Thursday, 27 April 2017

Review: Retalio by Alison Morton

I have had the good fortune to review all three of Alison Morton's books featuring Aurelia Mitela and Retalio is a magnificent conclusion to a superb trilogy.

Retalio is the latest in Alison Morton’s alternative history novels, based on the premise that the Roman Empire never totally disappeared but continued as a small but prosperous and influential country called Roma Nova. The country is ruled by twelve houses, all of which are led by women, and adheres to the traditions of a proud and stoical past.
Retalio is set in the 1980s. It is the sixth in the series about Roma Nova and the third in the trilogy that features Aurelia Mitela, head of one of the most powerful houses in Roma Nova. For many years Aurelia has countered the evil deeds of Caius Tellus, a Roma Novan nobleman, who is unscrupulous in his pursuit of power and determined to revenge himself on Aurelia for thwarting his criminal enterprises. A weak Empress has allowed Caius to overthrow the legitimate government, and he has taken power, murdering or sending to labour camps all who stood in his way or offended him and relegating women to staying at home or working in menial jobs.
At the start of this book, Aurelia has managed to escape from Caius and was smuggled out of Roma Nova but she was badly wounded and takes some time to recover. Even living quietly in Vienna with her partner, Miklos, her life is in danger from Caius’ hired assassins. A small number of Roma Novan refugees are scraping a living in Vienna but Caius’ evil manipulations have polluted Aurelia’s reputation and they shun her. Aurelia knows that she must regain their trust and her old position as a leader of the Roma Novan community if she is to have any chance of defeating Caius, bringing the new, young Empress to power and restoring order and prosperity to the country she loves.
Retalio is a stunning book, fast moving and yet detailed. The alternative history scenario that Alison Morton creates is totally convincing and terrifyingly plausible in the light of political events in the past and present. Her knowledge of politics and military strategy is awe-inspiring and yet is displayed with a light touch. Aurelia is a superb heroine. A soldier and a diplomat, she is powerful and yet compassionate, strong and yet vulnerable. She loves her family and Miklos and is loved in return, but true to her Roman upbringing, her deepest loyalty is to her country and she is willing to sacrifice her own happiness for its well-being.
Retalio is a page-turner and I recommend it wholeheartedly. However, if possible, I would also recommend the whole experience by reading the first two books in the trilogy, Aurelia and Insurrectio first.


Sunday, 23 April 2017

Review: Elementary Murder by A.J. Wright

Elementary Murder (A Lancashire Detective Mystery) by [Wright, AJ]

I enjoy historical fiction and have a special interest in crime novels set in Victorian times. This book is excellent. It feels authentic and it's centred around ordinary, working class people. Not an easy read but a compelling one.

Elementary Murder is set in 1894 and centres around George Street Elementary School, a school in one of the poorer, manufacturing districts of Wigan. Many of the pupils and their parents resent that the children are obliged to stay in school until they are twelve, rather than going out to work to augment the family income. The headmaster, Richard Weston, is a harsh disciplinarian and when Dorothea Gadsworth, a young woman who is being interviewed for a teaching post, faints in the staffroom, he informs her that she is unfit for the position and is rejected. Nothing more is heard of Dorothea over the weekend but, on the Monday following this unsuccessful interview, Dorothea is found dead in a classroom of the school. She has drunk poison and beside her lies a note with the single word, ‘Failed.’ At first it seems that the officials in charge will accept that Dorothea committed suicide, but Detective Sergeant Michael Brennan is not convinced that Dorothea died by her own hand, and, as he pursues his investigation, another death connected with the school confirms this.
As Brennan struggles to unravel the circumstances surrounding Dorothea’s strange and cruel death it becomes clear that her murder has its roots in a tragic accident fifteen years earlier when Dorothea was a child. As more assaults and attempted murders occur, it is discovered that a pupil at the school has gone missing and has not been seen since the Friday of Dorothea’s death. Brennan is under increasing pressure to discover the truth that links the past and the present before the killer strikes again.
Elementary Murder is a fascinating book, showing the harsh realities of life in an industrial town during the late Victorian period, and the impoverished, hand-to-mouth lives of the people who live and work there. It describes a culture in which violence is a commonplace occurrence and most working people place no value on education and have no faith in the authorities. Michael Brennan is a thoroughly likeable protagonist, honest, hard-working and devoted to his wife and young son. Throughout the book the characterisation is excellent, the plot is clever and intricately interwoven and the period detail is superb.
I would describe Elementary Murder as a page-turner and thoroughly recommend it.

