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Sherlock Holmes The Thinking Engine by James Lovegrove

Titan Books, 2015, 304 p. Reviewed for Interzone 261, Nov-Dec 2015.

 Sherlock Holmes The Thinking Engine  cover

After The Stuff of Nightmares and Gods of War this is the third of Lovegrove’s Sherlock Holmes novels for Titan Books. (By other hands there are four more with two forthcoming.) The foreword here, supposedly written in 1927 by a retired Dr Watson, places The Thinking Engine in the interstices between the Holmes stories published in The Strand.

Books which extend a franchise, as it were, potentially have to satisfy more than one constituency; devotees of the originals, those of passing acquaintance, the possibility of attracting new adherents – even the odd reviewer unfamiliar with the oeuvre save, perhaps, as part of the general cultural background. Adherents are catered for here by frequent mentions of previous Holmes cases, a couple of diversions on how often Holmes ever used the word “elementary”, sly references to inconsistencies in the canon, several citings of the Reichenbach Falls and an evocation of the Great Grimpen Mire.

The premise of The Thinking Engine promises a foray into Alternative History, a speculative slant to the proceedings, a steampunk ambience. A certain Balliol Professor, Malcolm Quantock, has constructed the Engine of the title, said to be able to solve crimes merely by providing it with all the data required, and newspaper proprietor Lord Knaresfield has offered a prize to anyone who can disprove its accuracy. How can this fail to interest the Great Detective?

The Engine’s first case is that of the murder of a mother and her two daughters for which the prime suspect, the husband and father, has an apparently cast-iron alibi (involving a dog which did not bark.) Holmes, given access to the crime scene by an unusually helpful policeman, Inspector Tomlinson, solves it in short order. So too does the Thinking Engine, a device of whirring rotors and tickertape print-outs (though it later gains a voice based on phonographic disc recordings.) We have to wait a while for this encounter, though, as in the early chapters we are introduced to a pre-fame Harry Houdini, animating the mummy of an Egyptian pharaoh in the midst of night in order to drum up business for an exhibition of antiquities. Such unlikely meetings with the famous in perhaps unfamiliar roles are one of the small pleasures of Alternative History; but here there are few other instances. We are told Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) consults the Thinking Engine on a mathematics problem (and appears crushed by its, evidently correct, solution). Later, Home Secretary H H Asquith and the London Police Commissioner visit to assess the Engine’s suitability to aid in the wider aspects of law enforcement.

The Engine’s second case at first seems more trivial. Student Aubrey Bancroft sends poison pen letters to his tutor but is easily unmasked. This affair takes on more sinister attributes when Bancroft is himself poisoned by strychnine contained in a celebratory bottle of champagne. Another apparent piece of nonsense about the crew kidnapping and replacing the arrogant stroke of a rowing VIII ends in the murder of ringleader Hugh Llewellyn. In both of these Watson is conscience-struck by being unable to save the lives of the victims despite being in attendance.

Holmes’s repeated failures to rebut the Engine delight reporter Archie Slater, who takes great pleasure in lambasting him in print. Yet all the cases bear the hallmarks of the perpetrators being manipulated into their acts. A greater intelligence is at work.
Unlike SF, it is the duty of the detective story, of the detective, to restore order to an errant world. Holmes, naturally, does so, but not before exposing himself to danger and humiliation.

Despite occasional USianisms such as, “it’s down to me,” “So you’ve shown up,” “ruckus,” “fit” used as a past tense and instances of possibly unWatsonian usage like, “Oh pish! Think nothing of it,” plus the surely modern, “You reckon you’ve cracked it?” and, “It fair broke my heart,” it’s all very cleverly done and devotees will (I assume) be pleased enough; but lovers of speculative fiction may be less enthralled. The story sticks closely to the Holmesian template, remains firmly down to earth. Far from being an advance on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, the workings of the Thinking Engine are foreshadowed by the business with the mummy, and resolutely quotidian. Its closest comparator (Spoiler!) is a historical machine known as the Mechanical Turk, which Lovegrove himself acknowledges in the text. After this the revelation of the villain of the piece does not come as too great a surprise.

There are neat authorial touches such as Quantock’s allusion to, “paths laid out before me, following the lead of others,” and Watson’s statement that, “It is possible to have refined tastes and peddle dross,” but this book is one mainly for Holmes aficionados.

