Search This Blog

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Partisans by Alistair MacLean

I was going to use the words 'book review' in the heading, but this isn't quite that.



Alistair MacLean’s 1982 ‘adventure’ Partisans is one of the least enjoyable books I’ve read.  I feared it wouldn’t be great having been disappointed with a number of his later outings, the last two that I read being The Way to Dusty Death (1973) and Circus (1975). He published three more thrillers after this book, but, sadly, I’m not inclined to read them.  Like millions of readers, I enjoyed immensely his ‘classic’ thrillers, Guns of Navarone, HMS Ulysses, South by Java Head, Night Without End, Fear is the Key, The Golden Rendezvous, When Eight Bells Toll, Where Eagles Dare and even Force 10 From Navarone.

What’s wrong with Partisans?

The plot is exceedingly thin: an espionage team led by the enigmatic Major Peter Petersen are sent to contact the pro-German Yugoslav Royalists (I think!) But of course there’s betrayal and not everyone is what they seem, in standard MacLean fashion, and it all appears contrived and confusing.

The writing is third person narrative, with ironic asides and misdirection, but in the main sub-standard MacLean. However, the narrative is almost entirely in dialogue between the various characters. There is very little action or suspense – almost everything seems to occur ‘off-stage’ and is related through speech. And what a lot of long speeches we get! Nothing here even pretends to relate to real life; and there is no feeling for any character, not even the omnipotent all-knowing Petersen.

If you're a fan of MacLean's and you haven’t read this book yet, then do so by all means. But be prepared to be disappointed.

I don’t normally write negative reviews. Sometimes, the book is bad because a publisher or editor have not done their job. Here, it appears that William Collins & Co were reluctant to fling the manuscript back and published it regardless, knowing it would initially sell due to the author’s established (and richly deserved) fame.

Alistair MacLean died in 1987, aged 64, apparently due to alcoholism.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Book review - March the Ninth


R.C. Hutchinson’s first person narrative March the Ninth was published in 1957; he spent two years writing it. He garnered praise in his time: C Day Lewis stated ‘Hutchinson is one of the very few living novelists who will be read fifty – perhaps a hundred – years hence.’ Compton Mackenzie believed he was ‘The best male novelist his generation has produced in England.’ 


Well, some sixty years after its publication, I’m reading the book.  Along with uniform paperback editions of A Child Possessed, Johanna at Daybreak, Recollection of a Journey and Shining Scabbard, it was released in an Arrow Books imprint, Zenith, in 1984. None of his books have been republished since, which is a shame as he is a compelling writer.

1947. Eugen Reichenbach is a surgeon working for the World Universities Relief Organization (Health and Nutritional Coordination). He meets an old associate, Kurt Wenzel who talks him into performing an emergency operation on a desperately ill man, Siegfried, who has been shot in a lung. A simple act of humanity; he couldn’t refuse. And so he becomes embroiled in a daring escape plan, with police from several countries in pursuit.

Like Hammond Innes, Hutchinson manages to put the reader in the scene, to live the life of the narrator, so convincing is the writing. Along the way, we are indulged with snippets of philosophy: ‘The fortunate live long lives in corners which history does not discover. We others, caught when history is in spate, can do no better than keep afloat and land where the current takes us.’ (p11)

His journey of humanity involves crossing the land at night: ‘Behind us the ground fell away steeply… and if there were greater heights ahead they were hidden, in the still feeble light, by a mist which hung like folded silk between the outcrop and the crouching trees. I felt as if I had been lifted to a secret country, remote from earth yet gently familiar, washed with brackish mountain air and alive with the music of trickling water.’ (p41)

There are many instances where the good doctor’s calling are referenced; for example: ‘… but I had learnt in the thirties to regard ecstatic verbiage as one regards the indications of sepsis in an injured limb.’ (p43) Another instance: ‘… the memory of my last encounter …when I had received her thanks with such meagre grace… had become a chronic abscess on my mind.’ (p84) And: ‘To untaught ears the sound of (the ship’s) engines was always laboured and faulty, like the breathing of a man with pericarditis.’ (p202)

Franziska, the wife of his patient, exerts an uncanny hold on his emotions, ‘a sense of peace which her companionship had brought me.’ (p109)  And ‘If I went back to an existence which seemed narrow and purposeless, the recollection that I had once been trusted with another’s solitude would still illumine and transmute my own.’ (p109) She had ‘the laughter of Vienna, delicately derisive, which breaks like the notes of a clarinet upon a day of mourning.’ (p110) They shared an unspoken bond, pure, decent; perhaps even painful. ‘When you come to the awaited moment, when you have only minutes to recover the loss of wasted years, those past and those to come, the mind will not admit the discipline of language.’ (p196) He was tongue-tied in her presence. ‘All that it means to be alive, and of human status, was in the hand I held, in the small exhausted being who let me hold it. Speechless, I prayed for time to cease, for this moment to be vested with infinity.’ (p196)

