Friday, May 22, 2015

Forgotten Book: SHEIKS AND ADDERS (1982) by Michael Innes


I am very fond of Michael Innes' Inspector Appleby series of mysteries - some entries more than others. I am also very fond of Michael Innes other writings though I've only read a few of the non-Appleby books (of those I HIGHLY recommend FROM LONDON FAR, as far as I'm concerned a rollicking (and brilliant) satire of adventure thrillers). 

All of Innes' writing is drenched with literary bon-mots, some wittier than others, some more obscure than others. Obviously the author assumes you have had at least two or three years reading English Lit. at Oxford or Cambridge. Still, I love the books and to my surprise, I often do know what Innes is talking about. 

Michael Innes, despite (or because of) his literary leanings is, occasionally, given to bouts of story-telling whimsy and the delightful result this time out is SHEIKS AND ADDERS (gotta' LOVE that title!), a froth of a book, moreso because of its relentless fairy tale aspects: imagine Sir John Appleby (retired head of the Metropolitan Police) disguised as Robin Hood and plunked down in the middle of a country fete/masquerade (?) where too many guests are disguised as Arabian sheiks. Imagine that the only reason Appleby is at this fete is because he's overheard a bit of conversation a day or so before and has decided to see what's what. Why? Oh, just because he can.

You know how it goes at these English country fetes - there's ALWAYS a murder. I mean, it's almost de regueur. I don't know about you, but if I lived in England, I'd avoid these annual events like the plague. There's more going on at these seemingly harmless parochial celebrations than just quoits and skittles and 'guess the weight of the cake'.  (You Graham Greene fans will get that one, I hope.)

At Drool Court (the unlikely name of the estate where the fete takes place) Appleby runs across his old friend Tommy Pride, Chief Constable of the area, who has been asked by the foreign office to keep an eye on things. Why? Just in case. In case of what? Pride doesn't know. The foreign office won't reveal details. Being observant, Appleby can't help but notice that Pride is also dressed as Robin Hood. So there you are, two Robin Hoods and a bunch of sheiks wandering around. Confusion to the enemy! Characters in search of a mystery. The fun is just beginning.

Since there is a real sheik mixed in among the phonies, an Emir Hafrait who scorns police protection (it offends his sense of dignity) and wanders about the fete pretty much on his own, can murder be far behind? 

When one of the masquerading sheiks is found with an arrow through his back, the real sheik finally realizes that his enemies mean business. Not wanting to cause a panic, the two representatives (and a few local bobbies) of the law must investigate the case without alerting the crowd to the fact that there is a murderer loose among them.

Despite the well-intentioned obstruction of the quirky (is there any other kind?) family that owns Drool Court, Appleby and Pride will navigate through an entanglement of characters - among them a sinister bunch of chanting Druids hired to perform an ancient rite, a Herpetologist whose collection of snakes must come in handy (well, you knew there had to be snakes somewhere in the plot), a troop of boisterous boy scouts, a drunken hot air balloonist, and a lovely young heroine whose thwarted love life must be straightened out in time for a happy ending. 

Though this Appleby has mostly negative reviews online, I loved it. I love what Appleby is doing here and I suppose that means that I can tolerate whimsy more than most. This is a fun book not really meant to be taken seriously, so if you want to quibble about the nonesensical plot, coincidences that stretch believability and other random incredulities, than just don't read it.

As I said: I loved it. 

The NY Times original review. Obviously they do not like their mysteries loaded with wit and whimsy. This review has a lovely sneering quality to it that made me laugh. Hence its inclusion in my post.

This post is part of the Friday Forgotten Books meme hosted by Patti Abbott at her blog, Pattinase. A meme in which I only occasionally take part because I'm old and doddering and busy with the realities of day-to-day life, some pleasant, some not so.

Link to Michael Innes Fantastic Fiction page which lists all his books.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Forgotten Film: THREE HUSBANDS (1950) starring Ruth Warrick, Eve Arden, Billie Burke and Emlyn Williams


This is one of the stranger movies. It's the sort of thing that purports to be charming and light, with a wink-wink tale to tell about marriage mores but instead it's the sort of movie that makes you cringe and think, 'No. Really?' And yet, I watched the damn thing all the way through, enthralled by an eerie fascination.

A point:

The screenplay by Vera Caspary (of LAURA film noir fame) is based on her own story, so she's the one to blame for the lame dialogue and disconcerting plot.

