Monthly Archives: June 2017

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

In this beautifully written novel, we follow a day in the life of the Marshalls, an upper-middle-class family struggling to find a new way to live in an England irrevocably altered by the Second World War. While Britain has emerged victorious from the conflict, life in the country has not returned to ‘normal’, to the way things were before – and for many people, it never will. Set on a blisteringly hot day in the summer of 1946, the novel captures a moment of great social change as thousands of families find themselves having to adapt to significant shifts in circumstances. For some inhabitants of Wealding, a picturesque village in the home counties, the war has opened up fresh opportunities and pastures new; but for others like Laura Marshall and her husband Stephen, it has led to a marked decline in living standards compared to the glory days of the late 1930s.

Laura – sensitive, wistful, bohemian – is trying to maintain some semblance of domestic harmony around the house now that the family’s servants are now longer there to maintain order, the invisible ‘caps and aprons’ who worked the strings of their world so perfectly. The cook and nanny are long gone; the maids who left to help with the war effort will not be returning, lured away by the chance to work in a local factory with all the benefits this new environment has to offer.

Like young horses intoxicated with the feel of their freedom, Ethel and Violet had disappeared squealing into the big bright world where there were no bells to run your legs off, where you knew where you were, where you could go to the flicks regular, and where you worked to the sound of dance music pouring out continuously, sweet and thick and insipid as condensed milk dripping through a hole in a tin. (p. 13)

While Laura tries her best, she is a hopeless cook, forever pulling something unidentifiable out the oven, or leaving the milk to boil over, her thoughts often elsewhere. There is skeleton help in the form of Mrs Prout, a local charwoman who comes to the Marshalls’ a few mornings a week to ‘circulate the dust a little’. Mrs Prout likes Laura even though she considers her a daydreamer, prone to contemplation and reflection while the house slowly crumbles around her feet. A keen observer of people, Panter-Downes has a wonderful knack for capturing a character in just a few sentences, as evidenced by this brief portrait of Mrs Prout.

Mrs. Prout obliged several ladies in Wealding, conscious of her own value, enjoying glimpses of this household and that, sly, sardonic, given to nose tapping and enormous winks, kind, a one for whist tables and a quiet glass at the local, scornful of the floundering efforts of the gentry to remain gentry still when there wasn’t nobody even to answer their doorbells, poor souls. (p. 18)

By contrast to Laura, Stephen is more troubled and dismayed by the loss of their servants, particularly the trusty gardener, Chandler – killed on the battlefields of Holland – who once tended their roses with such care and affection. Now there is only Voller from the village, a slow, plodding presence in the garden for one or two evenings a week, a man too old and weary to cope with any heavy work. As a consequence, the garden is hopelessly overgrown, the house tired and dilapidated, no longer filled with the gaiety and chatter of days gone by. Stephen longs for times past when everything ran efficiently, the house spick and span, the garden beautifully tended, their young daughter Victoria delivered to them fresh and clean in her towelling bath robe, cared for largely by the family’s nanny. Those days are but a dim and distant memory in the mind.

Meanwhile, here they were awkwardly saddled with a house which, all those pleasant years, had really been supported and nourished by squawks over bread-and-cheese elevenses, by the sound of Chandler’s boots on the paths, by the smell of ironing and toast from the nursery. The support, the nourishment, had been removed. Now, on this summer morning, when doors and windows stood open, it was possible to hear the house slowly giving up, loosening its hold, gently accepting shabbiness and defeat. (p. 13)

Recently returned from the war, Stephen travels to London for work each day, while his evenings are spent battling with the weeds in the garden. On top of the worries with the house, he is a little dismayed to find Laura looking middle-aged at thirty-eight, her hair grey, her face tired and weary. The couple’s ten-year-old daughter, Victoria, is a bit of a mystery to Stephen too, vastly changed from the inconspicuous child he left behind for the battlefield.

