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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (ausculum clausus)

A Closed Mouth Gathers No Foot

Chalk by Paul Cornell is an extremely odd book indeed. Andrew Waggoner lives in the hills of the English West Country where a horse carved in the chalk stands vigil over a site of ancient power. Andrew is bullied at school and one day the bullying goes far beyond the usual name calling followed by the occasional beating. His bullies take him into the woods and mutilate his penis with a knife. Andrew tells nobody about this (he is too ashamed) but nevertheless the power inherent in the chalk horse comes to his aid and creates a doppelganger, an Andrew Waggoner whose penis is miraculously healed and who is powerful enough to take a very satisfying revenge on the bullies.

The school authorities take no action against the bullies and they suffer no direct consequences for their actions. This rings horribly true – I was at school with a couple of psychopaths who I could easily imagine doing the kinds of things that were done to Andrew Waggoner. They drove one boy into a nervous breakdown and a (failed) suicide attempt, but they themselves were never taken to task for what they had done. The headmaster always ignored all bullying episodes. He just put them down to youthful high spirits and claimed that "boys will be boys". This meant that he could continue to assure all the parents that there was no bullying taking place at his school. And that was the truth, as he saw it. But it certainly wasn’t the truth that the victims of the bullying saw. Art always imitates life of course, and so this is exactly the situation that Andrew Waggoner finds himself facing.

The opening sections of the book set the scene brilliantly. Andrew’s mutilation and his attempts to live with what has been done to him are vividly written with a magnificently brutal clarity that is leg-crossingly real. Unfortunately Andrew Waggoner himself turns out to be the most unreliable of unreliable narrators. Once his doppelganger arrives on the scene, the writing gets very muddy and I found it impossible to differentiate what was actually happening in the real world from what was only happening inside Andrew’s head. For example, nobody ever seems to question why Andrew now has a twin when he never had one before. Therefore you have to ask yourself if there really is another Andrew Waggoner and, if so, can such an unsettling surreality dilute the horror of what comes next as the doppelganger’s revenge gets weirder and weirder and the reader is taken further and further away from the central truth of the story. It’s all far too confusing for comfort and I never really managed to separate the real from the imaginary.

Val McDermid’s novel A Place of Execution is mostly set in the North of England in 1963. A young girl called Alison Carter has gone missing and the bulk of the story concerns the efforts made by the police to track down what has happened to her. She is never found, but the circumstantial evidence that she has been murdered quickly mounts up. A suspect is arrested, charged, tried and eventually hanged for her murder.

I was a young teenager in 1963. In those years, the North of England was a grim and gloomy place in which to grow up. There was certainly colour there of course, but now that I look back on it, I remember it in black and white. The early 1960s were the tail end of the time of the dark satanic mills which had dominated the landscape for a couple of hundred years. A decade or so later they would all finally be gone, and the towns would start to clean themselves up, their dirty black buildings transforming themselves into a glowing, golden sandstone beauty. But in 1963 we didn’t know anything about that particular future. All we knew was that the North of England was a dangerous place for young people – quite a few children around about our own age had disappeared, seemingly without trace, and we were all very well aware of "stranger danger". Our parents and our school teachers strongly emphasised the need to take care. I certainly took the warnings very much to heart.

Two years later, towards the end of 1965, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the people responsible for the disappearances of these boys and girls, were finally identified and arrested. They were charged with the torture and murder of five children. Their story dominated the newspapers and their crimes disgusted everyone. They both spent the rest of their lives in prison, with no possibility whatsoever of parole. Hindley died in prison in 2002. Brady was incarcerated in Broadmoor, a high security psychiatric hospital, where he died in 2017. There was much rejoicing at their deaths among those of us who had lived through the dark, early years of the 1960s. If you want to know why we celebrated the passing of these two monsters fifty or more years after their crimes had passed into history, go and look up what they did to Lesley Ann Downey (I warn you, you will need a very strong stomach). Lesley’s name and her fate seared themselves into the conscience of the whole country. What Brady and Hindley did to those children can never be forgiven by those of us who were there.

In the 1963 of Val McDermid’s novel, the police are well aware that someone is abducting, torturing and killing children, though they do not yet know who is responsible – the identification of Brady and Hindley is still some two years away. There are attempts to link the disappearance of Alison Carter to the ongoing investigation into the other abductions, but the detective in charge of Alison’s case is convinced that the evidence strongly suggests that her disappearance is not linked to that of the other missing children. The resemblances to the other cases are only superficial. He pursues his investigation to a successful conclusion. Alison’s body is never found, but the evidence leaves no room for doubt about her death. It is very clear who did it, and it is very clear why it was done.