These comments did not appear in the published review (but “Americanisms” for “USianisms” did):-
Pedant’s corner:- the book is set in 1895 yet Holmes suggests a criminal would be transported to the colonies. Penal transportation had ended by 1868. There are references to Slater’s bookmaker (but off-course betting wasn’t legalised in Britain till 1960.)
Opuses (the plural of opus is actually opera – though I agree that could be confused with a type of musical entertainment,) medieval (mediaeval.) “Whet my whistle” (a confusion with “whet my appetite”? “Whet” means “sharpen”. The correct phrase is “wet my whistle”.) The chemists (it may be plural I suppose but the context suggests otherwise, so chemist’s,) between him and Quantock (“himself” would be less awkward than “him”,) font of all wisdom (I prefer fount,) “when you have quite so clearly lost” (“quite clearly” or “so clearly” but not “quite so clearly”,) one less villain (fewer,) mostly likely (most likely.)

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2015, 620 p, plus 4 p notes on reappearing characters and 4 p author interview.

 The Bone Clocks cover

In The Bone Clocks Mitchell is essaying something similar to his earlier novel Cloud Atlas which also had episodes spanning over time into the future but the six first-person-narrated-in present-tense novellas here are not enleaved within one another nor returned to later as they were in that earlier book but rather follow in chronological sequence; 1984, 1991, 2004, 2015-2020, 2025, 2043. The narratives of Hugo Lamb, Ed Brubeck, Crispin Hershey and Dr Marinus (in the guise of Dr Iris Fenby) are bookended by two from Holly Sykes, who appears in every novella and whose overall life story the book therefore chronicles.

We meet Holly at fifteen years old when she is in the throes of her first love affair, besotted with car salesman Vincent Costello, and at odds with her mother. In her childhood, until treated by Dr Marinus, Holly had heard voices, whom she called the Radio People. Her much younger brother Jacko is also touched by strangeness, old beyond his years. The crisis of this first section is precipitated by Holly’s discovery of Vince’s faithlessness and subsequent running away from home. Classmate Ed Brubeck brings her back with the news that Jacko has disappeared too. Mitchell’s delineation of the teenage Holly and her character is so immersive that the fantastical elements of Holly’s existence feel like intrusions, as if coming from some altogether different story.

Jump to 1991 where “posh boy” Hugo Lamb is holidaying in a Swiss ski resort with his even posher mates. He boasts to them he has never fallen in love (despite having had many lovers) but his meeting with an equally commitment-shy Holly after an accident on a ski-slope changes all that. A happy ending is precluded, though, when Lamb is recruited by the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of Sidelhorn Pass, practitioners of the psychosoterica of the Shaded Way. These fantastical aspects appear almost shoe-horned in so at odds are they with Lamb’s (again brilliantly rendered) persona.

By 2004 Holly has a child, Aoife, fathered by third narrator Ed Brubeck, by now a lauded war journalist. When Aoife disappears from their hotel room at a wedding bash, Holly has a fit of sorts and channels a voice, which resolves the situation. The dynamics of Ed and Holly’s relationship are superbly depicted as are the chaos and exigencies of war-torn Baghdad.

The fourth narrator is Crispin Hershey, once the Wild Man of British Letters but struggling to make a living. He comes across the now single Holly (Ed Brubeck’s luck in bomb-dodging having run out) at writers’ events after she has written a book of memoirs titled The Radio People. Deeply sceptical about her experiences Hershey also witnesses one of Holly’s channelling episodes.

The fifth segment contains the book’s climax as narrated by Dr Iris Fenby Marinus, the latest incarnation of Dr Marinus. She/he is an atemporal, or horologist. When she/he dies he/she will wake up in a new body forty-nine days later, usually with a sex-change. Among horologist’s attributes are telepathy, suasion, hiatusing others, scanning minds and everlasting life (with terms and conditions.) The atemporals are in conflict with the Anchorites of the Blind Cathar who can only achieve immortality by draining the psychosoteric energy of adepts and drinking the Black Wine so produced. Holly aids in the final conflict with the help of a labyrinth in a pendant left to her by Jacko. This is the most fantastical of the six novellas and stands in contrast to the others as its focus lies mainly on action.

The last, 2043, section adds nothing much to the overall story but finds Holly retired to Ireland and looking after her two orphaned grandchildren. It does, though, succeed in portraying a very believable post-oil, globally-warmed, electricity deprived world fallen apart (unless blessed with geothermal power plants as in Iceland.)

