Hidden Depths by Ann Cleeves (2007)

28th April 2023

Hidden Depths is the third of Ann Cleeves’s detective stories set in the North East of England and featuring Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope. It has subsequently been followed by seven others, which the prolific Cleeves has – to date – published in parallel with the nine stories centred upon DI Jimmy Perez on Shetland and 18 other crime novels and novellas. As Vera and Shetland have been highly popular television adaptations – on ITV and the BBC, respectively – the author has enjoyed great success in this genre in recent years. (Hidden Depths was the first of the Vera transmissions in 2011).

For many new readers, it will be inevitable that the initial perception of Vera Stanhope will be determined by the skilful way in which the actress Brenda Blethyn has played the role on television. And, indeed, many of her characteristics and circumstances are interchangeable between page and screen: her empathy with the downtrodden, her ability to deflate the pompous antagonist, her lonely domestic life in her late father’s remote Northumbrian cottage…

But other things are different, not least her physical appearance. Her introduction in Hidden Depths refers to “the fat woman wedged in the Delcar armchair” and, later, one of her interviewees makes a mental note of her “loud intrusive voice, her big feet, the heavy hands…” Having climbed up several flights of stairs to interview a suspect, Vera herself acknowledges that “I don’t like lifts. I’m never quite sure they’ll carry my weight”. However, whilst we wait for the culture warriors to impose their Roald Dahl-like amendments to these descriptions in future editions of the books, it remains the case that Vera is as sharp as a tack and fully observant of the detail of the world around her.

Vera Stanhope – and, by extension, we – are seeking to solve two murders that occurred with a couple of days of each other: one of a teenage boy and the other of a young woman. Although there appears to be absolutely nothing to link the victims in terms of mutual friends or contacts, the ways in which their bodies were placed make it difficult for Vera to deny a connection. In addition, we learn early on that the mother of the boy had recently become close to one of a group of the four keen birdwatchers who, whilst sea-watching at a watch tower on the coast, had discovered the second victim. A coincidence or not?

The Detective Inspector is alternately frustrated by and respectful of the efforts of her supporting team: the young, keen Holly Lawson, the experienced and slightly resentful Charlie Robson and, notably, her Detective Sergeant, Joe Ashworth. “I’ve taught you well”, she reflects to herself, when, seeking information about a university lecturer, Joe informally ingratiates himself with a couple of female students in a café near the university. She is less impressed when Joe introduces her to the girls as his auntie.

The role of Newcastle and its environs is given full rein. We learn that the suburb of West Jesmond is a relatively prosperous location in which it would be unusual for a group of students to be sharing accommodation; North Shields was “still not quite respectable, but interesting” with the new apartments, bars and restaurants on the Fish Quay meaning that “there was no shame in living in Shields these days”; by contrast, another (unnamed) location on the coast “… had once been famous for its docks. Now it’s only claim to fame was as the drugs capital of the North East”.

The comforting patois of the locals in their environs is used by Vera Stanhope to her advantage, though not always consistently with the requirements of political correctness. “H’away, hinny. and let me in. I called at the baker’s at the corner and got a couple of custard slices. Let’s get the kettle on and have a civilised chat”, she suggests to an elderly lady reluctant to let her through the front door. “Don’t be daft, lad. I’ve worked with more loonies than you’ve had hot dinners. And I don’t just mean the offenders”, she later responds to another interviewee, when it is suggested that she might be uncomfortable making enquiries in the confines of a psychiatric day centre.

Hidden Depths contains many of the expected characteristics of the modern detective novel: the detailed contributions from the crime scene investigators, the black humour of the pathologist, the red herrings, the sudden revelations of character relationships, the shortlist of potential murderers and, at the conclusion, the race against time to save another potential victim. Ann Cleeves moves the story on briskly and I enjoyed being in the company of the dogged Vera Stanhope and her colleagues on their home patch. As for my detective skills, I had tentatively decided on my chief suspect by about the half-way stage and then changed my mind and then changed it back again. Pleasingly, by the end, Vera and I were on the same wavelength.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

17th March 2023

This epic novel – 624 pages in 135 chapters in the excellent Penguin Classics edition of 2013 – is one of the most lauded in American literature (though it was a commercial failure when first published). I was previously aware of the basic theme – Captain Ahab’s obsessional quest to kill the White Whale – but, until reading the book, unfamiliar with the specific details of the tale.

We are introduced to our narrator in the famous opening line – “Call me Ishmael” – and it is either through his eyes or in a conventional descriptive form that the bulk of the tale is presented. The reader is challenged by Melville’s grammatical style, however: occasional scenes are guided by Shakespearean stage directions – “(Ahab to himself)”, “(Ahab goes. Pip steps one step forward)”; various uncommon adjectives and adverbs are used; the prose style varies from high rhetoric to seaman’s slang; and many sentences are broken into discrete phrases bordered by semi-colons. And, of course, in this story, the author has an obvious requirement for a plethora of nautical terminology (on which more below).

The narrative begins with Ismael travelling to Nantucket in New England – the whaling capital of America – in order to sign up for a voyage to the South Seas. We learn that he is an experienced sailor, though in merchant vessels, rather than whalers, the voyages of which could be three or four years in duration. Later, he also tells us of his other work experiences – schoolteacher, stone mason, ditch digger, etc.

Ishmael is a sympathetic character and we warm to his tolerance and wry humour: “I cherish the greatest respects towards everybody’s religious obligations, never mind how comical”; “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian”. That he is a man of intelligence and learning is shown in his various references to literature, history, geography, the ancient classics, Shakespeare and the Bible. Ishmael also reveals his knowledge of science, specifically the refraction of white light into its component colours.

Although Captain Ahab is not mentioned until page 80 and not seen by Ishmael until page 134, he is – of course – one of the central figures of the story. It is not long after leaving Nantucket in command of the Pequod that he announces to his 30-man crew that the principal purpose of the voyage is to find and kill the White Whale – the other central figure, of course – in unadulterated revenge for Ahab’s previous encounter with Moby Dick: “… suddenly sweeping his sickle-shaped lower jaw beneath him, Moby Dick had reaped away Ahab’s leg, as a mower a blade of grass in the field”. Only Starbuck, the chief mate, initially demurs; the rest of the crew – including Ishmael – are enthusiastic in their support.

