American Dream gone sour?

pexels-photo-311012Unusually for me, I saw the movie long before I read the book many years later. The Firm is, as one would expect of a Grisham novel, a thrilling read, a tale of utter corruption and limitless greed that is not necessarily confined to an American setting. One could image this tale could just as well play out in Italy, Little Britain or Spain, if one takes into account the spread of organized crime, and the level of corruption these countries are infamous for. If you haven’t read the book or seen the film, I’m afraid this blog post contains some spoilers.

Grisham’s novel is a wonderful example of how one (office) building can serve as a metaphor for a society’s way of life, in this case, the much-celebrated “American Dream”. As long as you work hard, no matter what your background, the sky’s the limit. Anyone can become a millionaire through hard work and determination, at least in principle. That’s the American dream young Mitch McDeere has held on to ever since leaving a miserable mobile home in a trailer park somewhere in Florida to become a hot-shot lawyer graduating from Harvard.

But at what cost do we follow that dream? That’s the central theme of the novel.

pexels-photo-245584This doesn’t come across in the movie at all, but in the book the 100-year-old building on Front Street in Memphis used by The Firm is an essential “character” in the story. Where your office is located in the Firm’s office building tells you which place you are permitted to occupy in society. At the beginning of the story, we see Mitch yearn for rapid progress within the Firm. He’s hungry for success, longs to be the proud occupier of one of the partners’ corner offices, which overlook the river and are twice the size of offices occupied by mere associates. To this end, Mitch works an unbelievable 20 hours a day, and virtually abandons his wife, Abby, in their brand-new home, bought by the firm and “given” to the young couple at a low-cost mortgage.

But as the story unfolds, we learn what price the Firm’s young lawyers have pay to get into these spacious corner offices. The higher up in the building – within the firm and therefore in society – the more corrupt a person becomes. We soon discover that the partners’ success in life is almost entirely based on the work of the guys located in the basement,who sit all day long in windowless cubicles, beavering away without just rewards – or views of the river.

The more the novel progresses, the more Mitch discovers that there’s a sinister side to this office building. It’s a fortress, not just an office block, but what does all this security actually guard? Mitch learns to look beyond the antique Persian carpets, the rosewood desks, the expensive paintings on the walls. He begins to see the true nature of the Firm, sees what’s really behind all this ostentatious wealth, and starts to understand what will happen to him, if he remains part of it. His wife Abby has instinctively understood that there’s far more to “The Firm” than meets the eye. She is suspicious of a company that demands total control over the lives of those who serve it. Mitch, who unlike Abby comes from an impoverished background and a broken home, takes far longer to look beyond the trappings of commercial success. The much-coveted office Mitch was so proud of getting, becomes first a sanctuary, then a prison, then a death-trap. The new house they’ve moved into is not a cozy nest to raise a family, but a cage into which Abby and Mitch are forced each day to live out their lives for the “amusement” of the security chief of The Firm and one of it’s senior partners, a man who is a voyeur and loves to listen – and preferably watch – what young lawyers and their wives get up to in the perceived privacy of their own bedroom. Abby and Mitch’s home is wired, their car is bugged and there’s no privacy anywhere other than the great outdoors. They are followed wherever they go, and spied upon even in their most intimate moments. All locations in this novel turn out to be a threat to those who happen to venture too close to The Firm’s true nature. And soon Mitch and Abby find themselves planning their headlong flight to the ends of the earth to escape from that “American Dream” gone terribly wrong…

pexels-photo-297755Grisham manages to introduce a second location as a character in its own right. When the author takes Mitch, and therefore the reader, to the “glamorous and exotic” location of the Caribbean, he soon learns that beneath the sugar-white sands of the beaches lie the rotten roots of swaying palm trees. This luxurious island paradise is build on corruption. Any feeling of freedom, hope of escape, is soon squashed, and the initial euphoria at being abroad in an exotic location, is soon wiped out by an all-pervading atmosphere of deadly threat lurking behind every pair of sunglasses, behind every stall of pretty postcards and every wide smile a local beauty beams at Mitch.

pexels-photo-248797In Grisham’s thriller, the mafia is aided and abetted by the UK’s offshore banking system, a haven for the world’s organized crime gangs, where money is laundered and profits of slavery and prostitution, drug and arms dealing are squirreled away from the suspicious eyes of tax authorities and law enforcement agencies. Mitch soon realizes that what an FBI agent has told him about the law firm’s involvement in mafia business is actually true.

dollar-currency-money-us-dollar-47344How widespread money laundering via offshore banking is in real life can be seen by the repeated efforts of the 27 remaining EU member states to force the UK to make its own offshore banking system more transparent and accountable – and the UK’s adamant refusal to comply with these demands.

Hundreds of billions of illegal funds are reputedly laundered in Britain’s offshore accounts, and any attempts at depriving organized crime of their ill-gotten gains has so far failed because of Britain’s refusal to make this offshore banking system accessible to EU law enforcement scrutiny.

pexels-photo-259027When the world’s leading expert on all things Mafia tells newspaper reporters around the world that the United Kingdom is the most corrupt country in the world, you’d better take his word for it! It is my belief that Britain’s total corruption is the real reason why the Tory government held the Brexit referendum in the first place. Brexiteers’ repeated bleating about “sovereignty of Britain’s laws” are nothing but an attempt to keep Europol and the European Court of Justice out of Britain’s offshore banking sector.

Spreading xenophobia and racism as generously as their lies about the EU as an organisation, the Tories and their Brexiteering fat cats are desperate to remove Little Britain from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice as quickly as possible, because Brexiteers are likely to have dipped their fingers into hugely illegal pies, in my opinion. The fruits of their illegal gains will most likely slumber in said offshore bank accounts, in tax havens like Bermuda or Grand Cayman Island. History has taught us that all right-wing, fascist pigs are thugs, involved in organized crime in one form or another. Just look back to Hitler, Mussolini & Co, if you’ve problems with this assumption, or at Franco’s regime in Spain. Crime and right-wing politics have always gone hand in hand.

As the leaked “Panama Papers” revealed not so long ago, of the so far investigated offshore accounts (hundreds and hundreds of them), some 70% can be traced to British organized crime. It is therefore not a stretch of the imagination to dwell on what lies hidden in other British offshore accounts, and why Britain’s right-wing establishment is so desperate to remove the country from the scrutiny of EU law enforcement agencies. However, their Brexiteering efforts may yet be scuppered. A potential leaking of such account details is not beyond the capabilities of public-spirited hackers, as became evident with the Panama offshore banking leak. It is, I believe, a ticking time bomb. In Grisham’s novel, the FBI bribes Mitch to become a whistle blower. Give a modern-day, real life “Mitch” the right financial incentive, and there may well be a leak of major proportions and consequences.

Any investigation into what lies hidden in accounts on Grand Cayman Island, Bermuda etc could easily spell the end of the Tories for good – and topple untold senior business, MPs and establishment figures across the country, not to mention land them all in jail, in my opinion.

Perhaps such a leak would even have the potential to finally end Britain’s class system, bringing about a long-overdue “revolution” in society. Tory corruption (alleged election fraud) is currently under police investigation, so who knows what else may emerge in months ahead, as the EU/UK Brexit negotiations get more acrimonious. We may yet see an EU-spirited hacker deliver a “British Virgin Island Paper”, even without the financial inducement provided by some law enforcement agency, be it the FBI, Interpol or Europol, or possibly handed out by an exasperated EU negotiation team from Brussels, desperate to stop a cliff-edge Brexit fiasco.

It is the very timing of Brexit that has led me to form this “conspiracy” theory, not something I’m normally prone to, and not inspired by Grisham’s novel either. As EU law enforcement agencies and EU government heads began asking more and more uncomfortable questions over the UK’s offshore banking system in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal, we suddenly saw a huge populist rising driven relentlessly by the likes of UKIP (UK’s “acceptable” right wing party) and the Tories themselves.

Even now, where spiraling inflation bites and both EU citizens and disgusted pro-EU Brits leave the country in their thousands ahead of Brexit, there’s no end of the anti-European Court of Justice rhetoric from the Brexiteers. The country must leave the EU at all costs, no matter what battering the economy takes, no matter how 49% of the population feel about it – and no matter what many who voted LEAVE last year would vote for this year, now that they know they were lied to on all fronts by the LEAVE campaigners.

I don’t believe in coincidences. To me, this was a right-wing coup, organized and carried out by those who would go to jail for a very long time and have all their assets seized, if the EU unraveled what’s going on in UK’s offshore accounts. Whipping up a populist rising against immigrants and thereby the EU itself was the quickest, shortest root to save all those from certain ruin within Britain’s establishment who facilitate large-scale criminal activities. The likes of David Davis and Boris Johnson & Co are far too incompetent and unintelligent to be behind such a coup – but they are greedy and eager to sit in their spacious corner office of the Firm’s building, and therefore easily manipulated.

Grisham’s novel may at times feel a little too contrived and preposterous to ring true, but current political events around the Western World show us that his novel didn’t even scratch the surface when it comes to corruption and limitless greed.

There are two things that I have issues with in Grisham’s sordid tale of a Memphis law firm being used for major league money laundering.

Copyright Maria Thermann

Pilgrims at Rotherhithe Village

The first is, naturally, that the young heroes of the tale, novice lawyer Mitch McDeere and wife Abby, totally forget to make provisions for their dog Hearsay. After making elaborate plans to evade the Mob and the FBI, a smart guy like Mitch cannot make emergency provisions for the poor mutt, leaving it to starve in their former Memphis home? He’s thought of every other tiny detail, so is it likely such a person would forget to make arrangements for a beloved family pet?

One would have expected their secret helper, Tammy/Doris, to organise a rescue of the little mutt. However, only when Abby and her husband, together with Mitch’s brother Ray, have escaped from almost certain death at the hands of the mafia, Abby suddenly remembers they have abandoned their dog to an uncertain fate. How exactly does the author think Abby’s neighbor, elderly Mr Rice, is supposed to get into their house to rescue and adopt the dog? How would he even know it’s still there? For all Mr Rice knows, the young couple may have taken the dog with them. This part of the novel contradicts what we know of Mitch and Abby, the latter being quite softhearted and very fond of her dog.

If we had any sympathies with Mitch and Abby throughout the novel, at this point we stop caring about their fate. Leaving the dog behind to starve is simply cruel and reveals Mitch and Abby as greedy, selfish, and yes, corrupt people who’d do anything for money and don’t care who gets hurt in the process. That Grisham didn’t intend us to feel this way about Abby and Mitch can be seen at the very end of the novel, where Grisham tries to get in the romantic money shot. It’s the eternal American obsession with a “happy ending”. But the final paragraph didn’t make me want to say “aw, bless them” – I just closed the book with a “good riddance to them all”.

The other thing that irked me is simply sloppiness on the part of the author. Towards the end of the book, we see Mitch helping himself to a large chunk of Mob money by making a transfer from a numbered Grand Cayman Island account to an account in the US, from where part of the money is then transferred into a Swiss numbered account, while the remainder is transferred to two private accounts in the US.

