Saturday 11 November 2023

A short story

I haven't posted fiction on this blog; I haven’t written many short pieces that would be suitable. But I have just completed a short story for a writing group. The set title was Leaving Home

My contribution was prompted by a recent house move. My new home was built in 1888, and I have been thinking of those who were here before and what became of them. Hence this story. I noticed today’s date, and thought I’d share it.

Leaving home

I wish he wouldn’t make that bloody row, thought Priscilla as Martin dropped one tool on another in the bedroom across the hall. She winced at the clang and tried to refocus on her screen. The rain streaked the window behind her monitor; grey clouds scudded past outside.

Martin let out an exclamation.

Dammit, how am I supposed to mark a bunch of crappy first-year essays with this old clown working next door.

She stood up and crossed the corridor. The fitted carpet in the bedroom was peeled back so Martin could get at the broken floorboard; it was just beside her bed so she always stepped on it in the night. He had pulled up the broken board, but was now squatting on his haunches, the claw hammer on the carpet beside him.

“I wish you’d make less noise,” she said. She regretted it at once; her voice sounded tense, uptight.

Martin seemed not to hear. He held a small square piece of paper.

“I found something,” he said. “Old photo. Under the floorboard.”

He passed it to her. It was rather small.

“Why print a picture that size?” she said, puzzled.

 “It’s a contact print from an old-fashioned negative,” he said. “Six centimetres square, I think. I have a friend who likes mucking about with old cameras and he makes those.”

She turned it over in her hands. It was brownish and faded and showed a youth in his late teens and a girl who looked a little younger. The girl wore a dress with a rather prim collar. Her hair had been done with care and was formed in a high roll above her forehead. The youth wore uniform; he had a narrow cap without a peak that came to a point at the front, rather like a ship’s stem.

“Why are they sticking their tongues out at the camera?” asked Priscilla. She frowned.

Martin chuckled. “I reckon their mum and dad made them go and have their portrait done,” he said. “And they didn’t fancy that much and they took the piss out of the photographer.” He looked over her shoulder at the little square of photographic paper. “Look, it’s got PROOF embossed on it. I reckon that’s how they did it then – the studio gave you a load of contact prints and you chose which one to have enlarged.” He turned it over. “Look, there you go. It’s the studio’s stamp. Pringle’s, 31 The Broad. I remember them, just. Where MacDonald’s is now. They closed when I was a nipper, back in the 70s.”

“What on earth has she done to her hair?” asked Priscilla.

“Victory Rolls, they called them,” said Martin. “The Hollywood stars had them apparently.” He peered at the picture. “Royal Air Force,” he said presently. “Not an officer I don’t think. Look, he’s got a half-wing.” He pointed to the man’s breast. “Air gunner or navigator maybe.”

 “Oh.” She handed the picture back to him. “I wonder who they were. Anyway, you can pop it in the rubbish I suppose.”

He frowned. “I think I’ll keep it,” he said. “Someone might know something. My mate Josh, he likes local history, he’s one of those blokes digging up the old City Station up near Halfords. He knows how to look at the old census returns and he can see who lived here.”

“Please yourself,” said Priscilla. “I have 20 essays to mark before lunch.”

She went out. Martin looked at the picture then up at her retreating back. And stuck his tongue out. Then he chuckled, tucked the picture away in his jacket and went back to work.

Priscilla went back to her study. She did not hear the front door close or feel the faint breeze as a middle-aged woman in an apron and sensible shoes descended the stairs behind her.

In the front room a man with a pipe and cardigan looked up from the Daily Sketch as his son and daughter came in.

“Did they get the proofs?” called his wife as she turned into the kitchen at the back of the house. “Ted, Sarah, is that you?” She went on into the kitchen, filled the kettle and put it on the range. “I’ll make a cup of tea.”

“Don’t make tea if we haven’t the coal,” her son called out. “You’re spoiling me, Mum, but you’ll need it when I’m gone.”

“Don’t worry, Ted. We’ve got a hundredweight in hand, and we’re allowed more on the first of the month.” She came into the front room, wiping her hands on her apron. “Let’s see these pictures then. Oh, they’re lovely, aren’t they?”

“They’re not bad, eh?” Her husband smiled up at her. “And old Pringle on his own now, with his son in for the duration, as they say.”

“He’s back on leave,” said Ted. “Mr Pringle told me. He’s been in Egypt, he said.”

“We’re not supposed to say where people are,” his father said.

“I don’t think as we’re going to lose because someone knows where young Pringle is, Bill.” She took the proofs from him and leafed through this one, then stopped. “Oy! What’s happening here!”

“It was Ted,” said the girl. “He sticks his tongue out and before I know it I’m sticking mine out as well. Let’s get Pringle’s to blow that one up.” She giggled.

 “Oh no we won’t. You can have that one, you cheeky monkey,” her mother said, and handed her the proof. “Dad and I’ll choose one for the mantelpiece. Ted, you must get ready, you’re off in half an hour.”

“I’ll help him pack his kitbag,” said Sarah. “He’ll scrunch up his shirts otherwise. Boys are so messy.”

They rushed up the narrow stairway of the small house and their footsteps could be heard from the master bedroom, where Sarah had laid out her brother’s clothes ready for folding.

“I reckon this is the one we’ll get blown up,” said Bill, and looked up at his wife, who looked at him then let out a sob that she tried to stifle.

She tried to dry her eyes on her apron but couldn’t because it was tied at the waist so she untied it, sniffing and laughing at the same time. “Oh, I am silly,” she said.

“Try and hide it, my dear. It won’t make it easier for him, you know. And he’s left home before. Remember he went off to basic training, then the gunnery school on the Isle of Man, and now he’s just going off for more training.”