It is clear that Melville – through Ishmael – has a huge respect for those who manned the whaling ships and for the vessels themselves. His admiration for the bravery, skill and physical effort of the crew – especially in hunting and killing the whales and then in extracting the oil and other produce from them – no doubt resulted from his own experience as a sailor (including on a whaler) between 1841 and 1844.

The Pequod’s journey from Nantucket across the Atlantic, around the Cape of Good Hope, up through the South China Sea (avoiding the pirates) and into the Pacific Ocean towards “The Line” (i.e. the Equator) takes place in a variety of conditions – calm seas, favourable trade winds, a typhoon. A number of encounters – or “gams” – with other vessels are made, beginning with the Goney (Albatross). Ahab’s initial address to the ship’s captain – “Ship ahoy. Have ye seen the White Whale?” – sets the tone for all the subsequent gams, the responses to his impatient queries invariably recounting tales of destruction and loss of life.

At various stages, the Pequod enters the known grounds in which the sperm whales – usually the prime targets of the whalers – are to be found. Notwithstanding his stated personal – and sole – objective, Ahab also recognises that conventional sperm-whale hunting must also be undertaken in order that revenues can be earned for all those – including the crew as well as the ship’s owners – with shares in the profits of the Pequod’s voyage.

At the book’s half-way point, there is a detailed description of the first kill – from the preparation of the harpoon line through to the second mate, Stubb, “eyeing the vast corpse he had made” lying in the water. This is followed by securing the dead whale next to the ship overnight (which attracts what appear to be thousands of sharks) and the next day’s “cutting in” in which, using an intricate system of blocks and tackles, the mammal is partially lifted from the water and rotated so that its blubber is stripped from the carcase like the rind from an orange. (After this kill, Ishmael, who signed up for one 300th of the expedition’s net proceeds, estimates that the blubber from the single leviathan will produce 10 tons of oil). Again, Melville’s detailed description of the disassembly of the whale allows the author to reveal his appreciation of the crew’s technical expertise.

In many of the chapters, Melville does not move the narrative forward in quite the same way, but allows a sense of drift. These are more reflective pieces covering every detail of the background circumstances of the voyage. We learn about some of the crew – the mates Starbuck, Stubb and Flask, the blacksmith Perth, the cook Fleece, the chief harpooneers Queequeg, Tashtego and Daggoo and the diminutive black cabin boy, Pip, who endures his own sad mental deterioration as events proceed.

Melville’s digressions include the etiquette of meals in the captain’s cabin (i.e. the order and contents of the respective portions given to the captain and the three mates), the experience of keeping the watch from the top of the mainmast, the validity of “the historical story of Jonah and the whale” and the intricate physical characteristics of the sperm whale -“… of the largest magnitude, between eighty-five and ninety feet in length, and something less than forty feet as its fullest circumference, such a whale will weigh at least ninety tons”.

The long voyage to the South Seas also gives time for philosophical rumination, for example by Ishmael on the contrasting extremes of “whiteness”. On the one hand, “the emblem of many touching, noble things – the innocence of brides, the benignity of age, the holy pomps of the Romish faith” as given in the attire of the pope. On the other hand, the ferocity of the polar bear or the Great White shark, the hideousness of the Albino man. Uncomfortably for the modern reader, included in the former list, his pre-eminence within the human race is described as “giving the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe”.

I suspect that the present-day readership might be much more impressed with Melville’s recognition of the possibility – no more – that sperm whales could be hunted to extinction as (through Ishmael) he draws a potential comparison with the near extermination of the buffalo on the prairies of Illinois and Missouri. “Whether owing to the almost omniscient look-outs at the mast-heads of the whale ships… and the thousand harpoons and lances darted along all continental coasts… the moot point is whether Leviathan… must not at least be exterminated from the waters”. He ends up rejecting the idea for what appear to be sound reasons, but the very raising of it is certainly perceptive for its time, I think,

For completeness, I also note that there is a discussion over three chapters of the portrayal of whales in art and sculpture. Much of it is critical, but praise is given to the French painters “Garnery” and “H Durand”. [We have the luxury of being
able to follow up the references to the work of Ambroise Louis Garneray
(1783-1857) and Jean Baptiste Henri Durand-Brager (1814-1879) on
Wikipedia.  It is well worth doing].

The Penguin Classics edition of Moby-Dick has an Introduction by a Melville biographer Andrew Delbanco and Explanatory Notes by Tom Quirk on some of the references in the text. I found the latter to be useful, although the reader should be warned that they do include spoilers for a couple of important plot developments. The Annexes also contain detailed sketches of the rigging, sails and decks of a whaler and the harpoons and other implements used by the whalers in addition to a map of the voyage undertaken by the Pequod and a glossary of nautical terms. If you do not know your capstan from your larboard or your gunwale from your kelson, the last of these is very useful indeed.

As might be expected, within academic circles, the Moby-Dick industry has generated a host of interpretations of the story and its underlying meaning(s). As for me, I like the straightforward one of the comparison between the odyssey across the seas that the crazed and fanatical Captain Ahab is making in search of his ultimate nemesis and the (hopefully) more sedate and reflective one that we all make in our journey through life.

Significantly, I think, Ahab recognises his condition. Quite early on in the piece, he utters: “They think me mad… but I’m demoniac. I am madness maddened!” And a little later: “Ah God! What traces of torments does that man endure who is consumed with one unachieved revengeful desire. He sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms”. In Moby-Dick, we know that we are on a journey with Captain Ahab and we know how it will end for him.

As for how it ends for Ishmael, all is revealed in an exquisite one-page Epilogue.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

16th November 2022

Although I missed out on reading this book in my youth, I am very familiar with its characters and plot thanks to the various versions presented over the years in comics and film and on the stage, the last of these most recently during lockdown via an online interpretation from The National Theatre. Nonetheless, it was a pleasure to savour the novel in the neat pocket-sized version published by Collector’s Library in 2004.

