Book review: Kingdom Of The Blind, by Louise Penny

The premise of this novel is an intriguing one. A group of three people, including Louise Penny’s usual central detective character, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Quebec provincial police force, and Myrna Lander, another regular character and a bookseller, are summoned to a small village in a rural area of the Francophone Canadian province.There, they are told that they have been named as executors of the will of a woman who none of them know or have ever met. Within a short space of time, the woman’s son is found dead and the plot kicks off.

Daniel Shand

Book review: Crocodile, by Daniel Shand

A kind critic would describe Daniel Shand’s second novel as “something of a curate’s egg”; another might say “a dog’s dinner”. It is a novel which is ethically interesting and aesthetically all over the place. The central character is usually referred to as “the girl” but we learn, at four points, that her name is Chloe. That is an interesting choice, since Chloe was one of the epithets of the Greek goddess Demeter when she was “verdant” or “blossoming”. Chloe is about to go to the big school; is discovering boys and alcohol and pornography for the first time; and has been sent to stay with her grandparents because of her mother’s chaotic life, which involves men and alcohol and sexual violence.

Donald S Murray

Book review: As the Women Lay Dreaming, by Donald S Murray

Years ago the first novel of Andreï Makine’s which I reviewed here was Confessions of a Lapsed Standard-Bearer. Its evocation of the Soviet Union in the late 1950s rang with such compelling authenticity that I was sure it must be autobiographical, drawn from memory. Then I looked at the author’s note in the inside back cover and saw that Makine was born in 1959.

The Light in the Dark, by Horatio Claire

Book review: The Light in the Dark, by Horatio Clare

The concept of the stiff upper lip has surely never been as unfashionable as it is today. We live in an age of perpetual overshare, an era in which talking about your innermost thoughts and feelings is not just acceptable but actively encouraged. No factual TV show is complete, it seems, until at least one person involved has been on some sort of emotional “journey,” and every sad or unfortunate event that befalls a person in the public eye is met with torrents of “thoughts and prayers” on social media. Not sure how to put your feelings into words? Never mind: simply select the appropriate emoji from a range of options now available.

Alasdair Gray PIC: John Devlin

Book review: Hell: Dante’s Divine Trilogy Part One, by Alasdair Gray

Dante is a poet whom everyone acknowledges as canonical, and whom very few actually read. I have several translations of the Divine Comedy to hand: Henry Carey’s earliest one of 1814, the Penguin Classics version by Dorothy L Sayers – yes, the crime novelist – Mark Musa, Robin Kirkpatrick, Ciaran Carson, Clive James – yes, him off the telly – and others. All have their virtues and their faults.

Bill Jones at Cultybraggan

Book review: Black Camp 21, by Bill Jones

Bill Jones is the award-winning author of two fine non-fiction books, skilfully crafted biographies of the long distance runner Bill Tarrant and the figure-skater John Curry. Intriguingly his new book is a novel, taking as its theme the tens of thousands of German prisoners of war who were kept in large camps in the UK after D-Day in 1944.

Georgina Harding PIC: Mark Pringle.

Book review: Land of the Living, by Georgina Harding

Georgina Harding writes about questions of time-tattered identity and the fractured awareness of reality the experience of war inflicts on survivors. Her new novel is a variation on this theme. There’s much to be said for novelists who map out their territory, exploring it from different angles and often at greater depth in a succession of novels. Anita Brookner was a good example of such a writer, Simenon also of course.

A Gathering

Book review: A Gathering - A Personal Anthology of Scottish Poems, edited by Alexander McCall Smith

Editing a poetry anthology is the literary equivalent to tip-toeing through a minefield, and never more so than when the anthology in question has a national focus. Are the poets included really the ones that best reflect the heart and soul of a nation? Does the number of poems included by each poet correspond to their perceived literary significance? Do the specific poems selected adequately reflect the output of the poets who wrote them? And of the various poets of note who inevitably failed to make the cut, which are the most hard done by?