Having worked in both international banking and accounting, I can say with some confidence that it is not possible to transfer any sum of money out of a company account without the authority of at least TWO people that work for said company or, in this case, said law firm. The novel may be set prior to Internet banking, but for the purpose of practical international banking procedure, this is irrelevant. Then as now one needs two people to authorize any such transaction. And for such a large sum to be transferred from a law firm’s account to accounts held by private individuals would set alarm bells ringing with any bank clerk, no matter how incompetent or corrupt the bank may otherwise be. In the days when one had to complete a preprinted form to make international transfers, such a document would then have to be signed by two authorized signatories, whose signature samples were held on file. Even with online banking, two PINs are needed to make any kind of company to company or company to private individual transfer. These PINs must be inserted into a wee handheld device, and requires two people’s security cards. As a junior associate of the Firm, Mitch simply wouldn’t have been authorized to do any transfers, let alone one of several millions.

As a private individual it is simply not possible to just order some banking clerk to transfer money out of one company-held account, especially that of a law firm, which is governed by even stricter accounting rules as a law firm holds third-party funds. This may sound like nit-picking on my part, but I feel it is such a rookie mistake that could have been easily avoided. A phone call to his own bank would have told Mr Grisham that.

Writer, Know your Turf

two girls with umbrella in snow stormI’ve been reading my way through some of the wonderful murder mysteries and crimes novels from the Golden Age of this genre, now re-issued by British Library Crime Classics. Among them is the once very popular, now almost forgotten writer John Bude, who wrote some 30 best-selling crime novels in his day which are now all but collectors’ items.

Having just finished “The Lake District Murder”, which is rather different from his other two novels published in this British Library series, I am once again reminded what a huge difference it makes when a writer knows their “turf”, or locality, and doesn’t just work from a map and tourist guide book.

Set in the Lake District in the north of England, the novel is less of a whodunit and more of a how-did-they-do-it. In it, Inspector Meredith must break some pretty solid alibies and solve the murder of a garage co-owner, whose death was dressed up as suicide.

As Martin Edwards says in his introduction to this entertaining novel, John Bude “not only knew but clearly loved his Lake District”. And that makes all the difference, for he knows not just the geographical, but also the social landscape of this part of Britain, allowing his readers a glimpse into what life was like at that time in this desolate but beautiful region. There is the middle-aged woman who cooks and cleans, mends and washes in the household of two men for just ten shillings a week; there are the two garage owners who scratch a living for just £16 profit a month, shared between the two of them – which means that each of them had just about a couple of quid to spend per week in 1935, when this novel was first published. There are numerous hotels and pubs that make an excellent living in spring and summer, when masses of tourists arrive, but whose proprietors must fall back on local custom during the rest of the year. Times are hard in rural surroundings like these, and we are reminded of this at every turn but in an understated, subtle way.

What is also interesting is that John Bude, in an era when the amateur sleuth was all the rage among writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers, chose to make the policeman Inspector Meredith the central figure of his novel and the painstaking efforts of the police to make the crime stick to the villains so they could be rightfully convicted. No dashing Lord Peter Wimsey here or little old Miss Marple. This feels very much like a real detective at work, doing boring stake-outs hiding behind hedgerows or sifting through endless paperwork.

The other central character, if you like, is the Lake District itself, its peculiar geographical quirks as much part of the investigation as the villains themselves. Loving – or detesting – the location a writer uses as background makes all the difference. Even if you create a whole new world for your fantasy novel, you need to feel passionately about the location in one way or another, or you might as well set the whole thing in a void…or a Tesco supermarket isle. Be as passionate about the location as you are about the characters you drop into these fictional landscapes. Your readers will follow their every footstep, so you need to be the world’s best tourist guide!

I didn’t adhere to this rule too strictly in the first outing for Linus Brown, when he meets the leprechauns in his new Lincolnshire environment for the first time, but location will play a big, big part when Linus and the leprechaun colony set out to visit Ireland and Castle Blarney in the second outing for my 9-year-old protagonist. Thankfully, I have been to Ireland, albeit not to the castle, but having visited a lot of castles in my day, I can “wing” that part of it, I’m hoping. The Castle has its own website, fortunately with lots of history and some pictures…research, even for a children’s novel, is vital.

Finally, at the end of week two of my second promotion for Linus’s first novel, my Copromote adventure bagged me CoPromoters who retweeted my original Tweet with the sales link to Scribd(dot)com to followers of their Twitter networks. A round of applause to all of them and a big, fat thank you.








An Awfully Big Adventure

Blakeney village, Norfolk, UK

Blakeney village, Norfolk, UK

Norfolk has been a holiday destination since the 1930s. The picturesque village of Blankeney gets very busy in the summer months – well, what passes for a summer in Britain – and has many wonderful 17th and 18th century buildings visitors can explore. The North Norfolk Coastal Path runs along this part of the British coast, travelling along the Blakeney quayside and zigzagging a course through the local salt marshes.

Just to the west of the historic resort lies the village of Wells-next-the-Sea, where a lovely miniature and heritage railway lines rattles along the coast for some 11 km, offering spectacular views over this amazing and mostly flat landscape.

Why am I telling you all this in the middle of rain-soaked October, when you’re busy scooping out pumpkin flesh and thinking about hot toddies?

My favourite murder mysteries are nearly all set in the 1920’s and 1930’s, so when I came across Ian Sansom’s book The Norfolk Mystery in one of my local charity shops and read the blurb for it, I simply couldn’t resist, I had to read it. And what a hugely enjoyable and entertaining read it’s been!

Gently lampooning some of the most famous writers of murder mysteries, including Sherlock Holmes’ creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lord Peter Wimsey’s creator Dorothy L. Sayers, Sansom’s manages to cook up a first rate cozy that makes you laugh out loud at times and sit still deep in thought at others.

From bearding a seemingly genteel and well-to-do Norfolk village society that is really nothing more than a hotbed for Hitler’s warped and racist ideologies, to commenting on every little thing he sees en route while solving the village’s mystery, Professor Swanton Morley is a fabulous creation and amateur sleuth.

With his newly acquired assistant and reluctant side-kick Stephen Sefton, a young man traumatised by his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Professor Morley sets out to “discover” Norfolk in an effort to create the ultimate county guide for it. They get as far as the village of Blakeney in the north of Norfolk, before they stumble over a dead reverend, hanging inconveniently from the rafters of his own church, just when Morley wants to interview the man for his book.

ca. 1835, John Sell Cotman, Drainage Mills in the Fens

ca. 1835, John Sell Cotman, Drainage Mills in the Fens

Trapped in the village until Norfolk’s Constabulary allows them to travel onwards, Morley and Sefton set out to solve the mystery surrounding the clergyman’s death. This becomes even more pressing, when the reverend’s servant is also found dead within 24 hours of his apparent suicide.

I particularly liked the use Ian Sansom makes of the locality, the special landscape that is the Norfolk Fens – contrasted nicely by Sefton’s visit to Foyles in London, where he soon gets lost in the aisles that hold the bewildering number of books The People’s Professor has spewed out over the years.

To me, it read like a literary representation of Norfolk’s Fens, where rivulets, canals, streams and wetlands go off into every direction, leading the unwary traveller by the nose and easily to their doom, if they don’t follow the local guide’s instructions (at Foyle’s this would be the young woman behind the counter, who helpfully offers to write down instructions for young Sefton).

Morley is as eccentric as it gets and so is his daughter Miriam, a young woman with very strong views on most things, including how to chat up young men while driving her prototype Lagonda at break-neck speed. And while Sefton ends up in the arms – and bed – of pretty much every young woman he meets during the Norfolk trip, he seems to have a peculiar antipathy for Miriam.

Fortunately for us readers, Ian Sansom has already completed a new adventure, Death in Devon, so I can enjoy another highly entertaining and thought-provoking read soon and find out, if Miriam succeeds in turning Sefton’s badger-coloured head.

Since Professor Morley wants to complete guides for all 39 counties…Samson has his work cut out and eager readers have plenty of awfully big adventures to look forward to.

Tulipomania Part 2

Gerrit Adriaensz-Berckheyde, De Bocht van de Herengracht te Amsterdam, ca 1685, , Public Domain

Gerrit Adriaensz-Berckheyde, De Bocht van de Herengracht te Amsterdam, ca 1685, , Public Domain

The tulip craze lasted just a few years, reaching its height in 1636 and coming to a spectacular end in February 1637, when prices crashed due to governmental intervention, leaving thousands of speculators penniless and victims of wide-spread ridicule. Moggach’s book makes use of this craze by mirroring tulipomania with a passionate, but ultimately doomed love-affair.

The Rijksmuseum’s blog provides a great timeline for the most important events, displays fabulous paintings of tulips sold at the time and also shows some of the gorgeous white and blue Delftware flower stands specifically created to show off tulips and other bulb-grown plants to their full advantage, namely indoors in Holland’s cold climate.

In a Business Week article, tulipomania is compared to the bubble the world saw not all that long ago. It is hard to imagine today how one man, the proud owner of a dozen tulip bulbs for the variety Semper augustus, could possibly turn down an offer of 3,000 guilders for ONE bulb in 1624, when that represented about a whole year’s income for a wealthy merchant.

The name of this greedy beggar was not recorded by history – leaving one to speculate if he was one of thousands of tulip-investors forced to jump into Amsterdam’s grachts, after losing everything in the tulip-crash of 1637, including their homes, mortgaged to the rafters to buy tulip bulbs.

Semper Augustus, public domain, Anonymous 17th-century watercolor of the Semper augustus, created before 1640, famous for being the most expensive tulip sold during tulip mania in 17th century Netherlands

Semper Augustus, public domain, Anonymous 17th-century watercolor of the Semper augustus, created before 1640, famous for being the most expensive tulip sold during tulip mania in 17th century Netherlands

Semper augustus was the most expensive tulip bulb ever sold during the craze and provided inspiration for quite a few painters – as well as prompting author Moggach to write a love story about people involved in the tulipomania of 17th century Amsterdam.

It’s also hard to imagine what times were like for people. After eons of wars with Spain the Netherlands suddenly saw huge wealth poured back into its country from trading with newly established foreign colonies. Perhaps for the first time in history, merchants began to financially out-class the aristocracy. They could afford to build mansions, deck themselves out in the latest fashions, wearing precious silks, gold embroidery and semi-precious stones like their nobles before them. Merchants could now afford commissioning paintings just like the rich upper crust had done for centuries.

Society was changing rapidly on a never-before seen scale, aided by Europe’s Reformation. Moggach makes use of religious doubt extensively in her book, although the ending of her novel is utterly contrived as a result and very unsatisfactory in my view.

But the influx of vast sums of money also allowed the Dutch to create a country in their own image, draining wetlands, reclaiming land from the North Sea, engaging in huge construction programmes to improve their country’s infrastructure. Yet another challenge to God, to the Grim Reaper, to Eternal Darkness – the grachts have endured, no matter what craze befell human minds in the interval.