The story is set in the mid-18th Century. All bar a couple of the 34 chapters are narrated from the perspective of the young Jim Hawkins, whom we first meet in the Admiral Benbow Inn on the shore of the Bristol Channel, the establishment managed by his mother and ailing (and shortly deceased) father. The first of Stevenson’s brilliantly drawn characters – the formidable Billy Bones – appears on the first page “plodding to the inn door, his sea chest following behind him in a hand barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black broken nails; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty livid white”.

Without turning the page, we are also introduced to Bones’s favoured sea-song –

Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest –

Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!

and we are hooked from that point on as the remainder of the familiar cast-list appear in the introductory chapters: Black Dog, Blind Pew, Squire Trelawney, Doctor Livesey…

Stevenson cleverly invites his young readers to put themselves in Jim Hawkins’s place at the centre of the action. Hawkins is brave and resourceful as well as impulsive and naïve. It is through him that we experience the key episodes in the fast-moving plot: the initial meeting with Long John Silver, the discovery of the planned mutiny on the schooner Hispaniola, the refuge in the island’s stockade, the discovery of the marooned Ben Gunn, the trek to the site of the treasure… He also witnesses at first hand some of the terrors of the adventure, including the brutal murder of one of the crew and the impact of the inadvertent discharge of two muskets during a close-quarter struggle.

Familiarity with the plot does not diminish the excitement of the yarn but, rather, adds the benefit of retrospective knowledge. When Trelawney employs Silver not only as the ship’s cook, but also as the recruiter of most of the crew, we sense that all might not go according to the Squire’s plan.

The narrative rattles along with little in the way of anachronistic language to hold things up. I was unfamiliar with some of the nautical terminology associated with the manoeuvrability of the ship, but it was of interest to learn that a “quid” was a lump of tobacco, “davy” was the diminutive of affidavit and a “trump” was an admirable person. We also note that a port in South America had “shore boats full of negroes and Mexican-Indians and half-bloods” and that Silver’s wife was “an old negress”, but there is really very little to offend those with even the most acute modern-day sensibilities to dated cultural portrayals. The book is illustrated by 18 exquisite line drawings by HM Brock (1875-1960).

It has been inevitable, perhaps, that academic researchers have looked into the underlying messages that Stevenson might have been attempting to relay to his (generally) youthful readers. One such is evident in Hawkins’s seriously ill-judged initial assessments of some of the adults with whom he comes into contact. To begin with, Silver was judged to be “one of the best possible shipmates”; by contrast, after his first meeting with the efficient and honourable Smollett, Hawkins “hated the captain deeply”. Related to this, according to some interpretations, is Hawkins’s implicit search for guidance from a replacement father-figure following the death of his parent: Trelawney, Livesey, Silver.

The complexity of the character of Long John Silver is such as to maintain the continual interest of the reader. At the most basic level, he is a callous and murderous pirate with a horrendously bloody past. He is also a skilled and experienced seaman with a network of contacts and a profoundly cunning intelligence. At the plot develops, we see how his two main objectives – locating the buried treasure of the late Captain Flint and saving his own neck from the gibbet at London’s Execution Dock – are sometimes in concert and, at other times, pull in opposite directions. He is a duplicitous and appalling man, whom – as with all the great anti-heroes of literature – the reader has a guilty half-wish to survive.

Treasure Island was published in 1883, the start of a productive time for Stevenson that culminated in the publication of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide and Kidnapped, both in 1886. (Two years later, in search of a better climate for his chronic ill-health, he settled in Samoa, where he died in 1894). We have cause for gratitude that, during this relatively short period, he produced the classic literature that can be enjoyed by readers – young and old – nearly a century and a half later.

The Appeal by Janice Hallett (2021)

20th October 2022

In the crowded market for murder mysteries, The Appeal has attracted a great deal of critical attention – and commercial success – for its highly unusual method of presenting the components of the narrative in order that the reader can attempt to arrive at the solution.

In the small town of Lockwood, the “alpha family” is that of the late middle-aged couple Martin Hayward and Helen Grace-Hayward and it is they who are at the heart of the two immediate strands of the story. On the one hand, they are the leading lights – as producer/director and lead actress – of The Fairway Players, the local amateur dramatic society. In addition, Martin has launched the eponymous appeal to raise funds so that his cancer-stricken grand-daughter – the two-year old Poppy – can have access to a hugely expensive course of drugs that can only be sourced from America. The remainder of the book’s dramatis personae are involved with one or other – and usually both – of these overlapping storylines.

The novel’s unusual presentation of the available evidence – the first tranche of which extends to two-thirds of the way through the book – is in the form of a voluminous (though incomplete) collection of e-mails, texts and other miscellaneous notes sent between the various characters in the two-month period up to the day of the final dress rehearsal of The Fairway Players’ summer production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. It is at this point that the death occurs: possibly a murder, though it could also have been an accident or a suicide.

The evidence has been collated by Roderick Tanner QC, the Senior Partner in a law firm (whose interest in the case is later revealed). He has passed it all on to two of his bright junior members of staff – Olufemi (Femi) Hassan and Charlotte Holroyd – with the instruction to “see what you think”. The reader is effectively a collaborator with Femi and Charlotte, as they examine the evidence afresh, with the added benefit of seeing what their own texts to each other reveal about the (variable) direction of their thinking.

Once we have ploughed through this initial collection of evidence, there is a breakpoint at which – usefully for the reader – Femi and Charlotte summarise the various possible suspects and motives as well as outlining several alternative theories about what happened. They also helpfully provide a full list of the relevant individuals. At this point, the already complicated network of possibilities is given a series of additional twists when Tanner sends further information to Femi and Charlotte.

