A double helping of Maigret

One of the great things about Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels is that they’re short. Each features a story told in full, but achieved within 160 pages or so – in this he resembles Muriel Spark. No words are wasted and there is no flowery language. Indeed, Simenon was known for cutting out ‘beautiful sentences’, editing out unnecessary descriptives and adverbs – in this he also resembles Elmore Leonard. Or rather given that Simenon started writing decades previously, perhaps they resemble him in these respects. More recently, Pascal Garnier has been labelled as the heir to Simenon; true, his novels are short and noir, recalling Simenon’s romans durs, but they are deliciously comic in their nastiness, whereas I wouldn’t say that any of Simenon’s works are overtly funny – although as a character, Maigret is not without a sense of humour!

I read a lot of Maigrets when I was a teenager, but none since except for The Bar on the Seine back when this blog was new and I’d acquired a cheap set of nine Penguin ‘Red’ Maigrets from The Book People in 2006. Now, with the Penguin reissues in wonderful new liveries, and mostly new translations, I plan to make reading his novels a regular thing, not least because their length makes them perfect for the train journey to and from London or as palate cleansers between other tomes.

Let me tell you about the two Maigret novels I read last week – one from the new series, one from the old:

Pietr the Latvian

Maigret 1 Pietr the Latvian This was the first Maigret novel, published originally in serial form in 1931 – yes that long ago! At the beginning Maigret is stoking his office stove when a message comes from Interpol that a wanted international conman known as Pietr the Latvian is due to arrive at the Gare du Nord. Maigret hurries off to meet the train:

He stood still. Other people were agitated. A young woman clad in mink yet wearing only sheer silk stockings walked up and down, stamping her heels.
He just stood there: a hulk of a man, with shoulders so broad as to cast a wide shadow. When people bumped into him he stayed as firm as a brick wall.

Just as he has spotted his man with a retinue of hotel porters in the crowds getting off the train, a shout alerts him that the police are needed – a body, shot,  has been found on the train, and his quarry gets away. No worry, Maigret knows where they were headed. However the corpse also matches the description of the Latvian, but Maigret has a hunch about the other man and goes to the Hotel Majestic, where he openly stalks ‘Mr Oppenheim’ who dines with a wealthy couple at the hotel – later all three will vanish from the hotel.

Back at the office, a strand of hair in a glassine envelope that had stored a photograph was the only posession on the body from the train. An address in Fécamp, a town on the Normandy coast, has been faintly imprinted on it. Dispatching Torrence to the Hotel Majestic, Maigret goes to Normandy and stakes out the house of the envelope’s owner, standing in an alleyway in the pouring rain:

Maigret worked like any other policeman. Like everyone else, he used the amazing tools that men like Bertillon, Reiss and Locard have given the police – anthropometry, the principle of the trace, and so forth – and that have turned detection into forensic science. But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent.

That last quote encapsulates to me the essence of Maigret’s style of detecting. Waiting and watching. Maigret, however, doesn’t always do this passively – he is not beyond pushing buttons to see what happens, more often than not confirming his hunches.  Needless to say, Maigret clears up the mystery of the identities of Pietr the Latvian and the body on the train, but not without some psychological intrigue, twists and more gunfire.

In this first Maigret novel, we may get to know the figure of Maigret – his solid presence and how he works, but little of his personality – that will surely follow.  In the last chapter of Pietr the Latvian, we also briefly meet Madame Maigret who bustles about looking after him, an unexpectedly jolly woman, I can imagine the pair of them, her gently henpecking him, and him indulgently letting her do it in subsequent outings.

David Bellos translated this new edition and it certainly didn’t disappoint – it was fresh and reflected the character of Maigret in the prose – a great start to the series. (7.5/10)

The Yellow Dog


2006 Penguin Red Classic cover

This is the fifth or sixth Maigret book depending on which source you read (I’m finding the Maigret Bibliography and other pages at Trussel.com very helpful. There, The Yellow Dog is the 6th book, also published in 1931). The edition I read, the Penguin Red Classic from 2006 was translated by Linda Asher, and this translation has been retained for the new editions (although I don’t know it it has been changed at all).

It is set in the fishing port of Concarneau in Brittany, a location which Simenon must have known well, for at the bloggers’ reception I went to last weekend, John Simenon told me that many of the buildings described in the book actually exist, including the bar and hotel which are at the centre of the story (see here for an article in French by John Simenon about them).

One November evening, a shot rings out in Concarneau. One of the town’s notables, the wine dealer Mostaguen was shot at point-blank range through a letter-box as he sheltered in a doorway to light a cigar after leaving the Admiral Café. A large yellow stray dog is seen in the vicinity, assumed to belong to the would-be murderer. Maigret, who has been helping the Rennes police force, attends the next day bringing the young detective Leroy with him.

Installed at the hotel, Maigret goes to drink with Mostaguen’s circle of friends, when Michoux, a former doctor, notices grains in their drinks which are identified as strychnine. Next day, another of the group, Servières disappears, his car found abandoned and blood-stained. Sensing a potential serial killer story, the town is besieged by journalists and in coming days the Mayor presses Maigret constantly to find the killer, whom they presume to be a vagrant – with a yellow dog…

Maigret lets Leroy do all the conventional detecting, while he assumes his usual waiting and watching alongside cultivating the waitress Emma who works at the bar:

Maigret’s gaze fell on a yellow dog lying beneath the till. Raising his eyes, he saw a black skirt, a white apron, a face with no particular grace, yet so appealing that throughout the conversation that followed he hardly stopped watching it.
Whenever he turned away, moreover, the waitress, in turn, fixed her agitated gaze on him.