The Bone Clocks manages to contain its own critique: at one point Lamb thinks, “‘The Mind-walking Theory, plausible if you live in a fantasy novel.’” Then there is the quote from a review of Crispin Hershey’s come-back novel where Richard Cheeseman says, “the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look,” and “what surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?” – which is precisely what one could say of Mitchell here except that Mitchell’s writing is superb, mellifluous and engaging – each narrative drags you along – but the gradually uncovered fantastical elements are too in conflict with the realistic treatment, seem too tagged on to be credible. By the time we get to the meat of Marinus’s section disbelief is all but impossible to suspend and the whole begins to seem a bit pointless. I began to wonder if Mitchell was somehow playing a joke on all his mainstream readers who would not knowingly read a fantasy novel. Mitchell’s touch also deserted him with his use of “device” as a verb for texting somebody (or texting’s future equivalent.) Then too there were the intertextual meta-fictional games in the mentions of Black Swan Green and de Zoet and Mitchell’s laying out in a Crispin Hershey lecture of, “The perennial tricks of the writers’ trade dating back to the Icelandic sagas. Psychological complexity, character development, the killer line to end a scene, villains blotched with virtue, heroic characters speckled with villainy, foreshadow and flashback, artful misdirection.” Hershey also observes, “What Cupid gives, Cupid takes away. Men marry women hoping they’ll never change. Women marry men hoping they will. Both parties are disappointed.”

The 2015 narrative mentions ex-President Bashar-al-Azad of Syria and in the 2043 one the nuclear power station at Hinkley Point has been updated by the Chinese but recently suffered a meltdown. The first (and perhaps now both) of these would turn the book into an altered history.

Mitchell can certainly write and creates compelling characters. The Bone Clocks however does not reach the heights that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet did.

Pedant’s corner:- must of (must have. OK it was in a character’s voice but even so; authors owe a duty to their readers not to mangle the language unnecessarily,) heat-seeker missile (the term is heat-seeking missile; but again it was in voice,) and and (only one “and” required,) a plethora pass through (passes, but it was in dialogue,) medieval (mediaeval,) Saint Agnès’ (Saint Agnès’s,) “I’ve find I’ve forgotten” (I find,) the the (only one the necessary,) anciliary (ancillary – or was it a confusion with auxiliary?) homeopathy (homoeopathy,) tying ropes around painted steel cleats, “a T-shirt emblazoned with Beckett’s fail better quote I was given in Santa Fe” (reads as if the narrator was given a quote in Santa Fe,) ‘I consider jerking off again’ (the British term is “wanking”,) a Taser (does that need to be capitalised any more?) Hershey narrates his meeting with Hugo Lamb and then Lamb’s redaction of his memory of it; so how could he relate it to us? “A leaf loop-the-loops” (loops-the-loop,) St James’ church (St James’s,) superceded (superseded,) modii (is meant as a plural of modus, so “modi”,) maw (used for mouth, [sigh….]) in the the pram (remove a “the”,) embarass (embarrass,) sailboat (sailing boat.) In the author interview:- “set in Iceland” (it was actually Ireland.)

The Highway Men by Ken MacLeod

Sandstone, 2006, 74 p. (Sandstone vista 8.)

 The Highway Men cover

This novella is one I missed when it first came out and so have only just caught up with. It is set in a near future after a Chinese guy gasping for a cigarette lost his rag on an aeroplane coming in to Edinburgh, the resulting fracas and panicked phone calls interfering with the plane’s controls so that it crashed into an aircraft-carrier in Rosyth, hence precipitating war with China. The highway men of the title, deemed not tech-savvy enough for the army have instead been drafted to work on the roads. When this was written Osama Bin Laden had not been killed and so appears in this future. Consequently the novella now has to be read as an altered history.

The action takes place in Scotland’s Western Highlands. En route to a job our highway men come across an abandoned village where all the glass has been removed from the windows. At their destination of Strathcarron narrator Jase (Jason Mason) realises a group of people estranged from society is living up in the hills. His going to see them there has unfortunate consequences.

An interesting scenario with believable well-drawn characters – even at such short length.

Pedant’s corner:- smoothes (smooths,) gulley (gully.)

God’s Dog by Diego Marani

Dedalus, 2014, 153 p. Translated from the Italian Il Cane di Deo by Judith Landry

 God’s Dog cover

Well. This is an odd concoction. Perhaps as far removed from Marani’s New Finnish Grammar and The Last of the Vostyachs as it is possible to get.