“Oh, I know. It’s just that I have a bad feeling about this,” she said. “As if he’s leaving home for the last time.”

“Well he probably isn’t,” said her husband, a little shortly. He was silent for a moment, then said: “Don’t fret. Sit down and let’s listen to the news, eh?”

He got up and twisted the bakelite knob on the wireless. The dial took on a soft, old-gold glow and the sound started, softly at first then growing louder as the set warmed up. The Home Service filled the room, an emollient voice reading the six o’clock news.

Upstairs, Ted sat on his parents’ bed and watched as his sister folded his shirts.

“I want to do something too,” she said. “I’m going to join the Women’s Land Army.”

“Not yet you’re not,” he said. “You’re only 17.”

“I’ll be 18 at Christmas,” she said.

“But you have to be 20, don’t you? Anyway, you’d be dead useless shovelling manure. Or catching rats. Imagine you catching rats. They’d take one look at you and you’d scream your silly head off.”

She gave his leg a pretend slap with the back of her hand. She went back to folding and smoothing the shirts. He watched her deft movements as she said: “Dad says you’re going for more training.”

“Yes,” he said. “Well, sort of. I’m posted to No. 12 OTU at Chipping Warden in the Midlands. It’s near Banbury I think. An OTU is an Operational Training Unit.”

“Does Operational mean what I think it does?”

“Yes. But it shan’t be much. Just minelaying off the coast and stuff I expect. You mustn’t worry.”

“Oh.” She thought for a moment. “Do you remember when I was 10 and Roy from No. 6 pulled my pigtails?”

“No, I don’t,” he replied. “Did he really? What a rotter.”

“Yes, and you boxed his ears.”

“Oh, I think I do remember. Did I box his ears? I thought I gave him a Chinese burn.”

She sat still, looking down at the shirt. A silence grew heavy.

“Look, we all have to do it,” he said. “Everyone’s leaving home. Dad did last time. Roy’s gone, come to that.” He paused. “Have you got that proof Mum gave you? Give it here.”

She did, and he knelt down where there was a creaky floorboard, just beside the bed so their mother always stepped on it in the night. He pushed the small square of paper down between the cracks.

“There,” he said. “When it’s all over and I’m home, we’ll pull that floorboard up and get that picture, and we’ll have a giggle about it and I do think I’ll go down to Pringle and get it blown up.”

“And if you don’t come back, I’ll leave it there,” she said. “And maybe in 70 or 80 years’ time, someone’ll find it and wonder who we were.”

“That’s it. But I’ll be back.”

“Hope so.” She looked at him.

“Ted,” his father called up the stairs. “It’s 6.30. You ready? Where you going from anyway, City Station or Thorpe?”

“Thorpe,” he said. “They bombed City Station.”

His sister finished folding shirts and he clattered down the stairs with it and took his greatcoat and gas-mask case from the coathooks.

“I can go with you,” said Sarah.

“Don’t,” he said. “Station’ll be bedlam. So many trains going now. ’Spect I’ll get a cuppa on the platform though, the WVS ladies have a canteen there when it’s busy.”

“I’ll come some of the way with you though.”

“Just to the corner, all right? We can say goodbye there.”

Her father was looking at her as she put her coat on. He leaned towards her. “Leave him at the end of the road, my dear. Let him be. They need to be alone with their own thoughts a bit when they go,” he whispered.

She nodded and waited while her brother gave his mother a peck on the cheek and shook hands with his father; then they went out into the street. It was nearly dark. The blackout was complete, but the moon was nearly full and a bright light caught the beginnings of a frost on the pavement. She walked with him to the end of the street, where it joined The Avenues. To the left the road ran downhill, in a straight line; then it climbed to a junction about a quarter of a mile away. There the road joined another and swung round to the right. They didn’t say anything, but he paused a moment and grasped her shoulder and squeezed it with his hand, and seemed to want to say something but didn’t; then he turned abruptly and trudged away. She watched him for several minutes, the moon making a stark figure of him, standing out against the glitter of the frosted pavement. Then he rounded the bend at the top of the hill. He paused for a moment and she thought he looked back, the moonlight catching his face; but he was too far away to see really, and then he was gone.


Mike Robbins’s latest book, On the Rim of the Sea, is now 
available as a paperback or ebook. More details here.

Sunday 30 July 2023

Original crime

Detective fiction is not dead. Two recent crime novels have been bestsellers. And both deserve to be

In a week or two, God willing, about 500 books will arrive on my doorstep. They’re mine; I last saw them in New York over a year ago. They arrived in England last August but I have had nowhere to put them, so they’ve been sitting in a Pickfords facility somewhere in Suffolk. I shall soon summon them to my new home. That’s if the vendors and I complete as planned in a few days’ time.

Still, I’ve had books to hand. I have read, among other things, two very enjoyable vintage crime stories; I posted about these some weeks ago (Crime on the Side, May 19). Now I’ve read two more recent bestsellers. Both have been highly praised and I was afraid I’d be disappointed. I wasn’t.

First, The Thursday Murder Club.

So who’s the sleuth?
In any good crime story, there is a detective or amateur sleuth the reader can accompany on the journey of detection. The stronger their identity, the stranger their quirks, the more likely it is we’ll be back to keep them company in the next story as well. Agatha Christie of course had Poirot; Dorothy Sayers had the sometimes-annoying Lord Peter Wimsey. C. Day Lewis had his eccentric amateur, Nigel Strangeways. A writer can buck that convention. But they’d better know what they are doing.

