Monday, July 29, 2013

B. G. Wilson. Passenger Trains of the World ( before 1966) & Edmund Hamilton. What’s it Like out there? (1974)

     B. G. Wilson. Passenger Trains of the World ( before 1966) The UK is over represented, taking up about 1/3rd of the total, but otherwise a nice little survey of passenger trains in the late 1950s and early 1960s. No date, as was the British habit back then, and annoying one it was too. Printing is average for the period. The book was aimed at youngsters, so production values had to be kept cheap. ** (2006)

     Edmund Hamilton. What’s it Like out there? (1974) Anthology of Hamilton’s early stories. His early style wasn’t one: wooden, flat, cliched, and overuse of one-sentence paragraphs. With exclamation marks, yet! But he had a powerful imagination, and as his style improved (or wasn’t edited down to the common pulp denominator), his uncomfortable explorations of identity become impressive. His later novels are worth reading by any fan of SF; this collection is of historical interest only, as a precursor of his better work. *½ (2006)

H. C. Casserley. The Historic Locomotive Pocketbook (1960) & Mike Laws, ed The Times Crossword Book 2 (2001)

     H. C. Casserley. The Historic Locomotive Pocketbook (1960) A survey of about 200 loco types that Casserley thinks have historical significance. While his write-ups are interesting, few of them persuade that their subjects are indeed as significant as Casserley believes. That is, most neither epitomised contemporary locomotive practice nor greatly influenced future development. Still, a nice little book, with lots of info of the kind that’s crucial when you need it. ** (2006)

     Mike Laws, ed The Times Crossword Book 2 (2001) Same successes and issues as with Book 1. The clues that rely on British usages and customs I can tolerate. Those that misunderstand N. American usage annoy me. Rebuses whose parts bear no relation to each whatever annoy me greatly. Those that use metaphoric definitions are simply unacceptable - metaphors cannot be reverse engineered. But I spent many happy hours doing these crosswords. ** (2006)

L. Gough. Accidental Deaths (1991) & Anon. The Yellow Book of Locker-Room Humour (1980)

     L. Gough. Accidental Deaths (1991) I read this on the way to England, and have forgotten almost all of it. It’s a hard-boiled ‘tec story, in which a number of deaths appear accidental, but aren’t. The style was overwrought, and the characters and plot obviously forgettable. Still, in my notebook I rated it ** (2006)

     Anon. The Yellow Book of Locker-Room Humour (1980) A collection of mildly risque stories, the kind that rely on innuendo and puns, etc, for their effect. This makes some of the stories quite witty. **  (2006)

Henry Sampson, ed. The Dumpy Book of Veterans of Road, Rail, Sea and Air (1960)

     Henry Sampson, ed. The Dumpy Book of Veterans of Road, Rail, Sea and Air (1960) Sampson may be a partner in the publishers of this little book, which represents state of the art printing for 1960. It looks like offset printing was used; there is almost no visible screen on the pictures, and the blacks tend block out detail. Anyhow, the content is exactly what the title says, except of course that the sample is heavily weighted towards English subjects. Road and rail are done in many small pictures, with short captions. The ships and planes are given extended captions with more or less complete histories. Still of interest today. But I have no way of gauging the accuracy of the information. **½ (2006)

Hilda Lawrence. Death of a Doll (1947)

     Hilda Lawrence. Death of a Doll (1947) A reprint from 1982, and you may wonder why. It’s a book that draws you in if you give it time; it took me a while to get through the first third of the tale, but then I wanted to read on. The plot circles around the suspicious death of a shopgirl, who has just moved into Hope House, a kind of YWCA. But one of her regular customers does not believe it was suicide. She engages a family friend who happens to be a ‘tec, and he, along with two elderly ladies, gather enough facts to first show that it was murder, and then unmask the culprit. That person is a classic psychopath. The atmosphere, the descriptions of New York in wintertime, the characterisation are all first rate. Only the pacing of the story falters, especially in the beginning. But a satisfying read all the same. *** (2006)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Amanda Cross. Death in a Tenured Position (1981)

     Amanda Cross Death in a Tenured Position (1981) The victim, Janet Mandelbaum, called to a newly endowed chair in Harvard’s English Department, dies because of her opposition to feminism. This should make her the darling of the Eng. Dept. Professors, who are almost all opposed to the monstrous regiment of women, but bend, reluctantly, to the demands of the times. For this is a novel about the lethal effects of the feminist wars. Kate Fansler, professor English at a New York University (carefully disguised, but modelled on Columbia), is asked to help Janet acclimatise, and fails. This failure is one of the causes of Janet’s death. Kate realises this too late, just as she unravels the knotty mystery.
     Along the way, Cross provides her usual mix of fond and satirical takes on academia. That’s one of her book’s chief delights, at least for anyone with a nostalgia for that supremely irresponsible and therefore supremely useful life. For if humans did not value learning and art, they would have no reason to moil for pelf. I enjoyed the book, but it’s not a top-notch mystery, just a very good one. ***

Spiderman 2 (2004)

     Spiderman 2 (2004) [D: Sam Raimi. Toby McGuire, Kirsten Dunst] Peter Parker disappoints his boss (pizza baker), his friend (Mary Jane), his other boss (editor), his aunt, and his prof. Why? Because his deadlines and appointments are messed up when he answers a call for Spiderman. So he decides to give up being Spiderman, which seems to work out OK, except that his conscience, in the form of his dead uncle’s ghost, urges him to do what he has to do. Oh, yeah, Dr Octopus, a physicist who’s invented controlled fusion, has been hi-jacked by his A.I. harness, which proceeds to feed off his darker impulses and wreaks major havoc. Of course it all works out just fine in the end, after a few major CGI effects, including one in which he stops a speeding elevated train using only his spidey webs and his muscles. Cool!
     Maltin rates this as “the best comic book movie ever made”, which is hyping it a tad too much. For one thing, Dick Tracy (1990) I think is better, and for another, the attempt to make Parker into a more or less normal nerd doesn’t quite succeed. The reason is Toby McGuire, who either can’t act or is poorly directed. I can’t decide, but I suspect it’s the director’s limited vision of nerdiness. Apart from that, it’s a pretty good movie, and would probably be even more effective on a theatre screen. Spidey’s travels along the deep canyons of the City need a really, really big screen for maximum effect. ***

