LOST CAUSE by J. L. Simpson

15 09 2014

Lost Cause coverI found Lost Cause quite hard to get into – might even have given up had I not agreed to write a review. I’ll come back to why I found the earlier part of the book somewhat off-putting in a moment.

First, let me say that the book is professionally produced in every way. The writing and the editing are both impeccable. Not even one of those peculiar errors we seem to be becoming inured to like the meaningless “I could care less”. No, here the narrator says she “couldn’t care less”. Bingo.

But how to classify this story? It is called a “mystery” – Daisy Dunlop Mystery Book 1. There are several mysteries, but which one is the mystery I really couldn’t say. It is certainly not a thriller, and though it is a crime story, the rather complex crime and the various bit-part criminals are not really what the book is about. Nor is it a romance, a love-story. The protagonist, Daisy Dunlop, is the mother of a teenage son and almost absurdly happily married to her husband Paul. There is no way she would ever be unfaithful to him. Yet she does flirt, often outrageously, with almost every male she meets. Especially the “Irish git” (her words) that her husband has arranged for her to work alongside as a trainee P.I. and heir-hunter. Both the husband and his friend “Solomon” (the Irish git) assume that after a few days she will abandon this ridiculous idea.

Really, the story is about the relationship between Daisy and Solomon. It is this flirting that you remember when you finish the book on another outrageous line from Daisy. A flirtation story, then. But beautifully done.

Which brings me back to my problem with the opening chapters. Daisy’s husband, Paul, and his mate Solomon are both big, hard, rich, clever, arrogant men. Alpha males. And Daisy is the obedient strawberry-blonde. Well, not always obedient. Far from it. But when she disobeys one of them she invariably feels guilty, and frequently lands herself in a load of trouble from which Solomon must ride in on his white charger (actually an Aston Martin) and rescue her.

Me, I like strong female leads. The stronger the better. And yet I liked Daisy more and more as the book went on and she began to find her feet (not easy on those heels) till by the end she was saving Solomon (all right, causing some typical dumb-blonde chaos in doing so) and I had quite made up my mind that I would definitely read Daisy Dunlop Mysteries Book 2. I also very much liked the gradual focus on homeless people, whom Daisy decides really are “the secret eyes and ears of the world”.

Final verdict? If you are in the mood for a light-hearted crime story featuring an irresistible would-be sleuth, this is the book for you.





THE ROSE OF HARLOW by M. B. Gilbride

3 09 2014

The Rose of Harlow coverApparently M.B. Gilbride first wrote The Rose of Harlow as a play. Then one day found it and read it and decided to rewrite it.

The rewrite has produced, instead of a play, a very original dramatic novella.

The reader identifies completely with Gerda (I always love losing myself in a character) as she is carried helplessly from a Teacher Training College (she is expelled) to a Realignment Office (she is glamourised) to a Ministry (she is fired after offending the Prime Minister) to the Inner City (and hanging about, unemployed) to the Forest (and living out) to Glastonbury (and a group of feminist New-Agers) to Prison, to a Research Lab (where we see her as a mermaid – yes!) to a Doggy Club (like a nasty Bunny Club) to a cheap brothel (Upstairs at the Doggy Club), from where she – she … read it and see.

But I must mention some of the characters! Her friend Penny (the political activist), Professor Mandril (the baboon on a white charger, her first and only verray parfait gentil knyght), Father Figure (who regrets the passing of the Inquisition), Billy (the ageing SF writer for whom she models), Homo mensuralis and Homo sensibilis (both of whom wish to change her), Woolly-hat, Bowler, Skinhead (who takes her to the Harlow Rose Show, and absconds with the prize-money when she wins), Estelle de Miel, Dicky (the bird-watcher who spots her in the Forest), the Bag-lady, the Faw-Paw-String-Man, the Curate (the world is a curate’s egg), and many others.

It is a weird masterpiece. Gilbride’s slant-eyed view of the eighties and his unique way of seeing all things through the eye of the mermaid – literary impressionism – what more can you ask? You need a brain to read The Rose of Harlow – don’t get it if you’re just looking for another shot of soft porn – but if you’ve got a brain and a sense of humour, then give it a go. As I say, weird, but totally unforgettable.





“Accessorize”, watch out!

21 08 2014

Fashion Accessory





MURDERERS PREFER BLONDES by Amanda Matetsky

20 08 2014

Murderers Prefer BlondesIn the 1950s, when Tiffany Cage (see my review of Diamonds are Forever) was working in New York, you weren’t a woman, you were a “broad”, a “doll”, a “skirt” – or if your father or your husband was rich, a “lady”. Life for the single working girl and widows (lots of those after WW2 and Korea) and unmarried mums (but were they allowed to keep the kid?) was no fun at all unless you were some kind of blonde bombshell, and even then the party was soon over.