The set-up:

Maxwell Bard (Emlyn Williams), a very English bon-vivant Manhattan playboy is on his way to heaven (one presumes) having just recently dropped dead of a heart attack. But before he can settle in he has a jest for the powers that be (concealed in the clouds) - an odd jest considering the celestial audience, I'd have thought. But at any rate, Max has a joke to share.

You see he's left behind a letter to three hubbies. (Remember A LETTER TO THREE WIVES? Ha. Ha. No. This ain't it.) In this letter he's confessed to an affair with the three hubbies' wives - one affair at a time, that is. Are you laughing yet? He wants to sit back and see what happens next to the three couples he's left behind, once the tell-tale letters are handed over to each husband by the executor of Max's will.

The joke is: the letters aren't true. 

Now why this malicious act would be found funny by anyone is beyond me. But why it would be found funny by angels at the portals of heaven is even more beyond me. I'm extrapolating about the 'angels at the portals of heaven' thing since we only hear the celestial voices we don't actually see 'em.
And of course they're all male - members of some exclusive club one supposes.

So that's the set-up.

Down on earth, among the living here's what's happening:

Hubby Number One: Arthur Evans (Shepherd Strudwick, remembered by his oddly waved hair) reads the letter first and is thrown for a loop. Surely his oh-so-devoted wife Jane (Ruth Warrick who played the young, unhappy wife in CITIZEN KANE and went on to become the grand dame of daytime TV in ALL MY CHILDREN) would NEVER cheat on him. Never. But what is he to make of this incriminating letter from a dead friend? He arrives home in a huff.

The fact that old Arthur is currently having an affair with a young model doesn't make him stop and do a little soul searching - not at all. That's a different matter all together. As we all know, men will be men. Are we laughing yet?

Hubby Number Two: Kenneth Whittaker (Robert Karnes) fumes when he thinks that his wife, Mary (Vanessa Brown) who was Max Bard's private nurse (he'd had previous milder heart attacks and needed care) might have also been dallying with her patient. Not that I would blame her, married to this dull dotard.

Hubby Number Three: Dan McCabe (the feisty Howard Da Silva who normally played thugs and whanot and seems miscast in this movie) laughs off the thing as a joke since he can't imagine his wife Lucille (the usually wonderful Eve Arden who has nothing to do in this movie - her lines don't sparkle in the slightest) mixed up in an affair with anyone. Naturally this attitude rankles Lucille a bit when she discovers the source of hubby's amusement.

None of these actors except Emlyn Williams (who seems to have wandered in from another movie) has any idea how to deliver a humorous line (or maybe it's that there is very little humor to be delivered in this rancid screenplay) and that includes Eve Arden who really does know but obviously forgot how to this time out.

So why am I bothering to talk about THREE HUSBANDS at all? Well, you may ask. And here's my answer: Emlyn Williams.

Though it is very hard to imagine any universe in which all these people would actually be friends, Williams is so British, and so delightful in his role of play-boy (even if his 'playing' seems entirely harmless) that when he's on screen, everything else is forgiven. Almost. But it's just that he seems to be having so much fun.

The truth is that Williams' character appears - to me, at least - to be so obviously gay that at no time are these three wives (or any other) in any danger of being seduced - at least not by dear fun-loving Max. He's the accommodating escort who steps in when his married lady friends need accompanying to any event (i.e. museums, art galleries, concerts and the like) which doesn't interest their inattentive husbands.

But no matter how much fun they appear to be having with Max, it's the hubbies who command love and respect (even if undeserved). This is the 50's, remember.

But after Max's untimely death, the letters are delivered and three marriages are suddenly on the line. Are we laughing yet?

The story is told in flashbacks as we get to see Max living it up and interacting with all three wives. And really, one wonders what Max actually finds in these women to entertain him other than the fact that they are unavailable. His attractions are more easily understood. Emlyn Williams plays Max as a charming roue and of course any woman worth her salt would rather be in his company than that of any one of the three stodges - an unintended consequence of the casting.

The ending is not unexpected, even down to the reading aloud of yet another letter left by Max rounding off things in the nick of time and giving the wives their due. Sort of. Hint: Max would appear to see himself as marriage counselor to his friends.

In the history of male/female relationships, the 1950's were not a decade of enlightenment.

THREE HUSBANDS is available for viewing online at youtube - here. Take a look. Maybe you'll enjoy it on a different level than I did.


