the chinese room 2 vivian connell 1942The Chinese Room by Vivian Connell ~ 1942. This edition: Citadel Press, 1942. Hardcover. 344 pages.

My rating: 3.5/10

And all this time I thought it was merely a garden variety murder mystery!

The book’s been sitting on the shelf for a few years now. I’d heard it referenced as a mystery novel, and I was sort of saving it for the right time for such a mental amusement. I guess I’m just a little out of the loop.

Here’s Kirkus, from 1942, with the review I read after I put down the novel in bemusement partway through to do some further research.

Deep purple, in an uninhibited novel largely about sex, which wanders now and again into perversion, psychiatry, and Oriental eccentricities. The publishers claim affinity with D. H. Lawrence, which might be recognisable only in the very obviously exerted efforts of the characters to find physical passion. They are Nicholas, an English banker, whose wife Muriel had been consistently frigid; Sidonie, his secretary and paid mistress, who is aloof, baffling, and is revealed to have a cloven hoof; Saluby, a psychiatrist, who “awakens” Muriel, the result of which ricochets on Nicholas so that by the close, husband and wife find complete satisfaction in each other. Can only see one type of market – and one reason for reading it.

What an odd novel this one turned out to be.

It starts of traditionally enough, following staid English banker Nicholas Bude as he goes off home to the country for the weekend, only to discover things in a state of turmoil, due to the unexpected suicide of an estate employee’s daughter. Seems there was some sort of mental aberration going on, with the young woman apparently writing abusive anonymous letters to herself before her fatal breakdown.

Nicholas and the doctor in attendance – the saturnine Dr. Saluby – spend quite some time discussing this, with the result that Nicholas is prompted by Saluby to try a similar experiment upon himself.

We’re not quite sure what these fellows are actually trying to prove, but it sets the narrative up for some strenuous navel gazing on the part of Nicholas, while Dr. Saluby lurks stage left, rubbing his hands with glee for reasons a bit murky, though they might have something to do with Nicolas’s beautiful and (apparently) sexually frigid wife Muriel, who has become the focus of Dr. Saluby’s seductive gaze.

So far, so good. I was still thinking that the suicide would prove to be a key element in the puzzle, and that a clever whodunnit was yet in the offing, especially when Nicholas starts receiving his own series of anonymous letters, which may or may not be written to him by himself.

I couldn’t be more wrong. Instead, the novel abandons the sedate mystery format and morphs instead into an increasing torrid series of sexual situations. It’s a dirty novel!

Nicholas turns out to be having a long-running affair with his brilliant Oxford-educated secretary, Sidonie, a stunningly beautiful and deeply secretive blond with a strange physical deformity. He and Sidonie indulge in a rough sexual interlude every Monday evening, reaching “mutual satisfaction” after each bedroom encounter involving Sidonie refusing to let her hair down or (hint, hint!) reveal her bare feet. She bites Nicholas arousingly – and apparently quite viciously, for she frequently draws blood! – and he always leaves her an envelope of money on his way out, which she then mails off to an orphanage.

Surely there is some mystery plot developing with this scenario? Is there some clue in Sidonie’s habit of serious nipping? In the orphanage connection?

Nope. Not at all. Purely random.

Meanwhile, back in the country, Muriel finds herself the target of Dr. Saluby’s amorous advances. She experiences a sexual awakening of sorts, leading to much discussion about the emotional dangers of repressing one’s erotic desires in order to adhere to societal expectations. Apparently Muriel and Nicholas should have let their passions flow early on in their engagement, instead of waiting for the marriage ceremony.

The premise is that Muriel has buried her natural impulses so deeply that she is unable to access them when she finally has official permission to do so. But once these come to the surface, thanks to Dr. Saluby’s selfishly chauvinistic love-making, the newly aroused Muriel starts looking around with wild surmise.

After a brief interlude with another doctor, a gorgeous Scottish he-man sort who is quick to seize the opportunity of an afternoon’s lovemaking with the newly receptive Muriel, she spurns Dr. Saluby and sets her sights on seducing her own husband, whom she was initially attracted to by his passionate nature and “powerful hands”. (There is a whole sub-plot involving Nicholas’s hands which I won’t get into here, as this is already getting too darned long.)

With the help of a homemade pair of green silk, crotchless leggings and the lavish application of red lipstick to various key bits of her body, Muriel catches Nicholas’s attention and husband and wife finally find their sexual groove after ten years of disappointing marital “duty sex”.

Nicholas, Muriel, and Sidonie then get together in a mutual reconciliation session, followed by explanations of all the bemusements. Though I rather expected them all to end up in bed together, the author spares us this. Thank you, Mr. Connell.