He introduced me to a couple of words new to me: an entresol – a mezzanine floor; and ‘He led me now with sciurine confidence along an alley between two concrete walls…’ Sciurine - pertaining to animals like squirrels. His visualisation is good, too: on the waterfront, ‘… where gantries like siege towers strode upon us from the gloom…’ (p174) And ‘in the four or five vessels lying at the quay I saw no light: they looked like the carcasses of ships which had been tethered there and left to die.’ (p188) I know, this is an eerie feeling: one night it was my duty to check our ship which was without crew and without power, treading the metal ladders and decks with a torch.

So many priceless phrases! ‘… as one accustomed to extract essential truth from the husk of circumlocution.’ (p192) That could be transposed for an interviewer of a politician! Another instance: ‘… with his eyes turned away, exhibiting the faint disdainful smile of an upright man refusing to buy indecent photographs.’ (p202)

Having been aboard a ship in very rough seas (bordering on a typhoon), I can vouch for his observation: ‘…while the floor lazily tiled from side to side, sometimes with an extra screwing motion, and now and then drove up against my feet as if a charge of cordite had been fired beneath it.’ (p203) As a landlubber, he would refer to the deck as the floor.

The title of the book refers to a terrible event that took place during the war on that date. Suffice it to say that this involves war crimes and Yugoslav partisans. It is about unrequited love, loyalty, guilt, and redemption. And it doesn’t end well.

If you can find a copy, recommended. I also found his A Child Possessed (1964) very moving. It won the W.H. Smith literary award in 1966.

Ray Coryton Hutchinson published 17 novels; he died in 1975, aged 68.









Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Surprise, surprise...

A big thank you to author Nancy Jardine for inviting me on to her blog today for her regular feature Summer Surprise.

https://nancyjardine.blogspot.com.es/

Nancy is the author of the Celtic Fervour series of historical novels, which I heartily recommend:

https://nancyjardine.blogspot.com.es/p/nancy-jardines-books.html





She also writes romantic mysteries and time-travel adventures.


Thursday, 1 June 2017

Time passes!

Quickly...

Sorry, I haven't been blogging for a couple of weeks. It didn't seem that long ago, really. But time has a nasty habit of speeding by, more notable as one gets older; and nobody gets younger, do they?

I've been busy writing my third Cash Laramie western. It is now finished. I'm just going through the excision of word-repetition, self-edit and polishing stage before a final read-through. Hoping it meets with the publisher's approval.

Normal blogging will resume soon, I hope.

Best wishes!

Nik

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Book review - Jennie


Paul Gallico’s Jennie (1950) was first published in the US as The Abandoned. It’s a fantasy novel that will appeal especially to cat-lovers but also to readers with a heart in the right place. Many of Gallico’s works are unashamedly sentimental, and I feel that the world’s better because of that.

Young eight-year-old Peter Brown had wanted to own a cat but his Scotch Nanny was averse to the animals. His mother and father seemed distant; she was always out gallivanting and he was too busy doing soldierly things as a Colonel. When Peter’s father was away his mother was ‘unhappy and bored and went off with friends a great deal seeking amusement’. (p33)

It starts with Peter in bed after a traffic accident – he’d been running across the road after a tabby striped kitten when he was hit by a vehicle. Then when he wakes up, he realises he is a cat, no longer a boy, and Nanny chases him out of the house! So his adventure begins.

Almost immediately he encounters a nasty yellow tom cat, Dempsey, who brutally savages him for ‘trespassing’. Badly cut and battered, Peter is nursed back to health by a small tabby with an enigmatic smile – Jennie.

When Peter explains his predicament, Jennie believes him, simply because he doesn’t exhibit any of the normal traits of a cat. She sets about teaching him how to be a cat. ‘Oh, dear,’ said Peter, who never did much enjoy having to learn things… (p36)Typical boy, then.

When he mentions Nanny not liking cats, Jennie is philosophical about that: ‘There are people who don’t, and we can understand and respect them for it. Sometimes we like to tease them a little by rubbing up against them, or getting into their laps just to see them jump. They can’t help it any more than we can help not liking certain kinds of people and not wanting to have anything to do with them. But at least we know where we stand when we come across someone like your Nanny. It’s the people who love us, or say they love us and then hurt us, who…’ (p34)

One of Jennie’s useful (and amusing) tips is that ‘Whatever the situation, whatever difficulty you may be in, you can’t go wrong if you wash.’ (p38)  ‘Peter, who like all boys had no objection to being reasonably clean, but not too clean, saw the problem of washing looming up large and threatening to occupy all of his time. (p39)

Apparently, Jennie’s ancestors were from North Africa; several of them were ship’s cats in the Spanish Armada; her mother’s ancestor was wrecked on the coast of Scotland.