Coming up later: Don't forget to check out Todd Mason's weekly Forgotten Films, Television or Other Audio/Visuals meme usually seen every Tuesday at his blog, Sweet Freedom.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday Salon: HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY - Celebrating with the work of Montana artist/illustrator and cartoonist Fanny Y. Cory


I've loved these illustrations of motherhood (as it was once upon a time) since I stumbled over them online a few years ago. They are the work of Montana illustrator Fanny Y. Cony (1877 - 1972). They are a delight.

So, since today is Mother's Day, here they are to wish all you mamas out there the VERY HAPPIEST DAY.


The illustrations are from THE PLEASANT TRAGEDIES OF CHILDHOOD by Burges Johnson, illustrated by Fanny Y. Cory. The book and all the rest of the illustrations can be seen and read online at the above link.







Montana artist/illustrator and cartoonist Fanny Y. Cory (1877 - 1972)

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Forgotten Film: TWO O'CLOCK COURAGE (1945) starring Tom Conway and Ann Rutherford


...though the soon to be more famous Jane Greer (here listed as BetteJane Greer) is occasionally listed as co-star. But in her lesser role as a dissipated femme fatale, Greer is simply, laughably awful - cannot play drunk to save her life. At any rate, Ann Rutherford is the real co-star, she plays a spunky cab-driver who teams up with the hero, Tom Conway - an amnesiac with blood on his forehead - who, as things turn out, is wanted by the cops. No big surprise there since almost every amnesiac that ever stumbled around a dark street is always wanted by the cops in every movie anyone ever saw. What would be the point otherwise?

Ann Rutherford is the perky cabbie with gumption.

The surprise, I suppose, is that TWO O'CLOCK COURAGE is a fun way to spend 90 or so minutes on any afternoon or evening when you have nothing better to do. And to do it best, Elizabeth Foxwell over at The Bunburyist has the link to the full movie now running on youtube. That's how I linked up to watch a movie I thought I'd never heard of before - the initial attraction: Tom Conway. I am a big fan of Tom Conway, mostly as the Falcon, crime sleuth extraordinaire. I can remember many after-school afternoons and evenings spent watching the Falcon solving crimes and being suave or being suave and solving crimes, either/or - after taking the role over from his real-life, equally suave brother, George Sanders. And oh, by the way, who can forget Conway's oh-so-smarmy psychiatrist in CAT PEOPLE. I mean the guy set the 'science' of psychiatry back by at least a full century.

Tom Conway in a very dreamy still.

In TWO O'CLOCK COURAGE, our hero, Mr. X, is first seen stumbling along a dark and shadowy street with no idea who he is or where he is. Soon he is picked up by a cabbie, Anne Rutherford as Patty Mitchell, who at first assumes him to be drunk - she almost hits him with her cab. Until she notices the blood on his forehead and realizes he is hurt. So of course she then decides to tag along as her suave and handsome passenger tries to find out who he is and what he's done and oh by the way, who tagged him on the head.

Ow! That hurts.

The movie seems to take place all in one evening and events move along at a snappy pace as our two intrepid sleuths jump from peril to peril into a case of murder involving a bunch of seamy theater people. Alongside bumbling cops and a loud-mouthed reporter reeling from clue to clue, it's not long before everyone is bunched together for the big denouement scene. In the forties, the cops were often seen as dopes and just to prove it, here, they allow a reporter (!?) to tag along on the case, ostensibly to help solve it. Yes, really.

Not much money went into this production as is soon evident in the night club set and in the apartment of a supposedly well-off playwright who in a scene wears one of those at home smoking jackets that men used to wear in the movies once upon a time. It's a hoot. Right away he comes under suspicion, I mean, THAT robe, that sneer, that pencil-thin mustache. Oh wait, Tom Conway has one too. But on him, it works.

Uh-oh.

TWO O'CLOCK COURAGE is a not-too-taxing tale of plagiarism, jealousy and murder with a nicely hokey happily ever after in the end for our detecting duo. Ann Rutherford is a delight and Tom Conway doesn't deserve her. Hopefully, he'll find a way to live up to her devotion and general spunkiness. Love at first sight here, ladies and gents.

I've just realized (or maybe I already knew it and just forgot) that Dorian over at her blog, TALES OF THE EASILY DISTRACTED also reviewed this film (in 2014) in her own inimitable way. And lo and behold, Sergio over at TIPPING MY FEDORA also reviewed it way back when in 2012. So this is turning out to be the most reviewed B-movie in the history of movies. What can I say, great minds and all that.