This look towards extension of one’s alotted life-time is a long, long philosophical and religious way off from the medieval – and catholic – view of eternal damnation, heaven and hell.

Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in Amsterdam. The wealth it must have taken to create the grachts/canals is staggering, practically incalculable in today’s money.

The houses that would eventually grace the Prinsengracht and the Herengracht, where Moggach’s love story “Tulip Fever” is set, sprung up in those heady days when money seemed to be as plentiful as duckweed floating in English village green ponds.

Amsterdam's canal, c. 1686 Amsterdam Municipal Department for the Preservation and Restoration of Historic Buildings and Sites (bMA) Stadhuis, zijde Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal •Attribution • File:Paleist3.jpg • Uploaded by BotMultichill • Created: 1 January 1686

Amsterdam’s canal, c. 1686
Amsterdam Municipal Department for the Preservation and Restoration of Historic Buildings and Sites (bMA)
Stadhuis, zijde Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal
• Attribution
• File:Paleist3.jpg
• Uploaded by BotMultichill
• Created: 1 January 1686

Occupying the Gouden Bocht or Golden Bend of the Amstel River, the Herengracht reached only as far as the present-day Leidsegracht until 1663. After that date, Amsterdam’s fortifications were expanded and Herengracht, Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht were all extended. Buyers wishing to build on Heregracht were encouraged to buy not one but two lots of land and construct double-width mansions.

As a by-product of the three canals having been laid out at a greater distance from each other, the lots were not just wider, but deeper, allowing merchants to build veritable palaces.

Adorning their Amsterdam-palaces with classicist facades and richly stuccoed interiors, especially the magnificent ceilings, the merchants also established lovely gardens that were opened once a year to the public. You can just imagine them being filled with tulips of the richest hues, can’t you?

Where the Amstel River bends, just by the Nieuwe Spiegelstraat (the “new mirror street”), the richest citizens chose to build their dwellings, which prompted the public to rename this part of the river the Golden Bend.

Moggach’s fictional young wife Sophia, lover Jan van Loos and cuckolded husband Cornelis would have been neighbours to the real-life family living at Herengracht 475, the wealthy clan of the De Neufville, who lived their from 1731 to 1733.

Jan Breughel the Younger, Satire on tulipomania, ca. 1640

Jan Breughel the Younger, Satire on tulipomania, ca. 1640

Interestingly, a list of the real people, who lived in the Golden Bend of the Herengracht during the time Moggach’s book describes, includes the following names:

  • Jan Bernd Cicker (#460)
  • Gerrit Braamcamp (#462)
  • Cornelis Munter (#468)
  • Willem Andriesz Munter (#444)
  • Jacob Boreel (#507)
  • Maria Meerman (#480)
Ilya Repin Sadko Public Doman, Google Cultural Institute

Ilya Repin Sadko Public Doman, Google Cultural Institute

all of them have first names Moggach uses in her novel – better still, “Meerman” is the Dutch word for mermaid/mer-people and servant Maria dreams in the novel of swimming through an underwater world. You see, writers’ minds soak up everything they see and regurgitate every morsel as something totally different, something inspired!

Admiral Verjick van der Eijck, source Wikipedia, Public Domain

Admiral Verjick van der Eijck, source Wikipedia, Public Domain

What is missing in Moggach’s novel is the ebb and flow of humanity. Between the years of 1578 and 1665, the time when Amsterdam sided with the supporters of the Reformation, urban development reached an unprecedented scale. The city grew from 30,000 to 160,000 people – only London and Paris were larger at that time. This huge influx o new residents was not just driven by the Reformation though, which forced large numbers of protestants to feel the catholic South, but was also the result of Antwerp losing its hold as “Golden Age” centre in favour of Amsterdam.

Although a single, much older canal existed, the way Amsterdam looks today is due to a four-phase construction programme that began in earnest in 1585. By 1613 a second phase had completed an even larger section of canals and between 1613 and 1625 the third phase was completed.

The final phase took place in the years 1656 to 1665, the time the Gouden Bocht was constructed and Amsterdam’s most prestigious address was created, the Herengracht between the uneven numbers 441 to 513 and even numbers 426 to 482. I can’t help but wonder what Maria Meerman (if I’d known this name existed, I’d have made it my pen name!) got up to in her mansion. Did she “swim” through stuccoed rooms, floating by her magnificent rear garden, waving at the goldfish in her pond, while casually picking off dead petals from her Semper augustus, tulipa clusiana and Violetten Admirael van Enkhuizen?

The latter bulb was sold for 5,200 guilders, an all-time record in the winter of 1636, when the sale of just 70 tulip bulbs achieved revenue of 53,000 guilders for a handful of orphans, whose father had left them nothing but tulip bulbs.

Tulipomania Part 1

Amsterdam around 1662. The ring of canals is now complete. Daniel Stalpaert, published by Nicolaus Visscher, Amsterdam - University of Amsterdam Library Map of Amsterdam in 1662, with a panorama of Amsterdam included.

Amsterdam around 1662. The ring of canals is now complete.
Daniel Stalpaert, published by Nicolaus Visscher, Amsterdam – University of Amsterdam Library
Map of Amsterdam in 1662, with a panorama of Amsterdam included.

A little while back I mentioned that I wanted to do another review of a book where a writer had used a specific location to demonstrate a particular point. I didn’t like “Tulip Fever” by Deborah Moggach much, but she does use the city of Amsterdam in an interesting way to mirror what is going on with her protagonists.

It’s not only the streets that reflect the plot’s main action – the city of Amsterdam is in the grip of tulipomania (tulip fever), a love-affair as truly, madly, deeply felt by its citizen as the love-affair Moggach’s two protagonists, young Sophia and painter Jan, are about to plunge into.

Set in about 1636 during the height of tulipomania, the main action takes place in a rich merchant’s house in the Herrengracht, one of Amsterdam’s most splendid residences overlooking a gracht or canal, then a major thoroughfare within the city. And Moggach mirrors the action not just literally, she reflects it figuratively – what Amsterdam’s respectable burghers get up to is reflected in the ever-present water as well as in numerous paintings commissioned from artists who’ll later become some of the most famous painters in history, including on Jan van Loo(s).

Ice skaters on Prinsengracht franzconde - Ice skaters on frozen Prinsengracht, Amsterdam This image was originally posted to Flickr by franzconde at It was reviewed on 1 January 2015 by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0. •CC BY 2.0 •	File:Frozen Prinsengracht.jpg •	Uploaded by Swimmerguy269~commonswiki •	Created: 6 February 2012

Ice skaters on Prinsengracht
franzconde –
Ice skaters on frozen Prinsengracht, Amsterdam
This image was originally posted to Flickr by franzconde at It was reviewed on 1 January 2015 by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.
• CC BY 2.0
• File:Frozen Prinsengracht.jpg
• Uploaded by Swimmerguy269~commonswiki
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Every Hans, Frans and Cornelis wants their painting done – including the rich, elderly husband of Sophia. She promptly falls in love with the young painter, Jan van Loos, during the first sitting and clichéd romance, revenge and divine retribution ensue from this point onwards.

What I did like about the novel was the ever-present water as a metaphor for life and death. The peculiar quality water has when reflecting both objects and light suffuses the book, making it an illuminating read in more ways than one.

Maria, the maid, dreams of living in her mistress’s house with her as yet unborn six children. In her dreams, Maria and her brood swim through the house in a strange underwater world free of man’s obsessions with tulips, wealth and status. For Maria, water means freedom from domestic servitude and happiness in the bosom of her own family.

Water means life, but also death to many. Storms sweep the Dutch coastline frequently, killing Amsterdam’s residents indiscriminately, as the seawater is driven into the grachts. Whole districts get flooded in the process. Dogs, cats, humans rich and poor, they all meet their fate, when water sweeps clean the streets of Amsterdam.

2008: The Gouden Bocht ("Golden Bend") is the most prestigious part of Herengracht in Amsterdam, between Leidsestraat and Vijzelstraat. public domain Jvhertum - Own work

2008: The Gouden Bocht (“Golden Bend”) is the most prestigious part of Herengracht in Amsterdam, between Leidsestraat and Vijzelstraat.
public domain
Jvhertum – Own work

Water means earning a decent enough living for a large number of people. Run a barge up and down the Amstel River or trade in the grachts. Maria’s lover Willem earns his living from selling fish. Disappointed in love and robbed of his savings and dignity, he later goes to sea to seek his fortune as a soldier. Water can help people to change their lives.

The merchants get rich – or lose everything – by trading with foreign countries, sending out fleets of ships to exotic places.

Water, water, everywhere…water-logged streets, overflowing hearts, fortunes lost at sea, tear-stained lovers’ letters and new types of paintings where herrings take centre stage. Water determines the fate of them all.

By contrast, the painters of the day, artists such as Jan van Loos or Rembrandt, record the mundane terrestrial, the domestic lives of Dutch burghers – whoever can afford to commission a painting, does so; those who can’t afford to pay, may be lucky enough to attract a painter into their dark and dingy hovel – some artists are keen to record Dutch life of the lower classes.

Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange by Emanuel de Witte, 1653. The Amsterdam Stock Exchange was the first stock exchange to introduce continuous trade in the early 17th century. Emanuel de Witte -

Courtyard of the Amsterdam Stock Exchange by Emanuel de Witte, 1653. The Amsterdam Stock Exchange was the first stock exchange to introduce continuous trade in the early 17th century.
Emanuel de Witte –

Everybody wants their lives to be captured for eternity, holding off the grim reaper in their own way. Even the land these splendid merchant houses have been built on has been snatched back from the sea and wetlands. If they can do THAT, why not hold on to life for a little longer with the help of paintings? It may only be one fragment of a life captured on canvas, but in their minds that one moment can hold off the inevitable drowning in ever-lasting darkness.

It’s the age of discovery, especially in the field of botany. For a brief period in history, Dutch people succumb to a strange mania, buying tulip bulbs for enormous sums and speculating on the flowers as if they were gold or diamonds. Historians and psychologists all over the world are still debating what prompts human beings to enter into such bizarre manias.

We can see some of the wonderful flowers these explorers brought back with them in Dutch paintings of the period. Somehow this humble wild flower from dry and arid Turkey and Afghanistan captured the imagination of people like no other plant has done before or since in human history. Neither rose, poppy, lotus nor orchid has caused such manic behaviour or ever commanded such prices. Did the Dutch fall in love with tulips simply because the flowers grew in desert-like conditions in their natural habitats? Did the wild tulip represent a secret longing for terra firma, a place not dominated by water?

self portrait Jan van Loo, ca 1660,

self portrait Jan van Loo, ca 1660,

Moggach’s book creates a strange world out of this fluid, ever-changing medium.

You can practically taste the salt on your lips and smell the herring, when Sophia hastens through the dark and empty streets at night to spend time with her lover, when lanterns twinkle on passing barges, when raucous laughter fills the air from all those sailors stepping off vessels that have been to parts of the world, where new types of tulip are only just being discovered.

