Archives » Scottish Fiction

Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett

Vintage, 1997, 436 p, plus i p Foreword by the Author, ip Contents, iv p list of Characters, ii p map of France.

 Queens’ Play cover

This is the second in the author’s “legendary” (according to the cover) Lymond Chronicles, of which I read the first, The Game of Kings, in 2017. In this instalment our hero is engaged by Mary of Guise to travel incognito to the court of Henri II of France – where her seven-year-old daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, is being brought up and educated to be a wife for the Dauphin (and hence to unite the crowns of France, Scotland – and, in the fullness of time Ireland) – in order to keep her informed of any intrigue she might otherwise miss. Lymond travels disguised as Thady Boy Ballagh, ollave (a kind of high-grade factotum of learning, “professor, singer, poet, all in the one”) to Irishman, Phelim O’LiamRoe, Prince of Barrow and lord of the Slieve Bloom.

From the outset things do not go smoothly, the ship they are sailing in is rammed – apparently by accident but in reality not so – just before landfall. Someone has mistaken O’Liam Roe for Lymond and trying to kill him. O’LiamRoe’s first meeting with Henri is also blighted by him being given the misinformation he is actually to meet a look-alike.

As Thady Boy, Lymond makes his impression on the court; not least in a roof-running race similar to parkour (but obviously centuries before that became a well-known thing.) There is as much of the said intrigue – not to mention skulduggery – as you could wish, with numerous attempts on the young Queen Mary’s life thwarted in various ways. Lymond’s clever-dickery is not quite as to the fore as in The Game of Kings but Dunnett’s fondness for unusual words – habromaniac, hispid, branle, cangs, gregale – is again in evidence.

It’s all readable enough but at times a little too convoluted.

Pedant’s corner:- focussed (focused,) hiccough (several times. That spelling is a misattribution; the word is spelled hiccup,) Callimachus’ (Callimachus’s,) unfocussed (x 3, unfocused,) O’Li mRoe (O’LiamRoe,) StAndre (St André,) span (spun, used later,) “hearking back” (harking,) a comma at the end of a piece of direct speech, Empedocles’ (Empedocles’s,) paradisaical, (paradisiacal?) serendade (serenade?) sunk (sank,) “that closed the back of this throat” (of his throat,) appalls (appals,) shrunk (shrank,) “‘Thinking death the only division. I could not imagine …. ever so insulting you’” (no full stop after division.) “She studdied him” (studied,) “knees akimbo” (it is very difficult indeed to rest a leg upon its own hip, never mind both of them. Okay, I know people use it to mean limbs splayed out but bent inward,) “black cloth of gold” (if it’s cloth of gold it can’t be black,) “no on touched him” (no one, better still, no-one.)

Dark Summer in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

Quartet, 2012, 244 p.

 Dark Summer in Bordeaux  cover

This is the second of Massie’s Bordeaux trilogy, set in that city during World War 2. The first, Death in Bordeaux, I reviewed here.

It is now 1941. Partly due to the compromising deal he had made in Vichy in the previous book Police Superintendent Jean Lannes’s son Dominique has returned from a POW camp in Germany, to his mother’s intense relief. However, his daughter Clothilde is still enamoured of the German billeted in the flat above and his son Alain is wondering how best to resist the occupation. Dominique is of the opposite persuasion, swayed by the thinking of Vichyites. Lannes’s wife Marguerite has thoughts only on how to protect all her family.

The investigative element of the book arises when Professor Aristide Labiche, a communist, is found in a bush, murdered. This is little more than a perfunctory nod to the norms of the crime genre. The book’s focus is on the wider situation, the compromises and difficulties inherent in occupation, the dangers of trying to be a good man (Lannes is a man, the women here don’t have much agency) in bad times. Labiche’s murder, like the one in Death in Bordeaux, is resolved but again without any prospect of the culprit being held to account, though in this case not for political reasons.

Massie invokes the sense of claustrophobia of life in such times and circumstances well and as in the earlier book the text is coloured by the attitudes of many of the French locals to Jews. Mentions of the Institut des Questions Juives add to the sense of foreboding.

Leutnant Schussmann’s attraction to Alain’s homosexual (and Jewish) friend Léon leads to a member of the French security services calling himself Félix, forcing him into a plot to blackmail the German, who opts for the only honourable way out for him and brings the anger of the occupying force down on Lannes’s department.

