Death in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

Quartet, 2010, 284 p.

 Death in Bordeaux cover

Part One; Bordeaux, Spring 1940. A body is discovered and Superintendent Jean Lannes is called to investigate. He is acquainted with the deceased, Gaston Chambolley, whose penis has been cut off and placed in his mouth as if this were a crime committed because of Chambolley’s homosexuality. The body has been moved, though, and Lannes soon supects the motive was political rather than due to prejudice, disgust, or a sexual encounter gone wrong. Chambolley had been looking into the death of his brother Henri’s wife Pilar, a Spaniard active in the Republican movement.

The times hang over proceedings like a pall. Bordeaux’s mayor is a fascist and the city rife with prejudice against Spanish refugees, Reds and Jews. For the first half of the novel the Phoney War pervades the background, a threat merely delayed. Lannes’s son Dominique is in the army manning the Maginot line and his wife, Marguerite, sick with worry. Lannes’s brother-in-law, high up in local government, spouts the ruling party line. The supervising magistrate is keen to shut the inquiry down but Lannes and his colleagues do not like unsolved cases.

When Lannes is sent to the Comte de Grimaud who requests him to track down the source of poison pen letters about the Comte’s (fourth) wife, Miriam, he has been receiving, the murder case takes on a twist. Chambolley was an associate of the Comte’s grandson, Maurice, who seeks out Lannes to tell him he witnessed the possible murderers entering the ground floor of Chambolley’s apartment block the night he was killed. Further complications ensue when one of Chambolley’s contacts with the Spanish, Javier Cortazar, is also found murdered, again mutilated. This seems to lead only to another dead end, though.

The Comte’s heir, Edmond, another with fascist leanings – but national government contacts – continually warns Lannes off “disturbing” the family even after the Comte is found dead after a fall down the stairs. The de Grimaud housekeeper (in the long ago another of the Comte’s many sexual conquests, one of whom may even have been his own daughter, and the Comte the father of her illegitimate child) suspects that child, known variously as Marcel or Sigi to be the perpetrator. On leaving a restaurant where he had been meeting Edmond, Lannes gets shot and it is possible that Edmond may have engineered this.

In Part Two the chapters do not have the date headings that Part One’s did, but we are several months down the line, Lannes is back on duty, his wounded son is in a POW camp and Bordeaux under German occupation. The justiciaire, however, will be left to its own sphere except in so far as crime is political and impinges on Germans or the occupation. Lannes’s other children, Clothilde and Alain, do not quite know how to interact with the German soldier billeted in the flat above theirs, but Marguerite now has to worry whether Alain will be drawn into something foolish.

Under the occasional disapproval of his new boss, an Alsatian called Schnyder (who privately laments to Lannes that many of his young countrymen will now be drafted into the Wehrmacht,) and of the supervising magistrate, Lannes still plugs away at the Chambolley/Cortazar case. A trip to Vichy, that deluded spa town, to interview Edmond confirms his powerlessness in the face of the new order.

Massie is a Scot but when out of the blue one character uses the Scots word blethers, it seemed a little odd in the mouth of a Frenchwoman. Then again, why not? The novel wasn’t written in French. Considering Massie’s previous work it seems something of a diversion for Massie to take on the crime novel as a form, though he has previously interrogated the French experience during the Second World War.

If it is the duty of the detective story to set the world to rights this one fails in that regard, at least in this volume. By its end things are worse than at the start, with the Germans in charge and little place for honest policemen, unless they can keep their heads well down, and the lives of the general populace circumscribed and compromised.

It is only the first in a quartet though. The other three are on my shelves.

Pedant’s corner:- Lannes’ (innumerable instances, Lannes’s – of which there were some examples,) a missing full stop (x 2,) “hadn’t know Pilar well” (known,) “they were praised her in her day” (no first ‘her’, or, no ‘in her’ needed,) Republiqué (République,) “of is being” (of his being,) “an dark blue handkerchief” (a dark blue,) inasmuchas (in as much as,) Clotilde (several times, usually Clothilde but, once, Cothilde,) a line indentation in the middle of a paragraph, “grande-me’re’s health” (grand-mère’s,) “‘That’s what I trying to get across’” (what I was trying to get across,) “‘in the matter of subject to investigation’” (in the matter subject to investigation,) “‘all I was thinking off’” (thinking of,) innumerable misplaced quotation marks some even reversed or missing, missing commas before or after direct speech, “the length of tis body” (its body,) “had spoken for a document” (of a document,) Cours del’Intendance? (Cours de l’Intendance,) “no doubt either than in a strange way” (that in a strange way,) “they had not see the count” (seen,) “Blind Man’s Bluff” (as I recall it was always Blind Man’s Buff,) “ad sit with him” (and sit,) “‘we should only to see good order maintained’” (we should only [seek?] to see good order maintained,) “without new masters” (with our new masters.) “‘Poor Jules,’ He said” (‘Poor Jules,’ he said,) “and is actress friend” (and his.) “Or an instant she responded” (For an instant,) “a hornet’s next” (nest,) “if not immediately than in time” (then in time,) “‘nobody in their right minds ever going to buy’” (nobody in their right mind’s ever.) “‘I sure of it’” (I’m sure of it,) “‘how would we fell afterwards’” (how would we feel afterwards,) “‘wsn’t she?’” (wasn’t she,) “the blossomed with a rush” (then blossomed,) Lanne (Lannes.)

