Through a Glass, Darkly, by Stefan Bechtel and Laurence Roy Stains

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The authors of Through a Glass, Darkly: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Quest to Solve the Greatest Mystery of All do not make any great claims for their book, stating that ‘it aspires to be a jolly romp, rather than a scholarly treatise.  While raising the profound questions inherent in this material, we aimed to favour high spirits, delicious speculations, and compelling scenes and characters.’  It can certainly be taken on those relaxed terms, and is enjoyable as such, but leaves open the question why it was written when the ground it covers has been so well trodden.  Ostensibly about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it rambles around to the extent that he is often absent for long stretches.  Any ‘profound questions’ asked tend not to receive answers of equal profundity.

We begin with the Fox sisters in 1848 before moving on to a selection of snippets both from the early history of Spiritualism and from Conan Doyle’s biography; his growing interest in Spiritualism and psychical research turning into complete dedication; the Cottingley fairies; Harry Houdini, his and Conan Doyle’s friendship and falling out; the controversy over the medium Margery (Mina Crandon), though not utilising David Jaher’s recent The Witch of Lime Street; and Eileen Garrett and the R101 airship.  A major omission is Conan Doyle’s involvement in the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures, which investigated spirit photography.  The irrepressible Houdini hijacks the narrative for long stretches and one gets the impression Bechtel and Stains found him a more interesting subject to write about than Conan Doyle.

Sadly, there is nothing new here.  A vast literature on Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini and their complex relationship already exists.  The contrast between rational Holmes and Conan Doyle’s tireless but often credulous work on behalf of Spirit, dressed up as scientific but unable to see fraud when it should have been obvious, is hardly a novel one.  To their credit Bechtel and Stains are even-handed in their approach and refuse to sneer when sneering would have been all too easy.  As a result it isn’t a terrible book; the authors have used a good range of secondary sources and been to the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and their journalistic experience has produced an engaging synthesis.  If it encourages new readers to delve more deeply into the subject it will have performed a useful service.


The Big Bow Mystery, by Israel Zangwill

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Israel Zangwill’s 1892 story is billed as the first novel-length ‘locked room’ mystery.  Mrs Drabdump runs a lodging house at Bow, in London’s East End.  Early on a cold December morning she needs to wake one of her lodgers, Arthur Constant, but oversleeps.  Constant is a labour leader and has to make a speech to some ‘discontented tram-men’.  When she does knock repeatedly on his door she cannot rouse him and eventually begins to panic.

Alarmed, she runs across the road to a neighbour, the renowned Scotland Yard detective George Grodman, now retired and making a comfortable living as a landlord and the best-selling ‘author’ of the ghost-written memoir Criminals I Have Caught.  He forces Constant’s door and Mrs Drabdump sees the poor man is lying in bed with his throat cut.  It definitely was not suicide, but with the windows locked, the door bolted from the inside and the chimney too narrow to permit entry, how could a murderer have accomplished the deed?

Further, why should this likeable young man, who worked tirelessly for the common good, be slaughtered?  There is a suspect, a rival labour leader who lives in the same house but who lacks a strong alibi for the likely period of the murder.  Edward Wimp of Scotland Yard is given the case, but Grodman, who detests Wimp, a loathing cordially returned, takes a keen interest in the investigation.  Wimp makes an arrest, and much of the second half of the story is devoted to the trial, before the final revelation.

The Big Bow Mystery was written in a fortnight as a serial for the Star newspaper but betrays little sign of haste.  It combines the intriguing mystery with a gently satirical eye.  There is social commentary, about the labour movement (with careerist competition among activists), freeloading penny-a-line hacks, faddists who decry fads but fail to recognise their own, and aestheticism bumping up against the grubbiness of real life, or ‘the true’.  This is the East End depicted from the inside, not patronisingly by a middle-class litterateur but with humour and sympathy.

With a slightly postmodern touch the story includes a cameo by William Gladstone, who attends a meeting to eulogise the dead man and witnesses a spectacular arrest.  Zangwill justified his appearance by claiming in a note that ‘The introduction of Mr Gladstone into a fictitious scene is defended on the ground that he is largely mythical.’  One wonders what the GOM, who was still alive, made of it.