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

P. D. James. Talking About Detective Fiction (2009)

     P. D. James. Talking About Detective Fiction (2009) The blurb refers to a :perfect marriage of author and subject”, which is hyping this nicely produced book a bit too much. But it was a pleasant read nevertheless. P. D. James breaks no new ground, I’d be surprised if she did. She clearly loves detective fiction more than other crime fiction, and she drops a few useful hints about how she does her own work. It begins with a setting, progresses to the characters, and (we infer) only then do the victim, the perpetrator, and the method emerge from her imaginings.
    James writes a clear and elegant style. What we may have suspected from her fiction, that she’s a cool and sometimes ruthless observer human evil, is here confirmed. Like Poirot, she has a bourgeois attitude to murder: she disapproves of it. She admires Christie’s puzzle-setting plots, but like most readers notes that Christie is weak on psychology and character. I first realised this when I noticed that Christie’s  characters all talk the same bland upper middle class English. James prefers Sayers, Allingham, and Marsh, in that order. I’d put Allingham last, but James’s comments have persuaded me to read more of her work.
All in all, a very pleasant read. ***

Love Finds A Home (2009)

     Love Finds A Home (2009) (D: Dane Peterson. Sarah Jones, Haylie Duff, Jordan Bridges, Patty Duke] This movie is irritating, and that’s an understatement. The story is quite good, involving family conflict, generational conflict, medical emergency, personal griefs, etc. The setting is a Missouri town sometime in the late 19th century. The main characters are a Belinda, a doctor and Lee her blacksmith husband, plus Lillian their adopted daughter; the doctor’s pregnant friend Annie (also a doctor), the latter’s mother-in-law Mary, an opinionated mid-wife; Josh, the new apprentice to the blacksmith; and assorted secondary characters. So what’s wrong with this movie?
     Plenty. For one thing, the appalling anachronisms, starting with the two women doctors. Women doctors were extremely rare in the late 1800s. The characters generally are imaginary 20th century Americans of a certain type dressed up in 19th century costumes. There’s a scene where the pregnant friend sits in the living room in deshabille while men are present, which violates so many social norms of the time that it’s ludicrous.
     The sets are off kilter in so many ways it’s painful. The doctor’s house is a nice 20th century two-story with a porch and hanging baskets, painted white, in a yard with no visible outbuildings for the horses, or even a chicken coop to house the birds whose clucking signals morning, every morning. The kitchen is, well it ain’t a late 19th century kitchen. The blacksmith and his apprentice are shown “working”, banging on unidentifiable objects made of some metal or other. The town lacks paint, and its dusty ambience indicates the Southwest, not Missouri. Merchants around 1890 would have made a point of painting their false fronted stores in order to impress the customers.
     Then there’s the acting, which is at best intermittently competent. Not that the writing gives the actors much to work with. How many times can a doctor say “I’m a doctor, I know...”? The only one who actually understands her stereotype of a character, and plays it well, is Patty Duke.
     And the music. Intrusive is an understatement. Maybe the producers realised how awful the script was and thought that folksy sentimental tunes would carry the movie where the writing failed.
     The underlying problem is that the producers wanted to make a wholesome “family movie”. They seem to understand that as a movie that leaves out all the bad stuff that mainstream movies include. They don’t include what would have made this an interesting movie, and possibly a good one: the doubts that believers face when they don’t get what they want, when faith seems at best a mild anodyne. There’s a very brief reference to the pains of childbirth as the punishment for Eve’s role in the Fall, with a hint of disagreement with that reading of Genesis. It’s not followed up. The blurb says “...Belinda [the doctor] looks to a higher power...”, which indicates the producers’ aims. That higher power shows up in a pastor who appears at odd intervals to dispense bromides, three prayers, and four or five references to God. Religion and faith, and the doubts and conflicts that mark a life of faith, are simply not present in the story, let alone integrated into it. Yet the few hints show that faith is supposed to be essential to the characters. Why the almost total absence of a defining trait of the characters, of the essence of the story? Was it because a “family movie” mustn’t trigger questions of the kind that adults don’t want their children to ask? That’s my suspicion.
     You can’t make even mediocre art if your focus is on “values” rather than story and character. ½

Monday, July 22, 2013

Bread (Comment)

     Bread is called the staff of life. When I was a kid, I thought of a staff as made of wood. A staff made of bread made no sense. That was before I understood metaphors of function: just as a staff supports a man, so bread supports life.
But in fact through most of human existence, there was no bread. The earliest archeological evidence for bread of a sort is about 30,000 years old. By that time homo sapiens had existed for at least 200,000 years. That bread was a cooked or semi-roasted porridge made of grains; I don’t think anyone nowadays would recognise it as bread. Flatbread baked on hot stones or a griddle are the modern equivalent. The archeology shows that these first bread makers relied on hunting and gathering for most of their food. Cereal grains were one among several types of seeds gathered for food. It took several thousand years to develop cultivation of grains; perhaps someone noticed that spilled grain would provide a crop the following year, and decided to experiment. However it began, that invention or discovery began the constantly accelerating development of technology that has made our species the dominant life form on this planet.
     Bread as staple food and agriculture go together, in fact agriculture makes no sense without bread. The earliest agricultural settlements were villages, some fortified, some not, surrounded by fields and pastures. The last users of stone tools built them about 10,000 years ago. When metallurgy was invented around 3500BCE, that technology developed swiftly, and within a few hundred years we find cities dominating the farming villages in their vicinity. These complex polities require writing, an armed force, and centrally administered law to survive.
     I think it’s no accident that the invention of bread and the earliest forms of writing, mnemonic symbols, are nearly contemporary. These symbols were used to help the reader recall everything from lists of trade goods to signs of future events to myths, those stories in which the sacred and secular histories of the tribe were mingled. Surprisingly quickly, these early mnemonic systems developed into scripts.
     Bread as staple requires agriculture, which requires a hierarchical social structure to ensure that the backbreaking (and boring) work of plowing, seeding, and harvest was done. A hierarchical society needs an agreed body of rules and customs. Law, in other words, enforced as much by common beliefs as by physical force. Customs, religious and otherwise, express the common understanding of how the world does and should work. Written law codifies those beliefs; the law describes what is to be done and what is not to be done. Writing is also handy for keeping accounts, so much so that writing numbers may have predated writing words.
     Bread is not only the staff of life, it’s the driver of those changes in human society that we are pleased to label progress.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Spike Milligan. Rommel? Gunner Who? (1974)

