2021: A Journal of the Plague Year

Lockdowns, mass vaccinations, face-masks, new strains of the virus, and an overburdened health system… Year two of the pandemic draws to its close, with more of the same for next year. Still, I live in one of the most vaccinated cities in the world (98.5 per cent!), and everything suggests that omicron is contagious but comparatively mild.

If the last couple of years have had an upside, it’s been plenty of time to read. My tally stands at 126 books (50 fewer than last year).

Best books this year:

  1. Nine – and Death Makes Ten (Carr)
  2. Stop Press (Innes)
  3. Ten Days’ Wonder (Queen)
  4. La Reine Margot (Dumas)
  5. Baudolino (Eco)
  6. Michel Strogoff / Les aventures du capitaine Grant / Le Chancellor (Verne)

I’m not altogether happy with this post; I’m remembering books months after I read them, without notes to guide me.


Crime and detection

ADDED: I kept the best detective story of the year for its last day: Nine – and Death Makes Ten (John Dickson Carr, as Carter Dickson, 1940). Going out with a bang – but (fortunately!) not from munitions exploding. Nine-Ten is based on an Atlantic voyage JDC made in the early days of the war (September 1939). A boat carrying munitions crosses submarine-infested waters, and it seems a German spy is making the crossing, too… Before the ship left New York, a saboteur tried to blow it sky high; then, one night, one of the passengers is murdered – but the fingerprints don’t match anyone’s onboard…

Carr shows them all how it’s done: ingenuity, tension, and storytelling. This is the third time I’ve read the book, and it’s almost unputdownable. The setting is novel, and JDC gets every ounce of tension out of it, from victims thrown overboard in the blackout to torpedo strikes; it’s a claustrophobic novel, terror outside and terror within. As in many of his books, Carr avoids the tedium of interviewing and police investigation; the viewpoint character – a journalist recovering from a serious injury (like James Stewart’s character in Rear Window) – is protagonist rather than Watson, someone who is involved in the adventure rather than accompanying the sleuth; he is involved with one woman, and is attracted to another. The deception is brilliant; so too is the way the murderer’s ingenious plan goes wrong. This would make a damn good film.

Previously heading the list of detective stories was Michael Innes’s Stop Press (1939) – a country house mystery without a murder, but a good deal of brilliant, witty talk. It may well be caviar to the general, however.

Nine Ellery Queen novels showed the versatility of this (these) American writer(s). While The French Powder Mystery (1930) is a clever example of the post-Van Dinean puzzle plot, Queen’s finest books are his mid-period works: the naturalistic Calamity Town (1942), the apocalyptic Ten Days’ Wonder (1948), and the science fictional allegory And on the Eighth Day (1964).

Those were the outstanding detective stories; now to the major writers. A brace of Agatha Christies, both minor but enjoyable as ever: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934), and 4.50 from Paddington (1957).

I enjoyed meeting Anthony Berkeley (The Second Shot, 1930) and Margery Allingham (Death of a Ghost, 1934) again after 15 years or so. Gladys Mitchell’s Death and the Maiden (1947) did not match my fond memories of romping through rivers in pursuit of nymphs, but Speedy Death and The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1929) amused.

Ruth Rendell is uneven – sometimes extraordinary, sometimes extraordinarily bad – but Make Death Love Me (1979) and The House of Stairs (her 1988 Barbara Vine) are good, solid, second-tier works. Christopher Fowler’s Hall of Mirrors (2018) is a fun pastiche of the country house mystery, set in the 1960s.

From foreign parts, I liked Seishi Yokomizo’s Inugami Curse (1951) and Herbert & Wyl’s Forbidden House (1932, Locked Room International). I can’t make up my mind about Steeman; Le doigt volé is straightforward but transparent, and La nuit du 12 au 13 was clever but impenetrable.

Two ‘new’ E.C.R. Loracs, resurrected by Martin Edwards and the British Library: These Names Make Clues (1937), and Two-Way Murder, first published this year. Four Anthony Gilberts, all enjoyable without causing a furore: Death in Fancy Dress (1933), An Old Lady Dies and The Man in Button Boots (both 1934), and Snake in the Grass (1954).

Trent’s Last Case (1913), by E.C. Bentley, is considered a landmark in the genre, but Elephant’s Work (1950), Bentley’s ‘shocker’, is a sometimes amusing, sometimes tedious shaggy dog story. The Affair at Aliquid (1933) is not quite what one would expect from the Coles, either; it’s not a detective story at all, but a Wodehousian farce – and a diverting one.