The anonymous letter thing gets cleared up, sort of, though we never do get a satisfactory explanation regarding the original suicide which set the wheels of this novel in motion.

Still with me, and still curious about this odd little period piece?

Here’s a link to the only other review I could find in my not-very-strenuous internet search. Dan Stump writes a good review in Mystery File , referencing The Chinese Room‘s  subsequent movie adaptation, and its status as something of a cult classic of its erotic-pulp-fiction genre.

Another link to the 1966 film, with a brief biographical note on the author at the very bottom.

Remember the reference to D.H. Lawrence in the Kirkus review? Vivian Connell deserves a mildly favourable comparison to DHL, as The Chinese Room did contain a fair bit of decent writing and some interesting musings on the inner lives of its characters, but, sadly, the gratuitous and increasingly frequent semi-explicit sex scenes ruined what might instead have been something of a higher literary standing.

The Chinese Room was surprisingly successful, going into numerous editions and selling over three million copies. Perhaps this had something to do with its instant notoriety due to its American recall in 1942 by the Society for the Suppression of Vice, who demanded the censorship of a certain phrase before it could be allowed back into general circulation.

My particular edition is the original, and I would be hard pressed to identify which particular phrase that was. There’s quite a lot of questionable stuff herein, blush-inducing, indeed, though mostly because of the awkwardness of the writing and the ridiculousness of the scenarios versus anything too wildly explicit in the way of sexual detail. Pornographic it isn’t, if one applies the dictionary definition.

The Chinese Room was Vivian Connell’s most commercially successful book, though he was also a playwright, and was apparently involved in the Hollywood movie industry. He did go on to write a number of other, apparently even more risqué novels. I rather think, from the “serious” bits of The Chinese Room, that he would have liked to be viewed as a more mainstream writer, and he might indeed have made it, for there is evidence of a certain competence of thought and phrasing and even flashes of brilliance here and there. Doomed by those intrusive sex scenes, though.

Ah, well. So close, but yet so far…

by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1942

Vivian Connell, Irish writer and playwright. Image from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. Photographed in 1942 by Harold Coster.

Though The Chinese Room ultimately disappointed me, I suspect I’d snap up any reasonably-priced Connells found while browsing the pulp fiction shelves in future. (Say, $5 maximum, though $2 would be better.)

Don’t you find these representative covers strangely curiousity-inducing?! “A lost weekend – of women”. Huzzah!

Other titles to be aware (or beware) of:

A Man of Parts, 1950. “A tempestuous novel of the London stage, its greatest lover, and the women caught in the tempest.”

a man of parts vivian connell 1950

Bachelors Anonymous, 1956. “For David Young, life was a lost weekend of dames. In a word, he was a love lush. He could fake out the boss on most hangovers, until ‘one too many’ happened to be a client’s wife. And then it was go on the wagon or else. But how, when a guy can’t break the habit? And then the club came to the rescue…”

bachelors anonymous vivian connell 1956

The Love Lush - illus Ron Lesser.2September in Quinze, 1952. Published later in paperback as The Naked Rich. “Set on the French Riviera, a world of sybaritic luxury, violence, self-indulgence, loneliness and sometimes even love.” Bonus dust jacket blurb:

He stood in the street disguised in a pair of old trousers and a shirt that bared his massive chest. His eyes dwelled feverishly on the woman standing beneath a lampost. Of all the women in France tonight he desired only this tawny-haired, dark-eyed female. “Do you know what I want from you?” he asked. She nodded and led him silently to her apartment. From the window they could see the yacht of the fabulous King Sadook, its royal flag fluttering. “Do you want a king tonight?” he whispered. She shook her head. Her single garment fell away. “I want a man,” she told him simply. He laughed and said “I’ll give you both!”.

september in quinze 1952 vivian connellThe Dream and the Flesh, originally published as The Peacock is a Gentleman, 1959. “Paris was his – and so were its women!”

the dream and the flesh vivian connell 1959

The Golden Sleep, 1948. “More daring than The Chinese Room!”

the golden sleep 2 1948 vivian connell

the golden sleep vivian connell 1948The Hounds of Cloneen, 1951. Hey, check this out. An author bio on the back cover!

the hounds of cloneenhounds of cloneen dj blurbvivian connell bio, back dj the hounds of cloneenThe Stolen Pearls, 1961.