     Spike Milligan. Rommel? Gunner Who? (1974) Part two of Milligan’s memoir of his service in the Royal Artillery, covers the campaign that ended in the taking of Tunis. I haven’t found the other parts of what eventually became a seven part “trilogy”. He passes briefly over the horrors, quotes a good deal of banter, much of which was in the style made famous by The Goon Show. I doubt the quotations are verbatim, but am pretty sure their represent the style. Milligan punctuates his narrative with pictures (almost all of them of colonial armies), and “telegrams” from Hitler, etc.
     I get the impression that Milligan wrote the memoirs for his comrades. War marked him forever, as it did all those of his generation. Maintaining contact with comrades was for many of them the only anchor in a world made surreal in contrast to what they endured. Kurt Vonnegut’s books have the same kind of surreality as this and other  Milligan writing. All in all, a book worth reading, both by Milligan fans and by students of military history. ***

Margaret Atwood. Good Bones and Simple Murders (1994)

     Margaret Atwood. Good Bones and Simple Murders (1994) A nicely made little book of some of Atwood’s shards and fragments: variations on fairy tales, meditations, dialogues between unnamed characters, micro-tales, and so on. Atwood is very clever, every one of these bits succeeds. A pleasure to read. I liked The Little Red Hen Tells All, for example, which gives us a reversal of the usual plot. These items are clearly experiments of one kind or another, playful rewritings, games played with current themes and topics, but each shows us a powerful imagination, a clear-eyed wit, and, despite what that wit observes, a merry heart. ***

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Hans Windisch. Die Neue Foto-Schule (1940)

     Hans Windisch. Die Neue Foto-Schule (1940) Windisch pronounces on the right way to take photographs, develop film, and print enlargements. There is an immense amount of technical data here. Windisch suffers from the German awe of the “Fachmann”, the person with special, expert knowledge, and exhibits a corresponding disdain for the layman, who, he says, is merely a “Roboter” when he follows rules and guidelines without knowing the technical basis for them. In other words, the tone of this book is offensive, however much useful data it contains. And much of the data was even more useful back then, when a good deal of the chemistry of film photography was still being explored, and manufacturing techniques weren’t capable of the consistent high quality that became available after the war.
     Windisch is a born teacher; his explications of the theory underlying the technology are models of clarity. It’s a pity his tone is that of the superior expert deigning to share his knowledge with the humble bumbling amateur. He is also quite vain. Over half of the photos he offers as examples are his, and he is, at best, merely capable. He has good technique but no art. This may be related to his belief that the art of photography were merely a matter of sound understanding of some underlying science.
     A series of pictures with text is offered as an example of how to tell a story through pictures. It’s quite good, except for its subject and tone. It consists of a number of head shots taken of the man who is rowing the photographer and his wife across Lake Chiem to an island. The man is talking about his former girlfriend, who gave him some troubles. “But not to worry – there are plenty of others where she came from”. This is told in Windisch’s version of the Bavarian dialect. I suppose he thought it was humorous, and such, but it comes across as condescending to the man and nastily indifferent to his wife, who is listening to the story, too.
     An interesting and curious book, not least because of the high quality of printing and paper. The war-induced shortages had not yet hit German life in 1940. *** for the technical content, 0 for everything else. (2006)

E. W. Buxton, ed. Points of View (1967)

     E. W. Buxton, ed. Points of View (1967) A collection of essays intended for senior high school. It’s clear that 40 years ago senior high school was still seen as serious education, and not merely the accumulation of credits for admission to the post-secondary training grounds. Buxton and his collaborator start with Montaigne and Bacon, and continue with a well done survey of the essay in English from the 1700s to the 1960s. Almost all the selections are worth reading still; only the most recent ones, from the mid-20th century, show that when it comes to recognising classics, it’s not an advantage to be a contemporary of the writer. I read almost all the essays, though, and enjoyed them. ** to *** (2006)

Hergé: Tintin: The 7 Crystal Balls; Prisoners of the Sun

     Hergé: Tintin: The 7 Crystal Balls; Prisoners of the Sun. Seven crystal balls explode and put seven explorers into deep comas. Tintin and Capt. Haddock set out to solve the mystery, and find it in a remnant group of ancient Incas in Peru, who jealously guard the ancient religion and customs. The explorers had desecrated holy sites in the pursuit of archeological knowledge.
     Well, I didn’t like Tintin much when I was a kid, and I don’t like him much better now. Hergé allows himself the most awful errors, such as a brown bear in the middle of a Peruvian jungle. The errors show the more because Hergé otherwise includes accurate depictions of local artefacts and clothing, and flora and fauna. His characterisation is of the most primitive kind, consisting mostly of caricaturing draughtsmanship and tics of speech whose first mild charm soon begins to grate. His crude humour contrasts with his subtle wit, to the credit of neither. I think he hasn’t made up his mind whether he’s writing fantasy or adventure stories, nor is he clear about his intended audience: children (mostly boys), or adults?. He does move the story right along, so that one keeps reading just to find out what will happen next; but that sense of narrative is his only virtue. A collaborator might have helped him develop his ideas into well structured and characterised tales. But when he was writing, the graphic novel was still seen as a merely a longer comic strip. Very few people took it seriously, perhaps not even Hergé himself. *½ (2006)

Fay Weldon. Polaris and Other Stories (1985)

     Fay Weldon. Polaris and Other Stories (1985) Weldon’s stories are generally depressing slices of suburban women’s lives. Chick lit in the 70s and 80s focussed on how men messed up marriage and in general done women wrong. Weldon’s observation of human weaknesses, those so-called minor vices that too often cause major damage, is sharp and accurate. But the gloomy tone wears after a while, and counters the pleasures of reading a skilful writer. ** (2006)

Alison Baird. The Dragon’s Egg (1994)

     Alison Baird. The Dragon’s Egg (1994) Baird has a nice idea, but her sense of narrative is weak. Mr Lien returns from China with a present for his daughter Ai: a rock he picked up on the shore of the Yangtze River. It is in fact a dragon’s egg, and when it hatches, Ai has a friend to help her overcome the sad feelings caused by a bully at school. The dragon, Ling Tau, is the eldest son of the King of Dragons. When he reaches maturity, he takes her to his palace under the waters of the Yangtze, where she is suitably rewarded; and the dragons will be her friends for the rest of her life. Dragons can shape-change, as well as command the weather, etc, so there is opportunity for a good deal of poetic justice. The grownups of course refuse to believe that Ai’s friend is real, but that just helps him hide his true nature. Baird’s dialogue is good, but she doesn’t use it often; she tells too much, and doesn’t show enough. Still, a nice story for the tweenagers. Bria (11) liked it. ** (2006)