Janice Hallett draws on the full set of components in the murder mystery toolkit. It doesn’t take the reader long to suspect that there is some sort of a fraud attached to the appeal, but who is defrauding whom is not straightforward. Several individuals have curious backstories elsewhere (for example, involving medical malpractice or as aid workers in Africa). There are instances of characters impersonating other characters – one such deception was very neatly done and completely fooled me, though there was a clue in plain sight. One of the e-mail correspondents doesn’t exist at all…

Hallett skilfully allows the e-mail correspondence to reveal something of the (apparent) personalities of the individual characters; we can identify the shifty, the needy, the acerbic, the nosey, the aggressive… She also has fun with the medium itself, most notably – and seriously – in the way in which inaccurate Chinese whispers between the gossips lead to the unfortunate spread of falsehoods. As an aside, Tanner’s incompetence in using even the most straightforward WhatsApp technology is hilarious (if rather close to home).

As usual, the first task of the reader is to identify who the unfortunate victim will be. This is not too difficult: there is a relatively limited short-list to start with and this is followed by a growing number of possible motives for the victim’s demise.

But the guilty party/parties? It is with the denouement that I had the most difficulty. It involves another impersonation (which I thought just about plausible, if unlikely) as well as the particular behaviour of one of the other characters (about which I was less convinced). That said, there is a delicious little coda presented by Hallett to the reader.

Some of the reviews of The Appeal have fallen back on the clichéd description of “unputdownable”. I found myself going in the other direction. Perhaps it reflects my general preference when reading fiction but, in this case, I certainly benefited from consuming the book in relatively short chunks and then taking my time to consider what I had learned and what it might actually imply. Each to their own.

And All My Sons? As one of the Fairway Players texts, “That play is the most depressing we’ve ever staged. How is that making anyone feel better?” A reasonable question, given the circumstances being faced by the theatre troupe. However, by the end of the novel, those familiar with Miller’s play will recognise that Hallett’s inclusion of it in her story is not an accident.

Something Might Happen by Julie Myerson (2003)

22nd July 2022

It is my custom, when visiting somewhere that I have not been to before, to find a novel set in that location. So it was that, prior to a recent trip to Southwold on the Suffolk coast, I caught up with Julie Myerson’s Something Might Happen, which was published in 2003.

The story begins with the horrific murder of Lennie Daniels, a thirty-something mother of two, on a dark October evening in the car park near to Southwold pier. However, the novel is neither a whodunnit nor a police procedural. Instead, the focus is on the impact of the murder on Lennie’s family and friends and on the town as a whole.

The central character is Tess – Lennie’s closest friend – whose four children range from the 12-year old Nat to the 5-month old Livvy. The narrative is presented entirely from her perspective. Accordingly, much of the description is of the apparently mundane detail of family life: the untidiness of a child’s bedroom, the breast-feeding demands of the infant, Nat’s sullenness at being given crunchy peanut butter in his teatime sandwich…

Notwithstanding the author’s brisk and efficient style, the regular reader of crime fiction might be tempted to hurry through the minutiae of Tess’s daily life in the hope of making progress on the case itself. In the normal way, we find ourselves making our mental notes of the main suspects: Lennie’s edgy widowed husband, Alex; Tess’s spouse Mick, an unemployed journalist; the teenage ne’er-do-well, Darren… Are any of our suspicions valid? Who’s to say. The lead detective, Mawhinney – we don’t learn his full name – is pedestrian and unproductive and our efforts to assist him lead nowhere.

Mawhinney’s colleague is Ted Lacey, a family liaison officer whose main function is to safeguard the mental wellbeing of Alex and his two young sons. However, it is not long before he turns most of his attention to Tess – at times, I felt he was effectively stalking her. Her response to this is not entirely unsympathetic and, indeed, their developing relationship is at the core of Myerson’s theme of how a traumatic event – in this case Lennie’s murder – can serve as the catalyst to undermine the normal routines of everyday life that had previously appeared secure and stable.

There are two other important “characters” in the novel. One is the town of Southwold itself which, from my experience, is a very pleasant location in which to spend a couple of days. The fact that, in Myerson’s description, “it’s the end of the road, a dead end – creek, sea and river on three sides, the road going up to the A12 on the other” means that it has been spared an outward sprawl. In turn, this has served to emphasise the sense of separateness with which many small towns identify.

Myerson takes the opportunity to highlight the petty jealousies and vindictiveness that can fester in such communities: the dispute at the PTA meeting on which charity to support with the funds raised at the annual Carnival Parade; the annoyance of a local florist at not being requested to supply the flowers for Lennie’s funeral; the finger-pointing by the town gossips at a slow-learning youth as the possible murderer…

As usual, the reader/visitor to the vicinity can identify the local landmarks. The detail of the town will obviously have changed in the 20 years since the book’s publication, but it is still easy to mark the main references on the walk from the boating lake on North Road past the pier and down the promenade in front of the beach huts and the lighthouse as far as Gun Hill. I could also stroll down the High Street or Marlborough Road in the footsteps of Tess (plus buggy) and/or Lacey.

Similarly, we can work out the points of difference. In Myerson’s depiction, the Adnams Brewery and Distillery – Southwold’s largest employer – is renamed the Harriman’s Brewery. Likewise, the magnificent St Edmund’s Church – which dates from the 15th Century – becomes St Margaret’s, the location of Lennie’s funeral and, according to Tess’s recollection of the guidebooks, “the finest medieval seaside church in England”.

The novel takes a disconcerting shift at about the two-thirds mark, when some of the children – notably Rosa, Tess’s bright 8 year-old daughter – report seeing Lennie on several occasions in the town. The narrative then builds to another sudden and traumatic event in which the other significant character – the sea, here grey and threatening in Myerson’s autumnal setting, rather than apparently benign in the warm summer weather that I enjoyed – plays the key role.

It is this final development that reveals that, in effect, the story to that point has only been a rehearsal for what is to come. We are aware that Tess has been attempting to deal with the emotional challenge presented by the grief and shock of losing a close friend. But we also know that a far greater test now awaits her. In that sense, the conclusion of the novel is really only the end of the first Act.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (2020)

28th October 2021

The Mirror and the Light is the final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII. It follows Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012), both of which won the Booker Prize for Fiction. The second book ended with the execution of Anne Boleyn in 1536 and its successor tracks the continued rise of Cromwell over the subsequent period until his sudden downfall four years later.