Richard Osman does. Instead of a detective as such, his very successful The Thursday Murder Club (2020) was the first of (so far) three books to feature an ill-assorted group of four friends, all in their 70s and 80s, living in a retirement village and trying to solve cold cases. It’s a hobby. Then a dodgy local builder is dispatched in his kitchen with a heavy blow to the head. Suddenly it isn’t a hobby any more. And although there are two police detectives, they’re there mainly for human interest and as a foil for the sleuthing seniors. Meanwhile, there’s another death – and then a third and a fourth, both long ago, come to light. Are they connected, or are they muddying the waters?

As a detective novel, The Thursday Murder Club does have some flaws. Now and then it’s hard to suspend disbelief; the fearsome four are sometimes just a bit too lucky, and the two “real” detectives a little too complicit in their activities (and a police investigation of a murder like this would be a lot more professional). The plot is quite complicated, and I think most crime fans would want to have more clues that would help them join in with the investigation in their heads, and let them build their own theories. At the end, when we do find out who did dispatch the dodgy builder, it’s a surprise. It should be, of course; but I’d have liked more clues that would have made me kick myself for not spotting them.  

And yet it all sort of works, because – like some of the best crime stories – this book has features that transcend its qualities purely as detective fiction. For a start, it’s also got a strong sense of time and place. There’s the retirement community itself, and its setting. It’s been built around a former convent, with a clinic, and a chapel that has not been deconsecrated; and it’s set on a verdant hillside that seems to be near Robertsbridge in Kent – a beautiful part of the country. (The nearest shopping centre is called Fairhaven but seems to be Hastings in disguise.) The residents are not just nice old dears; some of them did a lot with their lives and are still people to be reckoned with.

There is also a frankness about dementia and ageing. Osman understands that older people actually confront this more than the young realise. They baldly accept the brutal fact that they don’t know how long they’ll be around, or how long they’ll be compos mentis. Amongst Osman’s characters, for instance, there is Elizabeth; every day she opens her diary at a date two weeks hence and writes a question, the answer to which she knows today – but will she then? If she doesn’t, it’ll be a warning that her grasp is weakening.  Her husband Stephen has already crossed the threshold and she does not want to lose him to full-time care, but knows she soon must.

There’s a fair bit of social commentary. A ghastly get-rich-quick builder has a house of almost comic vulgarity, and attitudes (especially to women) to match. A police officer drops by to talk to the residents on crime prevention; she’s a woman (and, we learn much later, black). She says she is happy to be addressed by her first name, but not as “love”. Elderly resident Joyce has a go-getter daughter who works in finance. Joyce herself was once a nurse, and remembers how horrible some consultants were. Moreover Osman’s turn of phrase makes the narrative more vivid. Elizabeth, looking for signs of dementia in herself, thinks with dread of the time when you “become ‘Poor Rosemary’ or ‘Poor Frank’, catching the last glimpses of the sun and seeing them for what they really were.” The old convent has “a chapel so dark and quiet you would swear you heard God breathing.” The murder victim is clubbed in his kitchen and his “fresh blood begins to form a moat around his walnut kitchen island.” This book might have limitations if seen solely as detective fiction. But it is much more than that, and is compulsively readable.

Author Richard Osman turned to writing books only recently; The Thursday Murder Club, published in 2020, was his first book (though he’s since written three more – a productive use of lockdown perhaps). But he has been involved in creative ventures of one kind or another (including scriptwriting) for a very long time, and has been producer or presenter of some of the best-known shows on British TV, working or appearing on The One Show, Have I Got News for You, The Dragon’s Den and Whose Line Is It Anyway. He was also for many years presenter of a BBC quiz show, Pointless. He dropped the latter last year to concentrate more on his writing after the huge success of his crime novels. As I was writing this, he tweeted: “This week marks 150 weeks in the bestseller list for The Thursday Murder Club. I couldn't have dreamt of this three years ago, so heartfelt thanks to everyone who has read the books.”

But her emails…
So to the second of these two bestsellers; it’s just as good – and just as original. It’s Janice Hallett’s The Appeal.  

Like Osman, Hallett had never published a book before this one – and walked off with an instant bestseller. But she too had been a journalist and screenwriter. (She co-wrote the 2011 film Retreat, a rather bleak and grisly thriller set on a remote island during a pandemic – about which, she now says, the script was very prescient.)

The Appeal is a whodunnit with a daring structure. It does not start with a crime; you don’t learn of it until quite close to the end of the book. Instead it starts with a note from Roderick Tanner QC to two of his juniors. He is clearly vexed by a case and wants them to unravel it from a huge pile of emails sent and received, over many months, by the various characters. We realise that one of them may be in trouble and may be in jail; we also guess that they are mounting an appeal and that Tanner is their brief. But even these facts we are not told; we infer them. And for the moment we learn nothing else. Instead we are given all the emails, in chronological order – which is how Charlotte and Femi, the juniors, are reading them. We don’t get much comment from either of the juniors. Mostly, we just get the emails.

They revolve around a production by an amateur dramatics group, the Fairway Players (it’s Arthur Miller’s All My Sons). The members of the group are jockeying for parts in the play; the auditions begin. The production is led by Martin, a wealthy local businessman and owner of an hotel/conference centre. Then, not far in, he announced that his infant granddaughter Poppy has brain cancer and needs an experimental treatment from the States. He mounts an appeal to pay for it. From then on the stories of the play, the appeal for Poppy, and the crime to come are intertwined.