Yellow dog new

New edition

The Yellow Dog is a great yarn – everyone involved seems to have something to hide, especially Emma perhaps? Maigret obviously has his suspicions as to whodunnit early on, but we don’t find out the full story until the cast are gathered together for the denouement, very much as Hercules Poiret so loves to do. The younger Leroy gives Maigret a chance to offer fatherly advice about more intuitive detecting style based on observation rather than forensics, which was a nice touch, but Maigret’s co-star in this short but complex tale is Concarneau itself. The events happen in the depressed off-season, when the contrasts between the haves and the have-nots in town are at their greatest – in the summer everyone works. The notables believe that only an unemployed social outcast could be capable of these dastardly acts, but Maigret’s sympathies lay firmly on the side of poor downtrodden Emma and the vagrant, whom we’ll meet in time.

I don’t think I’d ever have been able to work out whodunnit in The Yellow Dog; for a mystery of a mere 130 pages, the plot was surprisingly complex. I  really liked Maigret more in this novel – his non-judgemental support of the underdog, not suffering fools like the mayor gladly and his ability to say no comment without actually having to say it. Translator Linda Asher is able to bring the town and the tail-end of autumn’s weather alive, whilst giving Maigret some joviality and a bit of a twinkle in his eye, which made this such fun to read. (9/10)

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Source: Own Copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Pietr the Latvian: Inspector Maigret #1 by Georges Simenon, trans David Bellow. Pengiun classics, 2013 edition, pbk 176 pages.
The Yellow Dog: Inspector Maigret #5 by Georges Simenon, trans Linda Asher. Penguin classics, 2014 edition, pbk 144 pages.

A Dance to the Music of Time 4: At Lady Molly’s

Dancing Powell

At Lady Molly’s by Anthony Powell

Dance 4 Lady MollysWe reach Summer with volume four of Powell’s sequence following the life of Nick Jenkins and his contemporaries.The initial three Spring novels were about growing up and establishing oneself in the world and in The Acceptance World took a rather serious turn. That done, there’s time for a breather. Summer is going to be about consolidation and much more fun; for Jenkins et al that will mean thoughts of marriage!

It starts with Jenkins remembering an episode from his childhood when he encountered Mildred Blaides at the home of General and her much older sister Mrs Conyers. in 1916 Blaides, working as an indifferent volunteer nurse is emancipated and an independent spirit, smokes ‘gaspers’, wears ‘glad rags’ and ‘beetles’ about.  This start made a change from the previous three novels which all started with Jenkins reflecting on a work of art – but I needn’t have worried for on page 10 back in 1934, Jenkins recalls Constable’s painting of Dogdene, the home of the Sleafords, which became an officers hospital during WWI.

In 1934, Jenkins has moved on from the art publishing firm and is now a scriptwriter at film studios to the west of London. It is his colleague Chips Lovell who takes him to his Aunt Molly’s (an Ardglass and sister to Lady Warminster who is stepmother to the Tolland girls, she married into the Sleafords, and is now married to Captain Teddy Jeavons – got that?). They have an open house in the evenings, (but it is a much higher class affair than the wilder nights at Mrs Andriadis’ in the second book). It is here that he finds out who the potential second husband of Mildred is:

I myself was curious to see what Mildred Blaides – or rather Mildred Haycock – might look like after all these years, half expecting her to be wearing her V.A.D. outfit and smoking a cigarette. But when my eyes fell on the two of them, it was the man, not the woman, who held my attention. Life is full of internal dramas, instantaneous and sensational, played to an audience of one. This was just such a performance. The fiancé was Widmerpool. Scarlet in the face, grinning agitatedly through the thick lenses of his spectacles, he advanced into the room, his hand on Mrs. Haycock’s arm. … There was something a little frightening about him. That could not be denied. …

‘Well, he is no beauty,’ said Mrs. Conyers.

Oh dear!  It’s obvious that this relationship will be doomed from the outset, yet you have to credit Widmerpool for being so dogged in his pursuit of social standing – but to choose an older woman who is so used to getting her own way seems ridiculous. The vision of Mildred the cougar and Widmerpool the toy boy is hilarious. Mildred is a demanding fiancée and ere long Widmerpool is struck down by jaundice, leaving her to carry on regardless. Nick finds himself questioned on all sides about Widmerpool’s parentage, and then by Widmerpool himself for some advice in the bedroom department!

Inbetween, all the usual intrigue and wife-swapping goes on between Nick’s friends and acquaintances. It’s hard to keep up with them all and the families seem to be so inter-related just beyond the level that would be incest! Eventually, Nick meets Isobel Tolland and he instantly knows that she is the one.

This volume is a real comedy of manners. Widmerpool, as usual, is the target or cause of most of the happenings, but as always, he soldiers on. All the jolliness has to be played against the rise of Hitler and Fascism which is always in the background now. It will be interesting to see how WWII affects this set in subsequent volumes.  However, back to the comedy: one new character is introduced in this book who is hilarious – Smith, the butler. He buttles for Lord Warminster (brother-in-law of Lady Molly’s sister), known as Erridge or Erry. He is rude, lazy and working his way through the wine cellar – but Lady Molly borrows him from time to time. Uncle Giles only gets a mention this time, but Nick has ready-made Giles substitutes in Teddy Jeavons and General Conyers.