A few pleasing works from minor writers. Milward Kennedy’s Murderer of Sleep (1933), an agreeably relaxed riverside mystery; Roger East’s meta-mystery Murder Rehearsal (1933) and crime novel Candidate for Lilies (1934) suggest he deserves more attention (Kingston Black, 1960, disappointed). H.H. Stanners’s Crowning Murder (1938) seemed wholly conventional, but there is a clever twist at the end.

The rest, one may safely say, are mediocre, and for addicts and completists only: Lynn Brock (The Mendip Mystery), Christopher Bush (Fourth Detective), J.J. Connington (The 21 Clues), Freeman Wills Crofts (Death on the Way, Enemy Unseen), Moray Dalton (Harriet Hall, Alan Copeland), Brian Flynn (although The Horn was fun), Lord Ernest Hamilton (The Tragedies of Memworth), Philip Macdonald (The Link), E.R. Punshon (The Golden Dagger, The Attending Truth), John Rhode (Nothing But the Truth; but Death at Low Tide and the first Cecil Waye reprint were entertaining), Jean Scholey (The Dead Past), Francis Vivian, R.A.J. Walling (Bury Him Deeply), Patricia Wentworth (The Brading Collection), and R.C. Woodthorpe (Death in a Little Town).

The worst – and the worst crime stories I have read for quite some time – are Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest and Maltese Falcon, flatly written, badly plotted, and devoid of any human feeling.


Fiction

If we cannot travel, at least we can travel in fiction. Jules Verne is one of my favourite writers; we think of him today as the father of science fiction, but geography was his passion; the Voyages extraordinaires published by Hetzel showed readers the furthest parts of the globe. I read seven of his novels this year, and will read more in 2022.

Michel Strogoff (1876) is one of his best, a gripping account of a courier’s desperate journey across Russia to warn of a Tartar invasion. It’s grimmer, too, than one expects from Verne: battlefields strewn with corpses, blindings, rivers on fire, and swordfights. There are a touching romance between a blind man and his guide; and humour provided by two competing journalists, Strogoff has it all.

Les enfants du Capitaine Grant (1865) has the ingenious idea of following a latitude from South America (condors, mountains, floods) to Australia (highwaymen, English education, and outrage at the genocide of the Aborigines) to New Zealand (then one of the most dangerous countries in the world).

L’île mystérieuse (1874–75) is a sequel to this and another Verne novel. This is the famous one where five Americans and a dog are marooned on a desert island, and slowly rebuild civilisation from scratch. I admire its colossal ingenuity and its ‘can-do’ attitude that any problem can be solved, but it is slow. English translations are misleading, and misrepresent Verne’s politics; a major character has different motivations. Verne parodied the island survivor genre in L’école des Robinsons (1882), an amusing trifle.

Une ville flottante (1870) is based on Verne’s voyage on the biggest steamship of the time, the Great Eastern; Verne’s novel is a testament to 19th-century engineering, but it also shows the power of nature (the melodramatic plot is resolved by electric storms and waterfalls).

Le Chancellor (1874) is another maritime story – the harrowing account of shipwreck survivors adrift on a raft, suffering thirst and descending to insanity and cannibalism; it’s one of Verne’s most remarkable works.

I was less taken by Les aventures de trois Russes et de trois Anglais dans l’Afrique australe (1871), in which teams of scientists try to measure the meridian arc; the Crimean War disrupts their collaboration. This can only be recommended to people who enjoy trigonometry.

Afin de faire mieux comprendre à ceux de nos lecteurs qui ne sont pas suffisamment familiarisés avec la géométrie, ce qu’est cette opération géodésique qu’on appelle une triangulation, nous empruntons les lignes suivantes aux Leçons nouvelles de Cosmographie de M. H. Garcet, professeur de mathématiques au lycée Henri IV. À l’aide de la figure ci-jointe, ce curieux travail sera facilement compris : « Soit AB l’arc du méridien dont il s’agit de trouver la longueur. On mesure avec le plus grand soin une base AC, allant de l’extrémité A du méridien à une première station C. Puis on choisit de part et d’autre de la méridienne, d’autres stations DEFGHI, etc. de chacune desquelles on puisse voir les stations voisines, et l’on mesure au théodolite, les angles de chacun des triangles ACDCDEEDF, etc., qu’elles forment entre elles. Cette première opération permet de résoudre ces divers triangles : car, dans le premier on connaît AC et les angles, et l’on peut calculer le côté CD ; dans le deuxième, on connait CD et les angles, et l’on peut calculer le côté DE ; dans le troisième, on connaît DE et les angles, et l’on peut calculer le côté EF, et ainsi de suite. Puis on détermine en A la direction de la méridienne par le procédé ordinaire, et l’on mesure l’angle MAC que cette direction fait avec la base AC : on connaît donc dans le triangle ACM le côté AC et les angles adjacents, et l’on peut calculer le premier tronçon AM de la méridienne. On calcule en même temps l’angle M et le côté CM : on connaît donc dans le triangle MDN le côté DM = CD – CM et les angles adjacents, et l’on peut calculer le deuxième tronçon MN de la méridienne, l’angle N et le côté DN. On connait donc dans le triangle NEP le côté EN = DE – DN, et les angles adjacents, et l’on peut calculer le troisième tronçon NP de la méridienne, et ainsi de suite. On comprend que l’on pourra ainsi déterminer par partie la longueur de l’arc total AB. »

