What I’ve been reading lately, part 31

Breakfast at Tiffany’s — Truman Capote

I went back to read this source text after having been fascinated by the film. The novella is perfectly written: terse, just as descriptive as it needs to be, and economically outlining a Holly Golightly who is more to be pitied than envied or held in contempt. In both book and film she is an enigmatic figure, always holding contradictions in tension, and Capote was completely mad to think that Marilyn Monroe should have been cast for the role. Having read the book, I now see Audrey Hepburn as even more perfect for it than I already did — she has a combination of elegance, haughtiness, playfulness, shamelessness and insecurity that no-one else could have nailed so precisely.

Well worth reading the book first, then seeing the film.

Whose Body? — Dorothy L. Sayers

The first of the eleven novels by Sayers that deal with her fictional detective Lord Peter Wimsey — a minor member of the British nobility between the wars, with a gift for amateur deduction. Lord Peter, with his obliging manservant Bunter and his friend Inspector Parker, looks into the inexplicable appearance of a dead body in the bathtub of a flat in London, and also into the disappearance of a wealthy banker. Aspects of the two mysteries are fairly easy to guess, but the full story, when it unwinds, is a pleasantly comprehensive surprise that makes perfect sense. This is a fine debut, and I will certainly go on to Lord Peter’s subsequent adventures.

It would be remiss at this point not to make a few comparisons between the four great fictional detectives I’ve been reading recently: Sherlock Holmes (though not recently enough to have made it into this series of blog-posts), Father Brown, Hercule Poirot and now Lord Peter Wimsey. Brown remains my favourite of the four, for his profound humanity and his portrayal of a Christianity that is both admirable and delightful. Poirot is every bit as annoying and mannered as Agatha Christie herself found him to be, yet somehow his presence really does lift those of her books that he appears in. Lord Peter is an amiable concoction of Bertie Wooster (one can hardly help but think of him) and Holmes, that other gentleman-detective of London. But Holmes himself seems insufferable to me, and Conan-Doyle’s writing rarely rises above the adequate. It’s amazing that he was as successful as he was, but I’m glad of it because it gave rise to all the better work that came after.

Time and Time Again — Ben Elton

Ben Elton is the least fashionable of authors, his critical star having fallen catastrophically since he was among the leading wave of alternative comedians in the early 1980s. But I don’t much care about that: he’s a very compelling writer, and that’s what matters. There’s little of the literary in his turn of phrase, but he takes on big, important themes, gives us boldly drawn characters, and puts them through exciting situations.

This one is about an ex-army man who is given a unique opportunity to go back in time and change a crucial part of history — in this case, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand that catalysed the Great War. Lots of fascinating developments ensure, including several that I absolutely did not see coming but which made perfect sense. In the end, for all the functionality of his prose, Elton ends up dealing with more important matters — and in a very accessible way — than most literary authors.

Contact — Carl Sagan

The very hardest of hard science-fiction, written by a hard scientist with a decent literary bent. Ellie Arroway is a withdrawn single woman who rises through the ranks of professional astronomy to become the USA’s head of SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). Radio telescopes under her care pick up a signal that proves to be from intelligent aliens. The novel is largely about how this signal is progressively decoded, and the implications of what it contains. I’ll give no more details for fear of spoilers, but I will say that Sagan is not afraid to think about the broader social, political and even religious implications of such developments, and that he does a good, sympathetic job on all fronts. Ellie’s own story as all this happens is also absorbing. All in all, highly recommended. It’s a shame Sagan didn’t write more sci-fi.

(I enjoyed the film, too — I’ve seen it twice, once a few years ago, and then again shortly after reading the book. But the book is better because any attempt to show us the things the book describes is doomed to look like special effects.)

Five on Brexit Island — Bruno Vincent (writing as Enid Blyton)

I picked this up because I found it for £1.50 in a charity shop and I was amused by the conceit. I didn’t expect it to be actually good, but in fact it was not bad at all. On page 16, for example we read this acute observation: “George … had one of those flashes of cold, dreadful insight that only a person in a foul mood can access.”

The story is told very much in Enid Blyton’s style, with only occasional hints that the characters are now well into middle age and their parents elderly. It does a decent job of reflecting how the Brexit campaigning went, and draws towards its conclusion with this:

Everyone there suddenly felt very tired. This adventure on Kirrin Island hadn’t panned out how they had hoped at all. It felt like the best thing for them now was to go home again, and try to pretend that it had never happened.

Which is about as good a summary of Brexit as I’ve seen.

CloudS of Witness — Dorothy L. Sayers

The second of the Lord Peter Wimsey books. I enjoyed this without ever quite getting carried away by it. At a few points I had to persuade myself to keep reading, which I know is not the most glowing possible recommendation. I’m not sure what’s missing here. I’ll push on to the third, though, and see if I can put my finger on it. Oh, and I don’t at all understand what the title alludes to.