Meanwhile Alain gets himself into a group calling themselves ‘The Musketeers’ (which is fly-posting drawings of the Cross of Lorraine around the city and talking of joining De Gaulle in the UK) and Clothilde forgets her German friend when she forms an attachment to a French boy whom Lannes knows is unsuitable.

Massie’s Scottishness shows in the use of the – admittedly apposite – Scots term ‘thrawn,’ pretending a dialect word from the Landes has that meaning.

In all though, Massie’s pudding here is over-egged. I know a novel cannot encompass the whole world and has to represent it in microcosm but too many of the characters in Dark Summer in Bordeaux have too many connections with each other. In particular the possibility revealed here that Lannes’s father was not the man in whose home he was brought up but instead a prominent character from Death in Bordeaux, stretches credulity too far. As too does the author’s knowledge of the actual history and eventual outcome, where it is allowed to bleed into interactions between characters. At the book’s end there is the faint hope that the launch of Operation Barbarossa means the Wehrmacht may have bitten off more than it can chew in Russia.

This is all cleverly plotted but more than a touch involuted. As a portrait of those times in that place though, it’s admirable.

Pedant’s corner:- Lannnes’ (many instances, Lannes’s,) “‘au voir‘” (that last single quote mark is reversed: ‘au voir’,) Lanes (Lannes,) Aramis’ (Aramis’s,) Mirian (Miriam,) Dumas’ (Dumas has a silent ‘s’ at the end, its possessive therefore demands the apostrophe, Dumas’s; without it there’s no indication that the possessive applies,) a capital letter after a comma, ‘onto this lap’ (his lap,) litle (little,) “eying up” (eyeing up,) Jules’ (as for Dumas’ above; hence, Jules’s,) agaist (against.)

Scruffians! by Hal Duncan

Stories of Better Sodomites. Lethe Press, 2014, 205 p.

 Scruffians! cover

Unlike normal folk (groanhuffs,) Scruffians are mis-shapes and misfits – Orphans, foundlings, latch-key kids; Urchins, changelings, live-by-wits; Rascals, scallywags, ruffians, scamps; Scoundrels, hellions, – in their chant that last word is followed by, Scruffians STAMP. The Stamp is how they came to be fixed as Scruffians, an excruciating procedure which stops any growth in age from that time on and embeds all their existing characteristics. Only nicks to the Stamp mark on their chests will allow alteration thereafter. Their lore is expressed by tales known as fabbles (an ideal coinage,) some of which appear here as if addressed to potential or newly-Stamped Scruffians. Not all of the stories here are of Scruffians but each section within one that is has a title (or number, depending on the story) and each paragraph a first line in bold type. All are excellent reading.
In How a Scruffian Gets Their Story a new recruit falls in with the Scruffians.
How a Scruffian Gets Their Name tells of how and why Slickspit Hamshankery got that title.
The Behold of the Eye is where humans store all the things they prize most highly. What catches their eye is stored by the eye – and each is a home to a faery. The story relates the experiences of newly born faery Flashjack as he seeks his Beholder (to be found by Toby Raymond Hunter’s Behold) and follows Toby’s life as he comes to terms with himself and his sexuality.
Scruffian’s Stamp is the story of Orphan, the first Scruffian, and how groanhuffs came to invent the Stamp without realising it would Fix Scruffians for good.
An Alfabetcha of Scruffian Names describes the characteristics of twenty-six Scruffians.
Jack Scallywag expands on the one paragraph about the Scruffian Knight in the Alphabetcha, how said Jack aspired to knighthood and came to it as others did, (by stealing it more or less,) how he set off on his mission to slay the dragon only to find out who the real dragons are.
The Disappearance of James H riffs extensively but explicitly on Peter Pan – a shadow, a crocodile tear, “‘I’m not a…’ ‘Fairy?,’ ‘Every time you say that, I whisper, a little part of you will die,’” – in its tale of the titular disappearance.
The Island of the Pirate Gods is another swashbuckling Pannish adventure (with added language) wherein the twin lovers Matelotage and Mutiny are the background to a story of The People’s Independent Republic of Arse, Cock and bloody Yo-ho-bloody-ho, ie PIRACY.
Very well constructed and set against the background of the playing of a hand in a Texas Hold ‘Em game The Angel of the Gamblers is a meeting with the devil type of story except it’s not the devil who demanded a soul, it was the eponymous angel.
The Shoulder of Pelops features figures from Ancient Greek myth and legend in a story about signs, meanings and the difference between words and the things they name.
Bizarre Cubiques is a history – and critique – of an alternative world art movement, the creation of artists Bricasso and Paque. The narrator has made his way from home in New Amsterdam in Amorica to Pharis via Caerlundein, Felixstoff and Diephe.
The worlds of superhero comics are the inspiration for The Origin of the Fiend, a metafiction where differing origin stories for different supercharacters impinge on the consciousness of a young lad ‘sending his mind back and forth along his own timestream,’ in a mundane world where no superhero can stop his brother dying whether that be in France or Korea or Vietnam or Iraq.
Sons of the Law is a Western story with a framing device positing it as a manuscript handed down through a family. It transcends all the Western clichés while at the same time deploying them – the saloon, the hunter, the killer, the slave (whose name, Abraham, and experience embed a Biblical reference,) the bargirl, the gambler, the wrangler, the drifter, in a tale of revenge and implied poetic justice.
Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill! ticks off two fantasy tropes in one swoop with a story of a boy and his lover (a werewolf) hunting vampires.
Oneirica melds many myths and legends into one tale as it describes a trip by various characters to find a stone chest containing mythological objects.
Inventive, delightful stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- Plasticene (Plasticine,) “fifth formers” (yet the narrator is Scottish, where the expression is ‘fifth years’. Perhaps not in private schools though where the scene was set.) “Joey sees him close his eyes, puts the barrel to his own chest and pull the trigger” (put the barrel,) rigourous (rigorous,) “that’s bound to sparks some stares” (to spark,) “and the hoi polloi” (hoi means ‘the’, so it should really be ‘and hoi polloi.) “None of them are aware” (None of them is aware.) “None of them know what’s in the briefcase” (None of them knows.)