It is difficult to review the book without beginning with a short primer on the historical context. The 1530s constituted a tumultuous period of English history. Although Henry had reigned for over 20 years and – through the birth of Edward to his third wife, Jane Seymour, in 1537 – had secured a male heir, there was a continual sense of England under threat. In historical terms, the Tudors’ hold on the throne had been relatively recently established – when Henry VII defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485 – and there were many who supported either the Courtney or Pole families as more legitimate claimants, especially the former given its direct line from Edward IV.

This dynastic rivalry was complicated by religious conflict. Henry’s break from Rome to place himself as head of the church in England – which had its origins in his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon – was one factor in prompting the Pilgrimage of Grace, a major Catholic revolt in the north from 1536. This was ruthlessly repressed a year later, by which time Cromwell – as Henry’s chief adviser – was overseeing the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the appropriation by the Crown of their buildings and estates.

The threat to England – to Henry – was external as well as internal. The great powers in Europe were headed by Emperor Charles V of Spain and King Francis I of France and, in the period following Jane Seymour’s death 12 days after giving birth to Edward, it was the prospect of a friendly alliance between these two – and the strong possibility of an invasion of England either directly or via Ireland or Scotland – that most concerned Cromwell.

The king’s marriage to Anne of Cleves was Cromwell’s solution to this political threat, as it brought with it an informal alliance with Anne’s brother, Duke Wilhelm of Guelders, and the north German states. However, when the underlying tensions between France and Spain were resurrected, it was clear that this solution was no longer required. Moreover, the marriage had already proved to be utterly disastrous on other grounds; there seems to be have been a mutual revulsion at the first meeting of Henry and Anne and the union was not consummated. The seeds of Cromwell’s downfall had been sown.

Mantel’s skill is in taking us through these – and other major – events without the whole exercise appearing to be one long history lesson. This is achieved by placing the narrative entirely through the actions, thoughts and spoken words of Cromwell himself. He is in every scene – and at the heart of every scene. His various dialogues – with inter alia Catherine, various ladies-in-waiting, Eustache Chapuys (Charles’s Ambassador in London), Thomas Cranmer (the Archbishop of Canterbury), Stephen Gardiner (the Bishop of Winchester), the Duke of Norfolk, (the latter two, Cromwell’s ultimate nemeses) and, of course, Henry – are consistently riveting. There is a dramatic – and, for Cromwell, devastating – encounter with Dorothea Clancey, the illegitimate daughter of his late mentor, Cardinal Wolsey.

This approach leads to a particular quirk in Mantel’s presentational style. It means that when the personal pronoun “he” or “him” appears in the text, it invariably refers to Cromwell, even though the passage in which it occurs might also include other characters to which the pronoun could also apply. I found that this took some getting used to at the beginning of Wolf Hall, though I was prepared for it this time round.

One aspect of this period of English history that I find really interesting is how men of relatively low rank could attain positions of power. Cromwell’s brutal father was a blacksmith and publican in Putney; Wolsey was the son of a butcher in Ipswich. This pair became, in turn, the most significant of Henry’s advisers and reaped the appropriate rewards, Cromwell’s acquisition of properties, wealth and titles appearing to have no limit. But his humble origins were not forgotten by those around him – notably Norfolk – who were driven by frustration and jealousy. Even at the height of his power, he is reminded – and he reminds himself – of them: not prayer nor Bible verse, nor scholarship nor wit, nor grant under seal nor statute law can alter the fact of villain blood.

Although it is not essential to have read the first two parts of the trilogy before wading into the third, it probably helps. Much of the earlier action is re-heated, but with additional information thrown in. For example, we learn more of Cromwell’s early life in Putney – and one dramatic encounter, in particular – as well as the significance of subsequent periods of his life in Florence and Antwerp, the latter containing another major (though fictional) surprise.

More generally, Mantel certainly does not spare us the period detail: the foodstuffs on offer at a banquet, the classical scenes woven into a palace’s tapestries, the nature of the light in the corner of a cell in the Tower of London… Some of this is nicely descriptive and decorative, whilst other examples – the separate public burnings of two religious heretics come to mind – bring their own sense of heightened drama. The result is a lengthy read – 850-plus pages to follow the 1,100 pages in the first two volumes combined – which perhaps suggests that some further editing might have been beneficial, though I would not wish to make too much of this.

As I reached the concluding sections of the book, I thought of Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal (1971) and Fred Zinnemann’s great film of that book (1973), which is about an assassination attempt on President de Gaulle of France. Although the vast majority of the readership and audience would have known in advance that de Gaulle was not assassinated, both works were still commercial and critical successes. Likewise with The Mirror and the Light: whilst most readers would have been aware of Cromwell’s fate, this does not detract from the drama associated with its telling.

At his downfall, the principal charge – amongst several – laid against Cromwell was that of treason. The evidence for this could be threadbare – a misinterpreted comment about the king’s health or expected longevity might suffice, as Cromwell himself had employed against others in the past. Knowing this in advance, the reader can indulge in the detective work of identifying which of his conversations – including those held in private with supposedly close confidants – might be held against him later. I noted one particular example which, at the time, I did think rather indiscrete on his part: sure enough, it is reproduced for him during his interrogation in the Tower.

Part of our engagement with this part of the narrative relates to the behaviours of those around Cromwell. We wish to learn which of those who have benefited from his support and patronage over the years stand by him and, by contrast, which are turned by the promises and/or threats made by Norfolk and Gardiner. The duplicity of one or two can be confidently guessed in advance. For example, Richard Riche – who, as Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, was responsible for estimating the wealth of the individual religious establishments being turned over to the Crown – had his cards marked in dramatic fashion over 60 years ago by Robert Bolt for denouncing Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons (1960).