Todd Mason's blog Sweet Freedom is the usual weekly home for Forgotten and Overlooked Films and other Audio/Visual whatnot. Check out the link.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Saturday Salon: And now for something a little different -The 'Tattooed' ladies and gents of Mimi Kirchner.














Mimi Kirchner makes dolls that make me smile and make me swoon. I just love them. One doll would never be enough. I'd want to own them ALL! If I could I'd add a room to my house: The Mimi Kirchner Room, and use it to display all of Mimi's beauties. THAT'S how much I love her work.


Photo: Sarah Deragon

Mimi Kirchner is a Boston-based contemporary artist/craftswoman. She has a BFA from Carnegie-Mellon University and talks here in a short email conversation from 2004, on why she began making dolls. 

Dolls that delight, dolls that are ever so slightly mysterious, dolls that obviously have stories to tell. 

Mimi's charming creations have a huge presence online, her work is easy enough to find and purchase - link here to her Etsy shop. (Availability varies as do the dolls.) She also teaches classes when she has a moment or two.

Also check out Mimi's foxy Fox dolls. SO delightful. (Note the little binoculars.)



...and her Fat Ladies. SO oddly comforting.


Note the expression on this red-headed beauty. Strikes me as an end of a long day day glance. Not one to suffer fools gladly? 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Book Review: HOLIDAY HOMICIDE(1940) by Rufus King. A tale with an oddly familiar detective duo.



Actually this is a pastiche seemingly based on our favorite Manhattan-centric detectives, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. The one and only such endeavor of this sort ever read by yours truly.

In Rufus King's New Year's Day murder mystery (I was going to wait until the end of the year to review it, but then gave in to wild impulse) we're introduced to a decidedly eccentric detective named Cotton Moon who is in possession of brilliance, a huge ego and a cohort/assistant named Bert Stanley - an ex-bartender who takes dictation and narrates this slightly improbable tale:

'A nut, if you care to believe it, was the first reason for Cotton Moon getting mixed up on New Year's morning with the homicide in which Myron Jettwick, that prize real-estate operator and heel, starred as the corpse.

The second reason was money; the pay-off being old Miss Emma Jettwick's check for thirty thousand dollars. Moon banked it after her brother's murderer was well on his way toward what an Englishman, who came in on the homestretch of the case down in Tortugas, called "the heated chair."

Cotton Moon's fees have always come high. They've got to, if he's to stay in that state in which he has decided to keep himself. Also if he wants to go plowing about the seven seas on his boat Coquilla in search of rare nuts to add to his collection, and sometimes to eat. You cannot push one hundred and fifty feet of expensive steel and a crew of eighteen men about in the water on charity...

The nut which started off the business on New Year's morning was not a peanut or a chestnut which, according to Moon, are like having grits for breakfast instead of one of Walter's omelets. Walter is Coquilla's cook and was absorbed by Moon, among other things, in Madagascar.  The nut was a sapucaia nut, and it hit Moon on the forehead as we were standing on Coquilla's aft-deck and greeting the first morning of the year through a seven o'clock murk and snow which were tenting New York City's East River.'

So there you have it: first person narration by a smarty-pants (though Bert is no Archie Goodwin) second in command, huge fees, eccentric nut collecting (instead of orchids), a boat (substitute the brownstone and you have the idea) on which the high fees are spent AND, last but not least, a private cook, this time named Walter (instead of Fritz).

So what are we to make of all this?

If you're familiar with the Nero Wolfe stories you may enjoy making the comparison - I did. If you're not familiar with the Wolfe books then you'll just read this as a fun mystery with screwy overtones. I mean, who collects rare nuts? (Please, no emails if you are a rare nut collector and I have inadvertently maligned you. All in good fun, I assure you. Some of my best friends are nuts.)

Still, this is a lively, amusing tale which begins when Bruce Jettwick, a young radio crooner, attracts famed detective Cotton Moon's interest by bouncing a nut off Moon's head on New Year's Day - their two boats are docked side by side in New York harbor. See diagram below:


I love mapbacks!

While the city celebrates the beginning of a new year, murder most foul has taken place on Trade Winds, the boat belonging to Bruce's step-father, Myron Jettwick, whose body Bruce has just discovered. Fearing he'll be suspected of the murder, Bruce turns to Moon for help and Bruce's aunt Emma steps in with the check covering Moon's hefty thirty thousand dollar fee.

An improbable tale, not laugh out loud funny but engaging enough and not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

I've become a big fan of Rufus King having read and reviewed his work before. I'm hoping, little by little, to get my hands on more of his books, if I can find them at reasonable prices. My library is hopeless when it comes to these fine old vintage reads.

