Saturday, December 30, 2023

the last book I read

Endless Night by Agatha Christie. 

Mike Rogers is a little bit WHOOOAAA, a little bit WHEEEYYY; he is, in short, a geezer. Well, perhaps that's a little bit harsh, but he is very keen to transcend his humble origins and has done a series of jobs enabling him to get a sniff of, and a hankering for, the lifestyles of the rich and famous. While working as a chauffeur he has made the acquaintance of one Rudolf Santonix, noted architect, and so when wandering aimlessly in the countryside one day and spotting a crumbling property in some extensive grounds he spends some time imagining in his mind's eye the property replaced with one of his own design, made real by Santonix and his associates.

After a few conversations with people in the village it transpires that the house and its grounds are for sale, and moreover that the property is known locally as Gipsy's Acre and is rumoured to be cursed. But Mike buying anything like this, even at a relatively knock-down price at a public auction, is just a crazy fantasy. Almost immediately he meets American girl Ellie Goodman, also mooning around the property's perimeter gazing wistfully at it, and they strike up a tentative romance. It transpires that she is actually Ellie Guteman, heiress to the Guteman millions and on her imminent 21st birthday set to become one of the richest women in the world.

Ellie returns home for her birthday and Mike attempts some sort of reconciliation with his mother, who seems oddly cold towards him. On Ellie's return, Mike tells her that the Gipsy's Acre property has been sold, and she's like no shit, Sherlock, I bought it for us to build a house on and live in and I've hired your mate Santonix to do the job. Now marry me, you crazy fool.

They marry in a quiet ceremony, and as Santonix and his team get on with building their dream home Mike has to come to terms with the small army of hangers-on associated with someone fabulously wealthy: relatives, ex-relatives, lawyers and Ellie's personal assistant and general companion Greta Andersen, whose loyalty to Ellie regarding the secretive nature of the marriage leads to her getting fired by the family and taken on on a personal basis by Ellie. This results in Greta coming to live with them, an arrangement that starts as temporary but ends up semi-permanent, much to Mike's chagrin.

Mike and Ellie integrate themselves into village life and meet some of the locals - Ellie is a keen horsewoman, which helps, despite having to take pills to overcome an allergy to horses. Mike is down at an auction with one of the locals, Major Phillpot, one day, expecting to be joined by Ellie at the pub for lunch, and when she doesn't turn up he and the major (after finishing their lunch first, obviously) head up to the house to look for her. No sign of her at the house, but when they search the grounds they find her on one of the riding trails, on the ground as if having fallen from a horse, no obvious external signs of injury but clearly dead. 

A full-scale investigation is mobilised, and suspicion falls on the mysterious red-caped figure seen near the riding trail by one of the locals during the time Ellie was out riding. Could it have been the old gipsy woman from earlier? Or someone else? Meanwhile the full machinery of the legal apparatus associated with administering the Guteman millions grinds into action and Mike, as sole beneficiary of Ellie's will, is subject to much attention and advice, not all of it well-intentioned. He consults with Ellie's American lawyer, Andrew Lippincott, who undertakes to ensure that Mike isn't swindled but seems cold and unfriendly and tells Mike that he has sent him a letter which he will receive when he returns home.

Mike has some time to reflect on all this as he returns home by sea, the ship having to navigate around some MASSIVE PLOT SPOILERS on the way. Mike reflects that this business has all been rather trying but at least he's returning home to be with the woman he loves. WAIT A MINUTE, you'll be thinking, didn't she die a couple of chapters back? Well, no, because the woman Mike is referring to here is (dramatic orchestral stab) none other than Greta Andersen, who is, it turns out, the real love of Mike's life and the co-hatcher of a fiendish plan to ensnare an heiress, bump her off and then have it away with all her lovely money. 