VIVIAN-CONNELL-Stolen-PearlsVIVIAN-CONNELL-Stolen-Pearls back coverMonte Carlo Mission, 1954. “Vivian Connell, master of the sophisticated suspense novel, brings you his finest in Monte Carlo Mission. Meet Corinna Lang, a goddess of the movies, who was bored with mammoth swimming pools, small MGs, fat directors, and slim leading men. Bored with the whole great golden illusion of Hollywood, this smart cookie decides a mere vacation in Monte Carlo would be just too tame. She’s looking for adventure, and has the right amount of moxie and courage to take advantage of it when she finds it! Take a journey with this enchanting heroine to the wicked, extravagant Riviera where the golden Corinna, undertaker of a top secret mission, lives in the shadow of international intrigue, and matches her quick wit with the most dangerous men in Europe.”

Monte Carlo Mission.2

storm drift ethel m dell 1930Storm Drift by Ethel M. Dell ~ 1930. This edition: Ryerson Press, 1930. Hardcover. 376 pages.

My rating: 3.5/10

Picture yourself on a boat on the ocean, just out of Bombay, heading to England…

Here’s Tiggie, our hero. He’s a wealthy bachelor looking forward to a few months of convalescence from his latest bout of some tropical ailment.

Tiggie can’t keep his eyes off a fellow passenger, the ethereally beautiful and frantically anxious Mrs. Viola Norman, whose husband appears to have missed the sailing. Tiggie steps up to soothe the perpetually shrinking Viola, and discovers that her nervous condition is apparently well justified, for not only is she pretty well stone broke and bereft of her (apparent) spouse, she is also in the family way.

The overwrought Viola attempts to end it all by taking a dive off the ship’s railing, but Tiggie intervenes in a dramatic rescue. As he pulls the frail Mrs Norman to safety, he is suddenly overwhelmed by a rush of feelings for her. Full on, instant infatuation. He’s on fire!

Confined as they are to the first class deck of a ship at sea, Tiggie and Viola can’t avoid each other, and Tiggie focuses his ever-more-fevered gaze on the trembling little grass widow. He is rewarded when Viola reveals herself to be a woman with an unexpectedly passionate inner core, as Tiggie discovers when he manages to corner her one post-rescue night on a secluded corner of the deck. As his lips meet hers, and she yields meltingly to his masterful embrace, fireworks go off, volcanoes erupt, etcetera. (Too bad she’s MARRIED. And PREGNANT.)

Storm-Drift

Viola looks a bit green in this cover depiction. Could it be the combined queasiness of pregnancy, the rolling ship, and her recent suicide attempt, or merely the overwhelming effect of the masterful Tiggie’s manly grip and burning lips?

Tiggie belatedly gets a grip on himself and does the Correct Gentleman’s Thing. He pulls himself off with an apology, which Viola whisperingly accepts. They mustn’t see each other once they reach England! Viola, having confessed to being abandoned by the father of her coming child, insists that she will be able to find employment and care for herself, and that she will quickly repay the money which Tiggie forces upon her to tide her over. He’ll never see her again; she won’t be beholden to him; their mutual smoldering passion will just have to be firmly quenched. They must forever part!

Need I go on? (I will, of course. The question is purely rhetorical; I could stop right there and let you guess the rest quite successfully yourself.)

For of course their paths reconnect, and through an elaborately coincidence-ridden plot, the two tortured lovers almost immediately reunite. Viola has a rather convenient miscarriage, just to neaten things up on that end. A whole bunch of stuff happens regarding Viola’s shady past as a cabaret dancer, her surprising familiarity with Tiggie’s artist brother-in-law, and the re-surfacing Mr Norman, who turns out to be not so imaginary as once thought.

The key players in the story – Tiggie, Viola, the lost husband, the artist brother-in-law – all find themselves together in a small coastal village, well-furnished with cliffs convenient for adding an element of potentially fatal danger to the ongoing action. No prizes for guessing the sad fate of Viola’s rejected husband.

Yup. He’s doomed.

Now rid of both incipient unwanted baby and pesky previous relationship, Viola is fully Tiggie’s own. The curtain falls on their happy ending.

My word. I can’t quite believe I made it through this thing. I feel like I deserve a prize. It was, increasingly, a slog, though I do have to give Ethel M. Dell credit for writing just well enough to keep me at it. There was certainly a lot of action, which helped.

I do have to say that if I’d been there in any capacity, I would have happily pushed the whole cast of characters off that tall, tall cliff. By the time their romance came right, I warmly hated both Tiggie and Viola, and Harvey-the-eccentric-genius-artist was push-worthy just by association.

The only character I liked by the end was Harvey’s wife – Tiggie’s sister Janet – who avoids being involved with any of this nonsense by staying sensibly home and running her chicken farm while her male connections are off making idiots of themselves. (Ha! Didn’t expect that little detail, did you? I immediately gave Dell an extra point for the hens. It was so darned unexpected, and really kind of sweet.)

