The Lucky Mill, by Ioan Slavici

Lucky Mill cvr.jpg

Ioan Slavici’s collection Nuvele din popor (Novels from the People), published in 1881, includes Moara cu noroc (The Lucky Mill).  Slavici (1848-1925) was a Transylvanian, and he became a highly influential writer in Romania.  The Lucky Mill is the best known of his works outside that country, probably because it seems to be about the only one to have been translated; it is available in a 1919 edition published by Duffield and Company.

The Lucky Mill (a building which turns out to be anything but) follows the fortunes of Ghitza in a rural part of Transylvania.  Ghitza has recently come to run the eponymous Lucky Mill, near the town of Ineu, with his wife Anna and two children.  The mill is actually an inn, and Ghitza is doing well there.  One of the locals is Lica; he is ostensibly a pig herder (apparently quite a big deal) but has a significant side-line as a brigand.  He is someone you want to keep on the good side of if you know what is good for you.

There is a minimal police presence in the area, and the influence of Lica is stronger, with those in power ready to turn a blind eye to injustice as long as it is worth their while.   Lica is able to exploit Ghitza, first threatening to reduce his custom by having the herders boycott the inn, then implicating Ghitza in his nefarious deeds, which eventually include murder and theft.  Having corrupted him, Lica uses Ghitza to launder the proceeds of crime, and finally seduces Anna, the licentious atmosphere of the inn having created the conditions for her growing attraction to Lica and her eventual spiral into immorality.  She is aware that Lica is a bad boy, but considers him more of a man than her husband, while Ghitza doesn’t help by pushing her away in his preoccupation with Lica.

Despite his best efforts Ghitza is unable to escape his tormentor, but is himself ambivalent, fearful of implication in illegality but greedy for its proceeds.  He even begins to regret having a family as he finds it hampers his criminal association.  A policeman, Pintea, who wants to destroy Lica, finds himself helpless in the face both of Lica’s cunning and official indifference.  Ghitza is finally the means of Lica’s undoing.  He is appalled at what he has done and wishes to make amends after being acquitted when put on trial, while also taking revenge on Lica for having brought him low.

The title is ironic as the inn brings no luck.  The novel climaxes with Anna murdered by Ghitza, Ghitza murdered by Lica’s henchman Renz on Lica’s orders, and Lica committing suicide by bizarrely hurling himself at an oak tree and cracking his head.  It is mayhem in a harsh universe, with due punishment for malefactors, even Anna for an act of adultery Ghitza could have prevented.  The story ends with the inn having been burnt down on Lica’s orders and Anna’s elderly mother and their children wandering off who knows where.  Greed and weakness of character have propelled Ghitza’s downward spiral and led ineluctably to ruin for all.

An accurate assessment of The Lucky Mill’s merits by readers lacking Romanian may need to wait until it is translated again, but on this showing Slavici has been so concerned with the plot that he has somewhat neglected character, with the exception of his dashingly wicked brigand.  Ghitza seems to oscillate between a sense of purpose and helplessness, often within a few lines, making it difficult to pin him down as having a consistent personality.  An introduction by translator A. Mircea Emperle notes a Romanian nationalist resurgence which was creating a distinctive literature freed from imitating foreign authors, but perhaps imitation would have improved the psychological precision.

The novel’s strength lies in the combination of realistic action – sometimes surprisingly graphic, not least the murder of a widow and her five-year-old son, with Pintea carrying the woman’s corpse on his shoulder at night – and the mythic landscape in which it is set.  Reading the Lucky Mill makes one want to visit those forests and experience the wildness of the region: in fact at Ineu can be found Hanul Moara Cu Noroc, a water mill converted into an hotel and restaurant, so one can get close to the spirit of the original, hopefully minus the robbery, murder and arson.  There is a 1955 film adaptation of the novel, available on YouTube though minus English subtitles.

Advertisements

The Golovlyov Family, by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin

Golovlyov

The Golovlyov family is not a happy one and Mikhail Saltykov’s 1880 novel charts its decline in loving detail over several decades, before and after the emancipation of the serfs.  It is billed by D. S. Mirsky as ‘certainly the gloomiest [novel] in all Russian literature’, no mean feat in such a strong field.  The major setting is the rural family estate at Golovlyovo, a place that breeds ennui and lack of ambition; it is significant that V. S. Pritchett and the Penguin edition translator Ronald Wilks both refer in the introductory material to Oblomov.  Even those who seek to escape Golovlyovo’s influence find they are marked by it.  Its embrace is stifling but those who have lived there find to their cost that they are fitted for life nowhere else.  Weakness of character is passed from generation to generation, with no firm parental or societal guidance to show how a life should be lived.