Published by Allison & Busby
ISBN: 978-0-7490-1949-5

Friday, 14 April 2017

Review: Insurrectio by Alison Morton

This is my review of the second book in Alison Morton's stunning trilogy.
Product Details

The premise behind these books is one of alternative history where the Roman Empire survived as an influential colony. Unlike the surrounding countries, Roma Nova has never fallen under patriarchal rule and is governed by female heads of the foremost houses who advise the over-all ruler, the Imperatrix. The first book featuring Aurelia Mitela is set in the 1960s. Aurelia is a young woman who loves her career as a Praetorian officer but she has to leave the army when her mother, the Head of the Mitela family, falls ill and dies. However Aurelia is called upon to serve her country by investigating the silver smuggling ring that is severely damaging Roma Nova's finances and political standing. At great danger to herself and her young daughter, Aurelia succeeds in defeating the man behind the smuggling. Caius Tellus is a member of another of Roma Nova's ruling families, a charming but vicious psychopath, whom Aurelia has hated and feared since childhood.
Insurrectio opens thirteen years after the conclusion of the story told in the first book. Aurelia is now Assistant Foreign Minister, continually striving to keep her promise to the last Imperatrix and guide and protect her daughter, the weak and foolish Imperatrix Severina, a woman swayed by flattery and persuasion, who resents the powers that her late mother had begged Aurelia to accept and will always act upon the last advice given to her rather than wise and proven counsel. Aurelia's worst fears become reality when Caius Tellus is released from prison, having served his sentence. Soon he manipulates and charms his way into a position of power and, with the terrible speed and unrelenting force of a land-slide, order breaks down in Roma Nova. In one of the first serious mob rampages Aurelia's daughter, Marina, is viciously attacked and Aurelia knows she has been targeted by Caius. Soon the traditional but stable and fair government of Roma Nova is under attack from all sides, and Aurelia is in danger of losing all she cares about: her daughter, her lover, her reputation and her life, and, above all, she fears the destruction of the country that she loves and has pledged herself to defend.
Insurrectio is an exceptionally powerful book. Aurelia is a strong, honourable and engaging character and the desperation of her struggle to save her family and her country is intensely moving. The book is also a fascinating and chilling study of the balance of political power and how a weak ruler and a ruthless would-be dictator, with the backing of mob-rule, can destroy a civilised country.
I would advise readers to read Aurelia first but to then go straight on to Insurrectio. It is a page-turner and I recommend it.

Published by Silverwood Books
ISBN: 978-1781325094

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Death Unscripted by M.K. Graff - Review

Product Details

One of the great things about being a reviewer is the brilliant books you get to read. Another even better thing is the lovely people you get to meet, either on-line or in person. I've enjoyed chatting to Marni Graff for some time and I enjoy all of her books. Death Unscripted is really special, set in a New York film studio, it is warm, funny and has a wonderful protagonist. P.D. James encouraged Marni to write this book: just another thing we have to thank that wonderful lady for.

Trudy Genova thinks that she has the best job possible: a qualified nurse, she is the medical consultant at a movie studio. Instead of having to deal with human suffering and bodily fluids, she gets to teach actors how to mimic credible heart-attacks and supervise the medical details in scripts. The only down-sides of her job are occasionally having to chaperone precocious child actors and, far worse, having to fend off the sleazy advances of Griff Kennedy, the male star of the soap Thornfield Place. It is unfortunate that soon after Trudy fends off Griff’s groping with conspicuous success in the form of a well-aimed slice of coconut pie, the amorous actor should die, on-set, in suspicious circumstances. It is even worse that his last conscious action should be to point at Trudy and utter an accusatory, “You – YOU!”
Rumours and gossip are soon flying round the movie studio and Trudy is certain that people are eyeing her with suspicion. A visit from Detectives Ned O’Malley and Tony Borelli makes her feel both angry and threatened and she is determined to get to the truth. Trudy enlists the help of her best friend, Meg Pitman, who also works at the studio, and the pair of them delve amongst the complicated tangle of relationships amongst the actors and crew in an attempt to find out who was responsible for Griff’s death. Trudy’s sleuthing attempts soon cause her to fall foul of Ned O’Malley, and she has the hideous experience of being taken in for questioning. However she does her best to be useful to O’Malley and, after a while, he feels torn between regarding Trudy as a suspect and fearing for her safety if her attempts to unmask the killer make the murderer regard her as a threat.
Another actor dies a violent death. As O’Malley feared, the murderer has not finished, and it soon becomes clear that Trudy’s life is in imminent danger.
This is the first book in the Trudy Genova series and I hope that the following books will follow very soon. Trudy is a delightful protagonist, funny, warm, good-hearted and efficient but also sensitive, with things in her background that make her vulnerable. The plot is well thought out and convincing, and all the characters are well-drawn – real people not just caricatures – and I lost my heart to Trudy’s cat, Wilkie. The movie studio setting is fascinating and clearly authentic and I was not surprised to discover that the author had worked in a similar job. I particularly liked the technique Trudy invented to tell an actor playing a corpse when he needed to hold his breath.
I read this book in two days. It is a page-turner and great fun and I recommend it.