Laura too feels a little uncertain about her ability to adapt to this new life. She realises that her looks have faded, that others may see her as an ‘old sofa,’ worn but comfortable. Every now and again, Laura’s thoughts return to her mother, Mrs Herriot, a formidable woman who lives in Cornwall with Laura’s rather conservative father. Life for the Herriots has remained largely unchanged by the war. The new ideas have yet to catch on in St. Pol, the Herriot household still full of young girls willing to bow to the family’s every need. By contrast, Mrs Herriot bemoans the fact that Laura should be reduced to cooking, cleaning and looking after Victoria, unable to understand why the Marshalls’ servants have not returned to the fold. Moreover, she blames Stephen – whom she has never liked – for this sorry state of affairs, for not taking care of her daughter properly. As far as Mrs Herriot is concerned, Laura should have married her old flame, Philip Drayton, now a successful politician living comfortably in Westminster with his wonderful wife, Cicely, their old family cook and parlourmaid still firmly in position.

While Panter-Downes slips seamlessly between the minds of several of the characters, her main focus is always Laura; it is Laura’s thoughts that drive the narrative forward as we go through the day. By focusing on this one woman and her domestic situation, the author builds up a insightful picture of the inhabitants of a broader community, their lives touched and altered by the war in various ways. We follow Laura during her regular trip to the local town in an effort to buy food for the family’s dinner. Supplies are scarce, almost more so than during the war itself, as illustrated by this scene at Mr Kellett’s, Bridbury’s fishmonger.

It’s terrible, Mr. Kellett had grumbled, diving his scarlet hands into a bucket of goggling monsters, it’s never been worse, not even in the war, it hasn’t. The line of women had swayed and sighed, murmuring uneasily, staring with depression at the dwindling pile of fish, summoning up a false brightness when their turn came to step forward under Mr. Kellett’s angry little blue eyes. And to-night, chewing the dead slab which she would disguise as something or other, Stephen would say thoughtfully that it was odd what had happened to the soles. Had they disappeared from the seas, a war-time casualty? Not that this was not, of course, perfectly delicious, he would add kindly… (pp. 60-61)

Later, Laura calls in on a local family, the Porters, to ask if their son, George, would be interested in helping with the garden; but the young man in question has been offered a job at a garage in Coventry, lured away from the village by the promise of money and a livelier social life. We meet the Cranmers, a formerly grand family who have just sold the bulk of their vast estate as they can no longer afford to maintain it – the remaining members are to live more modestly in the stable wing. There is a fleeting visit to a shop where Laura encounters a young war widow – referred to here as Mrs Jim – a beautiful woman who, much to Laura’s dismay, seems all set to marry the stuffy and pernickety Stanley Rudge. As far as Laura is concerned, Mrs Jim could do so much better for herself, someone young and handsome like George Porter, for example. But Mr Rudge has prospects, he is a builder/property developer; and unlike Laura, whose husband returned from the war safe and sound, Mrs Jim cannot afford to be choosy, not since young Jim was declared lost at sea.

It is all very well for you, said Mrs. Jim’s eyes coldly. You are one of the safe ones, you have a roof and a child. Your man came back. One must take what one can. One is forced to make do, to pick up the crumbs, to be sensible., And all that, the other part, is gone for ever, sunk and drowned beneath the oily waters. (pp. 93-94)

There are other encounters too, all of which come together to paint a vivid picture of a nation, a country trying to come to terms with new ways of life and the accompanying changes to its social fabric.

Panter-Downes draws an astute contrast between the inner turmoil of Laura’s and Stephen’s thoughts and the peaceful nature of the idyllic landscape which surrounds them. Threaded through the novel are beautiful descriptions of the countryside on a hot summer’s day. The sunny is bright, the flowers and crops are flourishing in the fields. England is at peace, the land has survived in all its glory and is set to endure long into the future.

While this subtle novel is imbued with a strong sense of loss, of what has passed and will never return, the story finishes on an optimistic note. At the end of the afternoon, Laura climbs to the top of the local hill at Barrow Down. Enthused by the glorious views from the summit, she vows to reintroduce into her marriage some of the fun and intimacy that has been lacking lately. Stephen too seems ready to embrace a new beginning as he suddenly realises how preposterous it was to have become so dependent on servants for everything in the days before the war. While the couple’s future is left open to the reader’s imagination, the tone is undoubtedly hopeful; a fitting close for this lovely novel, sketched and coloured in an evocative, impressionistic style.