So there you have it. Me and Ethel M. Dell. Oh boy.

A bit of background stuff.

Ethel M. Dell was a highly successful romance novelist of her time – thirty novels from 1911 to 1938 – and her target markets were under-employed spinsters whiling away their long afternoons, and working class women looking for a titillating read for their infrequent leisure hours.

Dell specialized in semi-exotic locations, masterful men, trembling women, and sex-soaked situations. She stopped just short of explicit in her descriptions of romantic encounters, but the veil she left drawn was rather on the thin side.

Those of us who read any amount of early and mid 20th Century middlebrow fiction are very familiar with Dell’s name, and by extension her genre, even if we’ve never cracked the covers of one of her passion-filled productions. Other writers of the time loved to scorn her; occasionally there is the tangy whiff of sour grapes, for Dell did financially very well with her particular  line, one suspects much more so than many of the “serious” writers of her day.

Contemporary fellow writer (and professional literary critic) Rebecca West famously condemned Ethel M. Dell’s work as decidedly “tosh”. (The exact quote, in reference to another of Dell’s torrid romances, 1922’s Charles Rex, was this: “(I)n every line that is written about him one hears the thudding, thundering hooves of a certain steed at full gallop; of the true Tosh-horse”.)

On the abundant evidence of this particular novel, I must agree.

Storm Drift was my first and possibly last Dell, though I may succumb to curiosity and explore this writer some more, just to fill in the details in some of those references. I have a few more specimens of Dell’s work on hand, and, much as I hate to say it, I’ve read worse. Not much worse, but occasionally one is desperate for something – anything! – to read…

 

 

 

Crossing the Skeena River by 2-car reaction ferry, Usk, B.C.

Crossing the Skeena River by 2-car reaction ferry, Usk, B.C.

Since my last post a good two weeks ago quite a lot has happened in my world. The most exciting thing being an immensely enjoyable week-long road trip to Alaska in our old Triumph Spitfire. Top down all the way, though we were pretty chilly those cool northern British Columbia summer mornings!

An overwhelming magnitude of most excellent scenery. Glaciers and totem poles, the tock-tock of ravens everywhere we went, and the fragrance of sweet clover from the hayfields and roadsides overcoming our little car’s perpetual miasma of Old British Car over-fuelled exhaust.

It was grand.

Bear Glacier, near the Canada-U.S.A. border towns of Stewart, B.C. and Hyder, Alaska

Bear Glacier, near the Canada-U.S.A. border towns of Stewart, B.C. and Hyder, Alaska

Lichen-covered lava flow at the Nisga'a Memorial Lava Bed Park near Terrace, B.C., site of Canada's last volcanic eruption in the mid-1700s.

Lichen-covered lava flow at the Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park near Terrace, B.C., site of Canada’s last volcanic eruption in the mid-1700s.

Totem poles near Kitwanga, B.C. These are memorial poles erected over the graves of band chiefs. The figures depict clan memberships and significant connections of the people they memorialize.

Totem poles near Kitwanga, B.C. These are memorial poles erected over the graves of band chiefs. The figures depict clan memberships and significant connections of the people they memorialize.

So. Books.

Just before we took off on our drive, a kind neighbour passed on to us three boxes full of dusty vintage hardcovers she’d been shuffling from shelf to shelf for years. In between the collections of sermons and prayers-for-the-day, the moralizing children’s tales, and the expected classics were some now-obscure popular novels which were bestsellers in their day. E. Phillips Oppenheim, John Buchan, and Ethel M. Dell, anyone? Or how about Kathleen Norris?

I packed a random handful of the most promising along on our trip, but was so exhausted each night from the miles of windy driving and the glorious sightseeing (and possibly the brisk northern air combined with those afore-mentioned exhaust fumes) that I only managed to make my way through one of them.

An Apple for Eve by Kathleen Norris, 1942, was a contemporary romance novel by the prolific San Francisco writer. If you’re not familiar with the name, here’s a brief biography, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Kathleen Thompson Norris (July 16, 1880 – January 18, 1966) was a popular American novelist and newspaper columnist. She was one of the most widely read and highest paid female writers in the United States for nearly fifty years, from 1911 to 1959. Her stories appeared in the Atlantic, The American Magazine, McClure’s, Everybody’s, Ladies’ Home Journal and Woman’s Home Companion, and she wrote 93 novels, many of which were best sellers. She used her fiction to promote values including the sanctity of marriage, the nobility of motherhood, and the importance of service to others

An Apple for Eve by Kathleen Norris, 1942. This edition: P.F. Collier and Son, 1942. Hardcover. 340 pages.