John Greenwood. Murder, Mr. Mosley (1983)

     John Greenwood. Murder, Mr. Mosley (1983) Mosley is one of those seemingly bumbling ‘tecs who manage to accomplish a good deal more than their more up-to-date, always-active, and ambitious colleagues. He not only solves the murder of the Brenda Thwaites, village hoyden returned to her home after many years absence; he also gives his colleague the evidence and pointers needed to bring another villain to justice. The murder itself was motivated by that most pathetic of motives, the desire for respectability. But Brenda was mixed up with a bent lawyer, so Mosley gets the goods in him too. Sergeant Beamish, one of those young fellas who knows better than his elders, becomes a loyal disciple of Mosley’s roundabout methods. This looks like the beginning of a promising series, but I haven’t found anything else about Mosley or Greenwood. **½ (2006)

Friday, July 19, 2013

Gary Larson. The Pre-History of The Far Side (1989)

     Gary Larson. The Pre-History of The Far Side (1989) Larson tells and explains the development of his cartoons. He’s not quite as weird as his drawings and their subject matter suggest, but he comes close. Like all true artists, technique and style matter to him as much as content. I doubt that this book will interest others than Far Side aficionados and graduate students, but for them this will be a treasure and a pleasure. *** (2006)

Colin Watson. Bump in the Night (1960)

     Colin Watson. Bump in the Night (1960) A number of explosions eventually result in a death. Insp. Purbright is dispatched to sort out the clues, which he does with the reluctant help of the local man, Insp. Larch, whose marriage to a Councillor’s daughter has placed him a little too close to the action. Well plotted, nicely characterised, but uncertain about its focus: detective story or social comedy? This was Watson’s second book; I don’t know whether the series developed any further, but it would work well on TV. ** (2006)

Bharati Mukherjee. Darkness (1985)

     Bharati Mukherjee. Darkness (1985) Mukherjee has developed into a moderately successful and undervalued writer. This collection shows her early work, before she achieved renown and success. The stories are uniformly depressing and sad, occasionally brutal in their depiction of the difficulties of immigrants attempting to adapt and assimilate into their new culture, and their inevitable failures. These are bad enough for European immigrants, much worse for Indians, especially the upper caste Indians that make up the bulk of the Indian immigrants to America. The burden of class consciousness merely exacerbates the problem of becoming an ordinary American or Canadian. A couple of the stories deal with an Indian woman married to a white man; one wonders whether these reflect or refract Mukherjee’s experience as the wife of Clarke Blaise, a writer much overrated by himself.
     A good book, but a depressing one. **½ (2006)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Moshe Flato. The Power of Mathematics (1990)

     Moshe Flato. The Power of Mathematics (1990) This could be read as an extended gloss on Wigner’s well-known paper on the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics as a model of the physical universe. How can such an abstract, human-invented system of symbolisms become such an accurate and powerful tool for explaining and predicting the behaviour of the material world?
     Flato limits himself to a few themes, especially misunderstandings of what mathematics is and what it can do. Like many mathematicians, he stresses that mere calculation is not a mathematician’s work. Unlike many earlier pure mathematicians (eg, Hardy), he finds the interplay of physics and other sciences with mathematics to be essential to both.
     The translation limps. One can tell that Flato’s original French was idiomatic and plain, but the translator was unfamiliar with English idioms. He’s also unfamiliar with mathematics, so that too often he translates the French terms literally, not into the corresponding English mathematical terminology. These faults make the book difficult to read, which may explain the fact that I found it on a remainder table a few years ago. I shall not keep it. ** (2006)

Ruth Rendell. Means of Evil and Other Stories (1979)

     Ruth Rendell. Means of Evil and Other Stories (1979) All of these have been made into episodes in the Wexford TV series. Rendell says they should be read “as if each was a little novel in the series”, i.e., the reader should flesh out the tales with his or her knowledge of the characters. This, the TV series did very well, so I read with the video images in mind. This helped, for the stories are sparse in character and detail, and heavy on exposition. All the same, they are good entertainment on a summer afternoon. *** (2006)

Bill Watterson. Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons (1992)

      Bill Watterson. Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons (1992) Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes strips catch the essence of childhood, but their strength is touching on the questions that we start asking as children and still can’t answer as adults. Or don’t want to answer, since we like to keep our amour propre intact.
     Calvin just wants to do what he wants to do. He has glimpses of his own evil, but his morality is simple: Don’t get caught. Hobbes is both his alter ego, providing sage advice, and moral insight and guidance; and his id, ever ready to pounce, trounce, and not quite devour Calvin. Calvin imagines himself as a tyrannosaurus rex, or as Spaceman Spiff, to escape the realities of his existence, but reality always intrudes. We may make ourselves out to be heroes in our fantasies, but we know they’re only fantasies after all. I like Calvin and Hobbes. It’s a strip with a huge range, from straightforward comedy and farce to subtle plays on words and ideas. It’s a pity but not surprising that Watterson ended the strip. It’s impossible to keep such high standards for very long. **** (2006)

Lynne Truss. Eats, Shoots and Leaves (2003)

     Lynne Truss. Eats, Shoots and Leaves (2003) Great book; well written, witty disquisition on punctuation, and I agree with 98% of what Truss says about the rules. Should be on every teacher’s desk, and should be reread frequently while reviving oneself with a cup a coffee. I do wish she'd make a distinction between the hyphen, which is a spelling mark, and the dash, which is a punctuation mark. **** (2006)

Ron Brown. The Last Stop (2002)

     Ron Brown. The Last Stop (2002) Brown specialises in Ontario historical nostalgia, which makes his books valuable (though often incomplete) resources for information not otherwise easily available. This book lists and comments only on those stations designated “heritage buildings” under Jesse Flis’s 1984 private member’s bill, which mandated the Environment Minister to review any building under federal jurisdiction for possible designation before demolition was permitted. From that point of view, the book is a success, but a list of all stations extant in 2002 would have been a useful supplement. A few more, and better reproduced, photos would also help, but would probably have raised the price beyond that which rail fans (a notoriously cheap bunch) would be willing to pay. As it is, I found the book on Coles’ remainder table, at $3.99, and a bargain at twice or three times the price. **½ (2006)

Technology, customs, ethics, morality, and economics (Comment)