One Fine Day is published by Virago Press; personal copy.

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard

First published in 1956, The Long View offers an insightful view of the different stages of a deeply unhappy marriage, one that ultimately seemed destined for disaster right from the start. The novel has a very interesting structure, beginning in 1950 when the couple in question – Antonia and Conrad Fleming – have been married for twenty-three years, and then winding back in time to 1942, 1937 and 1927, the time of their honeymoon. In this respect, it mirrors the structure of François Ozon’s excellent film, 5×2, which focuses on five key timepoints in the disintegration of a middle-class marriage, presenting them in reverse order. Crucially, Howard’s story finishes in 1926 just before Antonia meets her future husband for the first time. While the story is presented mostly from the perspective of Antonia, there are times when we are given access to Conrad’s thoughts, albeit intermittently.

When the novel opens in 1950, Antonia is preparing for a dinner party to recognise the engagement of her son, Julian, to June Stoker, a rather unexceptional young woman who seems desperate to get away from her insufferable mother. I say recognise as opposed to celebrate as there appears to be nothing joyous or pleasurable about this occasion. If anything, Julian – an advertising executive – looks set to emulate the model of an ill-fated marriage set out by his parents. There is a sense that finding a socially acceptable wife is the next thing on the list for Julian; and June, with her innocence and naivety, seems as suitable a prospect as any. June isn’t sure of her feelings for Julian (or of his for her); she merely hopes that everything will turn out okay in the end. Antonia recognises these doubts all too clearly, a point that only becomes fully apparent once the latter stages of the narrative are revealed. Conrad, for his part, is convinced that the couple’s time together will follow a well-trodden path, one almost certainly destined to create complications for both parties.

He had no doubt that Julian was marrying an exceptionally, even a pathetically, dull young woman, and the only mitigating feature of the affair, Julian’s extreme youth, was not likely, in view of his work and disposition, to count for very much. He would probably attempt to extricate himself at thirty, or thereabouts, by which time he would have two or three brats, and a wife, who, drained of what slender resources had first captivated him, would at the same time be possessed of a destructive knowledge of his behaviour. This would inevitably lead to his leaving her (if indeed he were to achieve it) for entirely the wrong reasons. (p. 16)

You’ve probably got the measure of Conrad by now, a selfish, arrogant and thoroughly obnoxious man who is largely absent from the family home in Holland Park, London. He cares very little for Antonia, a point that becomes abundantly clear from the opening pages of the novel.

He had a heart when he cared to use it. But on the whole, he did not care in the least about other people, and neither expected nor desired them to care about him. He cared simply and overwhelmingly for himself; and he felt now that he was at last a man after his own heart. The only creature in the world who caused him a moment’s disquiet was his wife, and this, he thought, was only because he had at one period in their lives allowed her to see too much of him. (p. 15)

After twenty-three years of marriage, Antonia has been left feeling emotionally drained and worn out. Having long since given up the battle of striving for Conrad’s approval and affection, she now faces the long years ahead, trapped in a stagnant life upon which she must try to carve out some kind of meaningful existence for herself.

It was too late to mourn any private intentions she might once have had towards herself – she had been loved, and touched and fashioned; dominated, protected, and ignored, until even her enjoyment of the wallpaper that her husband despised was coloured by the fact that he despised it. Even the few occasions when she had thought that she had asserted herself were direct results of her association with him. (p. 61)

There are other worries for Antonia too, most notably in the shape of her rather impulsive daughter, Deirdre, a girl who always seems to have two men on the go at any one time. It soon becomes clear that Deirdre also looks set to make a mess of her life – in this case by running off with the fall-back option when it turns out that her preferred lover does not reciprocate her feelings for him.

As the novel moves back in time, Howard peels back the layers of Antonia and Conrad’s marriage, enabling us to see key moments in their relationship and the fault lines therein. With his work taking him all over the country, Conrad sees little of Antonia during WW2, their paths occasionally crossing in London in between missions. The marriage is well and truly dead by this stage, suffocated by Conrad’s controlling personality and the fallout from his earlier affairs.