My rating: 5.5/10

an apple for eve kathleen norris 1942An Apple for Eve was the fourth novel by this writer that I’ve read, and based on past experience I assumed it would be a readable, well-detailed, decidedly earnest though not off-puttingly preachy, easy to take up and put down light read. And it was all of that.

Teenage Loveday, daughter of a much-respected family of once-wealthy California Quakers, falls tempestuously in love with a young man of not quite top-drawer origins. She promises eternal faithfulness, and sends her fiance off to flight school with the promise to marry him as soon as he can finish his training and set up a modest starter home.

Much drama then ensues. Loveday becomes orphaned; we learn of a mysterious family fortune possibly hidden somewhere in the decaying family mansion; Loveday is semi-adopted by a wealthy family and introduced to high society and rich living; Larry-the-fiance stops writing; Loveday finds herself in a mutually-attracted relationship with an already-married playwright; heart rendings all round!

Eventually Loveday and Larry reunite and marry, but things go swiftly downhill. For Larry is something of a ne’er-do-well. He can’t keep a job, he argues with any sort of authority figure he comes across, he’s deeply jealous of Loveday’s affection for her adopted family, who keep swooping in with welcome cash donations to ease Loveday’s continual financial woes, for she and Larry and their three small children are sliding ever deeper into a lower strata of society than either of them started out in.

Re-enter Loveday’s other lover, the wealthy playwright Chris. His wife has just died, and he feels himself free to woo the still-lovely Loveday, as her husband is obviously unwilling to man up and support her in the way which she deserves. And Loveday must admit that she returns the illicit passion. But will she be able to set aside her marriage vows and divorce her sad-sack spouse? Larry, though continually inadequately employed, occasionally sullen, and generally slightly mopey, is quite a sweet guy at heart, who has never done anything to deserve spousal desertion.

Hmmm…

Take a peek up to the bit about Kathleen Norris’s championship of the sanctity of marriage vows and the nobility of motherhood for a Great Big Clue as to what our heroine eventually decides.

I’ve occasionally seen this author’s work classified as “Christian Romance Fiction”, and while I wouldn’t go that far myself – she seldom directly references God or religion, and her characters get up to some rather worldly shenanigans – I can see why that is a tidy and appropriate categorization in this current anything-goes age.

This not particularly top rate novel is redeemed by its generous period detail and its depiction of rural California life in the early World War II years, when America was poised on the brink of committing to the overseas conflict. There is ongoing discussion of the situation in Europe and the role which America should play in the escalating war; some characters go north to Canada to join the R.A.F.; during the course of the novel the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor takes place, precipitating the U.S.A.’s decision to jump into the fray. Back on the home front, wives and mothers scramble to compensate for breadwinners heeding the call to arms, and, just a little later on, to deal with the inevitable deaths of loved ones and the return of the wounded.

By 1942 Kathleen Norris had honed her writerly craft to a very competent level, and working one’s way through this melodramatic tale some 75 years after its publication is no great hardship, with the expected allowances for era-expected attitudes, as well as a soupçon of bigotry and racial slurs. Those of Chinese ethnicity come in for most of the little digs, as Loveday’s household staff (for of course our heroine has devoted family retainers despite her desperate poverty) are descendents of the California Gold Rush “coolies” of a generation or two before. A typical off-the-cuff comment from Loveday, in reference to her housekeeper: “The Chinese are trustworthy because they find it pays better to be honest.”

As in the other Norris novels I’ve read, the chief heroine is almost impossibly beautiful, universally admired, and stunningly competent at everything she does. Though she temporarily allows herself to be tempted – remember that clue-providing title? – “Eve”, “apple”? – I couldn’t work up any surprise upon finding out that she ultimately does the morally right thing. And of course earthly rewards follow thick and fast, though Norris pleased me by not tying up quite every loose end.

Some years ago I read and reviewed 1937’s The American Flaggs. My opinion of the writer’s style engendered by that first experience of her work have not changed in my subsequent readings; I’ve since acquired and read The Venables (1941), Bread Into Roses (1936), and, just the other day, Butterfly (1923). Good summertime books, not too deep, and the annoying bits are easily brushed aside. Next in the queue is The Heart of Rachael (1916), which I may dip into this evening, before setting aside Norris’s all-of-a-pattern heroines for something with a bit more oomph.

 

 

I must share my little gloat. Lovely book-luck day today!

I was in town fulfilling some rather ho-hum errands, namely picking up plumbing supplies and visiting the dentist, and, with a half hour to kill, I wandered into a little antique store just down from the building supply store. As is my usual habit, I automatically perused the “antique” books used for set dressing in such emporiums, and bingo! -an unexpected bookish jackpot.