Arina Petrovna, the iron matriarch, is the exception to this weak-willed bunch, compulsively acquiring property to enlarge the estate and increase the number of serfs.  However, she is not considered an object of admiration for her energy as she is mean with her acquisitiveness, tight-fistedly begrudging any expenditure she considers unnecessary, on family and serfs alike.  She despises her children, but does not want to analyse exactly why it is they have turned out to be so disappointing.  There is little sentiment over her daughter’s death, merely irritation at having orphaned granddaughters to feed.  She is as contemptuous of her husband, who spends his days shut in his study idling and composing indecent verses, as of her children.  She is effectively responsible for starving an errant son, Stepan, whom she refers to as ‘Blockhead’, ignoring his steep physical decline exacerbated by alcohol which results in his death.  Another shuts himself away and drinks himself to death, leaving middle son Porphiry as the only surviving heir.

Arina herself suffers a catastrophic physical and mental decline and her middle son Porphiry Vladimiritch, nicknamed ‘Little Judas’ or ‘Bloodsucker’, outwits her to take control. As the nicknames suggest, he is completely lacking in sentiment and compassion.  But the success does not help him.  He loses contact with his children, and with his neighbours through his litigiousness.  Following the family pattern, Porphiry refuses to pay one son’s gambling debts, financed from his regimental mess funds, without bothering to ask how he got into the mess in the first place. Convicted for theft, the boy dies on his way into exile.  The other son takes his life at some point.  With family gone or dead, and despised by his servants, he is increasingly isolated.  The overriding sense is one of sterility of human relations.

Porphiry cannot cope with the responsibilities that accompany his privilege, while happy to benefit unthinkingly from the labour of others.  He refuses to acknowledge the child he has fathered with a servant girl, ordering the baby to be sent to an orphanage in Moscow (a fate, an editorial note indicates, likely to result in an early death given these institutions’ high mortality rates) while hypocritically accusing his victim of being a whore.  Porphiry covers his selfishness with the cover of insincere right-doing, always able to find a justification in the Bible for any action, and using fake piety as a screen.  He is recognised by his family for the bore he is, spouting an endless stream of worthless drivel.

Arina’s granddaughters Anninka and her sister try to escape and become actresses, leading to them becoming mistresses, a failure when the embezzlement financing their lavish lifestyle is uncovered; and eventually little more than prostitutes.  Her sister ends up buried at the roadside as a suicide, while Anninka returns to Golovlyovo to die with what seems like consumption and where she and Porphiry become bosom drinking companions.  She blames the estate, and by extension her family, for her and her sister’s downfall, but the pair could have made a life in their own home, albeit a dull one.  This is a group in which members are reluctant to take responsibility for their actions, but then they are never given the nurturing and guidance that might have led to a better outcome.  It is ironic that the family has at its disposal the means of a comfortable life, yet it is effectively only the cushion of serfdom’s subservience keeping the family afloat.  After it is abolished, and proper labour relations need to be instituted, Porphiry is unable to cope.  The epitome of laziness, to escape reality he sits in his study making fantasy calculations instead of working, as the estate decays around his ears.  His disengagement and sense of entitlement is a metaphor for the rottenness of the landed gentry in Tsarist Russia.

Saltykov does not lay the blame for this sorry state of affairs entirely at the feet of the Golovlyovs, society in general must take some of the responsibility.  An authorial observation likens Russians to nettles growing by a fence; it is a condition of social decay that allows sociopaths like Porphiry to thrive and find reasons to justify his appalling behaviour.  If there is no purpose to life, no reason to strive, then life is as empty as the steppes outside the window.  Saltykov interjects that individuals may be able to lift themselves above this level by their efforts, but chance plays a large part in whether those efforts are successful; without the appropriate culture in which productive life can flourish, future generations will sink back, just as others rise through luck in producing children with the characteristics that are conducive to success.