Published by Bridle Path Press
ISBN: 978-0990828723
ASIN: B0176Y7EA6

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Aurelia by Alison Morton: Review


There are many books that I admire but not many that I think 'that's an absolutely incredible piece of writing!'. Alison Morton is an author whose knowledge of history, politics and military tactics I stand in awe of, and, more important, her skilled use of her knowledge in her alternative history novels. I reviewed Aurelia when it was first published and this seems an excellent time to post this review on my blog. There are two reasons for this decision. The main one is that Alison's third book featuring Aurelia Mitela, Retalio, is published at the end of this month. The other is that Alison recommended me to reinstate my blog and I promised that I'd do it on April Fool's Day - it seemed appropriate.

Aurelia is an alternate history thriller, which is based on the idea that the Roman Empire did not fall and survived into the 20th Century as Roma Nova, a prosperous and influential colony that still maintains many of the traditions and belief structures of Ancient Rome. Because Roma Nova never fell under the paternalistic influences that shaped their neighbours, women have great power and careers that often excel their men. The book is set in the late 1960s, a time when, in most of Roma Nova's neighbouring countries, men had the powerful positions and women were expected to be their secretaries.
Aurelia Mitela is the daughter of Felicia Mitela, head of one of the most powerful houses in Roma Nova. Aurelia has a daughter, Marina, a much-loved, frail child, and Felicia puts pressure on Aurelia to bear more heirs to ensure the succession. However, Aurelia has no desire to abandon her life as a career soldier, which in Roma Novan terms means being an officer in the Praetorian Guards. She certainly has no intention of having any sort of relationship with her mother's choice of suitor, Caius Tellus, a man that most people find charming but whom Aurelia has loathed and despised since childhood.
When Aurelia's mother dies, after being injured in a suspicious hit-and-run car accident, Aurelia has to give up her career in the Praetorian Guards and run her family. However, her special blend of skills are needed to help her country. Somebody is smuggling large amounts of silver, which is Roma Nova's chief means of revenue, and this is threatening the country's livelihood. Aurelia is sent as a Special Delegate to Berlin to investigate, and steps straight into intrigue and danger, which finds her at risk of losing her life, reputation and liberty. Even a brief interlude of pleasure with the mysterious Miklos endangers her, when she is accused of murder and is unable to account for her whereabouts.
Aurelia knows that the person behind both the smuggling and her own danger is her old enemy and  pursues him back to Roma Nova. Soon is is unclear who is the hunter and who is the prey, until a final showdown endangers not just Aurelia's life but that of her beloved daughter.
Aurelia is the fourth book set in Roma Nova but the first featuring Aurelia Mitela. Insurrectio, the second book featuring Aurelia, (Book Five in the Roma Nova series) is soon to be published and is another book to be added to my 'must read' list.
Aurelia is the first alternate history book that I have read and I was uncertain what to expect but within the first two pages I was hooked. The author handles the new slant on history and society with outstanding skill, making the situation clear without over-explaining. Her description of attitudes to women in the 1960s was accurate and full of wry humour. Aurelia is a strong but likeable protagonist: a courageous, clever, determined woman, vulnerable only in her love for her child. This book is a page-turner and I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Published by SilverWood Books
ISBN: 978-1-78132-383-0