Sometimes a lover embracing you, sometimes a monster swallowing you whole: the grachts of Amsterdam are the veins and blood vessels that run through each and every one of its 17th century citizens.

I also liked the idea to set a novel in an era of extraordinary events, when a city is in chaos over something other than war. In this case it’s tulipomania, in Boris Akunin’s novel “The Coronation” it was the crowing of Csar Nicholas II and the start of the first rumblings of the Russian revolution that made Moscow a perfect location for a kidnapping mystery and metaphor for a heart in turmoil. Part 2 of this post will go into tulipomania itself and  what historic Amsterdam was like around 1636.

Leaving a disappointing Road far too frequently travelled

A grey day for authors who take the Inkitt route

A grey day for authors who take the Inkitt route

Here’s an update on that most peculiar and frankly useless of all new author platforms: Inkitt.

After uploading my submission for their “Wanderlust” competition, I discovered that authors were only granted 200 characters (incl. spaces!) for their bio and there was no space at all to credit the illustrators or artists whose work people had uploaded as their “book cover” for each submission.

Worse, the competition rules prevented those who had fan fiction elements or any other copyright issues to report from doing so. We were told in the contest rules to “upload this on our profiles” but there was no space at all to do so. And when I pointed this out to the site’s support team, I received a patronising message back saying “I’ll see if it’s in the budget”, which was headed by “dearest, dearest Maria”.

Some snotty-nosed girl who is not only helping to judge the entries but also writes on the site had sent the comment and apparently disabled the reply box in order to shut up this critic. Only the first 10% of entries, equating to only around 20 entries on the first page of the site, will be seen by the judges and then, wait for it, all the winner is supposed to get is a “badge”. Yay…(voice trails off and starts belching in disgust).

Entries for the “Romance: Entwined” contest, on the other hand, can expect to be taken more seriously. Why? Because they have to submit at least 40,000 stories to qualify. The site’s founders clearly don’t take the fantasy genre writers seriously, since they could upload at whatever length they wanted and whatever they wanted, including poetry.

The fact that there is no children’s writer section and that all ratings start at 13+ also suggests Inkitt is only interested in writers of the most commercially successful YA genres, but not anyone else. Simply because the majority of their “clientele” is going to be poached from Wattpad’s youthful fan base.

The goal seems clear: just get as many people as possible to upload certain genre writing as possible, don’t allow them to put profiles with any hint of contact details on the site, because authors whose work has any merit may otherwise be contacted directly by literary agents. They might get snapped up before Inkitt can get their claws into these authors and represent them, I guess, in an agent capacity. All it takes is ONE author’s success…think “50 Shades of Bilge” and count how much 10-15% agent’s fee equates to…they won’t have to continue building their site. The site’s founders can simply retire rich and happy there and then.

Can you hear an authors' platform going down the toilet?

Can you hear an authors’ platform going down the toilet?

Two literary friends of mine, both excellent writers in their own right, looked at quite a large number of the entries, and saw that this was yet another Wattpad-thing-without-artistic-merit. So, when we got an email from one of the founders of the site telling us that, instead of sorting out the urgent copyright infringement issues and total lack of author bio-capacity, they were working on some idiotic button that did nothing to address these issues, I deleted my contest entry and told them to also delete my profile. The email, rather predictably, also urged people to “read” and not just click the “vote” button without staying longer on the site.

Naturally, when people don’t read the stories to the full, the founders of the site cannot prove their supposedly super-duper-foolproof-bestseller-finder software actually works. This is, of course, where the whole thing falls flat on its face: my experience has been that the overwhelming majority of readers on these sites are people who simply consume FREE reading material ferociously without EVER voting or liking or “hearting” anything at all, simply because they are too lazy.

And the majority of those youngsters who do vote or like or “heart” authors’ works do so only for their own friends’ work, and quite probably without bothering to read the stories. If the friend wins a competition or gets offered a publishing deal…well there are selfie opportunities galore and reflected glory in heaps to look forward to.

Enough ranting. Here’s something more cheerful for storyteller hearths:

If any real bookworms out there were trying to find my story, following my earlier blog posts, they can now read “A Road less well travelled” online, for FREE, by becoming Bookrix members. I’ve uploaded the story as an ebook, which is now titled “Linus & The Leprechauns”. It’s free to become a member of Bookrix and the English language side of the platform has a really friendly community with a good mix of young and older, more experienced writers.

Here’s the link to it:

I’ve also uploaded the story FREE for Goodreads:

Hearts, likes and whatever honest review words you feel you’d like to leave will be gratefully accepted:)

(Illustration on this page: Black and white version of book cover for “Linus & The Leprechauns”, illustration copyright Sarah Chipperfield, reproduced by kind permission)

Calling all Fantasy Travellers: Please choose A Road Less Well Travelled!

This is the specially commissioned art work for the story, created by the fabulously talented illustrator Sarah Chipperfield.

This is the specially commissioned art work for the story, created by the fabulously talented illustrator Sarah Chipperfield.

Yay! I’ve done it, I’ve mastered the complicated upload process at and have finally managed to publish my children’s fantasy story “A Road Less Well Travelled”!

Here’s the link to it, should you like to read it:

So now I’m humbly asking all you travelling bookworms out there, please READ, LOVE and VOTE in the Inkitt “Wanderlust” writing contest. Even if you don’t like my story, there’s bound to be some talented writer’s entry that will appeal to you. Kick off your dusty wanderer’s boots, pour yourself a cup of reviving coffee by your very own storytelling hearth and bookworm your way through some Fantasy genre stories. Never read anything from this genre before? Be a daredevil and, just like Linus, the 9-year-old hero of my story, take a road less well travelled to discover new literary horizons.

Sarah Chipperfield, the amazing young woman who created the banner art work for my Inkitt entry, has already worked on some other illustrations for me, completing two great covers for the soon to be published “The House Detective” (children’s book) and “Inspektor Beagle ermittelt: Ein lauwarmer Krieg” (German language whodunit for grown-ups). She’s also done the first drafts of fantastic illustrations for an Early Readers book we’re doing together, which stars a very blue, very cute little alien called Flippety Floppet. If you beg me very nicely, I may let you borrow Sarah for book cover illustrations for your own novels! (Bribery works very well with me…like voting for my story in the Inkitt contest, hehe).

And speaking of writing contests: did I mention yesterday that the Thriller Writing Contest at Bookrix wants contestants to use one sentence from the HP Lovecraft story “The Music of Erich Zann”? Well, if I forgot to mention it, you’ll know now.

“A Road Less Well Travelled” will eventually be published in ebook and print format as “Linus and the Leprechauns”, but I’ll let you know nearer the time, where it’s going to be published.

Two Sides to a Heart & Two Sides to a City

There are two parts to my blog post today, although you could say they are vaguely related, as both parts are about thriller writing.

Firstly: Calling all thriller writers:

Thriller Writing Contest for Bookrix Authors: The Music of Eric Zann (German: Die Musik des Erich Zann). It’s free to join as a reader and/or author – it’s a German/English language self-publishing platform. You can upload your submission in either German or English – or both!

Writing Contest Theme: Choose a sentence from Howard Phillip Lovecraft’s story “The Music of Erich Zann” as inspiration for a short story. Use this sentence within your story. You have from 15.09.2015 to 10.10.2015 to post your story to this thread:;content-id:group_9738093986,id:1769300.html

Remember, you must become a member of Bookrix, before you can enter the contest. The winner gets not only a virtual pat on the back and potentially lots of readers and reviews on Bookrix, especially when delivering your story in German, but can also look forward to a book prize:

Im Sommernachtstraum / Die Bürgschaft 11,80 EUR, 210 Seiten, ISBN 978-3-940445-80-3

Also available as an eBook. EUR 0,99

And while you may not be keen on the book prize, if German isn’t your first language, you should remember that the majority of Bookrix readers is under 40 and therefore able to read English pretty well – lots of potential readers and therefore potential purchasers of your own books! Phil Humor, the organiser of the contest, has thoughtfully provided various links to Lovecraft’s story:

Here’ s the German Wiki Link and short story description:

Die Musik des Erich Zann (Originaltitel: The Music of Erich Zann) ist eine Kurzgeschichte von Howard Phillips Lovecraft, geschrieben im Dezember 1921 und erstveröffentlicht im März 1922 in der Zeitschrift The National Amateur. Sie gehört zu den beliebtesten Erzählungen Lovecrafts, wurde vielfach nachgedruckt und in mehrere Sprachen übersetzt, unter anderem ins Deutsche und ins Französische. Bis in die Gegenwart hat sie Schriftsteller, Illustratoren, Filmemacher und nicht zuletzt Musiker zu eigenen Schöpfungen angeregt.

Plus some more info in German and English: (downloadable short story in German)

  1. P. Lovecrafts Bibliothek des Schreckens “Die Musik des Erich Zann” Part 2

Secondly: Two Sides to a Heart, Two Sides to a City

Back to my “location” focused blog theme now: recently I read two very different books that both used the  setting for their books as brilliant metaphors for the “internal” journey their protagonists undergo in the course of the story. I’d like to delve into the first one, which is a brilliant thriller by the Russian writer Boris Akunin, whose popular “Erast Fandorin” adventures have wowed not only hordes of readers but also international critics over the years.The novel in question is “The Coronation”. You can read my general review at my Goodreads page, if you like.

Nicholas_II_by_Boissonnas_&_Eggler_c1909The narrator of the story is Afanasii Stepanovich Ziukin, a butler at the Green Court in St. Petersburg of Tsarist Russia. It’s the week before the coronation of what will be the country’s last Tsar, for soon the tides will turn against the monarchy; chaos will break out across Russia and many members of the ruling Romanov family will be murdered. Nicholas II reign lasted from 1.11.1894 to 15.3.1917. The coronation in question happened on 26th May 1896, (old style date lists this as 14th May 1896)

However, the novel isn’t about that. It’s more about the build up to all the horrors still to come – at first glance.

At second glance, however, it is a wonderful novel about one man who rediscovers his heart. His early love for a high-born lady was thwarted some 30 years before the plot starts. It broke his tender adolescent heart and he closed himself off to all human emotions other than “adoration” for those he serves. As Afanasii is forced to get involved in the adventures of Erast Fandorin, he learns to love again. Throughout the book Afanasii refuses to acknowledge that he is capable of love, however, and it is this refusal, which ultimately saves his life and soul in a tragic twist of fate.

With every fence or drain pipe he has to climb during the adventure, Afanasii not only gets used to seeing Moscow – and imperial Russia for that matter – in a different light. As his limbs get accustomed to the unusual exercise, so does that other muscle, the human heart, get used to the unfamiliar feeling of loving.

Author Akunin shows us the grand imperial palaces and parks as they were when Tsar Alexander was about to be crowned emperor in Moscow. By way of contrast, we get to see the murky side of impoverished Moscow, where gangs of thugs rule supreme, calling themselves “king” over their subjects of cut throats, pickpockets and pimps. Sounds familiar to modern day Russians by any chance?