The emails structure lets us see each character’s personality for ourselves, without description, from the way they relate to each other – a powerful piece of show-don’t-tell that works very well. It’s a large cast, but they include Isabel, the twittery, verbose, rather nervous nurse who seems to irritate everyone. There’s Martin himself, the local middle-class alpha male, and the members of his family. There is Sarah-Jane, professional appeals organiser, curt with Isabel but emollient with others. And there is Samantha, also a nurse, who has recently returned from some very dodgy parts of Africa, where she has been working with Médecins Sans Frontières. There is something unclear about her and we learn of her mainly from the emails of others. Bit by bit, we sense that all is not as it appears with the fundraiser for Poppy, or with the doctor treating her, or with Samantha’s time in Africa. Bit by bit these themes combine until we are finally confronted with the crime itself.

I thought this book a real tour de force – an unusual crime story told in a highly original way. I wrote once that Dorothy Sayers’s Wimsey novels work so well because she puts you inside his head and unscrolls the story much as he sees it, so that you share the process of detection with him. Something even better happens here; you keep Femi and Charlotte company as they wade through a mass of emails through which threads emerge but are seen through a glass, darkly. The emails also reveal a great deal about each individual with splendid clarity. In 2021, Guardian interviewer Kate Kellaway asked The Appeal author Janice Hallett how much an email could say about someone’s character. “More than you might think,” she replied. “Even the one-line emails people think give nothing away can be revealing.” She is not joking. All of us will have had friends or colleagues whose emails gush like Isabel’s or are curt like Sarah-Jane’s.

Amateur dramatics, 1930s-style
Moreover, like The Thursday Murder Club, this book is a sly snapshot of modern Britain. There is the too-busy health service, the wary HR departments, and the class structure that is never discussed but is always just below the surface, and is baked into our DNA. Here as in real life it defines so much of people’s behaviour – our acceptance of our place in any process, our deference to people who do not deserve it, and our failure to question their motives. I’d guess that this realistic setting is, indirectly, part of the reason for both books’ success. This is not because people want social commentary in their leisure reading; I’m not sure they do. It’s more because they recognise the settings and characters and identify with them. It’s something the Golden Age crime novel didn’t always do quite so well. Neither Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers appeared socially aware, at least in their books; indeed Sayers was (it’s said) a snob. And at times the standard plot of the day seemed to be death at a country-house weekend, not something most of their middle-class readers would have experienced.

The Appeal did have a flaw: the characters, though well-drawn, were mostly just not very attractive. A few were unpleasant and the rest left me mostly cold. Do you need someone to root for in a book? I do. In this respect, Osman’s characters worked better for me and were part of why I liked the book. I enjoyed The Appeal anyway because it was so original and well-written. But I should have liked to have someone who made me care more about the outcome. Still, I think this matters more to some readers than others.

The good news is that both writers have decided to keep writing. Hallett has produced four more crime novels since; Osman, two. Both manage to entertain while reflecting a fast-changing world. I think they’ll be with us a while.

Mike Robbins’s latest book, On the Rim of the Sea, is now 
available as a paperback or ebook. More details here.



Friday 19 May 2023

Crime on the side

Crime writing is fun, but don’t give up the day job... A look at two vintage detective stories by men who didn’t

When I was a child my parents used to like a good thriller or crime story on TV, especially on a winter’s night. “See what’s on tonight?” my mother would say, as my father dutifully opened The Times at the telly page; and then she would almost always, say, “I do hope there’s a good murder.” Back then, that meant a series such as The Saint, adapted from the stories of Leslie Charteris and starring Roger Moore, then in his 30s. Or, a little later, The Expert, in which Marius Goring played a forensic pathologist. There were many more, including the odd American import.

Like my mum, I do enjoy a good murder. Committing one oneself means lots of messy paperwork and there are ethical questions, so I prefer to read a good crime novel. A year or so ago I wrote a piece about the Golden Age of Crime, focused on the four famous Queens of Crime – Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. But I mentioned that there were a host of others, often now forgotten – some with good reason, but others still well worth the read. A recent rummage round a Norwich bookshop (The City Bookshop, since you ask; others are available) turned up a selection. Some had been ‘rediscovered’ and put out under a modern imprint, but one of those was very disappointing; I could not read more than 20 pages. However, there were also some original Penguins in their green-and-white covers, very old, very pre-loved and in one case stuck together with Sellotape. These proved rewarding.

First, A Question of Proof by Nicholas Blake.


 A Question of Proof is a classic Golden Age of Crime story. If you like Agatha Christie & Co., you may well enjoy this.

Written in 1935, it is set in an English prep school. It’s summer and the school’s Sports Day has rolled around. Sometime between lunch and tea, one of the pupils, a ghastly little tick called Algernon Wyvern-Wemyss, meets with a most unfortunate end. Suspicion rests on the members of the staff common-room. Was it Evans, who is carrying on with the headmaster’s wife, and may have been blackmailed by the boy? Wrench, who is doing likewise with one of the maids? Either could be ruined if rumbled (this is the 1930s). Or was it Gadsby, the prodigious drinker? Or Sims, who cannot keep order? Evans’s eccentric friend Nigel Strangeways is brought in to find out.

It’s the first of many outings for Strangeways, who was to feature in most of Nicholas Blake’s detective novels, of which there were 20 in all. As many people will know, “Nicholas Blake” was a pseudonym for C. Day Lewis; the future poet laureate was himself an impoverished prep-school schoolmaster at the time and wanted to earn some money from detective fiction without risking his reputation as a poet. He proved quite successful; the books were never quite as popular as (say) Agatha Christie’s, but they did do well and are still read.

