We, the Accused by Ernest Raymond

I was given this, along with CS Forester’s early novel Payment Deferred, by Kate McCallum, author of checklists of mystery fiction, published by Copperfield Press. I’ve had my periods of reading vast amounts of the stuff, but not for years of late. Nonetheless, with such a well-informed recommendation, and the books handed to me, I was not going to say no!

Neither of these is a mystery. They are both early examples of sitting behind the shoulder of the murderer, following developments as he does. And partly because of the books’ titles, but also because of the period in which they were written, one knows in broad terms, how they will end. No murderer would have escaped his fate back then. A price had to be paid.

In fact, in the case of We, the Accused, we watch everything, it’s something of a police procedural. It’s incredibly detailed with striking and awful descriptions of what happens after the police get onto it. The chase, the trial, the period of three weeks before he hangs. But it is equally detailed in its description of scenery, neighbours, childhood – the lot. Overall I don’t think Raymond is a good enough writer to do this justice, but, he does it well enough. After a slight irritation early on as yet another tangent started, I got into the zone and found it hard to put down. He’s at his weakest when he is in the shoes of the female and as these are critical points – her agreeing to sex, her deciding to accept that he has murdered and still love him, her salvation at the end – I find none of these convincing. Indeed, the ending involving the stranger who saves her is plain silly.

The bottom line in both of these is that although the murderers knew what they had to do to get away with it, they weren’t able to – they weren’t psychopaths and both their humanness and their humanity let them down.

I might add that my own prejudice is in favour of minimalist, so of the two books, I prefer Payment Deferred. Nonetheless, as Kate urged me, I urge anybody reading this and interested in this sort of writing to pick both of these up, you won’t regret it.

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Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World by Barbara Ehrenreich

I dare say I’m too late to the party on this one to say anything that hasn’t already been said. However….

Of course I  knew all about the delusion of ‘positive thinking’, radiating from independent hucksters and Christian conmen, making a fortune from the scam. But I didn’t realise that the scam reached deep into academia, shysters claiming to be teaching science, aka positive psychology.  And I hadn’t cottoned onto the point that it is a manipulative tool to keep people down in the US, in exactly the same way it has been used in, for example, Soviet society. Optimism is denial of reality. As people lost their jobs en masse, middle-class workers, sacked by CEOs who were themselves entirely removed from the morality of the situation, these ordinary folk were expected to be optimistic about everything.

The level of deception goes so far that it explains breast cancer as an opportunity which some women are lucky to get. Equally, each person thrown into the cold trauma of joblessness in the US, is expected to be positively grateful for the blessing thrown their way. Not only that, but part of the scam is that there is to be no complaining, no regrets, no objective analysis implying others might be at fault for one’s predicament. Everything is one’s own fault. What a horrifying judgment to put on people, and to think that they lapped it up, these moronic sheep constituting the middle part of the US’s economy.  Everything, they were prepared to believe – and still are, as far as I know – is in their heads. It is there that the good and the bad, the winners and losers, the success and failure is engendered. Question nothing except your own thoughts.

It’s just got to make your blood boil, reading a book like this and to think it’s only getting worse. And the worse things get, the further people fall, the more people fall, the more ‘positivity’ is drummed into a servile population’s heads.

Odd  moments of humour, but it’s only ever bitter: how could it be otherwise. Such as, ruminating as to the fact that breast cancer is pretty much tied into with ideas of positivity and pinkness and teddy bears, she asks why it is that men with prostate cancer aren’t given Matchbox Cars as their reward. Good question. I suppose in the servility stakes, women are an even worse case then men.

But mainly just the pain of it all comes through on every page. I’ve been meaning to read Nomadland, which is a case study of how that goes, being positive about whatever happens to you, following ex-executives living in caravans and working in appalling conditions at Amazon warehouses and beet picking. Are they all positive about their experiences? You can bet your last dollar on that. Though if you are down to your last dollar you can’t have been thinking the right way. The positive way. But if you are down to your last dollar, you can bet that it’s an opportunity. Nothin’ like bein’ down to your last dollar. Yes sirree. Once you let it in, there’s no escaping positivity. Things even worse than they were? Then you have to be even more positive. It’s the only escape in a country where escape is part of the carrot put in from of you, somewhere you can’t reach.