I found that one of the most poignant changing of sides was perhaps that of one of the ladies-in-waiting, who had been a regular supplier of information to Cromwell over a long period. After seeing her earnestly conversing with Norfolk, Cromwell tries to speak to her but she swings away from him, haughty… useless. He thinks, I’ve lost her. When did that happen? But the most significant loss of support – and the only one that ultimately mattered, of course – was that of Henry. It was for others to see that this would, one day, be inevitable: “What will you do when one day Henry turns on you?” asked Ambassador Chapuys of Cromwell at the zenith of his powers; he could only reply that he would “arm himself with patience and leave the rest to God”.

We are also concerned about Cromwell’s family and household. We care about what will happen to his son Gregory, his nephew Richard and his long-standing retainer and chief clerk Rafe Sadler. Mantel does not disappoint. In addition to the abbreviated trees of the Tudor, Courtney and Pole families and the extensive listing of the dramatis personae at the beginning of the book, there is an excellent postscript by way of an Author’s Note outlining the fates of the other characters in whom we have invested some considerable time.

Mantel reminds us that history is a dynamic: it occurred before Cromwell’s time in office and it continued afterwards. The Duke of Norfolk provides a touchstone for this. His father is remembered as Flodden Norfolk in recognition of his leadership of the English army that slaughtered the Scots (and their king) in the battle of 1513. And it is another of Norfolk’s nieces (Anne Boleyn having been one) – the teenage and ill-fated Katherine Howard – whom he is moving into position to attract Henry’s attention on the departure of Anne of Cleves. Further in the background – a peripheral character at this stage – is Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife, who would outlive Henry. (The Author’s Note informs us that Thomas Cromwell’s nephew, Richard, was the great grandfather of Oliver Cromwell, the later Lord Protector).

And, not least, there are Henry’s successors on the throne of England – Edward, Mary and Elizabeth in order of accession, if not of age. (Elizabeth is a ginger-haired 6-year old at the end of the book). The political machinations and bloody religious strife would continue during each of their reigns, of course. In turn, each monarch would require his or her trusted advisers.

Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq (2019)

9th May 2021

There can be little doubt that Michel Houellebecq is one of the most controversial modern novelists. This is partly because of the subjects about which he chooses to write, but also due to the political perspectives that his characters often represent, his occasional descriptions of scenes of disturbing horror and – in particular – his regularly graphic (if not pornographic) presentations of sexual intimacy. I find that his are novels often to be read through gritted teeth.

I graduated to Serotonin – his latest novel, translated by Shaun Whiteside – via three of his earlier works: Atomised (1998), which relates the contrasting stories of two half-brothers; Platform (2001), which is centred around the overseas sex tourism industry; and Submission (2015), in which, in the near future, a Muslim political party defeats the National Front in a French General Election and governs the country according to Islamic law. (Somewhat eerily, the publication of the last of these took place on the same day as the murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris).

Not surprisingly, Houellebecq’s novels provoke controversy: Platform led to him being taken to court (and subsequently acquitted) for inciting racial hatred. Likewise, the critics are divided. Whilst The New York Times described Atomised as “a deeply repugnant read”, the same novel won the Prix Novembre. Houellebecq has also won the prestigious Prix Goncourt and, in 2019, was made a Chevalier of the Legion D’Honneur.

It has to be said that Serotonin has a generally downbeat feel. The central character is the 46 year-old Florent-Claude Labrouste who, having reached a career dead-end as a middle-grade civil servant and realised that his time with a Japanese woman twenty years younger has also run its course, basically decides to run down the clock without leaving any traces. He leaves his job, moves out of his Paris apartment and changes his bank accounts, choosing instead to stay in a series of mid-to-low range hotels – which are difficult to find because of his requirement for a room that permits smoking – and vacation homes. “So I was now at the stage where the ageing animal, wounded and aware of being fatally injured, seeks a den in which to end its life”.

For much of the time, Labrouste ruminates on the relationships he has had with various women in his life and, indeed, on a couple of occasions, he succeeds in meeting up again with previous partners, though to his regret both times. All this allows Houellebecq a free rein to re-visit familiar carnal territory. In a separate episode, there is a thoroughly unpleasant scene (not with Labrouste) involving a paedophile. Later, Labrouste speculates about whether to bring about a reconciliation with the veterinary surgeon Camille – the true love of his life – through a particularly shocking act of violence on an innocent third party.

All this is in keeping with earlier works in the Houellebecq oeuvre. He is not an easy read. What is not always clear, however, is whether such scenes are legitimate representations of the thoughts and actions of credible (and disturbed) individuals or simply gratuitous inserts by the author. I certainly thought that one casual – and crude – aside about “the Queen of England” was cheap and distasteful.

On the plus side, an interesting feature of Houellebecq’s novels is that, within the broad themes that he explores – politics, biology, economics, philosophy, religion, et al – it is the detail that drives the story forward. The increased release of serotonin in Labrouste’s body is the brain’s response to his growing dependence on a newly available anti-depressant drug, Captorix; in turn, the consequences of that include impotence and the loss of libido. The inevitable vicious circle is established, though it has to be said that the remedy suggested by one of Labrouste’s doctors does rank on the side of the unusual.

At the core of Serotonin is Labrouste’s visit to an old student friend of his – Aymeric d’Harcourt-Olonde – who is a dairy farmer in Normandy. This permits Houellebecq to explore another key theme in his work: the juxtaposition of the individual’s story – in this case Labrouste’s descent into complete solitude and despair – with the author’s updated reading on the general state of France. Aymeric’s business is in terminal decline – explained by ruthless competition in the global economy and changes in the European Union’s subsidy policies – and the actions that he and his fellow farmers take inevitably lead to a violent confrontation with the armed police.

There are obvious parallels here with the Yellow Vest movement (le mouvement des gilets jaunes) of grassroots political protest in contemporary France and it was in these aspects of the novel that I found I was most interested. In addressing the underlying tensions that are evident in modern French society – prompted by a potent cocktail of economics, religion and technology – Michel Houellebecq clearly touches a raw nerve for both his critics and supporters alike.