I really enjoyed At Lady Molly’s and am thoroughly immersed in my monthly doses of Jenkins’ world – Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant next… (9/10)

My reviews of the previous volumes:
1 – A Question of Upbringing
2 – A Buyer’s Market
3 – The Acceptance World

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Source: Own Copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
At Lady Molly’s (Dance to the Music of Time) by Anthony Powell (1957) Arrow pbk, 256 pages.

My Books of the Year 2014 – Part Two – The Blog edit

Yesterday I shared my best reads of 2014 as reviewed for Shiny New Books. Today, I turn my attention to titles reviewed here. The links will return you to my full reviews:

Best Retro-Subversive Laugh-Out-Loud Book

scarfolkDiscovering Scarfolk by Richard Littler

So nearly my book of the year, Discovering Scarfolk is just hilarious! Stuck firmly in the 1970s world of public information films and Cold War paranoia, every page of this little book which is designed from front to back yields gems of parody and references in its tale of a missing man who got stuck in the unique town of Scarfolk.

There is also an comic twist to each illustration too, which ironically does make you look again to see if you missed anything…

For more information please reread this poster.


Best Illustrations

sleeper spindle 1The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

sleeper spindle 2Gaiman’s reworked fairy tale is fabulous on its own, but with Chris Riddell’s illustrations it reaches a new height.

Inked in black and white with gold highlights, Riddell’s characteristic strong-browed young women, cheerful groteseques and skull-like gargoyles are simply gorgeous.



Horrorstor_final_300dpiBest Cover Art

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

And whilst we’re on the subject of illustration, I must mention the best cover concept of the year – in this horror spoof of the IKEA catalogue.

The graphic design extends to the inside of the novel too with lots of attention to detail, but the story itself, although entertaining, is standard horror fare.

Best in Translation

my brilliant friendMy Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (trans. Ann Goldstein)

Like many this year, I too have caught ‘Ferrante Fever’. The first in a sequence of four novels by the elusive Italian author captures growing up in backstreet Naples in the 1950s perfectly for two young girls. Volumes two and three are now available, with the fourth to come. I’m so looking forward to catching up with Elena and Lila’s lives.


Best Medical Drama

Dirty WorkDirty Work by Gabriel Weston

The second book by Weston, a surgeon herself,  is a novel that looks at one of the toughest things that obs & gynae surgeons may ever have to do – provide abortions.  It was not an easy book given its subject matter, but it was completely compelling to read and gives a profound insight into this difficult area.


Best Sequel

echoThe Echo by James Smythe

My book group will disagree with this choice for they hated the first book (The Explorer) in this planned quartet. However, I loved the utter claustrophobia of outer space in these books, and The Echo takes the central premise of the first book and keeps twisting it further with great effect. Roll on the third volume I say.


Best Book-Group Choice?

all-quiet-on-the-western-frontAll Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maris Remarque

Arguably, we read some great books this year including Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, but the added poignancy of reading this novel of WWI during the centenary month of August was very fitting and moving too. Our discussions were wide-ranging and everyone enjoyed the book, proving you don’t always need a voice of dissent to have a good book group meeting.

Best YA Shocker

BunkerThe Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

I am glad to have read the controversial Carnegie Medal winner to see for myself what it was all about. I can honestly say it is the bleakest novel I have ever read and it is for younger teens and upwards. If it had been written for adults, we wouldn’t find it so shocking at all, but despite its subject, I wouldn’t stop any child from reading it – I would encourage discussion afterwards though!


… And Finally, My ‘Blog’ Book of the Year

hangover squareHangover Square
by Patrick Hamilton

I read this back in January it is still, frankly, the best book I’ve read all year.

Set in 1938 pre-war Earls Court in London, this is the story of George Harvey Bone and his unrequited love for the teasing Netta. This tragic novel is billed as a black comedy, and I suppose it is in a way. The laughs, however are never at George’s expense. When they come, it is Netta and her friends we laugh at, over their outrageously bad behaviour that makes them targets for our scorn. I nearly cried for George, wishing he hadn’t spotted her across a crowded room that day.

Hamilton’s prose is beautiful, incendiary, moving, clinical, full of ennui – everything it needs to be to tell George’s story. I shall be reading more Hamilton in 2015.

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So that’s it for my Books of the Year.
Have you read any of these from yesterday or today?
Do share yours too.

Back to Pre-War Berlin …

The Winter Garden by Jane Thynne

winter garden

Last year, I was thrilled with Black Roses (my review), actress/spy Clara Vine’s first outing in 1930s Berlin, in which she became accepted in the high social circles of the First Reich’s wives. This was the story of how Clara came to Berlin to act in the movies, but got sidetracked into the Reich Fashion Bureau headed by Magda Goebbels and later became a spy.

In a later Q&A with the author, Jane teased about the Mitfords making an appearance in volume two of the planned trilogy.  I couldn’t wait for The Winter Garden

It is now 1937 and sadly, Leo Quinn, the spy who recruited and loved Clara in Black Roses has gone back to England. Clara is living alone and is shortly to start filming her first starring role as the wife of a Luftwaffe pilot at the famous Ufa studios in Berlin. Enough of Clara though for the moment, for The Winter Garden starts with the murder of Anna Hansen at Himmler’s Bride School, set up to train fiancées of SS officers to be perfect Nazi wives.  Shockingly, it really existed – and you couldn’t marry an SS officer without graduating from the two month course.

Today they had been focusing on ‘Cooking Without Butter’ because of the shortage, and very dull it had been too. Though that was no bad thing, Anna thought, because all these regular meals were making her plump. After lunch came Culture, consisting of a talk on fairy tales. All brides needed to learn fairy tales because the German mother was the ‘culture bearer’ to the next generation. Today’s lecturer had explained how in Cinderella it was the prince’s Germanic instincts that led him to reject the step-sisters’ alien blood and search for a maiden who was racially pure.