Saltykov sees a connection between poverty of aspiration and drunkenness, a problem not confined to his times.  Religion too is a target, with impoverished clergy unable to tackle Porphiry in case he makes demands on a field of which the ownership is unclear.  Porphiry’s sanctimonious platitudes drawn from scripture reduce the priest to silence, and at all times he ostentatiously displays the outward signs of piety while behaving in a wildly unchristian manner.  If the church cannot stand up to his humbug, what good is it?

It could all sound blunt and hammered home, but it is not: it is a subtle character study balancing contempt and pathos.  A bleak account certainly, yet there is humour in it, mainly at Porphiry’s expense.  Only when it is too late does he realise the personal loss of his family, and connects at a human level with his dying niece, his sole surviving close relative, when he strokes her hair and says ‘You poor girl! You poor, dear girl!’  It is the first time he has thought honestly and sincerely about someone other than himself, and it is a hugely moving moment.  Then he slips out of the house clad only in his dressing-gown with the idea of visiting his mother’s grave to ask forgiveness, and dies of exposure by the roadside.  At a nearby estate a distant relative has been watching events at Golovlyovo with keen interest.  Porphiry’s selfishness has availed him nothing, and his final insight comes too late for his redemption.

The Secret Service: Kingsman, by Mark Millar et al

Kingsman cvr

Like many, I came to this graphic novel after seeing the film, so comparisons are inevitable and do not work in the printed version’s favour.  Mark Miller, Dave Gibbons and Matthew Vaughan have crafted a narrative that seems aimed at a male mid-teen wish-fulfilment audience, but the tone is inappropriately violent for that segment (or perhaps I am just out of touch).  The story, six instalments in a self-contained package, flows well, mixing the violence – with lots of people being shot very accurately in the head – and humour.  Naturally there have been changes from the film; most notably the film’s standout church massacre here is a more low-key mutual murder by couples at a mass wedding which many critics of that form of nuptial may applaud.

Jack London (really) is a Bond-esque secret agent working for British Intelligence.  His sister is in an abusive relationship with a thug on the sink ‘Steve Biko’ estate in Peckham.  His nephew Gary (generally known as ‘Eggsy’) has gone off the rails, stealing cars and engaging in anti-social behaviour when not playing video games.  More than once Uncle Jack has had to bail him out of trouble, which he can do with a special government pass despite claiming to work in IT.  Fed up with seeing Gary waste his potential, Jack tells his nephew about his spy background and offers to get him into the business as well.

Gary takes up the offer, and the story shows his growing maturity, with some backsliding, as he becomes the young man his uncle knew he could be.  The hours spent playing Medal of Honour come into their own during Gary’s training, and his street wisdom gives him a confidence and shrewdness he can turn to his advantage.  When he wants to drop out because he doesn’t fit in socially, Jack shows him how to dress and carry himself in any company and get over feelings of inferiority created by his unfortunate start in life.  Gary settles some scores in the neighbourhood and with Jack rescues his mum and little brother from their plight.  There is a positive message in this book: circumstances can hold us back, but we can make something of our potential if we have the will, and encouragement from others.  More than once we are told that public service is key to a true sense of worth.

When a dastardly plot involving kidnapped celebs comes to their attention, uncle and nephew are ready to go into action.  People from the entertainment world are being kidnapped on the orders of a nerdy (white, unlike Samuel L Jackson in the film) billionaire super-villain holed up in a mountain lair who is planning to use a satellite to cause most of the world’s population to kill each other.  It’s a mad plan to take the global population back to its 1800-era single billion level.  This is through a reading of the earth as Gaia, but an organism needing some help in its attempts to regulate itself.  Mass murder is posited as altruism, doing now what the earth would do in time anyway.  The celebrities are a nerd’s idea of the best people to survive the apocalypse, so the kidnappings are for their own good.

The plot parodies the Bond-style spy genre in all its flamboyance and sexism, seduction skills being an essential part of the agent’s armoury.  The beginning is especially amusing with Mark Hamill rescued from kidnappers in an alpine location by a skilled British operative, an opening in the style of an introductory Bond set-piece.  Everything goes well, with a daring escape pursued by henchmen, until the agent drives their snowmobile over a cliff.  It’s a nod to The Spy Who Loved Me, complete with Union Flag parachute, except here the parachute doesn’t open, and agent and poor Mark Hamill end up at the bottom in a tangled mess.  Then the parachute opens, a forlorn Union Flag marking the humiliating episode.  ‘Don’t laugh’, one of the henchmen tells his colleagues.  Tellingly, the British operation is so strapped for cash it has to develop prototype gadgets for the Americans to provide finance for its own projects.  Fortunately honour is restored by Gary and his colleagues and the world saved, presumably in order to die slowly from rampant overpopulation.  The ending is set up for another instalment, but perhaps the writers felt they had sufficiently mined the potential in this wastrel-comes-good idea (something the filmmakers may have failed to appreciate when contemplating a sequel).

