Priestley, especially Sir Michael and Sir George, rather than those of Evelyn Waugh, with whom the quoted reviews on the cover compare him. Waugh's melancholy side is absent from The Tin Men, and it is more directly satirical, though the novel is as funny as the comparison suggests.

The satire is about mechanisation and depersonalisation, the latter a theme to which Frayn returned several times as a novelist. Preparations are under way for the opening of a new wing at the William Morris Institute for Automation Research, and as increasingly detailed arrangements are made for the Queen's informal visit, the stress tells on the eccentric characters working to replace as much of human life as possible by computers, freeing people to do "the really important things".

The automatic versions of everyday life are, of course, where the satire comes in - meaningless headlines written by newspaper machines are a typical example. I rather liked the experimental ethics department robots, programmed to throw themselves off a capsizing raft to save a being more complex than themselves, engaging in fights to the death when two are placed on the raft. In most cases, the targets are fairly easy to hit but the satire is still funny. The Tin Men is amusing, but Frayn has gone on to write far more subtle novels.

Monday, 17 January 2000

Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire (1961)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962
Review number: 421

After the notoriety gained from his first novel written in English (Lolita), Nabokov's next work was very different. It is a strange novel, written in an unusual style: it takes the form of a scholarly edition of a poem, and the story is told through the foreword and notes. In its virtuosity, it perhaps shows off Nabokov's skills as a writer better than Lolita, though the nature of that story is so powerful as to make evaluation difficult.

Pale Fire is the last work of John Shade, distinguished if old fashioned American poet. He lives in the town of New Wye, where he teaches at the Ivy League Wordsmith College. The editor of the poem is his next door neighbour, Charles Kinbote, who also teaches at the university. Kinbote is a refugee from the Eastern European state of Zembla, where a Russian backed revolution has just ousted the monarchy. In fact, he is the escaped king himself, and he attempts to prompt Shade to write a poem describing his downfall, a lament for the Zemblan monarchy. But extremists from Zembla are trying to trace him all the time, and an assassin has been despatched to kill him. The assassin accidentally kills Shade instead of Kinbote, and that is why Kinbote sets out to edit the poem, initially a disappointment when he sees that it is autobiographical not a Zemblan epic after all. He begins to feel that his adventures - a theme he felt sure no poet could resist - are reflected more subtly in the poem, until he starts to see Zemblan references in every line (a use of the word "crown", for example, must be a way to connect Shade's life with that of Kinbote).

But not everything is necessarily the way it seems, as Kinbote points out at one point. (The name Zembla, after all, is according to Kinbote derived not from its obvious source, the Russian zemlya, land, but from the French sembler, to seem.) He says that there is no way to tell whether Shade was a madman who thought himself a poet, or Kinbote one who thought himself a king. Certainly the way in which there are so many allusions scattered throughout the notes implies an unreality about the whole thing - Charles II of Zembla escapes the country passing through the town of Boscobel, for example. Kinbotes obsession with relating the poem to events in Zembla also tends to make the reader place less confidence in what he says.

Nabokov has used an experimental structure, prose full of external references (I particularly liked the one to Hurricane Lolita devastating the US), and an uncertain narrator - there is more of Kinbote than Shade, but even Shade does not seem to be as good a poet as Kinbote implies. Yet despite this intellectual content, Pale Fire is entertaining, engrossing and amusing.

Thursday, 13 January 2000

Charles Rosen: The Classical Style (1971)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1997 (revised edition)
Review number: 420

One of the best known works on classical music (in the wider sense as well as the narrower one of the title) written in the second half of this century, The Classical Style has been re-issued in a new edition. Considering what has happened in the last thirty years, remarkably little has been changed; this is partly because Rosen felt (as he says in the foreword) that to revise it would mean a complete rewrite, as the book he would write today would be very different. The changes consist mainly of a new foreword and the addition of new footnotes in response to suggestions and criticisms made about the original edition.

The aim of the book is to look for the distinguishing features of the classical style, the music of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Rosen concentrates exclusively on the three composers acknowledged then and now as its greatest exponents: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. He analyses large numbers of works by these composers, to see how the style developed - all three were innovators. The coverage of Beethoven is rather more sketchy than of the earlier composers, concentrating mainly on the works for piano.

What is it that marks out the classical style? Most musicians would probably tell you that it is a meticulous adherence to form, especially sonata form, with set modulations occurring at particular points in movements to lead up to the final resolution onto the tonic for the end of the movement. They would perhaps say that his form was developed by the sons of J.S. Bach and by Haydn, and that its gradual breakdown which was to lead to the romantic style was begun by Beethoven.