After a few adventures, the two cats sneak on to the ship Countess of Greenock. Jennie fancies visiting some relatives. To pay their way, they catch several mice and offer them as trophies to the ship’s crew; they’re hired. The crew was an odd assortment; Peter’s favourite among the officers was the second mate, Mr Carluke, ‘who looked somewhat like an inoffensive stoat, and who wrote Wild West and cowboy and Indian stories for the tuppenny dreadfuls and serial magazines in his spare time to eke out his income.’ (p91)

Throughout, Gallico provides little insights. Here, when he decides to wash the body of Jennie, fished out of the sea (this isn’t a spoiler, there’s a clue in the book cover, if you look closely!): ‘… and in every stroke there was love and regret and longing, and the beginning the awful loneliness that comes when a loved one has gone away. Already he was missing and wanting and needing her more than he ever dreamed he could when she had been alive.’ (p110)

It’s a moral tale, too: ‘He knew that neither he nor she would ever forget, that a thoughtless cruelty can be too late repented of, that life does not take cognizance of how one feels or what one would like to do to make up for past errors, but moves inexorably, and that the burden is more often “too late, too late” rather than “just in time”.’ (p150)

‘In the main, on this walk across a portion of London, Peter found cats to be very like people. Some were mean and small and pernickety, and insisted upon all their rights even when asked politely to share; others were broadminded and hospitable…’ (p157)

And, when escaping two vicious dogs: ‘… flying over obstacles with not only the speed and agility of cats, but with that extra something that is lent to the limbs and the feet when a great weight has been lifted from the spirit.’ (p139)

Of course his descriptions of cat behaviour are not the only little gems. Good writers are observant: ‘Everywhere the geraniums in their pots were full, rich, ripe, and blooming juicily, the leaves thick and velvety, and each blossom shedding fragrance so that the room was filled with the sweet, pungent, and slightly peppery geranium scent.

It’s also a love story: ‘… each drop she shed, each nick or bite, cut or scratch she suffered for him and thus it was no suffering at all.’ (p219)

And it’s a tale of bravery: notably when Peter faces Dempsey again in a near-fatal fight. Incidentally, Gallico began his writing career as a sports writer in 1920; he had an interview with boxer Jack Dempsey in which he asked Dempsey to spar with him. He then described how it felt to be knocked out by the heavyweight champion!

It’s not surprising that Gallico shows a great empathy for cats. In 1936 he bought a house on top of a hill at Salcombe in South Devon and settled down for a year with a Great Dane and twenty-three assorted cats! (His second marriage lasted one year and ended in divorce in 1936…)

Among the many books Paul Gallico wrote, the most famous are perhaps Thomasina, The Snow Goose, The Adventures of Hiram Holliday, the charwoman Mrs Harris series, and The Poseidon Adventure. He died in 1976, aged 78.




Sunday, 14 May 2017

The Lunatic Casino


History is filled with quirky characters, larger-than-life people, and the Old West has more than its fair share of them.

In the UK the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum was established in 1863. Nowadays, Broadmoor Hospital is a high-security psychiatric hospital with about 200 patients. What has this to do with the Old West? Only the name: the Broadmoor Casino was built by Count James Pourtales in 1891 near Pikes Peak in central Colorado. Many people thought he was mad to undertake the project!

The count, a German nobleman, was seeking good investments and bought into a huge dairy farm near Colorado Springs. Then the mad idea took hold. He decided to found a resort town on part of the property.

He built a pleasure palace to lure buyers of lots. This ‘palace’, the Broadmoor Casino was on the shores of a 15-acre artificial lake that was stocked with trout. There were 32 Corinthian columns gracing its exterior, and its rooftop terrace offered a splendid view of the mountains. Inside there was a grand foyer, a double staircase leading to a grand ballroom and a concert hall, three dining rooms and a salon for the ladies.

Pourtales sited gaming rooms on the first floor. He intended to make profits from the sale of the liquor he supplied to the gamblers; he didn’t risk house funds on the games themselves. Method in his madness: Colorado Springs was a dry town.

A resident orchestra comprising European musicians played regularly; food was provided by a French chef.

Incredibly, he hired a lady parachutist to promote the resort: she landed in the lake but survived.

The grand opening of the casino was on 1 July, 1891.