Stockholm Bridges

Next stop on the Baltic cruise was Stockholm for our fifth day in a row of shore excursions. We were getting a bit knackered by then but Stockholm is a stunning city and made up for that. Being built on islands there is water everywhere and loads of bridges.

Stockholm Bridges

Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) and bridge. What a lovely aspect:-

Rocks , Birds, Riksdag, Stockholm

This was by the other side of the Riksdag:-

Stockholm,Canal + weir

Two for one here, foreground and background:-

Distant Bridge, Stockholm

This rather less elegant one was near the ship’s berth:-

A Bridge in Stockholm

When I first glimpsed this tower I had hoped it might be Art Deco but it’s not. Looks like a communications tower:-

Tower, Stockholm From Cruise Ship

SF Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times (i)

My contribution this week to Reader in the Wilderness’s Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times meme. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

These are some of my hardback SF and Fantasy books. I didn’t buy many hardbacks back in the day (except second hand) so most of these are fairly modern SF and some are review copies.

Science Fiction Hardbacks (i)

Above note some J G Ballard (his Empire of the Sun ought not really be shelved here but it keeps his books together,) Iain M Banks, Eric Brown, Alan Campbell, Ted Chiang, the wonderful Michael G Coney, the excellent Richard Cowper, Hal Duncan and Matthew Fitt’s amazing But n Ben A-Go-Go, an SF novel written entirely in Scots.

The next shelf still has some of its adornments in front:-

Science Fiction Hardbacks (ii)

Stand-outs here are Mary Gentle, the all-but indescribable R A Lafferty, the sublime Ursula Le Guin, Stanisław Lem, Graham Dunstan Martin, Ian R MacLeod, Ken MacLeod, Ian McDonald.

You’ll also see the proof copy of a novel titled A Son of the Rock perched above the books at the right hand end on row 2.

The View from Saturn’s Rings

This appears to be an update – or at least a re-angled view – of a picture I posted before.

Astronomy Picture of the Day for 27/5/20, does however show Earth’s Moon better than the previous one:-

Earth and Moon from Saturn

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate, 2020, 889 p, including 4p Author’s Note and 1 pAcknowledgements, plus ii p Contents, vi p Cast of Characters and ii p Tudor and Plantagenet descendant family trees.

The Mirror and the Light cover

As we have come to expect of Mantel this is exquisitely written. Each word, it seems, has been chosen with care, the prose burnished to perfection. At nearly 900 pages, though, it is not a quick read.

This final instalment of Mantel’s Tudor trilogy is bookended by two executions, that of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell’s own. Despite the reader’s knowledge of its narrator’s ultimate fate (surely no-one coming to this book could be unaware of it?) there is no sense of tension defrayed. We are in the moment – often in his past moments – with Thomas Cromwell in his efforts to serve Henry VIII and to frustrate the king’s enemies both at home and abroad (and for Cromwell to climb the greasy pole as high as possible while incidentally enriching himself, his family and his entourage.)

The Tudor dynasty is still on insecure ground, its already tenuous claim to the throne threatened by the lack of a male heir, Catholic pretenders (the Poles and the Courtenays) intriguing against Henry with the Spanish Emperor’s envoy and with the Pope, gossiping and insinuating against Cromwell but in the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s death the most urgent task in the king’s households seems to be to chip out the HA HA insignia from all the heraldic emblems on the walls and to unstitch them from the embroidered cushions. Meanwhile the king’s latest marriage – to Jane Seymour – goes well, bringing benefits to the Seymours and Cromwell both, not least the marriage of Cromwell’s son into the Seymour family. Then, after producing a legitimate son for Henry, Jane dies; and, though Prince Edward thrives, everything is thrown into the air again.