All the Rage by A L Kennedy

Jonathan Cape, 2014, 217 p.

 All the Rage cover

This is Kennedy’s fifth collection of short stories. Most of the contents tend to utilise short sentences. Sometimes verbless. Often with a second person style of narration.

Late in Life recounts the emotions of a younger woman and her older lover the day they have a lawyer’s meeting to determine the details his will. Of a student ahead of them in the queue at the Building Society where they are about to pay off her mortgage she thinks, “Young men are easily confused. They lack resources.”
In Baby Blue a woman wanders into a sex shop to get away from the cold outside and escape thoughts of the medical procedure she has undergone. As she finds herself dogged by the assistant’s efforts to help she ponders her attitude to love. “The real experience of love is of having unreasonably lost all shelter.” Chocolate-flavoured condoms inspire the thought that her experience of oral sex is not “intended to be primarily culinary,” and that “Use of such a device might imply “your penis is inadequate and ought at least to taste of chocolate to compensate, so here you go and roll on one of these.”
Because it’s a Wednesday. Wednesday is the day for the viewpoint character’s domestic help to do the cleaning. Because it’s a Wednesday they are doing what they always do – at her instigation. Because it’s a Wednesday he’s shagging Carmen. (Not a spoiler, it’s the story’s first sentence.)
In the run-up to Christmas a man drops into a church in These Small Pieces. The service prompts thoughts of the unreliability of God and the occurences which have hurt him.
The Practice of Mercy sees a woman take a stroll from her hotel room through an unfamiliar town and return to find her lover, with whom she’d had a disagreement, has come to join her.
The person who has been Knocked is a young boy recovering in hospital from being trampled by a horse, who imagines he can see into the future in a small way.
In All the Rage a married man in his forties who serially tries it on with women finds his match in a twenty-two year-old woman.
In Takes You Home a man who “never intended to grow up and have to be adult” but “did. Naturally,” (although on several occasions had heard it said he’d simply got taller and faked the rest,) ponders the times he had in the flat he’s selling.
The Effects of Good Government on the City features a woman on a visit to Blackpool questioning her relationships.
In Run Catch Run a boy caught up in the throes of his parents’ divorce plays with the dog his father has bought him and his mother says they can’t afford.
The viewpoint character of A Thing Unheard-of is seemingly afraid of contact and runs through the many ways in which they could deliver a message, in person, on the phone, in a letter, electronically.
This Man is the story of a lunchtime first date which is an awkward encounter – until suddenly it’s not.