The Lodger, by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Lodger cvr

Spoilers for both Lowndes’ novel and Hitchcock’s film.

Being familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes’ 1913 novel The Lodger I was expecting the plot to go in a particular direction, with the lodger shown to be innocent, but as Hitchcock had altered, improved and made the plot his own, I was entirely wrong-footed.  Lowndes’ treatment is less subtle and with an occasionally wobbly point-of-view, but as Nick Rennison says in his introduction to the ‘Gaslight Crime’ edition (2015), the novel is ‘no whodunnit.  It is no detective story … It is rather a psychological thriller of a kind much more familiar today than in the Edwardian era’ (though strictly speaking it appeared in the Georgian rather than Edwardian period), and cast in that light it is has its merits.

In Lowndes’ version, Mr and Mrs Bunting are on the verge of destitution as their London boarding house is refusing to pay its way.  They had both begun their careers in service, where they had met, but striking out on their own without the security that employment by others provides had not been a success.  Mr Bunting’s plan to bring in income by occasional stints as a waiter had failed as opportunities prove scarce, and he is conscious that at their age domestic vacancies for married couples are going to be hard to find.  They are gradually selling their possessions, but face starvation and ruin.

They are saved when one dark dreary night there is a knock and a gentleman stands on the doorstep, seeking rooms.  He looks odd and is highly strung, has no luggage or references, but he offers to pay generously in advance with gold sovereigns.  His appearance seems heaven-sent in their time of need.  Mrs Bunting is happy to have her new lodger, even if he seems pernickety (a vegetarian!) in his requirements.  She welcomes the improbably-named Mr Sleuth to her home and he establishes himself in the first floor sitting room and bedroom, with the use of a top floor room which has a cooker, where he says he will conduct ‘experiments’.  He is particularly happy to find he is the only tenant, and indicates he would prefer it to stay that way.  The first clue something is not quite right is his dislike of a series of framed prints of women in his room he turns to face the wall.

Despite Mr Sleuth’s oddities all would be rosy for the Buntings, except there is a serial killer at large murdering young women with impunity, and the police are impotent.  Newspaper sales are booming with special editions tracking developments, and while Mrs Bunting finds the whole business distasteful, Mr Bunting is happy to follow the trail of havoc wreaked by The Avenger (as he is known from triangular pieces of paper with that name written on them pinned to the bodies, though we never learn what exactly is being revenged).  It seems the city can talk of nothing else.

Mr Bunting’s daughter by his first wife, who normally looks after a rich relative, ‘Old Aunt’, comes to visit, and a friend, Joe Chandler, a policeman, visits regularly.  Daisy is the primary attraction for him, but he keeps the family updated on the progress, or rather lack of progress, of the investigation.  At the same time the lodger’s eccentricities are becoming more marked.  He borrows Mrs Bunting’s Bible and buys a concordance, reading both obsessively and declaiming the grittier passages as he sits in his room.  He can be petulant when he fails to get his own way and has a horror of strangers in the house.  In fact he prefers only Mrs Bunting to see to his needs.

That is all odd in itself, but then Mrs Bunting realises Mr Sleuth is creeping out at night in his rubber-soled shoes.  He says he doesn’t like crowds, but his nocturnal habits still seem unusual.  She begins to wonder where he goes.  Plus, exactly what ‘experiments’ is he conducting upstairs?  Her curiosity turns to anxiety, and she finds herself staying awake at night and feeling relieved when he goes out and there isn’t a murder.  As her stress mounts and vague suspicions harden, anxiety turns to fear; yet he harbours a horrid fascination for her, while the death toll at the hands of the Avenger continues to rise.  For his part, Mr Bunting actually sees their lodger when he is coming back very late from a rare engagement as a waiter, and on another occasion he realises Mr Sleuth has been changing his shoes behind the garden wall of their house.  On the former occasion Mr Bunting brushes Mr Sleuth’s coat and finds it has blood on it.  Mr Sleuth says he had brushed past a dead animal.