The dog of the title is Domingo Salazar, an orphan of the 2010 Haiti earthquake brought to Italy by the fathers of the Holy Cross, a graduate of the Papal Police Academy whose duties are to see to it that the laws of Holy Mother Church are respected and to work for the Church’s worldwide spread. The world he works in is not our own. It is an altered history. Perhaps that should read as an altered future. In it the papacy of Joseph Ratzinger promulgated a new Catholic Catechism and Italy has become a theocracy. (The book was written before, in our world, Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, resigned as Pope. Here he obviously didn’t do so and was not succeeded by Francis.)

As might be expected this Church takes a hard line. “The chief sins against chastity are adultery, masturbation, fornication, pornography, rape and homosexual acts.” The most unsavoury part of this new dispensation however is that the dying are given only so much palliative care in hospital before it is withdrawn; so that they may experience some of Christ’s suffering.

Salazar has been working to sabotage the secular state, spread distrust in science, and intercept the anti-papist refugees from Italy, but he has been recalled to Rome to track down an abortionist doctor named Ivan Zago and uncover euthanasiasts who would deny the dying their pain. The events of the story occur in the lead-up to the ceremony of canonisation of Benedict XVI in which the final scene is set.

Some of the necessary information dumping is provided by extracts from Salazar’s diary (not quite a clunky decision by Marani as the diary is read partway through the book by Salazar’s vicar.) He has such thoughts as, ‘No religion is better than Islam at cloaking faith in reason. Muslims use reason to reveal the intelligent order which pervades creation, and that is the way to disarm science,’ and, ‘The world lived in peace until it rediscovered Greek thought and, with it, the mania for experiment. To experiment means ceasing to put one’s trust in the created world, but wanting to take it apart. …… Now our task must be to bury knowledge. To forget it … to lead people down the wrong track.’ He writes, ‘Our fight, therefore, must be to demolish science. In Africa, we intercept anti-AIDS vaccines and replace them with ampoules containing water. The illness is spreading, and man is losing his faith in science.’ The attitude of Arnold of Citeaux pervades the theology. (This is perhaps not a novel that could have been written by someone not from a nominally Catholic country.)

Salazar’s bizarre longing for a merger of the three faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism leads to him being accused of the sins of polytheism and idolatry. He tells his inquisitor that as he was endeavouring to convert unbelievers the word, rather, is proselytism. An odd flavour of the 1930s somehow pervades the sections set in the convent hospital of San Filippo Neri. There is also a minor strand about the discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ which prove men and animals have much in common in terms of feelings and a chimpanzee which has been shown capable of speech – in Swahili as it happens.

It’s certainly all interesting but marred rather by a multiplicity of viewpoint characters and a tendency for each new section to begin with the reader not knowing who that character is.

Once again Judith Landry’s translation is excellent even if in the “thriller” moments it tends to cliché (‘hot pursuit,’ ‘right on his heels’) but it must be difficult to render such passages in a more inventive manner. Whether or not euthanasiast is a direct reflection of Marani’s Italian I don’t know but it is certainly a better term than the more straightforward euthanist would be since it carries the overtone of enthusiasm.

Pedant’s corner:- a cleaning women (woman,) Hippocrates’ (Hippocrates’s,) “he sat down as the table” (at the table,) “‘he can hardly breath’” (breathe,) Mercedes’ (Mercedes’s,) “the group had been virtually decimated” (the sense is not “reduced by a tenth”,) “which from which it was separated” (from which it was separated,) Kibale (on first two mentions: it’s afterwards spelled Kibele,) a missing full stop, “The crowd were holding their breath” (was holding its breath.)
In the “Praise for Diego Marani” section at the end:- ignornace ( ignorance,) plus three [or arguably four] in one quote – it’s (its,) ones (one’s,) “the means by which an individual identifies themselves and how they identify with others” (an individual: so him -or her- self; plus, how he or she identifies with others.)

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

In “The Bookman Histories”, Angry Robot, 2012, 303 p. Originally published in 2010.

 The Bookman cover
 The Bookman Histories cover

This is the first of Tidhar’s “Bookman” trilogy (original book cover left) and constitutes steampunk at its flashiest. Amerigo Vespucci’s trip to the New World – here known as Vespuccia – has aroused a set of marooned extraterrestrial lizards, Les Lézards, who have since taken over the throne of Great Britain but been thrown out of France.

Our hero is Orphan (he knows no other name) and the plot is kicked off with a pair of exploding books, one of which kills Orphan’s girl-friend, Lucy, to whom he was newly engaged. He is drawn into a web of intrigue laid by the enigmatic Bookman by the implication that she is not dead – or at least he can be reunited with a version of her. The action ranges from a Victorian London to the Caribbean – where Caliban’s island of Les Lézards is located (and where he discovers his true lineage) – back again to London and finally to Oxford.