It’s easy to see why. A Question of Proof seems a bit old-fashioned now, but it’s well-written and well-paced and the characters very well-drawn. And having gone to a prep school myself, I think he catches the atmosphere. No-one mourns the dead pupil; for the other boys, his sudden death is the occasion not for sadness but for excitement and speculation, and Day Lewis catches this callousness rather well. The chaos in Sims’s classroom is realistic; there were always teachers like that who could not control their pupils. There’s also a surprising whiff of radical politics, though it’s very subtle – Day Lewis was on the left most of his life and at the time this was written was actually a member of the Communist Party. One wonders how he really felt about teaching in a place like this.

C. Day Lewis in 1936 (Howard Coster/
National Portrait Gallery)

I am not sure how I feel about Strangeways. He is somewhat contrived, with his carefully crafted eccentricities such as an addiction to tea, in huge quantities, throughout the day – though some people do have that in real life (the late Tony Benn was an example). Still, most writers of detective fiction have such a lead character, a cipher through which the reader follows the crime being solved. They are often given an odd backstory or a pattern of eccentric behaviour, and this is consistent from one book to another. That consistency means readers know what to expect, and will buy the book. Christie of course had Poirot; Sayers had Lord Peter Wimsey; P.D. James had Adam Dalgleish. But the writer must ensure that their investigator acts true to character, and that – especially in later books – their eccentricities do not become so hackneyed that they become a caricature of themselves.

A number of “Nicholas Blake’s” detective novels are still in print, including at least three or four for Kindle. A Question of Proof, the first, was published in 1935 and the last, The Private Wound, as late as 1968. By then Lewis was Poet Laureate, having been appointed at the start of the year. It is one of four “Nicholas Blake” novels that doesn’t feature Nigel Strangeways. The other 16 do.

Detective fiction does seem an odd departure for an intellectual like Lewis. At the time A Question of Proof came out he was 31 and had published his first collection of poetry 10 years earlier; he was an associate of W. H. Auden and was strongly influenced by him as a poet. (Nigel Strangeways is said to have initially been modelled on Auden, though he acquired a more distinct character in later books.) Patrick Maume, writing in the Irish Dictionary of National Biography, says that Day Lewis had reviewed numerous detective stories for the Spectator and thought he might as well have a go himself. It is also said Day Lewis needed the money. Whatever his motives, the identity of “Nicholas Blake” soon became known; the board of Cheltenham College, where he was teaching, were concerned and he had to assure them A Question of Proof was in no way autobiographical. (The board were already displeased by his membership of the Communist Party.) 

As to the Blake novels themselves, it may seem that they were meant purely as entertainments but this was not entirely so. “Day Lewis always made it clear that he did not regard the Nicholas Blake novels as serious works of art, but that they should not be dismissed as purely commercial,” says Maume, adding that Day Lewis used the books to explore certain morbid psychological states. There are also political overtones; The Smiler With the Knife (1939) revolves around a fascist conspiracy, very topical at the time. Maume says the film rights were optioned by Orson Welles. Moreover crime fiction might have been a sideline for Day Lewis, but it was a jolly successful one. One of the novels, The Beast Must Die (1938), sold some 430,000 copies, according to Maume. It was filmed in 1969 by Claude Chabrol, and is still in print. 


During the war Day Lewis was in a long and troubled affair with the writer Rosamond Lehmann. He was thus a frequent visitor to her cottage at Aldworth, on the Berkshire Downs west of Reading. There he will have become acquainted with the journalist Anne Scott-James – then women’s editor of Picture Post – who owned the cottage next door. He will thus also have known Scott-James’s then husband, Macdonald Hastings, who also worked for Picture Post, in his case as a war correspondent. After the war he too decided to try his hand at crime fiction. Cork and the Serpent (1955) was one of several detective novels he produced between 1951 and 1966.

The books have an original premise; instead of a detective or private investigator, they feature one Montague Cork, the head of a large London-based insurance company. Now and then, should a claim seem doubtful or fraud possible, he will investigate personally. He has thus become something of a sleuth. One evening he is walking down Mayfair’s Cork Street when he is accosted by a lady of business. She is taken aback by Cork’s response, which is to examine the brooch she is wearing; how did she come by it? He has realised that it fits the description of a valuable jewel that has been reported to his company as lost.

However, it turns out that not one but two clients have reported it as such. So whose was it? One of the two is clearly lying. The eccentric playboy Maharaja of Lumphur? Or the Berkshire racehorse owner and peer Lord Pangbourne? Before Cork can dig further, something most regrettable happens to the Maharaja. Cork decides to speak to Pangbourne and glides off down the Great West Road in his Bentley. The action takes place mainly on the Berkshire chalk downs that to this day are an important centre for the horse-racing industry. The world of horse racing is an important backdrop to the story, as are the rural locations.

It all sounds a bit genteel. It isn’t; the folks in this book do some quite unpleasant things to each other, there are well-drawn, colourful characters and, as in all the best detective yarns, you do become invested in the story and want to guess who the villain is before Cork does. There is also a surprising final scene involving a Royal garden party. Now and then the plot does get contorted, and it was never quite clear to me exactly how the streetwalker, Carmel, came by the brooch. But it’s all good fun. Moreover Hastings’s depiction of Carmel and of the Indian characters seems old-fashioned today but was probably liberal for its time (although Macdonald Hastings himself was not; he held very conservative views).

The rural and racing themes are not surprising, as author Hastings was a great lover of country life and of country sports. According to his son, the journalist and historian Sir Max Hastings, he spent a great deal more than he could afford on the latter, keeping a collection of superb shotguns. He had been quite a distinguished war correspondent; his more dangerous assignments included trips on motor torpedo boats and a bombing raid over Germany in a Short Stirling, the crew of which were killed the following night. His son wrote in a family memoir (Did You Really Shoot the Television?, published in 2010) that he was probably quite reckless. After the war he edited the prestigious Strand Magazine, and when that folded in 1950 he started a magazine on the countryside and country pursuits, Country Fair (this too lost money).  It was about the same time that he started writing detective novels. His character, Montague Cork, was based on a real insurance magnate who Hastings knew, Claude Wilson, head of the Cornhill Insurance Company. History seems to record little of Wilson, and Hastings himself once said that nothing so exciting had happened to Wilson in real life.