As well as being entertaining, Zangwill raises important legal issues.  The prosecution during the trial suggests possible solutions which are credible but ignore the role of coincidence.  They lead in the wrong direction, indicating the danger of relying on circumstantial evidence.  The murderer confessing to the Home Secretary makes the point that when looking at the threads which led to the crime, some were part of the pattern (drugging the victim) while some occurred by accident but could have been interpreted as intentional (the landlady oversleeping).  It is easy to assume that all aspects are relevant, and therefore head down the wrong path when attempting to trace causal links.

An afterword in the 1895 reprint includes a letter Zangwill wrote to the editor of the Star immediately after serialisation was complete.  In it he claimed he was so determined that nobody should guess the identity of the murderer that he adapted the plot as it progressed from week to week, eliminating characters as the murderer whenever a reader suggested that person, so eventually he was left with only one person nobody had fingered, and made him the culprit.  He rather ruefully notes how this joke had been taken seriously, when such a narrative requires careful plotting which prevents deviation once set in motion.

According to Zangwill’s formula, ‘the Indispensable condition of a good mystery is that it should be able and unable to be solved by the reader, and that the writer’s solution should satisfy’, which sums up the modern detective novel.  The reader has all the clues that are necessary to identify the criminal before the solution is presented, but if the author has done a good job should still be surprised, and only when looking back see the clues which were carefully dropped in but missed among the red herrings.

The reader is likely to be led away from The Big Bow Mystery’s solution by over-thinking it, speculating on ways the murderer could have got out of the room.  What is offered may disappoint after expecting something more subtle.  But that is down to us, and Zangwill cannot be blamed for pulling the rug from under our expectations, even if we suspect that it was a method that was far from fool proof.  I think I would agree with the New Zealand reviewer Zangwill mentions who found the plot ‘more ingenious than convincing’, but there is much here to enjoy beside a detective story.

Forever and a Death, by Donald E Westlake

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Richard Curtis (no, not that Richard Curtis) is an international businessman and head of a large corporation, a go-getter who is not afraid to cut corners when it suits him.  He had made a fortune in British-controlled Hong Kong but was kicked out when the Chinese took over in 1997.  He moved his operation to Singapore but has harboured a resentment towards the Chinese ever since and wants to get back at them.  Unfortunately business has not been good in recent years and he is on his uppers, though still conveying an air of affluence and with big plans to recoup his losses.

One of his employees, George Manville, a brilliant engineer, has invented a method for creating, by means of cunningly-laid explosive charges, a soliton wave of water able to destroy infrastructure created on landfill, turning it into a soup that can be more easily built on.  The novel opens with the wave being deployed on a coral atoll containing buildings left by the Japanese during the Second World War, and it successfully destroys them, leaving a smooth surface on which to construct a luxury resort.

The operation would have been perfect but for the unwelcome presence of environmentalist Jerry Diedrich and his colleagues on board the Rainbow Warrior-esque Planetwatch III.  Diedrich has a personal animus against Curtis which Curtis does not understand, and Diedrich and his organisation have been dogging him for years, monitoring this operation because they fear the coral will be destroyed by the wave.

When diver Kim Baldur swims from Planetwatch III into the area that will be affected she is caught by the wave and is presumed dead.  A chain of events is sparked that escalate, because Curtis sees a way of using her death as a stick to beat Diedrich and get the environmentalists off his back while he pulls off an audacious but illegal scheme.  Unfortunately for him when Baldur is pulled from the water by his crew she is not dead.  It is a state of affairs which can be rectified, only Curtis has not counted on the steely determination of Manville to do the right thing.

While unsuccessfully trying to persuade Manville of his preferred course of action in killing Baldur, Curtis tells Manville too much about the parlous state of his business, so Manville will have to be got rid of too.  Realising the danger, Manville and the injured Baldur flee, necessitating Curtis hiring a series of henchmen who all in one way or another fail to get the job done as to Curtis’s chagrin he finds his plans spiralling inexorably out of control.

Despite these annoyances, as the test has been successful Curtis sets his sight on a more significant target, one which will bring massive profits.  This will take the form of a bank heist in Hong Kong involving elaborate tunnelling and deployment of the soliton wave in ‘reclaimed land’ (i.e. landfill).  An added pleasure is that the operation will enable him to work off his grudge against his former home by destroying large parts of it.  It isn’t cheap so this play has to succeed or he is finished.  Manville and the Planetwatch group work to stop his plans and the pace intensifies as the deadline for the use of the soliton wave on Hong Kong gets closer.