By the way, mystery maven TracyK also reviewed HOLIDAY HOMICIDE at her Bitter Tea and Mystery blog - the link. Although she posted her review at the more appropriate time.

Friday, April 10, 2015

One or Two of the Many Reasons Why I Love Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Books


In CHAMPAGNE FOR ONE (1958) Archie Goodwin states:

'If, to the pass the time, you tried to decide what was the most conceited statement you ever heard anybody make, or read or heard of anybody making, what would you pick? The other evening a friend of mine brought it up, and she settled for Louis XIV saying L'etat, c'est moi. I didn't have to go so far back. Mine, I told her, was "They know me." Of course, she wanted to know who said it and when, and since the murderer of Faith Usher had been convicted by a jury just the day before and the matter was closed, I told her.

Wolfe said it that Friday night when I got home and reported. When I finished I made a comment. "You know," I said, "it's pretty damn silly. A police commissioner and a district attorney and an inspector of Homicide all biting nails just because if they say suicide one obscure citizen may let out a squeak."


"They know me," Wolfe said.


Beat that if you can. I admit it was justified by the record. They did know him. What if they officially called it a suicide, and then, in a day or a week or a month, Wolfe phoned WA 9-8241 to tell them to come and get the murderer and the evidence? Not that they were sure that would happen, but past experience had shown them that it was at least an even-money bet that it might happen. My point is not that it wasn't justified, but that it would have been more becoming just to describe the situation.


He saved his breath. He said, "They know me," and picked up his book.'


                                                      *******************

More of Nero Wolfe's admirable conceit, from THE RED BOX, (1937):

"But I haven't got ten thousand dollars, not this minute. I think I could have it in a week. But even if I did, my God, just for a couple of hours' work - "

"It is not the work." Wolfe wiggled a finger at him. "It is simply that I will not allow my self-conceit to be bruised by the sort of handling you are trying to give it. It is true that I hire out my abilities for money, but I assure you that I am not to be regarded as a mere peddler of gewgaws or tricks. I am an artist or nothing. Would you commission Matisse to do a painting, and, when he had scribbled his first rough sketch, snatch it from him and crumple it up and tell him, "That's enough, how much do I owe you?" No, you wouldn't do that. You think the comparison is fanciful? I don't. Every artist has his own conceit. I have mine. I know you are young, and your training has left vacant lots in your brain; you don't realize how offensively you have acted." 

                                                       ******************

Most days at lunch, I re-read my favorites from my stash of Nero Wolfe paperbacks. I am thankful that I had the prescience to buy as many as I could from a friend's soon-to-close bookstore, years ago. They books show wear and tear, but that's the price of affection. This daily ritual began for me a couple of years ago and I'll continue it - on and off - until I tire of the books - which will be: never.
                                                       
 I do agree with Lena Horne (yes, THAT Lena Horne) in her introduction to my paperback edition of CHAMPAGNE FOR ONE:

'And, of course, there was Archie Goodwin, Nero's legman. Archie had superior wit, a deadpan style, and a deceptively 'unrequiteted' love life. Archie had depth - and he had New York. It was the New York that I missed whenever I was somewhere else. Archie knew the city streets and avenues: brownstones in the West Thirties, bars and grills on Eighth Avenue, coffee shops on Lexington, the Village. He took the subway and buses and taxis; he read the Sunday New York Times. I could picture it all. It satisfied all sorts of homesickness. When I reread Nero Wolfe now, I can see that old beloved New York, and I still miss it...'

Me too, Miss Horne, me too.

New York in the 50's. My hometown.

Just as a fresh reminder, my Five Favorite Nero Wolfe books - at the moment:

MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD (1956)
THE DOORBELL RANG (1965)
PLOT IT YOURSELF (1959)
MURDER BY THE BOOK (1951)
THE RUBBER BAND (1936)

A complete list of all the Wolfe books at The Wolfpack.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Saturday Salon, Spring Has Sprung: Flowers in Paint

French painter Edouard Vuillard, 1906. (1868 - 1940)


Swiss painter Cuno Amiet (1868 - 1961)


British painter Mary Fedden (1915 - 2012)


Contemporary Ukranian painter Yana Movchan - Flowers in the style of the Dutch Masters


French painter Henri Lebasque (1865 - 1937) - source


Belgian painter Leon de Smet (1881 - 1966) - source




French painter/illustrator/print-maker, Henri-Claudius Forestier (1874 - 1922)


British painter Duncan Grant (1885 - 1978) - source



Since it's Spring, nominally and otherwise, it's time for a few flower paintings by some favorite artists. In a couple of weeks, it will be time to make the annual pilgrimage to the local gardening centers and/or road-side flower stands - though perhaps this year that delight might have to be postponed until the weather feels fit to cooperate more fully - and load up on flats of young plants heralding the joy and style of the season.