More armchair travelling with Gerald Durrell through British Guiana in Three Singles to Adventure (1954).

For sheer storytelling, few can beat the great Alexandre Dumas. La Reine Margot (1845) is a superb novel of the 16th century Wars of Religion, a theme treated by Meyerbeer in Les Huguenots (1836). It opens with a royal wedding meant to reconcile Protestant and Catholic factions, that erupts in the St-Barthélemy massacre. Although it’s slow in parts, the sweep of the novel is terrific: court intrigue, adultery, witchcraft, poisonings, royal deaths, the malevolent plotting of Catherine de Médicis, and almost operatic tragic finish. This has been filmed several times.

Le capitaine Pamphile (1839), ostensibly written for children, is uncharacteristic: a rather brilliant black comedy about slavery, colonialism, and financial corruption, with animal heroes and parodies of adventure genres. A late family friend (a noted translator of Proust) once remarked that he couldn’t read Dumas, because D. lacked irony; I would have given him this. It reminded me of Voltaire’s Candide (1759), which I reread; also a delight.

The British historical novel of the period seems tepid. Take Edward Bulwer-Lytton – notorious for the clichéd opening line: ‘It was a dark and stormy night’, but he is better than his reputation. In The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), Bulwer-Lytton applies Scott’s antiquarian technique to Ancient Rome; it is carefully researched, but too long – and has almost as many interpolated songs and poems as Tolkien. I have four more Bulwer-Lyttons (including Rienzi, Last of the Tribunes, which inspired Wagner’s behemoth of an opera, which gave Hitler the idea for the Third Reich), but I’m not sure if I’ll read another in a hurry.

Dickens’s early attempt at a historical novel, Barnaby Rudge (1841), based on the anti-Catholic riots of 1780, is his ‘least loved and least read’ work. It’s patchy; there are some cosy domestic scenes in Dickens’s early vein, and the last couple of hundred pages are gripping, but it takes a while to get there.

But not all French historical novels are great. Flaubert wrote Salammbô (1862) as a relief and reaction after the “foetid vulgarity” of Madame Bovary and his disgust with modern life. The scene is Carthage, in the time of the Mercenary War. It’s unbridled Orientalism: voluptuous (but virginal) princesses of the moon, phallic serpents, mystic veils (the zaimph)… The style is a glittering surface studded with onyx and tortoiseshell, purple and gold, Carthaginian words, and invocations to the gods. But it’s only a surface. The novel is trash. Enormous black barbarians lust after paler-skinned civilised women, and Flaubert dwells at great length on torture, violence, and death. The first couple of chapters give us dead burnt monkeys (singe-d?) falling onto banquet tables, crucified lions, and a corrupt leper who drinks tisanes of powdered weasel. Gosh, says the reader; this is more fun than bored French housewives. But like Macbeth, we sup full with horrors – and are surfeited well before the book reaches its protracted end. (See Goodreads for the longer review.)

Anatole France’s Les dieux ont soif (1912) takes place during the Terror, but (ironically) is less bloodthirsty; this is a study in idealism – a young artist becomes a revolutionary judge, and condemns hundreds to the guillotine. When Robespierre falls, and the artist is also sentenced to death, he regrets that the Terror was not harsh enough. His kind swarmed in the 20th century.

Detective readers associate A.E.W. Mason with the great Hanaud books, but he was also a distinguished historical novelist – and a fine storyteller and elegant writer in any guise. The Four Feathers (1902), his most celebrated work, is a romance about cowardice and redemption, with a notable description of the Omdurman hellhole; Fire Over England (1936) is a gallant swashbuckling yarn in the 16th century; the hero singes the King of Spain’s beard. Rafael Sabatini was also popular for maritime heroism; I found The Sea-Hawk (1915) tediously fustian.