London Rules by Mick Herron (2018)

2nd April 2021

London Rules is the fifth in the series of Mick Herron’s modern spy stories based around the occupants of Slough House, a rundown Secret Service office situated near the Barbican in London. (It has been followed by Joe Country and Slough House, the latter published earlier this year).

Slough House is where the Service’s “slow horses” are sent: those who have blotted their career copybooks due to a variety of operational or personal failings and who are (seemingly permanently) punished by being assigned to a series of mind-numbing clerical tasks. In this volume, the small cast list includes a coke-snorter with anger management issues, a probable psychopath, a troubled alcoholic and a narcissistic IT nerd. The head of the team – if this group of misfits could be so described – is the compelling and appalling Jackson Lamb.

Lamb has a (as yet largely untold) backstory of running agents – “joes” – behind the Cold War’s Iron Curtain. He also has a razor-sharp mind which is equally adept at addressing the operational issues at hand and negotiating the appropriate political strategy with which to deal with the Service’s hierarchy – notably the Second Desk, Diana Taverner – at the headquarters in Regent’s Park.

On the other side of the balance sheet, Lamb – another serious drinker and apparently never without a cigarette either in his mouth or tucked behind an ear – might be described as having a Starred First in Political Uncorrectness with a notable specialism in antisocial office and personal habits. He is a modern anti-hero par excellence and I found myself lapping up the one-sided discussions that he has with anyone who strays within his conversational range, whether these be staff, superiors or the “Dogs” from the Service’s internal security department.

Those around him are irresistibly complicit in Lamb’s awfulness. Hence, after Lamb has spoken to his secretary Catherine Standish in distinctly un-PC terms about Devon Welles (who is black and in the room), Welles asks, “Is he like this all the time”. “I expect so”, replies the admirable Catherine, “I don’t work weekends”. We smile at the line and, in doing so, are also complicit.

The central story in London Rules concerns a series of terrorist outrages and the slow horses’ role in not only tracking down the cell responsible but also identifying the origins of the terrorists’ strategy. The action rattles along as, needless to say, Lamb and his colleagues remove themselves from the narrow constraints of their desk jobs to play lead roles (not always intentionally) in the field. (On one occasion, the means by which they escape from Slough House might be expected to lead to disciplinary consequences).

And, in the field, the use of guns has its consequences, of course. Lamb is told how someone had been shot in the head, at point blank range, with a rifle. “Yeah. I saw the photos. They look like Jackson Pollock threw up on a pizza”.

At the same time, London Rules has its quieter moments. Herron is good at setting the scene in the capital’s daily routine. His descriptions of the changing times of the day can be lyrical, almost poetic: “When dusk comes at last, it comes from the corners, where it’s been waiting all day, and seeps through Slough House the way ink seeps through water; first casting tendrils, then becoming smoky black cloud, and at last being everywhere, the way it always wants to be. Its older brother night has broader footfall, louder voice, but dusk is the family sneak, a hoarder of secrets”.

I suspect that Herron enjoys drawing his readers into his players’ characterisations. It is not too difficult to identify on whom the politician Peter Judd, who appears in an early story, might be based. Others are perhaps composites, including London Rules’s populist (and cross-dressing) MP and his right-wing tabloid columnist wife. Elsewhere, Herron is not shy about offering his views on the current state of the world; his contempt for Donald Trump, for example, is clearly evident.

When considered as a whole, Herron’s stories convey a sense of evolution within the group whom Jackson Lamb oversees. The occupants of Slough House change over time: of those who started out in the first book – Slow Horses in 2010 – not all have survived through to the present time and they have been duly replaced by others equally (though differently) troubled.

This feeling of progression is also felt at the end of London Rules. Within the last few pages of the novel, there are tantalising hints of at least four storylines that Herron – and we – are keen to explore in more detail. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (1722)

7th March 2021

It is perhaps not surprising that, in the current prolonged circumstances of dealing with the impact of Covid-19, I have been drawn to the great work by Daniel Defoe.

I prepared for my reading of the novel with a little research into the Great Plague, which is estimated to have killed approximately 100,000 people in London – almost a quarter of the city’s population – in 18 months during 1665 and 1666. A similar number may have died elsewhere in England. It was the last major epidemic of bubonic plague to occur in England. Reports of the plague had been noted in the preceding years, with quarantining regulations being introduced for ships from Amsterdam and Hamburg from November 1663. The regulations were extended to all the regions of the Dutch Republic in May 1664, although they were later removed for Hamburg.

A Journal of the Plague Year was published in 1722: 57 years after the events that it was describing. Academic scholars continue to debate whether the book is a work of fiction or of non-fictional history, though it is generally agreed that its content provides an accurate representation of the London and surrounding districts of 1665. Defoe was only 5 years old at the time of the Great Plague and it is believed that he drew on the journals of his uncle, Henry Foe, who lived in Whitechapel. The narrator of the novel is “HF”.

Defoe did his research. He conducted interviews with survivors and consulted some of the official records. The book contains a number of summary tables of statistics – reporting on the numbers of deaths by parish, for example – which I found added to the clarity and drama of the narrative.

Defoe’s story provides a litany of descriptions which parallel our experiences in 2020 and 2021: the first physical sign of plague on the body (a small black swelling or “bubo” or “token”) [for which read the modern headaches and loss of taste and
smell]; the quarantining of all within a house in which anyone was affected [self-isolation]; the strains imposed by having “no Liberty to stir, neither for Air or Exercise forty Days” [quarantine’s effects on mental well-being]; the deaths of physicians seeking to tend to those who had been afflicted – “they ventured their Lives so far as even to lose them in the Service of Mankind” [the loss of health service and care workers]; the occasional safety of the middle of the great streets, avoiding the entrances to houses from which people might come out [social distancing]; the passing on of the plague by those who apparently showed no symptoms i.e. “by the well… [who] had received the Contagion and had it really upon them… yet did not show the Consequences of it… nay even were not sensible of it themselves, as many were not for several Days” [the need for a robust “track and trace” system]; the scrutiny of the Bills of Mortality (the weekly parish record of deaths) to monitor the geographical spread of the disease and its rising toll [the daily score-keeping on the evening news broadcasts].