Pedant’s corner:- potassium added to water is described as wasping “back and forth on the liquid’s surface in a tiny blur of lilac flames , too angry to sink.” (The reason potassium doesn’t sink is because it’s less dense than water. It would float even without the flames,) wisht (several times but once as whisht. This Scottish word is usually spelled wheesht.)

The Glorious Thing by Christine Orr

Merchiston Publishing, 2013, 235 p, plus i p Acknowledgements, iii p iv p Introduction by Yvonne mcCleery, iii p Afterword by Alistair McCleery, ii p About the author, ii p Discussion Questions. First published 1919.

The Glorious Thing cover

This novel is set on the Home Front during the Great War. David Grant has been invalided out of the Army and has returned home to Castlerig near Edinburgh to convalesce and build himself up. His path crosses with that of the Sutherland sisters, Effie, Nannie, Marion and Jullie.

Marion is unobtrusive and divides men into Bounders (too objectionable,) Selfish Lumps (too absorbed in their conversation to thank you when you passed them tea,) Silly Asses (attempting either to be funny or, worse, sentimental,) Nice Boys (foolish beyond expression) and Dear Old Things (usually friends of Uncle Alexander.) Only her brother Pat was an exception and she realises David Grant too doesn’t fit any of the bills.

Nothing very out of the ordinary occurs in the book: it is a quiet examination of ordinary lives carried on in uncommon circumstances. As soon as David encounters Marion it is obvious where the story will lead but there are complications along the way. “There is nothing more bitter than to have the sweetness of a friendship turned sour by a few interfering words, or the jests of thoughtless outsiders.” However, David’s early thought that “Life is a thing too glorious to be enjoyed” is not borne out except in the circumstances of Nannie’s fiancé’s death in the war and her subsequent attempt to find solace via spiritualism.

This sits somewhat at odds with David’s musings on “the artistic temperament” which he conceives “is a real and wonderful thing; nothing less than the power to understand and love the eternal beauty of the world.” Of course, it is; but the eternal beauty of the world can be an elusive thing to grasp.

The blurb describes Orr as a true hidden gem on the Scottish literary scene. Hidden certainly. I had never heard of her until a recent (though well pre-lockdown) visit to the Scottish Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh; an institution dedicated mainly to Burns, Scott and Stevenson but on one of whose walls was a description of Orr’s career – enough to spur me on to seek her writings out. Unfortunately most are long out of print; and scarce.

Despite being set during the Great War, The Glorious Thing still has a kind of Victorian sensibility – much like the Findlater sisters’ Crossriggs, but better written, and underneath it all, with the prevalence of women in the narrative, a sense of the changes the war wrought.

Pedant’s corner:- Minnie Grant says, ‘Aren’t I swanky?’ (The Scottish form is ‘Amn’t I?) Chambers’ (Chambers’s.) “‘I wonder what be thinks of us’” (what he thinks,) a missing comma before or after a piece of direct speech (a few times,) shrunk (shrank.) “All telegrams do not bring bad news.” (Not true; some telegrams did. What Orr meant was, “Not all telegrams bring bad news,) a speech which was carried over into the next paragraph had an end quotation mark before the paragraph break, “hearts tae break and nine tae sell” (“hearts tae break and none tae sell” makes more sense,) appall (appal.)

Murdo, The Life and Works by Iain Crichton Smith

Birlinn, 2001, 285 p, plus xiii p Introduction by Stewart Conn.

 Murdo, The Life and Works cover

In my review of his collection After the Dance I mentioned Smith’s very-unScottish deployment of humour. This is most evident in the pieces presented by his Murdo persona, which is, as the book’s title implies, very much to the fore here.

Murdo, the Life and Works is divided into three sections Murdo, Thoughts of Murdo and Life of Murdo.