So, yes, Mike, who we'd thought was nothing more sinister than a bit of a directionless chancer made good by marriage to a sweet and obliging woman (who also happened to be, y'know, a millionairess), turns out to be the murderer, managing to be somewhere else when the murder occurred by poisoning Ellie's horse allergy pills, knowing she was intending to ride that day. It also transpires this isn't even the first time he's killed someone, having offed a childhood friend by pushing them under some ice (stealing his watch into the bargain, the swine) and then finished off an army colleague, seemingly just for psychopathic shits and giggles, after he'd been stabbed. 

Mike returns to Gipsy's Acre and Greta but imagines he sees Ellie as he approaches the house, and finds Greta less than receptive to the idea of staying on and making the place their home - she favours selling up and scarpering, which seems, on balance, a better idea. Mike's precarious mental stability is further undermined when he finds and opens the letter from Lippincott and discovers a newspaper cutting featuring a photograph of him and Greta in Hamburg dated well before he and Ellie ever met. So Lippincott knew!? Or knew something dodgy was afoot, anyway. Greta shouts at him to pull himself together but he responds by strangling her, at which point Major Phillpot and the police arrive and the jig is up.

I read what must have been about twenty Agatha Christie novels in what must have been my late teens and early twenties after we inherited a large stash of them from my grandmother. This one is one of the last novels she wrote, in 1967 (she died in 1976 at the age of 85) - the "classic" Christie period is the subject of some dispute but is generally regarded as running from the early 1920s when she started writing murder mysteries to perhaps the very early 1950s. It's also unusual in the Christie oeuvre for not featuring any of her recurring detectives, most notably Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, and for having all the murdering and revelations happening very late in the book rather than right at the start - Ellie's death is revealed on page 139 of a 191-page book and Mike only explicitly outs himself as the villain on page 173. The device of having the book's narrator also be revealed as the murderer isn't completely new, even for Christie - it's more famously used in The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd in 1926, a Christie I have, as it happens, never read. 

Endless Night is generally regarded as the best of the late Christies and it is suggested it was one of her own personal favourites. And it is very good, really more of a twisted romance slash psychological thriller than a murder mystery in the orthodox sense. Nonetheless as with all mysteries there are some implausibilities - Mike seems to have no trouble getting hold of some cyanide when he needs it (and no-one seems fussed about toxicology tests and the like after Ellie turns up dead), it's unclear how he and Greta engineered his meeting with Ellie, the whole business with the newspaper cutting seems a bit unlikely, and Mike's mental disintegration on returning to Gipsy's Acre seems a bit sudden, given the cold-blooded bastardry of the plot he's just engineered - but as always this isn't really the point, and some of it can be handwaved away with a weeeeell, unreliable narrator, whaddaya gonna do? There is also just a suspicion in the middle section describing Mike and Ellie's life after getting married and settling into life in Gipsy's Acre of Christie tapping her watch and going: have I written enough pages to get to the murdering bit yet? Perhaps I'd better throw in another vaguely sinister and possibly curse-related occurrence to keep the tension up. 

Anyway, despite its unorthodoxy as a murder mystery Endless Night has been adapted for the screen a couple of times - the TV adaptation contrived to shoehorn Miss Marple into the mix somehow, while the 1972 film kept a bit more closely to the book's plot. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

I can't remember how I came across this video featuring former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic (among others, including Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil - a much longer version can be found here) but it struck me that firstly I had no idea what he'd been up to for the last 30 years and secondly that actually one thing that he evidently had been doing was turning into Hank Kingsley from The Larry Sanders Show, as portrayed by Jeffrey Tambor.

and I know that I am dying, and I wish I could beg

I find myself oddly uncomfortable with some of the fulsome tributes to Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan, who died a couple of weeks ago. Not because he wasn't an exceptionally gifted songwriter and lyricist, nor because the Pogues didn't make some great albums, but because most of the tributes and obituaries either tiptoe around the elephant in the room or paradoxically embrace it.