Technology, customs, ethics, morality, and economics

     Technologies change our values. Every new technology changes the range, and some the type, of choices we can make. New choices raise new ethical and moral questions. |Customs yield and bend to new technologies.
     The printing press cheapened books. The industrial revolution needed and expanded literacy. That created a market for fiction, which in turn prompted the adaptation of the romance to the more literal tastes of the new reading classes. Hence the novel, which presents the old tropes as imitations of real life. As more and more people took up reading, they began to translate the ideals of the romantic novel (derived from courtly love) into actual behaviour. Jane Austen’s books crystallised the new genre. They adumbrated the tension between the practicalities of money and social status on the one hand, and the desires of the heart and mind on the other. She showed that while money and status could provide creature comforts, they could destroy the soul.
     In the new marriage ethic, it wasn’t enough for people to enjoy the same social status and similar wealth; they should also be compatible in intellect, interests, and above all in passion. Every one of her books contrasts the ideal marriages of people whose primary bond is mutual attraction and common interests, and those whose primary bond is money and respectability. Her imitators simplified and spread the message. Their sentimentality made their books more popular, and the concept of marriage began to change.  It  was always primarily a commercial and social transaction, but now people began to talk as if it were a personal contract. Once people begin to talk about a social convention of polite pretense as if it referred to reality, the convention sooner or later becomes a social fact.
     The bicycle accelerated the changes. Middle class courtship customs became more personal when couples could escape the oversight of a chaperone just by cycling away. Where family approval had been imposed (and often desired), now young people began to choose their own partners. The shift from marriage as a social obligation to marriage as a personal choice accelerated even more when the car became cheap enough for most families to own one. The car prompted the invention of the motel, which could make could make a profit for the owner even when it was small. Motels provided cheap temporary accommodation for families touring the country, and for couples wanting affordable privacy for sex. What later was noticed as the sexual revolution was well under way, in fact nearly complete, by the time Reader’s Digest reprinted hand-wringing discussions of the End of Civilisation As We Know It.
     Examine any technology, and you’ll find social and economic change that raises ethical quandaries. Most of these changes aren’t recognised until long after they’ve taken hold. People resist the necessary shifts in values. The young, who’ve grown up with the new techno-economic landscape, often find themselves at odds with their parents and grandparents, which causes a good deal of pain on both sides. This is especially true when values are confused with their expression, as in courtesies and fashions. We need to be polite to each other, for politeness is the casual daily acknowledgement of each person’s dignity and value as a fellow human. But any particular form of politeness, any particular etiquette, is more a matter of fashion than of deep conviction, or even superficial necessity.
     But some values are deeply ingrained. Technology may make revaluations necessary, but that doesn’t mean they’ll happen. Mechanised production has made workers into tools, mere flesh-and-blood extensions of the machines they operate. As machines become more complex and subtle, workers lose economic value. They become more valuable as consumers than as producers. But our economic values are still attached to notions developed in the several thousand years of scarcity that marked civilisation. Our economic choices haven’t caught up with that new reality. Worse, sacred texts enshrine the old economy; that makes people reluctant to even think about what an economy of abundance implies, let alone economic judgments masquerading as moral ones. In our economy, the truly lazy man is rare, and precious. The mere producer is a dime a dozen. 2013-07-18

A Fish Called Wanda (1988) (Movie Review)

     A Fish Called Wanda (1988) [D: Charles Crichton. John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin] Third or fourth time |I’ve seen this film, and it wears extremely well. The multiple multi-crosses keep us focussed, but that’s not enough to make a good movie. It’s the acting and editing that raise this movie up a notch or two.
      Every character acts several parts, mostly to deceive others, so when we see his or her true thoughts and feelings, it not only makes a plot point, it encourages us to root for the good guys. They are Archie Leach (Cleese, a lawyer, a stuffed shirt imprisoned by his respectable profession, respectable wife, respectable life style; Wanda Gershwitz (Curtis), con-woman, who falls in love with the lawyer despite herself; Otto (Kline), con-man, who is deathly afraid of being thought stupid, which he is, but not in the way he fears; and Ken Pile (Palin), animal-loving small-time crook and hit-man assisting Kline and Curtis in their scam. The mcguffin is a pile of diamonds, proceeds from a robbery, stashed in  locked storage area, and the key to gain access to it.
     All’s well that ends well. Archie and Wanda fly off to S. America for a life of blissful hedonism, which with careful management of the money may well last for several decades.
     The editing has to be just fast enough to prevent us from thinking about the wobbly plot, and slow enough to let us relish the jokes, the deceptions, the relationships (past, present, and developing), the satire, the references to other movies, and so. Editing starts with the director’s vision, but it’s the editor that must cut the movie to realise that vision. Well done here.
     Ken Pile has a crush on Wanda, and has named a fish for her. It lives in Palin’s aquarium. Otto swallows it. I told you he was stupid. ****

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Terry Mosher (Aislin). Oh, Oh! (2004)

     Terry Mosher (Aislin). Oh, Oh! (2004) When you can’t imagine how to satirise the excesses of our pols and business elites, Aislin does it. Wonderful collection; makes me think I should subscribe to the Montreal Gazette just to get Aislin’s commentary.
     Some of my faves: the panel shows a newspaper clipping against a black background (Aislin’s use of black in inspired). The cutline is “Hey! Here’s a headline we never see...” The headline on the clipping reads: “Agnostics slaughter Atheists!!!” – A duck with one leg and Chretien’s face (which doesn’t need much distortion to resemble Disney’s famous quacker): “Lame duck.” – A voter depositing his vote; the poll clerk says, “Good.. Now wash your hands.” – The Canadian flag flies from a hockey stick, published as comment on the women’s and men’s hockey wins at the ‘02 Olympics. (Aislin’s sports cartoons are as affectionate as they are sharp. He clearly loves the Habs). **** (2006)

Steve Lee. Sloane (1974)

     Steve Lee. Sloane (1974) Sloane barely survives a vicious attack on his family, learns martial arts from a Chinese immigrant, and sets out to avenge his parents’ deaths. He succeeds of course, but not before Lee has indulged a taste for violence and gore in his readers. The plotting is OK, the characterisation uneven. The book focuses on brutality and killing. It’s a type of pornography, one that the guardians of public and private morality don’t ever seem to get too het up about. Since its publication some 30 years ago, movies have upped the graphic gore quotient. This book was a distant early warning signal, but I doubt it was seen as such at the time. The irony is that books (and movies) with far less graphic description often convey a much greater sense of evil. (2006)

Brian Greer, ed. The Times Crossword, Book 1 (2000)