British illustrator/designer Racey Helps - source

So Happy Easter and Passover everyone, hopefully we'll all get to spend some time with family and friends and may the bunny leave some chocolate under your pillow. (Well, maybe not directly under your pillow. The kitchen counter is good too. Or the dining table. Or the desk. Or tucked on a handy book shelf. Or in the mailbox. Or...well, you get my drift.)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Pursuit of Happiness - English Style: the Barsetshire novels of Angela Thirkell

'Summer in Cumberland ' - British painter James Durden (1903 - 1993)

In between vintage mysteries as they arrive on my doorstep or on my new Kindle, I've discovered the delights of the very elegant British writer Angela Thirkell (1890 - 1961). Though Thirkell is considered by some as a 'minor' writer, in my view, she has the slyness and grasp of language of a Jane Austen had Austen lived and written in more modern times. (I must say that Thirkell often makes me laugh out loud and Austen, though very wise, makes me smile and shake my head in recognition but rarely makes me scare the dog with jollified outbursts.)

Thirkell's books are the sort of thing in which nothing much happens except the major and minor exigencies of day to day life, but still, you can't stop reading. Most of her books are set in the fictional county of Barsetshire (much earlier created by the 19th century author, Anthony Trollope) and the stories are all about the countrified life of the British upper classes before, during and after WWII. Every relevant and not-so-relevant thing is seen through a slightly jaundiced eye and described with the author's decidedly wicked wit and most of the books end in the happy embracement of a fortuitous marriage or, at the very least, a providential engagement or two.

At this stage of life, a battered old cynic (like me) really does value a happy ending here and there. But I love it when there is no attendant goopiness to gum up the works - Thirkell eschews goopiness. Her style may hide a hint of cold glitter beneath the surface, but it's up to the reader, I think, to decide just how much of it to unearth.

Thirkell's keen enthusiasm for a Britain that is no more and her casual indulgence of the eccentricities of the British upper (and lower) classes doesn't negate the occasional pointlessness of it. It is pertinent to remember, though, that these are among the sorts of people who kept German bombers at bay in the early part of WWII, did their duty, lived and died and loved their king and country.

A small bit of author bio: Angela Thirkell was the granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, daughter of a Scottish Classical Scholar and Oxford Professor of Poetry and through her mother (daughter of the painter) was also distantly related to Rudyard Kipling and P.M. Stanley Baldwin - according to Wikipedia.

Though some would suppose you ought to read the Barsetshire books in order, I haven't, and yet I'm enjoying every moment spent among the sorts of people whom I very much enjoy encountering in fiction. Such is Angela Thirkell's brilliant finesse that all snobbery is forgotten and forgiven. And the charm, oh the wonderful British charm - maybe in place to make up for the usually odious English summer weather which necessitates the warmth of blazing fireplaces in July and the fortification of copious cups of afternoon tea. But even on those rare occasions when the sun shines, tea and scones are never far away.

I've read nine of Thirkell's Barsetshire books so far, and can only think I found them at just the right time in my life.

Now rather than talk about any one specific book, I'll just quote (at length) from a favorite, AUGUST FOLLY (but Yvette, isn't that the same thing?), which will I hope, give you some idea of Thirkell's style, wit and charm.

I'm also including a link to a comprehensive list all of Angela Thirkell's books and also a page of book summaries, both provided by The Angela Thirkell Society of North America, a terrific place to go to find out more about Thirkell and her work.

"The little village of Worsted, some sixty miles west of London, is still, owing to the very defective railway system which hardly attempts to serve it, to a great extent unspoilt. To reach it you must change at Winter Overcotes where two railway lines cross.

Alighting from the London train on the high level, you go down a dank flight of steps to the low level. Heavy luggage and merchandise are transferred from the high to the low level by being hurled or rolled down the steps. From time to time a package breaks loose, goes too far, and trundles over the edge of the platform on to the line, but there is usually a porter about to climb down and collect it. 