To ascribe to the late eighteenth century a rigorous use of schemes not in fact formalised until the mid nineteenth is a ridiculous idea, soon exploded by seeing how frequently Haydn and Mozart fail to conform to the strict dictates of sonata form: the wrong number of themes, the wrong keys, tricks to deceive the ear into thinking the end is approaching, and so on. Instead, Rosen examines hundreds of examples to build up a picture of what these three composers actually did.

From a harmonic point of view, the crucial development, he thinks, was that of equal temperament earlier in the century. This means that instead of one key on a keyboard being exactly in tune and the rest out to one degree or another (making distant keys almost unusable), all keys are equally nearly in tune. This strengthened the relationships between keys, and made the triad the dominant harmonic feature. Earlier harmony was based on the interactions of more or less independent lines of melody, as in a Bach fugue. Bringing in simpler, symmetrical rhythms, as were used in opera buffa, meant that this new type of harmony could be exploited on a large scale, treating modulations as slowly moving dissonances. The ideas which were later codified as sonata form are basically to travel to the dominant as a source of tension, then resolve back to the tonic, and can be seen in many classical movements which it would seem strange to classify as sonata form - slow movements, minuets, rondos. Increasing chromaticism and the tendency to treat all keys as harmonies rather than long term dissonances led to the break up of the classical and the establishment of the romantic style, with longer melodies not lending themselves to the kind of harmonisation fundamental to Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart.

Rosen places the first flowering of the style in Haydn's string quartet set, Op. 33, slightly later than would many historians (but then his definition of the style is slightly different, too). He points to the extra-musical evidence that Haydn described these quartets as new and revolutionary. This is usually dismissed as marketing, but it is impossible to deny that they marked at least a change in Haydn's own style. Rosen points to relatively minor composers such as Hummel for the beginnings of the end, classifying Beethoven as more old fashioned than revolutionary. His works were unprecedented in scale, but reactionary in form, particularly his late works which sought to integrate sonata form with the even more outdated fugue.

In some ways, The Classical Style is too overwhelming to be easily assessed. The vast array of analyses of individual works are convincing, though necessarily sketchy. To summarise a thirty minute work in three pages is a difficult task which Rosen handles superbly, aided by the large numbers of quotations he is able to include. Few amateur musicians would have extensive enough music collections, let alone scores, to check what he has to say in detail or to look for counter examples to his arguments among more obscure works by lesser composers. The book is however hailed as a classic, and the points that have been raised between the editions seem to Rosen only to require minor consideration, and so I suspect that his argument is valid. It would hardly seem worth doubting it, except that I wanted to point out that it would be beyond the means of most amateur musicians, myself included, to properly evaluate it.

Wednesday, 12 January 2000

Leslie Charteris: Getaway (1932)

Alternative title: The Saint's Getaway
Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1939
Review number: 418

Having more seriously annoyed Scotland Yard than usual (in The Holy Terror), Simon Templar has resolved to be good. He is doing this on holiday with his friend Monty Hayward and partner Patricia Holm in Austria when his good intentions have to be laid aside on seeing a man set on by four others. This snowballs into a large-scale adventure, as the Saint and his old enemy Crown Prince Rudolph chase each other across Europe to gain possession of some priceless jewels, both sides also arousing the interest of the police.

Getaway is probably the longest Saint book, but that does not make it the most interesting. It is rather more predictable than most of the novels from this period, and lacks something of Charteris' usual sparkle. It is a more conventional thriller, rather reminiscent of Dornford Yates (though Simon Templar is more interesting as a hero than Yates' upper class Englishmen).

Anne McCaffrey: The Tower and the Hive (1999)

Edition: Bantam
Review number: 419

The fifth, concluding, novel in The Tower and the Hive sequence is, unfortunately, something of a disappointment, even in a series which has already declined from its best. The books are among McCaffrey's most juvenile and have few redeeming features other than being fun to read.

The plot continues the story of the telepaths' leading of the resistence to the genocidal attacks on human and Mrdini planets of the insectile Hivers. The issues raised - xenophobia, pacifism, alien cultures, and so on - are treated at a superficial level. The telepathic Talents are always right, and it is made clear that any reasonable person would agree with what they do (opposition always comes from "fanatics"). A far better analysis of the issues involved in such a war, with a similar social insect style alien, is contained in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and its sequels. (They are also aimed in part at the younger end of the science fiction market.)

McCaffrey also here includes a subplot seemingly based on ideas frequently associated with homophobia. A homosexual character - a rarity in science fiction even in the late nineties - is "reformed" when he is manipulated into falling in love with the "right" woman. The main aim of both men and women is seen to be to have a family. McCaffrey's writing about sexuality has been more interesting and less potentially offensive in the past, for example in the early Pern novels.