Thirty five years pass, and now a journalist is writing a book about the case. She contacts the detective who had been in charge of the original investigation. He is now retired and he has a lot of time on his hands. He is very eager to help. The ghosts of Brady and Hindley still hover over the crime of course, but the detective, quite correctly as it turns out, is still absolutely certain that there is no connection at all between the cases. It was just the zeitgeist.  

The collaboration between the journalist and the detective works out well, but just as her book is ready to be sent off to the publisher, the detective stops cooperating with her and insists that the book must be withdrawn. He is adamant that it cannot be published. He gives no reason for his change of heart. However the journalist refuses to give up and eventually she manages to find an amazing piece of evidence which throws a whole new light on the original case and the detective’s conduct of it. She assumes that the detective must have somehow stumbled over the same information that she has found. That would certainly explain the change in his attitude. Her discovery makes for a magnificently clever plot twist that almost forced me to go back to the beginning and start reading the book again so that I could see everything one more time in light of my new knowledge about what had really happened – I assure you, the compulsion that I felt is not hyperbole. I didn’t actually go back and re-read the book, but it really was a very close run thing.

This is a superb novel. The mood of 1963 is evoked so well that you can smell and taste it. I was very familiar with places like Scardale (the fictional village where the crime was committed) and Val McDermid captured the time and the place and the people who lived there absolutely word-perfectly. The story sucks you in deeply and it refuses to let you go. Every twist and turn and plot revelation is an eye opener. McDermid could easily have ended the book with the arrest and trial of the murderer and it would still have made a first class police procedural novel. But it is the last quarter of the book, set in 1998, that turns this story from being merely a brilliant police procedural into an absolute masterpiece. The plot twist it introduces turns everything that you thought you knew about Alison Carter’s abduction and  murder on its head. Nothing, absolutely nothing about the 1963 investigation was what it seemed to be. Trust me, this one will take your breath away.

The Grave Tattoo is probably the closest that Val McDermid will ever come to writing a traditional Agatha Christie mystery. A well preserved, mummified body has been found in a peat bog in the Lake District. The body appears to date back to the eighteenth century and forensic evidence indicates that the man was murdered. Tattoos on the body suggest that at some time in his life the man must have visited the South Seas. Jane Gresham, a literary scholar specialising in the life and work of the Lake District poet William Wordsworth, is certain that the body is that of Fletcher Christian, the man who led the mutiny on the Bounty. Quite how Fletcher got back to England after the mutiny, and how he came to be murdered and buried in the bog are not (yet) clear. But if the corpse is that of Fletcher Christian, Jane is convinced that the discovery of his body is just one more link in a chain that will lead her to the discovery of a long lost epic poem written by Wordsworth…

Fletcher Christian and William Wordsworth were boyhood friends. That much is a matter of record. They attended the same schools and they wandered together, lonely as clouds, hither and yon all over the Lake District. Fletcher eventually left to pursue a career at sea and, of course, he became quite notorious for his part in the Bounty mutiny. Wordsworth himself stayed at home, but he too became very famous as the lyric poet who brought the Lake District alive to his many readers. Wordsworth eventually developed an interest in writing long, epic poems which not only told a story but which also had something profound to say about the human condition. Jane believes that if Fletcher Christian really had made it back to England he would have told his old boyhood friend William Wordsworth all about his adventures and she feels that Wordsworth would have been unable to resist writing an epic about Fletcher’s story. Unfortunately no such poem has ever been found in Wordsworth’s files. But that doesn’t mean it never existed. If Jane can track it down, her academic reputation will be ensured.

Eventually Jane finds a letter in the Wordsworth archives which suggests that Wordsworth gave a lot of papers to one of his maidservants for safe keeping. The lost epic poem might have been included in that package of papers. The maidservant eventually left Wordsworth’s employment to get married and presumably she took the papers with her. That would explain why no trace of them remains in the archives. Jane wonders if perhaps they have been passed down through the generations. Maybe they still exist, hidden in a dusty old chest somewhere in the attic of an ancient Lake District cottage. She determines to track down all the living descendants of that maidservant to see if she can find the papers.

Unfortunately all the descendants that she can find start to die mysterious deaths either just before or just after she arranges to talk to them. Is somebody else on the trail of the Wordsworth manuscript? Is somebody murdering all these people so as to prevent them from talking to Jane and stopping her  from finding the papers? If so, who could it be? And is Jane herself in any danger from this mysterious killer?