In the first, Murdo has given up his job at a bank in order to write a novel about a man who has given up his job at a bank in order to write a novel. Every morning he stares at the blank piece of paper in front of him and out of the window to look at the White Mountain (which he tells himself one day he must climb,) throughout the day he fortifies himself with cups of tea and every evening the sheet of paper is still blank. When he ventures outside the house his encounters with others tend to the bizarre, his behaviour beyond eccentric. His wife’s parents think she should leave him, while she herself thought she had understood him when they married but is now not so sure. At one point Murdo ruminates that, “Those who approach most closely to the condition of the animal are the ones most likely to survive. And Woolworths. Woolworths will live forever.” How wrong he was in that last assumption.

The second contains a multitude of diverse snippets of Murdo’s thoughts and writings – notes, letters, manifestos, poetry and observations – replete with wordplay and allusion and including some of his tales of Free Church adherent and private detective Sam Spaid who strides down the mean streets of Portree (and sometimes travels as far as Inverness.) Some of these animadversions appeared in After the Dance. There is also an account by Murdo he gave of a talk on the humanity of Robert Burns as revealed by the text of To a Mouse.

A preface to the third section says that Smith used the word Murdo instead of I in the autobiography which follows to distance himself from his memories as outlined there – including some of Dumbarton. Of course Murdo must contain aspects of Smith himself but as Murdo these are undoubtedly exaggerated. Many of Murdo’s opinions have certainly been adopted by Smith for comedic or satiric purposes. This section also contains Murdo’s reminiscences of the Scottish literary scene and its characters.

In contrast to his days staying there Dumbarton, says Murdo, is “much improved” principally because it now has a Sue Ryder shop (plus other charity shops.) Murdo scours the shelves of these, as of those elsewhere, in search of books.

As an illustration of a certain kind of Scottish discourse at one point one of his interlocutors, when asked about availability for some project or other, says, “‘I don’t know about Tuesday. That’s my Hate the Catholics night.’”

Note for the sensitive; this contains the word ‘dagoes.’

Pedant’s corner:- ‘Bridge over Troubled Waters’ (a common misprision, the song’s title is “Bridge over Troubled Water”,) “smoothe away” (smooth,) fifth equals (strictly that should be fifths equal,) “The Comunn Gaidhealach have even produced” (has even produced,) “by the bye” (by the by,) corn-beef (corned beef,) “barely bree” (barley bree,) “in the the brine” (only one ‘the’,) Harris’ (Harris’s,) Holmes’ (Holmes’s,) aquaducts (aqueducts,) an opened parenthesis never closed (x 2,) “the world of the army was not Murdo’s work” (not Murdo’s world makes more sense,) “didn’t consider Donalda threat” (didn’t consider Donalda a threat,) “jelly fish” (jellyfish,) jsut (just.)

The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside

a romance. Vintage, 2008, 221 p.

 The Devil’s Footprints  cover

This is an exquisitely written novel whose title implies that it is going to be another in that long list of Scottish works of fiction which feature an encounter with the Devil, and in one sense it is, but it is also something entirely modern. I would submit, however, that it is not, as its description on the title page states, a romance – at least not in the usual sense of that word in a novelistic context – despite the narrator’s later claim.

Michael Gardiner lives with his wife Amanda just outside the seaside town of Coldhaven, where local legend has it that the Devil one night had stalked the town in the aftermath of a great snowfall, leaving his odd footprints behind. Not that the town is unused to strange events. It is also said that once a woman had given birth to a baby with two heads, one normal, the other mis-shapen and stunted. The baby had quickly died and the woman went mad.

Michael’s unravelling begins when his cleaner, Mrs K, who brings to him the town’s gossip (but only when she has verified it) tells him the details of the incident where Moira Birnie – née Gregory – and incidentally Michael’s first proper girlfriend, had dropped her fourteen year-old daughter, Hazel, off on a back road out of town before driving away and then, convinced her husband Tom was the devil, had killed herself and their two sons. The car they were found in was deliberately burned-out. This tragedy sets Michael off to wondering if Hazel is in fact his daughter, since the dates fit. It also reminds him of the bullying he had received in school at the hands of Moira’s brother Malcolm, and the secret he has kept all those years about Malcolm’s death.