I discovered W. Somerset Maugham, not a great stylist, perhaps, but a keen observer of people. The Moon and Sixpence (1919) examines the selfishness of an artist, based on Gauguin (this inspired Christie’s Five Little Pigs); in Christmas Holiday (1939), through encounters with a prostitute and a violent idealist, a naïve youngster realises the world is less cosy than he thought; and The Razor’s Edge (1944) describes a young man’s search for meaning. A couple of oddities: The Magician (1908) is a potboiler with a villain modelled on Aleister Crowley; and Catalina (1948), a rare historical novel, humorously treats of a ‘miracle’ in Spain.

Aldous Huxley I find uneven, rather difficult. I enjoyed Crome Yellow (1921), a high-spirited conversational novel, like a modern Peacock. (Peacock himself has dated very badly; the humour in something like Nightmare Abbey parodies the intellectual fads of the 1810s.) Antic Hay (1923) is cleverly written, but lacks a story. And Ape and Essence (1948) – a dystopian science fiction story written as a film script, with apes – is impenetrable.

Now to the Classical World. Homer’s Daughter (1955), by Robert Graves, plays with the speculation that a Sicilian princess wrote The Odyssey; Nausicaa drives away the invaders and protects her home. Rosemary Sutcliff’s Flowers of Adonis (1969) depicts the brilliant, unscrupulous Alkibiades, hero and traitor, through the eyes of enemies and followers. Mary Renault is nonpareil; The Praise Singer (1978) tells of sixth and fifth century Greece through the eyes of a lyric poet; a quiet, elegant work.

I finished Graves’s Count Belisarius (1938) 20 years and three attempts after starting it – almost as arduous a siege as his Byzantine general’s attempts to reconquer Italy. Read Procopius instead. King Jesus (1946) is a cranky, often dull exercise in comparative mythology, a scholar’s ramble through Judaism and Mediterranean mystery-cults. The key to Judaism (“a Semite religion grafted on a Celtic stock”) is the relationship between bardic letters and the months and seasons of the year. The mystical meanings of the Golden Calf and the Seven Pillars of Wisdom are deduced from Gnostic (Essene) secret lore preserved in the 13th-century Welsh Llyfr Coch o Hergest. “They yield their full sense only in the light of Babylonian astrology, Talmudic speculation, the liturgy of the Ethiopian Church, the homilies of Clement of Alexandria, the religious essays of Plutarch, and recent studies of Bronze Age archaeology,” Graves helpfully writes.

Which leads us to Umberto Eco. (Foucault’s Pendulum is both a self-indulgent example and a parody of those learned conspiracy theories, and the need to connect everything into one grand theory.) Baudolino (2000) is perhaps Eco’s most enjoyable novel – part comedy, part historical fantasy about a liar who meets emperors and popes, invents Prester John, and enters the lands that in the mediaeval mind teemed with fabulous monsters. (It also, as J.J. points out, contains a locked room mystery.)

Science fiction and fantasy are not quite my cup of tea; I like some, but generally find fantasy unimaginative (oddly enough), and science fiction too remote. I waded through the first two books of Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy, but was defeated by the third. Science fiction was represented by Becky Chambers’s bland Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014); a couple of James White’s Sector General books; and the first 100 pages of Dune. (Why is science fiction so humourless? I suppose world-building is obsessive, which means, as Mrs. Bradley remarked, a lack of proportion, and hence humour.) I couldn’t get through China Miéville’s ‘New Weird’ Perdido Street Station, which one critic compared to the Wizard of Oz written by the Marquis de Sade. I gave up at the point where the characters wandered round a sewer, after their ears were cut off by a reality-weaving giant spider.

And on *that* note, Happy New Year!

9 thoughts on “2021: A Journal of the Plague Year

  1. Wow! That’s quite a reading, Nick, and more interestingly, it is so diverse. I plan to read Verne and Dumas in the coming year. Have only read abridged versions of their books in my school days. Wishing you a very happy 2022.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet really is very bland, isn’t it? I loved the ideas about language mistranslating across species, and Chambers had clearly put a lot of thought into the various aliens and their cultures…but it all felt like background reading and a plot I could not detect.

    Your wonderfully broad rundown of the year makes me reflect yet again on how narrow my reading has become. I love the mystery novel, and I feel no shame in consuming them so avidly, but, man, I really need to step outside from some fresh air a little more often.

    Happy new year, Nick!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I will indeed be reviving the blog, thanks for asking. Starting New Year’s Day, GMT, everything should be up and running again. Hopefully the wait will be worth it 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

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