Spb_06-2012_Palace_Embankment_various_14Akunin also uses the different palaces to show us how rivalry between the Romanovs was expressed in more or less subtle ways. This rivalry greatly added to the poor decision making that was ultimately the monarchy’s downfall. For example: upon arrival for the coronation, the Grand Duke Georgii Alexandrovich, who is the zar’s uncle and Afanasii’s employer, the butler discovers the Green Court’s members and staff have been put into the Small Hermitage Palace, which has only 15 rooms to accommodate them all. Even the butler and his assistants have their own servants…so where are they all to sleep? He suspects that this was a vindictive manoeuvre by the youngest of the Grand Dukes, who can’t stand his older brother Georgii, but is in charge of all that happens in Moscow as the governor general of the capital. His decision to put the Green Court into such an easily accessible, and poorly defended palace, has far reaching, tragic consequences.

Naturally, Akunin also uses Moscow’s buildings and streets to demonstrate the immense gulf that lay between the Romanovs and the enormous number of aristocrats the Russian ordinary people had to support with their labours. Virtual slaves, they hardly earned enough to eat and clothe themselves or have a roof over their head. And there is another brilliant metaphor Akunin uses to show us something important that happens to his protagonist, whenever he changes location:

With every part of the adventure, Afanasii, who lives and works in several palaces throughout the year, as the Romanovs travel from residence to residence with the change of the seasons, the butler loses or ruins parts of his clothing. To Afanasii, his courtly clothes mark him out as a man of distinction; he believes they give him his dignity and he uses them like armour against emotional involvement. Shedding his outer layers of skin or emotional armour, if you like, always comes with a dramatic change of location.

Tsaritsino_from_helicopter-1The butler’s courtly clothing either gets lost or torn while climbing over fences or scampering up or down drain pipes or his clothes get stolen in the dangerous streets of the suburbs. We are told how much fashionable clothing costs – and while in comparison to what court butlers earn it is not such a lot, in comparison to what the ordinary man or woman or child in the street earns, it is an unimaginable fortune.

It is rare for me to close a book and then want to read it all over again in an instant. This is such a book. If you want to learn how to use your chosen setting/location in many different, subtle ways to say something important about your protagonist’s inner workings, this is the book to read. It is also rip-roaring fun to read, despite its very serious theme and setting. Read it prior to writing your own thriller and your submission to Bookrix should be in with a very good chance of winning!

Too much of a wizarding good Thing

Ged should have gone by Whale Express, touring the Archipelago would have been far quicker and so much more fun!

Ged should have gone by Whale Express, touring the Archipelago would have been far quicker and so much more fun!

Review of Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea

One of the celebrated classics of the fantasy genre, Ursula Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea”, is my final choice for inclusion in this “location” focussed series of book reviews. It’s Le Guin’s first novel of the Earthsea series (four books in total) and, I’m sorry to say, a perfect example of how one can have too much of a good thing.

This is a fantasy author who has so fallen in love with the fictional world she has created, she treats us to endless descriptions of island after island that make up Earthsea’s vast archipelago. I had to force myself to read to the end, caring neither about the protagonist Ged’s fate nor that of Earthsea. Clearly, there was only enough plot to fill a short story, not a novel. To disguise this fact, Le Guin enlarged her meagre story with endless descriptions of island locations.

At Sea without a Paddle or a Compass

Plot: Young Ged, a mage with unrivalled powers, makes a terrible mistake as a young boy, summoning a dark and evil shadow from the realm of the dead, which now haunts him and threatens the safety of Earthsea, unless he can find a way to send the thing back to where it came from. To keep him safe and give him a chance to rid himself off this shadow, his mentor sends him to Roke Island and a wizard school, where Ged promptly summons the beasty again, which then mauls him and escapes into the world of the living.

Damn, my magical boat just vanish. Not enough fairy dust?

Damn, my magical boat just vanish. Not enough fairy dust?

It’s really a modern morality play, with Ged finally discovering his own true self and that too much power invariably corrupts. Puffed up like a giant puffer fish, the story takes us from Ged’s home island of Gont right across to the West Reach and then back again to the East Reach and finally to The Open Sea, as Ged and a variety of handmade little boats flit around the Earthsea world. He meets a few dull characters and an evil sourceress and king, has his pet killed and finally meets up again with an old school chum, Vetch, before confronting the dark thing that haunts him.

As dry as an Icelandic Fish

If this book had been published in the mid-70s and not, as it was, in 1968, I doubt it would ever have become the bestselling fantasy classic that it is today. The only thing, in my opinion, that lifts it out of mediocricy, is that all protagonists are non-white, an utterly new and astonishing concept back in the days when apartheid blighted the planet and race relations in the USA were pretty bad.

Since Ged is not a very likeable hero, it is hard to feel any compassion for him or to identify with this proud, jealous and hot-headed wizard. The reader is forced to constantly leaf back to the map so thoughtfully provided by the publishers, since Ged flits from island to island during his quest and it’s easy to get muddled. All of them are rather boring places, excepting two, where Ged has his greatest adventures. The rest are windswept, barren rocks in the sea or places with a few fields and small towns where nothing ever happens. What was this author thinking???

Almost devoid of dialogue and certainly devoid of all humour, the novel bobs along like Ged’s little boat on the open sea, now and again throwing up an Earthsea legend like a flying fish, before sinking back into paddleboarding pace. Reading this book is like chewing on dried Icelandic cod without the hope of getting one’s hands on a life-saving pint of ale.

Spoilers ruin the briny Broth

Towards the end, when there’s finally a bit of tension and build-up of drama, Le Guin spoils the briny broth she serves up by informing us that Ged’s future holds various famous adventures. Great, he survives and so does Earthsea? Thanks a bunch for this spoiler, Le Guin, I might as well close the book at this point and read something a bit more entertaining now!

As empty as a sucked-out Lobster’s Claw

The dark shadow's watching you, Ged!

The dark shadow’s watching you, Ged!

Fantasy authors are often accused by non-genre writers, who believe they’re far more literary worthies, that they are obsessed with location. While it is true that location plays a far greater role in fantasy novels – the writer has to invent a whole world with its own rules, political and religious environment, animals, plant life etc – endless descriptions of locations will not please readers and certainly shouldn’t be used to substitute plot.

Le Guin’s story lacks content, it is as devoid of substance as a seagull-mugged oyster. And I fear, Le Guin falls squarely into the quarter of accused fantasy writers who have chosen fluff over meaty content. Every time when she should be moving her plot foward, she meanders off into Earthsea legends or songs or yet more descriptions of rocks in the sea.

It is the protagonists that readers engage with, the action and drama between them that make readers turn the page. No matter how lyrical a writer thinks their prose it, the reader will always choose action over location descriptions. In fact, I remember passing over the lengthier descriptions in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Philip Pullman’s books, leaving such trivial matters for a second reading.

Location should always serve to enhance the reader experience and catapult the plot forward, not stand in for the plot or help the author to puff up a short story into a full length novel. For that reason, I won’t bother reading Le Guin’s remaining Earthsea stories. Having experienced about 60 locations of the island’s archipelago during the course of the first novel, I prefer to read something a bit more earthy.

Is Ursula le Guin hiding her talent for comedy under a bushel?

Is Ursula le Guin hiding her talent for comedy under a bushel?

While I apreciate that this first volume was supposed to introduce the reader to the Earthsea legends and magical archipelago, endless flitting about from island to island without any kind of action happening, once Ged gets there, is really not my idea of a ripping good yarn. Location, location, location, in this instance, is just a step (sea mile) too far.

The World according to Bertie

AlexanderMcCallSmith by Tim DuncanAs promised, here’s the blog post about an author who uses “location” in a far more sophisticated way than any other writer I know.

I adore Alexander McCall Smith’s style of light-as-a-feather writing, but wished he’d stop using German in his novels. Firstly, because it’s rather pretentious and secondly, because the man hasn’t the first notion of the German language and always gets it wrong…and to compound his error always neglects to ask a German speaker to correct the foreign language errors in his novels.

But that’s really the only criticism I have of McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street novels, which are utter gems. Location plays an important part in this author’s novels, especially in his 44 Scotland Street escapades, where New Town in Edinburgh, Scotland, serves as the background to philosophical musings about life, love, friendship and freedom.

An Author goes Window-shopping

McCall Smith uses the City of Edinburg as a location for musings about the human condition, allowing readers a glimpse into the private lives of a set of people living in a particular neighbourhood. They don’t necessarily know each other personally, but their lives have a tendency to unexpectedly touch or, at times, even to collide in dramatic or comic fashion. Edinburgh serves to demonstrate the changes Scotland has undergone over the past few centuries, how its people have adapted to change and in turn have changed the world with their innovations.

Although the main focus of the story is on the residents of one particular tenement house in Scotland Street, the different districts of Edinburg all play an important role in describing the individual characters of the novel and the nature of what might be called “the Scottish condition”.

Whenever we learn more about a character or are introduced to a new character, we do so by following them to their favourite haunts in Edinburgh. Here the location is actually a character in the novel, as multi-faceted as any human being.

Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh, by Tilmandralle

Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, by Tilmandralle

McCall is taking us on a stroll through this wind-swept Scottish city, reminding us of its heroic and foolish moments, holding up a lantern to shine on its grand architecture and its slums alike. Every so often he’s window-shopping for poignant moments, peering through the curtains to catch intimate exchanges between Edinburg’s citizens.

What at first glance appear to be mundane morsels of conversations between lovers, friends, neighbours, customers and coffee shop owners, children at school, or teachers out shopping, are eventually revealed as insightful comments on love and friendship, hope and aspirations, marriage and childhood; even the human psyche comes under scrutiny.

All Heroes great and small

Just like vet James Herriot examined the lives of all creatures great and small in the Yorkshire Dales, Alexander McCall Smith includes Edinburg’s pets in his examination of the human condition. Pet and pet owner are subjected to a minute examination, exploring their feelings to each other and the nature of their interaction with the rest of the world.

The way humans react to other people’s pets often give us a valuable clue to a person’s real personality. When at the end of the book one of the characters contemplates giving a dog a chance in order to secure the man she fancies, we know that she has finally tapped into the better part of her being, reached into herself and discovered her humanity.

Comic Genius

Edinburgh in the 17th Century

Edinburgh in the 17th Century

McCall Smith can be incredibly funny without resorting to obvious jokes. Here we see the residents of Scotland Street react to a shocking miscarriage of justice against one of their canine neighbours. From the way neighbours react to the pet’s misfortune, we catch a glimpse behind the mask and get to know these people’s true nature. We also see officialdom thwarted, always something that cheers us up, no matter what our nationality.

Naturally, plucky terrier Cyril is my favourite character in the book, apart from long-suffering Bertie himself. This time Cyril narrowly escapes the evil clutches of the law, when he is arrested for indiscriminately biting people in the neighbourhood of 44 Scotland Street. It’s all a terrible mistake, but Cyril is thrown into prison and put on death row anyway.