Michael explains his subsequent actions with thoughts like “mostly we are creatures of chance” and that we “see ourselves from inside as we never appear to others.” He ruminates on the vagaries of marriage. “I had to wonder why anyone got married, when they had the evidence of their own parents’ lives right there in front of them.” He says marriage is a story, it needs some new event every so often, but “there is a moment when a husband begins to suspect his wife, or a wife her husband, of having another story altogether, a separate, private story, that remains, and perhaps always will remain, untold.” On the possible reasons for why his own marriage broke down he reflects that, “Things begin deep below the surface; by the time they are visible, they have a life and direction of their own. We don’t see that, so we call it destiny, or fate, or chance, when something unexpected happens.”

Coldhaven is well named, the inhabitants had never made Michael’s parents (mother a painter, father a photographer, both from down south) welcome. Such was the townsfolks’ antipathy towards the incomers that gifts of dogshit through the letterbox, anonymous letters, threatening encounters on the street, nasty phone calls were the least of it. Hence Michael is convinced his mother’s death in a road accident was a deliberate act. Most of Amanda’s friends – mainly local – had gone to college, but once back in Coldhaven, “their local accents were more pronounced than they had ever been, and you could tell they had been unhappy in their absence.” His father put up with all the harassment but Michael says, “People think tolerance is a virtue, but there are some things that shouldn’t be tolerated.”

While he acknowledges he did go, at least mildly, insane, on insanity in general Michael thinks, “Only the insane listen when the angel speaks, only the insane make wild-eyed denials and so confirm their guilt.” He also astutely remarks that, “when the devil has work to do, he makes it look like an accident …. in order to lure us into his trap, protesting mildly, if at all, but willing accomplices at the last,” which has undertones of Banquo’s speech in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. On the historical pursuit of supposed evil-doers Michael recognises that people who drowned or burned simpletons and scapegoats as witches were themselves really the ones who were afraid of being possessed, that they would find the devil touching their shoulder, that they were his chosen. In these passages Burnside is touching on the tradition of brushes with the Devil but not explicitly, since Michael’s devil is internal. (Arguably, I suppose, all the meetings with the Devil in Scottish fiction are internal.)

As to restitution, for Michael, penance “should be an everyday matter, a deliberate return from the glamour of sin.” He makes his own via a strange anabatic hundred-mile walk home to Coldhaven after his madness abates.

Through Michael, Burnside tells us a story is “not meant to be true, but it has to be real, it has to run.” In that respect The Devil’s Footprints runs, delightfully.

Pedant’s corner:- Mrs Collings’ cottage (Collings’s,) rowboat (rowing boat,) Vesalius’ (Vesalius’s,) Burntturk

The Rector and The Doctor’s Family by Mrs Oliphant

Chronicles of Carlingford. Virago, 1993, 196 p, plus xii p Introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald.

 The Rector and The Doctor’s Family  cover

Being two shorter works The Rector, not even novella length, and the more substantial The Doctor’s Family.

In The Rector, the old Rector (profoundly Low Church, “lost in the deepest abysses of Evangelicalism”) has died. Mr Proctor – Fellow of All-Souls Oxford – has come to replace him but finds the practice of ministry very different from the academic life he has left. When his aged mother joins him she divines instantly that at least one of the churchwarden’s two daughters will be “intended” for him. He is terrified and reflects, “But have not women been incomprehensible since ever there was in this world a pen with sufficient command of words to call them so? …. And is it not certain that …. every soul of them is plotting to marry somebody? …. Who could fathom the motives of a woman?” Meanwhile his mother, “watched him as women do often watch men, waiting till the creature should come to itself again and might be spoken to.” That fear, combined with Mr Proctor’s total inability to cope with the needs of a dying parishioner and the demands of sociability lead him to reconsider his position.

The Doctor’s Family.
Dr Edward Rider, not the pre-eminent physician in Carlingford – that would be Dr Marjoribanks – has the medical care of the less well-off of Carlingford society. His only burden is that of his waster of a brother Fred, back from the colonies under a cloud, indolent to a fault and an almost permanent resident in an easy-chair. Two ladies arrive at the door one day and Edward is astonished to find that Fred has a wife, Susan – and three more or less uncontrolled children – come over from Australia with Susan’s sister Nettie, who in turn has just about the means to support them. Nettie is the practical one, arranging lodgings for the ensemble in St Roques’s cottage, and undertaking all the work of the household. Edward becomes enamoured of Nettie, but her sense of duty to her sister’s family is so strong that she will not contemplate leaving them for anything.