I find it all very hard to understand, being a games player. There is no room in that world for delusion. Reality – a dirty word in the US of A – is the only basis for success in games. It isn’t rocket science to extrapolate from that to real life and indeed, that’s Ehrenreich’s plea in this book. She’s begging for the bleeding obvious, that life got to be about reality. But I wonder if she got any converts? At the very least, if she’d been trying, there’d be products for sale. Reality t-shirts and stuff. You’d almost think she doesn’t really care.

 

 

Payment Deferred by CS Forester and The Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw

What a fascinating pair to read back to back. Payment Deferred is a very modern psychological thriller which hooks the reader in from the start: an astonishing work to come up with in the 1920s by a young man at the start of his career.  The Snow Kimono might also be defined as a psychological thriller, as long and meandering as Forester’s is to the point. And, again in contrast, Henshaw’s novel is the first he’d written for 25 years, having a normal career after realising that there would be no money in writing for him.

I suspect that Henshaw is too clever for me. I spent too much time wondering what I was doing. Whereas CS Forester knows exactly what you are doing. Following the journey this simple question takes  you on: will the murderer get away with his deed? And despite – or perhaps because of – the implications of the title, the reader is sort of barracking (in the Australian usage of the word) for the petty man who acts on this big idea.

The Guardian said of Simenon’s books that they

… focus on the tensions that lead a person to an extraordinary act such as murder. Through Maigret, who works primarily from intuition rather than procedural techniques, Simenon explores the psychology of his protagonists. The focus on people and setting is emphasised by the extremely spare language which is a feature of all his work.

The Encyclopedia Britannica (1993) said ‘Simenon’s central theme is the isolated existence of the neurotic, abnormal individual. Employing a style of rigorous simplicity, he evokes a prevailing atmosphere of neurotic tensions with sharp economy.’

This could so easily be a description of Payment Deferred, published five years or so before Simenon’s first non-pulp books. I wonder if that’s a coincidence? Equally the setting, a down-at-heel neighbourhood, a lower middle-class family who are living beyond their means and with nothing much to show for it. And a one-off opportunity. Never for one moment does William Marble think of using his position in the bank to illegally syphon off funds to sort his situation. But when a nephew appears out of the blue with a large amount of money in his pocket, he conceives on the spot a murder. That juxtaposition of moral lines is always fascinating to observe.

From there on things could scarcely have gone better for Marble, but his psychological spiral downwards is inevitable. He isn’t a psychopath, in other words. Just a rather unpleasant, unattractive loser whose wife feeds off his odd kind word and forgives him everything, including the murder when she finally figures it out. And then, despite her best intentions, she is the undoing of him. It’s a really neat story.

The Snow Kimono is full of exquisite description of place, exactly as a Japanese work should be. Overfull when it first went to an editor, I gather, who insisted that some 40K of words be removed. Even then, I don’t know if that decision was harsh enough. But then perhaps there was a danger that it would be trimmed to a point where it became obvious that none of it needed to be there.

I really don’t mean to be rude to the book in saying this. It ran the gauntlet of several dozen rejections before not only being accepted for publication, but also becoming the winner of a prestigious prize, all monies gratefully received. It is beautiful. But the amalgamation of the stories in it were’t adequate for me. What has the Inspector’s life got to do with the story he is meanderingly and episodically told by his odd neighbour? I didn’t feel like any of it fit together properly. I don’t really understand why it couldn’t instead have been a story, more simply and economically related, of the neighbour’s experiences.

Am I being unfair in saying that? I think Henshaw must be a totally amazing person and I’d love to invite him to dinner and fawn over his erratic, episodic literary career which is even more unlikely than the fiction he weaves. But I still didn’t like this novel enough and it’s one of those times where I feel like I’ve let a book down.

I can’t believe Payment Deterred isn’t a celebrated classic and I’m most grateful to Kate McCallum for giving it to me.

 

Florence Taylor’s Hats by Robert Freestone and Bronwyn Hanna

Two pieces of advice: this is a serious academic work, not a light by-the-bed biography. The publishers kindly sent me a review copy upon request.