A useful postscript describes how Westlake had been commissioned to write a James Bond script, Bond 18 as it was known, prior to the release of GoldenEye (1995).  He came up with the idea of tying the plot to the handover of Hong Kong, which was taking place the same year the new film would have been released.  Westlake pitched various ideas, however there were structural problems with the two treatments he submitted, and political sensitivities as well: there were fears at the time the transfer might create violence in the territory, and also China was emerging as an important market.

Thus a film featuring the partial destruction of Hong Kong, while there were dead bodies lying in the streets in real life, might not have gone down well.  Added to this possibility, the Chinese had blocked the release of GoldenEye on the grounds it contained anti-communist elements, so the studio was keen to steer clear of anything that might be considered controversial in Chinese eyes.

One can see why Westlake turned his idea into a novel, but also why he never published the result in his lifetime – he died in 2008 and Hard Case Crime only released this in 2017.  Somewhat overlong at nearly 450 pages, it rambles in the lengthy middle section and the structure is choppy.  Manville is the closest to the Bond character in the book, though not too close to risk copyright infringement, but he disappears for long stretches.

There is more of a collegiate feel to Curtis’s opposition than would be found in the secret agent format, and upright but slightly dull engineer George Manville is no Bond, even though he habitually gets the upper hand over very tough guys.  The soliton wave has a vaguely Bondesque feel, though it is hardly lasers from space.  Forever and a Death (definitely a typically Bond title) is an interesting curio, and a coup for Hard Case Crime.  Whether Westlake would have been happy to have the book published is unknown.

L’oeuvre Photographique/Photographic Works 1969-1976, by William Wegman

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This large-format bilingual (English-French) volume covers William Wegman’s early work and was published by Fonds Regional d’art Contemporain Limousin at Limoges in 1991 to tie in with an exhibition.  As well as an extensive selection of  black and white photographs it includes information on them, and there is a separate section of photographs of his beloved collaborator, the Weimaraner Man Ray (1970-1982).

Supplementing the images is ‘Eureka’ (a personal statement in which Wegman describes himself as having been ‘a 60s minimalist-conceptualist’ before experiencing an epiphany in the form of a salami); a selection of ‘Little Tales 1972-74’ (short anecdotes which may or may not be true); general information on his exhibitions and awards, and a bibliography; a listing of video work; and a lengthy and highly appreciative essay by Frédéric Paul, ‘Bill, William & Prof. Wegman – Fundamental Works: 1969-1976’.

The result is a very attractive compilation of the work Wegman produced as he was starting to make his name, and before he largely became best known for the kitschy output featuring his dogs.  Trained as a painter, he began his photographic career recording his performance art and temporary installations, before expanding his work in the medium, and then moving into video.

The photographs here are inventive, sometimes surreal, but with the art generally hidden under an air of spontaneity.  As is often said of Wegman, he is capable of balancing seriousness with humour and a philosophical approach with playing around.  A good example is a self-portrait (as many of these are) reading a blank ‘newspaper’.  We think we are finding out about the world, but really we are learning nothing (even more true in the fake news age).

A boy watching a TV near a group, the ‘picture’ on the screen a match of an individual sitting nearby, encapsulates the situation where the screen becomes a substitute for life; trying to read two books at once, as shown on the cover, is a perfect metaphor for a time of information overload; two people covered in sheets, one standing, the other bending down, look like ghosts having sex – is that unsettling or optimistic?

The playfulness can misfire or become obvious (M. Paul uses ‘didactic’ a lot).  ‘Paris in the the Spring’, familiar from the old perceptual test using the phrase in a triangle, here is replicated but with each word placed on the backs of chairs.  Unfortunately it is spoiled by showing another photograph with one of the ‘the’s reversed, in case we hadn’t got it the first time.   Wegman urinating into a bucket, his penis hidden behind a bowling ball (1970) is tame compared to Kurt Kren’s The Eating Drinking Shitting Pissing Film (1967).  Wegman is no Actionist.

Overall though, the pleasure is in watching Wegman just try anything that comes to mind, making this a valuable record of agile creativity grappling with the camera’s potential.  The results are never dull, even when they don’t quite succeed.  He is modest too.  A photograph of a drawing includes a basketball ‘to enhance value’, when I should imagine a Wegman drawing would be worth a lot more than the ball nowadays.  Anyone who finds the dressed-up dogs vaguely tiresome should seek out this book.  Many Ray is only one element of a wide-ranging exploration of the medium’s capabilities that is entertaining and often intriguing.

