The Murder during the Blitz

JB Priestley in a wonderful book called Delight said that “there are times when we do not want anybody’s social criticism or deep psycho-logical insight or prose poetry or vision of the world: we want a narrative, an artfully contrived tale.” And such narratives he believed were only available in a good detective story! I have never heard of a better description of this genre and my recent read, The Blitz Detective, checked all the boxes to be considered a a good detective story by the maestro himself!

The Blitz Detective by Mike Hollow was first published in 2015 and is the first in the series of 3 books. The novel is set in 1940’s England, West Ham to be exact, just as Germany starts its Blitz, the bombing of London and her suburbs, every night. Detective Inspector John Jago, a veteran of the First War and a tenured detective, who has worked his way from a beat cop, is summoned along with the newly inducted Constable Cradock to investigate a body found lying one of the streets. Though there is no identification on the body, the Detective Inspector recognizes the man, as the local Justice of Peace, Charles Villers and what befuddles the policemen is the fact that it looks like a murder and suicide at the same time. As Jago and Cradock start to dig through the matters, stories emerge and suddenly, it seemed that there was more that met the eye in the case of this particular JP.

This book is published in 2015 but no one, can fault with the atmosphere, the language and the everyday scenes of a nation and her people at war. London in 1940s came alive through the pages, with her bombed out buildings, rationing and politics of rich and poor. Mr. Hollow does a brilliant job of resurrecting the past with in-depth research and small subtleties that makes the novel feel grounded and real. In the creation of character of John Jago, he follows the same grounded approach and tries to create an every man hero. Jago is irritable and is traumatized by the bombs, living through the nightmare of the past, where he survived and many did not. At the same time he is considerate and patient with Cradock, understanding of the follies of people stuck between devil and the deep blue sea and honest enough to apologies for his mistakes. He does not have flash dash style or astounding intelligence, what he is a plodder, who keeps at it until he finds the truth. Craddock is a perfect foil to the senior Jago, looking up to his superior, enthusiastic, and smart enough to not lose temper, when people try to bring him down. The other characters are also deeply etched out and stand on their own merit; my favorites were Charles Viller’s brother and Son. The murder mystery is linear but not boring, there are very few complexities and by the middle, you clearly know that of the few, one should be the murderer so, you are not completely surprised. However the plot is well arched to pull it off and you keep turning the pages; and if the culprit does not take you by surprise, the motives and the fall out does. The only flaw that I found in the book was the introduction of American journalist and I found that angle unnecessary and distracting from the main plot of the book; though it did provide an interesting back story to Jago’s war. However, this is just one strand in this extremely rich attempt to provide a good yarn while being historically accurate, and this success of this remarkable feet makes this book a must read, for those times when you want an artfully contrived tale!

Many Thanks to NetGalley and  Allison & Busby Publishers for providing me a copy of this book!

Personality and Duplication in London

Late last night I finished reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as part of my RIP 2013.  I had read the abridged children’s version long back and I was very curious to come back and read this classic which had spawned more than 125 adaption in stage and films alone and has become a part of our everyday conversation when referring to people with hypocritical characters traits or with dual personality, medical or otherwise.

Wikipedia, (my ever trusted resource and where would I be without thee!) tells me that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published in 1886 and may have been inspired by a dream as well as Robert Louis Stevenson’s lifelong interest in the good and bad side of a man’s character that coexisted with each other.

I don’t think there are many out there who are not aware of this plotline. Nevertheless, here goes a brief synopsis – The tale is narrated from the point of view of Mr. Gabriel John Utterson, a well-established lawyer and a generous gentleman.  It begins with Mr. Utterson being unease with a will which he had drawn up for his friend and well-known physician Dr. Jekyll and pertained to the half million sterling legacy which would go an Edward Hyde, after the latter’s death or disappearance. Mr. Utterson is in total distrust of Edward Hyde and believes that Dr. Jekyll is in the grasp of some vile plot which has forced him to name Edward Hyde as his successor and fears that Edward Hyde may actually murder Dr. Jekyll to get his hands on the wealth. He is aware of the loathsome nature of Mr. Hyde which is further blackened when his kin Sir Richard Enfield shares with him the story of Edward Hyde trampling a child. Mr. Utterson tries to argue with Dr. Jekyll and tries to make him change his mind about his will but it of no use. He even solicits the help of another friend Dr. Hastie Lanyon with whom Dr. Henry Jekyll has parted ways on reasons of scientific disagreement. Things take a turn for worse, when Edward Hyde is charged with the murder of an harmless and well respected Member of Parliament Sir Danvers Carew.  Sir Danvers was also Mr. Utterson’s client and to ensure that he does not compromise one client over the other, he visits Dr. Jekyll to understand if the latter has been hiding his prodigy. Dr. Jekyll vehemently denies the same and promises Mr. Utterson that he is through with Edward Hyde and he shall never see the man again. Things begin to look up as Edward Hyde is no longer heard off and Dr. Jekyll once more begins interacting with society and doing good among the unfortunate and taking up his old friendship with Dr. Lanyon and Mr. Utterson. However things come to a sudden halt as suddenly Dr. Jekyll becomes a recluse again and Dr. Lanyon suddenly dies claiming to Mr.Utterson that he never wishes to talk of Dr. Jekyll again. Mr. Utterson then sets off on a quest to save his last friend and find the truth about Edward Hyde with startling results.