Two Rafael Sabatini novels, The Lion’s Skin (1911) and Bardelys the Magnificent (1906). One of Noel Streatfeild’s “adult” novels, Grass in Piccadilly (1947). And – so unexpected and so very perfectly timed, because I’ve just finished reading Helene Hanff’s memoir Q’s Legacy – a handsome 1921 copy of On the Art of Writing, by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

And a fantastic little book from Herbert Jenkins Ltd, published in 1952, The Crossword Companion, by “M.R.W.” This being a book of word lists useful to the crossword aficionado – what a helpful concept. Love it already.

I’ve dipped into the Streatfeild, though I must stiffen my resolve and set it aside in order to finish my current book, Edna Ferber’s okayish-so-far-though-not-stunningly-wonderful Showboat.

Mulling over the possibility of undertaking another Century of Books project – the Sabatini oldies in particular would be perfect candidates for some of those elusive early years.

I’ll keep you posted on that, and I’ll report back on the Piccadilly thing as soon as I finish it. Two chapters in, and the tone is very slightly sordid and more than a little cynical – if you’ve read The Whicharts, you’ll be familiar with the style.

That’s it for now – over and out.

 

the fire and the wood by r c hutchinson 1940The Fire and the Wood. A Love Story. by R.C. Hutchinson ~ 1940. This edition: The Literary Guild of America, 1940. Hardcover. 440 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Hidden gem alert!

I have just stumbled upon a now-obscure, once-bestselling British novelist. Why have I not heard of  Ray Coryton Hutchinson before?

Seventeen books published between 1930 and 1975. The third, 1933’s The Unforgotten Prisoner, sold over 150,000 copies in its first month. A Child Possessed, 1964, won the W.H. Smith Literary Award, and is the inspiration behind a 2012, 2-act orchestral opera composed by Robert Paterson. The last, 1975’s posthumously published Rising, made it to the Booker Prize shortlist.

The Fire and the Wood, apparently regarded as merely one of Hutchinson’s “average” efforts, is a downright excellent piece of authorial work, being utterly relevent to its period, chock-full of easily absorbed “message”, and, best of all, compulsively readable. I couldn’t put the thing down. The writing flows, the whole transcends its parts. Brilliant work.

In the opening days of World War II, a novel was published in Great Britain with the following dedication:

To M. H. CHURCHILL

My Dear Jeremy,

You will remember that I told you Josef’s story one evening, the summer before last, in the Half Moon at Clare. You thought then that it was worth putting on paper, and I still think it was. But the time, between now and then, has not been a good one for the job: the means by which we know what is happening round the world have become so efficient that it’s increasingly hard to concentrate, for several hours a day, on the fortunes of one or two people. The excuse, of course, is not valid: no excuse is valid. The masters of the trade have done it as well, and sometimes better, when the hubbub was loudest. But I myself find difficulty, with these cold winds blowing incessantly against the mind, in raising it to that temperature which seems to me necessary for work which has the smallest pretension to seriousness; and I fancy that some others among the feebler-hearted brethren may be in the same case.

I mention the handicap as an apology for dedicating such a book as this to you, an amateur suckled by Turgenev and weaned on Henry James. Will you take the gesture as one of gratitude for many kindnesses, and for twenty years of friendship?

Yours ever,

R.C.H.

Infantry Training Centre,

R——

March, 1940.

What follows this elaborately modest introduction is a dense but never staid novel, approaching farce in its humorous opening scenes, darkening by imperceptible degrees into a nightmare scenario, a Kafkaesque dream sequence, appalling reality and delirious fever-dreams ever more entwined.

In the mid-1930s, young Doctor Josef Zeppichmann, newly qualified, joins the staff of a prestigious hospital in a large German city. Coming with glowing references which are at odds with his awkward manner, lumpy countenance, and country-lad ways, Zeppichmann proves to be an exceedingly competent doctor, though his bedside manner is brusque to the extreme, and his concentration on the ailments of his patients with the casual exclusion of all unimportant details such as name (or even gender) soundly shocks the nurses.

For Josef Zeppichmann is at heart a medical researcher, a bacteriologist concentrating on an audaciously risky cure for tuberculosis. Pursuing a pet theory during the latter years of his medical internship, he has progressed to the point of wishing to experiment on human patients – his guinea pig and rat trials have been remarkably successful – in most cases – but Josef runs up against a brick wall in the strict Moltke hierarchy; he is not even permitted to examine the patients in the TB ward, and is restricted to junior doctor duties in the general wards.