The answer to all these questions is, of course, a resounding YES. I guessed who the murderer was quite early on in the story. I was, of course, completely and utterly wrong, which only goes to prove just how clever Val McDermid is at making her red herrings so enticingly smelly. The story held me enthralled all the way to its very satisfactory ending. Agatha Christie would have been proud.

As seems to be so often the case with Laura Lippman’s stand-alone novels, And When She Was Good is a thinly disguised piece of literary fiction masquerading as a thriller. As a child, the viewpoint character grew up in an abusive family. She ran away from the abuse as soon as she was able to, and she completely cut herself off from her past. Part of that escape involved changing her name from Helen to Heloise and the rest of it involved finding a way to make a living.

She soon learns that, like every woman, she has a commodity to sell that men are always willing to buy, and it isn’t long before she is recruited by a pimp who adds her to his stable of prostitutes. It’s not a bad life, but it does have its downsides. She tries to compensate for the bad parts by sneaking out to the local library, even though her pimp forbids her from doing it. There she reads the great classics of literature in an attempt to improve both her mind and her station in life. The lessons she learns here will stand her in very good stead when the time comes for her to strike out on her own.

Eventually her pimp is arrested and jailed for murder and Heloise is finally free to make her own decisions. By now she is a single mother – the pimp liked to test out his merchandise – but Heloise has kept the fact of her pregnancy secret from him. Now that she is free from him, she is left alone with a child to feed and bills to pay. She knows only one way of paying them. She goes into business for herself, setting up her own high class escort service. However in order to give her lifestyle an air of legitimacy she runs her business under the counter as it were. Her declared way of making a living is as a lobbying service which campaigns for women’s rights. It all seems to work out quite well – the world sees a successful business woman, a young widow bringing up her son. But behind the scenes, in discreet hotel rooms throughout the area, she and her girls are the women of your dreams as long as you can afford to pay her exorbitant fees. Many people can...

For more than a decade her business has run smoothly, but now the past is coming back to haunt her.  It looks as if her pimp will soon be released from jail. This is a complication that she can do without. He has no idea that he is a father and she dreads to think what he might do when he finds out about his son. Somehow she needs to find a way of withdrawing from her life (without losing any money) so that she and her son can start afresh somewhere new with a nice little nest egg to keep them going…

Most of the plot complications (and there are a lot of plot complications) derive from the fact that prostitution is illegal. Living as I do in a country where prostitution is perfectly legal and where brothel keepers advertise job vacancies with employment agencies, I found all this quite hard to wrap my head around. I was constantly being taken by surprise as all the characters’ motives – and opportunities – revolved again and again around the central given that prostitution is both morally reprehensible and against the law. It was more than a little bit off-putting. Add to this the fact that the "mystery", such as it is, which drives the plot is a rather straight forward one, and all that you are left with is character development. This last is something that Laura Lippman always does superbly well and I certainly found myself very absorbed in the life story of Helen / Heloise, but I never quite  managed to get over the, for me, quite artificial nature of the central premise.

After I’m Gone is another stand-alone novel by Laura Lippman. The story starts in 1959 when Bernadette "Bambi" Gottschalk attends a Valentine’s Day dance at her school. Three slightly inebriated college students gatecrash the dance. And that is how Bambi first meets Felix Brewer, the man who will become the love of her life. They soon marry and have three daughters. Fellix is a rich, successful businessman and the family lead a life of contended luxury. But Felix’s business interests are not all strictly legal and in 1976 Felix, facing a jail sentence, flees the country and vanishes from sight.

Bambi’s world crashes down around her ears as she is faced with social and financial ruin. And to rub salt in the wounds, there are persistent rumours that Felix’s escape was organised with the help of his mistress, a young lady called Julie. Ten years to the day after Felix ran away, Julie herself disappears. To begin with, everyone assumes that she has gone to join Felix in whatever hidey-hole he has crawled into. But when her dead body is discovered in a secluded park, it becomes clear that something a lot more sinister has happened. Who killed her, and why? There are no significant clues and all the avenues of enquiry lead nowhere at all. Eventually the case is put on the back burner.

Twenty six years after that, the case is reopened by Roberto "Sandy" Sanchez, a retired detective who works part time as a consultant to the Baltimore police department. His job is to investigate cold cases. By now the roots of this case lie more than fifty years in the past and it seems unlikely that Sandy will make much progress with it. Nevertheless he does pick up a few clues and slowly the ancient mystery starts to unravel, exposing a tangled web of lies and deceit and jealousy. At its heart is the enigmatic Felix Brewer himself. Where is he? What complex strings has he been pulling?