When your train comes backwards into the station, often assisted for the last few yards by a large grey horse and its friends and hangers-on, you may take your seat in a carriage which has never known the hand of change since it left the railways shops in 1887. If it is market day at Winter Overcotes your carriage will gradually fill with elderly women, carrying bags and baskets, who prefer the train to the more expensive motor-bus, children with season tickets coming back from school, and one or two old men who still wear a fringe of whisker... 

...The line meanders, in the way that makes an old railway so much more romantic than a new motor highway, among meadows, between hills, over level crossings. At Winter Underclose, Lambton and Fleece, the train stops to allow the passengers to extricate themselves and their baskets from its narrow doors. It then crosses the little river Woolram and enters a wide valley, the further end of which is apparently blocked by a hill. 

Just under the hill is Worsted, where you get out. The valley is not really impassable, for a few hundred yards beyond the station the train enters the famous Worsted tunnel, whose brutal and unsolved murders have been the pride of the district since 1892.

The line is staffed and controlled by three local dynasties; Margetts, Pattens and Polletts. If a Margett is station-master, you may be sure that there is a Patten in the goods yard, or on the platform. If a Patten is engine-driver, his fireman can hardly avoid being a Pollett. If there is a Pollett in the signal-box, there will be a Margett to open the gates of the level crossing and warn the signalman that a train is coming. All three families are deeply intermarried.

Mr. Patten is the station-master at Worsted. His head porter is Bert Margett, son of Mr. Margett the builder, and his nephew, Ed Pollett, whose father keeps the village shop, is in the lamp-room, and gives such extra help as zeal, unsupported by intellect, can afford. He also has a genius for handling cars. 

The inconvenience of the hours of running is made up for by the kindness of the staff. They will hold up a train for any reasonable length of time if old Bill Patten, cousin of the station-master and father of the second gardener at the Manor House, is seen tottering towards the station half a mile away; or young Alf Margett, Bert's younger brother, from the shop, has forgotten one of the parcels he should have brought on his handlebars, and has to go back to fetch it. Since no trains can proceed until their various drivers have exchanged uncouth tokens of metal, like pot-hooks and hangers, or gigantic nose and ear-rings to be bartered with savage tribes for diamonds and gold, there is no danger.

Most of the land hereabouts is owned by Mr. Palmer, whose property, bounded on the north by the Woolram, runs south nearly as far as Skeyne, the next station down the line. East and west are Penfold and Skeynes Agnes, where there is a fine Saxon church. Mr. Palmer is a J.P., an excellent landlord, and owner of a very fine herd of cows which supply Grade A milk, at prices fixed by the Milk Marketing Board. His wife, in virtue of her husband's position and her own masterful personality, has taken the position of female Squire.

Of other gentry there are few in the immediate neighbourhood. Lady Bond at Staple Park does not count, because she and Mrs. Palmer have not for some time been on speaking terms. There are also the Tebbens, who live at Lamb's Piece, near the wood above the railway. 

At the moment when our story opens, on a warm June morning last summer, Mrs. Tebbens was in her drawing-room, reviewing a book on economics. Happening to raise her eyes to the window, she saw Mrs. Palmer opening the garden gate, so she went to warn her husband."

AUGUST FOLLY, 1936 - by Angela Thirkell

Once I'd read this far, resting comfortably in bed, snuggled under the covers with Rocky at my side, I had no choice but to stay up all that night and read the rest of the book, occasionally laughing out loud and enjoying myself enormously.

I suppose you have to have a bent for this sort of deliciously meandering writing to enjoy it as much as I do, but for those of us who do, Angela Thirkell's books are a gold mine. Put everything aside and go find some.

Need more convincing? Link to this 2008 Angela Thirkell opinion piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the NY Times.

P.S. And yes, I am bound to begin reading Anthony Trollope this year.

'On the Balcony' by James Durden. Another painting I think shows the Thirkell style.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The 'Rivers of London' novels by Ben Aaronovitch - Urban fantasy at its lively best.


Something about this series caught my eye somewhere, somehow, and you know how that goes. My local library only had one book available - NOT the first in the series - so I ordered the first, RIVERS OF LONDON (aka MIDNIGHT RIOT), online, read that, then jumped to next to last, the very excellent BROKEN HOMES, which was the one and only title the library had, and then I was on to the almost as equally excellent FOXGLOVE SUMMER  which is the latest book and not the second or the third. Luckily, I'm not anal about reading things in order - except sometimes.