In 1937 (ten years into the marriage), we find the couple on holiday with friends in St Tropez, with Conrad desperate to get away from the group. In the end, he goes back to London to see his beautiful young lover, Imogen, a girl who shares something of the freshness and innocence of Antonia back in the days of her youth. By this point in the marriage, Antonia has started to realise that some of Conrad’s liaisons run the risk of disrupting the nature of her life with him. In this scene, Antonia recalls the occasion when she spotted her husband at the opera in the company of a ravishing young woman, a point she confronted him with later that night.

He had begun calmly by saying that the whole scene was horribly dated, and that were she to attend the opera more often she would learn that such behaviour as hers invariably led to disastrous consequences; but when these remarks merely elicited from her a flood of ill-considered and conventional allegations he became dangerous: wholeheartedly agreed with her, ignored her tears, and left her on the discouraging note that there were only two kinds of people – those who live different lives with the same partners, and those who live the same life with different partners; a remark, he said, to which she could not possibly object, since she had so perfectly created the situation which provoked it. (p. 124)

Back in 1927, we find the couple on honeymoon in Europe with the warning signs apparent from the start. It soon becomes clear that Conrad simply wants to mould and fashion the malleable Antonia into something to suit his very exacting needs. In essence, he treats Antonia like a decorative pawn in some sort of elaborately designed game.

‘I married you,’ he said slowly and clearly, ‘because you are going to be extremely beautiful, which means for me that you will be a pleasure to see, a delight to be with, and because, possessing you, I shall be envied by others. Knowing this, I wanted you. I married you because you are not a fool, because you have innate good taste, because you have a vast capacity for enjoyment, and because, if I was to marry at all, I wanted at least the possibility of perfection. You will not be perfect: but the amount that you will fall short will be my fault – not yours – and that responsibility is more desirable to me than anything else. (p. 278)

Perhaps most revealing of all is the final section of the novel set in 1926 where we find the nineteen-year-old Antonia – or Toni as she is referred to here – living at home with her parents in Sussex. Toni’s flighty and sociable mother, Araminta, fails her daughter badly, criticising and teasing her at every opportunity. In some ways, Araminta views Toni as a sort of rival, the latter’s innocence and youth representing potential threats to her own allure and beauty.

She was, her mother said, too tall and far too thin; her hair, although positively dark, was too fine to be manageable and she had almost no colour. Her eyes were her only good feature, said her mother, and proceeded to dress her in every shade of inferior blue which detracted from them. (p. 324) 

Toni’s father, on the other hand, is cold and withdrawn, eschewing the social whirl of weekend parties at the house in favour of working on his books. At first, it appears as though Wilfred is blind to his wife’s affairs and other goings on in the house; but when the desperately gauche and naïve Toni finds herself falling for one of her mother’s friends, it transpires that her father has observed and understood the situation all too clearly.

The revelations in this final section of the novel go a long way to explaining why Antonia married Conrad so quickly the following year. Moreover, they also cast a particular light on certain events in the earlier sections of the book – most notably Conrad’s fascination with his young lover, Imogen, and June Stoker’s forthcoming marriage to Julian.

The Long View is an interesting but claustrophobic novel. While I liked the opening and closing sections, I found the middle sections too protracted and drawn out. The writing is good, but it lacks the economy and focus I admire in the work of other writers such as Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Fitzgerald. There are times when the tone is very caustic and bitter, too clinical and critical for my tastes. As the story is told almost exclusively from Antonia’s perspective, it could be argued that the picture we see is rather one-sided. I have no doubt that Conrad is responsible for much of the trouble in the Flemings’ marriage, but Antonia is not without blame either – she too has affairs at certain points in the relationship.

Nevertheless, I’m not unhappy that I read this novel – at least now I can say that I have tried Elizabeth Jane Howard.

The Long View is published by Picador; personal copy.

Last Night by James Salter

Last year I wrote about A Sport and a Pastime, a critically acclaimed novel by the American writer James Salter, a book I liked in parts but didn’t particularly enjoy as a whole. This year I thought I’d try some of Salter’s short fiction – more specifically, Last Night (2006) a set of ten stories, many of which first appeared in various literary journals and magazines in the years leading up to the publication of this collection. Once again, this turned out to be a bit of a mixed experience for me due to the variable quality of the material. There is one standout story here, some very good ones, and a few that seem either less compelling or less memorable. Nevertheless, there is something intriguing about this author’s work, particularly his ability to capture particular moods or scenarios (e.g. the emotional charge between two lovers, the intensity of some of those key moments in life).