The story is told in flashbacks which span all the decades from 1959 up to the present day. The flashbacks are presented from multiple points of view all of which are designed to reveal how Felix’s disappearance deeply affected the people that he left behind – his wife, his three daughters and his mistress. It is the motive which drives everything that happens in the book. The central murder mystery is fascinating, and the denouement, while not completely unexpected, still manages to come as a little bit of a surprise. But it is the relationships between the characters and the fallout from Felix’s philanderings coupled with his disappearance that makes this such a magnificent novel. It’s very clever, very understated, very subtle and very, very satisfying.

I’d never heard of John McWhorter until I listened to his magnificent audiobook Language Families of the World. McWhorter is, it seems, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He has an international reputation and he is a very big wheel indeed in the field of linguistics. Furthermore, as the lectures on this audiobook amply demonstrate, he is a hugely entertaining speaker who can explain complicated ideas in simple terms. I could listen to him talk all day long – he is erudite, witty and wise. You’ll laugh as you learn, and isn’t that the very best way to absorb information?

Language Families of the World is one of a series of audiobooks that Audible has produced under the generic heading of The Great Courses. Each consists of a series of lectures by an expert in the field. This particular course consists of thirty-four lectures, each roughly half an hour long. Each lecture discusses some aspect of human language from all over the world and emphasises the similarities and differences.

Communicating with each other by speaking a language seems to be an innate human characteristic. No human group, no matter how isolated, has ever been found that did not use some form of language. However there is no absolute standard way for a language to be organized. All languages have their idiosyncrasies. There are probably more than 7,000 languages in the world, depending on how you classify and count them, and the staggering variety of ways in which they can be organized is overwhelming.

Despite there being so many languages, and despite their sometimes mind-bogglingly complex structures ("grammars" for want of a better word), many linguists believe that all of them derive from a single prehistoric proto-language which branched and divided, spreading across the world as humanity migrated across the globe, their language(s) growing and changing as newly isolated groups invented their own ways of describing the world in which they found themselves living. Nobody has ever been able to reproduce this proto-language. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the world's current languages do belong to distinct families that have evolved over time and the sometimes surprising similarities, even between different families, do tend to outweigh the differences. All this suggests that the theory of a single proto-language might have some degree of truth to it.

It’s hard to classify language families – Afro-Asiatic, Indo-European, Nilo-Saharan, the list goes on.  McWhorter makes it quite clear that linguistic classifications are very fuzzy and subjective. Where does a dialect stop and a language begin? Where does one language stop and a new language begin? Linguists have been arguing about these kinds of things for (quite literally) centuries and they have yet to come to any firm conclusions. There is even controversy about something as seemingly simple as counting the number of languages that exist. McWhorter claims that there are two kinds of linguists, "lumpers" who like to group languages more broadly into smaller groups (he considers himself to be a lumper) and "splitters" who think that every language family is actually made up of dozens, or maybe hundreds, of distinct groups and subgroups. A splitter would consider that the quoted figure of 7,000 or so languages in total is derisorily small! The argument continues...

McWhorter covers the entire world. He tells us about the little languages of Amazonia, Australia and New Guinea. He shows us the relationships between the various Polynesian languages and tries to relate their structure to the great Polynesian migratory sea voyages. He talks about the click languages of Africa – you’ll be amazed at just how many different click sounds there are. He demonstrates some of them for us. I couldn’t hear any differences between them at all, but he insists that they are there. He has a lot to say about the oriental tonal languages (and yet again my ear failed to distinguish the tones one from another – clearly I am a hopeless linguistic failure). McWhorter even discusses the structure of ancient languages that no longer exist in the world. And of course, being himself a native Indo-European speaker (as you probably are as well), he spends an awful lot of time talking about the huge number of Indo-European languages and he even manages to come to grips with the problem of just how the extremely odd Basque language fits into the pattern.

The lectures are full of fascinating nuggets of information and lots of little puzzles. For example, it's long been considered that  indigenous North Americans are descended from people who crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia in the days when a land bridge connected the two. One bit of evidence that supports this is the fact that there is a Siberian language called Ket which linguists have identified as having a common ancestor with both Navajo and Apache. So there is very strong linguistic support in favour of an ancient geographic connection between these remote populations and land masses. Unfortunately, recent DNA tests have indicated no common genetic ancestry between the groups which kind of pulls the supports out from underneath the theory. So is the theory wrong? Or do languages have some mechanism for spreading and evolving in ways that don't always mirror the migratory patterns of the people who speak them? The jury is still out on that question, as it is on rather a lot of others as well. Clearly another few centuries of linguistic arguments are needed...