There were five Montague Cork novels. In Sir Max’s view, Cork and the Serpent is actually the weakest of them; it draws on Hastings’s knowledge of racing, which was not as great as he supposed it to be, according to Sir Max. Neither, he adds, was his father really familiar with the aristocracy, and this also shows. Critic Daniel P. King, writing in Twentieth Century Crime & Mystery Writers (1980), calls it a “slow moving tale with much muddling about”. He also states that the Cork novels “range from the trite to the noble”. This might be sweeping. To be sure, Macdonald Hastings was not Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. Detective novels, for him, were a sideline in a busy life. Still, the Cork books sold well; and I thought Cork and the Serpent much better than King judged it to be. If it is the weakest, then the others might be well worth reading.

In Did You Really Shoot the Television?, Sir Max is often highly critical of his father, who was bad with money, had very right-wing views and was monumentally tactless. But he had a varied and successful career in journalism, and later in broadcasting.  And Montague Cork, says Sir Max, was a “delightfully original fictional creation”; he praises, too, the countryside descriptions in the books, especially in Cork on the Water and Cork in Bottle. I would like to read the rest.

Not all vintage crime fiction is worth reading. Although some books are unjustly neglected, others are neglected all too justly. But Nigel Strangeways and Montague Cork do deserve our time. As it happens, both were written by men who had remarkable lives of which crime fiction was but one part. So if, as crime writers, both are still worth reading, maybe that is not a coincidence.

Mike Robbins’s latest book, On the Rim of the Sea, is now 
available as a paperback or ebook. More details here.

Monday 22 August 2022

On change, war and the passage of time

A change in my life has made me aware of time passing, of one’s former world slipping away, and of loss. A century ago, the First World War did that to millions. Two novels express those feelings with unusual power

At the end of June I took a taxi across New York City to JFK. A good friend accompanied me, knowing that this wasn’t the easiest of journeys; she helped me with my luggage, and with morale. We queued for an hour and a half at baggage drop; the air was hot and humid, the queue restive. I forked out $100 for being overweight (my suitcase, not me; happily they didn’t weigh me). I said goodbye to my friend with regret; I have known her 20 years and I will miss her.

Another friend asked me the departure time. She would, she said, look out of her window on the 29th floor in Long Island City and wave the plane goodbye as it passed overhead. The flight was delayed by an hour and a half but she followed it anyway on the flight tracker. I’ll miss her too. We went straight out over Jamaica Bay and Manhattan, off to our right, disappeared quickly. No more walks in nearby Central Park or congenial lunches in the Irish pubs on Second Avenue; no more cheerful pizza deliveries; no more drinks on the roof of our beautiful brownstone; no more sirens in the night. Fourteen years in New York City, in the same apartment, had come to an end.


So I am now in England, and time and change have been much on my mind.

A hitch with the flat I had been hoping to live in has seen me stay with friends and then, for a while, borrow a house from other friends; the latter have a well-stocked bookshelf. I had been meaning to read Virgina Woolf’s To the Lighthouse for 30 years but had wondered if I would find it dense and pretentious. When I moved in I saw they had a copy on their shelf. I had nothing immediate to do that day. There was now no excuse. I took a snap of the book on a table next to a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and posted it on Facebook, captioned: “I may need a glass of wine to get through this one.”

This drew howls of derision. “I had to resort to brandy. Lots of it,” said one friend (an English teacher). Another posted a glass of wine, saying: “I decided to copy you, minus the book.” A friend who writes poetry (good poetry) called it “The most boring book I’ve ever read, next to The Beach and White Teeth.” Another, whose opinion about books I tend to respect, reminded me of his own review: “I have really tried to find a way to give this book two stars,” he wrote, “but when the highlight of a book is an earwig in some milk...”

I beg to differ. This is a maddening book in some ways and no-one is obliged like it, or any book for that matter. But I didn’t need loads of wine to get through it. (I drank it anyway. But I didn’t need it.)

The book falls into two main segments, 10 years apart. The two main segments are before and after the first world war – but we know that only because one character has perished in it; Woolf mentions this only briefly, and says nothing else about the conflict. In the first, main, segment we see the Ramsays, a moderately well-to-do couple who spend their summers on Skye with their eight children and in the company of various house-guests. Ramsay is a philosopher who has, when younger, made a major contribution to metaphysics but whose reputation may be fading. Now in his early 60s, he seems to know this and needs constant reassurance and support from women, including his wife. But there is not one whit of evidence that he gives it to anyone else. And Ramsay is tactless as well as needy; the youngest child is excited that they will be taking a boat-trip to the lighthouse. Ramsay rather crushes him, and his wife, by saying brusquely that the weather will be bad and they shan’t go.

Yet it is not him but Mrs Ramsay who dominates this section, for she is far more interesting than her rather selfish husband. She has been a great beauty in her youth and is still striking, warm, affectionate and charismatic – but with a tendency to direct the lives of others.

This first segment is followed by a shorter, linking section, Time Passes, that expresses the passage of time. In it we learn of deaths and of the house, empty, losing its spirit.