Most history work consists of revision, reassessment of what’s already there. But occasionally the historian has the opportunity to get their hands dirty, digging into the past in order to find clues, sources (not resources), unprocessed data in the field, which then has to be assembled (not reassembled) into a story. In short, one gets to drop all the ‘re’s. It becomes a task of vision and assessment. After history happens, then it is made, as if by an artist moulding clay or organising colours on a palette. The formidable list of sources reflect the work that’s gone into this book.

It’s all rather exciting and it’s onerous, not least because of the responsibility involved. Getting the interviews right because the chance might never offer itself again. Diaries, letters and the like must be found, guarded and interpreted to take their place in the story. The decisions as to what the world will see and how it will see it are yours. How heartbreaking it must have been to discover that a relative had dumped a lot of Taylor’s own collection of her past.

On top of these general concerns, is one that must have been deeply frustrating and disappointing for the authors. It transpires that the output of the architect is largely ephemeral. I hadn’t really thought about this until recently, reading about the work of Yamasaki. Imagine building the Pruitt–Igoe housing project in St. Louis only to see them demolished not so long after, followed by the demise of the Twin Towers in NY. In the case of Taylor, the authors have almost nothing to show for their attempts to seek out extant examples of her work. Adding to this issue is the practice of the work of underlings being appropriated by their seniors, common in so many fields.

Nonetheless, Taylor was prolific in so many ways that there is much referenced in this book. In her life’s work as publisher in the building industry she has left many publications behind which, surprisingly, have turned out to be less transient than bricks and mortar. She weighed into politics, administration, planning, and behind all her activities is the steady beat of her most consistent belief, that of bettering the situation of women. Even her rightwing politics don’t seem as important as her constant fight for equality of women in the work place and at home. She wanted houses designed for women in surrounds which worked for women, which permitted their lives to be easier, and paid work to be possible. Bravo Taylor!

At the time she pulled out of architecture in 1907, after constant battles against the hostile attitudes of the men who made it theirs, she got married and the start of the publishing empire was the combined effort of Florence and her husband. After he died early, that left decades where Florence did it on her own. They’d had no children because of his epilepsy. In fact, I can’t help wondering if the marriage was unconsummated – not something discussed in the book, but surely the authors must have had their questions about this too. In correspondence, interviews etc, they talk of each other as ‘mates’ in a way that seems curiously asexual and they seem close in a decidedly unromantic way, even though poems are written….

When writing such a book, how to organise it is always a dilemma. In this case the authors have chosen a number of themes. This permits the reader to be rather cursory if they please. In my case, although I was looking forward to the chapter dealing with her ideas about town planning, in fact it became evident that if you didn’t know Sydney and weren’t interested in or knowledgable about its planning, the chapter is heavy going. It is, however, important for it to be there. This is a reference book on many levels, not merely a biography. To have a record of what people were talking about, advocating for, at this level of a city’s development, the ideas which were raised, but not taken up, is imperative for a full understanding of that city. And the point should be made that although she was largely ignored at the level of decision making in Sydney, nonetheless some of her big ideas have come to pass.

Like all powerful people, Taylor was difficult and the authors don’t shirk from this. They regularly quote from the unpublished biography Kerwin Maegraith wrote in collaboration, if not collusion, with Taylor late in her life. It’s a disastrous shmaltzy piece of spin – Maegraith’s fame is as a cartoonist, so this may not be a surprise. Freestone and Hanna have put together, in contrast, a warts and all account of a woman who could feud forever – her vitriolic stand agains the Griffins was really something, the more so as they began as friends – or charm the King and Queen of England, as she did upon meeting them.

Taylor is also hard to write about because she’s all over the place. Her ideas change, her loyalties change, little is constant other than her will which she imposes over all she can. She’s indefatiguable, never says die, simply never stops until her body packs up on her completely and she spends the last years of her life more or less solitary. All this, though, from beginnings which did not augur well for her. She was a self-made person if ever there was one and it’s impossible not to respect her incredible rise in fortune.

This is a real labour of love by Freestone and Hanna, one which thoroughly deserves a place in the history of Australia. Could they have made something which was slightly more accessible whilst still being the highly useful work it is? I’d like to think so. The stars I have awarded it are for the content, not the style.