Sunday, 20 September 2015


Gilbert Keith Chesterton was born in 1874 in Kensington, London. He was educated at St Paul's School, and then attended the Slade School of Art and studied literature at University College, London. However he did not complete a degree in either subject.
Chesterton worked for the London publisher Redway and T. Fisher Unwin from 1896 until 1902. At this time he also worked as a freelance art and literary critic. In 1902 the Daily News gave him a weekly opinion column and in 1905 he received a weekly column in The Illustrated London News and wrote this for the next thirty years until his death in 1936.
After the First World War, Chesterton became a leader of the Distrubutist movement and later President of the Distrubutist League; a movement whose political policy was to divide private property into the smallest viable freeholds and distribute them throughout society. His magazine, GK's Weekly, edited with his friend, Hilaire Belloc, promoted these political and sociological outlooks, as did The New Witness, which Chesterton and Belloc took over after the death of Chesterton's brother, Cecil, in 1918.
In 1901 Chesterton married Frances Blogg, to whom he remained married until his death.
Chesterton was one of the great Edwardian men of letters. He was a literary and art critic and a prolific author of essays, verse, biography, short stories and novels. He was dubious about his ability to perform well on radio but was persuaded to give it a try and for the last four years of his life he gave forty talks a year. The talks were very popular, possibly because of their intimate quality, gained because his wife and secretary were allowed to sit with him and he directed his words to them. He was a close friend of Hilaire Belloc and well acquainted with Oscar Wilde. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw disagreed about practically everything and yet were on terms of friendship, often described as 'friendly-enemity.' Chesterton loved to debate and was part of many debates with Shaw, HG Wells, Bertrand Russell and Clarence Darrow. When Chesterton died, Shaw is reported to have described him as 'a man of colossal genius.'
Chesterton was a colossal personality in every way. Six-foot four in height and weighing around twenty-one stone, he habitually wore a cape and crumpled hat and carried a swordstick and smoked a large cigar. When he died of congestive heart failure, at his home in Beaconsfield, his coffin was too big to be carried down the staircase and had to be lowered out of the window.
It is hard to believe that a man of such literary genius had been a slow developer academically and had not learned to read until he was over eight years old. He was also clumsy and absentminded. In later life it was common for him to send a telegram to his wife, telling her where he was and enquiring where he was meant to be.
When he was nineteen Chesterton suffered from depression and, for a time, rejected his Christian faith. It was at this time that he and his brother, Cecil, experimented with the Ouija board and became fascinated by sorcery and devil worship. In 1995 he left University College without completing his degree. In the next few years Chesterton returned to his Anglican faith, encouraged by Frances, who became his wife, and, in 1922, he converted to Roman Catholicism. Near the end of his life, he was invested by Pope Pius XI as Knight Commander with Star of the Papal Order of St Gregory the Great.
On a more secular note, in 1930 Chesterton was one of the founding members of The Detective Club and its first President. It is not certain whether Chesterton or Dorothy L. Sayers wrote the oath but it seems probable Chesterton had a hand in it. 'Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?' Chesterton's detective is a Roman Catholic priest, but Father Brown does not solve crimes through Divine Revelation or Act of God. He reveals the truth using the knowledge of evil that hearing the confessions of sinners has given him throughout the years of his priesthood.
Chesterton's first fiction novel was a political fantasy, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904.) The best remembered of his novels is The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), in which the protagonist, a poet now working for Scotland Yard, fights an anarchist gang named for the days of the week. The Man Who Was Thursday has been described as a 'metaphysical thriller', certainly as well as being a political allegory it contains a large dose of fantasy and farce.