It turns out that Clara knew Anna, who had been a dancer and artist’s model (which introduces the degenerate art exhibition), before changing tack to become respectable and when Clara’s American journalist friend Mary visits the Bride School, Anna’s room-mate gives her Anna’s little writing case to take back to Anna’s family.  Little do they know what the case contains …

Clara is invited to a party by Magda Goebbels, ostensibly to act as a translator.  I must admit, I was sort of ‘glad’ to see all the first ladies of the Reich reappear in this second volume, they gave a sense of continuity!  However, Magda and the others are merely on the sidelines this time. I did love their little rebellion though, when, on hearing that the Führer wouldn’t be coming to a party, they got out their French couture dresses that he so disapproved of.

Also arriving in Berlin are Edward and Mrs Simpson, and Diana and Unity Mitford are already well entrenched. All the right-wing English notables are being cultivated and encouraged by Hitler. Clara needs to find out about the Mitfords, so she takes Emmy Goering who is pregnant a present …

‘Unity Mitford!’ Emmy Goerring grimaced. ‘That girl with her staring saucer eyes and the Party badge on her heaving bosom. The men call her Mitfahrt – the travelling companion – because she’s always there. She absolutely dogged Hitler’s heels at the rally. She spends every lunchtime at the Osteria Bavaria in the hope of catching Hitler’s eye. She’s dreadfully jealous of Eva Braun, of course, terrified that Eva comes first in Hitler’s affections. I’ve told her, it’s a bit late to worry about that. Eva has her own room in the Reich Chancellery, doesn’t she?’
‘So Unity’s not popular then?’
‘No one can understand why the Führer likes her. Apparently, he loves the fact that her middle name is Valkyrie. Eva says, well, she looks the part, especially the legs. Himmler hates her too. He thinks she might be a spy. He has a tame SS man follow her around, posing as a photographer. But I said to Heinrich, spies don’t go around dressed in a home-made storm-trooper’s uniform, do they? …’

So we already have the murder mystery and all the excitement caused by the Mitfords and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and a third main strand is added to the novel. This involves the Luftwaffe, and here Clara is able to help get information by virtue of her next film role being the wife of a pilot – it’s research.  This is where Clara finds a new lover, and cultivates a Luftwaffe test pilot who of course falls for her – at least slightly.  Everything gets stirred up, and Clara ends up in a precarious situation, as you’d expect of any good spy novel. I won’t elucidate any further.

Jane Thynne has again done her research impeccably – all the details seem perfect.  I was slightly disappointed at first that Leo was out of the picture, but that frees Clara for other relationships. I did feel that there was a lot going on in this volume, and that maybe the Anna story or the Luftwaffe story would have been enough on their own – we could have had a quartet rather than a trilogy. That is a minor quibble, for being immersed in Clara’s world is getting addictive and the stakes are getting higher and higher as war nears. The final part of the trilogy, A War of Flowers, will be published in 2015 – and I’ll be waiting for it!  (9/10)

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Source: The Publisher sent me a lovely signed copy – thank you to them and Jane.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

The Winter Gardenby Jane Thynne, pub Feb 2014 by Simon & Schuster, hardback 432 pages.
Black Roses by Jane Thynne, paperback.


The Grand Budapest Hotel – what a film!

The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-PosterImaginthe-grand-budapest-hotel-featurette-the-storye one of those old grand spa hotels from the early 1930s in an Eastern European alpine setting – a destination in its own right, busy, happening and very posh. Fast forward a few decades to faded grandeur marred by 1970s orange everywhere, near-empty, peopled just by the curious, or those on a bargain package… such is the plight of The Grand Budapest Hotel in Wes Anderson’s latest film.

What happened to the hotel? What was it like in its heyday?  Framed as a story within a story within a story, Anderson tells the story of Gustave H. – the best, the most attentive hotel concierge you’ve ever seen, and the events that got him into trouble.

Ralph Fiennes is Gustave, the concierge with an attention for detail nonpareil, who keeps all his old lady clients, including an unrecognisable Tilda Swinton as Madame D. a dowager on her last legs, ‘entertained’.

The hotel has a new Lobby Boy – Zero, played by Tony Revolori, whom Gustave takes under his wing. Gustave will teach him to ‘Anticipate the needs before the needs are needed.

When Madame D. dies, they go on an adventure together.  Against the wishes of her sons (Adrien Brody and Willem Dafoe), she had left a priceless painting to Gustave.  In a moment of impulsiveness, Gustave takes the painting and runs – leaving him open to being prime suspect when it becomes clear that Madame D was murdered.  A series of hilarious capers ensues as Gustave is caught, escapes, and seeks out the truth.

The look of the film is sumptuous. All the interiors are plush and lush, or dark and brooding as needed. It is always snowing in this alpine region, but it never feels cold – strange that.  However, having made the wonderful stop-motion Fantastic Mr Fox (my favourite Wes Anderson film until now), the director has built in some animated sequences too – the hotel from afar is seen as a cut-out against a screen backdrop and there are trademark scenes of running characters seen in silhouette against the sky – they blend perfectly into the action.  References abound too – from the police inspector’s fox head badge to scenes of long, and I mean really long, ladders. I loved all this.