Don Paterson PIC: Murdo Macleod

Book reviews: The Fall At Home, by Don Paterson | Where Epics Fail, by Yahia Lababidi

Does anyone except an aphorist care about the definition of an aphorism? Most likely not, but it is a question that I thought pertinent while reading these collections. In some ways it is easy to say what an aphorism is not, rather than what it is. It is not a proverb – “the wit of one and the wisdom of many”, as one definition has it. Proverbs tend to be anonymous and have an air of being self-evident; although many hands make light work while too many cooks spoil the broth, and you should look before you leap but strike while the iron is hot.

Rosemary Goring

Book review: Scotland - Her Story, by Rosemary Goring

The subtitle of this splendid book is “The Nation’s History By The Women Who Lived It.” The key word there is of course “lived.” While it all depends on what you mean by “history,” Rosemary Goring is far too scrupulous an editor and anthologist to have preferred the word “made” to “lived.” One couldn’t however complain if she had chosen to say “endured” rather than “lived.” Though there are plenty of remarkable and strong-minded women featured here, such as the 18th century “virago” Lady Bridekirk who “was famous, even in the Annandale border, both at the bowl and in battle” and “could drink a Scots pint of brandy with ease” (a Scots pint being three imperial pints), it’s still the case that till very recently women took second place in history. Indeed, so long as the history taught in schools and universities was political, constitutional, military and ecclesiastical, women rarely played a prominent part. History was something that happened to them.

Sarah Perry PIC: Julian Simmonds/REX/Shutterstock

Book review: Melmoth, by Sarah Perry

This is a very good, very enjoyable, very moving and very subtle novel, although whether or not it will stand the test of ages and become a classic is not, really, for me to judge. In part this is because it is tautly tethered to another novel – Melmoth The Wanderer by Charles Maturin – and many of its virtues lie in the sly subversion of its anterior text. It is, in some way, a jeu d’esprit, with no jeu and little esprit: this I mean as a mark of praise.

Muriel Sarah Spark PIC: Evening Standard/Getty Images

Chapter One of Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark, with an introduction by Louise Welsh

The seventh Earl has been missing since the night of 7th November 1974 when his wife was taken to hospital, severely wounded in her head, and the body of his children’s nanny was found battered, in a mail sack, in his house.’

Muriel Spark’s opening note to readers outlines the essential known facts about the disappearance of Lord Lucan. Spark reminds us that the novel is a work of fiction and continues:

‘What we know about ‘Lucky’ Lucan, his words, his habits, his attitude to people and to life, from his friends, photographs and police records, I have absorbed creatively, and metamorphosed into what I have written.’

The implication is that fiction contains truths that lie beyond mere factual accounts of dates, events and actions. Spark adds almost as an afterthought, ‘The parallel story of a fake stigmatic is also based on fact.’

The fake stigmatic is Dr Hildegard Wolf aka Beate Pappenheim who has abandoned a lucrative life as a living saint. She is now a psychiatrist with a successful, though unorthodox, practice in Paris, where she is treating not one, but two Lord Lucans. Both Lords may be imposters. Whether they are acting alone or in tandem is initially unclear.

Aiding and Abetting, Spark’s twenty-first novel, was published in 2000 when she was eighty-two. Lucky Lucan, once a staple of tabloid exposés, broadsheet supplements and the punchline of variety show jokes was slipping from public consciousness, the murder and its surrounding mystery barely known of by a generation, ‘who were too young or even unborn at the time’.

In notes for the novel, lodged in the National Library of Scotland’s Muriel Spark Archive, Spark writes, ‘the study of Lucan is the study of evil’. The title of the book, Aiding and Abetting, suggests the evil is not confined to the Earl, but is shared by loyal friends and associates – aiders and abetters – who sheltered him in the hours after the murder of his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett. The jury at the inquest into Rivett’s death declared the cause to be ‘murder by Lord Lucan’. A warrant committing Lucan for trial was issued immediately after the verdict, but his disappearance meant no hearing could take place. The question of whether he committed suicide or escaped abroad became a national obsession.