     Brian Greer, ed. The Times Crossword, Book 1 (2000) Doreen Fowlston gave me this, as well as Book 2, as a birthday gift. I must say that I find the Times crosswords a pain. I don’t mind obscure words, or thoroughly English (and dated) slang, for after all the puzzle is set for English solvers, not North American ones. But I do mind clues that depend on indirect and metaphorical links that aren’t clear until after you have the answer, and sometimes not even then. A fair percentage of the clues are apposite and witty, as well as difficult; but too many are merely mechanically generated rebuses, with far too much use of initials. IMO, a rebus on single letters in the answer must use proper, that is widely accepted, abbreviations. It’s a bit much when figuring out how the clue fits the answer is more of a puzzle than finding the answer. In almost every puzzle, there were clues that made no sense to me at all. All the same, I kept at it. In most cases, I found half or more of the answers on my own, including some whose cryptic clues made no sense, but which crossed enough letters that the definition was obvious. And that it was possible to solve a clue this way indicates how far-fetched and pointless some of the clues are. It didn't help that when the puzzle setter(s) alluded to American slang or catch phrases, they usually got them wrong.** (2006)

M. Greenberg et al, eds. Murder, My Dear Watson (2002)

     M. Greenberg et al, eds. Murder, My Dear Watson (2002) A nice collection of nicely done pastiches. As always, the trick is not so much to imitate the plots and stay within the canon as to capture the tone and above all the language of Doyle. Apart from a few glaring anachronisms, the writers have done an admirable job on all four counts. Good entertainment, and no doubt an Essential Work for all serious fans of Holmes and Watson. ** to *** (2006)

Ngaio Marsh. Grave Mistake (1978)

     Ngaio Marsh. Grave Mistake (1978) A gardener appears in a small village, and seems to be a paragon. A rich widow dies, apparently a suicide, and her unpleasant stepson sidles about snooping and prying. A very valuable stamp has been missing since the war, when its owner died when his train was bombed. Alleyn decides the lady’s death is murder. And the paragon turns out to be a psychopath. But all ends happily, with the lady’s daughter on her way to a happy marriage with a father-in-law who approves not only of her but also the lovely house in which he will be a frequent guest and no doubt a doting and conscientious grandfather. Marsh provides a nice helping of plot and character, and plays fair with the clues. What more could one ask? **½ (2006)

The Notebook (2004) (Movie Review)

     The Notebook (2004) [D: Nick Cassavetes. Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, James Garner, Gena Rowlands] Garner reads to his wife Rowlands from a notebook recounting the story of an unsuitable love match that ends happily. Sort of. Rowlands is suffering from dementia, and Garner hopes that reading the notebook will “bring her back.” It does, of course, for a few minutes, but the revelation that they are the couple in the notebook doesn’t surprise the audience, who has twigged to this when the first flashback appears on the screen.
     So we know how the story will turn out long before it reaches its first crisis. Why keep watching, then?  To find out how Nicholas Sparks, who wrote the source-novel, embellishes the tale, and how well the movie team does its job. The acting is very good throughout. The handful of awards won by this movie were all for the acting. The photography is always good and sometimes so good it distracts you from the story. Which may be a good thing, since the narrative rhythm is lackadaisical and slow.
      A shorter movie would have been better, I think. At any rate, there were a few places where I yielded to the temptation to yawn. Perhaps Cassavetes wanted to linger over the romantic moments to nudge our nostalgia into high gear. It’s a movie aimed at both the very young and the elderly, both of whom like to indulge in nostalgia, the young for what they haven’t experienced yet, and the old for what they wish they had experienced. Faux nostalgia, in other words.
     Like the curate’s egg, this movie is excellent in parts. The parts add up to less than a satisfying whole, however. I suspect the book reads better. *½

R. D. Wingfield Night Frost (1992)

     R. D. Wingfield Night Frost (1992) A serial killer, a suspicious suicide, a missing girl who turns up dead, and Division Commander Mullet, a self-important prat who straightens his tie when he phones the Chief Constable to take credit for the work other people have done. Frost has a lot on his plate, but of course muddles through and comes up trumps. I recall this story from the video series. Complications include some nasty porn videos, a Det. Sergeant who yearns for promotion and despises Frost, assorted  suspects who divert attention, and the usual assemblage of damaged, hurt, vicious, pathetic, and merely decent and respectable people.
     The book is a workmanlike job. Wingfield’s bio says he preferred to work on radio and TV drama scripts, and it shows. Still, I kept turning the pages. I’ve read a couple other Frost novels, all of them only because I saw the TV series. A good entertainment. **

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Blade Runner (1999) (Movie Review)

     Blade Runner (1999) [D: Ridley Scott. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young. Based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?] This is the third or fourth time I’ve seen this movie. The first one was the original release, and I remember very little of it. Even this time I was surprised by a few details, and was once again impressed by the thorough design of the movie. Lighting, settings, artefacts, pacing of the scenes, repeated motifs, soundscape, characterisation: this is one of the best movies I’ve seen. Just whose is the single vision that informs and guides every aspect of this movie, I don’t know, It’s customary to credit the director, but this movies feels like an ensemble production. Everyone, from the actors to the most humble technician, subscribed to the same dystopic vision and elegiac ironies of the story.
     That story is well known. Deckard (Ford) must track down and kill four replicants that have illegally come to Earth in order to find some way to extend their built in self-destruct date. That’s enough to guarantee action, and the trick is to make this more than an action movie. Scott and his script writers managed that trick. The story raises serious questions about human rights. The replicants may be manufactured to specifications that natural humans can’t meet, but they are human in every other way.  Even Leon, a labourer type with limited insight, shows a completely human grief for his dead comrade, a grief that drives him to attack Deckard.
     Deckard does what he’s ordered to do, but he doesn’t like it. Maybe he suspects he’s a replicant himself (I think he is). Certainly Rachael (Young) is one. Maybe Deckard just doesn’t like killing people whose only crime is that they were made not born. They are tools, instruments specially made for specialised jobs in environments where ordinary humans would be ineffective or even likely to be killed. They are the property of the Tyrell Corporation, the company that made them.
     Philip K. Dick’s story then is about the ethics of making artificial humans; or more generally, about demanding that humans shape themselves to suit a particular role in a project. What’s the difference between a biologically engineered worker and an educationally engineered one? Either way, the worker’s value consists in what he can perform as a tool or instrument. He has no inherent value as a human being. If some object such as a robot can perform better or cheaper, the worker’s value is zero.
     A great movie, and a great story of ideas. It’s to Scott’s credit, and his team’s, that abstract ideas have been transformed into a story of individual experience and actions that embody those ideas. ****

