Codes and spies and stuff

The Thirty-Nine Steps
by John Buchan

Reading this book appealed because I love the Hitchcock film and I was looking for a couple of short books to read before embarking on 1Q84.

Richard Hannay is an intriguing lead character. He has made himself a small pile of money mining in Zimbabwe (or Rhodesia, as it was then) and come to London to enjoy his earnings, but quickly finds himself bored and lonely. So it’s almost a stroke of luck when he discovers a Mr Scudder has been murdered in his flat, just days after the victim confided in him that he has uncovered an assassination plot that could lead to war.

As prime suspect in the murder, Hannay flees London for remote Scotland with both the British police and a German spy ring close at his heels. His resourcefulness and acting skills ensure there is never a dull moment. And he has Scudder’s coded notebook, with a mysterious message about 39 steps.

I really liked this. It’s an enjoyable romp and yet any reader knows that the war Hannay is working so hard to avoid is inevitable (the dates are clearly given as May and June 1914), which gives it a sad air. The descriptions of Scotland are beautiful but brief because there is no space here for asides. It’s 107 pages of action and, as such, was perfect for translation to film, but there was still, as always, something lost in transition. The book explains why Hannay is how he is and briefly summarises the political state of Europe, neither of which is in the film, as I recall.

First published 1915.

Twists and turns

Don’t Look Now and other stories
by Daphne du Maurier

Though I’ve read quite a few du Maurier novels and even a guidebook to Cornwall that she once wrote, I hadn’t tried her short stories before this week. Thanks to Discovering Daphne, an event/readalong run by Savidge Reads and Novel Insights, I have now, and I’m glad.

The title story was of course made into a successful and critically acclaimed film of 1973, a film I have never seen and only had a rough idea of the storyline to, so I was able to come to it without foreknowledge. I think this greatly helped with my enjoyment of the story so I won’t reveal more of the plot than I knew beforehand: it’s a horror/thriller about a couple who travel to Venice following the death of their child. That’s all I knew (well, okay, I knew there was also something to do with a red coat, but then that’s really it).

As always, du Maurier is greatly skilled at creating complex, believable characters. All of these stories have some element of horror, but for the most part that horror comes from within, from the very human flaw of misreading a situation or other people, from imagining something that isn’t real. When there are “real” horrors, they tend to be somewhat banal, nothing like the troubled or possibly disturbed minds of the characters.

Another great skill of du Maurier’s that is evident here is her ability to describe diverse locations, imbuing them with real atmosphere. (This must be a skill she developed over time because it was something I found specifically lacking in scenes set outside of Cornwall in The Loving Spirit.) This book ranges from Venice to Crete to Ireland to Jerusalem to East Anglia, each time taking a character away from their home in England to a strange new location. There’s the schoolmaster on holiday who gets caught up with a strange American couple. There’s the young actress who decides, following her father’s death, to track down his former best friend. There’s the working class vicar who reluctantly agrees to guide a group of rich strangers around holy sites. And there’s the electronics engineer whose boss seconds him to work on a secret project that combines science fiction and spirituality.

All these stories have a certain tendency to mislead the reader, or at least I personally felt many times that I had been led down one path and was then blindsided by the story’s very different conclusion. As horror goes, there is none of the gore or violence you might expect. Or if there is it’s not described in any detail. These stories are all about the psychological, and even when it gets a bit supernatural or spiritual, the emphasis is on its effect on people rather than whether or not the apparently supernatural is real.

I think “Don’t look now” in particular will bear repeated readings, if only to hunt for the clues to how things turn out that I missed first time around. I think it is the best written and cleverest story in the collection, though none of them was by any means bad. They all share the same fish-out-of-water, sinister atmosphere, yet they are very different. I’m looking forward now to reading the other du Maurier short story collection I have, The Breaking Point.

This collection first published 1971 by Victor Gollancz.

Big ideas for a big story

The Magus
by John Fowles

This is a crazy book that plays with concepts of humanity, deceipt, morality, psychology and storytelling, all wound up in a thoroughly enjoyable adventure that is packed full of suspense, action, beautiful scenery and romance. It’s full of big ideas but it’s also a great fun rollercoaster of a story with so many twists and turns that I often felt as confused as the hero.

Said hero is Nicholas Urfe, a young Englishman who doesn’t know what to do with his life and is generally miserable. He narrates the story and makes for a very interesting perspective on events. He is shallow, naive and quick to change his mind. On many a page he says “I knew for sure…” or “I understood now…” only to be proved wrong a few lines later.

Not that he can be entirely blamed for changing his mind about certain things. The central premise is that Nicholas goes to teach English on a remote Greek island and there meets an old man, Conchis, who lures him into a bizarre game in which nothing and no-one can be trusted. There were times when the situation got so dark or confusing that I found it far-fetched that Nicholas would continue going back for more, but on the other hand he’s a selfish young man who’s been placed at the centre of a millionaire’s play – that’s got to be good for the ego – and, of course, there’s a young lady involved. Actually, more than one. It’s
complicated.

There are so many layers of lies or potential truths that I constantly reached passages that read like a conclusion was about to come and at first I’d think “But hang on, there’s 400/300/200 pages left” but by the end you’re not ready to trust anything, even the last sentence.

And of course there’s the element of belief – what is real and what is imagined? Nicholas is in a foreign country where he didn’t speak the language before he arrived, the weather is relentlessly hot, the people are very different from those he’s used to spending time with, the landscape is obviously foreign – nothing is familiar. That must take a toll on the way a person reacts to events they are confronted with. Not to mention the question of what and who we trust and why. As a middle class intellectual, Nicholas is pre-conditioned to believe obviously educated, well read, well spoken people. As a womaniser he’s inclined to believe anything a woman who flirts with him says. And this is clear and obvious to anyone who wishes to take advantage of his gullibility.

The morality of the story is the thing I found hardest to get on with. This was written in the 1960s but set in the 50s and, though in some ways it’s surprisingly modern (yes, women can separate sex from love and use their bodies accordingly) it’s also harshly judgmental of Nicholas, who is really just a bit of a drifter and a womaniser who never pretended to be anything else. He is put through the mill to perportedly make him a better person and yet, with all of the questions that this long book asks, it is never suggested that maybe Nicholas doesn’t need to be changed, that he’s basically decent from the start. In fact I think I liked the original Nicholas who was sure of what he was and good enough to be honest about it, though he was generally unhappy with his life, more than the Nicholas at the end of the book who has been frightened into doing nothing, trusting no-one, fearing everything.

Despite my standing up for him, there were times – many of them – when I wanted to shout at Nicholas. He is so obviously wrong at times and just plain stupid at others. I even figured out a perfect line of work for him so he woudn’t need to drift/teach any more (if you’ve read this give your ideas in the comments below and we can compare!). But where with some books that would be frustrating, with this one it felt good to engage so fully, to get emotionally involved in bits that weren’t a love story (though it is one of those as well).

And yet, though I was fully engaged and the story is definitely eventful, I found this was a slow read. I read every day, often far later into the night than I should and it still took me weeks to get through. It is a long book but I think it’s also one that requires you to pay attention to every detail. There’s so much talk of clues and hints that I often re-read passages in case I’d missed something important. I found that I even read the descriptive passages closely where I would often skim the lengthier ones in other novels. Fowles’ descriptions of Greece are spellbinding and more than once I found myself looking up holidays to Greece when I put the book down.

Many a long essay has been written about this book and I can see why, but from a personal point of view I will conclude with: this is a good read, an extremely good read, that makes you think and yet doesn’t feel at all ‘worthy’. Highly recommended.

First published 1966 by Jonathon Cape. Revised by the author 1977.