The opening story, Comet, features two typical Salter protagonists: a capable, elegant middle-class American man, Philip Ardet, and his beautiful wife, Adele.

She was still young enough to be good-looking, the final blaze of it, though she was too old for children, at least if she had anything to say about it. Summer was coming. Out of the afternoon haze she would appear, in her black bathing suit, limbs all tan, the brilliant sun behind her. She was the strong figure walking up the smooth sand from the sea, her legs, her wet swimmer’s hair, the grace of her, all careless and unhurried. (p. 4)

At first, all seems well in the Ardets’ relationship, their lives appear comfortable and settled; but as the story unfolds a somewhat different picture emerges. A conversation at a dinner party opens up old wounds for Philip and Adele as another woman reveals that her husband has been having a secret affair for the last seven years. As a consequence, we gain an insight into the bitterness that is eating away at Adele, an emotion that threatens the stability of her marriage to Philip.

In My Lord You, one of my favourite pieces in the collection, a drunken poet arrives late to a dinner party where he proceeds to harass, both verbally and sexually, another of the guests – a married woman named Ardis – spouting Oscar Wilde and Ezra Pound in the process. (For his part, Ardis’ husband does nothing to intervene in the incident, a significant factor as it highlights his impotence when faced with the possibility of confrontation.)

In spite of being disturbed by this annoying poet, Ardis remains somewhat fascinated by him, so she goes in search of his poetry and then his house to see how he lives. Ultimately, Ardis is drawn into the poet’s life in a rather unexpected way, especially when his dog follows her home and proceeds to set up watch outside. This is a strange story, unsettling and compelling in relatively equal measure.

Such Fun features three young women at the end of a girls’ night out. Their conversations focus on the men they have been seeing, their recent break-ups, their past and current loves – in other words, the trials of finding the ‘right’ partner in life. But unbeknownst to the other two women there, Jane, the quietest member of the group, is carrying a painful burden, one she only reveals to an unknown taxi driver as he drives her home, the tears streaming down her face.

Several of the most successful stories in this collection feature unexpected twists or revelations towards the end, pieces like Give in which the all-too-familiar ‘comfortable man-having-an-affair-with-another-woman’ scenario is given a different spin. Others are more poignant, stories such as Palm Court, in which a man receives a phone call from a woman from his past, a development that triggers memories of their time together and the opportunities he failed to grasp.

Desire, betrayal, frustration – these are the emotions at the heart of many of these stories. In Platinum, another of my favourites in the collection, a seemingly happily married man is having an affair with a seductive young woman, only to be given away by a pair of his wife’s earrings when his lover insists on borrowing them. While this might sound like another rather clichéd scenario, Salter gives the story a new twist, the sort of development you don’t necessarily anticipate even though the clues are there in the narrative almost right from the very start.

The book ends on a startling note with the titular piece, Last Night, undoubtedly the best story in this collection. Walter’s wife, Marit, is terminally ill with cancer. Unable to tolerate the pain any longer, Marit has asked Walter to hasten her death, a wish we assume he has agreed to carry out even though we are not privy to any of their earlier discussions on this point.

It was in the uterus and had travelled from there to the lungs. In the end, she had accepted it. Above the square neckline of her dress the skin, pallid, seemed to emanate a darkness. She no longer resembled herself. What she had been was gone: it had been taken from her. The change was fearful, especially in her face. She had a face now that was for the afterlife and those she would meet there. It was hard for Walter to remember how she had once been. She was almost a different woman from the one to whom he had made a solemn promise to help when the time came. (p. 123)

It is Marit and Walter’s last night together. Their final supper has ended, the lethal injection lies ready and waiting in the fridge. We think we know how this story will unfold, how both of these individuals deserve our sympathies as they confront Marit’s mortality; but once again, Salter wrongfoots us in the most surprising way, a move that causes us to question our earlier assumptions about values, morals, intentions and motives. This is a highly memorable story, one that is likely to stay with you for quite some time.