The detective stories that Chesterton is best remembered for are the five collections of short stories featuring Father Brown: The Innocence of Father Brown (1911); The Incredulity of Father Brown (1926); The Secret of Father Brown (1927); The Wisdom of Father Brown (1929); The Scandal of Father Brown (1935). It is interesting to note that Chesterton created his Roman Catholic priest some years before he officially converted to Roman Catholicism. The first Father Brown story, The Blue Cross, was published in the Storyteller in 1910. In The Blue Cross, Valentin, the Head of the Paris police, has tracked Flambeau, a master criminal, to England. Flambeau is an exceptionally tall man and when Valentin is examining the passengers upon the train from Harwich he can easily dismiss the 'very short Roman Catholic priest going up from a small Essex village... The little priest was so much the essence of those Eastern flats: he had a face as round and flat as a Norfolk dumpling; he had eyes as empty as the North Sea; he had several brown-paper parcels of which he was quite incapable of collecting.... He had a large, shabby umbrella, which constantly fell on the floor. He did not seem to know which was the right end of his return ticket. He explained with a moon-calf simplicity to everybody in the carriage that he had to be careful, because he had something made of real silver 'with blue stones' in one of his brown-paper parcels.' This was the first appearance of one of the most astute detectives of the Golden Age. In his Autobiography (1936) Chesterton explained his reasoning behind the deceptive exterior of Father Brown: 'His commonplace exterior was meant to contrast with his unsuspected vigilance and intelligence; and that being so, of course I made his appearance shabby and shapeless, his face round and expressionless, his manners clumsy, and so on.'
Many other Golden Age writers created detectives whose appearance and manner did not mirror their high intelligence, but these detectives always appeared to be deliberately wearing a mask to disguise their abilities. From the first, Father Brown is simply himself, unpretentious, honest, humble and with incredible psychological insight, especially into the nature of Evil. As he explains to Flambeau at that first meeting, '”Oh one gets to know, you know,” he added, rubbing his head again with the same sort of desperate apology. “We can't help it, being priests. People come and tell us these things.”... “Has it never struck you that a man who does next to nothing but hear men's real sins is not likely to be wholly unaware of real evil?”'
The Blue Cross was republished as the first story in the first collection of Father Brown stories, The Innocence of Father Brown (1911.) The detective Valentin only makes one more appearance but Flambeau is a frequent character in many of the Father Brown stories. In the next two stories featuring Flambeau, The Queer Feet and The Flying Stars, (The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911) he is still a criminal, at both times vanquished by Father Brown, until Father Brown persuades him to abandon crime. Many years later, in his respectable old age, Flambeau explains his reformation: '”Have I not heard the sermons of the righteous and seen the cold stare of the respectable; have I not been lectured in the lofty and distant style, asked how it was possible for anyone to fall so low, told that no decent person could ever have dreamed of such depravity? Do you think all that ever did anything but make me laugh? Only my friend told me that he knew exactly why I stole; and I have never stolen since.”' (The Secret of Flambeau; The Secret of Father Brown, 1927.)
Flambeau becomes a private detective with an office in Westminster, until, in The Secret of Father Brown, he has married and retired to a vineyard in Spain. Flambeau also becomes Father Brown's closest friend As Watson and Hastings rarely get the correct solution ahead of their more talented detective friends, so Flambeau cannot see the solution before Father Brown, but at least the gentle priest treats him with much more consideration and respect than Holmes and Poirot show to their unfortunate followers. On more than one occasion Flambeau's great strength and quick wits in the face of danger save his friend's life. 'Then came another distant detonation , and the door he was trying to open shook under the bullet buried in it. Flambeau's shoulders again filled out and altered suddenly. Three hinges and a lock burst at the same instant, and he went out into the empty path behind, carrying the great garden door with him, as Samson carried the gates of Gaza. Then he flung the garden door over the garden wall, just as a third shot picked up a spurt of snow and dust behind his heel. Without ceremony he snatched up the little priest, slung him astraddle on his shoulders and went racing towards Seawood as fast as his long legs could carry him.' (The God of the Gongs; The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1929.)
Father Brown does not rely on physical clues but psychological clues and an intuition honed by years of hearing men's confessions and his own spiritual exercises. When pushed to explain his 'method' by an American acquaintance, he describes it in this way, '”You see, I had murdered them all myself,” explained Father Brown patiently. “So, of course, I knew how it was done.”... “I planned out each of the crimes very carefully,” ...“I had thought out exactly how a thing like that could be done, and in what style or state of mind a man could really do it. And when I was quite sure that I felt exactly like the murderer myself, of course I knew who he was.” (The Secret of Father Brown, 1927.)