However, Pourtales’ mad dream of a new township, Broadmoor City, wasn’t realised, since few wealthy punters bought lots. The Panic of ’93 depressed Colorado’s silver mining industry, which didn’t help, and within a short time Pourtales, burdened by the immense expenses that the Casino incurred, was declared bankrupt. Four years later, the Broadmoor Casino was destroyed by fire.

***
Inspired by this fascinating snippet of history, I decided to incorporate certain elements in my noir novel Coffin for Cash.

My nobleman is Baron Hans von Kempelen, aged 55. He is the owner of the Lenore Casino, near Green River.

Here is an excerpt:

Long before they reached the entrance to the casino complex, Cash and Corman rode past dozens of white-painted wooden posts, all lined up neatly: “Setting out the lots for the baron’s town plan,” Corman explained.
            Finally, an entrance arch of Doric columns declared “The Lenore Casino”. From here curved a wide drive bordered with sagebrush flowering yellow, red, pink and orange; mixed with these were sego lily and larkspur. The drive led to a long two-storey building, its veranda graced with a series of Corinthian columns. A rooftop terrace commanded a view of the surrounding countryside, and above the entrance doors, rising from the centre, was a latticework tower with a huge clock-face showing Roman numerals; a big metal pendulum swung below, partly visible through a long narrow window above the entrance.
            They tethered the horses at a hitching rail at the front steps.
            A good distance away on their right was a marble edifice, with a life-size winged angel on top.
            “That’s the baron’s little mausoleum,” Corman explained, his voice thick and laced with gravel. “It’s where his wife’s buried – minus her heart.”
            Then without saying more he led Cash up the steps and through the double doors. To one side was a Chinese sentry dressed in black and gold livery, brass buttons to his throat. He carried a sword at his belt but made no move to challenge Cash, recognising Corman.
            They entered an atrium clad in dark oak panels, the floor tiled with patterned marble. A double staircase swept to a landing with a series of double doors. “Up there,” Corman pointed, “is a ballroom, a concert hall and a couple of dining-rooms, a salon for the ladies and the baron’s private rooms.” The landing was almost on a level with the clock’s metronomic pendulum.
            Smartly dressed men and women strolled through the atrium, arm in arm, none of them taking any notice of Cash and Corman’s trail-dusted attire. Several Chinese in black and gold costumes moved to and fro, carrying newspapers, documents, and silver trays of drinks and cakes.
            Cash peered up and could distinctly hear the pendulum as it scythed through air.
            He lowered his gaze and spotted a man striding purposefully towards them.
            “Meet the baron,” Corman said, removing his hat.
            Baron von Kempelen was virtually the same height as Cash. He wore a monocle in his left eye, possessed a scar down his left cheek, and sported a Van Dyke moustache, which was as blond as his short-cropped hair. He wore a grey suit of cavalry twill, with waistcoat, and shining black shoes. Cash noted a slight bulge in the vest pocket; doubtless a derringer snug in there.
            “Corman, who is this with you?” the baron asked curtly.
            “Baron, sir, this here is US Marshal Laramie.”
            Appraising his clothes, the baron said, “You are not here for leisure, Marshal.”
            Cash took off his hat. “No, Baron. I’m here in an official capacity.” He glanced around. “Can we talk in private?”
            Von Kempelen’s unencumbered grey-green eye danced erratically then settled again on Cash. “You have me intrigued.” With one hand he made a shooing gesture to Corman. “Thank you, you can go now.”
            Wiping a hand over his bristly chin, Corman nodded. “Sure, Baron. I need to clean up.” He put on his hat, swung on his heel and went out the entrance doorway.
            “I noticed your interest in my clock,” the baron said, gazing at the swinging pendulum.
            “Yeah, it’s unusual. I reckon I can feel the breeze it makes as it swings.”
            “I had it specially made for me by a family acquaintance, Sigmund Riefler. The firm of Clemens Riefler is situated in Munich, my home city and it is known for its precision pendulum clocks.”
            “I’m impressed, Baron.”
            “German engineering is the best in the world, Marshal. Now, my office is not far. We will talk there.”
            “Fine by me, Baron. Lead on.”
            He was led to the right, through a double door that was guarded by a huge Chinese man in a smart black and gold suit and a sword with belt. They trod on thick carpets that went through three gaming rooms where patrons played on a variety of roulette wheels or card tables. Chinese male and female staff darted between people, serving trays of liquor. A smoke mist hovered above their heads; the ceiling, where visible, appeared stained.
            “Quite an enterprise you have here, Baron.”
            Von Kempelen chuckled. “It is my honey to attract the flies.” He didn’t elaborate and pushed open a door into a large office. (pp70-73)

Coffin for Cash


Available as a paperback or an e-book at these Amazon sites here