But Josef is made of stern, single-minded stuff. He bullies his way into the best room in his new boarding house, and sets up his own private laboratory. And what’s this? Close at hand, the kitchenmaid Minna is showing unmistakable signs of an advanced lung complaint. When she collapses one day while working, Josef is quick to grasp the heaven-sent opportunity of a human guinea pig. He takes advantage of the boarding house owners’ strict economy to offer treatment free of charge in return for exclusive access to the girl, and the real experiment is on.

Meanwhile, on the post-Weimar Republic mean streets outside the hospital, civil unrest is brewing between various political factions. The roving bands of young thugs running under the banner of  the National Socialist German Workers Party are becoming more and more efficient in striking out at anyone they suspect of being in less than perfect sympathy with the cause of Germany’s new Chancellor, a certain Adolf Hitler. Josef inadvertently runs afoul of a group of these young “Nazis”, and repercussions are swift to follow.

For Josef Zeppichmann is a Jew.

As Minna moans in fevered agony, emaciated body struggling to cope with Josef’s escalating injections, a series of increasingly somber blows fall upon our protagonist, culminating in his dismissal from his hospital post and his arrest and subsequent detainment in a political prisoner internment camp.

Luckily for Minna, Joesf has had time to give her the last vaccination in his series, and it has apparently proven successful. She and Josef have also formed a strong attachment, with the doctor-patient bond turning at the eleventh hour from pure need of each other in an elemental sense – Josef needing a subject for his research, Minna needing a cure –  to unanticipated love, just in time for Minna to see Josef dragged away in handcuffs, leaving behind his precious medical notes in her care.

The suspense continues to build, escalating to a daring rescue-escape of the damaged lovers via canal boat to Holland, and thence to England. But their troubles are far from over, for Josef has in turn contracted TB in the prison camp, and Minna herself is still weak from her long ailment.

The mood and style of the novel evolves along with the misfortunes of its two main characters; as the once utterly in control Josef sinks into fevered oblivion we increasingly see the action from Minna’s point of view. Her own grip on reality is far from strong, though, and the ending sequence, seen through her eyes, is decidedly surreal. (I’m not quite sure what’s going on with the bit at the very end, and if you’ve read it and have an interpretation I’d be most interested to compare notes, but the lapse from logical story progression doesn’t really matter – in this case it works.)

R.C. Hutchinson had an agenda, which was to bring the horrific pre-war social conditions in Germany to his reading public’s attention. Fascinating to read what is basically a propaganda novel, published in 1940 before the worst of the Nazi Party’s subsequent excesses became common knowledge. It’s a clever piece of work, brilliant even, and as I mentioned earlier, a page-turner from start to finish.

So, R.C. Hutchinson. Ever heard of him before?

I hadn’t. And I should have, I think. He’s unaccountably fallen by the literary wayside, though Bloomsbury has recently released a number of his novels in e-book format, and his long list of out-of-print bestsellers are easy enough to find in numerous editions through online booksellers.

The quest is on.

R.C. Hutchinson in an undated publicity photo.

R.C. (Ray Coryton) Hutchinson, 1907-1975, in an undated publicity photo.

 

seven steps east ben benson 1959 001Seven Steps East by Ben Benson ~ 1959. This edition: M.S. Mill Co., 1959. Hardcover. 189 pages.

My rating: 5/10*

Nice cover, isn’t it?

Summertime, and the reading is easy.

This reasonably diverting police procedural is my first encounter with this writer, and I’d cheerfully pick up another if it showed up in front of me. It worked well for kick-back time yesterday. Enough puzzle element and moral dilemma discussion going on to keep it from being too black and white, and characters with enough personality to keep them straight in one’s head for the time needed to polish off this slender and more than slightly unlikely mystery.

Seven Steps East is the last title by Ben Benson, who started writing as therapy after spending three years in hospital due to war injuries sustained during his 1943-45 U.S. Army stint of active combat. He wrote something like 17 mystery novels between 1951 and his death at the too-young age of forty-four in 1959, sharing the key investigative roles between two fictional members of the Massachusetts State Police: Trooper Ralph Lindsey and Detective Inspector Wade Paris.

In brief, our main character Ralph Lindsey is given leave to investigate the disappearance of one of his star students, Kirk Chanslor – coincidentally a childhood acquaintance now engaged to be married to Lindsey’s ex-girlfriend – when the young man fails to return from a weekend’s leave from the State Police Training Academy where Lindsey is a part-time instructor.

An anonymous phone call leads Lindsey to Kirk Chanslor’s body, hidden beneath a pile of leaves in the forest, and the hunt is on for the killer.