Cyril is innocent of this particular crime, but as some residents in Scotland Street recall, he did sink his teeth into the ankle of Bertie’s despicable mother Irene, a woman who smothers her 6-year-old son and her husband to such an extent, the two males of the Pollock household lead a miserable existence and cannot see themselves ever finding happiness.

The funny thing is that Irene is well-meaning, a mother and wife who only wants the best for her family. She believes herself to be tolerant and enlightened, but she is actually devoid of humanity, has no understanding, charity or mercy. Irene is the villain of the piece and all over the world, so McCall Smith tells his readers in the prologue to the follow-up of this novel (“The Importance of Being Seven”), readers are hoping that Bertie will finally turn seven and escape the clutches of his domineering mother, if only for an afternoon!

Scotland is a Dog-eat-Dog World

Caynsham Beagles ca. 1895

Caynsham Beagles ca. 1895

A mother and wife from hell, Irene seems to have conducted a clandestine affair with Bertie’s child psychotherapist, who Bertie believes to be the father of baby Ulysses, Bertie’s 4-month-old brother. The scenes where Bertie asks the adults in his small world about the paternity of baby Ulysses are priceless and among the funniest in the book.

Bertie’s view of the world is explained in a short essay he and his classmates are asked to write by a new teacher. Full of humanity and kindness, Bertie tolerates his mother’s nasty nature, taking it as something that must be endured until he is old enough to move away as far as possible from Scotland Street. Miserable at home and at school, Bertie sees the world as one long ordeal, just like most of us do, if we’re honest.

At the end of the novel the reader cannot help but feel that Cyril the Dog would grin broadly – gold tooth and all – at some of the human peccadilloes that have happened in Scotland Street while he was in prison. He owes his life to Bertie and this reader suspects, Bertie was just returning the favour. Having witnessed his mother being bitten by Cyril must have been a great comfort to the little boy. There is a happy end – really more of a happy beginning – at the end of the novel that allows readers to look forward to McCall Smith’s next window-shopping trip in Edinburg.

Interestingly, McCall Smith ends the novel with a domestic setting in one of 44 Scotland Street’s spacious Georgian flats. We see some of the characters enjoy a harmonious meal together – which is as the world should be, according to Bertie.

Death of a Hollow Man

hollow man coverOutrageously funny at times, Caroline Graham’s highly accomplished murder mystery is far, far better than the TV adaptation (ITV) of it. Rich in suspects, the novel is set in fictional Causton, a small provincial town not far from London. This is a complex tale of jealousy and madness.

Here the confined settings are an amateur theatre, a famous stage play and two provincial towns. One is Causton near London, the other exists in playwright Peter Shaffer’s play and in reality: Salzburg in Austria. They all mirror each other and are used to great effect as background for a murder that, at first sniff, doesn’t appear to one at all, but merely an accident on stage.

These small empires are ruled by entirely different types of Big Fish. While Chief Inspector Barnaby rules the real world of provincial Causton, Harold the impresario rules Causton’s small theatre. On stage, we have Peter Shaffer’s villain Salieri and everybody’s favourite enfant terrible, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, battling for leadership of a very different, but equally restrictive world, the 18th century court of Emperor Joseph and Salzburg.

Glastonbury, Somerset

Glastonbury, Somerset

In a town with only a handful of shops, one bookshop and a couple of restaurants, it is hard to stand out, talented or not. We see young actors like Nicholas and Cully leave Causton for the world at large (Cambridge and London), just as Mozart eventually left Salzburg to seek his fortune abroad. The talented have a shot at eternal life. Hollow, meaning talentless or mediocre men and women, do not; all they can dream of is to become a Big Fish in a small pond. The jealousy this creates is the central theme.

Where the Worlds of Make-Believe and Reality collide

The plot revolves around a staging of playwright Peter Shaffer’s famous play, Amadeus, by Causton’s amateur dramatics society, of which Chief Inspector Barnaby’s wife Joyce is a long-standing member. Occasionally, Barnaby himself is drafted in to help with painting the scenery due to his skill with a paintbrush.

Having known all the suspects for more than a decade is initially advantageous in a murder investigation; however, Chief Inspector Barnaby soon realises that knowing suspects intimately can get in the way of objectivity and hamper an investigation considerably. Reality and make-belief soon collide, as history repeats itself and another “hollow” man finds death.

A Play within a Play

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, painted by Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1736-1819)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, painted by Johann Nepomuk della Croce (1736-1819)

For those who don’t know Shaffer’s famous play “Amadeus”:

18th century composer Salieri, a life-long rival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is so consumed with envy that he plots the young composer’s downfall and death. Salieri reigns in the fashionable society of Austria’s court, Schönbrunn, and in Salzburg, a provincial town at the Austrian/German border.

On the surface, the two composers are competing for the “Big Fish” position in Salzburg and at Emperor Joseph’s court, but what they are really competing for is a place in history.

By ruining Amadeus’ chances at Schönbrunn’s court, where the young man seeks a patron in Emperor Joseph, Salieri reduces his rival to abject poverty. The play also suggests that Salieri may have actually poisoned Mozart, explaining the composer’s mysterious illness and premature death at age 30.

Amadeus: the name means beloved by God. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s heavenly music gives the composer access to the realm of the Gods, and therefore eternity. Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart drives the older man insane and ultimately, to suicide, as Salieri loses faith in God after a lifetime of devotion and a lifetime of mediocrity. Salieri’s music is only remembered today because of his involvement with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Historians still debate whether Salieri truly poisoned Mozart, or whether the older composer merely poisoned public opinion against Mozart.

View of Schoenbrunn Palace in Austria, by Canaletto

View of Schoenbrunn Palace in Austria, by Canaletto

Shaffer’s play is beautifully mirrored in the jealousies of the actors in Causton’s theatre, where everybody hopes to be either director, leading man or leading lady, never mind if they’ve got the talent for the job or not.

In the confined world of the amateur theatre (it only has 100 seats) Caroline Graham stages her whodunit like a play and mirrors Shaffer’s central theme and historical events in Salzburg in her own murder mystery.

Noises off

Noises off stage in this context mean Salieri-style intrigues and gossip, which drive Caroline Graham’s plot.

Inspector Barnaby’s own brilliance is contrasted by his Sergeant’s inability to detect his way out of a coffee cup (another “hollow” man, who incidentally is also married to a “hollow” woman).

Barnaby is married to a once promising singer, Joyce, who gave up her career to be a policeman’s wife and mother to talented actress daughter Cully. Now middle-aged, Joyce is reduced to be “noises off” and performs walk-on parts in the amateur dramatics society. Her lovely voice has been switched off by marriage and convention, not malice, but her fate seems to mirror that of the young composer Mozart. Inspector Barnaby, ultimately also just a Big Fish in a small pond, effectively ended Joyce’s career in the big wide world.

Director’s Cut

The murder only happens after we have been introduced to the entire cast: the director, the leading man, the bit players and even the theatre cat – and when the “director’s cut” finally happens in the midst of first night performance nerves and stage fright jitters, everybody assumes it was an accident that an actor cut his throat on stage.

Except for Barnaby. He can see through the make-believe of painted scenery, unfamiliar lighting and fake stage directions (on stage and off).

At the close of the novel Barnaby strolls through the streets of Causton. For the first time he sees his little realm’s shortcomings properly and is disgusted by what he sees. But there’s hope; much may be “hollow” in Barnaby’s little world, but look closely and you’ll discover a divine spark lights up dark corners and occasionally produces a prodigy beloved by the Gods, in this case his daughter Cully and young actor-to-be Nicholas).

Setting Boundaries

As in Sir Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet”, the novel “Death of a Hollow Man” by Caroline Graham uses location to characterise not just the protagonists readers see “on stage”, but also those “off stage”. Throughout the novel the reader has the feeling there’s somebody waiting in the dark wings of the little theatre (and Causton) who pulls the strings. Ever so often, the reader is allowed to catch a glimpse, before change in lighting and direction hide this “off-stage” character from our glance again.

Exmore, United Kingdom

Exmore, United Kingdom

Some genres thrive on multiple locations, epic landscapes and hordes of characters. The fantasy and sci-fi genres spring to mind. Such novels deal with the “grand opera” of human existence, the philosophical questions that plague mankind.

Murder mysteries by contrast are intellectual puzzles which can only be solved by the reader, if the writer sets strict boundaries. They also typically look at just one aspect of the human condition: greed, sex, revenge, ambition or, in this case, professional jealousy. More “earthy” aspects, while fantasy and sci-fi look at the “lofty” (intellectual) side of humanity’s condition.

In this novel, the readers looks at the world under a microscope. This allows the writer to look at a very specific aspect of the human condition, that of mediocrity versus brilliance or talent. Since Agatha Christie decreed that a good whodunit shouldn’t really have more than a dozen characters driving the plot, murder mystery writers have mostly stuck to this formula. It is difficult to get to know a list of suspects, when the reader is presented with a veritable army of characters and an atlas full of locations.

In the urban sprawl of London, New York or Paris murders may be committed by murderers, who kill without reason, thus leaving no clue to identity and motive. Those types of murders are typically very difficult, if not impossible, to solve. It may take real life policemen and women years to discover the murderer.

Setting boundaries, such as a country mansion, a Midsomer hamlet, a 100-seater theatre or small provincial town, allows the writer to concentrate on that famous dozen and a very specific, perhaps even unusual aspect of the human condition.

Few of us will ever meet a Mozart, Picasso or Einstein – but many of us know a truly outstanding, talented person in our small circle of work colleagues and acquaintances, and so we can still relate to this novel and the underlying theme.

Genre Writing

Choosing the right location is as important as the characters one invents to carry the plot of a particular piece of genre writing. Using that chosen location to represent more than mere painted scenery is where a novel turns from merely memorable to unforgettable.

I have used a few examples of crime novels or whodunits here to demonstrate how location is more than just a painted background on which to stage a “play”. Murder mysteries dissect a small sample of society. I chose the genre because I wanted to start “small” and follow up with the big picture, namely Alexander McCall Smith’s series of 44 Scotland Street stories, which are set in Edinburgh, but use the whole country as a means to muse about philosophical issues, historic changes, love and friendship, in other words, issues that affect all of humanity.

Being Epic on an epic Scale: Review of Cornwell’s 1356

1356 coverBernard Cornwell presents us with another magnificent tale here. “1356”, is part of Cornwell’s Grail Quest series of novels, and set during the 100-year war between England and France.

The author has won many fans with memorable series of books such as “Sharpe”, which was adapted for TV and starred actor Sean Bean in the title role, the “Warrior Chronicles” and the “Starbuck Chronicles”. All of them owe much to Cornwell’s meticulous research into the real geographical locations where his fictional action takes place and the historic events that inspired his narration.

