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Monday 29 March 2021

A Sight for Sore Eyes - Book review

Ruth Rendell’s 1998 book A Sight for Sore Eyes is an exquisitely plotted crime novel. At just over 400 pages, it is longer than many of her books, but it’s still a fast read, because the reader is impelled to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.

Like many of her novels, the troubles her protagonists face are brought home to them by events in the past, and this one is no exception.

The Grex brothers – Keith and Jimmy – lived in the family home; then Jimmy married Eileen. They were not imaginative individuals, and there’s plenty of dark humour describing their relationship: ‘in order to be productive ejaculation had to be frequent, lavish and cumulative… a lot of that stuff had to get inside you before anything resulted… like the Grecian 2000 lotion Keith put on his greying hair, which only took effect after repeated applications.’ (p9) The result was an unexpected baby boy, Teddy.

Teddy grew into a handsome youth, but lacked any parental affection and was left to his own devices so that emotionally he was sadly deficient of empathy.

Yet Teddy has one abiding interest: he likes beautiful things, which is fostered by the neighbour, Mr Chance, who is a craftsman in wood and is fond of the phrase ‘A sight for sore eyes.’ (p17, p240)

Rendell’s descriptions are poignant, astute and sometimes amusing. ‘There was something about Keith that suggested a half-melted candle. Or a waxwork left out in the sun. The flesh of his face hung in wattles and dewlaps. It seemed to have waddled down his neck and sagged from his shoulders and chest to settle in stacked masses on his stomach.’ (p21)

The living conditions in the Grex household were decidedly deplorable in Teddy’s eyes, and he was ashamed. ‘Woodworm were devouring the living-room furniture and from the television table had bored into the skirting board… Spiders were in the bath and silverfish wriggled across the floors.’ (p57) ‘The tracks made by moth grubs already showed on the lumpy woollen surfaces and moth cocoons, greyish-white like mildew, nestled between the stitches.’ (p58)  ‘The fly-spotted mirror was losing its silvering in a kind of greenish ulceration round the edges…’ (p59)

Little girl Francine Hill was in her bedroom when her mother was murdered downstairs. She hid in case the murderer was after her as well. And when her father found her she was so traumatised she had lost her power of speech. She became a patient of Julia, a psychologist who eventually married Francine’s father. Francine was finally restored and she grew up cossetted by Julia, as if wrapped in cotton wool, fearful lest the murderer came back…

Francine becomes a beautiful young woman, someone who could easily be idolised by the likes of Teddy.

Inevitably, these characters will interact, their lives dovetailing, and slowly but surely there will be a fateful reckoning.

Rendell’s psychological insights, the depiction of a character’s gradual slide into insanity, her masterful plotting and the grim denouement make this novel a totally satisfying experience.

Thursday 25 March 2021

Shuttlecock - book review

I’ve come late to Graham Swift’s 1981 novel Shuttlecock. I’d bought it on paperback release when I was studying psychology with the Open University, as it was labelled ‘a psychological thriller’; but I never got round to reading it then.


The book is narrated in the first person by Prentiss who works as a senior clerk in the ‘dead crimes’ department of the police archives.

There’s a Kafkaesque tone to it, a dreamlike quality that lingers even after the last page is turned.

We’re not exactly sure of the narrator’s reliability regarding his observations and conclusions.

His boss is Quinn, who remains aloof and has a tendency to psychologically and verbally bully the office staff. Then Prentiss begins to realise that some files once requested by Quinn are never returned, while others are tampered with.

Prentiss is a bit of a bully himself, domineering towards his wife and hypercritical of his two sons, Martin and Peter. It is possible that this is relevant to his childhood. He makes twice weekly visits to his father in a mental institution, following the old man’s breakdown. Prentiss is obsessed about his father’s wartime memoir, Shuttlecock, about his spying exploits in France for SOE and his subsequent capture and torture. Gradually, Prentiss questions his father’s alleged bravery, perhaps recognising that he himself is a coward. But he finally plucks up the courage to confront Quinn about the missing files.

The narrative is riveting, despite the unappealing nature of Prentiss, and offers insightful parallels about father and son relationships. It is not all grim; there is humour to be found, notably his references to his sexual antics with his wife Marian, though nothing graphic. An editor might have pointed out the possible reader confusion of using two female character names beginning with the same letter, Marian (his wife with pert breasts) and Maureen (she with big breasts from the typing pool), but that’s of no real consequence. 

This is not a thriller, but that dubious description is no fault of Swift but rather the publisher. Certainly it is suspenseful and continually intriguing with countless behavioural observations.

Wednesday 24 March 2021

Once Around the Sun - Book review

What an unusual book; compelling storytelling at its best, handling a theme that spans centuries. Published as a paperback original in 1978, D.G. Finlay’s magical novel Once Around the Sun proved doubly fascinating for me as it was not only well-written and evocative, it also featured Gosport in Hampshire, where my wife Jennifer and I with our daughter Hannah lived for many years.


Though labelled as 'general fiction' Finlay is considered to be a horror writer.

There are four parts, each about a different period, all set in and around Gosport, each prefaced with a relevant map.