The Stone of Chastity by Margery Sharp

Folklore expert Professor Pounce is evading a bridge game by hiding in the attic of a friend’s place when he spies a diary which discusses, he discovers, the Stone of Chastity. Set in a brook, it is a test for females. If they can cross without falling as the step on said stone, they have passed.

For an academic it’s a godsend. He decamps to the village in question, with an entourage including his nephew who is to assist him as he finds out more about the stone and sets upon an experiment using the village women to test the veracity of the legend. What could go wrong?

It’s a nice commentary on the self-absorption of academics. Why on earth would these women object to giving him details of their sex life. It’s for science. Won’t cooperate? What a ridiculous idea. Of course they will.

Meanwhile, the nephew is having women troubles of his own.

This came out in 1940 – I expect Sharp had finished it before the war started. It must have been a gentle distraction at the time and as with all her work hasn’t dated. The humour is fresh, the scenarios hilarious. And as always with her books, I find some new aspect of the English language to delight in.

 

 

The Way of the World by William Congreve

It was hard not to have at the back of my mind whilst watching this, the National Theatre’s performance of The Beaux’ Strategem by George Farquar. But how unfair. That vast auditorium at Southbank, the huge budget, a set that was enormous in all directions – how could a play reading with $20 of props and a notional idea of costume in a 200 seat theatre compare?

Being a reading, this production of The Way of the World at the Little Theatre at Adelaide Uni, was far more uncertain than a fullblown production would have been. The cast ranged from what felt like highly professional to young and inexperienced, with the unsurprising result that the roles of the latter did not engage as they presumably should have. Then there is the language, which is a challenge to the audience not because it is particularly difficult, but because we are used to Shakespearean language, whereas Restoration plays are rarely performed. We wondered if we enjoyed the second half more than the first because we were in the zone by then, we’d slipped into the idiom.

Then there is the form of the Restoration comedy as well, with which to contend as the audience. It’s a style which ruled for fifty years up to the early 18th century. It was largely comedic, exceptionally bawdy with the position of women quite changed from the Shakespearean period. It is no coincidence that we see the professional actress for the first time in UK theatre in this period. There are a couple of nice female roles in this play, the standout being Lady Wishfort played by Christine Runnel who gave an exceptional performance.

Harking back to the big budget Beaux’ Strategem, I would love to see a first rate production of The Way of the World. That said, we can only be grateful to the Guild for giving a rare opportunity to see this play in Australia. I suspect it was last performed in 2003 when Miriam Margolyes played Lady Wishfort with the STC. The audience on Saturday night was small, but very appreciative, with much laughter throughout. A better turnout was deserved, but between St Patrick’s Day, the election and the tail end of the Fringe, perhaps no more could be expected.

Breaking Glass: A Novel in Two Parts by John Clanchy

Clanchy, a distinguished short story writer has set himself a challenge with his first novel. The two parts referred to in the subtitle are very different from each other. The first takes the form of a writer, writing his own life as a work of fiction under the guise of it being a ‘friend’s story’. His sister hates it. She has no taste, is all I can say. It’s utterly engaging, and that applies even when he gets into the gross details of his bucks’ night. It isn’t at all easy to make those kinds of scenes work. Another aspect I was particularly taken with is the ease with which he writes about sport, without, let me hasten to say, ever being offputting for the reader whose eyes glaze over at the very word. There’s a hilarious scene with his marriage counsellor, which is no doubt informed by having been in that line of work himself.

The second part of the novel could not be more different from the first. Now death, not life is firmly at the centre of affairs and we are in the present, it is the author speaking of himself, not the author speaking of himself through his ‘friend’. The jump is difficult to pull off and I don’t know if Clanchy really manages it. I would dearly love to be able to talk to another person who has read this. I read some of the second part again, trying to get a better sense of it, but it didn’t really help.

How can it be that I am apparently the only person in the world who has read this novel, by an established Australian writer who has won the odd prize? It’s so very disappointing. Reading has become such an undiversified activity, apparently, that not one person on goodreads has read this. The sum interest in it consists of one person’s to-read-list.

I do hope that changes. He’s a massively underrated writer and with the loss today of Peter Temple, bumping Clanchy up the list of Australian writers would do no harm.