Then there is the cast – I can honestly say that I can’t think of another film that has so many cameos of star quality as this one.  Apart from Gustave, Zero, the nasty brothers and Jeff Goldblum as the lawyer, the other main parts are all small but lovely – Harvey Keitel’s tattooed prisoner, Ed Norton’s police inspector, Tilda Swinton possibly stand out, but they are all wonderful.  All of Anderson’s usual collaborators are there, including Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman too.  (Doesn’t Adrien Brody look a proper gorgeous villain with that ‘tache?)


Dominating though is Fiennes as the normally unflappable Gustave, who when flapped is totally hilarious, other times effortlessly charming, the perfect host, and always just slightly camp, darling.  Revolori makes an excellent foil – although he does get cross when Gustave can’t help flirting with his girlfriend (Saiorse Ronan).


I haven’t mentioned the music yet either – lots of balalaikas – I adore balalaikas so much I’ve bought the soundtrack album.  In fact I want a balalaika too!

Now I can’t wait for the book of Stefan Zweig writings that inspired the film to arrive now…

This film is vintage Anderson, quirky, quietly hilarious, brilliantly acted, and with an exceptional attention to detail. It was utterly, utterly fab, and I’d go and see it again without a doubt (if I wasn’t too busy).

Q&A with Jane Thynne, author of ‘Black Roses’

Back in March, I reviewed a fabulous romantic thriller set in pre-WWII Germany. Black Roses by Jane Thynne is the story of Clara Vine, a young actress who goes to Berlin to pursue a film career and ends up as a British spy and confidante of Magda Goebbels, the infamous First Lady of the Third Reich. I loved reading the book and was delighted to find out that it was the first of a planned trilogy.

black rosesNow the paperback edition is coming out (cover left), and her publisher contacted me to ask if I’d like to do a Q&A with Jane as part of her blog tour. I said, ‘yes,’ of course.

So please join with me to welcome Black Roses author, Jane Thynne, to my blog.

Annabel: The years immediately preceding WWII are proving to be fertile ground for novelists at the moment. What was it that drew you to that particular period in time?

Jane: Auden might have described them as ‘a low, dishonest decade’ but to me the 1930s were one of the most fascinating periods. The world was poised between two ideologies – Communism and Fascism – and everyone knew war was round the corner unless frantic efforts were made to avert it. In Berlin, the thrilling, mind-expanding Weimar excess had produced a vibrant artistic atmosphere, until the Nazis arrived. The world of espionage, referenced in Black Roses, was just getting going, and the British were building a secret service, with all the daring, ingenuity and risks that involved.

A: The Nazi wives are fascinating – it was interesting to see their different characters coming through in the novel, but Magda Goebbels is something else!  She way she picked Clara to be her confidante showed how insecure she was underneath the ice maiden exterior though. Was it difficult to write her softer side?


Jane: As soon as I came across Magda, I knew there was a novel in her. Her appointment by Hitler to head the Reich Fashion Bureau was ironic because she was addicted to French haute couture, but when I discovered that she had been engaged to a leading Zionist, the contradictions in her life really cried out for exploration.  She was a moody, nervy, unhappy woman, and while I wouldn’t say I sympathised with her – she was a convinced Nazi – it was hard not to empathise. Her husband was a monster, and she laid bare her unhappiness in letters, which were a great help when I was writing.

A: I really enjoyed the relationship between Leo and his boss in Black Roses. It reminded me somewhat of that between George Smiley and Control in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  How did you research the spy-craft?  What did your husband think of you invading his territory?

Jane: I’d never thought of myself as a spy writer, but the more I researched the tradecraft – mostly from memoirs – the more fascinating it became. It was the early days of the secret service and all those Le Carré tricks – Dead Letter Boxes, Brush Contacts, surveillance techniques – were around, but there was more life and death urgency than in the later, somewhat jaded Cold War period. As to my husband’s territory . . . His name is Philip Kerr and he’s written ten books about a 1930’s Berlin detective, which means we can talk for hours about the period. Our children are well used to Nazis round the supper table!  But my emphasis is far more on the female side of the Third Reich – the social and domestic side. In fact we’ve even done events together, each focusing on a particular area.

A: I haven’t asked about Clara yet. Obviously, having a right-wing father was instrumental in her being accepted in Germany even though she rejects his politics, and she seems so independent even before she goes to Germany.  I wondered whether she’d have known the Mitfords in London – were they in any way an influence?

Black Roses by Jane Thynne - Hardback

Jane: How perceptive you are, Annabel! Clara does indeed know the Mitford sisters from her life in London and in the next novel, published in February, Diana and Unity make a significant appearance. They epitomised the part of the English establishment that was impressed by Hitler and wanted to appease his territorial ambitions. That faction was pretty influential in British politics of the time, and if things had gone a different way – if for example Edward VIII had not abdicated over Wallis Simpson – then the Great Alliance Hitler dreamed of between Germany and Britain might have prevailed.

A: Finally, knowing that the next book in the trilogy, The Winter Garden will have scenes set in Munich in Bavaria, I wondered will we be seeing Clara modelling a dirndl?

Jane: Munich was the crucible of Nazism, and in 1937 they staged an exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’ – featuring masterpieces by Klimt, Klee, Picasso, etc, that was intended to denigrate those artists, but had people queuing round the block. An urgent mission takes Clara to Munich where she sees this exhibition, though she doesn’t actually wear traditional Bavarian costume. However, in A War Of Flowers, which I’m currently writing, set in 1938, Clara finds herself in more nerve-shredding circumstances, which do, indeed, require a dirndl!

