London, summer 1940. Less than a year since the war began, and nobody knows how long it will go on. Ted and Jenny Stratton's children have been evacuated, and Jenny desperately wants them back. But the bombing has started and Ted knows they must stay where they are safe. To make matters worse, the police station where Ted is a detective inspector is bombed, and everyone has to pile into a neighbouring station and share offices. And, in the midst of all this, Ted is determined to solve a puzzling case -- a once famous movie star appears to have committed suicide, but Ted is convinced it is murder. The more he looks into the background of the case, the more extraordinary evidence he uncovers and soon he finds himself exploring the dangerous and illegal world of London's secret homosexuals. And that soon leads him to be temporarily recruited by MI5, and to a meeting with beautiful, aristocratic Diana. The two are drawn together, but Ted is happily married and Diana involved with a handsome, untrustworthy double agent...
The first of Laura Wilson's four Stratton novels, this wonderfully authentic picture of London in the early days of the war is impeccably researched, and the plot is admirably full and exciting. Diana's boss is partly based on Maxwell Knight, who Ian Fleming reputedly used as a model for 'M', and the doings of the anti-semitic Right Club, which Diana has to infiltrate, are all based on fact. So you could read this excellent novel as an informative history lesson on wartime England, as a touching story of two people who could, in other circumstances, become friends (or more than friends) despite their very different class backgrounds, or, of course, as an exciting detective novel -- it is all three, and I loved it.
You might not think it but actually I've been doing a lot of reading lately, just simply haven't found the time to write about it here. I am deep in Elizabeth Taylor's Short Stories, kindly sent to me by Virago, and every time I read one of them I feel as if it deserves a blog post all to itself. I shall have to try to do this wonderful volume justice at some point but meanwhile here is a quick update on a couple of the novels I've read this week.
Deborah Moggach is possibly best known for the novel originally called These Foolish Things, which was adapted this year into that really delightful movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I read it some years ago and it made me laugh a lot, leading me to think that Moggach was a writer of comedy. But I happened on The Stand-In recently and this is a novel of a very different kind. The story features Jules, who, in her late 30s, is struggling to make anything of her career as an actress. She lives in Camden Town, in London, and is involved in an obsessively passionate affair with handsome, unreliable Trevor. One day a sudden and unexpected encounter with a film company leads to an invitation to America and a job as a stand-in for Lila Dune, a beautiful and famous Hollywood star who Jules somewhat resembles. Narrated in the first person, this is a rivetting and disturbing novel. It becomes clear as the story progresses that Jules is in a peculiar and deluded state of mind, and it raises, both for her and for the reader, many interesting and thought-provoking ideas about identity. I liked it a lot.
And then I moved on to another disturbing novel. Having just read and hugely enjoyed Laura Wilson's An Empty Death, I got hold of this one, which turned out to be her first novel. This is the story of three elderly people who are found dead in their flat in mysterious circumstances. They are a brother and sister, Georgina and Edmund, and their housekeeper Ada. Told alternately in their three voices, the novel gradually unfolds the lives of these three from childhood onwards, and a dysfunctional childhood is certainly was.
Laura Wilson has a remarkable ability to evoke the past, and here we move from the end of the nineteenth century through the twenties and right up to the late 1980s. I was full of admiration for the novel but I can't say I actually enjoyed it as it was actually pretty painful. I'm now nearly at the end of her Stratton's War, the first of the four of which An Empty Death was the second. So I shall tell you more about that soon. Very very glad to have discovered this truly excellent writer.
This painting, 'Emma Zorn Reading', is by Anders Zorn (1860-1920), an important Swedish artist, and shows his wife reading a newspaper. If you want to know more about him and his paintings, there's a very full biography here.
I think this painting is called The Tram Ride, and I think it is by a painter called Robert Sawyer or Sawyers, but I have lost the info about it. I'm guessing it was painted in the 1940s, probably in the UK. In fact the woman at the end is not reading, though she's holding a book or a paper. But something or someone has caught her attention, though I'm not sure what it is. It's quite an interesting scenario, anyway.
How on earth can I have missed knowing about the novels of Laura Wilson? They are SO up my street in every possible way. Crime, yes, but of the most intelligent kind --perhaps better to call them psychological thrillers. But add to that the fact that they are mainly set in the war and post-war period, of all things my most absolute favorite era, and you have a package absolutely guaranteed to make me love them.
Anyway, all that has changed now as I have just finished An Empty Death and have two more waiting to be started. Actually I started reading in the wrong place, strictly speaking, as this is the second of four novels featuring Inspector Ted Stratton, a London policeman (the first, Stratton's War, is on its way to me as we speak). But never mind that -- the novel stood up perfectly well to being read out of order.
An Empty Death starts in the summer of 1944, almost five years after the beginning of the war. And how thoroughly sick of it everyone is. The blackout, the bombing, the anxiety, but perhaps most of all the endless privation -- the food rationing, of course, but also the shortage of razor blades, face powder, perfume, all the things that make life comfortable and bearable. Add to that the fact that Ted and his beloved wife Jenny, like many other couples, have reluctantly evacuated their two children to the country to keep them safe, and you have a situation that is sometimes almost impossible to put up with. And, while we in 2012 can look back and say, Oh, but the war will be over soon, people living through it had no idea when it would end.