There is so much food for thought in these lectures that I have no doubt at all that I will be returning to this absolutely fascinating audiobook again and again in the future.

Stephen Fry’s Edwardian Secrets is the logical follow up to his earlier expose of Victorian secrets. Both are published by Audible and neither is available in book form – they are collections of episodic podcasts.

We tend to think of the Edwardian era as being a halcyon time of sunshine and garden parties. The age took its name from the benign and hedonistic Edward VII, Bertie to his friends and probably to his enemies as well. He was a man of gargantuan appetites, both culinary and sexual (he indulged in them both to excess – nothing exceeds like excess, as the old joke has it) and these habits too are usually considered to be typical of the era as it shook off the long, cold shadow of the Victorian decades. But rather more than the pursuit of pleasure was going on in the years that lay between 1901 and 1914...

The suffragettes were demanding the vote. We remember them rather fondly as middle- and upper-class ladies who spent their leisure time waving banners, chaining themselves to railings and, on occasion, throwing themselves under race horses. But there was a lot more to them than that – they eagerly adopted tactics that would later be used successfully by the IRA and other terrorist organisations. Suffragette bomb attacks caused a lot of casualties in these years. The ladies really were quite ruthless in their political campaigning.

Meanwhile, heavier than air devices were starting to fly. The theory of eugenics was being polished for presentation. Psychoanalysis became a fashionable investigative and diagnostic tool. Detective fiction was becoming popular. The beginnings of the tabloid press was starting to flex its muscles and in 1912 it was able to report that an unsinkable ship had gone down to the bottom of the ocean.

These stories and more are presented with all of Stephen Fry’s usual wit and charm. His polished evocation of the ups and down of the era is a constant delight.

Mary Roach’s new book Fuzz is subtitled When Nature Breaks the Law and it examines what takes place when people encounter nature in the raw. It explores the conflicts that arise between humans and animals (and between humans and plants – yes, you read that right), and it tries to indicate what might be done to ease those conflicts. And along the way a lot of insightful jokes are used to get the message across. Despite the humour, it’s a very serious message indeed if you really care about the well being of the natural world.

Just what are the perils and pitfalls that exist when a hungry bear or a big cat or an elephant or a Douglas fir tree commits murder, is caught breaking and entering, vandalizes someone’s home or simply goes jaywalking? How many of these crimes are (or should be) capital offences? Far too many, unfortunately. There was a time, some hundreds of years ago, when animals who broke the law in this manner would be formally arrested, assigned legal representation and put on trial. So at least the almost inevitable death sentence was not imposed arbitrarily. These days though, the decisions as to what needs to be done with these law breaking flora and fauna are almost certainly best made by science rather than by jurisprudence.

In search of answers to these problems of human / nature interactions, Mary Roach teams up with animal-attack forensics investigators (lots of nicely gruesome cases are described), human-elephant conflict specialists, bear managers, and tree fellers. She investigates the problems of living in leopard-terrorized hamlets in the Himalayas. She visits St. Peter’s Square in the early hours of the morning where, before the pope arrives to celebrate Easter Mass, vandal gulls swoop in to destroy the elaborate floral displays. She taste-tests rat bait, she learns how to install a vulture effigy "scarecrow", and she gets mugged by a macaque.

This book combines aspects of forensic science and conservation genetics with a motley cast of laser scarecrows, langur impersonators, and trespassing squirrels. Many of the things that Mary Roach discovers tell us as much, if not more,  about ourselves as they do about nature’s lawbreakers. Perhaps the problems arising from our interactions with the natural world are caused more by us than they are caused by the animals and plants, and so perhaps we need to look inside ourselves for the answers rather than taking out our anger and fear on the flora and fauna?

In between the hysterical anecdotes and entertaining experiences described in this book there are serious points to be made and valuable lessons to be learned. But isn’t that always the case with a Mary Roach book?

Paul Cornell Chalk Tor
Val McDermid A Place of Execution St. Martin’s Press
Val McDermid The Grave Tattoo Minotaur Books
Laura Lippman And When She Was Good William Morrow
Laura Lippman Laura LippmanAfter I'm Gone William Morrow
John McWhorter Languages Families of the World Audible
Stephen Fry Edwardian Secrets Audible
Mary Roach Fuzz W. W. Norton
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