“Laetitia Rodd and the Case of the Wandering Scholar” by Kate Saunders

Laetitia Rodd and the Case of the Wandering Scholar (A Laetitia Rodd Mystery Book 2) by [Saunders, Kate]

Widow of an archdeacon, Laetitia Rodd may have lost her social standing and comfortable lifestyle, but is not one to wallow in regrets. Instead, she relishes the opportunity to undertake investigations for her wealthy barrister brother, not only for the chance to earn a little but also for the intriguing situations in which they involve her, such as the chance to reunite the wealthy but terminally ill Jacob Welland with his brother Joshua, the “wandering scholar” of the title with whom he fell out too long ago “over a woman”. Before she manages to solve the mystery surrounding Joshua, she is distracted by the need to prove the innocence of two acquaintances accused of a murder of which she cannot believe them to be guilty, although the evidence against them is troubling.

This modern take on a Victorian detective story reminds me of Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White”. With its meandering plot loaded with often larger than life characters, it is an entertaining if lightweight read, made worthwhile by a strong sense of place and time, and a well-developed, sympathetic narrator in the form of Laetitia Rodd. She has a wry sense of humour, not taking herself too seriously. Although bound by the conventions and religious piety of the 1850s, she is fundamentally open-minded, admittedly as imagined by a C21 rather than C19 writer. When Inspector Blackbeard apologises for bringing her a cup of tea bought from a “not very genteel” stall, she has the sense to drink it because she is thirsty. If a servant suddenly inherits money which raises him into a different social class, she tries to help him to integrate rather than treat him with disdain. Similarly, if friends commits adultery or even murder, she tries to understand what led them to do so. While remaining essentially conventional and devout, she is open to other points of view, and to questioning her own.

The plot is tied up quite neatly at the end, leaving me with only a couple of minor queries. I like the way the author has brought together events both real and fictional from the period to weave into her plot: the story of the “poor Oxford scholar” in Mathew Arnold’s poem, who “tired of knocking at preferment’s door” went off to live with the gipsies where he imagines, like Joshua, that he can live according to the “ancient rhythms of passing seasons, outside the pressures of the modern world”; the ingrained social inequality of Victorian society for which a Tennyson poem, “Locksley Hall” provides a recurring metaphor, “every door is barred with gold, and opens but to golden keys”; the notorious murderer Eugene Aram, portrayed in Bulwer-Lytton’s 1832 novel as a romantic hero who killed to obtain the money he needed to get on in the world, justifying his crime because it enabled him to do good. So, this engaging detective yarn has an authentic, serious core, in raising complex moral dilemmas.

Calm with horses

In a rundown Irish coast town, former County boxing champion, the aptly named Douglas Armstrong (played by actor Cosmo Jarvis, strongly reminiscent of a youthful Marlon Brando) has to deal with the stigma and probable guilt of having accidentally killed a man in the ring. Although he probably lacks the drive to make the effort to move away, he is kept in the locality by the presence of his  ex-girlfriend  Ursula and small son Jack, who is autistic. This is despite Ursula’s efforts to keep him at bay to protect Jack from the malign influence of the local drug dealers, the Devers, who employ Douglas as an enforcer to punish or keep in line anyone rash enough to cross them. Ironically, Jack is most disturbed by any hint of force or violence,  so that the horses in the stable where Ursula works  provide one of the few calm settings where father and son can connect with each other.

Violent, tense, unflinching and unsentimental, this film also contains moments of subtlety and sensitivity, enabling one to feel sympathy for Douglas even after the brutal acts he has committed on behalf of the it would seem both mad and bad Deevers.  To what extent is Douglas too passive in the acceptance of his situation, or simply a victim of circumstance? With a strong sense of place and the  convincing acting of well-observed characters, this film is worth watching even if it cannot be described as enjoyable.

In a rundown Irish coast town, former County boxing champion, the aptly named Douglas Armstrong (played by actor Cosmo Jarvis, strongly reminiscent of a youthful Marlon Brando) has to deal with the stigma and probable guilt of having accidentally killed a man in the ring. Although he probably lacks the drive to make the effort to move away, he is kept in the locality by the presence of his  ex-girlfriend  Ursula and small son Jack, who is autistic. This is despite Ursula’s efforts to keep him at bay to protect Jack from the malign influence of the local drug dealers, the Devers, who employ Douglas as an enforcer to punish or keep in line anyone rash enough to cross them. Ironically, Jack is most disturbed by any hint of force or violence,  so that the horses in the stable where Ursula works  provide one of the few calm settings where father and son can connect with each other.