This is “boys own” stuff though and readers expecting modern Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Zena the Warrior Princess type heroines will be bitterly disappointed. Writing for a male readership clearly obsessed with rape fantasies, Cornwell’s women are strictly victims never heroines. It’s sad that Cornwell should pander to this type of male readership. His constant reference to women getting raped all over the place is not so much down to the harsh medieval world he’s writing about but shows he wants to keep such male readers happy. Still, Cornwell is a brilliant writer and this blog post is about the way in which Cornwell uses location to conjure up a believable world. I leave you to judge him on the gender issue.

EPIC on an epic Scale

Battle of Crecy

Battle of Crecy

Nobody could accuse Cornwell of not knowing how to do “epic”. The reader knows she’s in for an epic adventure the moment she opens the book. This novel is divided into four parts plus a prologue and there are a few helpful maps. The prologue begins with a location: Carcassonne in southern France. From there Cornwell transfers the action to Avignon, then Montpellier, then Poitiers, before finally reaching the climax with an astonishing battle fought between the forces of King Jean of France and England’s Prince of Wales in 1356.

Cornwell’s locations have been carefully chosen to represent the build-up to the final battle in this most epic of wars – 100 years blood-soaked years of it! And this was just one of many “skirmishes” between English archers and French knights.

We are treated initially to brutal fights between fairly small forces, sometimes just a few people fighting each other, sometimes groups of soldiers battling it out in small confined surroundings. Each encounter is fiercer and bloodier than the previous one, and with each encounter the locations get bigger, ultimately leading to the Big Bang between England and France in the autumn of 1356, when some 16,000 men and horses collided on a vast field and hillside.

Crecy Village Sign, by Peter Lucas, own work

Crecy Village Sign, by Peter Lucas, own work

The story travels from the outskirts of Carcassonne across the south of the country to the north of France and the town of Poitiers. Along the way Cornwell’s sweeping narration takes in hamlets and hovels, forests, marshland, fields, crumbling towers and fairly new monasteries, noisy taverns, whorehouses, formidable abbeys and imposing castles. In short, Cornwell presents readers with the whole medieval world known to an English soldier fighting in France.

Carcassonne, France, photograph by Jondu11

Carcassonne, France, photograph by Jondu11

The final battle is described in all its horrors and Cornwell doesn’t flinch away from stating it as it is. This is not the heroic battlefield of fantasy novels. The author travelled to the real location to get a feel for the landscape and setting, describing it in beautiful detail as it must have been in 1356.

And that battle is the real blood, piss, shit, chopped off limbs, guts and gore stuff that happened. Six thousand English soldiers meet ten thousand Frenchmen in a clash so loud it makes your ears ring, your eyes water and your teeth shatter with the din of it.

Edward III counting the dead on the battlefield of Crecy by Virgil Master, illuminator

Edward III counting the dead on the battlefield of Crecy by Virgil Master, illuminator

You can practically feel the trampled vines crunching under your feet and you’ll find yourself flinching from horses’ hooves as they kick and scream in their final moments. The clanging of spiked morningstars flattening metal helmets, crushing skulls in the process, is deafening. You’ll be checking every so often if brain matter spattered across your shirt while you were busy turning pages.

Men hack, cut, bash, batter, shoot, bite, kick, punch and trample. They don’t stop until their opponent is utterly crushed, literally, and the landscape is awash with blood, urine, excrement, rotting corpses and the tears of the survivors.

Cornwell’s “1356” battle feels totally real. For any budding writer out there planning to write a fantasy novel with a big battle scene this is essential reading.

Nothing like A Year in Provence

Palais des Papes, Avignon, photograph by JM Rosier

Palais des Papes, Avignon, photograph by JM Rosier

None of the buildings or landscapes provide any comfort or solace in this novel. This is not the France we know from holiday brochures or from reading the delightful A Year in Provence, where pretty thatch-roof cottages or magnificent castles light up the landscape and the gaps are filled by cosy restaurants serving delicious food.

These villages and towns are littered with hostile abodes where humans and animals find few creature comforts, even when some buildings are relatively richly furnished. No matter how strong or thick the fortified walls, somebody will find a way to destroy them and kill everything and everyone within. Even a location within a location, for that’s what buildings are, can serve to drive home a point, in this case: war doesn’t stop at one’s threshold just because you’ve locked the door. You can’t pull the duvet over your head to block out the hounds of war.

Cornwell’s landscapes change from hot and bothered to mud-spattered and half-drowned. His protagonists face hidden dangers in forests, in rivers and on hilltops where man and horse can die of thirst gradually or be cut down by an arrow in a blink of an eye. Even at Thomas of Hookton’s own stronghold, the Castillon d’Arbizon, there is a traitor who passes on information to Thomas’ enemies.

Caerphilly Castle, Wales

Caerphilly Castle, Wales

Castles are draughty and dark, stink and more often than not act as prisons rather than refuge. The castles and fortresses remind us that swearing allegiance to the wrong overlord can become a prison of mind, body and soul, as both Roland and Robbie find out.

Church buildings are equally hostile, inhabited as they are by deranged monks, power-hungry cardinals, duplicitous abbots and sadistic priests. Cold and dark or filled with smoke from too many candles, these churches are either decorated with mysterious paintings that have lost their meaning over time or they are being painted by arrogant artists who create art for the glorification of their patrons, not for the glory of God.

These locations are not holy places but unholy representations of man. There is no salvation here, only damnation and horrible death.

The hilarious scene between Thomas of Hookton and the ancient Countess of Malbuisson in the Saint Dorcas convent is simply priceless and particularly amusing for an atheist like myself: it tells me everything there’s to know about the absurdity of religion and churchmen!

Legend versus Reality

heathersanimations.comThis medieval world is not the world of bards and chivalry, of Breughel-peasants frolicking in fields. This is the world of Hieronymus Bosch, hell on Earth, where chaos reigns supreme. No building, no city, village or town can provide safety. Young Roland, champion at so many French tournaments, soon learns that the battlefield is nothing like the chivalrous jousting places he’s used to. Cornwell beautifully compares locations of real battles and skirmishes between enemies with the glamour of courtly tournaments.

Cornwell takes us from certainty to uncertainty, from fact to fiction. Just as historians have been baffled ever since, why the French lost the battle in 1356, when they vastly outnumbered the English, nobody knows for certain, where this battle actually took place.

heathersanimations.comAfter a prologue and several exact locations in space and time, the narration enters the mists of legends. Legend has it, the battle took place some 8 miles distance from Poitiers, near the Abbey of Nouaillé, on the 19th September 1356, but nobody has been able to identify the actual Champ d’Alexandre, the flat hilltop that reputedly served as the battlefield.

Although Cornwell went to visit the alleged location of Champ d’Alexandre, he could only choose the spot that seemed most logical to him as the field for a great battle. The mystery surrounding the actual historical location just adds to the romance of the novel and our enjoyment of it.

Using Location to underline the Leitmotif

Right from the start Cornwell uses location to demonstrate the “them and us” situation. While the gentry and rich hide behind massive walls of Carcassonne’s enormous fortress, the burgers of the town are left defenceless. The township is pillaged and raped by the English.

The novel plunges the reader straight into the hell of warfare in the first few pages – there is no glory here, no glamour; it is vile, it is brutal, it is the stuff of nightmares. There is no sanctuary to be found for the ordinary man, woman or child anywhere, not even in church, where soldiers also rape, murder and plunder.

Rich and powerful people usually find a way to survive and this theme surfaces throughout the novel. While the King and cardinals hide behind enemy lines or enter the battle only with their body guards, the foot soldiers plunge into the melee and are hacked to pieces.

The rich, most notably kings, churchmen and princes, have a tendency to survive. They might occasionally get captured, but as long as their followers can raise the ransom, these captives will eventually go free.

Location, Location, Location takes us to the Happy End

Tournament at Bute Castle, Cardiff

Tournament at Bute Castle, Cardiff

In a novel where location has such importance, naturally location acts as the final reward.

The two anti-heroes of the book, English archer Thomas of Hookton and the Black Prince, are eventually rewarded, not so much with riches of a material kind, but with the ability to go home to England after many years of fighting in France. Neither man hides behind others or seeks shelter behind fortified walls. They are found at the heart of battle every time and therefore deserve to go home unharmed and dripping with (albeit unexpected) glory.

Here an author has used a profusion of locations to give his story the epic scope the historic event requires. But the choice of locations also serves to explain the complex characters of the two anti-heroes, Thomas of Hookton and Edward, Prince of Wales. Both men are portrayed as fully rounded as the hillside where the battle took place; they are as immovable and firm in pursuing their own code of honour as the fortified walls of Carcassonne’s gigantic castle.

medieval weaponry display at Cardiff, Wales

medieval weaponry display at Cardiff, Wales

When we see them in their final battle, the main characters of the book are no longer protected physically by anything other than a hedge and a few trees. Mentally, physically and emotionally they can no longer hide, neither from their enemies nor from readers’ scutiny. Exposed to the battle and to the critical eye of the reader, the personalities of the two anti-heroes are laid bare, just as the characters of their opponents, King Jean of France and an assortment of enemies both Thomas and Prince Edward have made along the way.

Presented with a large dollop of humour and an even larger helping of historical fact with regard to weapons, battle tactics, armour and deployment of archers, “1356” is a fantastic read for battle-hardened fantasy readers who have so far shied away from historic novels but would like to get a taste of a clash between real medieval forces.

The Reek of Red Herrings

cover of red herringThere is a tendency to set murder mysteries and crime novels in urban jungles these days.
The Reek of Red Herrings by Catriona McPherson is a contemporary example of how authors can use the traditional “village” setting successfully to demonstrate their overall theme. A village location can be far more than just a pretty background for foul deeds and thrilling action.

Here the village represents not simply a closed community with its own set of beliefs and rules, a world in miniature, but mirrors the tightly packed herring barrels of the book title, where layer upon layer of creature must be exposed and investigated before our sleuths can get to the bottom of the mystery.

The dark, winding, narrow and inhospitable streets of Gamrie, a village snaking up a steep crag overlooking the sea, are as confusing as the villagers’ family names and hereditary connections, causing sleuths Dandy and Alec to constantly lose their way in this investigation – intellectually, ethically and physically.

Even the architecture of Gamrie’s houses is baffling to the extreme. Several families live in one multi-story house, but the division of the rooms and different levels makes no sense to outsiders. The village’s precarious location on the crag overhanging the sea poses a constant threat to human and animal lives, just as uncovering the truth does, because revealing it will cause a scandal that will wreck the fishing community’s livelihood.

A Barrel of fishy Goings-on

Clupea_harengus_Gervais.flippedSet in 1930, this wonderfully atmospheric and dark murder mystery begins when amateur detectives Alec Osborne and Dandy Gilver are called in by the boss of a Banffshire fishing fleet to investigate on the quiet the macabre appearance of body parts in his herring barrels.

Married forty-something Dandy Gilver is glad to get out of a boring Christmas get-together with some of the dullest elements of her family; her handsome and much younger friend Alec Osborne is alone in the world, so always ready to plunge into sleuthing at a moment’s notice. Before Dandy’s husband Hugh can utter any kind of seasonal protest, the two detectives are off to the northeast coast of Scotland for a new adventure.