In spite of the variability of the stories in this collection (I’ve skipped the lesser ones), the quality of Salter’s writing is never in doubt. As with much of this author’s work, there is a discernible undercurrent of sensuality running through several of these pieces, a mood that is matched by the elegant and graceful nature of the prose – you can probably see it in my first quote, the one on Adele. I’ll finish with a final passage, just because it captures something of Salter’s style, the way he can sketch a lasting image in just a few well-judged sentences.

At six, he somehow made his way home. It was one of those evenings like the beginning of a marvellous performance in which everyone somehow had a role. Lights had come on in the windows, the sidewalk restaurants were filling, children were running home late from playing in the park, the promise of fulfilment was everywhere. In an elevator a pretty woman he did not recognise was carrying a large bunch of flowers somewhere upstairs. She avoided looking at him. (pp. 84-85)

Last Night is published by Picador; personal copy

Spring Night by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Elizabeth Rokkan)

I first came across Tarjei Vesaas when a wine friend recommended him to me. He’s a Norwegian writer, probably best known for The Ice Place (1963) and The Birds (1957), both of which I can wholeheartedly recommend. The latter was namechecked by Karl Ove Knausgaard as one of the best Norwegian novels ever – but don’t let that put you off, it really is an excellent read. Spring Night (1954) is the third Vesaas I’ve read, and it’s easily my least favourite of the three. Nevertheless, it does contain some interesting elements, particularly in the set-up.

Fourteen-year-old Olaf and his older sister, Sissel, have been left home alone for the day and night while their parents travel to a nearby town to attend their uncle’s funeral. As the book opens, the afternoon is drawing to a close; it is a broiling hot day in late spring, and the atmosphere lies heavy with heat and humidity. It is clear from the start that Olaf is looking forward to the experience. The house though old and familiar feels different in some way, released from the presence and weight of his parents. There is a sense of freedom in his demeanour as he wanders among the nearby glade, exploring the lush and heady plants that grow there in wild abundance. Furthermore, he is fascinated by his sister, Sissel, and her boyfriend Tore, spying on them from a short distance as they engage in a lover’s tiff.

She straightened up. Olaf was ready to run, but she did not move, and he grew quiet again, spellbound by this game that he knew would some day also be his own game. (p.8)

Once the scene has been set, the story gets underway in earnest as the evening descends and preparations for supper begin. Olaf and Sissel are alone in the house, Tore having left some time earlier. All of a sudden there is a sharp knock at the door, urgent and persistent in tone. Olaf runs to the door and opens it, only to be confronted by the following situation.

It hit him hard, and nailed him fast at first – prepared as he was for something unpleasant by that threatening knocking. He saw a small group of people. Four of them. They had come up to the porch. Two men were supporting or carrying a young woman, and a young girl stumbled down the steps; it must have been she who had pounded so heavily and demandingly on the door. Now she was down with the others again and hid in back of them.

One of the men turned the burden over to the other alone, lurched over to the post on the porch and pounded at it, meaninglessly and in confusion. He was a small tousled man with excited eyes and arms he could not hold still. What sort of people were they? The man waved his arms wildly in front of Olaf and shouted:

‘Is there someone here who can help us? Who are you, anyway?’ (pp. 27-28)

A family of five has just descended upon the house in the hope of gaining some help and shelter following the breakdown of their car. The group is notionally headed by Hjalmar, a rather nervous, fidgety man who spends most of his time fluttering around and chattering incessantly. Then there is Hjalmer’s son, Karl, a brusque man whose primary concern is getting urgent medical assistance for his heavily pregnant wife, Grete, who appears to be in the early stages of labour. Accompanying them is Karl’s younger sister, Gudrun, a girl who bears a striking resemblance to an imaginary friend of Olaf’s – she even shares the same name as his make-believe confidante. Last but not least, the group is completed by Kristine – Hjalmer’s second wife – who at first appears to be unable to walk or talk, although later this turns out to be far from the case.

In essence, these deeply flawed, dysfunctional individuals bring all their psychological baggage and troubles into the house, inflicting their problems on Olaf and Sissel in the process. What follows is a series of oblique conversations undercut with family tensions, rash words and brooding silences. Here’s a short excerpt from a typical scene.