Ngaio Marsh. Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953)

     Ngaio Marsh. Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953) On a trip to the French-Italian border area for a summer holiday with his family, Alleyn happens to see what appears to be a murder as he looks out of the train window. A fellow passenger falls ill, and Alleyn arranges for emergency treatment at the same chateau at which he, perhaps, saw the murder. His son Ricky is kidnapped; a mysterious cousin of Troy’s turns out to be a surprise, and the drug trade and international police co-operation all figure in an entertainment that doesn’t reach Marsh’s usual level of subtle characterisation, but does serve to pass some time pleasantly enough. ** (2006)

Ngaio Marsh. Overture to Death (1930)

     Ngaio Marsh. Overture to Death (1930) A committee of do-gooders put on a play, but at the first performance, the lady who substitutes at the last minute to provide the opening music is shot dead by the booby-trapped piano. The social comedy interests Marsh more than the crime solving, but the plot is solid enough, and the added mix of melodrama and love romance makes this a satisfying read. *** (2006)

Frank Herbert. Whipping Star (1969-77)

    Frank Herbert. Whipping Star (1969-77) Herbert has the knack for making an alien culture seem alien, yet accessible. His readers must work hard to imagine what he tells them, and even so his worlds retain that not-quite-intelligible strangeness that convinces. Abnethe, the universe’s richest citizen, has captured a Caleban in order to whip it; she cannot stand to see suffering, but she craves its appearance. Jorge X. McKie, Saboteur Extraordinaire, has the assignment of finding out what he can. He finds out that all sentient life will die if the Caleban dies. Finally, the forces of good triumph over the forces of evil (and stupidity: in Herbert’s world the two are twins). McKie manages to establish something resembling correct communication with the Caleban, and Abnethe’s plans are thwarted. A bonus is that McKie solves a few riddles, too: The Calebans are multi-dimensional sentients who manifest in our universe as stars. They also run the S’eye, a system of instantaneous transport between any two points in the human universe. True simultaneity has at last been achieved, despite Einstein’s discoveries.
      This book appears to antedate the Dune series, in which Herbert constructed a complete civilisation. In this book, he has certainly imagined one, but he leaves out almost all of the details. Nevertheless, well done. *** (2006)

M. J. Adamson. A February Face (1987)

     M. J. Adamson. A February Face (1987) Balthazar Marten, delayed in the Phillippines, is asked to investigate the dead bodies washing up on the beach. Trouble is, they were dead and embalmed before they were shot. A plot to scare away the squatters? Yes, it turns out, as the shore-line real estate is valuable only if owned as a single large parcel, and they are in the way. So are a couple of other people who also die, and the putative murderer is found floating in an ancient but still very wet cistern. Pleasant but forgettable entertainment. ** (2006)

Marcia Muller, Ask the Cards a Question (1982)

     Marcia Muller, Ask the Cards a Question (1982) McCone’s neighbour, Molly Antonio, is found strangled with a broken bag of groceries and a piece of McCone’s recently replaced sash cord next to her body. McCone eventually unravels a plausible tale of freight theft and pushing of stolen goods, but the murderer is a blinded man who wants his money back. McCone is smart, telling her tale in short takes (tailor-made for a scenario), and neither the reader’s imagination nor intellect suffers from overwork. A pleasant but forgettable entertainment. ** (2006)

Alexander McCall Smith. The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs

     Alexander McCall Smith. The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs Another entertainment about Prof. Whatsisname, an academic resident at some German university. McCall Smith must have something against German academics. True, they are easy to satirise, but so are other academics, and for the same reasons. Chief of which is their conviction that all other mortals are lesser beings. Mildly amusing, but I’ve had enough of this series. I’m going to try the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency series. * (2006)

Gerry Lieberman. 3,500 Good Jokes For Speakers (1976)

     Gerry Lieberman. 3,500 Good Jokes For Speakers (1976) A compilation of jokes originally published in the 1950s. Categorised, a mix of one-liners, short setups, and stories, of varying quality. What’s interesting is how taste has changed: many of the jokes wouldn’t fly these days, too sexist or racist. The style of sexism and racism has changed: mostly, only women can makes jokes about women, only blacks about blacks, etc. The other interesting aspect is how topical humour is. References to the garment district of New York just don’t work as well today, for example, nor do jokes playing with good girl/bad girl contrasts.References to the Cold War are unintelligible to anyone under 30 and dated to anyone under 50. As customs and values change, so do jokes. Jokes depend on a shared cultural context between teller and audience. Much of that context has changed or disappeared in the 60-odd years since these jokes were first collected. Thus the book provides data for a study of humour, which I will not, however, undertake. **

Monday, July 08, 2013

H. E. Bates. The Triple Echo (1970)

     H. E. Bates. The Triple Echo (1970) Another book I didn’t finish (although I did read the final episode). Alice, a farmer’s wife alone during WW2, takes in Barton, a deserter. Inevitably, the MP catch up with them. She shoots her lover and his captor as they approach the house. Bates’ attempt at writing a D. H. Lawrence love tragedy, perhaps. In any case, the prose, while sufficient for the job, doesn’t rise above the ordinary. The characters are well enough drawn to attract interest, but not to sustain it.
     I’m tired of these gloomily passionate stories. They seem to me to be a sort of slumming. These people don’t deserve their fate, and absent the war, they would have managed to disentangle the woman from her marriage and live more or less happily ever after. It’s the soldier’s refusal to return from leave that precipitates the deception and the final hunt, so I suppose Bates may intend this novelette to be his anti-war story. As such, it would have had relevance when it was published, at the Vietnam war’s inglorious winding down, but now it is, as the academics say, of scholarly interest only. The cover photo shows Glenda Jackson in the role of Alice; Michael Apted is named as director. I suspect that the film is quite good; weak books often make good movies. * (2006)

W. Heath Robinson. Absurdities (1975 reprint with alterations)

     W. Heath Robinson. Absurdities (1975 reprint with alterations). Robinson selected the images in this book himself, but the publishers have replaced some that were reprinted in another book with new images. No matter, the drawings are charming and wonderfully bizarre, and the book is well worth this second look through. My copy is ex-North York Public Library; I can’t recall where I found it, or else someone gave it to me. It prompted me to do a web search on Robinson; I found a number of sites and images I hadn’t seen before. I’ve not explored all the available material (most of the hits were for used book shops), but will eventually save what I find on a CD. **** (2006)