So first Mrs then Mr Bunting independently begins to wonder whether they are harbouring the Avenger, but were they go to the police not only would they lose Mr Sleuth’s income, the scandal would taint them forevermore, whether as boarding house keepers or domestic servants.  And what if they are wrong, and Mr Sleuth is innocent?  Ethics and practicalities are at war in each breast, and husband and wife feel they cannot confide in each other.  Worse, Mrs Bunting finds herself lying to her husband as she visits an inquest when she tells him she is going to see the doctor.  Her emotions swing between horror at harbouring a possible murderer and compassion for the lonely damaged individual.  Mr Bunting is concerned for their safety, but particularly Daisy’s.  Eventually each spouse realises the other’s suspicion.

The tension ratchets until one day Mr Sleuth invites Mrs Bunting and Daisy to accompany him on a visit to Madame Tussaud’s (a transparent plot device to bring things to a head).  There purely by chance Mrs Bunting overhears senior police officers discussing the case, and learns that the Avenger is in fact an escaped lunatic who stole a large quantity of gold sovereigns; and of course Mr Sleuth has been paying his way with gold sovereigns.  Mr Sleuth is not recognised by the officers and they pass on, but he believes Mrs Bunting has lured him into a trap and he leaves in a hurry, though not before threatening his hapless landlady with dire consequences: ‘Do not think to escape the consequences of your hideous treachery … Your end will be bitter as wormwood and sharp as a two-edged sword. Your feet shall go down to death, and your steps take hold on hell.’  If we were in any doubt as to whether or not he is the Avenger, those doubts are dispelled.  Thus Mr Sleuth is unmasked, but evades capture, vanishing into the city.  All ends well: the murders stop though Mr Sleuth remains uncaught, the Buntings have got rid of their unwelcome lodger, Mrs Bunting loses some of her abrasiveness towards husband and step-daughter, the pair obtain a joint position back in service, and Daisy and Joe are engaged.

Lowndes captures the quiet desperation of the Buntings, and the aching cold of draughty uninsulated houses.  She is successful in making the city a character, as the thick atmosphere swirls and coats everything in a London Particular.  No wonder Hitchcock’s adaptation was subtitled ‘A Story of the London Fog’.  The Buntings look as if they could have stepped out of a Walter Sickert painting, very appropriate given that Patricia Cornwell has fingered Sickert as Jack the Ripper.  The Ripper killings were the inspiration for the Avenger’s admittedly more prolific campaign, though the setting is further west than Whitechapel, in the Marylebone Road.  While Lowndes’ intention was to leave open until the end whether Mr Sleuth might be innocent, misjudged as sinister because of the hysteria surrounding the Avenger murders, it is apparent early on he is guilty (he’s a compulsive Bible reader after all), and it took a greater master of narrative construction like Hitchcock, with the novel’s adaptors, Alma Reville and Eliot Stannard, to draw out the ambiguity in the narrative.

Full Moon, by Michael Light

Full Moon cvr

Full Moon was first published in 1999 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first Moon landing, and reissued in 2002 in a smaller format.  Even at a reduced size it is still a fine record of a tremendous achievement, mostly from the Apollo missions though with a couple included from the earlier Gemini programme.  As well as the photographs taken in flight, each of the 12 men who walked on the Moon carried a chest-mounted Hasselblad medium-format camera loaded with both black and white and colour film.  With 32,000 still pictures generated by the Apollo missions alone from which to choose, compiler Michael Light was spoilt for choice, but he has made an assured selection.

Some of the 128 images included were already familiar.  Many though were previously unseen, hidden in NASA’s archive until Light managed to persuade them to release the precious negatives in order to allow high-quality scans to be made.  Hitherto, reproductions had been of a copy initially made by NASA, so what was seen was at least second generation, and these are beautifully sharp in comparison.  They are not presented randomly; Light has chosen from across the missions but ordered them as if representing the successive stages of a single one, from lift off to splashdown, tying the viewer into the journey there and back.