This though? “How could one nice, single, pretty, polite, young blonde have had so many male acquaintances with so many possible motives to murder her?

Murderers Prefer Blondes is the story of an overworked and underpaid Girl Friday in an office full of underworked, overpaid and arrogant men. The office of Daring Detective magazine. Paige Turner – yes, that’s her name, and she wants to be a writer, and in fact this is it, her first book …It’s well written, you enjoy it and you can’t help loving her. She’s twenty-seven, a widow whose husband was killed in the war in Korea, and she’s busy looking for the right crime for her story. The crime she comes across? The rape and murder of a blonde waitress and part-time photographic model and call-girl whom she met when she came to Daring Detective once about being the model for a front cover.

Paige is clever, sexy and streetwise. She is also sensitive and kind. Most of the “dolls” seem to have been sensitive and kind in those days. Perhaps it came from the way they were treated: the “Cinderella syndrome”. Anyway, she needs all these different qualities and more as she meets and mixes with the bar owners and waitresses, pimps and photographers, models and prostitutes that the victim herself used to mix with, and who, Paige hopes, will have information leading to the murderer. Then the murderer (another very arrogant and very spoilt man) decides he wants her dead, too, before her investigation goes any further …





DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER by Ian Fleming

19 08 2014

Diamonds Are Forever cover

I’ve been spending the evening – and much of the night! – with James Bond again. This time it was Diamonds are Forever, the third of the original novels that I have read since reviewing James Bond: The Authorised Biography on this site.

I talked about the sexism and the racism in earlier reviews (here and here). In Diamonds are Forever, which is set mostly in the USA, all that is once more there in the background, of course. It is still the 1950s, and without the racism and sexism typical of the period the book would seem like a badly researched historical novel written by someone in the PC here-and-now. But Fleming was brilliant at portraying a time and place, and everything in this book is exactly as it was. Don’t take my word for it; listen to Raymond Chandler: “The remarkable thing about this book is that it is written by an Englishman. The scene is almost entirely American, and it rings true to an American. I am unaware of any other writer who has accomplished this.”

What our James is up against here is American gangsters. And when M gives him the mission, it is evident that M is more nervous about sending him on this job than he ever was when sending him on “Iron Curtain business”. Talking to the Chief of Staff later, James says “What’s he so worried about? [...] There’s nothing extraordinary about American gangsters. They’re not Americans. Mostly a lot of Italian bums with monogrammed shirts who spend the day eating spaghetti and meat-balls and squirting scent over themselves.”

That’s what you think,” the Chief of Staff replies.

By the end of the book, James has learnt better – and is seriously considering marrying the “gangsters’ moll” known as Tiffany Case.

Which brings me to another thing. In each of the three books I have read so far (this time round) James has fallen in love, literally, and by the time the story draws to an end is contemplating marriage. Is this the hard man who treats women as sex-objects to be used and discarded which seems to be everyone’s idea of him and how he has been portrayed in many of the films?

Speaking of the films, I remember that Diamonds are Forever was my favourite. I’m going to watch it again this evening and do a post tomorrow on the story – or rather the two stories, for there were, I now realise, some major changes in the film version.





I Do That

17 08 2014

I-do-that





PETER ABELARD by Helen Waddell

15 08 2014

Peter Abelard coverThis is a love story – one of the greatest (“Abelard and Heloise” rings all the bells, like Tristan and Isolde, Dante and Beatrice, Antony and Cleopatra)  and Peter Abelard, Helen Waddell’s wonderful novel, is probably the best retelling of it. 

But her novel is more than that, for it is also the story of Peter Abelard himself, the leading philosopher and theologian of his age and one of the great tragic figures of all the ages.

“It is the strong who have enemies: it is on the mountain peaks that the thunderbolts fall,” says Gilles de Vannes, Canon of Notre Dame, quoting St Jerome. Fat old Gilles, with his razor-sharp mind, is the confidant of both Abelard and Heloise and provides the anchor that holds the story down. He knew them both in the beginning, before they met -

‘He [Heloise's uncle, Fulbert] is ambitious for her, as you have yourself perceived. He bade me say that she will be at your disposal at any hour you choose.’ Gilles’ voice rasped like a saw.

Abelard sat grimly silent. Suddenly he rose, and coming down the room, stood square in front of Gilles. ‘Is the man right in his wits?’ 

- and is still there weeping over their fate at the end:

She [Heloise] got up quickly and crossed the room to the window, that he [Gilles] might not see her agony. And standing there, struggling to control herself, she heard behind her a small stifled sound. She turned round. He had his face to the wall, but she could see the old Silenus mask distorted with soundless weeping, the hands opening and closing in impotent despair. 