Survival?: Death as a Transition, by David Lorimer

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David Lorimer’s Survival?: Death as a Transition is a more snappily-titled reprint of his 1984 Survival?: Body, Mind and Death in the Light of Psychic Experience, with a new introduction and minus 16 pages of footnotes, and also frustratingly minus an index.  Lorimer gathers together material from a diverse range of disciplines that bear on the mind-body problem, and its ramifications for the possibility of life after death.  His erudite survey is divided into two main sections, ‘historical’ and ‘empirical’.  The first, longer, part examines the history of ideas about death from animism in ancient times to recent(ish) thinking on the relationships between ‘body, brain, mind and death’.  The second considers such lines of evidence as apparitions, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, and post-mortem communications received via mediums, in order to explicate the implications of those relationships.

Despite the apparent even-handedness implied by the question mark in the title, the new subtitle lays Lorimer’s cards on the table.  This is not an attempt to evaluate the data without preconceptions, but begins from the assumption that there is life after death – as might be expected from a key figure in such organisations as the Scientific and Medical Network and the Wrekin Trust.  His stated approach is to assess the evidence in a legal rather than a scientific manner, acknowledging that the spontaneous nature of experiences does not lend them to experimentation; he is certainly more at home discussing philosophy than he is experimental parapsychology, which is conspicuously absent.  Instead he examines the internal coherence of these experiences in an attempt to formulate theories that will encompass them, assuming of course that the description of the experience is accurate and the interpretation is valid.

He notes that Survival? lays the groundwork for its companion, Resonant Mind: Life Review in the Near-Death Experience, itself a reprint of his 1990 book Whole in One, republished in 2017 by White Crow Books.  Together they are a fine achievement of synthesis and should be on the shelf of anyone with a serious interest in life after death, but at times Survival? can be a frustrating read, particularly the historical section, which though broad in scope covers so much ground it is unable to treat topics in depth, with numerous significant thinkers rushed onto and off the page, and is so compacted it becomes heavy going.  It is also dated in some respects: Bishop Berkeley’s writings may have been proscribed ‘in certain Eastern European countries’ in 1984 for contradicting ‘the basis of dialectical materialism’, but I am fairly sure they are not now.  The section on near-death studies is the weakest as it implies that nothing has happened in NDE research since Kenneth Ring and Michael Sabom’s groundbreaking work.

On the contrary, it could be argued that much has occurred in the field of survival studies (if the various approaches covered by this book can be characterised as a homogeneous field), particularly scrutiny of NDEs, to justify a new version rather than a reprint, taking into consideration recent developments.  However, Lorimer states in his introduction to the new edition that his analysis and conclusions have not altered significantly in the 35 years since he wrote Survival?, and the issues remain much as they did in the early 1980s.  If that is so, I am not sure whether to be heartened by the implication that we are still on the right track a third of a century later, or depressed that all we seem to have been doing, despite the massive recent expansion of the literature, is dotting i’s and crossing t’s.  As Lorimer has not bothered to include anything in his bibliography after 1984 presumably he feels later publications to be superfluous.  On balance I suspect I am justified in my sense that, for all the energetic debate about it, survival research is making little headway, but I would like to be proved wrong.

An English Murder, by Cyril Hare

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An English Murder, published in 1951, was written by Cyril Hare, the pseudonym of Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, by profession a lawyer who rose to be a county court judge.  The novel is set at Christmas in Warbeck Hall in Markshire.  Confined to bed, Lord Warbeck is expecting to die at any moment from an aneurysm and his few relatives gather at the country house to pay their respects one last time.  The house is impossible to maintain because of lack of money and lack of staff so this may be the last year the family owns it.

Present is Lord Warbeck’s unpleasant son and heir Robert, the leader of an avowedly fascist organisation, the League of Liberty and Justice, and an anti-Semite.  The family seems to consider it a phase he is going through rather than a deep-rooted character defect.  At the other end of the political spectrum is Sir Julius, Lord Warbeck’s cousin and Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Labour government, accompanied by Sergeant Rogers, his protection officer.  Lady Camilla Prendergast, also present, is the niece of Lord Warbeck’s late wife’s first husband.  She and Robert have had an understanding, though she seems far too nice for him, but he had gone cold on her in the previous year and she wants to have it out with him.  Accompanying her is old family friend Mrs Carstairs, devoted (very devoted) wife of a rising young star in the government, tipped himself to be a future Chancellor of the Exchequer.  She is alone as her husband is abroad on government business.