We're into mildly contrarian HOT TAKE territory here, again, I suppose, so to go full devil's advocate I offer you the following opinion: MacGowan was a brilliant but troubled man - born, it should be noted, in Kent and sent to various quite posh fee-paying schools including Holmewood House and (briefly) Westminster before deciding to really embrace his ancestral Irishness - whose group, the Pogues, produced two unequivocally great albums, their second and third, 1985's Rum, Sodomy & The Lash and 1988's If I Should Fall From Grace With God. After that the quality dropped off markedly and after MacGowan's sacking by the rest of the band (for generally erratic and unreliable behaviour) in 1991 he produced nothing of any note creatively for the rest of his life, endured increasingly poor health including being confined to a wheelchair after an accident in 2015 and eventually died after bouts of viral encephalitis and pneumonia. 

The elephant in the room I referred to above is of course MacGowan's legendary drink and drug intake. I don't have any particular insight into the details but it's public knowledge that he had a heroin habit for some years; outside of that it seems to have been mainly The Drink. As has been noted a few times before, Irish culture in particular has a bit of a problem with The Drink and the associated romanticised notions of wild-eyed poetic types carousing till the small hours and having hilarious adventures with Paddy McGinty's horse et tediously cetera, ignoring the more prosaic tooth-rotting, soft-cocked, trouser-shitting realities of such behaviour. Is it possible to say that MacGowan's meaningful recording career would have encompassed more than a couple of albums if he hadn't degenerated into a mumbling toothless chair-bound alcoholic? No, but it might have stood a better chance, and the various obituaries that celebrate the drink intake as if it were some sort of essential adjunct to the creative process seem to be making some unwarranted and potentially dangerous assumptions. It's really the same question as could have been asked after Christopher Hitchens' demise some years back: would moderating the booze intake have made them worse at their job? Could it, in fact, have made them better? Even during MacGowan's lifetime, the series of journalists lining up to interview him, ignore his crippling cognitive decline and project some sort of poetic fantasy onto the blank canvas of the monosyllabic answers and incomprehensible cackling they actually got on tape was, eh, I dunno: unhelpful, let's say. 

There's a fine line to be trodden here, and I recognise the danger of getting into the whole "I like a drink, you are a bon viveur, he is an alcoholic" thing, or, to put it another way, it ill behooves someone (like me) very partial to a beverage to be pontificating too snootily about someone else's intake. But I would tentatively suggest it's about contrast: there's no better pint than the one you have at the end of a long strenuous mountain hike on a hot day, for instance. Cut out the contrast so that the drink bit is all you do and you lose a significant part of the point of the whole thing; then again that's what makes hopeless uncontrollable alcoholics hopeless uncontrollable alcoholics, I suppose. There is also an element in the various tributes of heeeeeeyyy whaddaya gonna do, he's Irish, which is of course a bit racist.

There is another elephant lurking about here, and it's this: when you read about some 63-stone teenager whose daily intake of grub comprises a gallon of Ben & Jerry's and forty-two pizzas, you have to ask: look, we've gone well past the stage where they could be walking down the pizza shop themselves to get hold of this stuff, and yes, conceivably they could be phoning out for it (although someone's still got to get up and answer the door), but generally there is an enabler in the mix somewhere. In the case of morbidly obese teenagers it's generally a parent, in MacGowan's case it was pretty clearly his long-time girlfriend and latterly wife Victoria Mary Clarke, who you might charitably describe as endearingly scatty and unconventional, or less charitably as simply bonkers. Either way she was clearly devoted to MacGowan in a probably counter-productive way.

And then, finally, there's Fairytale Of New York. A fine song, no doubt (co-written by MacGowan and fellow Pogue Jem Finer) but somewhat overdone these days, and the melodic motif that features in the song and repeatedly in the lengthy outro is surely partly nicked from John Denver's Annie's Song. And despite all the "lying there almost dead on that drip in that bed" stuff there is just a suspicion of some romanticising of the whole drunken bum thing. That said, it's still better than Mistletoe And Wine, which I'll wager was written and recorded entirely sober, except of course for a certain amount of intoxication induced by OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST. Makes you think, dunnit.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

the last book I read

The Lyre Of Orpheus by Robertson Davies.