On the Moon, fold-out panoramas show the majesty of the terrain, and in some cases overlapping photographs have been combined into composites to show as much as possible of a particular location.  Réseau crosses, emphasising the scientific rather than aesthetic nature of the photographs, are barely noticeable on the prints.  Captions are at the back, which necessitates flicking backwards and forwards, but the information they contain is far more detailed than could be accommodated on the relevant page.

A short but informative essay self-effacingly at the end describes how Light came to be involved in the project.  He outlines some of the philosophical implications travelling to the Moon has in combining a sense of vulnerability with a god-like perspective on the Earth and its doings, draws parallels with colonialist expansion, and notes the tensions between the outward urge and the anchoring knowledge that Earth is our true home.  But otherwise the crisp photographs, well printed, are left to speak for themselves.  He stresses that the astronauts were not professional photographers, and taking pictures was just one of their duties, yet they managed to achieve results of great beauty and resonance.

As a result, what was artless in conception becomes art of the highest order in the impact it has on the viewer.  Among the record of going, returning, and the lunar landscape in between, one in particular jumps out: Charles Duke laid a photograph of his family on the Moon’s surface and photographed it, in a fraction of a second eliding the distance between Moon and Earth, sterility and fecundity, and death and life.

Bad Blood, by Lorna Sage

Bad Blood cvr

In her 2000 memoir, Lorna Sage, née Stockton, writes about her upbringing in Hanmer, Flintshire, on the Wales/England border, at a time when and in a place where expectations of women’s achievement were low.  The structure of the book is to look at her life in terms of three couples: her maternal grandparents, her parents, and her own marriage and pregnancy.  Born in 1943, Lorna lived with her grandparents and mother (rather in that order) while her father was away on active service.  The affectionate description of him, one of the few characters alive at the time of writing, as a man who struggled to adjust attitudes absorbed in wartime as an officer promoted from the ranks to a different peacetime setting, contrasts with some of the negative portraits of deceased relatives – even her mother, who is portrayed as colourless and somewhat useless but who for all her faults described here did bring up Lorna’s daughter Sharon while Lorna was at university gaining a first-class degree.

She can be wryly amusing with the portraits of sundry relatives, particularly her grotesque grandparents: her philandering hard-drinking clergyman grandfather, and grandmother who loathed all men but reserving a visceral hatred for her husband while aching for the cosy life she had had as a young woman in south Wales.  Brought up in a chaotic vicarage, always short of money and in an environment radically eschewing the injunction that cleanliness is next to godliness (a neglect her mother fully imbibed), Lorna was bookish in an area where girls were taught to know their place and anti-intellectualism was prized.  While Dylan Thomas depicts a rose-tinted view of Wales, Bad Blood shows that that part of Wales and the borders could be an extremely crappy place to live.  Even when her father returned from the war Lorna did not fit into normal family life as her parents were absorbed in each other.  Instead she became independent, not least by helping out on neighbouring farms, along with her reading which expanded her horizons.

The schools she attended come out particularly badly, intent more on restricting freedom than promoting social mobility, reproducing the lesson that all should know their place, which for girls was domesticity and obedience.  What saved Lorna was the love of learning passed on by her grandfather, for whom she clearly had a fondness despite his marked personal failings, but when she in turn went off the rails it was easy to characterise her as having inherited his bad blood.  She sounds as if she was a pain in the backside as a teenager.  However, one can only admire her perseverance after becoming pregnant at 15 yet still managing to do her A levels and go on to university.

The man who impregnated her, Vic Sage, probably squirmed at the way he was characterised as she depicts his gaucheness and the transformation of a fairly passionless relationship with him into one of being more brother and sister than a married couple, which must have been awkward for him when he read it.  She seems to have become pregnant without actually realising she had had sex, quite a feat even in those repressed post-war years.  Fortunately, with the NHS and helpful, if disapproving, parents, things turned out well for them.  The narrative rather tails off after she completes university, though there is an afterword telling what happened to her relatives later, the breakup of her marriage to Vic in 1974 and remarriage.

I finished this book rather wondering why Sage had bothered to write it, except to score points against those for whom she held a grudge for attempting to make her childhood and adolescence so narrow and tedious, and to congratulate herself on having extricated herself from such unpromising beginnings to achieve a worthwhile career, one sadly cut short by her death two days before her 58th birthday.  If the intention was to write a miserablist memoir she failed because really, her upbringing was not particularly miserable compared to some of the other families she describes.  The portrait of the 1950s in a backward-looking community facing fundamental social changes, mirroring her family’s gradual increase in prosperity, makes it a worthwhile effort, but I am not convinced justifies the award of the Whitbread Biography Prize.