Gore Vidal. Dark Green, Bright Red (1950)

     Gore Vidal. Dark Green, Bright Red (1950) An early work by the master of the louche and creepily pornographic. Peter, a cashiered ex-Marine, drifts into the party planning and executing a coup in the stereotypical Latin American country. The evil General’s daughter supplies the sex interest, according to the blurb, but I didn’t get that far. -1 star (2006)

Dennis Reid. The Snowman Cometh (1966)

     Dennis Reid. The Snowman Cometh (1966) A Sexton Blake mystery. Adolescent fantasy of the worst kind, with noble noblemen (except when they are utter dastards), salt of the earth lower orders, maidens that chastely love from a distance, femmes fatales of unspeakable (and actually unimaginable, on the evidence) sinfulness, and so on. Workmanlike writing of its kind, but the puzzle isn’t interesting enough, and there is no doubt it will be “solved” by some insight of Sexton Blake’s that the reader cannot even guess at, there being no clues to support it. I never took a fancy to Sexton Blake when I was younger, and I couldn’t get through the book now. -1 star. (2006)

Howard Engel. Murder Sees the Light (1984)

     Howard Engel. Murder Sees the Light (1984) This is third or fourth in the series (I really must check up on this), and Benny Cooperman exhibits the same mix of cynicism and romantic hope as in the earlier books. Engel’s skill is character and location, and he manages both with just the right touch of detached amusement needed to make this entertainment enjoyable and not too demanding. Some of the clues are telegraphed a little too obviously, but others are too obscure, so I guess it balances out.
     This time Cooperman’s job is to watch a televangelist on the run from the civil law, and if possible prevent his murder. As it is, two people die violently, and Cooperman almost does; and there’s an ancient death that turns out to be a murder, too. Cooperman decides not to turn in the perp of this last one, for reasons only vaguely moral. Nicely done; a better than average crime novel. **½ (2006)

Ruth Rendell From Doon With Death (1964) The first Wexford, short, little character development, a fairly simple puzzle presented fairly, but we already see Rendell’s fascination with abnormal and unusual psychology. There are no apparent reasons for Margaret Parson’s murder, and the only clues are some poetry books with passionate inscriptions, given her by a mysterious lover named Doon. Doon is of course the murderer, but the usual misdirections and unrevealed facts caused by people’s desire for respectability slow the investigation. Wexford and Burden make a good team. In later books, Rendell develops Burden’s character differently than hinted at here; only his narrow education suggests the rigidity of his moral judgments that she presents and explores in later books. Wexford already has the well-read mixture of cynicism and compassion that marks him throughout the series. A good beginning. **½

     Ruth Rendell. From Doon With Death (1964) The first Wexford, short, little character development, a fairly simple puzzle presented fairly, but we already see Rendell’s fascination with abnormal and unusual psychology. There are no apparent reasons for Margaret Parson’s murder, and the only clues are some poetry books with passionate inscriptions, given her by a mysterious lover named Doon. Doon is of course the murderer, but the usual misdirections and unrevealed facts caused by people’s desire for respectability slow the investigation. Wexford and Burden make a good team. In later books, Rendell develops Burden’s character differently than hinted at here; only his narrow education suggests the rigidity of his moral judgments that she presents and explores in later books. Wexford already has the well-read mixture of cynicism and compassion that marks him throughout the series. A good beginning. **½

Brian Aldiss. Who Can Replace A Man? (1965)

     Brian Aldiss. Who Can Replace A Man? (1965) Aldiss tried his hand at most of the sub-genres of SF. These tales show his skill as well as his powerful and off-kilter imagination. I’ve read many of them in various anthologies; they were worth re-reading. Aldiss focusses on the human costs of technologies and/or encounters with unexpected glitches in the workings of the universe. He’s very good at making even the most bizarre premises work. Man In His Time posits that a cosmonaut returning from a first exploration of Mars exists about 3 minutes ahead of Earth time. The most difficult thing is for Earth-time people to plan what they will do 3 minutes from now. Psyclops deals with aliens ho can mimic human form, but cannot of course mimic humanity. A Cold War story about infiltration by the enemy, it evokes the fear of the mysterious and dangerous Other. Old Hundredth is an elegy on the passing of Man, leaving behind an earth peopled with genetic experiments, animals with powers beyond any current human’s, and yet unable to follow humanity to whatever plane of existence humans have achieved.
     A good introduction to Aldiss’s universes, in the UK the book was titled Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian Aldiss. I can’t quarrel with that title. ***

2019: minor corrections.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Ruth Rendell No More Dying Then (1971)

     Ruth Rendell No More Dying Then (1971) Mike Burden’s wife has died of cancer, leaving him almost paralysed by grief, and unable to see what his emotional isolation is doing to his children and their aunt, who has come to help Mike look after them. Then a little boy disappears, Burden interviews Gemma, the mother, and falls in lust with her. She desires him for comfort, and for temporary distraction from her grief at the loss of her son John. The case eventually wraps up when Gemma discovers Leonie, her ex-husband’s mistress, with the boy. She refuses to press charges, because Leonie has always wanted a child. Mike lets her go with some relief, as she is not a suitable candidate for wife and step-mother of his children. But the affair has served not only to assuage his grief, but to teach him about the validity of emotion, which his narrowly moral view of the world has prevented him from recognising.
     The boy’s disappearance stirs up memories of a girl who disappeared a year or two earlier. Her body is found in a disused cistern. Her murderer however has suffered a stroke, and cannot be brought to justice.  He was in some sense avenging the death of his own daughter, allowed to drown by a supremely self-centred man who married the missing girl’s mother.
     Rendell is exploring several examples of parent-child relationships, grief, anxiety, fear, and self-centredness. Read as such, the novel would provide  materials for discussion by a reading club or college literature class. Read as a crime novel, it offers a couple of plausible puzzles and their solutions. Read as a chapter in Mike Burden’s life, it feels superficial. He condemns Gemma’s free-spirited style of life, with household duties scanted, dress to unconventional, moral judgments avoided or too mild for his taste, but it’s a condemnation too stereotypical to be as convincing a Rendell might wish it to be. However, his lust/love for her overwhelms him, and his relief when she rejects his offer of marriage and goes off to look after her son and live with Leonie, reveals the old Mike Burden, puritanical and duty-obsessed as ever, but far less judgmental.
     And odd duck of a book, which doesn’t quite fit into the Wexford canon. I read it over two days, but what kept me reading was not the crime but the psychology. **