Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace

In Kate Summerscale's previous book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher the author demonstrated that if you are going to try marketing what was essentially an extended essay you could do worse than find a subject that included a notorious Victorian murder, family secrets and a celebrated Scotland Yard Detective. It was a massive bestseller. If you expected Summerscale to choose another such mystery, perhaps another murder and another dashing detective then you might be a little disappointed that this time the focus is on one of the most notable of the early divorce trials of the 1850s.
Henry Robinson is a middle class businessman who discovers his wife's secret diary, the contents of which form the basis of his legal attempts to divorce her. The case hinges on whether the illicit affair detailed within the pages is truth or some elaborate fiction. Also on trial is the professional and personal reputation of the object of Mrs Robinson's obsession,  Edward Lane, respected by the great and the good as a brilliant practitioner of hydrotherapy working from his clinic/spa at Moor Park. The verdict is less important, to the reader at least, than the study of a period of history focusing on social aspects like the law, marriage, health, class, family, sex, the psyche, morality, science and religion. Lane and Mrs Robinson have a large and eclectic circle of contacts and friends that reach deep into British literary circles and the Victorian scientific intelligentsia; Darwin is one of Lane's patients and George Combe, a  proponent of phrenology, is a frequent correspondent of them both.
Sumerscale melds the different sources into the essay with care and the proper focus for the themes explored. The tone is certainly engaging and never dry. As a slice of  social history the book works very well. It might be the case that some people might be more inclined to read the diaries in question and make their own mind up without Summerscales commentary but as a fuller snapshot of the times Mrs Robinson's disgrace would be my choice. Divorce case aside the book also celebrates the early history of diaries, their place in the British home and like the crux of the trial, the line between factual journal and their place among fiction as entertainment.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Ghost Writer

Gerrard Freeman is a young Librarian living in Australia with his secretive mother. As a child he found a mysterious photograph and a strange ghost story written by his great-grandmother Viola Hatherley. The discovery causes his mother to abandon any mention of her former life in England, a life until that point lit up by sunlit tales of an idyllic country house named Staplefield. Gerrard believes there is a dark secret to be discovered which he shares with his only confidant and object of near obsessive devotion, pen friend Alice Jessell - a woman he has never met. Discovering more stories by Viola, Gerrard soon becomes aware of strange similarities and portentous detail.
John Harwood's The Ghost Writer is a complex puzzle of a story within a story with an unclear distinction between truth and fiction. It's very hard to keep the two separate and at times I tended to let Gerrard try to figure things out for me, which probably wasn't the wisest of actions on my part. Some aspects are much more clearly false to the reader than they are to our questing librarian which makes you rather want to give the poor guy a slap. Harwood switches styles pretty effortlessly between Gerrard's uncomplicated though bewildered narrative and the evocation of a hybrid chimera of  Sheridan Le Fanu,  Edgar Allan Poe and Henry James to breath style into Viola's macabre stories. The only real gripe I'd have is the rather abrupt ending, though in defense of Harwood there is very little left unresolved. The lack of any real concluding end-note had me holding up the blank end-pages and considering the possibility of hidden passages in lemon juice.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Thursday, 3 May 2012

x2 Pinkness

A friend of mine bought a new camera recently. He does this from time to time. He tells me how much zoom it has, and all the features, delighting in the numbers, the higher the better. I suggested he take some pictures of the cherry blossoms that are in fine bloom all over the place at the moment... and there's even been some sunshine in patches to bring colour to the usual Blackburn greyness.
"What's cherry blossom?" he replied.
I give up.
Anyhow, the next time he disappeared into another grey building to gaze in awe at some more mechanical monstrosities with outrageously large specification numbers adorning their shininess, I stayed in the car in the car park, stuck my little camera out of the window (zoom x2) and clicked it hopefully at the nearest pink blossoms.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Dead Detectives

Being a massive fanboy of Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) for the last four decades or so, a book featuring a dead detective should be an attractive prospect for me. I'm not comparing them though as they are two quite different beasts when all is read and done. Peg Herring's Dead Detective is a guy called Seamus who operates from a limbo between life and death cunningly incorporated as a swanky ocean liner. At the behest of the newly dead he takes on cases that resolve the recently deceased's unfinished business, in this case the suspicious death of a rich business man called Dunbar. This time he has to take along a headstrong female rookie called Mildred to help in his investigation. Dead for the Money is solidly written with well fleshed characters but is sabotaged from within by its own format. The Dead Detective goes about his business by hiding in the minds of the likely suspects or witnesses. In a way he inhabits the same sort of perspective as the reader and he's almost as helpless to influence events. In fact ninety percent of the time it's easy to forget Seamus and Mildred are part of the narrative at all. Ghostly gumshoes aside, the story still has a lot going for it; Dunbar's grandchildren Bud & Brodie are engaging and the story does build up to a thrilling finale.