Violent, tense, unflinching and unsentimental, this film also contains moments of subtlety and sensitivity, enabling one to feel sympathy for Douglas even after the brutal acts he has committed on behalf of the it would seem both mad and bad Deevers.  To what extent is Douglas too passive in the acceptance of his situation, or simply a victim of circumstance? With a strong sense of place and the  convincing acting of well-observed characters, this film is worth watching even if it cannot be described as enjoyable.

“Sorry we missed you”: false economy

Having exposed the injustice of the benefits system in “I, Daniel Blake”, Ken Loach has turned his forensic lens on the iniquities of the gig economy.

Newcastle-based Ricky Turner is lured into working for a delivery company by the prospect of being “self-employed”. He imagines this will give him more control over his working day, the chance of higher earnings and saving for a mortgage after years of grafting  in dead ends jobs since his plans to buy a house were dashed by the collapse of Northern Rock. In fact, he soon finds himself forced to work at a punishing pace, with a computerised “spy in the cab” to monitor his work rate. With no holiday or sick pay on his six-day week, he is expected to organise a replacement driver if he needs time off.

His overworked wife Abbie is a patient and dedicated carer, working long shifts but not paid for her time travelling between “clients”. Her job is made even harder by having to travel everywhere by bus, after Ricky’s insistence on selling her car to finance the purchase of a van, in theory a cheaper option than hiring it from the delivery company at a daily rate. The couple’s two children are left too much to their own devices: eleven-year-old Lisa is mature beyond her  years, but clearly unhappy,  while artistic- graffiti spraying older brother Seb is rapidly running off the rails, risking both expulsion from school and a young offender’s sentence in his outburst of teenage rebellion. All the main characters are well-developed and portrayed very convincingly by impressive actors, several of whom have little or no prior experience, as in the case of the mother and the two children.

The inexorable chain of problems building up to the inevitable crisis succeeds in arousing a feeling of  tension over each successive setback, anger at the manipulative and ruthless boss of the delivery company manager, and the urge to somehow  get through the screen to convince Ricky to cut his losses and return to his old way of life before matters deteriorate too far. At times, the accumulation of difficulties seems exaggerated, although the film is based on the experiences of real gig workers.  The unbearable sadness over the stress on a basically loving family is lightened by moments of humour and empathy.

Unfortunately, those who most need to see this film and reflect upon it are unlikely to do so.

Article 353 du Code Pénal” by Tanguy Viel: Utter conviction (Article 353 in English Translation)

Despite its dry title, this short, unusual novel is a riveting masterpiece.

Under French law, a suspect in initially examined by a “juge d’instruction”, who gathers and evaluates the evidence to decide if it is sufficient to go to a trial. In this case, how can the suspect’s guilt be in doubt? We know from the outset that the narrator Martial Kermeur has pushed his unsuspecting companion Antoine Lazenec overboard during a fishing trip on the latter’s boat, left him to drown and calmly submitted to police arrest, thinking how he would have committed the action anyway, even if the police had been watching him at the time.

Closeted together for several hours, Kermeur recounts slowly to the judge , in great detail how he came to meet the flamboyant property developer Lazenec, and be ruined by him, alongside others in the remote, economically depressed community on the Brittany coast. Kermeur seems to have suffered a tidal wave of misfortune (there being many references to the sea): he has been made redundant, his wife has left him and, manipulated by the wily and ruthless Lazenec, in a foolish moment of pride Kermeur invests his redundancy money in Lazenec’s ambitious scheme to demolish the local chateau and convert the grounds into a holiday resort. When the scheme fails to materialise, Kermeur is left destitute and ashamed in the presence of his young son Erwan, who has always looked up to him.

This is not only a detailed psychological study of the interplay between the main characters, in which the details are skilfully revealed and the tension ratchetted up but also a vivid and moving portrait of a tight-knit community under pressure. Tanguy Viel presents Kermeur’s thoughts in a kind of stream of consciousness, often going off at a tangent, but very expressive. Kermeur often seems simple and garrulous, but he is also sensitive and perceptive, with a wry humour. He does stupid or unwise things, including a serious crime, and yet he arouses one’s sympathy. Justice must be applied to him, but in what form? Is the judge’s final decision justifiable?

Highly recommended for a good read and an interesting discussion. This is definitely best read in the original French, but I understand that the English translation by is good.