The little priest from Essex travels quite widely in the fifty-one stories; to London and many parts of England, and to Scotland, France, Mexico, America and Spain. Chesterton tells us very little of Father Brown's personal life, except that he has a widowed sister and a niece, Betty, of whom he is very fond. 'His gaze was shifted and recalled, however, by the breathless and even boisterous arrival of his niece, Betty. Rather to the surprise of her uncle, she led him back into the emptier room and planted him on a seat that was like an island in that sea of floor. “I've got something I must tell you,” she said. “It's so silly that nobody else will understand it.”' (The Worst Crime In the World; The Secret of Father Brown, 1927.)
Some of the information is inconsistent; in separate stories, Father Brown's first name is altered. Nor is it made clear how Flambeau escaped the detective, Valentin, and worked for many years as a detective, still using the name Flambeau, and even had friends amongst the police force, without being arrested. However, this is unimportant. The reader is drawn into the deep psychological insights that Father Brown offers and the sheer common-sense of his approach. When talking to an American police officer about the latter's dependence on the lie detector, Father Brown observes, '”You always forget that the reliable machine has to be worked by an unreliable machine”... “I mean Man.”... “If you could tell by his manner when the word that might hang him had come, why shouldn't he tell from your manner that the word that might hang him was coming? I should ask for more than words myself before I hanged anybody.”' (The Mistake of the Machine; The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1929.)
The beauty of Chesterton's descriptive writing shows his early career as an artist. 'Father Brown was walking home from Mass on a white weird morning when the mists were slowly lifting – one of those mornings when the very element of light appears as something mysterious and new. The scattered trees outlined themselves more and more out of the vapour, as if they were first drawn in grey chalk and then in charcoal.' (The Salad of Colonel Cray; The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1929.)
Often the atmosphere in the stories is heavy with foreboding and the fear of impending violence and evil. 'There was a rather depressed silence; the room was darkening, the sea-blighted boughs of the garden trees looked leaner and blacker than ever, yet they seemed to have come nearer to the window. … For the whole air was dense with the morbidity of blackmail, which is the most morbid of human things, because it is a crime concealing a crime; a black plaster on a blacker wound.' (The Absence of Mr Glass, The Wisdom of Father Brown, 1929.) And yet, within two pages Father Brown sees the less terrible truth behind this mystery and the whole tone of the story has lifted into humour. '”But a hatter,” protested Hood, “can get money out of his stock of new hats. What could (he) get out of this one old hat?” “Rabbits,” replied Father Brown promptly.'
This witty playfulness is one of the most unexpected things in Chesterton's Father Brown stories and can often catch the reader by surprise. When Flambeau provisions his small sailing vessel for his month's holiday he 'had stocked it with such things as his special philosophy considered necessary. They reduced themselves apparently to four essentials: tins of salmon, if he should want to eat; loaded revolvers, if he should want a fight; a bottle of brandy, presumably in case he should faint; and a priest, presumably in case he should die.' (The Sins of Prince Saradine; The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911.) Or when Father Brown is apologising for speaking hastily in response to a foolish statement: 'A sort of anxiety came back into the priest's eyes – the anxiety of a man who has run against a post in the dark and wonders for a moment whether he has hurt it. “I'm most awfully sorry,” he said with sincere distress. “I beg your pardon for being so rude; pray forgive me.”' (The Oracle of the Dog; The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926.)
Father Brown is an unique detective. There is less revealed about his personal life than any other detective of his time but more about his thought processes and his belief. He is remarkably courageous, both physically and morally; unconcerned for his own safety or by public condemnation if there is a soul to be salvaged or an innocent person to be helped. The only thing that Father Brown really fears is harm to his Church. 'The priest's next words broke out of him with a sort of cry. “And if it had only been my disgrace! But it was the disgrace of all I stand for; the disgrace of the Faith that they went about to encompass. What might it have been! The most huge and horrible scandal ever launched against us since the last lie was choked in the throat of Titus Oates.”' (The Resurrection of Father Brown; The Incredulity of Father Brown, 1926.)
Possibly the thing that makes Father Brown stand out is that he is less concerned with crime than he is with sin; he cares more about saving souls than punishing crime. Chesterton's own religious conviction shines through the character and words of Father Brown. '”We have to touch such men, not with a bargepole but with a benediction,” he said. “We have to say the word that will save them from hell. We alone are left to deliver them from despair when your human charity deserts them.”... “Leave us with the men who commit the mean and revolting and real crimes.”' (The Chief Mourner of Marne; The Secret of Father Brown, 1927.)