In the second main segment, ten years later, Mrs Ramsay is dead and their eldest son has been killed in the war, while their eldest daughter has died in childbirth. The house has been neglected. But a few years later what is left of the family, and two of their friends, return. This time, Ramsay and the two youngest children do sail to the lighthouse. Before that, in a crucial moment, one of the house-guests withholds her emotional support from him. These two events bring a sort of closure; the children are no longer dominated by their self-centred father, and women no longer give him the reassurance he so needs but has done little to earn.

What Woolf has done is take us through the heads of the Ramsays and their guests so that we can see how the web of relationships around them works. Nowhere is this done better than in a description of a family dinner in the first section, in which the characters of the couple and their guests, their motivations and their feelings are laid bare from within, by revealing their thoughts with the stream-of-consciousness technique for which this book is so known. It all sounds rather cold. It isn’t. The changing light in the dining room as the night draws in; the lighting of the candles during the meal; their soft glow against the darkness outside – it is actually quite lyrical, and remains in one’s mind when one rejoins some of the same people 10 years later and feels their sense of loss – the loss of Mrs Ramsay, loss of their younger selves.

This reflects Woolf’s own life. She had lost her brother, her half-sister and then her father when she was still quite young. Most importantly, she had also lost her mother when she was just 13. Thus Mrs Ramsay was in fact a portrait of Woolf’s own mother, Julia Stephen, who – like Mrs Ramsay – had been a noted beauty; she had posed for the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, amongst others. It seems she also had a tendency to organise the lives of others and was an avid matchmaker. This is Mrs Ramsay indeed, and the depiction of her is the key to the book, which turns on the effect she has on the people around her, and the way they feel about her after her passing – which Stephen did fairly suddenly, as Mrs Ramsay does in the book. This also brought family summers in Cornwall to an end (though nominally set in Skye, To the Lighthouse recalls those summers in St Ives; the lighthouse was modelled on the nearby Godrevy Lighthouse).

Virginia Woolf, left, and sister Vanessa
in 1894, the year before the death
of their mother, Julia Stephen
(Photographer unknown)
According to Woolf’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, the portrait of their mother in To the Lighthouse was a vivid one. In her introduction to the Everyman edition, academic Julia Briggs quotes her as telling Woolf: “It was like meeting her again with oneself grown up and on equal terms…” - to wit, a sort of exorcism. Woolf herself would say later that this had been her purpose, and that her mother ceased to haunt her thoughts in the same way after the book was written. If To the Lighthouse has a special life and depth, this may be why.

While time and loss are the main themes in the book, Woolf may also have wished to suggest that men dominate women and yet actually depend on them, suppressing their aspirations but also sucking them dry emotionally. This is seen not only in the relationship between the Ramsays but also in their guest, the artist Lily Briscoe, who is told by a fellow-guest that women can’t paint or write. Briscoe must struggle with her own lack of confidence but seems to decide in the end that it is her own feelings about her art that matter. 

It may be that Woolf was saying something about herself as a woman writer. One also senses that Lily Briscoe is somewhat dazzled by Mrs Ramsay, and needs to get out from under; did Woolf feel that way about her own mother?

I also saw that Woolf was addressing a broader sense of loss, though it is not explicit; the world, and lives, lost through the First World War. So far as I know, she never said so; she doesn’t mention it as such anywhere in the book. We’re merely told that the eldest son has been killed by a shell fragment and that his death was instant along with that of 20 or 30 others. In that brief sentence Woolf may have subtly told us what To the Lighthouse is also about: not just loss, but the fact that in 1927 millions felt it. To be sure, this book expresses Woolf’s own very personal sense of loss. But the war is there.


Why do some people loathe this book?

I think I know. It isn’t pretentious, but it can be dense. That is a function of the way it is written. As a rule, a good writer will show, not tell. What is striking about To the Lighthouse is that Woolf completely breaks that rule, taking us inside the characters and unspooling their inner thoughts. A friend who lectures in the arts at a major US university, and has taught this book and others by Woolf, reminds me that this is common to many writers, especially when telling stories from multiple viewpoints. “Do we accuse Henry James, say, of telling not showing?” she asks me. It is a fair point. But Woolf does take this quite far. It works, the way breaking any rule might work provided you break it hard enough. It also makes this book a little hard, at times, to read. But it is one of the keys to its poignant nature.

Another reason may be the fact that this book was, for Woolf, autobiographical and deeply personal, and is anchored in characters that she herself knew. This may also have irritated some readers, as it can seem self-indulgent; surely a good novel should say something about broader human experience?

But I think it does; as we’ve seen, the First World War is the unspoken backdrop to this book. It isn’t just about Woolf’s own bereavements. That’s not obvious now, but to readers at the time it probably was. It’s true that Woolf does not mention the war explicitly, instead alluding to it only briefly – but that is natural; in 1927, one would not labour a point about an experience that had only just been common to everybody.

I suppose that if everyone likes a book, no-one really loves it. And when I made that Facebook post there was one dissenting voice, from my lecturer friend. The book was, she said, “exhilarating. And profoundly moving – on time, perception, loss, art. It is a book that never leaves me.” I think I at least partly agree. To the Lighthouse is not, in the end, a sterile or pretentious literary experiment. On the contrary, it is surprising for its gentle depiction of love and regret and its understanding of grief.

I did not need the brandy.


So to another book I found in the same shelf: J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country

I had known this book was meant to be rather good and had been planning to read it for years, but would likely have gone on doing so had I not found a copy in my friend’s bookcase. I am glad I did. Carr wasn’t a well-known or fashionable writer; he spent much of his life as a teacher in Kettering and wrote books because he felt like it. They attracted little notice until he was really quite old. But this short book, written in the late 1970s when he was about 66, is a tour de force.