This is an easy to absorb foray through the history of the times as seen through the eyes of one of its prime actors; the uprising against the King’s religious policies in the North of England that became known as The Pilgrimage of Grace, allayed by worthless promises and later crushed by the Duke of Norfolk; the diplomatic dance surrounding the marriages of James V of Scotland with French heiresses; the dissolution of the monasteries and the bounty that brings, both to the crown and to its servants; the arm’s length negotiations for Henry’s marriage with Anne of Cleves; that project’s dismal failure on the pair’s first sight of each other; the insinuation by the Duke of Norfolk of his flighty niece Katherine Howard into the King’s orbit; rumours that Cromwell seeks to marry the King’s first daughter, the Lady Mary. All goes well for Cromwell until suddenly it doesn’t, things he said in innocence are twisted against him, hoist by his own petard.

There are some quotable moments. Thinking of his dead wife, Cromwell remembers, “She kept a list of his sins, in the pocket of her apron: took it out and checked it from time to time.” (She needed to write them down?) Under questioning by Cromwell, Margaret Pole comments on the position of aristocratic women, “‘I have noticed’” she says, “‘common men often love their mothers. Sometimes they even love their wives.’” At one point Cromwell reflects that, “men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.”

However, at times I found myself struggling to concentrate on the text, perhaps due to this third Cromwell book’s length (or even its weight) or that I was reading it during lockdown with other things on my mind.

It is obvious in retrospect, though, that the whole trilogy has been the thoughts of Cromwell on the scaffold, scrolling through his life as he awaits the axe.

Overall, this trilogy is a tour-de-force, a great feat of evoking another time, of imagining another mind, and a brilliant achievement.

Pedant’s corner:- “her family sweep in” (sweeps in.) “None of them have kept their looks” (None of them has kept her looks.) “‘I am sure you she remembers you’” (no need for the ‘you’, or else ‘I assure you’ was meant,) burger (x2, burgher,) dottrels (dotterels.) “‘Did you not use to be’” (Did you not used to be’,) “lands at the town of Fife” (Fife is not a town, it’s a county, though it’s still sometimes referred to as the Kingdom of Fife.) “His party travel” (His party travels,) pyxs (pyxes,) “to see that that” (only one ‘that’ needed,) “spout it from their maws” (a maw is a stomach, not a mouth.)

The Largest Canyon in the Solar System

… that we know of, is Valles Marineris on Mars.

It shows up stretching across the centre of Mars in this mosaic image as seen on Astronomy Picture of the Day for 24/5/20.

Valles Marineris is over 3,000 kilometres long, 600km wide and in parts 8km deep. (Compare the Grand Canyon, only 800 kilometers long, 30km across, and 1.8km deep.)

The three round features on the left are the Martian Shield Volcanoes, one of which, Olympus Mons, is the highest mountain in the Solar System.

Valles Marineris on Mars

Something Changed 34: Sorted for E’s and Wizz/Mis-Shapes

A two-for-one offer today as these songs were released as a double A-side to become Pulp’s second number two hit in a row (after Common People.)

This first song caused a rumpus, with press comment claiming it was pro-drugs, which lead singer Jarvis Cocker said was a misinterpretation. I must say I agree with him. Even on first hearing the song the claim seemed to me to be ludicrous.

Pulp: Sorted for E’s and Wizz

Mis-Shapes wasn’t so controversial. There’s a James Bond film chord sequence in the refrain though.

Pulp: Mis-Shapes

Earth-Sized Planet Orbiting Proxima Centauri b.

From The Daily Galaxy today, 28/5/20.

Proxima Centauri b is of course the nearest star to our own sun. The planet – discovered via an update to the HARPS method of plabnet detection known as ESPRESSO – is 1.17 times the size of Earth and orbits its star in 11.2 Earth Days and would be in the habitable zone if the star didn’t deluge it in X-rays. If the planet has an atmosphere though, those might be absorbed.

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders

Titan Books, 2019 , 485 p. Published in Interzone 282, May-Jun 2019.

 The City in the Middle of the Night cover

We start with a “Translator’s Note” telling us terms have been rendered into Peak English. This both frames the narrative and explains the use of “archaic Earth terms” for alien creatures and the recognisability of characters’ names.

The story itself takes place on January, a planet tide-locked to its star. Its human occupants, who still regard the arrangements on the Mother Ship that brought them there as significant, inhabit the narrow band between scorching Day and freezing Night (wherein monsters lurk.) The ship’s technology that at first sustained them has long been failing though and there are signs the environment is beginning to collapse – corrosive alkaline rain, sudden tornados. The novel’s events are situated mainly in Xiosphant – a repressive rules-based city, “nothing in this city is ever supposed to change” – and Argelo, which is much looser in organization and attitudes (“the city that never sleeps,”) with some scenes in the wildernesses between. Within the book’s seven parts alternate chapters see events from the first person, present tense viewpoint of Sophie, a would-be revolutionary in Xiosphant, and the third person, past tense perspective of Mouth, who thinks she is the last survivor of a society of Travellers known as the Citizens and is lately a member of a band of smugglers calling themselves the Resourceful Couriers, so knows the ways between the cities.