It is reasonably clear from Edward’s first encounter with Nettie where all this will be going. There are of course minor complications to the narrative, a potential rival for Nettie’s affections in the person of the permanent curate of St Roques’s church, a tentative leaning towards Miss Marjoribanks while Edward works through his irritation at Nettie’s refusal of his own, but even when Fred dies, drowned in a canal after a night in the pub, Nettie will not abandon her duty. Only the entrance of Richard Chatham, another Australian, (un)distinguished by a luxuriant beard – not common in Carlingford in those days, only Mr Lake has such an affectation and his is very much subdued by comparison – changes the dyamic.

Oliphant’s style is wordy, she was a nineteenth century novelist after all, but her eye for the human heart, for its predicaments, is sure.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction, a missing comma before a quote of direct speech, and one missing at the end of such a quote, Freddie (x 2; the text has Freddy,) “between man and women” (men and women.) Otherwise; “the two Miss Woodhouses” (several times; the two Misses Woodhouse,) “‘It did not use to be’” (used to be,) St Roques’ (St Roques’s.)

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Naomi Mitchison

The Traveller’s Library, 1928, 348 p.

Cloud Cuckoo Land cover

This contains a dedication which I would have thought to be quite daring for the 1920s, “To my lover.”

The book is set during the Pelopponesian War, starting off on the island of Poieëssa in the Aegean Sea. Here young Alxenor is caught between the wishes of his brother, Euripaides, to support Sparta against the island’s overlord Athens, and those of Chromon, the brother of the girl he likes, Moiro, in favour of the democrats. When the revolt aganist Athens comes, Alxenor is only able to save Moiro with the help of a Spartan, Leon and find she ha smade an enemy of Chromon. He and Moiro flee to Athens where he is taken in by Theramenes, a trader, and marries Moiro. He is only able to make money by enlisting as a rower on one of Theramenes’s triremes but it is never enough and he and Moiro live more or less hand-to-mouth, even when they have a son, Timas. Moiro is pregnant again when Alxenor has to make another sailing trip and he advises her to keep the new child if it’s a boy or else expose it (in the Greek way) if it is a girl. It’s a girl and his wishes are followed by the household. Thereafter things between Moiro and Alxenor are broken and he takes care not to make her pregnant again.

On one of Alxenor’s trips he receives news that Sparta’s navy has defeated that of Athens at Aegospotami and the fall of the city becomes a foregone conclusion. Thus it is that Alxenor and his family end up in Sparta at the household of Leon’s cousin where Moiro has an affair with Leon and the inevitable happens. Her loyal slave attempts to get rid of the child but it goes wrong and Moiro dies. Here the Spartans offer to bring up Timas as one of their own. Alxenor is willing at first but another non-Spartan who is undergoing the same training as intended for Timas secretly warns him not to allow it. He and Timas make their escape and head for Poieëssa.

This is another illustration of Mitchison’s clear love for ancient times as in The Corn King and the Spring Queen and Travel Light (and also Blood of the Martyrs.) Her knowledge of the times and customs shines through but I would perhaps have enjoyed this more if I’d had a wider knowledge of the Pelopponesian war than merely that it was a contest between Athens and Sparta.

As a novel, though, this has a peculiar ending in that it doesn’t seem to have a conclusion. It just stops. And I still can’t quite see in what context the title Cloud Cuckoo Land is apposite.

Pedant’s corner:- Theramenes’ (Theramenes’s. All names ending in ‘s’ in this book are treated similarly, though,) shrunk (x 2, shrank,) “he dare not” (past tense, dared not,) “none of the Spartans were back” (none … was back,) slipt (archaic spelling of slipped – or is it Scots?) “two fellow-servants of Isadas’ went” (doesn’t need that apostrophe after Isadas,) “wouldn’t leave go” (wouldn’t let go.) “None of them were …” (None of them was… .) mistress’ (mistress’s,) sunk (sank.) T S Elliot (in a chapter epigraph. T S Eliot.) “‘Aren’t I ever going back’” (Please. ‘Amn’t I ever going back?’)

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.)

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