A Month in the Country begins on a wet day in the summer of 1920. A young man arrives in the Yorkshire village of Oxgodby to execute a commission. A wealthy parishioner has left a bequest to the church on the condition that a medieval doom-painting high on the chancel arch, long whitewashed over, is uncovered. The young man, Birkin, is the restorer. Over the summer he will reveal the painting. He will also find a sense of peace in the village, and will start to recover from the damage inflicted on him on the battlefield at Passchendaele. But he will also fall in love, and face a decision. Nearly 60 years later, he recounts that summer in Yorkshire and what it meant to him, and remembers the world of the 1920s, now vanished.

I had expected a dreamy, elegiac book, but it seemed at first that I was going to get something more realistic than that. It opens in the rain as Birkin walks down to Oxgodby soaked to the skin and gets a cool welcome from the vicar, who he knows at once he shan’t like. And yet this book is elegiac, a picture of the countryside 100 years ago and a way of life that has likely largely gone, with horses and carts hauling people to Sunday-school treats and harmoniums in the chapels. This could have been very hackneyed or contrived, or come across as cloying nostalgia. It doesn’t, because Carr’s language is simple and elegant; not one passage is over-written, so that at the end the sense of a lost world, and long-ago love, strikes one suddenly and with some force. It’s something I’ve only seen done this well once before, by J. B. Priestley in his own masterwork, Bright Day.

A Month in the Country
does have a harder edge, should one wish to find it. Medieval doom paintings were intended to warn the congregation of damnation. The righteous are shown lining up to enter Heaven; sinners are seen falling into hellfire, assisted by imps and demons. I wondered if Carr intended to link the depiction of Hell in the painting, and the fact that Birkin, along with millions of other young men, had just been there. Is Carr telling us that Christian notions of Hell are somewhat idle when it’s actually a place that we create ourselves? Carr was eight in 1920, so did not fight in the First World War (though he did serve in the Second). But he would certainly have remembered the shadows the war cast in the 1920s. My father, born in 1920, did. 

Meanwhile there is a hint that whoever painted the original may have died suddenly, before he could finish his work; also that one of the damned souls in his painting is clearly someone real. These two facts may be linked, but Carr leaves this to our imagination. But it doesn’t really matter whether one uncovers these layers or not, because this short, simply written and rather beautiful book has enormous impact. I can’t recommend it too highly. In fact A Month in the Country and To the Lighthouse may both be amongst the four or five best novels I have read.

Sometimes books can be a source of solace at a time of change and worry. These two were.

Mike Robbins’s latest book, On the Rim of the Sea, is now 
available as a paperback or ebook. More details here.

Monday 16 May 2022

On the Rim of the Sea

 Enjoy the sea view. Don’t fall in

At the end of 2012 I started this blog. I don’t know quite what I planned to do with it at the time. The heading says “Travel, science, books Whatever I feel like, really.” Which is more or less how it’s panned out. It’s been an eclectic mess of pieces covering everything from lentil recipes to politics. (Quite a lot of politics, actually.)

I realized that some of the pieces were beginning to fit a pattern. I would become interested in some topic or event, and gather books about it – then use them to write a piece on that particular subject, examining the different angles and accounts. I don’t think this format was a new idea. Punch did this in its book-review pages when I was growing up and I believe The New Yorker (a magazine I like) has as well. It lets you swoop down upon some incident or time that has piqued your curiosity. 

In my case, they included such varied topics as the philosophy of science, the world’s worst shipwreck (no, not the Titanic), the postwar occupation of Germany, the extraordinary life of Marie Curie’s daughter Ève, the fate of Chinese labourers on the Western Front, the way novelists have seen Fleet Street, a writer’s memoirs of Imperial India, the last great sailing ships, and the Golden Age of crime fiction.

At some point I saw that, strung together in the right order, the pieces would be a review of the 20th century through its memoirs and literature. At that point my new book, On the Rim of the Sea, began to take shape.

The book’s title was inspired by a passage in the splendid Instead of a Letter, by the late Diana Athill. In it she describes how, as a child, she shocked her grandmother by talking of life as being in a bowl, floating on the sea; provided one stayed at the bottom of the bowl, one might be serene – but every now and then the motion of the sea flung one up the side and forced one to a view of “dangerous, cold grey water” that would be unbearable. That, she said, was the origin of madness. Is it? The years covered by the pieces in this book (roughly, 1912 to the present) certainly showed us more of the sea than we should have liked. As I write (May 2022), the cold grey water is back with a vengeance. But it has not always been that way. This book has its darker bits, but there were lighter times.

This book is, in part, a self-indulgence – I acknowledge that freely; it’s the result of years spent reading books on a whim. But there is also a purpose. The books of a time, especially its memoirs and reportage, do hold up a mirror to a period or incident when it has long passed. I’d strongly disagree with the critic Cyril Connolly, who wrote in The Unquiet Grave (1944) that: '"The more books we read, the sooner we perceive that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence." This is, frankly, bullshit. Most writers will not produce a masterpiece – I won’t – and we don’t always aspire to. Rather, we provide a lens through which others can better see the world. This is not always an art; quite often, it is just a craft.

If On the Rim of the Sea shines a light on unfamiliar corners of the past century, I shall be happy. If its readers enjoy it, I shall be very happy indeed.

Where to buy On the Rim of the Sea

The book is available as both an ebook and a paperback. If you’d like to support independent bookshops (as many people do), they can order it; you will need the ISBN number (978-0991437481).

To buy online:

Amazon (or in the UK, here)

Apple Books

Barnes & Noble/Nook


Booktopia (Australia)


Rakuten Kobo