The first concerns about thirty Scandinavian conquerors who settle by the Solent around early 400s AD. Their chieftain was ‘a hard man, but weary of the restless years behind him.’  Though they found peace and rich land to till, there was the occasional conflict, notably with the Meonwara (present-day Meon Valley, I guess).

Young virile Stoc became the new chieftain in 480. Throughout the writing is never less than eloquent, with good imagery, for example at the chieftain’s funeral pyre: ‘The call to Woden died in the throats of the men and they listened, the hair rising on their skin and the blood standing cold in their bodies.’ (p18) And: ‘When the sun crept out of the mantle of morning mist, there remained only the funeral guards, still as stone in their trance-like vigil over the little hill with its crown of smoking, sweet-smelling ash.’ (p19) Stock took to wife Moanh who gave him much pleasure and two sons: ‘The joy of lying with Moanh and basking in the warmth and strength of hr response to him filled his waking thoughts.’ (p21)

One day Stoc joined the hunt of a wounded wild boar which finally put up a tremendous fight, killing one of the hunters. Stoc took a tusk from the dead boar and carved an pendant resembling two boars and presented it to his wife.

The pendant seems to possess a dark power which subsequently affects the two sons… Brigid weds Bran, one of the boys, so the genes will be passed on…Ultimately, tragedy stalks them, and the pendant survives…

The second part is set in the time of the English Civil War. Polycarpus Miller and his wife Elizabeth had twin daughters, Becky and Biddy, and on their tenth birthday they were presented with a pendant each, one a copy of the original. Becky owned the original and sensed its fell influence on her… And Biddy’s beautiful daughter Prue becomes involved in spying on the governor of neighbouring Portsmouth, for he was loyal to the king while Gosport was allied with Cromwell. When villagers suspect Becky of witchcraft, she is sent abroad to America with her beau Richard Gardenar (in readiness for the sequel, The Edge of Tomorrow, 1979).

The third part takes place in 1783 when American and French prisoners are being held in floating hulks in Portsmouth Harbour. The conditions in the hulks are grim. One of those incarcerated on the vessel Royal Oak is Richard Gardenar. Tom Long works on Gardenar’s hulk and recognises the likeness of their ancestor from a portrait of the 1600s. He determines to arrange for an escape… The night trek across the mudflats is tense and well told. Daughter Brigid wears the handed-down boar pendant and coincidentally the rescued Richard possesses the other, passed on from Becky…

The fourth part is set during the Second World War. Two elderly brothers, Bran and Wayland, live together. This is a particularly dark episode. Wayland is not a pleasant man, a follower of the satanist Aleister Crowley. The area is suffering from frequent rape-murders of local women. Wayland is jealous of Bran’s attachment Mavis. And they both possess the pendant heirlooms… for a final reckoning…

D. G. Finlay set herself a mammoth task and has done a great deal of research and supplies two pages of reference works. She manages to evoke each time period and cleverly names of characters are reinvented for later generations.

The local references are many: the sinking of Henry VIII’s ship the Mary Rose; Titchfield; Privett Farm; St Mary’s Church, Stoke – our church in the 1980s; Fareham; Southsea Castle; Peel Common; Stokes Bay – where we often walked; the Five Alls pub – which I frequented often in the mid-1960s; Spring Garden Lane; Grove Road; the Queen Charlotte pub – where we played skittles; HMS St Vincent, a training brick ship, my first draft in the RN; Brickwood’s Best Bitter; the Gosport War Memorial Hospital – which has been in the news a lot recently; ‘the Asylum out in the country near Wickham’ – presumably Netley, which is now a newish housing complex.

A thought-provoking read with, be warned, a down-beat ending.

Coincidence: there is an uncanny echo from the previous book I read, Deep Purple: ‘... let the bitter-sweet melody of “Deep Purple” flow through him…’ (p256) The book also features a Harry Gardener, a close spelling to Gardenar!

Another coincidence: Dione Gordon Finlay was living in Malta when she wrote this book and its sequel. Jennifer and I lived in Malta a few years earlier, 1974-75.

Tuesday 23 March 2021

Deep Purple - book review

 Ted Allbeury’s 1989 espionage thriller Deep Purple has all the hallmarks of his earlier books: authentic background, knowledge of the inner workings of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.


It all begins with Yakunin, a KGB walk-in at the British embassy in Washington. He is swiftly flown to a safe house in England where he will be questioned by Eddie Hoggart, a man who worked his way up from a deprived childhood to become a seasoned interrogator.  Hoggart is married to Jacqui, a sex worker with a past that includes a Soho hard-man, Harry Gardner. In effect, Eddie and Jacqui are two sides of the same coin, surviving the hard knocks of society. Eddie was helped up by an adoptive parent and he wants to help Jacqui. Only Gardner has other ideas…

Confusing the mix is yet another defection: KGB man Belinsky, who appears to contradict the revelations of Yakunin.  Which one is the genuine defector, and which is the plant? Or are they both not what they seem?

The big question is: do they know about a mole in the higher echelons of MI6?

Here we can understand the lonely existence of spies. Yes, orphans definitely make the best recruits.

There are some poignant and tragic moments in this story, which rings true, thanks to Allbeury’s attention to the details that matter.

The title of the book is relevant: it relates to the old tune of the same name.