Ted Stratton is a great character, solid, reliable, devoted to Jenny but deeply appreciative of other female beauties. He is quietly intelligent and, even more quietly, capable of deep feeling and sensitivity. But, for me, probably the most brilliant thing about this novel is the character of the man who becomes Stratton's adversary. Here's how we are introduced to him for the first time:
It was time to die again. That was how he thought of it - dying and being re-born, at the same time. He always felt a sense of loss at such times, although he couldn't have said what it was that he was losing. He'd been relieved - delighted - to walk away from his first life, to cease being the useless, despised failure who got everything wrong. The selves that came after, personas of his choosing, had been more successful, but it was never enough. This one would be different. He'd wanted to be a doctor ever since he was a child, and now he had a name - a life - ready and waiting for just this opportunity. This was simply the penultimate step in his plan.
This, though we don't discover his original name until much later in the story, is the man who started life as Walter Strang, but who has, over the past ten or so years, adopted many new names, and personas to go with them. As the novel begins, he is giving up his job in the mortuary of the Middlesex Hospital and, having changed his name and appearance, will soon be working in the hospital again, this time as Dr James Dacre. He has assumed the identity of an old schoolfriend who died shortly after completing his medical training, and has no difficulty in convincing the staff at the hospital that he can step into the shoes of another doctor who has recently and mysteriously been murdered. And indeed, though at first frequently almost paralysed with nerves, and having often to rush upstairs to look things up in his medical textbooks, Dacre proves to be a good doctor and soon wins the confidence of his fellows among the physicians and nursing staff. He also meets and falls violently in love with a beautiful nurse, who, though seemingly shy and modest, appears to reciprocate his feelings. But everything changes one day when he finds himself washing his hands side by side with the pathologist who was his employer in the mortuary, and who, despite the man's carefully altered appearance, seems to have spotted a tell-tale scar on Dacre's hand. Soon Dacre's life will be forced to undergo another change, but not before events have put Stratton on his track.
Although Dacre/Strang is technically the villian of the piece, I'm tempted rather to call him the anti-hero. His life and his ambitions blighted in his teens by his father's loss of money and status, he has been unable to go to university and train for the career he always longed for. And, both here and at the hospital he works at later, there is no doubt that he has real talent in the fields of both physical and mental health. In the most powerful and moving scene of all, the contents of which I cannot reveal to you, his relationship with Stratton becomes unbearably complex, and Stratton is unable to forget the man who arrived meaning to kill him and ended up saving his life. And, since so much of the story is told from Strang's point of view, I found it impossible not to feel a good deal of sympathy and admiration for him, despite the far from admirable things he sometimes does, or is forced into doing.
I actually found this novel at times almost intolerably tense but of course all the better for it. And if that was not enough, the social and historical background seems to be astonishingly accurate. Laura Wilson had a long pre-novel career as a writer of factual history books aimed at young readers, and her research skills are obviously superb. I could not see any false notes at all in the evocation of life in wartime London, nor was my normally rather over-sensitive ear ever offended by an infelicities or anachronisms of speech.
Perhaps you already know Laura Wilson's books. If not, you can find out more about her, and them, on her own website. And I am hoping to persuade her, at some time in the not too distant future, to do an interview for the blog, so watch out for that. Great stuff and highly recommended.
A few years ago I saw a rather good film called The Painted Veil which turned out to have been adapted from this novel by Somerset Maugham. It was an intriguing story, well acted, and beautifully set in 1920s China. Much as I enjoyed it, though, I didn't feel impelled to read the original novel -- I think in those far off days (2006!) I hardly ever read novels that were not written by women. But blogging has widened my horizons, and nowadays gender is not really a consideration, or much less so, anyway. And Maugham, though perhaps not much read these days, was a highly regarded writer in the last century -- and anyway, this one was 50p in a car boot sale, and I'm always game for an orange Penguin.
So, after all this preamble, what about the novel? I'm happy to say I enjoyed it. This is the story of pretty, shallow Kitty Garstin, who marries Walter Fane, a dull, quiet bacteriologist who she does not love. Why? Because she is twenty five, the numerous proposals she is used to receiving seem to be petering out, and her plain younger sister has managed to snare a minor aristocrat. Walter is going to take up a post in Hong Kong, and Kitty is happy to go with him -- it will save her having to play second fiddle at her sister's wedding. In Hong Kong she catches the eye of a young -- and married -- diplomat, Charles Townsend, and the two begin a passionate affair. When Walter discovers this, he sends her to see Townsend, who she is convinced will leave his wife for her, but of course he will not. Walter then insists she accompany him to a small country village which is being decimated by cholera, and Kitty suspects that he hopes she will die there. Instead, after a period of boredom, she visits a local convent and orphanage and starts helping the nuns there, and the experience brings about a transformation in her thoughts and feelings.
Written after Maugham had visited China, the novel is fascinating for the picture it gives of life there in the 1920s. And of course in a sense this is a bildungsroman, or a novel of personal growth and development, because Kitty does mature and change as a result of her experiences with the nuns and her growing ability to love and appreciate the little Chinese children who seemed at first to be ugly and alien. Her view of Walter changes too, though too late for this to make a difference to their marriage, and her last meeting with Charles, towards the end of the novel, shows her attitudes definitively to have undergone a radical revolution.
Maugham writes well and the novel is very readable, though his writing is quite plain and not particularly quotable. I want to read more of his novels -- I wonder if there are still any fans out there who might tell me what to read next?
Yes, it's Saturday and the day I traditionally put up a painting. It all started with Women Reading, and I do try to find nice examples of that, or women writing, as often as I can. But sometimes other things catch my eye and today we have a painting called Male Nude in a Landscape, by a Polish artist, Maurycy Trębacz (1861-1941). He may of course be reading, and I suspect he is -- let that be my excuse, not that I need one -- I just think it's a lovely painting.