What can I say about this book that has not been said before? To begin with, I am sure you have read books which are like roller coaster rides – you rush through one page after the other with such intensity that when you reach the end, it leaves you grasping for breath. This is one of those books – its only 92 pages but it’s a tour de force.  You do not read this book leisurely and it does not leave you feeling complacent. It’s something you sit down and read and then get up and go for a walk or a run or something, because its gets your adrenalin pumping.  In my case because I read it far into the night I could not go for a run – the night watchman might have called the doctor or the police or both to see the crazy girl from flat #805 run around the apartment block at 3:00 am, as it is, he thinks I am a freak. Anyway, I went and cooked enough food for next two days and finally slept at 6:00 am in the morning!

Enough about the physical impact of the book – let’s talk about the book instead! It’s written in a direct and no frills voice. The descriptions are minimal and the author does not waste words in describing the house, garden or the table patterns.  He gets right to the story and starts his narration with very little prelude. There is ample time spent however in building the characters and though he uses very limited words to describe a character, their actions define them infinitely better – showing once again what a good author can do without being verbose. There is a lot of action in this book; however, there is no description of anything gruesome or vulgar. It’s only through words and atmosphere that the author manages to convey the feeling of depravity and terror in the presence of Mr. Hyde.  The author therefore uses a description of the weather and the fog as a constant companion to the action; but I cannot help but think that it is both an effort by Stevenson to create an eerie atmosphere as well a metaphor for clouding of a good man’s thought which prevents him from seeing the whole truth.

Metaphor in fact seems to be the very corner-stone of this tale. One could state that novella was an attempted Victorian morality tale. I am not sure what was Robert Louis Stevenson’s motivation in writing this piece and I am sure it was much more than a simplistic understanding of good and evil. The story talks about the duplicate nature of Victorian society, where behind the veil of gentlemanly conduct, there lurked many depravities of character. There is the concept of how both the good and bad exist within a man and too much pressure on bringing out the good may lead to violent eruption of the bad side. It’s also a can be seen as a cautionary tale of development of science – 1880s saw a number of scientific advancement and the tale could have been a question on how too much scientific interference in man’s constitution may alter it – something far-seeing considering we see the side effects of many medications our character everyday now .

The story is far seeing in many ways and there are multiple layers through which one can interpret this tale. Ultimately it’s a very very good read and I now understand why this work has been adapted more than 125 times.

On the banks of Thames……

I want to share an amazing piece of historical fiction that I have just read (Yes! I hear you groan and I promise to write about a modern-day set novel soon….I was about to say next week, but I have the Alexander Trilogy lined up…so it will be soon and yes too much of historical fiction does not fry anybody’s brain!) Now that I have stopped digressing, let me get on to core of the matter – I have just finished reading Edward Rutherford’s London and it its MAGNIFICENT!!!Edward Rutherford was born in England in 1948 and was educated at Cambridge and Stanford Business School. He worked as a publisher for couple of years before settling down to write Sarum that traces the lives of the Wilsons, Shockleys and Porters from the time of Stonehenge to the close of War of Roses, covering 10000 years of history of the land. It became an instant bestseller and this self-confessed disciple of James Michener settled down to write a couple of more such bestsellers including Russia, The Forest, New York and London

I liked Edward Rutherford’s writing ever since, one day generally drifting through a library shelf; I picked up his The Forest. It was a pleasant surprise and a wonderful read – written in the style of James Michener’s The Source and Poland; it traced the evolution of the New Forest from the Norman Conquest to the modern-day. I was impressed by clean, simple style of writing with amazing plots and well researched material, but nothing prepared me for the brilliant work of London.

We have all read pieces of writing that become an old friend that you are loath to part with. London is one such work – it’s an epic and a mammoth work (only 1300 pages), but I rushed through the whole thing and then somewhere at about the 700 page mark, when I knew that I had read more than half of the book, I began to drag it out, because I did not want it to end. The book covers more than 2000 years of history, beginning from the very antiquity and the life around River Thames, touching upon all the key events from the coming of Romans and eventually Christianity, to the rise and fall of various royal houses of England and the establishment of such institutions/buildings that give the city her identity – the Parliament, the Lincoln Inn, St Pauls and Westminster Abbey. Rutherford’s style is simple- he creates his six fictional families and tells the stories of their descendants entwining them in and out of historical situations that gave an impetus to the development and growth of London, making them intermingle not only with each other, but also with significant historical figures like Thomas Becket, Bishop Cramer, Shakespeare, Sir Christopher Wren and of course, a whole gallery of English monarchy. The story traces the rise of one of the greatest metropolis of the world from the Celtic era to the modern-day dockyards of London through the families of Duckets, Barnikles, Flemings and Bulls as their lives and fortunes intertwine with each other and the rise of London. The most wonderful part of this book is while this work is an epic saga, he never loses his grip on the plot and with the close of each era, I was left wondering, so what happens to Lord Bocton, what will Ducket’s son do now?, especially since today’s hero’s grandson can be tommorow’s villain and a minor incident that as a reader you glossed over could have unfathomable effects as you go down another 300 years.  It’s a well-researched work, historically accurate – I especially love such small curios like how the rhyme Ringa Ringa Roses or how the term Cockney came about and many such historical nuggets.

I believe Lisa Jardine of the Times summed it up very aptly when reviewing the book – Rutherfurd’s is a marathon task… I think that he pulls it off. LONDON: the Novel could hook you on history for life.’ I so agree with that…read it…..the book will make you want to go back revisit your English History classes again!