Monthly Archives: August 2020

Trouble with Product X – Joan Aiken


Jane Aiken the celebrated children’s author and daughter of the poet Conrad Aiken is possibly best known for the series that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and grew into a series of eleven deeply loved books. But did she down tools there? Not at all. By my reckoning she wrote about another thirty-four children’s books, then moved on to six novels based on the work of Jane Austen with titles like Mansfield Revisited and Emma Watson. Then there came another assortment of twenty-nine books, some of which are ghost stories, but I hadn’t realised that among these titles were a few cosy murders.

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Simply Messing Around in Books

A random sampling of my reading over the last week.

The Department of Sensitive Crimes: A Detective Varg Novel

Here we have Alexander McCall Smith on form in a series of gentle tales about injustices dealt with by the thoughtful Inspector Varg, his colleague Anna Bengstdottor, and the rather trying Blomquist. We first encounter Inspector Varg having a session with his therapist, where the aim is ‘to bring to the surface the things that are below the surface’ which one could say is Varg’s whole raison d’etre. He ponders many things; can dogs lip read, do all Finnish people look alike, should a policeman read Kierkegard? He is the kind of philosophical, slightly sad, but truly good character we know and love from other books by McCall Smith. And I quite like that this is a gentle take-off of Scandi noir, in the least noirish way possible. I will be reading more of Inspector Varg.

The Second Worst Restaurant in France

Another McCall Smith which gets off to a rather good start with Paul Stuart, a popular food writer, having a falling out with his girl-friend over her Siamese cats, Hamish and Mrs Macdonald, when he suggests they take her for granted.

He now realised just how far he had strayed into sensitive territory, “Indifferent?” said Gloria, her tone now one of decided reproof…”Hamish and Mrs Macdonald…-actually love me.”

She decides that Paul needs to know her cats better and brings them to live with him, which makes his work quite impossible. He accepts an offer of a holiday in France with his cousin Chloe, and this is where the book lost me. Because there is a great deal too much of Chloe. We have Chloe discoursing on some of her five husbands, on her lovers, on her views on food, her views on Marie Antionette, on art, and everything under the sun. She is tiresome. As a character she seems to be used to pad out a slight little story and ends up being deeply annoying. Not my favourite McCall Smith.

Then I went to my densely packed bookshelves and drew forth an old favourite. Iris Murdoch has got me through many a dark hour. We Gerts often call her ‘Enid Blyton for grown-ups.’ I couldn’t remember anything about An Unofficial Rose, but I found it starts at a funeral and quickly introduces the usual caste of people loving or hating each other, with secret lives and unfulfilled dreams. But had the writing always been this bad? The descriptive passages crammed with adverbs and adjectives, the many sentences beginning ‘he felt’ The tedious characters, the archness… Here is a chunk so you can get the idea.

Ann’s mind was out of her control. She had never had this sensation before and it afflicted her with a sort of sea-sickness. She was racing somewhere so fast she could no longer focus her eyes. Her images of those she loved, her image of herself, seemed lurid, inflated and blurred. Everything was getting larger and hazier at the same time. She wished she could rest; but the machine only whirled the faster, dazzling her and inducing a continual nausea.

Ann was by now dreadfully in love with Felix. From the moment when, after his own declaration, she had realized with a shocked surprise that she was ready to fall in love, the descent of her mind into love had taken place with the power of an avalanche.

Will she? Won’t she? Do we care? I don’t think so.

Then how about a good old-fashioned detective story. Whose Body, by Dorothy L Sayers, a highly regarded writer with a popular detective Lord Peter Whimsey?

But, oh dear, what is this I am reading, about a ‘Hebrew’ going missing? And why is the architect referred to as ‘a little architect’? And why does he speak like this?

He was quite rude to me, my lord-I may say I didn’t like his manner at all. “If you’ve got anything definite to accuse Gladys or me of, Inspector,” I said to him, “Bring it forward, that’s what you have to do”, I said ,”but I’ve yet to learn that you’re paid to be rude to a gentleman in his on ‘ouse- house.” Reely’, said Mr Thipps, growing quite pink on the top of his head, ‘he regular roused me, my lord, and I’m a mild man as a rule.

The rampant snobbishness made this book unreadable for me, which is a pity as I had just bought this and three other books by D L Sayers as a treat for myself. I might still try Gaudy Night, but I am not optimistic.

Fortunately, I have many more books up my sleeve and have just finished and enjoyed Spring by Ali Smith and am now reading The Master by Colm Toibin, which is superb.