Dr. Wenceslaus Bottwink is a surprise guest, an outsider who can comment on English society and history with a dispassionate eye.  Jewish, he has been pushed around Europe by the tides of war, and has suffered greatly.  Naturally he has little sympathy with Robert’s fascism, an ideology he has seen at first hand.  Now he takes refuge in eighteenth century English history and is in the house to conduct research among the Warbeck papers.  This has taken longer than expected and he finds himself still present as Christmas arrives.  Waiting on everybody is Briggs the butler.  His daughter Susan is also in the house, and towards the end of the proceedings she plays a key role.

The murder only occurs almost half way into the novel, allowing plenty of time for the characters and their strained relationships to be presented.  When it does, it is dramatic.  Shortly after the guests arrive the house is cut off by snow.  The occupants are stuck in the freezing building but try to make the best of it, with the ailing Lord Warbeck unable to join them.  After being unpleasant to the point of hysteria, as Christmas Day arrives Robert throws open the French windows despite the freezing temperature, says he has an announcement to make, drinks a glass of champagne at the midnight chimes strike – and promptly pitches forward dead, poisoned with cyanide.  Shortly afterward Lord Warbeck is dead, having been told of Robert’s demise by someone unknown.  Sir Julius assumes he is the new Lord Warbeck, spelling the end of his career in the Commons.

While Rogers gathers evidence, he fails to see the rationale behind Robert’s murder.  It is left to Dr Bottwink, the outsider who ironically has a better grasp of British constitutional history than the natives, to bring the past to bear to illuminate the present, specifically parallels in the life of William Pitt, and solve the crime.  Bottwink points Rogers in the right direction, but indirectly, and Rogers fails to see how what happened in a previous century can be relevant.  Hare is surely saying something here about what he saw as the British temperament in ignoring the past.  Further, the house cut off from the outside world and unable to communicate, with life going on somewhere else while here time stands still, is a metaphor for the irrelevance of the aristocracy in the new era.

The novel’s setting is very specific: the period of the 1945-51 Labour government, when Clement Attlee’s Labour government taxation policies hit the landed gentry, and allied with the staff shortage caused many country houses, which could only function with cheap labour, to fall into disrepair (a theme too in Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger).  Apart from the unseen cook, Briggs is effectively running the place single-handed.  Hare clearly sympathises with the upper classes under threat, and Labour minister Julius is cast as something of a hypocrite, posing as a man of the people but who is from a privileged background and in his 20s had ridden to hounds.  He is terrified of becoming the next Lord Warbeck and is not above lying to the police to avert scandal, as he suggests that Robert committed suicide, albeit in a rather flamboyant manner.

Bottwink is used to touch on themes of class, asking questions about unarticulated assumptions the English take for granted.  Hare can be a tease as he plays on the reader’s own assumptions: there is a hint from Susan’s conversations with her father that Robert has ruined her and she has had an illegitimate baby.  As a fascist we expect no better of him, the cad.  However, we learn at the end that he had married her, hence the baby is legitimate, and is now the new Lord Warbeck, rather than Julius.  Presumably this was the important announcement Robert was about to make before he died, and why he had been giving Camilla the brush-off.  If Mrs Carstairs had known, she would not have taken the extreme action she did and Robert would have become Lord Warbeck.  In the event her efforts on behalf of her husband to allow him to take over as Chancellor of the Exchequer were stymied, but at least the world had one less fascist leader in it.

The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas

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One might be forgiven for assuming that as a mid-nineteenth century novel clocking in at over 700 pages the Three Musketeers (1844) will be a bit of a slog.  Far from it: it zips along at a cracking pace, and as it was originally serialised it is full of hooks to keep the reader turning the pages.  Strangely though, the titular musketeers are not the main characters and indeed disappear for stretches.

D’Artagnan is an impecunious minor provincial aristocrat from Gascony come to make his fortune in Paris.  Arriving in Paris, by chance he falls in with Athos, Porthos and Aramis.  After overcoming their initial suspicions the four become as thick as thieves.  Through the course of the novel Dumas shows him growing in stature, from callow inexperienced youth to intelligent veteran possessing strong leadership qualities, though still prone to errors or judgement.