Benson quickly takes us through the steps of a murder investigation, giving a willing nod to each member of the homicide team. Surprisingly for the genre, Ralph Linsey apparently gets along just fine with everyone in his department; there are no internal feuds or personality conflicts; everyone cooperates wonderfully, united in their goal to nail the bad people of their precinct. No question as to which side the cops are on – they hang out with the angels from start to finish.

Chasing down leads among hotel waitresses and bellboys, the investigation has Lindsey making himself unpopular with a powerful ex-gangster-turned-hotelier. Illegal gambling and a highly successful con-artist – someone who can change their eye colour at will, according to the one clue Kirk Chanslor has left behind – hold the key to the solution.

I guessed the gambling con early on, but the actual killer was a bit tougher to pin down, though when the big reveal came I wasn’t at all surprised.

All in all, a workmanlike piece of writing, with moments of flair and the promise of an interesting development for Trooper Lindsey’s future. A shame this turned out to be Ben Benson’s last book.

*The lowish rating reflects that while the book is readable enough, it is nowhere close to the top of the high standard set by the best in the mystery-thriller genre of its era. Raymond Chandler, Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Rex Stout, among so many others.

seven steps east ben benson back cover bio 1959 001

 

 

Here's one from 1961.

The Nylon Pirates by Nicholas Monsarrat ~ 1960. This edition: Cassell, 1960. 2nd edition. Hardcover. 314 pages.

My rating: 4.75/10

Ex-Royal Navy Commander and British diplomat Nicholas Monsarrat wrote some really decent books in his alternate role as a fiction writer – such as the bestselling war novels The Cruel Sea (1951) and The Kapillan of Malta (1973), to name two of the best-regarded – and some relative stinkers. Guess where I’m placing this one?

Yup.

B-List, pretty well all the way, from the awkwardly salacious sex scenes hastily set up and then shied away from by an apparently last-minute-squeamish creator, to the gruesome penultimate scene in which ironic justice is visited upon a key character.

Published in 1960, this is a book your father might have had on his shelf, to match the Jacqueline Susann on the distaff side of the twin-bed room. It’s determinedly smutty, though, as I mentioned earlier, it seems that Nicholas Monsarrat couldn’t quite bring himself to go into the detail hinted at by his doggedly sexy set-ups.

Which was a relief, because it was blush-inducing enough as it was, albeit for the awkwardness of the plot and the single-dimension characters rather than for anything really naughty in the way of sex-prose.

Brutal panning of those last few paragraphs aside, I need to back down and fairly admit that Monsarrat is decidedly readable, even at his worst. The Nylon Pirates did have its moments, and I rather enjoyed the quietly omnipotent sea captain overlooking all of the shenanigans on his ocean liner with patient calm; the dialogue among the sailors was a high point of this minor novel.

I’ll just quickly sketch out the plot. It won’t take long.

A career criminal who has made a profession of preying on society comes up with a scheme to part a group of wealthy cruise ship travellers from some of their abundant cash.

Our anti-hero Carl assembles a small team of like-minded predators to make up a loosely connected “family group” all travelling together.

Masquerading as a benevolent uncle is 50-year-old Carl. His “niece” is Diane, a wanton, exotically-talented brunette seductress detailed to reel in the men, as “nephew” Louis, an Italian-American gigolo-type, targets the yearning-for-love older women. The Professor, an aged confidence man whom Carl has teamed up with in past scams, comes along to scout prospects, handle the proceeds and keep the books. Carl’s just-come-of-age mistress, Kathy, is passed off as his stepdaughter. She’s a cooly beautiful blonde, whom much-older Carl seduced as a 16-year-old virgin some five years earlier. The trip is supposed to be something of a maiden voyage for lovely Kathy to break into the sex-for-money/threats-of-blackmail con-game trade, while Carl uses his superior poker skills to fleece the card-playing millionaires on board.

Complications ensue.

A generous number of editions are out there in used book land, with prices varying from dirt cheap to stupidly expensive. My advice: save your serious cash for something less likely to engender the book-fling urge, which this one did with me a number of times, mostly in the first and last chapters. Once committed to the read, the middle bits were the most amusing. A beach-blanket read, perhaps?

A 1960- first edition cover. Downright restrained, this image, comparatively speaking.

A 1960- first edition cover. Downright restrained, this image, comparatively speaking.

My favourite cover, from 1960.

My favourite cover, also from 1960.

A 1962 Pocket Books edition, working hard to entice the reader.

A 1962 Pocket Books edition, working hard to entice the reader.

The back of the '62 Pocket Book.

The back of the ’62 Pocket Book.

A 1963 Pan paperback edition, cover blurb appealing to the readers' prurient curiousity.

A 1963 Pan paperback edition, cover blurb appealing to the reader’s prurient curiousity.