Sophie takes the blame for a theft by Bianca, her friend for whom it is obvious to the reader (though not spelled out in the narrative till near the end) she has deep feelings. As punishment, Xiosphant’s Police Force ejects Sophie from the city into the night to die. A strange encounter with a creature known to January’s humans as a crocodile (though its physical characteristics are very different from that Earth animal) saves her. During this she is somehow enabled to see the creature’s memories, including one of a complex city situated somewhere out in the night.

Mouth is exercised by the destruction of the Citizens, which she witnessed from a distance, especially since it was before they could bestow a name on her. Her attempt to secure their book of customs from Xiosphant’s Palace coincides with the failure of the revolutionaries’ take-over. She, Sophie, Bianca and others have to flee across the Sea of Murder to reach Argelo. This involves curiously cursory action scenes accompanied by extended, and hence unconvincing, dialogue. Sophie’s connection to the crocodiles (whom she names the Gelet) helps save most of them and she receives a bracelet which thereafter keeps drawing her to the night and the Gelet.

The contrast between life in Xiosphant and Argelo is marked but Mouth learns more of her background from a former Citizen, Barnabas, who left the group after achieving enlightenment, “‘The point of religion is to keep trying to reach someplace, the last thing you want is for someone to feel like they’ve reached it.’”

As far as the Science-Fictional meat of all this goes Sophie and Mouth eventually do arrive at the city in the middle of the night – but not until almost four-fifths of the way through the book. In the city they learn of the importance of the Gelet to January’s bio-friendliness – not just from transmitted memories but from a recording left by one of January’s earliest humans, “‘These natives seem to regard geoengineering and bioengineering as two branches of the same discipline.’” A tidal-locked planet would require an air-conditioning system to circulate hot air from the near side to the far side to avoid weather instability and atmospheric disruption. “‘These creatures seem to have created something better, using networked chains of flora and fauna.’” Also revealed is the crucial role the useful substance, known to the Citizens as nightfire since it glowed in the dark, played in stabilising the planet’s biosphere and in the Citizens’ demise. The Gelet’s interest in Sophie is to use her as a bridge between civilisations. She willingly accepts the sacrifice required.

A thought that speaks perhaps to the twenty-first century reader’s awareness is, “‘Progress requires us to curate the past, to remove from history things that aren’t ‘constructive.’ I don’t know if our power to forget makes humans stronger, more self-destructive, or maybe both.’”

The novel starts off intriguingly but it becomes clearer as we go on that the author’s interest is not so much in her imagined world, or her plot, as in the societies and interactions she is depicting – good stuff, but lacking something in urgency. And the book doesn’t so much end as just stop. Perhaps, at a touch under 500 pages, Anders decided she had delighted us long enough.

The following did not appear in the published review:
The sentence, “Here’s what Mouth learned about Sasha from eavesdropping,” ought to have been removed by a decent editing process.

Pedant’s corner:- Written in USian. Otherwise; “something makes me stop and examine closer” (examine more closely,) “I notice someone who seems out of place … They turn their head” (‘someone’ is singular, therefore not ‘they’, in this case ‘she turns her head’,) “now a few s cattered memories” (a few scattered memories,) “a group of students … argue about” (a group argues.) “‘He’s been making a fortune speculating on sour cherries’” (‘speculating in’ something might lead to a fortune, ‘speculating on’ it is just wool-gathering,) “a group of musicians hunch” (a group hunches.) “‘We lay there’” (We lie there; elsewhere Anders shows she does know the difference between lay and lie,) “open maw” (it’s not a mouth!) “their heads almost exploded” (used once, this phrase for an eye-opening experience appears fresh and striking; used again, not so much,) “‘I don’t even know if any Gelet ever want to meet me again’” (if any Gelet ever wants to meet me.) A chapter begins, “Ignore the buzzing from my right wrist, and I take Bianca’s wrist,” (‘I ignore’ makes more sense. This typo probably occurred because the first word of a chapter is always in a much larger font size than the others,) envelopes (envelops,) cul-de-sacs (culs-de-sac,) “which stunk just as much as she’d expected” (stank.)

More Art Nouveau in Helsinki

Art Nouveau Building, Helsinki

More Art Nouveau, Helsinki

Art Nouveau Street:-

Art Nouveau Street, Helsinki

Not Art Nouveau, but a nice twin-spired church:-

A Helsinki Church

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