Tuesday, 11 January 2000

Dave Duncan: Present Tense (1997)

Edition: Corgi
Review number: 417

One of the reviews of the first novel from The Great Game sequence, quoted on the cover of this, the second, describes it as the most significant fantasy novel of the decade. While it is good, and attempts something rather unusual, I don't feel that it is that good. (mind you, I can't think of many fantasy novels from the nineties that I would describe as particularly significant.) Present Tense shares both the strengths and flaws of Past Imperative.

It is hardly surprising that the strengths are shared, since they are mainly in the underlying scenario shared by the whole series. In Present Tense, the two worlds of First World War England and Nexdoor in the grip of its rapacious deities are alternated, as the Nextdoor elements consist of a tale told by Edward Exeter to the few people he can get to believe in him. A new item which is good is a tribe on Nextdoor with a very unusual culture, completely unlike the European peasantry, nobility and barbarian hordes which usually inhabit fantasy novels. Instead, it is based on an African society with segregated groups of unmarried men.

A lot of what goes on in these books seems to really be about anti-colonialism. Exeter's own background - brought up in Africa yet (unusually) freely allowed to mingle with the people around rather than being kept in completely European society of sent to an English prep school - is explicitly said to help him interact with the people he meets on Nextdoor in contrast to the standard British colonial behaviour. But the whole background of Nextdoor, where the exploitative deities are normal Earth people who have gained vast powers as a result of crossing over, is a (fairly unsubtle) commentary on imperialist culture.

The major shared weakness is a poor start; with each novel, it is about fifty pages before the story grips enough for the initial "This rubbish isn't worth reading" reaction to wear off. I can't quite see what it is that Duncan fails to do, but this novel would be improved by omitting or rewriting the introductory section, which deals with the British army's reaction to Exeter's sudden appearance naked on the Western Front. Maybe changing the style so that it read more like the reader would expect from a 1917 army report - which is what it purports to be - would help. Alternatively, just beginning with the second section, in which Exeter has been incarcerated in a mental hospital in Kent, would be better than what we have (it would be easy to work out how he got there).

Monday, 10 January 2000

Andre Norton: Dread Companion (1970)

Edition: Gollancz, 1970
Review number: 416

In this novel, aimed at a slightly older audience than most of her writing, Norton uses several themes from folklore and child psychology to create a disturbing story. Accepting a post as governess to get away from a world which has little to offer a woman of intelligence, Kilda soon comes to realise that there is something strange about her charges. Like Miles and Flora in A Turn of the Screw, Bartare and Oomark have an invisible companion who is rather unpleasant, and they start to play mind games with Kilda under the direction of the mysterious "She".

When they arrive at their destination, the planet Dylan, things get worse; Kilda follows the children through some kind of gateway into a very different world, woven by Norton from the legends of the land of Faery. Easily one of the best writers of science fiction for teenagers, Norton has managed to find new and very effective ways to combine well worn, psychologically telling elements.

Thursday, 6 January 2000

F. Scott FitzGerald: Tender is the Night (1934)

Edition: Everyman
Review number: 413

Tender is the Night is famous for two things: its unusual temporal structure andits masterly depiction of mental instability (both Freudian psychosis caused by the trauma of incest, and alcoholism). The two central characters, Nicole and Dick Diver, initiall appear to be a happy couple, the soul of the parts among the rich Americans based on the French Riviera. Their stabillity seems only marginally affected by the young film star Rosemary who falls in love with Dick. However, at the end of the first part the reader sees that the reality behind the facade is rather more fragile, for reasons which become apparent in the flashback which makes up the second part. Dick is an immensely successful psychiatrist, and Nicole was one of his patients, unable to live a normal life after abuse by her father. She developed a crush on Dick, to which he eventually responded by marrying her - a bad mistake, according to Freudian ideas on transference, the process by which a patient's dependence on the psychiatrist is reflected by inappropriate feelings of desire towards him/her. The final part, increasingly blurred chronologically, catalogues Nicole's gradual recovery from trauma and her need of Dick while he pursues a parallel course downwards (as prophesied by his surname) into alcoholism.

While not appearing dated, after over half a century Tender is the Night does not seem as difficult to understand as many critics considered it when it first appeared. It's chronology was a particular source of confusion, but this is not longer something which appears particularly innovative (as the idea of a non-linear chronology is one which underlies much of the literature of the later twentieth century).

Edmund Crispin: Holy Disorders (1946)

Edition: Penguin, 1990
Review number: 415

Summoned by a telegram sent by his old friend Gervase Fen asking him to take over temporarily from the incapacitated organist at Tolnbridge Cathedral, Geoffrey Vintner finds himself involved in a strange plot: several attempts are made to prevent him successfully making the journey down to Devon.