“Official Secrets!: “Truth always matters at the end of the day”.

Official Secrets (DVD) [2019]I remember well the 2003 one million-plus people’s London march in the vain attempt to prevent the Iraq War, likewise President Bush’s refusal to wait for the completion of UN weapons inspector Hans Blick’s investigations in Iraq before launching an attack, together with the UK Parliament’s decision to support the US militarily on the basis of what proved to be the “dodgy dossier”, falsely confirming the Iraqi capacity to launch weapons of mass destruction on Britain in 45 minutes.

Film footage of these events is woven into the docudrama “Official Secrets” to provide the context for an event which I am ashamed to have forgotten, namely the remarkably courageous decision of Katharine Gun, a young translator working for GCHQ, to release to the press the email which shocked her profoundly. Wrapped in technical language, this was the instruction from the American NSA for its counterpart GCHQ to “dig dirt” on officials in small UN member countries who might be blackmailed into agreeing to vote for military action against Iraq. Motivated by the desire to prevent a war triggered by lies and subterfuge, she assumed at first that it would be possible to remain anonymous, until a guilty conscience over the sight of her work colleagues being interrogated obliged her to speak out. Then, it quickly became obvious that she had not only sacrificed her career, but risked a prison sentence, widespread ostracism, and the deportation of her husband, a Kurdish asylum seeker from Turkey.

Keira Knightley deserves the praise received for a performance which conveys with great conviction Katharine’s initial soul-searching, and the acute tension, involuntary sense of guilt and fear of detection, experienced by an essentially law-abiding person breaking the law, even for a just cause, as in the crucial moment when she drops the leaked email into the red pillar box. Her moods pass through realistic phases: more guilt and regret over the problems inadvertently created for her husband, depression over being unemployed, anger over bullying by officials and being pressed to take the “easy path” of admitting to guilt to get a lighter sentence, at the cost of a permanent stain on her reputation, which still matters to her.

A docudrama which could become dry once it enters the legal phase with a long wait to be charged and tried, maintains its momentum through moments of wry humour based on real events. I would not blame the film-makers for possibly over-egging some incidents for dramatic effect, and cannot know how much artistic licence has been taken in portrayal of, for instance, the sparring between former legal friends who find themselves in opposite camps, prosecutors against defence. If they are still alive, I wonder how some of the latter feel about the way they have been portrayed.

Overall, this is a well-made and thought-provoking film, raising awareness of strong parallels between then and now – our world of fake news, hacking and manipulating facts for political reasons, and the endless debate as to whether the means justify the ends. Interviews with the real-life Katharine Gun suggest the storyline is authentic in more than the essentials. Claiming that she would act in the same way again, she has the last word: “Truth always matters at the end of the day”.

“Les Années” or “The Years” by Annie Ernaux: an individual take on “collective memory”

This is an autobiography which aims to avoid “sentiment”: “The point is not to speak of the personal”. Instead, referring to herself in the third person, or writing collectively as “we”, Annie Ernaux adopts a fragmented approach which tends to distance the reader from her.

As implied by the choice of quotations at the outset, she is preoccupied with our insignificance in the scale of things – not only shall we be forgotten as individuals, but matters of great importance to us will seem trivial to our descendants, and our way of living may come to seem ludicrous, even blameworthy. This has become very topical since our materialist way of life, justified by “the need for growth” is now under criticism for destroying the planet for future generations.

Annie Ernaux’s attitude may explain her tendency to give more importance to fleeting, often banal memories than to major events in her life. The opening pages are a list of ephemeral images, some from before she was born, reflecting her insight that, influenced by our parents’ talk, we may have a kind of false memory of events which happened to other people in the past before we even existed. Many of the images are sordid or grim, and it would seem quite arbitrary – a woman urinating behind a café, the glimpse of a thalidomide victim with no arms. This sets from the outset a somewhat depressing, negative, joyless tone which is never fully dispelled.

She often seems more interested in the social history through which she has lived than in recounting the main events of her life. So, on one hand she writes a good deal about the impact of the 1968 riots, the social revolution resulting from the availability of the pill or the arrival of a consumer- driven society which also discarded the taboos and traditions which constrained our childhood until the 1960s. On the other, I never learned, for instance, whom she married, nor when and how the couple parted. She makes no allowance for the reader’s frustration if significant details are hinted at but kept hidden. She writes about a woman’s desire for divorce, mixed with fear of rupture and independence, in an abstract, generalised way. In just one poignant scene, which reveals complex feelings during what may be the last family holiday with her husband in Spain, she becomes an individual with whom one can sympathise, suggesting that a little more “sentiment” in the book would not have gone amiss.