Now, one of the joys of altered history is the chance to encounter well-known names – real or otherwise – in unfamiliar settings but, really, Tidhar throws the kitchen sink at it. Apart from frequent sly allusions, we meet not only newspaper reports from Rudyard Kipling but Persons from Porlock; and Henry Irving, Beerbohm Tree, Mrs Beeton, Jules Verne – plus his ship (and submarine Nautilus, what else?) Not to mention, among others, body snatchers, the Mechanical Turk, Karl Marx, Sherlock Holmes, Mycroft and Moriarty – who is Prime Minister no less. We also encounter various simulacra, pirates (with keel-hauling, plank-walking and all) that mysterious island, an interplanetary probe (which is actually potentially more sinister) and a vast hidden library. Breathless isn’t the word.

Had I not already read the second book in the series, the much better Camera Obscura, I would perhaps not have bothered doing so on this evidence. But I have the third in this volume, The Great Game, still to go, so I will get round to it.

Pedant’s corner:- In Tidhar’s introduction to the three collected books “it was the obvious end for the arc began by Orphan’s choice” (begun.)
Otherwise:- to go see her (to go to see her – or just “to see her”,) “no sooner had Maskelyne departed that the door chimed again” (than the door chimed,) overlaying the grief (overlying,) “his face were strangely peaceful” (was,) indistin-guishable not at a line break, “bound with Les Lézard” (Les Lézards,) whiskey (whisky,) “he left his drink on the table besides Jack’s glass” (beside,) automatons (automata,) “at the bottom off…” (of, surely?) Gibbons’ (Gibbons’s,) go see it (go to see it,) flamingos (flamingoes?) “from his momentary surprised” (surprise,) “us humans need to stick together” (“us need to”? That would be we humans,) outside of (outside; no “of” necessary, though “outside” appeared two more times in that same five line paragraph,) sail-ships (sailing ships,) the Nautilus’ deck (Nautilus’s, a page later Moses’s was fine but one more page on we had Aramis’,) “like the unmixed paint on an artist’s palate” (did the artist mix the paint by mouth, then? Palette that would be,) “not sure what he had let himself into” (not sure what he had got himself into; or, not sure what he had let himself in for,) the King of England (yes, but also the Empire,) the fungi (it was singular; so fungus,) “he felt exulted” (exultant, I think,) “you knew were you were with them” (where you were,) “Orphan was glad for that” (glad of that,) a group of men… were standing (a group was standing.)

Half a Crown by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2014, 316 p. Returned to a threatened library.

 Half a Crown cover

This follows the narrative template of the two previous books in Walton’s “Small Change” trilogy, Farthing and Ha’penny, set in a fascistic British state arising from an early peace with Germany in what we would call World War 2 but here would be a misnomer. The third person chapters again focus on Peter Carmichael, now head of the Gestapo-like Watch, the female first person voice is here, though, that of his ward, Elvira Royston, whom Carmichael took under his wing after the murder of her father in the line of duty eleven years before. She has been well educated and about to be “presented” to the Queen as a debutante under the sponsorship of the mother of her friend, Betsy Maynard. She nevertheless feels a slight fraud. Indeed at times her cockney accent slips out. All this is well worked into, and used in, the plot by Walton, which involves Elvira’s accidental brush with the fringes of a conspiracy to effect a coup d’état leading to an attempt to discredit and remove Carmichael from his post. He himself has reasons to fear investigation, being the centre of the “Inner Watch” which organises, when it can, the escape of Jews and other innocents to Ireland. Unlike in Farthing and Ha’penny we did get a mention here of Mosleyites and I suspect in her portrayal here of the Duke of Windsor Walton has him bang to rights.

The resolution is well tied-in with the beginning of the trilogy in Farthing but seemed perhaps a little too easily won.

Pedant’s corner:- I noticed a “fitted” but “fit” came up elsewhere as the past tense. England was occasionally used incorrectly in direct speech as interchangeable with Britain (but the characters are all English and would perhaps have done so. It is nevertheless an intensely annoying habit.) Cross fire (it’s usually rendered as crossfire,) “each department had their own exit and entrance” (each department had its own exit and entrance,) mementos (mementoes?) the band were playing (the band was playing,) coup d’etat (coup d’état,) a Turkey carpet (Turkish carpet?) hung (hanged,) Heath Row (Heathrow.)
Addendum to Ha’penny’s pedant’s corner:- Walton’s text in that book said the ha’penny coin had a picture of HMS Victory on its obverse. It was Drake’s ship the Golden Hind.

Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L Powell

Solaris, 2013, 341 p, including 16 p of the short story from which the novel originated.

 Ack-Ack Macaque cover

Ack-Ack Macaque is the lead character in a highly successful MMORPG (Massive Multi-player Online Role-Playing Game) where he is a Spitfire pilot in an unending Second World War. He also turns out to be “real”, hooked up to the game, embodied in a brain-enhanced monkey which an AI liberation front group manages to free from its confinement in the labs of the game’s constructor, Céleste Industries, with the help of Prince Merovech, heir to the throne of the United Kingdoms of Britain and France (which countries merged after the invasion of Suez in 1957, later also incorporating Norway – with other Scandinavian countries in a wider association) and incidentally also the son of Her Grace Alyssa Célestine, Duchess of Brittany, head of said Céleste Group. Quite a lot to be going on with then, but the execution is initially marred by some intrusive information dumping (which, to be fair, did settle down.)

I had quite a few reservations about the scenario. This is an altered history, of course, but is it one so far removed from our own that the British monarchy could have regained executive power? A further problem though is that Ack-Ack Macaque is almost a peripheral presence, the main bulk of the narrative focusing on Prince Merovech and journalist Victoria Valois, both of whom have also been subjected to treatment in Céleste’s labs, the former’s being the motor of the plot.

Nevertheless, the whole thing rattles along at a good pace and is filled with incident and intrigue.

But I couldn’t believe a single word of it.

Addendum:- Not so for the short story where Ack-Ack Macaque first appeared (in Interzone’s 212th issue, September 2007) and appended here, which relates what goes wrong when the original anime version of the monkey is made over and exploited for commercial reasons. There is an irony in there somewhere.

Pedant’s corner:- A “time interval later” count of 7. “it was up to her accept and mourn” (to her to accept and mourn,) “‘Could you give me a minute please detective?’” (unless “please detective” is a title – and it isn’t – there should be a comma after please,) akevitt (Norwegian spelling of aquavit/akvavit,) Julie and Frank’s (I know this is common usage but it ought to be Julie’s and Frank’s,) it’s (its,) “and winced and the pain” (at the pain,) “‘For saying you’ll go the funeral’” (go to the funeral,) “he saw Julie’s silhouette stood” (can a silhouette stand? – that “stood” ought to be “standing” anyway – we also had “sat” where seated or sitting is better usage,) could use (the British term is could do with,) irresistable (irresistible,) zipper (zip,) gotten (got,) legally obligated (obliged,) commandoes (commandos?) “I’m the back-up, same as Paul” (the person saying this wouldn’t have known Paul’s back-up had been activated,) skull and crossed-bones (it’s usually skull and crossbones.)

Ha’penny by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2014, 318 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Ha’penny cover

The Farthing Set responsible for the peace between Britain and the Third Reich in 1941 has parlayed the murder of Sir James Thirkie (which kick started Farthing, the first of Walton’s “Small Change” trilogy) into a takeover of the government of the UK.

As in Farthing, first person narration by a female alternates with third person chapters again concentrating on Inspector Carmichael of Scotland Yard. The woman narrator here is actress Viola Lark, one of the aristocratic Larkin sisters (who are clearly modelled on the Mitfords.) In this respect the failure to mention the British Union of Fascists or Oswald Mosley in Farthing is partly explained. In her acknowledgements Walton says she avoided the use of real names for those with speaking parts in the narrative. (There is one glaring exception to this, but in our real world he was dead by 1949 when this book is set.) In Ha’penny the attraction of fascism for one of the Lark sisters, Celia, has gone so far as for her to have married Himmler but it is another sister, Cressida, the communist one, who draws Viola into a conspiracy to murder Hitler during a visit to the theatre on his trip to Britain.

Ha’penny does not work quite as well as Farthing. Partly this is because the setting has been established and we are working through its ramifications but more importantly it is that the whodunnit element is wholly absent. We know from the first sentence that Viola has been apprehended and the plot motor, the conspiracy, is also revealed early on. Viola’s narration is also not as fresh (though less twee) as was Lucy Eversley’s in the previous book. The insidious creep of authoritarian measures, the poisoning of public attitudes, is well brought out, though. The new Prime Minister says, “‘we don’t want them to be able to say that we’re using these laws to shut people up, especially when we are.’” It was particularly salutary to read this so soon after the House of Commons debate on bombing Syria and the prior comments about those against it being “terrorist sympathisers”. The web of complicity woven around Carmichael is drawn tighter, however, as he is offered the oversight of a new law enforcement agency, The Watch, an analogue of the Gestapo.