Thank you so much for answering my questions Jane, it was fascinating to hear about some of the inspirations for the trilogy.  Very best wishes with the book, and I can’t wait to read The Winter Garden next February!

The paperback of Black Roses is published on Thursday 24th October by Simon and Schuster; (buy at Amazon UK), I highly recommend it.

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  • Jane’s husband, Philip Kerr, writes the highly regarded Bernie Gunther spy novels – I bought the first three in an omnibus edition (buy at Amazon UK) – I’m looking forward to reading them.
  • You might like to see my own ‘Dirndl’ moment, which I wrote about in a post back here.
  • Jane’s blog tour continues for the rest of the week – see the destinations below.

Blog Tour banner  copy

Greene for Gran – “Something will turn up.”

I’m joining in Simon Savidge’s tribute to his late gran – Greene for Gran, reading one (or more) books by her favourite author during August. The first novel I’ve read is…

England Made Me by Graham Greene

england made me 2 I thought I’d read all of Greene’s novels, but I found one on my shelf that I hadn’t read before. It was amongst the books I inherited from my late mum, so was particularly appropriate. I had to make sure I had the right reading glasses on though, this traditional small format 1970 Penguin edition has tiny text.

England Made Me is one of his early novels, the sixth, and was published in 1935 when he was 31. It was republished with the title Shipwrecked in 1953.

A pre-war morality tale, it concerns twins, Anthony and Kate Farrant. Brother and sister are at first glance like chalk and cheese which makes for a good set-up.  Here’s the beginning …

She might have been waiting for her lover. For three quarters of an hour she had sat on the same high stool, half turned from the counter, watching the swing door. Behind her the ham sandwiches were piled under a glass dome, the urns gently steamed. As the door swung open, the smoke of engines silted in, grit on the skin and like copper on the tongue.

But it’s Anthony she’s waiting for. He eventually turns up, apologetic but unrepentant, and telling her the same old story:

‘I’ve resigned.’
But she had heard that tale too often; it had been the yearly fatal drumming in their father’s ears which helped to kill him. He had not been able to answer a telephone without anxiety – ‘I have resigned’, ‘I have resigned’, proudly as if it had been matter for congratulation – and afterwards the cables from the East tremblingly opened. ‘I have resigned’ from Shanghai, ‘I have resigned’ from Bangkok, ‘I have resigned’ from Aden, creeping remorselessly nearer. Their father had believed to the end the literal truth of those cables, signed even to relatives with faint grandiloquence in full, ‘Anthony Farrant’, But Kate had always known too much; to her these messages conveyed – ‘Sacked. I am sacked. Sacked.’

England made me 1

So we have the measure of Anthony, a waster and sponger, reliant on false brotherhood conferred by an old school tie which he is not entitled to wear; fired each time he is found out.

But what of Kate? She may despair of Anthony, but as his twin there is a very strong bond between them.  She’s an ex-pat too, however, she has a steady job as secretary – and lover, to Krogh, a Swedish financier and industrialist living and working in Stockholm.

Krogh is the epitome of the fat cat who has got rich by shady dealings – exploiting monopolies and insider trading, price fixing; all common practice to him. Greene apparently based him on a real Swedish magnate – Ivar Kreuger, whose empire was founded on matches.

Kate takes Anthony back to Stockholm with her, and gets him a job as Krogh’s bodyguard.  Krogh’s life is ruled by the attentions of the newspapers and paparazzi.  His every move is chronicled, he can’t go anywhere without it being reported and commented upon, especially by Minty, a down-at-heel journalist and perennial victim.

Farrant plays the middle game – sort of befriending Minty and Krogh.  He persuades Krogh, who habitually goes to the opera most nights, to come out of his shell a little, to escape the paparazzi and go to a club; he tells Minty he’ll get the exclusive when there’s a story.  Underneath it all, Farrant is a decent chap. Then one day Krogh asks him to do something which is against Anthony’s internal moral code – which way will he go?

A complication is added in the form of a girl for Anthony, Lucia, on holiday with her parents. Anthony falls for her and for perhaps the first time, Kate is worried about the possibility of her not being the number one female in his life. Being a twin, their bond has been so strong, she likens excision of it to be akin to an abortion!

This novel is truly murky on all fronts, including the autumnal mists of Stockholm as it prepares for the end of the season.  This is not one of Greene’s ‘entertainments’, it’s dark and serious and full of moral dilemmas. None of the characters are likeable, although Anthony has puppyish moments about him. Kate is too brittle and too involved, and Krogh is a tyrant. The seedy Minty has public interest at heart though, and helps Farrant with his decision.

england made me film posterGiven that it was published in 1935, I wondered why it had been set in famously neutral Sweden, it gave the whole rather an air of blandness, and the northern European setting is unusual for Greene.
The novel was filmed in the 1970s with Peter Finch as Krogh and Michael York as Farrant, but they relocated it to Nazi Germany, which I’m sure added a frisson of excitement – but maybe less shades of grey?

So, not my favourite Greene, but still a fascinating read with complex characters and some great descriptive moments. (7/10)

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Source: Inherited copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
England Made Me : by Graham Greene, Vintage paperback.

A tale of two women in 1930s Berlin…

Black Roses by Jane Thynne

Black Roses by Jane Thynne Remembering Jane Thynne’s columns and reviews in the Daily Telegraph, and having read that she is married to thriller writer Philip Kerr, I had high hopes of her new novel, set in Berlin during the years preceding WWII. I wasn’t disappointed, for Black Roses is a brilliant historical thriller based on real events with two strong female characters at its core.