Pickled Philly-oolies

Catriona McPherson

Catriona McPherson

Their latest client cannot risk going to the police but must find out how, whether due to accident or foul play, human remains got among the herrings. So the respectable Mr. Birchfield summons the two amateur sleuths to his Aberdeen harbour office and asks them to investigate undercover in the village of Gamrie, the origin of these particular fishy barrels.

Posing as brother and sister, the two detectives plus Dandy’s elderly Dalmatian Bunty promptly head to Gamrie, where they are forced to stay in a cheerless hotel called the Three Kings. It’s run by mad-as-a-hatter landlady Miss Euphemia Clatchie, the first in a long line of eccentric local characters. Euphemia is also the first character who serves beautifully as a suspect in this barrelful of red herrings. The two detectives go undercover as a couple of philologists, or philly-oolies, as the fishing community calls them.

By asking pertinent questions among local households what ancient customs fishing folk are still practicing, the two sleuths try to discover, if a murder took place or whether Mr Pickle, the chopped-up man in Mr. Birchfield’s herring barrels, was simply the victim of an accident at sea and got into the barrels by a series of unfortunate circumstances.

Although initially these old customs seem quaint and rather sweet, the more our sleuths delve into the traditions of Gamrie, the more they are appalled by the sinister implications of some of these customs. The brains of Gamrie’s inhabitants, one feels after reading a few chapters, are just as pickled as herring and as inverted as the words philologists and philly-oolies!

Leading us by the Nose from one foul Stench to another Horror

If the thought of body parts among the herrings makes you shiver, wait until you read the bit where Dandy follows husband Hugh’s advice and visits a Gamrie curio museum. Naturally, the contents of that place would have been a source of wonder and pleasure for emotionally stunted Hugh Gilver!

Clupea_pallasiiFor everyone else, however, private museums devoted to the art of the taxidermist, are quite simply horrific. This reviewer once went to such a place in Arundel, Sussex, in the late 1970s and still has nightmares of squirrels posing in 18th century silk breeches several decades later.

Just as Agatha Christie often uses a cosy village location and manor house as background for her murder mysteries, McPherson introduces the “them and us” theme into her novel. Here a mansion-cum-museum at the edge of the village mirrors the closed village world of Gamrie.

Just like Gamrie, the museum is also a place where not everything is as it seems. The Searle brothers, who run the museum, are at first glance kind old gentlemen, but at second glance they are something else entirely. See how McPherson uses the different sections of the museum to build up her horror effect and how she changes the direction of her novel. It’s a fabulous use of location by a writer.

With each new room of horrible exhibits we are given insight into the Searle Brothers’ mindset and catch a glimpse of their ultimate goal. Leaving behind the genre of the cozy at the doorstep of the museum, McPherson takes the reader by their clammy hand and leads them ever so gently into a Gothic horror story!

It’s another example of using mirror images in a novel to drive home one’s overall theme, in this instance: living in a narrow and confined environment is apt to unhinge the mind.

Herring_catch-Sep200The museum visit introduces us to a new mystery serving as the sub-plot; here we have smelly dead things not contained by a barrel but presented in glass cases. Both mysteries have the foul stench of fishy business about them and before Dandy and Alec can say “kippers”, they are investigating the possibility of serial killings.

Salted Conundrum

The Reek of Red Herrings is McPherson’s most ambitious novel to-date, starring hordes of colourful characters and presenting the reader with two murder plots simultaneously; as the title says, it reeks of red herrings and there are several barrels of them standing by in Gamrie.

Infused with McPherson’s very own brand of black humour, the story plods along like a put-putting old trawler in heavy sea, hampered by rough weather and the two sleuths’ inability to understand ancient Doric lingo.

This reviewer often found herself laughing out loud at Dandy’s attempts to impress Alec with her “translations” into English, which then turn out to be totally wrong, to the great amusement of Gamrie’s fishermen and women.

The sleuths’ inability to understand Doric is yet another metaphor: Dandy’s and Alec’s modern minds also fail to understand what drives stuck-in-time local minds. This has serious consequences for their investigation.

Fishy Folklore

McPherson must have spent ages researching all the different customs, wedding lore and superstitions among early 20th century fishing communities, because she delights us with a veritable flood of them.

The abundance of same name individuals in the village, which are as bewildering to Dandy and Alec as they are to the reader, serves rather well to demonstrate how inbred the place really is and therefore, how unhinged Gamrie is as a community.

Gamrie’s tradition of “handfasting” young couples seems nothing more than a hypocritical excuse for these “pious” villagers to sleep around before settling on the financially most advantageous partner. Greed and material advantage are the basis for marriage in Gamrie, not love or companionship. Cloaked in a mantel of folklore and brandishing before them their god-fearing Doric expressions, which are nothing more than a barrel of lies, these villagers are unwilling, not unable, to rise over senseless superstitions.

Having recovered her ethical stance during a year’s absence, Dandy states quite clearly to one villager at the end of the novel: ” we won’t return”. Our sleuths wash their hands of this fishy community and walk away for good.

A Mystery as changeable as the Weather

Dandy Gilver's not a fair weather girl

Dandy Gilver’s not a fair weather girl

We are treated to the whole range of Scottish climate in this village, ranging from drizzle, fog and sheets of rain to raging blizzards, thunder and lightning and even mudslides and tsunami-like waves. Naturally, the weather serves to make the village location more atmospheric and “gothic” for us, but as with the streets and buildings of Gamrie, the weather serves as a triple-layered metaphor and is not just there for decoration.

Firstly, harsh climate demonstrates how precarious the existence of such a small community is and how dependent small communities like Gamrie are on each other.

Secondly, the weather undermines our sleuths’ efforts to discover the truth about the chopped-up man in the barrels at every turn. Repelled physically by the rain and snow, the cold and the wind, our sleuths are also prevented intellectually from finding out the truth, because the locals’ attitude towards them is as changeable as the weather. One minute Gamrie’s residents are talkative and co-operative, the next moment residents button their lips and allow gale force wind to slam doors shut in our sleuths’ faces.

Simply getting about from A to B to interview suspects is a struggle. And when our sleuths do manage to leave their hotel, a gale drives them like helpless autumn leaves to places they don’t necessarily want to investigate. Just when Dandy and Alec think they’re hot on the trail of unravelling the mystery of Mr. Pickle, they lose their footing on an icy patch or a cold breeze blows them off course and they drift off into a new direction on an icy float of more misconceptions and deceit.

Finally, Gamrie’s temperamental climate prompts readers to suspect malevolent undercurrents are driving the lives of these fishermen and women, but when one is tossed and turned about in heavy seas, where does one turn for dry land – and a stable theory of who committed a crime? Banffshire’s changeable weather mirrors the ever-changing theories our sleuths, and the reader, develop about the case.

Doggedly carrying on

heathersanimations.comUnusually for a McPherson novel, the last chapter sees us back in Gamrie, a year after the dramatic events. Bunty has died of old age and a new puppy is wrecking the car seats, as Alec brings the car to a screeching standstill in Gamrie harbour. There is no feeling of a job well done with the closure of this murder investigation and the nature of the crimes mean there cannot possibly be a happy ending for Gamrie either. However, the community carries on doggedly, using superstition and folklore to block out reality.

Dandy and Alec carry on doggedly with another case, blocking out how the stay in Gamrie has highlighted that their relationship is stuck in neutral after eight years as fellow sleuths. They may have gone to the village weddings as the mirror image of best man and maid of honour, but they are far, far from being the happy couple.

We are spared Dandy’s pain over losing her beloved dog Bunty, but are left to wonder if horrible Hugh shot her behind the woodshed, as he keeps threatening at the start of the novel. The arrival of a new (male) puppy on the scene suggests that Dandy is moving on with life, but her ambivalence about the puppy mirrors her ambivalence about her marriage to Hugh.

The reader suspects this puppy may be one of Hugh’s ill-conceived ideas, an animal foisted on Dandy against her will. The naughty behaviour in the car suggests this is a dog in no way adequate to follow in Bunty’s well-behaved paw prints.

Bunty was, as Dandy tells us towards the end of the book, “quite the most comforting creature ever born”. One feels therefore, Dandy will forever be deprived of Bunty’s spotted kind of emotional support. It’s a sad ending all round, and not just for dog-lovers.

A Whiff of new Horizons

The only true sliver of hope at the end of dark and macabre adventure is the fact that Alec and Dandy’s relationship is blossoming into something resembling romance. Maybe Bunty had to die to make way in Dandy’s heart for somebody else? Who knows, the next book may well see Hugh Gilver’s long overdue demise! Perhaps he’ll be washed away by Gilverton’s infamous drains, drowning in a pool of mud as dull as the life he’s led his wife.

This reviewer got a little carried away when she read about cosy get-togethers in Dandy’s hotel room at the dismal Three Kings…Alec and Dandy sitting next to one another on her bed, two pairs of naked feet frolicking in hot water buckets…

Hold on to your cloche hats, ladies, don’t get carried away, for this is as steamy as it gets. You won’t be seeing Dandy rolling round in 50 shades of Scottish heather with toy boy Alec here!

But this was a clever way of using the Gamrie hotel room location as a metaphor for the sleuths’ deepening relationship. In earlier books we saw Dandy and Alec standing about uncomfortably whenever Alec had to visit Dandy’s bedroom to discuss their current case in private. The vastness of Dandy’s Gamrie hotel room and the lack of furniture – there is not even a chair in her bedroom – mean that the two sleuths have to come closer physically (and therefore emotionally) and sit together on Dandy’s bed or they can’t have a private conversation. Brilliant stuff.

Fortunately, there are enthusiastic foxtrottings at Gamrie weddings that permit Alec to put his arms around Dandy in public. In his chaste capacity as her pretend brother. A boisterous dance through Gamrie’s icy streets leads our sleuths all the way to a snug wedding bed, complete with curtains, a bottle of whiskey and a lump of cheese on the pillows to sustain an energetic couple throughout the “doings”. Unfortunately, Dandy and Alec are in the company of the entire village population and not free to partake of such endearing village customs. Bother!

Still, this positive use of village infrastructure gives romantically inclined readers hope there will be 50 shades of “goings-on” in future McPherson novels.

Murder most foul

To sum up: in this novel the use of the village location is as multi-layered as a barrel full of herrings and as complex as North Sea marine life. It’s not a picturesque pastoral village setting à la Jane Austen, but a hostile environment where mankind thrives at its peril. Narrow streets harbour narrow minds in Gamrie; this cut-off seaside community is awash with mental disorders, family feuds, greed and envy.

And if, like this reviewer, you disliked salted herrings before you read this book, you’ll detest the things even more, when you’re done with the novel. It’s not so much a question of The Reek of (Red) Herrings that made this reader feel queasy reading Catriona McPherson’s book, it’s the foul stench of human behaviour. The novel deserves more than five stars if Goodreads’ rating system would only allow it. It certainly merits one star for each herring barrel containing parts of Mr Pickle.