I formed the impression of a bright girl from a narrow, working class background, who “escaped” via the encouragement of her teachers and a good education. However, breaking the taboos over sex outside marriage just a few years ahead of “the pill” and loosening of the abortion laws, she joined the ranks of those obliged to marry and start a family before they would have chosen to do so. She seemed dissatisfied with her lot as a teacher, perhaps because of her long-held desire to be a writer. Drawn to left-wing movements, uneasy over consumerism and the faceless development of new urban areas, Annie Ernaux nevertheless comes across as an “academic” socialist, actually rather contemptuous of workers in the unappealing new suburbs built for them, where she would never willingly set foot.

It is not her style to discuss explicitly her frustration over being diverted by family responsibilities from achieving the ambition to become an admired author. Instead, it is revealed when, oppressed by the annual ritual of the Christmas celebrations in which she now occupies the head of the table, she imagines the crazed action of overturning the table and screaming. Perhaps because she is a writer, a recurring theme is her panicked sense of only having one life, which she has allowed to slip by, without realising it: the living of her past life amounts to a book, but one that has not yet been written – until now.

I found the book hard-going at times. The repetition and lists of people and events are quite tedious and I was not familiar with many of the cultural references. It was fascinating to learn about, say, Ranucci, the last French citizen to be sentenced to death as recently as 1976 by guillotine, which seemed particularly barbaric and antiquated although it was originally seen as more humane than other methods, but the need to look things up continually fragmented the reading of an already disjointed text which rambles on for over two hundred and fifty pages in short sections with no chapters to form natural breaks.

Annie Ernaux has said: “This is the story of events and progress and everything that has changed in 60 years of an individual existence but transmitted through the “we” and “them”. The events in my book belong to everyone, to history, to sociology”.

Yet this approach only works if the events are clearly explained in context to those who did not experience them at the time, and may be ignorant of them now. Admittedly, those who can share her experiences may derive a nostalgic pleasure from being reminded of them.

“Love is Blind” by William Boyd – a little off-key

When Ainsley Channon finds that his son is not unexpectedly making a hash of running the Paris branch of his piano manufacturing and sales company, he sends his protégé, young Scottish piano-tuner Brodie Moncur to use his initiative to improve business. In the process, Brodie becomes infatuated with Lika, a beautiful Russian aspiring opera singer. Their relationship has to be conducted in secret, since she is the mistress of the once celebrated but now physically declining and alcoholic pianist John Kilbarron. From the outset it seems doomed to fail, owing not only to Kilbarron’s jealous and unstable character but also the menacing presence of his “minder” brother Malachi, who may have designs on, even some hold over Lika as well.

It was never quite clear to me why Brodie loves Lika so much, in what seems like a purely physical relationship. She seems dull and devious, dragging Brodie down the same path, changing him from a purposeful, outgoing individual into a passive, moping drifter with his life on hold – but of course, as the title states, “Love is Blind”. Admittedly, Brodie has occasional insights, such as the fact that being in love does not guarantee happiness, while we can never truly know another person, even when there is supposedly mutual love.

I was disappointed by some aspects of the early chapters. The book opens with a detailed description of how to tune a piano, which made little sense to me in the absence of a labelled diagram or two, clearly out of place in a novel. It read like a piece of research conducted to give the story authenticity, but dumped rather clunkily into the text. Then there are the potentially interesting situations which do not lead anywhere, such as Brodie’s visit to the family home, where his widowed father “Malky” dominates eight of his children into adulthood, reserving particular venom for Brodie, the only one to have escaped so far. A charismatic preacher in public, Malcolm Moncur degenerates somewhat implausibly into a gross, drunken bully behind the scenes. Like too many of the characters, he comes across as a caricature. It is never clear why he detests Brodie so much. Is there any significance in the fact that he is so dark compared to his siblings?

The pace is slow as if an essentially thin plot is being padded out, until the novel reaches a dramatic climax at the end of Part 3, two-thirds of the way through. After this, the tension is more sustained, and some past threads are pulled together more, to reach a passably satisfactory ending.

With its varied locations, from Scotland to Russia and the remote Andaman Islands, and the extensive cast of characters, this is an original if rambling take on a well-worn romantic theme but it did not really move or engage me, although many critics and general readers have clearly found it entertaining and engrossing.