There is less chivalry in the musketeers’ behaviour than one might have expected and film depictions have tended to gloss over the group’s moral deficiencies.  They are feckless, quarrelsome, careless with money, happy to sponge.  While professing to be gentlemen, they are actually cads who exploit women, and wives are certainly fair game (though the wives are often willing to play).  They are swordsmen in more than one sense.  When not eating and imbibing heroic quantities of alcohol they are ready to take life with no qualms of conscience if it serves their purpose, even when brawling with the rival Cardinal’s men.

Thus the notion of a gentleman is severely tested by the behaviour of the musketeers.  But they have a fierce loyalty to the king, the country and above all to each other, even if occasionally ready to dispose of French lives in the name either of honour or expediency.  The strength of friendship between the four musketeers (though for much of the book d’Artagnan isn’t one) is touching.  Dumas is superb on characterisation, deftly sketched, giving us rounded individuals of psychological depth.  He is subtle, acknowledging that motives are often mixed and people act in contradictory fashion.  The musketeers respect their English foes, to the extent that d’Artagnan helps the English (though oddly French-sounding) Lord de Winter, when it puts him at risk of a charge of treason.

As another example, Cardinal Richelieu seeks personal power and is Machiavellian in his pursuit of it, but is at heart a patriot, not the self-serving villain one might expect.  He is shown to be the King’s equal, and Louis treats him as such.  Ironically he proves the better monarch.  The reader warms to him as the novel proceeds, as does d’Artagnan, finally accepting a commission signed by him.  Less nuanced, Milady is even more Machiavellian than the Cardinal, hatching plots of fiendish complexity.  She is the most focused in her pursuit of power and revenge, but is shown to enjoy manipulating individuals simply because she is so good at it.  She is certainly a powerful woman, even if she is suffering from a personality disorder.

Yet despite her crimes, including murder, the revenge taken on Milady is shocking.  While married to her, Athos had tried to hang her when he discovered she had been branded.  This was for having been party to the theft of church plate.  One might think his extra-judicial punishment somewhat excessive for the crime.  She is finally tried and condemned by a kangaroo court (the hunting of Milady by the musketeers and de Winter put me in mind of the hunting of the vampire in Dracula to his lair, fifty-odd years later).  Ironically Milady’s document authorising her actions given by the Cardinal is used to protect her judges who have no legal authority for their capital sentence.

The book’s structure may surprise – in the film versions the highlight of the plot is the affair of the diamond studs and the race against time to retrieve them so the Queen can wear them at a ball.  In the novel this appears in the first half.  Much of the second half is taken up with the French siege of La Rochelle, defended by Huguenots, and the misadventures of arch-villain Milady, and with the focus shifted from the musketeers it fails to maintain the tightness of the first part.

What gets lost in the adaptations is the satire.  Dumas uses the behaviour of the musketeers to make sly digs at his own times, saying with a wink that what he is writing about is regrettable but has to be seen in the context of the seventeenth century, and would obviously not happen now.  The Roman Catholic church comes in for mockery in an extended scene when d’Artagnan calls on Aramis and finds him in conversation with a Jesuit and a parish priest about the thesis Aramis intends to write.  The clerics are shown to be pointless and have nothing meaningful to say about the real world.

As the scene of the theological disputation suggests, the novel can be very funny.  The most obvious example occurs early on when d’Artagnan, fresh in town after arriving on an outlandish yellow horse, manages to arrange duels with each of the three musketeers in quick succession for apparent slights he has given them.  Such lighthearted moments leaven the serious intent, while the shocking death of Madame Bonacieux achieves a high level of pathos.

As well as The Three Musketeers being a rip-roaring yarn, one does learn a little about the period of Louis XIII, but never too much to interfere with the pace.  Dumas is promoting a historical lesson: it is easy to assume politics are cold-blooded affairs which hinge on issues of national advancement, but he shows how policies that affect large numbers of people can be motivated by self-interest, for example the Duke of Buckingham forging English policy towards France based on his love of Anne of Austria, the French queen.

Much of the book’s plot is driven by Buckingham’s hopeless infatuation and the efforts of Richelieu to use it to his advantage.  Even the coolly rational Richelieu is motivated in his animosity towards the queen by the experience of having been rebuffed when he made advances towards her (despite his outward theological trappings there is no sense of religion about him at all, and he is prepared to get his hands dirty at the siege, while the king merely gets bored).  The personal element is too easily forgotten when examining the sweep of history and Dumas reminds us how it can shape the fate of nations.

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