I'm pleased to say that this is a series that just gets better and better and that's not easy to do when I remind myself how absurdly high-concept the first book, RIVERS OF LONDON, actually was. Not an easy act to follow, by any means. This is a hellish brew of CSI, police procedural and Harry Potter, all set in a gritty modern day London and its environs. Lots of gory doings when you involve practitioners of magic, spells and general witch-craftery with the Metropolitan police and even, tiny as the department may be, within the actual police force, since crimes involving skulduggery of the magical sort must, of course, be handled by specialists.

Very understandably, it takes a wizard to catch a wizard - but don't get us started on fairies, unicorns and werewolves, not to mention the gods and goddesses of the River Thames. And no, here they are not, in general, the sugary benign (well, except for the werewolves) creatures we're used to reading about in other venues.

Enter our dynamic duo: the very enigmatic Inspector Nightingale, he of the mysterious background, a cop/wizard who's been around since before WWII and is not necessarily showing his age and his current apprentice (the first in fifty years), the laconic constable Peter Grant who discovers, one night, while out on patrol, that he can see dead people. That is, the specters of the dead.

Needless to say, Grant is immediately recruited by Nightingale - who happens to be lurking about - as a trainee wizard in an adjutant section of the Metropolitan Police Force so secret that most don't know it exists and is only reluctantly called into action when supernatural forces are suspected at a crime scene. (Wouldn't you love to see the guys who bring us Law and Order tackle this one? Bom. Bom.)

This is a London (with occasional trips to the countryside, as in FOXGLOVE SUMMER) not so beloved by tourists, the London of grisly doings, bad traffic and blood-thirsty specters of the night.

In the hands of a less talented writer than Ben Aaronovitch this might have been just another fantasy pastiche, but this guy really knows how to write, seems to know how the police force actually works and better yet, he KNOWS the highways and byways of London - so we have plenty of gritty verisimilitude. It's the kind of deal where while you're reading you're believing that this sort of thing actually exists. Wizard cops, I mean. It all makes some kind of loony sense. Suspension of disbelief. You know how much we love when that happens smoothly and naturally.

Plus the tales are told in first person narration, which I also love. Especially when the narrator, in this instance, the young and often bemused cop/wizard-in-training, Peter Grant, is such a delightful person to spend time with. He is an engaging combo of laid-back cynical with a dash of stalwart and the occasional flash of sleuthing brilliance. Plus, it's interesting to have a hero who is of mixed race (his mother is from Senegal), especially in stories set in London and thereabouts.

All in all, a terrific series well worth your time even if you normally aren't fascinated by this sort of thing which I generally am not. Except when it's this well done.

Warning: There are, here and there, some rather gruesome crimes involved, so take heed. But if I didn't succumb to the vapors, neither should you. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Saturday Salon: An Honest Day's Work

'Pot of Tea and Ice Cream ' - American illustrator  Edmund Marion Ashe (1867 - 1941)


'The Postman' 1931 - British painter Alan Sorrell (1904 - 1974)


Part of Riker's Island Mural 1937 - American painter Harold Lehman ( 1913 - 2006)


'Fireman with Hat', 1992 - Contemporary American painter Steven Assael


'The Manicurist' - French painter and caricaturist, Albert Guillaume (1873 - 1942)


'The Dentist' 1934 - Irish painter Sir John Lavery (1856 - 1941)


'The Piano Tuner' - American painter/illustrator Norman Rockwell (1894 - 1978)


'Valencia Fisherwomen' - Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863 - 1923)


'The Maid' - Australian painter George W. Lambert (1873 - 1930)


 
'The Concerto' 1935 - British painter and print maker Cyril Power (1872 - 1951)


'Late Night DJ' - American painter Ernie Barnes (1938 - 2009)


'St. Just Tin Miners' 1935 - British painter Harold Harvey (1874 - 1941)




'Autumn' - American painter Thomas Hart Benton (1889 - 1975)


French painter Edouard Joseph Dantan (1848 - 1897)


'Covent Garden' - Scottish painter William Bruce Ellis Rankin (1881 - 1941)


'Builders' - Contemporary American painter Steven Huston


'Official Rat Catcher to the city of Birmingham' 1927 - British painter Arthur Charles Shorthouse (1870 - 1953)




Study for 'Last Load of the Day' - American contemporary painter Steve Huston


Daily toil. A prime subject for artists - the perceived nobility of workers in their chosen (or in many cases, not so chosen) professions, trades, occupations, craft, jobs.

 These are some of my favorites by painters and illustrators you may or may not be familiar with.

"Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short, for a sort of life instead of a Monday through Friday sort of dying." - Studs Terkel