One is Clara Vine, an aspiring actress of Anglo-German descent. Her father is a right-wing British politician who has no time for his daughter.  So Clara leaves London for Berlin, after a chance meeting in which she was assured there’ll be a part for her in a new film called Black Roses being made at the world-famous Ufa studios, where Leni Riefenstahl is queen.

The other woman … is Magda Goebbels, the most infamous woman of the Third Reich, and one of those people who once encountered is never forgotten. Some years ago, I remember watching the film Downfall, a German film that tells the story of Hitler’s last months. It was late at night and I was on my own, totally riveted by the movie, and when it got to the scene where they’re all in the bunker and Magda Goebbels coolly murders all six of her children with cyanide pills, I dissolved into a sobbing heap of tears.  Any novel that could bring her to life would be a must-read book for me.

Back to Berlin, Clara settles in, but is disappointed to find that there is no sign of that film part for her. She makes friends with a German actress Helga, who takes her to a political soirée and introduces her to the new aides to Doktor Goebbels. Sturmhauptführer Müller is tall, handsome, and instantly taken with Clara, especially once he learns who her father is.  However, she can’t keep his attention:

Suddenly Müller rose to his feet. Craning behind her, Clara was aware of a tall woman approaching them, her heels clicking on the black and white marble floor. She wore a Schiaparelli evening gown in ivory, which flattered her creamy skin, and pearls the size of little birds’ eggs hung round her neck. Her platinum hair was waved tightly around her face and a gust of perfume attended her. The flesh of her arms had the dense solidity of a Greek statue, and her eyes had a statue’s veiled, impenetrable stare.
‘Herr Doktor Müller! Just who I wanted to see!’
‘Müller clicked his heels. ‘Frau Doktor Goebbels. How are you?’
She had a deep, fluting voice, a little clipped. ‘Good, thank you, though a little tired with the move.’
‘I heard. Is the new house to you liking?’
She sighed. ‘The apartment was becoming too cramped. I liked it, but Joseph wanted something that fit better with his official duties.’
Müller gestured towards Clara. ‘This is Clara Vine. She’s the daughter of Sir Ronald Vine, the English politican.’
The woman seemed to notice Clara for the first time and looked at her curiously.

Clara is invited to Magda’s cocktail party the following night, and thus begins their curious relationship. Clara finds herself adopted by Magda, and is persuaded to become a model for a pet project of Hitler’s, the Deutsches Modeamt, of which Magda is president.  It’s a state fashion bureau to encourage German women to dress like traditional German women in German-manufactured clothes replacing the bourgeois French fashion. All the top Nazi WAGs are involved including Annelies Von Ribbentop and Goering’s girlfriend. Clara is a quietly assertive and discreet girl, and the Nazis all begin to take her into their confidences.

Enter Leo Quinn, a junior diplomat at the British embassy, who works undercover for British intelligence.  Meeting Clara at a function, he is keen to recruit her to report back on the Nazi wives … and Müller who is becoming persistent in his attention.  Clara agrees to help Leo, and he starts to teach her some spycraft, but they didn’t reckon on falling in love.  Clara is torn between love and duty, but bravely carries on.  Magda talks candidly:

‘The thing is, my dear, it’s hard to understand, but if we let them, the Jews and the Communists would take everything. It’s their way. Look what the Bolsheviks did to the Russian royal family. I don’t think I’ll ever  forget the newspaper picture, when all those children of the royal family were murdered. Murdered in cold blood. All those little faces lined up. What kind of person could do that? Those poor children. Images like that never leave your mind.’

That quote above got me as you can imagine.  Magda is obviously very unhappy, hiding it behind an icy exterior that rarely melts. I hate to sound the slightest bit sympathetic towards this modern Medea, but having discovered snippets of her life pre-Goebbels, I am beginning to understand just a little of the pressure that made her that way.  I am keen to read more about her, and now have a copy of Anna Klabunde’s biography of her on my shelves, and I have a copy of Meike Ziervogel’s  new novelisation of her life on order.

This novel gives a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these women. They were used to being clothes-horses for haute-couture, but were now being urged to be models for the new regime.  Magda is totally staunch in her support for Hitler, (who had been the witness at her wedding to Joseph).

Being a fan of spy novels, I enjoyed the espionage aspects of this novel hugely.  For a fledgling spy, Clara has to take some big risks and I had my fingers crossed for her.  Leo is intriguing.  As a spook, he has a major flaw in falling for his agent, although that sort of thing surely did happen.  His relationship with his boss and quiet diplomatic presence give a nod to Le Carré’s George Smiley and Control.

I did wonder how the novel was going to finish – whether there would be a tragic end for Clara.  I loved the combination of the womens’ story and spying, finding that the jeopardy really added another level of enjoyment. I hesitate to let the cat out of the bag, but Thynne has made no secret that Black Roses is the first of a trilogy featuring Clara Vine.  Hurrah!  I loved this book and look forward to lots more espionage in The Winter Garden (to be published in 2014). (9/10)

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My copy came from the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Black Rosesby Jane Thynne. Simon & Schuster hardback, pub 28 March 2013. 480 pages.
Magda Goebbelsby Anja Klabunde
Magdaby Meike Ziervogel, pub April.
Downfall (2 Disc Edition) [DVD] [2005]

A tale of motherhood across generations…

The Confidantby Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson

The Confidant by Helen Gremillon

I got a letter one day, a long letter that wasn’t signed. This was quite an event, because I’ve never received much mail in my life. My letter box had never done anything more than inform me that the-sea-was-warm or that the-snow-was-good, so I didn’t open it very often. Once a week, maybe twice in a gloomy week, when I hoped that a letter would change my life completely and utterly, like a telephone call can, or a trip on the métro, or closing my eyes and counting to ten before opening them again.
And then my mother died. And that was plenty, as far as changing my life went: your mother’s death, you can’t get much better than that.