Once he arrives at Tolnbridge, it becomes clear only that the organist was put out of action by an attack from a group of people, yet it is not at all obvious who they are or what they wanted. It may be connected with radio broadcasts made to the German forces from the area, detailing fleet movements from an important naval base nearby (the novel is contemporary to when it was written). One of Tolnbridge's claims to fame as a diocese is for the persistence of witches covens in the area, and some trials in the seventeenth century. Rumours have started of black magical ceremonies being practised in the area once again, and the attack may be connected with these groups.

Crispin binds all these elements together to create a mystifying puzzle for Fen to unravel. Fen is one of the more unsympathetic detectives in the genre - vain, eccentric, childish and prone to keep information back ready for later dramatic revelation. He is always ahead of the reader - Crispin has quite difficult puzzles, and I suspect that he cheats (In Holy Disorders, Fen says "I know who it is" but won't elaborate, and this comes some pages before I think there is enough evidence to be definite about the murderer.)

Charles Dickens: Bleak House (1853)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 414

This famous attack on the excesses of the Court of Chancery is one of my favourite Dickens novels. By the nineteenth century, Chancery was a medieval anachronism which still made decisions on property disputes arising out of wills. Based on obscure law and strange principles of equity, its judgements were expensive and time consuming, incomprehensible even to most lawyers. Cases dragged on for many years - generations, even - frequently incurring costs beyond the sums disputed, occasionally eating up the entire estate in question in costs before a decision was reached.

Such a case forms the background to Bleak House. Jarndyce v. Jarndyce has gone on for years, casting uncertainty over the lives of those embroiled in it, including the young orphans Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, who are wards of the court because of their inherited interests in the case. They are adopted by their genial and charitable cousin John Jarndyce, who takes them to live in his home, Bleak House, in attempted reparation for the shadow of the suit. As in Much Ado About Nothing, the conventional main plot of Bleak House (the romance between Richard and Ada) takes second place to events involving more interesting characters. Their cousin brings them together with the focus of another of his charitable projects, the gentle Esther Summerson. Much of the novel is told from her point of view - it is written in an unusual combination of first and third person narrative, depending on whether Esther witnesses events or not. Other than an over sentimental side, she is quite charming and easily becomes the most important personality in the book. The mystery of her parentage is one of the important strands of the plot.

But it is the minor characters who are the main treasures of Bleak House, both likeable and unlikeable. In the latter category there are several characters satirising the Victorian obsession with charity. Mrs Jellyby is the most prominent of these, obsessed with projects for the natives of Borriboola-Gha to the exclusion of bringing up - or even noticing - her large family. On the likeable side, there are several who are connected in some way with the Chancery, and these include one of my favourite of all Dickensian characters, Miss Flite, at one time a party to a Chancery suit driven mad by the proceedings of the court.

Bleak House is a remarkably genial novel for a satire with the intention to provoke reform. This is partly due to the nature of the target (best exemplified through the metaphorical fog which appears throughout the novel), but it also produces a sense of helplessness in the face of legal obfuscation which in the end makes its point even more strongly.

Wednesday, 5 January 2000

George MacDonald Fraser: Flashman at the Charge (1973)

Edition: Granada, 1989
Review number: 412

The fourth Flashman novel tells of his involvement in the Crimean War, with the Charge of the Light Brigade as its centrepiece. Great play is made on the contrast between Tennyson's heroic poem and Flashman on the back cover ("Was there a man dismay'd? Yes, one - Flashman"). It is one of the most fun of the series, though it does have a darker side in the stupidity of the commanders at Balaclava and the Russian brutality towards their serfs.

Tuesday, 4 January 2000

Michael Moorcock: The War Lord of the Air (1971)

Edition: Granada, 1984
Review number: 411

The War Lord of the Air is one of my favourite Moorcock novels. It inspired by turn of the century adventure stories with a fantastic element, with influences such as Buchan, Haggard and Wells as well as the tradition exemplified by (say) Lanier's Brigadier Ffellowes stories. It is a precursor of the genre known as "steampunk", with its additional element of alternate history centred around alternate technology.

Whilst on a mission to a remote kingdom in the Himalayas in 1902, Captain Oswald Bastable of the British Army is caught in an earthquake. He recovers consciousness in a ruined city - but the ruins seem old. Eventually he discovers that he has travelled through time to 1973 - but not 1973 as we have experienced it. The First World War never happened, and the world remains divided up between the colonial powers. The dominant technology is that of the airship, powered by compact steam engines. Feigning amnesia (and, of course, having no knowledge of any event since 1902), Bastable attempts to make his way in an entirely new world, though actually one not as different from 1902 as the real 1973 would have been.

As in other alternate histories, part of the fun lies in seeing well known people in very different situations. There are several revolutionaries, including Che Guevara and an aged Vladimir Ulianov (Lenin), but the oddest is the clean cut young army lieutenant Michael Jagger.