Olaf had to look at the two beside the radio again. They sat there as if they were playing some sort of mute game no one else knew. The man flitted around, chattered, picked things up and put them down again. The woman sat motionless in the chair. Olaf was on her side and said:

‘But I guess he wasn’t so awfully nice in the car.’

Gudrun looked at him quickly:

‘What do you know about that?’

‘Just heard about it. That’s the way it was, isn’t it?’

‘No one was nice in the car,’ Gudrun replied curtly. (pp. 48-49)

As Olaf tries to make sense of it all, several questions are raised in his (and the reader’s) mind. Why is Kristine pretending to be mute when she can clearly talk? Why does she appeal to Olaf for help and protection against her husband? Why does Karl remain so agitated, even once a midwife arrives to support Grete? And what exactly went on in the car before it arrived at Olaf and Sissel’s house?

While Vesaas doesn’t provide any easy answers to these questions, he does create an interesting set-up in the house. There is the basis for a terrific noir here – the hot and sultry weather; the unsettling atmosphere of the setting; the two innocent teenagers home alone for the night; and the group of unhinged strangers who pitch up unannounced, brimming with unexplained tensions and secrets – but instead Vesaas takes the narrative in a different direction, one that I found somewhat unsatisfying in the end. I think this story is meant to a young boy’s loss of innocence as Olaf comes face to face with the complexities and confusions of the adult world. (He is certainly affected by the dramatic events of the night, and by each and every one of the visitors he encounters.) Nevertheless, I found it much less successful than several other books I’ve read which explore this timeless theme in different ways – novels like Alberto Moravia’s evocative Agostino; Stefan Zweig’s impressive Burning Secret; L. P. Hartley’s classic The Go-Between; and, a recent favourite, Olivia Manning’s wonderful School for Love. In the end, I found Spring Night rather oblique and ambiguous, too evasive for my tastes.

My other quibble relates to the character of Olaf. While it is suggested at the beginning of the novel that he is fourteen, later on it emerges that he is the same age as Gudrun who is thirteen. Either way, Olaf struck me as being much younger in his thought processes and actions, probably closer to eleven, although I’m willing to accept that he may have led a very sheltered life.

On a more positive note, the simplicity of Vesaas’ pared-back prose works well with the novel’s themes and point-of-view. The story is told mainly from Olaf’s perspective, so the style matches his childlike view of the world. Vesaas also does well in conveying the dark and brooding atmosphere of the surrounding landscape, especially in the opening chapters. There is a sense of something dangerous lurking in the nearby glade, an early sign of things to come. If only the bulk of the book had lived up to the promise of those early chapters, perhaps it would have resulted in a more satisfying reading experience for me.

Spring Night is published by Peter Owen; personal copy.

Find a Victim by Ross Macdonald

Longstanding readers of this blog may recall my intention to work through Ross Macdonald’s hardboiled novels – more specifically the books featuring his Los Angeles-based private detective, Lew Archer. Find a Victim is number five in the series – not the pick of the bunch by any stretch of the imagination, but an entertaining read nonetheless. (Here are the links to my reviews of the earlier books in the series, The Drowning Pool [#2], The Way Some People Die [#3] and The Ivory Grin [#4] – all can be read as standalone works.) While it may sound a little odd, this was a comfort read for me. I know what I’m going to get with a Lew Archer novel: something familiar yet satisfying with enough twists and turns to maintain my interest. And that was broadly the case here – it turned out to be just what I needed to read after the rather episodic nature of The Adventures of Sindbad.

So, back to Find a Victim. As the book opens, Archer is driving from Los Angeles to Sacramento when he is flagged down by a blood-stained man who has been shot and left to die in a ditch near a deserted stretch of the highway. With no sign of life for miles, Archer puts the severely wounded man in the back of his car and sets off to find help in the nearest town, a place called Las Cruces. On his arrival at a motel on the outskirts of town, Archer arranges for an ambulance to take the injured man to hospital – an action which turns out to be too late as the man dies before the medics can save him. Consequently, Archer must hang around to assist the authorities with their enquiries into the murder, a development that piques the detective’s interest especially once he starts to get the measure of the neighbourhood and its rather shady inhabitants.