Pedant’s corner:- Viola’s Britishness is questioned when she reveals she was born in Dublin (in 1917). Since Ireland was part of the UK then that would make her British no matter her ancestry. There were no opening quotation marks when a piece of dialogue began a chapter. “‘There’s a Joe Lyons automat on the corner of Charing Cross Road.’” (A Lyon’s Corner House I’d have accepted. I don’t think automats made it to Britain till the 1960s.*) Station wagon (OK the book has the USian text but Viola is supposed to be an English aristocrat, she’d have written “estate car”.) Was it necessary to transliterate a Spaniard’s pronunciation of the city as Barthelona? National Service. (In our time-line, yes. Would they have kept it on in this one?) “The report on the bomb and bodies were waiting for him” (the report was waiting,) Boedicea (it was generally spelled Boadicea in those days [Boudica or Boudicca now]) Canada is referred to as part of the Commonwealth (just scrapes by for 1949,) “‘He’s an ASDIC man. Radar you know.’” (ASDIC was a sonic technique, radar uses radio waves.) “There were a series” (there was a series,) the German Embassy in London is described as if “made over by some mad devotee of monumental Bauhaus” (the Nazis shut Bauhaus down,) the French for lark is rendered alouetta instead of alouette, vol-au-vents again (I still think the plural is vols-aux-vents,) come-out (the entry of a debutante to society was known as a coming out. Walton perhaps used “come-out” to avoid any inference of being gay by the modern reader.) The lower case sergeant is used for the police rank while Inspector is capitalised; they both ought to be so, “the Home Secretary’s backup were violating police tradition” (the backup was,) Inspector Jacobson from Hampstead seems to know what The Watch is but Carmichael had only just found out himself.
*Of course, it’s an altered history, maybe that’s part of Walton’s scenario.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Doubleday, 2015, 398 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 A God in Ruins cover

It’s almost impossible for me to discuss this book without the possibility of spoilers. For nigh on 400 pages Atkinson relates the life and times of Teddy Todd, RAF bomber pilot and brother of the Ursula whose many lives were told in Atkinson’s previous novel Life After Life, yet within a few pages of the end the author pulls the rug from under her preceding story in spectacular fashion. Yes, familiarity with the previous book bolsters the logic of what she does but that conceit was firmly established before the novel was fully under way. Here there is foreshadowing in Teddy’s nightmares about the war (“in nightmares we wake ourselves before the awful end, before the fall,”) the epitaph from Keats that Teddy reflects on, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” and his thoughts in the care home where he is living out his days, “That’s what he’d always done, of course, what everyone did, if you were lucky,” but really this skirts close to the sort of thing that teachers warn against very early in anybody’s attempts at story-telling as being essentially unfair on the reader. Of course, alternative endings such as Atkinson gives us are not new to fiction (and Life After Life in a sense was a whole book of them) but they usually carry on from the events leading to them and do not vitiate what has gone before quite as completely as the one here.

That her tale survives this is, then, something of a wonder, the engagement she engenders not wholly undermined. I know all fiction is a combination of smoke and mirrors, but it isn’t usually so explicitly acknowledged within a text. It helps that A God in Ruins (in retrospect a very apt title) appears formidably researched. The wartime scenes are stunningly effective. The book stands as a eulogy to the 55,573 dead of Bomber Command, a lament for their never to be born children and grandchildren, a threnody to all of its aircrews – including the survivors “part of him never adjusted to having a future”.

I had early reservations, too, about some of the techniques employed in the narrative. The timeline jumps about – not only from chapter to chapter but within a section, sometimes within a paragraph. Some events are referred to or described more than once (and not always from a different viewpoint) and I thought I’ve been told this already.. In the context of the novel’s last few pages though these became more explicable.

Despite the chapters on Teddy’s later life and those focusing on his children it is the war that increasingly comes to dominate the narrative. “‘Sacrifice,’ Sylvie said, ‘is a word that makes people feel noble about slaughter.’” Teddy comes to the conclusion, “By the end of the war there was nothing about men and women that surprised him. Nothing about anything really. The whole edifice of civilisation turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination.” Elsewhere, “Britain in the gloomy aftermath of war felt more like a defeated country than a victorious one.”