It is Paris, 1975 and Camille is sad; at the loss of her mother, and the fact that the baby growing inside her will not know its grandmother. She is doubly so at the demise of her relationship with Nicholas, who we’ll find out doesn’t want anything to do with the baby.

When this letter arrives in amongst all the condolence cards, she starts reading…  It tells how teenager Louis met Annie back in 1933, and fell in love with her from afar. It doesn’t give many clues to who they are and where it happened. Camille is confused – why has this letter been sent to her?

In the following days and weeks, more letters arrive. Camille, who works in publishing, half wonders if it is a bizarre pitch being made to her, but something about the letters makes it seem that they are intended for her, and that the story therein is true.

They tell of how a bourgeois couple Mr & Madame M move into the village, about how Madam M notices Annie’s painting and encourages her, and how Annie later found out about Madame M’s inability to have a baby and offered to be a surrogate for her.  War intervenes, and it all gets very complicated. Louis loses touch with Annie for several years, but is able to pick up the story later.

I hadn’t seen her for three years. For three years I’d had no news of her at all. At no time did I suspect she might be living in Paris like me. I looked at her fingernails, her peeling red varnish; in the village she never used to wear any. Seeing her again like this: It seemed too good to be true. Outside it was pitch black. I was suddenly overwhelmed by desire for her. She handed me a steaming hot cup.
‘So do you remember Monsieur and Madame M.?’
How could she ask me such a thing.

The story of Louis, Annie, Mr & Madam M is teased out over the course of the novel. It is complex, full of tragedy in many ways and multi-layered, with little revelations that keep Camille desperate to know what happened and full of questions still, not to mention her feeling an increasing bond of motherhood with Annie.

This novel uses two literary devices to tell its story – when most use just one.  The dual narrative combined with the epistolary approach may feel somewhat contrived, but actually serves the story well.  We have the same questions that Camille has about Annie’s life, we feel for Camille’s loss and Annie’s situation,  and end up caring for both women, whereas often in dual narratives, one will dominate. I will say that I didn’t get much of a feel for 1970s Paris in Camille’s timeline though. However, the clever reveal made this a rewarding read, and I’ve yet to read a novel from Gallic books, who specialise in English translations of the best contemporary French books that I didn’t enjoy.  (8/10)

For some other reviews see:  Fleur Fisher and Winstonsdad.

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My copy came via the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Confidantby Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson, Gallic Books 2012, paperback 267 pages.

An absolute pleasure to dip into …

The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield

Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM DelafieldI’m so glad I finally decided to give this book a go, as it has been a real pleasure to dip into over the past couple of weeks.  As I already reported here, I was smitten by this book from its opening pages.  Having obtained an omnibus edition with all four volumes of ‘diaries’ in, I have plenty more to look forward to. Originally published in 1930, the book also dovetails nicely into my recent reading as a British counterpoint to Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell – a novel of vignettes in the life of a middle-class 1930s housewife in Kansas, which I read back in January.

As author of her diaries, the Provincial Lady (PL) is never named, but we soon meet the other members of her household – husband Robert, who is, as often as not, asleep behind his newspaper; son Robin who boards at Prep School, and younger daughter Vicky who has a French Governess known as Mademoiselle; then there is Cook, and another servant.

There is a rich cast of other supporting characters who keep the PL busy, notably: down in Devon, there’s Our Vicar’s Wife who pops in and finds it hard to leave, and local dowager Lady Boxe who swooshes round in her Bentley and finds the PL ‘amusing’; and then there is Rose, the PL’s best friend who lives a luxurious life in London, and who frequently provides an escape from the country for the PL.

It is up to the PL to run the household, and this is her biggest struggle. She wrestles with the accounts – they are always a little overdrawn or behind with the bills, tries to keep Cook happy, and manage a succession of housemaids who never seem to stay long.  Cook is always threatening to leave too, which keeps the PL on her toes.  Meanwhile, Mademoiselle has bons mots for every occasion – often oblique and virtually incomprehensible in their idiomatic French.

Whereas the PL is effectively held to ransom by her servants, she is, however freely indulgent with her children who are a source of great love and enjoyment to her. She loves nothing more than to play with them, but out in public – feels she has to show a slightly different face:

January 3rd. – Hounds meet in the village. Robert agrees to take Vicky on the pony… Vicky looks nice on pony, and I receive compliments about her, which I accept in an off-hand manner, tinged with incredulity, in order to show that I am a modern mother and should scorn to be foolish about my children.

I love the PL’s turn of phrase, her notes and memos to herself, and her witty observations about her world.  Whether it is worrying about the finances, or not having a thing to wear, the book of the month club, or not getting first prize in the writing competitions in the journal she subscribes to, all her concerns are chronicled.  Regarding her friends and acquaintances, luckily for us, the PL is happy to write in her diary what she would never say out loud and the results are often hilarious, but feel very real.

This book frequently made me giggle out loud. It is much funnier than the aforementioned Mrs Bridge – the PL doesn’t have enough spare time for MB’s introspection. Of course, being written in first-person diary form, rather than as an observed narrative, the PL’s personality really shines through, and I really liked her. (10/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield, Virago Modern Classics paperback – currently o/p, but used copies available.