Meet the Cornish family and their assorted friends and hangers-on. Well, hang on, actually we don't need to meet them as we've already met them (well, most of them anyway) in the two previous novels The Rebel Angels and What's Bred In The Bone. You may recall that Arthur Cornish and his wife Maria are the custodians of the Cornish Foundation, handling the allocation of various monies from the late Francis Cornish's will to noble and worthwhile artistic causes. You may also recall that Francis Cornish was involved in some murky business involving art forgery during the Second World War, and also involved with art forgery in a much more direct sense when his own painting The Marriage At Cana is hailed as a lost sixteenth-century masterpiece.

These two things provide the principal narrative threads for The Lyre Of Orpheus; firstly the Cornish Foundation agrees to finance the production of an opera based on some of the unfinished works of ETA Hoffmann as part of a highly-promising music student's doctoral dissertation. Secondly, foundation trustee Simon Darcourt is writing a biography of Francis Cornish and has started to smell a rat with certain aspects of The Marriage At Cana, principally because several of the subjects portrayed appear to have been modelled on people from Francis' life. 

Just as it did in What's Bred In The Bone Simon's biography mostly provides a framing device here; the main business of the narrative is about the production of the opera, which turns out to be about King Arthur and entitled Arthur Of Britain (and subtitled The Magnanimous Cuckold). The music prodigy charged with completing the score is a scrawny young woman called Hulda Schnakenburg (but referred to by everyone as Schnak). A distinguished Swedish conductor, Gunilla Dahl-Soot, is brought in as mentor and musical advisor to Schnak and promptly announces her presence by drinking the trustees under the table and then seducing Schnak. Darcourt himself is given the task of writing the libretto (with a bit of help from some of the minor characters), and the job of producing and directing is given to Geraint Powell, a friend of Arthur and a stereotypical flowing-locked, booming-voiced professional Welshman. 

And so it principally falls to Geraint to round up all the various people required to bring the (at this stage still to be written) opera to life: singers, costume designers, set constructors, a suitable venue, and of course a claque, a group of people planted around the audience who will prompt the rest of the audience to clap, boo, laugh, cry, be quiet, etc., at the right moments. This last role is gleefully picked up by Maria's extended Gypsy family, in particular her uncle Yerko who turns out to have some previous experience in this area. Hardest game in the world, the old claquing game, etc.

Anyway, challenges are overcome, temperamental music types are placated, and the production is premiered to public and critics (and Yerko and his claque) and, all things considered, reasonably well-received. Schnak's doctoral assessors are sufficiently impressed to award her the doctorate and kick off a career everyone assumes will be a stellar one. Meanwhile Simon's biography is finished, complete with some revelations about the true origins of the Marriage At Cana, and the work itself has been secured for display at a prominent gallery.

Below this surface narrative some other stuff is playing out as well; firstly there are some interludes seemingly narrated by the unquiet spirit of Hoffmann himself, watching over the adaptation of his unfinished work from some purgatorial beyond-the-grave location and wondering whether its completion will finally free him from limbo and enable him to shuffle off to eternal rest. Secondly the foundation's trustees find themselves playing out some of the opera's themes and assuming the roles of some of the opera's principal characters - Arthur is, erm, Arthur, obviously, which makes Maria Guinevere, and sure enough there is an interlude where she is seduced by Geraint aka Lancelot.

Neither of these bits of meta-narrative work especially convincingly, to be honest: the Hoffmann interludes seem a bit sparse and perfunctory, as if Davies wasn't really totally convinced about the idea. And the bits where the characters are obliged to do unconvincing out-of-character things (in particular, Geraint and Maria's brief liaison) just to fit in with the idea of re-enacting the events of an earlier story is about as successful as these things usually are, i.e. not very. Michael Dibdin had his whole cast of characters (Aurelio Zen included) re-enact the plot of an opera in Cosi Fan Tutti and it resulted in one of the least-enjoyable of the Zen novels, to me at least. In general, while this is never less than enjoyable, intelligent and thought-provoking it's definitely the weakest of the three novels in the trilogy.