Monday, 7 September 2015

Review: Maigret and the Burglar's Wife by Georges Simenon

Note: Because this review is taken from an English translation I have used the British rank of Chief Inspector rather than Commissaire.

'Ernestine Micou, alias 'Lofty' (now Jussiaume), who, when you arrested her seventeen years ago in the Rue de la Lune, stripped herself to take the mike out of you, requests the favour of an interview on a matter of most urgent and important business.'
This note, handed in at the Police Headquarters in Paris on a scorchingly hot summer day, transports Chief-Inspector Maigret back to a time when he was an inexperienced, young officer on the beat and intended to arrest Lofty, a young prostitute for theft. 'Calmly she'd taken off her wrap, her shift, and pants, and gone and lain down on the unmade bed, lighting a cigarette'... 'The whole thing was ludicrous. She was cool, quite passive, a little glint of irony showing in her colourless eyes.'
Lofty has come to ask Maigret for help. Her husband, Alfred Jussiaume, known as Sad Freddie, is a safe-breaker who has left Paris without warning and gone into hiding, but he contacted Lofty to say that on his last attempted robbery in a private house in Neuilly, he had been terrified by the sight of a dead body in the room; he said that it was a middle-aged woman, 'that her chest was all covered in blood, and that she was holding a telephone receiver in her hand.'
Although Maigret has doubts about Lofty's story, especially as no murders have been reported, he investigates to try and discover the house that Sad Freddie burgled. This leads him to the home of Guillaume Serre, a middle-aged dental surgeon who lives with his wife, Maria, and his elderly mother. Maigret discovers that Serre's wife is no longer there and Serre and his mother claim that Maria has left them to go back and live, perhaps permanently, in Amsterdam, in her native Holland. Serre and Madame Serre also claim that there has been no sign of burglary in their house.
Who is Maigret to believe? The prostitute and her husband, a habitual criminal? Or the respectable if obnoxious dentist and his mother? He follows his instinct, which leads to a long and harrowing interrogation and a psychologically satisfying conclusion to the investigation.
Maigret and the Burglar's wife is a book based on remarkably skilled characterisation and of exquisitely drawn contrasts. Lofty, whom Maigret recognises immediately when he sees her after many years: 'her long, pale face, the washed out eyes, the big over-made-up mouth that looked like a raw wound. He recognised also, in her glance, the quiet irony of those who've seen so much that nothing's any longer important in their eyes. She was simply dressed, with a light green straw hat, and she'd put on gloves.' And old Madame Serre, 'a little old woman, very dried up, dressed in black, who never passes the time of day with anybody and doesn't look easy to get on with' or as Maigret sees her first, 'the old lady who stood back to let them enter would not have looked out of place dressed as a nun... She'd an innate elegance and dignity which were remarkable.'
Another beautiful contrast is when Maigret goes to visit Lofty at home to question her further about her husband's claim. 'Maigret knocked at a door, which half-opened; Ernestine appeared in her underclothes and merely said: “It's you!” Then she went at once to fetch her dressing gown from the unmade bed, and slipped it on.'
This contrast is even stronger when describing the two sets of characters' living places. Lofty and Sad Freddie live in rooms above a café, in a situation full of noise and colour: 'The wall of the staircase was whitewashed, as in the country. One could hear the racket made by a crane unloading gravel from a barge a little further on... The window was open. There was a blood-red geranium. The bedspread was red too. The door stood open into a little kitchen, out of which came a good smell of coffee.'
The Serre's drawing room is that of wealthy people, but underneath there is the sense of a smothering stagnation. 'She opened, on the left, a pair of polished oaken doors, and Maigret was reminded more than ever of a convent or, better still, a rich parsonage. Even the soft, insidious smell reminded him of something; he didn't know what, he tried to remember. The drawing-room that she showed them into was lit only by daylight seeping through the slots of the shutters, and to enter it from outside was like stepping into a cool bath. The noises of the town, one felt, could never penetrate this far, and it was as if the house and everything in it had remained unchanged for more than a century.'
Although it was written over eighty years ago, Maigret and the Burglar's Wife manages to combine the sense of a time past with a present-day observation of psychological twists. It is still an excellent read.

Note: At this time, Maigret and the Burglar's wife is not available as a new paperback or on Kindle, however there are several second-hand paperbacks available for sale.