The authorities in London did not stand idle. The plague was not uncommon in 17th Century England and the policy response was based on past experience. The set of “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London” in 1665 provided a wide sweep of instructions.

These began with the swearing in of Examiners to enquire “what Houses in every Parish be Visited [by the plague, this was a “Visitation”] and of what Persons be sick and of what Diseases” and the appointment of Watchmen to stand guard outside infected houses. The practical requirements included “for the burial of the Dead…that all the Graves should be at least six Foot deep” and “that every House visited be marked with a red Cross of a Foot long in the middle of the Door … and with these usual printed Words, that is to say ‘Lord have Mercy upon us’.

The restrictions on social activity included that “all publick Feasting… and Dinners at Taverns, Ale-houses and other Places of common Entertainment be forbidden until further Order” and “that no Company or Person be suffered to remain or come into any Tavern, Ale-house or Coffe[e]-house to drink after nine of the Clock in the Evening”. As noted, the parallels with more recent experience are noticeable: I particularly liked the instruction “that disorderly Tipling in Taverns, Ale-houses… be severely looked into…”.

Defoe is generally impressed by the handling of the Great Plague by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen in the City of London, not least by the fact that they themselves did not flee into one of the surrounding counties. There was no serious breakdown in social order, partly because the Lord Mayor insisted that the City’s ovens continue to provide an adequate supply of bread to prevent its price from rising precipitously.

Nonetheless, the attempts to avoid being trapped by the regulations were widespread. The Watchmen’s role was to prevent anyone from leaving a house in which there was a plague victim. For many of those thus imprisoned – especially, the apparently healthy – the combination of continued confinement and nearness to the sick and dying was unmanageable and escape became paramount. Defoe has some sympathy to their plight on the road – where they would often not be taken in by anyone else – whilst critical of those who had been infected and were therefore aiding the spread of the disease outside London.

Defoe describes the ends to which the impoverished would go to make ends meet – and again not without some sympathy: the Watchman taking a bribe to turn a blind eye, the Burier purloining a fine linen in which a corpse was about to be consigned to the burial pit… All human life is here, with all its faults.

The first cases of the plague were in Holborn – in the parishes of St Giles in the Fields and St Martins – but it was not long before it swept east and into the City. “The Physicians could [not] stop God’s Judgements or prevent a Distemper eminently armed from Heaven from Executing the Errand it was sent about”. The reference to God is revealing. The narrator’s decision to remain in London, rather than flee to the country in the company of his brother and family, was driven, on the eve of his departure, by a chance reading of Psalm 91, “A thousand shall fall at thy side and ten thousand at thy right hand but it shall not come nigh thee… there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling…

Defoe evocatively describes the devastation to life and society amongst those who did not flee. It is a horror story brought about not only by the proximity to physical decay and death, but the general lack of understanding of cause and treatment. In the London of 1665, there was no peer-reviewed panacea in the form of vaccinations from Pfizer or AstraZeneca, of course, and the narrator is scathing of the opportunist money-making from the remedies provided by “Quacks and Mountebanks, Wizards and Fortune-tellers”.But there was also resilience and determination and, eventually, hope and civic recovery.

Defoe ends his tale on something of a downbeat note – and one that we would do well to consider as we make our way into the landscape of whatever our “new normal” turns out to be. Will our experience of Covid-19 – whether direct or by association or at a distance – lead us to re-evaluate what our priorities should be? His narrator’s summary of the post-plague behaviours is not encouraging, as he refers to “the Unthankfulness and Return of all manner of Wickedness among us”. The God-fearing HF, having noted how many had initially been “giving God Thanks for their Deliverance”, draws from Psalm 106 to describe how subsequently: “… it might too justly be said of them, as was said of the Children of Israel, after their being delivered from the host of Pharaoh, when they passed the Red Sea and look’d back and saw the Egyptians overwhelmed in the Water, viz. That they sang his Praise, but they soon forgot his Works”.

The 2003 Penguin Classics edition of A Journal of the Plague Year was edited with an Introduction and Notes by Cynthia Wall. With only one or two exceptions, she retained Defoe’s original spelling, italicisation and punctuation which, as seen in the quotes given above, included the capitalisation of the first letter of all nouns. I had wondered if the 18th Century presentation would have hindered any understanding of the narrative, but I need not have worried. The story progresses at pace, notwithstanding Defoe’s endearing penchant for diverting its course down regular cul-de-sacs before reverting back to the main flow.

Amongst the book’s “extras” are a chronology of the main events of Defoe’s lifetime (1660-1732), a map of the London locations to which he refers (plus a topographical index) and a useful glossary. In addition, there is a reproduction of Anthony Burgess’s Introduction to the 1966 Penguin English Library edition.

Next year will mark the 300th anniversary of the publication of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. The book certainly stands the test of time – and not only because of its striking resonance to our own strange days.

The Second Novel is Published

6th February 2021

I am delighted to report that a significant milestone has been reached this week with the (electronic) publication of my second novel.

In On the Carousel, we follow a young man’s journey through the 1980s, as he enjoys the benefits of success, but then starts to re-assess his values and priorities. The actions – and reflections – take place not only in London, but also in Yorkshire and Washington and Nepal against the background of Thatcherism and Madonna and Cabbage Patch Dolls

This book represents a change in genre from my first novel – Shouting at the Window – which is a psychological thriller. In that, we take a cross-country train journey with the lead character between two (unnamed) cities. Haynes – we only ever get to know his surname – is on the margins of society: a petty criminal, living from day-to-day, who has had to flee from his usual territory to somewhere more secure. We learn the reasons for his flight and the claustrophobic tensions that are ever-present during his attempted escape from those hunting him.

More details are the two novels are available elsewhere on this https://jralexanderauthor.com website.

I hope they provide interesting and enjoyable reading. Do get in touch with me with your feedback.