[Note: I initially misread and misreported this title as Cloud of Witnesses: see the comments below for an explanation of the actual title.]

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything — Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Having loved Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist, I had high hopes for this one. But I was mostly disappointed. Where TUE gave me new ways to think about things I’d thought I understood — like why markets skew away from being efficient — Freakonomics read more like a sequence of anecdotes: like the kind of thing Malcolm Gladwell might write. Each chapter was individually fascinating, but I couldn’t pick up any kind of thread joining them into a deeper narrative. Fun, but ephemeral.

Dead Famous — Ben Elton

Having recently read Two Brothers and Time and Time Again, I found myself wanting to go back and revisit some of the old Ben Elton novels. I remember when I first bought this one, I stayed up till 4am to finish reading it. On re-reading, I’m not 100% sure why I found it quite that compelling, but it grabbed me again and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a murder mystery set in the Big Brother house — or, more precisely, the Peeping Tom house, but it’s clearly the exact same thing. One of the housemates is murdered in circumstances of near-total surveillance that ought to have made it completely impossible. How was it done? It falls to a distinctly middle-aged policeman to try to understand the self-selected exhibitionists that make up the Peeping Tom cast, and to figure out who the murderer is.

Whether or not Elten is acclaimed as a great, or even good, author, my position is that any author who comes up with a compelling scenario, populates it with memorable characters and solves an inexplicable mystery is doing something right. This, then, is a fine novel.

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6 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 31

  1. David Brain

    The title is actually Clouds of Witness (rather than Cloud of Witnesses.) I am pretty sure that this is a direct Biblical allusion to the Letter to the Hebrews. In that instance, the phrase is “Clouds of Witnesses”, meaning all the other faithful believers who provide support to the individual believer in the face of those who do not believe. I think that in this case, it’s because Wimsey is basically the only person who believes in his brother’s innocence, hence he can only be a singular “witness” rather than a plurality of “witnesses”.
    I may, of course, be misreading that entirely but Sayers was a committed Anglican and she uses Biblical references elsewhere.

    (I agree that this is not one of the stronger Wimsey stories. But I do think that Sayers does do a good job on her characters and actually allows them to develop a little over the course of the writing – reading them out-of-sequence can actually be a little jarring at times. In passing, it’s mildly amusing that Sayers herself didn’t think that Wimsey would be a Christian even though she created and wrote him!)

  2. Wow, that’s a bad mistake on my part. As you probably guessed, I misread the title precisely because I’m so familiar with Hebrews 12:1. In fact, Sayers’ title here is rather clever (I interpret it exactly as you do).

    BTW., I do plan to continue with the Wimsey series.

  3. Kristen Wison

    I’m in the middle of watching Blackadder for the first time. I didn’t realize Ben Elton was also a novelist. Are his books funny? Tangentially, I have read one book by Stephen Fry — The Liar — that I thought was quite good.

    Also, the Wimsey mysteries pick up quite a bit around Strong Poison, and there are 3 or 4 that are top notch.

  4. Hi, Kristen, nice to see you here. Honestly, I think Elton’s novels are excellent, but I had to admit that a lot of people disagree — whether on the basis of a differing artistic judgement or pure snobbery, I couldn’t say.

    Elton’s a divisive figure: when he first came into the public consciousness he was very much an anti-establishment comedian in the vanguard of the Alternative Comedy of the early 1980s. He also co-wrote The Young Ones, which is unique and very British, and well worth watching at least the first episode of. So his star was high, and Blackadder only helped.

    Since then, the perception is that he has increasingly become part of the very establishing that he originally exemplified a rebellion against, and he’s widely resented for that. That’s come about in part due to a series of tame and conventional sitcoms, and the novels may have a part of this. More recently, he’s taken gigs like writing the book of the risible Queen-themed musical We Will Rock You, with its least-common-denominator music-conquers-all plot, which makes him look exactly the kind of mercenary that he made his reputation lampooning.

    In among all that, he’s kept writing novels, and I’ve kept reading them: most of them multiple times, which I think tells its own story. The books are funny, yes, but also earnestly (maybe over-earnestly) engaged with real issues: the environment, social media, the dumbing down of mainstream entertainment, and so on. I think that judged on their own merits they’re objectively good (and very readable), but that their reputation has suffered because of who the author is.

  5. Kristen Wilson

    Thanks for the background! Given that Blackadder is such a classic farce, I would have expected Elton to be more of a comic author in the style of Wodehouse. I’ll have to keep an eye out for his books.

  6. It’s funny to think of Elton and Wodehouse in the same bracket :-) I do see what you mean: Blackadder and Jeeves both depend on the finely turned phrase. But I think in the former case, it’s much more dependent on Rowan Atkinson’s delivery. The words themselves, on a page, would not have anything like the perfection of Bertie Wooster’s distinctive locution.

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