I have a couple of Sage-related anecdotes I will throw in.  I never met Lorna, but I did meet ex-husband Vic, as he was the internal examiner when I did my PhD at the University of East Anglia.  Driving to Norwich down the A47 for the viva I was listening to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 and heard Lorna being interviewed about Bad Blood.  That’s a coincidence, I thought.  When I met Vic – for the first and last time – prior to the exmination, not knowing they were long divorced I said to him, ‘I just heard your wife on the radio’.  He gave me an odd look but didn’t say anything.  He proved to be sympathetic and encouraging, along with David Pirie, who was the external examiner.  When I later found out Lorna and Vic had not been together for many years I was rather embarrassed at my faux pas.

Shortly afterwards, when I was teaching  film studies at the College of West Anglia in King’s Lynn, their daughter Sharon joined the staff.  She was very pleasant and naturally I mentioned my time at UEA and my meeting with her father, though probably not my misunderstanding of her parents’ marital status.  We got on well and I liked her, though I was less than impressed when one day she asked me how much I was paid, the only time I’m sure anyone has asked me that, and I discovered she was being paid more than I despite being less-well qualified.  She didn’t stay long, I was told because she was still grieving for her mother, who had died not long before.

The World of Tim Frazer, by Francis Durbridge

Tim Frazer cvr

Francis Durbridge is best known for his Paul Temple novels, but he also chronicled the adventures of Tim Frazer in a trilogy of thrillers, plus a television series which ran for a season in 1960/61.  The World of Tim Frazer (1962) is the first of the novels, reprinted as one of Arcturus’s Crime Classics, and it chronicles how Frazer falls by accident into the role of government agent.

Trained as an engineer, he inherits a small firm and is doing well, if not spectacularly, when he is inveigled into a partnership with an old pal,  Harry Denston, who is an ace at drumming up business.  For a time things go well, but Tim finds that Harry is an operator who likes to live a more flamboyant lifestyle than his salary allows.  To maintain it he pads his expense account and eventually forges Tim’s signature on cheques, sending the company into liquidation, with Harry owing Tim a large sum of money.

However, Harry has disappeared and Tim has no idea where he is.  Finding him wouldn’t be such a bad idea, but where to start?  Then Tim receives a message from Harry asking him to come to the Three Bells at Henton, a small seaside town on the north-east coast, for a meeting.  But when he arrives it looks like a wild goose chase as Harry is not there and nobody has heard of him.  But he does find that he has arrived shortly after the shipwreck of a Russian vessel, and a badly injured sailor is dying in an upstairs room.

But no Harry, so Tim prepares to return to London, only to find that his wallet has been stolen.  Feeling thoroughly disgruntled, Tim is prepared to write the whole business off, but he is approached by the British secret service with a commission to find Harry, at which point he realises that Harry is mixed up in some murky business.  He knows the stakes are high when a fellow agent is murdered in his flat.  Is Harry involved with a foreign power, and how does his lovely fiancée Helen Baker fit into the picture, especially when it becomes clear she is telling lies?  Tim methodically follows the leads and knows he is getting warm when he starts receiving messages from Harry telling him not to carry on his search, and then is threatened himself by an unpleasant thug.

Just what Harry is into though remains elusive until Tim begins to put the pieces together: the dying sailor gasping the name Anya, a maker of model ships and his wife who look after a little girl also named Anya, and a model and print of an old sailing ship called the North Star which seems to be a focus of interest in the case.  On a return journey to the north-east Tim finds that Harry had been booked in prior to Tim’s arrival under an assumed name, but had disappeared.  It looks like he might have been kidnapped.  Is he then a criminal or a victim?

The novel is very readable with a convoluted plot that comes together smoothly if rather conveniently at times.  Perhaps its weakness is that it is too smooth.  There is little sense of the Cold War’s menace despite the involvement of the Russians and East Germans.  Naturally the British put one over on those Commies and, having acquitted himself well in his first assignment, Tim finds himself in a new line of work that is undoubtedly better remunerated, not to mention more exciting, than engineering.

Previous Older Entries