A hint to the mindset of an author of fiction is perhaps pointed to in the passages, “A whole life could be contained in a dinner service pattern. (A good phrase. She tucked it away,)” and, “People always took war novels seriously.”

In what I believe I recall as an exchange which also occurred in Life After Life (deliberately ironical given that book’s premise) we have, “Nancy sighed. ‘Sometimes I wonder,’ she said, ‘about reincarnation.’ ‘No,’ Ursula said, ‘I believe we have just one life, and I believe that Teddy lived his perfectly.’”

A God in Ruins may not be lived perfectly but is, overall, an impressive achievement; better than Life After Life. One that, principally due to the war scenes (see: I did take them seriously – though of course WW2 is a period in which I have long had an interest,) will live with me for a long while.

Pedant’s corner:- medieval (is mediæval – or even mediaeval – now a lost cause?)

Farthing by Jo Walton

Corsair, 2014, 318 p. Returned to a threatened library.

 Farthing cover

An altered history country house mystery, Farthing is not the cosy murder story you might associate with the time in which it is set. Farthing, here, is not only the smallest denomination coin of pre-decimal British currency but also the country house where the murder has taken place, whose name has also been given to a “Set” of like-minded politicians and wielders of influence. The murder victim was Sir James Thirkie – bringer back of “Peace with Honour” after Hess’s mission led to Churchill’s overthrow and talks brought about an accommodation with Germany in 1941. Thirkie’s body was left with a dagger in its chest, affixed through a yellow star, suggesting the involvement of Jewish activists.

The narrative is carried by the first person of Lucy Kahn, Eversley as was, daughter of Lord and Lady Eversley and wife of David, a Jew to whom Lady Eversley has never become reconciled, taking alternate chapters with the third person viewpoint of the investigating officer, Inspector Peter Anthony Carmichael of Scotland Yard. Lucy Kahn’s voice begins as irritating but seems well captured. It may well be a reasonable reflection of how daughters of the upper crust spoke in the 1940s.

Tightly and intricately plotted, the book is also deeply embedded in its parallel world; the crime(s) committed in it arising out of its particular circumstances. Normally it is the duty of the detective in a crime novel to put the world to rights. (Spoiler.) In this case, due directly to Walton’s setting and purposes, that isn’t possible.

To a British reader it did seem strange that a book set in such a time and place could go by without a single mention of Oswald Mosley or the British Union of Fascists (though Walton’s conspirators echo them clearly enough.) There is also a simplification of the mechanics and ramifications of a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons and no feel at all for the process by which leaders of the Conservative Party “emerged” in those times. I suspect both of these caveats would have been of little or no interest, or perhaps relevance, to Walton’s mainly USian readers. (The book is printed with the USian text – a minor irritant.) The degree of prejudice towards Jews prevalent by all levels of society in Farthing is perhaps a little at odds with the history of the Britain of our world (though such prejudice manifestly did exist) but in this respect, and substituting Muslims for Jews, the book has perhaps even more resonance now than it did when it was first published in 2006. A slide towards greater authoritarianism is all too evident in the UK at the moment and the phrase “if you’re innocent you’ve nothing to fear” is always chilling.

Another irritant was that characters refer to the country as England which is in one sense fair enough; most of them are English and would almost certainly have done so unthinkingly, but the new Prime Minister in his first PM’s speech to the House of Commons refers by that name to the whole of the country he has just taken over. I doubt even a crypto-fascist politician would have made such an error.

Nevertheless, I’ve already taken the second in Walton’s so-called Small Change trilogy, Ha’penny, out of a local library.

Pedant’s corner:- “But in the Battle of Britain, when the Heinkels were thick on his tail, I dived and strafed them to draw them off” (Heinkels were bombers and incapable of such a feat, Messerschmitts is more like it; strafing is done from air to ground, not air to air,) halftime (in a concert? That would be “the interval”,) “and all he died possessed but ten thousand pounds” (I get the gist but the phrase is missing something.) I wondered, would an English aristocrat name a horse Valley Forge? The spelling license was used for the noun (licence,) “which puts as back” (us back,) “and now he’d employed full time” (he’s employed,) taxicabs (cabs, or taxis, but not taxicabs,) no “?” at the end of a question, “I saw it during the war, looking at the way society interlocks at the bottom, talking to the other pilots (most RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain were not from the bottom of society) and either Lucy as narrator or Walton as author seems to be under the impression that the moment of conception occurs simultaneously with climax.

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