La Cruces in the sort of small town where everybody is either related to or connected with everybody else. Archer encounters open hostility from the off: the motel owner is none too pleased with Archer for turning up with a dying man in his car; the local Sheriff seems defensive and mistrustful of him, especially once he realises that he’s dealing with a private eye; even the dead man’s boss, a local big-shot named Meyer, seems to have something to hide. (It turns out that the dead man, Tony Aquista, was driving a lorry containing a large consignment of bonded bourbon when he was shot. The truck in question is now missing, probably hijacked during the shooting – another crime for the authorities to follow up as soon as poss, especially given the nature of the cargo.) All is not well with the women in the town either. Kate Kerrigan, the motel owner’s wife, is clearly trapped in an abusive and loveless marriage, a point that Archer deduces from the word go. Then there is the question of Meyer’s daughter, Anne, who manages Kerrigan’s motel – she has been missing for the past week after failing to show up at work. As a consequence, Archer feels compelled to get involved in the case, whether the locals want him to or not.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Archer?” His grooved, stubborn mouth denied his willingness to do anything for anybody.

I told him I had stumbled into the case and wanted to stay in it. I didn’t tell him why. I didn’t know exactly why, though Kate Kerrigan had something to do with it. And perhaps the dark boy’s death had become a symbol of the senseless violence I had seen and heard about in the valley towns. Here was my chance to get to the bottom of it. (p. 38)

What follows is a sequence of events that leads Archer deeper and deeper into a complex web of vice, one that includes additional murders, robberies, corruption, adultery and sexual abuse – interestingly, family conflicts and double-dealings are themes that run through a number of these novels.

In Archer, Ross Macdonald has created a detective with a conscience, a fundamentally decent man who doggedly pursues the truth, even when he knows it will lead to some dangerous encounters along the way. As in the previous novels, Archer gets beaten up and thrown around by those who are aiming to protect their own interests, and yet he keeps on coming back for more. Moreover, his conviction in getting to the heart of the matter is thorough and unrelenting. When the District Attorney tries to pin the crimes on the ‘obvious’ suspect, Archer refuses to accept the convenient option; he follows his instincts, refusing to dismiss any nagging doubts in the process. By so doing, it is clear that he will discover the true perpetrators of the crimes in question, even if the authorities seem less than willing to listen to him.

As I mentioned a little earlier, this isn’t the strongest of the early Lew Archer novels; some of the characters feel a little thin and clichéd. In particular, it lacks a distinctive female figure, someone like Galatea from The Way Some People Die or the vulnerable and damaged Maude Slocum from The Drowning Pool. Nevertheless, there are some nice touches here and there, like this description of the motel owner, Don Kerrigan.

He came back toward me, running his fingers lovingly through his hair. It was clipped in a crew cut, much too short for his age. I guessed that he was one of those middle-aging men who couldn’t face the fact that their youth was over. It gave him an unreal surface, under which a current of cruelty flickered. (p. 17)

One of the most enjoyable aspects of these Lew Archer novels is Macdonald’s ability to evoke a strong sense of place. From the seedy bars and clubs of small towns like Las Cruces to the barren terrain of the Californian desert to the mountains near the border with Nevada, it’s all here.

I looked back to the south and then to the north. No cars, no houses, no anything. I had passed one clot of traffic somewhere north of Bakersfield and failed to catch another. It was one of those lulls in time when you can hear your heart ticking your life away, and nothing else. The sun had fallen behind the coastal range, and the valley was filling with twilight. A flight of blackbirds crossed the sky like visible wind, blowing and whiplashing. (p. 3)

All in all, this is probably a book for Archer completists. If on the other hand you’re looking to try one of the early novels just to get a sense of Macdonald’s style, then I would recommend either The Drowning Pool or The Way Some People Die, both of which are excellent reads. Finally, I must give a shout-out to Max at Pechorin’s Journal who persuaded me to read these novels in the first place. Here’s a link to his excellent review of #1 in the series, The Moving Target.

Find a Victim is published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; personal copy.