Abelard agrees to teach Heloise at home, privately. Indeed, he moves into their house, board and lodging being one of the blandishments that induce him to go along with the idea. And of course they grow close. Heloise is very beautiful, very sweet and very intelligent; Abelard is a youing man still, charming and charismatic.

Then Heloise panics and runs. Abelard goes after her, searching the countryside around Paris  and returns home that night in despair only to find her waiting for him in his room.

He fumbled at the latch, the door fell open: he came in a step or two, bewildered by the light: she saw his eyes seeking, not yet comprehending, suddenly wild with hope. She was there at the window: he saw the small white oval of her face, the black pools of her eyes. With a little stifled cry, she held out her arms to him: he was on his knees at her feet, his head buried in her lap, his whole body shaking with a terrible tearless sobbing. [...] She stooped and took his head and carried it to her breast.

They have passed the point of no return. At one point, they journey back from Britanny together, Heloise disguised as a boy, and of course make love in the forest. What was there in love that taught a man all the mysteries of the ancient faiths? He looked at the young creature riding ahead of him, with a kind of awe. Was that the Heloise he knew, or had Psyche become Eros …?

The only person in Paris who is not aware of what is happening is Fulbert, Heloise’s uncle (Or was he really her father? – which would be ironical considering his attitude to Abelard, who was willing to sacrifice his career in the Church to marriage.) And when he does find out, it is Heloise who is against the idea of marriage. Eventually, she becomes pregnant, they compromise, get married in secret, and she bears him a son. But this is not enough for Fulbert, who has swung from guileless and doting to remorselessly vindictive: he has Abelard castrated.

The end of the story, in a sense.

Abelard joins a monastery, Heloise a convent (at his insistence).

However, Helen Waddell’s account of the rest of Abelard’s life, the accusations of heresy, the trial, and so on, is a masterpiece:

‘Have you read the “De Trinitate”, Gilles?’

Gilles nodded. ‘It is more than his accusers have, I’ll be bound.’

‘And is it heretical?’

‘Of course it is heretical. Every book that ever was written about the Trinity is heretical, barring the Athanasian Creed. And even that only saves itself by contradicting everything it says as fast as it says it.’ 

But he is tried at the Council of Soissons, where, in a complete travesty of justice even by the standards of the medieval Church, Abelard is sentenced after being found not guilty: his book is to be burnt and he is to be incarcerated for life. By the time his friends arrange his release, he is a broken man. He retreats with one young disciple to a hermitage in the forest, and there, as a result of a mystical insight into the nature of the Incarnation, formulates the doctrine known as the Moral Atonement, condemnned by the Church as patripassianism. [In his own words:] “How cruel and unjust it appears that anyone should have demanded the blood of the innocent as any kind of ransom. Or have been in any way delighted with the death of the innocent, let alone that God should have found the death of His Son so acceptable, that through it he should have been reconciled to the whole world ” In brief: God suffers when man or any passible creature suffers, and it is by identifying with Christ on the Cross that man becomes God.

This is what places him among the ranks of the great heresiarchs.

Reprinted nine times in its year of publication (1933) and in print continuously ever since, this is a book that must be read (and read again) by anyone interested in medieval Paris and/or the medieval Church, but especially by those who appreciate a marvellous and very moving love-story that has now established itself as one of the classics of the genre.

H and A LettersBut for what happens to him and Heloise later, when they reestablish contact after ten years, it is necessary to turn to another book: The Letters of Abelard and Heloise. Here we meet the new Heloise, “famed for her learning and administrative genius as an abbess,” who addresses Abelard in the opening paragraph of the first letter as “my beloved” and “my only love” and who beneath the surface is clearly still the old Heloise: in that same first letter she says “God is my witness that Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honourable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore“. Her love had not changed one iota.

“Where is the learned Heloise?” asked Francois Villon, the Paris ‘gutter-poet’, sometime in the 1450s. “Where is he who for her sake was castrated and forced to live the life of a monk – Peter Abelard, who for love of her suffered so much misfortune, shed so many a tear? But then, where are the snows of yesteryear?”

The Penguin Classics edition of the letters that I have in my hand also contains Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum, Abelard’s own account of his misfortunes, on which of course much of the novel is based. Abelard’s own words again: “But success always puffs up fools with pride  I began to think myself the only philosopher in the world, with nothing to fear from anyone, and so I yielded to the lusts of the flesh  There was in Paris at the time a young girl named Heloise, the niece of one of the canons …’ 

Heloise on Abelard








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