There were rumours the Earl had shot himself, was eaten by tigers in a private zoo, jumped from a ferry, was kidnapped by the IRA, descended into a bottomless pothole. Shortly after his disappearance, the Guardian reported that witnesses had seen him ‘driving drunk up the M1, buying flowers on a London street and getting on a train in Edinburgh’. Gossip (strongly rejected by Hill’s family) had Lucan fleeing the country in a private jet flown by racing driver Graham Hill. In 1994 the Times reported that police officers continued to follow up fifty to sixty sightings of the Earl a year. He had been spotted ‘working as a waiter in San Francisco, at an alcoholics’ centre in Brisbane, at a hotel in Madagascar, in Botswana, Hong Kong and the Orkneys’. The satirical television show Spitting Image regularly featured a Lord Lucan puppet who appeared in the background of sketches, dressed as a waiter and serving drinks.

Press attention consistently focused on the ‘playboy Earl’ and his set – lion tamers, racing drivers, nightclub owners, gamblers and aristocrats. Little attention was spared for Sandra Rivett, a young, working-class Irish woman brutally battered to death.

Aiding and Abetting treads a fine line between humour and repulsion. If Lucan did indeed escape, it was with the help of aiders and abetters who placed the freedom of the Earl above justice for Sandra Rivett and who treated the fact that he mistakenly murdered his children’s nanny, rather than his wife, as a ‘bungle’.

Spark wrote in her notes for Aiding and Abetting that ‘the theme of the novel is blood’. The bloody murder at the centre of the Lucan mystery reappears and repeats throughout the text, a true crime story underpinning the satire.

Sandra was bashed and bludgeoned. She was stuffed into a sack. Bashed also was Lucan’s wife when she came down to see what was the matter. She was bashed and bloodied . . .

‘Nanny Rivett was killed in error.’ ‘And the hack-and-bash job on Lady Lucan?’ ‘That was different. She should have died.’ . . . Blood on his hands. Blood all over his clothes . . . it was horrible bloody slaughter . . . His wife covered with blood . . . blood all over his trousers . . . blood oozing from the mailbag . . . the girl with all that blood . . . he had meant those thuds for his wife . . . mess and blood . . .’

The theme of blood extends to Beate/Hildegard. When Beate Pappenheim was an impoverished medical student studying in Munich in the 1970s, she used her menstrual blood to simulate stigmata in order to extort money from credulous believers. When her con was discovered Beate fled overseas, became Hildegard Wolf and established a successful practice and happy home life. She would have sworn that the Beate Pappenheim of her past was a ‘different person’ from herself . . . She had just put Beate out of her mind, destroying her old birth certificate and replacing it with a new one obtained from a lawyer in Marseilles.

But Hildegard discovers it is not easy to escape past misdemeanours. The two Lord Lucans have learned of her criminal history and intend to blackmail her. Spark writes in her notes: ‘Hildegard’s crime is small compared to Lucan’s but they are both on the run.’

Aiding and Abetting delights in doubles. The two Lucans are doppelgängers of sorts, physically alike, their fates bound together. Spark was born and educated in Edinburgh, the city that helped birth James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Both novels feature diabolical twinned protagonists. The two Lord Lucans have grown to hate each other, but their existences are so inter-twined that, in the tradition of doppelgängers, for one to spill the other’s blood may be to invite his own death.

Haruki Murakami PIC: Henning Bagger/AFP/Getty Images

Book review: Killing Commendatore, by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami, world-wide bestseller and, apparently, devoted admirer of Scott Fitzgerald, translated The Great Gatsby into Japanese, and this new novel has been described as a homage to Fitzgerald, or at least Gatsby. There is a resemblance in his latest novel, in that there is a mysteriously and tantalisingly rich Gatsby-like figure at the heart of the fiction, but whereas Fitzgerald’s novel is slim, elegant and true to experience, Murakami’s is one of these baggy old monstrous novels into which the author stuffs anything that takes his fancy. It has recently been deemed obscene in Hong Kong on account of explicit descriptions of sex, though they are no more explicit than anything found in lots of novels.

Sir Tom Devine PIC: Ian Rutherford

Book review: The Scottish Clearances, by TM Devine

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, / Where wealth accumulates, and men decay. / Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade; / A breath can make them, as a breath has made; / But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride, / When once destroyed, can never be supplied...”

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