How did Hitler win?

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I am reading Adam Roberts’s essay in the new critical collection Sideways in Time, which is giving me pause for an awful lot of thought. I don’t always agree with him: I tend to view Nova Solyma by Samuel Gott as the first book-length fiction specifically set in the future rather than a form of alternate history. But mostly I do agree. Two things that particularly caught my eye were his central thesis – that science fiction tends, perhaps unthinkingly, to go with the great-man theory of history rather than what he terms the Tolstoyan approach which views history more democratically as a mass of things happening independently that together shape the world – and a casual aside, that the vast majority of alternate histories concern either the American Civil War or Hitler winning the Second World War. Now I knew this, of course, but seeing it in the context of the great man theory made me consider it in a slightly different light.

Now I know quite a lot about Civil War alternate histories; I’ve even written about it, for instance in my essay “The North-South Continuum” in What it is we do when we read Science Fiction. Most of these fictions are written by what we would now call history geeks. The civil war really was a period of happenstance, and the more you read about it the more chance events you come across where things really could have gone either way. The union really did stop a British ship in international waters in order to seize two Confederate agents, prompting Britain to send troops to Canada and almost turning it into an international war. Some union soldiers really did find three cigars wrapped in the Confederate battle plan on the eve of Antietam. On the second day at Gettysburg, Longstreet’s troops really did take an unusually circuitous route as they marched to flank the union line; and the 20th Maine really did get into position on Little Round Top only minutes before Longstreet’s troops began their delayed attack. There are probably incidents like this in any war, but they seem particularly prevalent in the Civil War. Given the moral weight of that war, the issues of slavery, freedom, the soul of America, it is tempting for anyone reading the history of the war to wonder what if they hadn’t found the cigars or Longstreet had taken a more direct route. Which is why most civil war alternate histories tend to focus on the hinge point. The moral consequences are huge and obvious, so it is less a question of what would result than of how it got there.

In Roberts’s terms, I tend to see these as more Tolstoyan, in that one small ordinary thing that is rarely the responsibility of any individual has a knock on effect on all the other things going on around it, until the tumbling dominoes result in some great moral change. Or maybe we should consider that the sergeant who found the cigars was a Great Man without him realising it, and what this theory is really saying is that one small incident is enough to transform history. Thus the Tolstoyan view would suggest that there can be no one identifiable hinge point, that one incident cannot effect that big a change. We can have this argument precisely because the focus of so much civil war alternate history is on the hinge point.

But Hitler Wins alternate histories seem to me, on reflection, to be a very different thing.

Okay, there are instances where we know the turning point. In “Weinachtsabend” by Keith Roberts and Farthing by Jo Walton, Hitler didn’t win but rather the appeasement party in Britain retained power. In one of my favourite novels in this genre, Resistance by Owen Sheers, Operation Sealion was successful. But these are exceptions. In The Sound of his Horn by Sarban and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick or “The Fall of Frenchy Steiner” by Hilary Bailey or SS-GB by Len Deighton, or any of a host of others, we don’t really know, or care, how Hitler won. In these stories, what matters is consequence not cause.

These consequences are, of course, as huge and moral as in the civil war stories, but there is a difference between white men considering the survival of black slavery which they can decry from a distance, and white men considering the moral corruption of Nazism and considering how they might be complicit or in peril. Among the best of the civil war alternate histories, for example, Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee is more about the economic decline of the North than the fate of the blacks; while Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South suggests that when it comes to it slaveholding southerners are morally superior the white South Africans. How we got to that point is therefore more important than what it is like to be at that point. On the other hand, Hitler wins stories, such as “Weinachtsabend” and SS-GB are concerned with how easily the protagonist could become like their Nazi masters. Here the consequence is far more important than how we got to that point. So the hinge point in Hitler wins stories is largely irrelevant.

And it is precisely because the hinge point doesn’t matter that these are undeniably Great Man stories. By this I don’t mean that an individual is responsible for changing history, or that one single event changes history; we just don’t know. But rather, that the whole focus of the history is upon one man, or more precisely upon one institution, the Nazi state. Hitler is not the great man of these stories, it is the state for whose moral failings Hitler stands as exemplar that is the great man, the single figure that shapes and turns history.

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This is not a spy novel

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the dark frontierEric Ambler was an advertising copywriter and would-be playwright when he wrote his first novel, The Dark Frontier. It was not meant to be a spy novel so much as a parody of the sort of spy novel that was then popular. He sets the plot in motion with an extract from just such a novel:

Then, that amazing resourcefulness which had made the name of Carruthers feared and hated by the criminals of four continents came to the rescue.

Later works, like the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, fit neatly into exactly this mode of story: the spies are professional, suave, sophisticated, are famous throughout the world (yet are anonymous whenever they need to be), have a smile playing constantly about their handsome features, are superbly fit, quick thinking, and are able to escape the deadliest of situations without breaking into a sweat. They are teflon-coated heroes designed to provide fast-paced adventures without a trace of the real.

The person reading about Conway Carruthers of Dept. Y is about as far as it is possible to get from such a spy. Professor H.J. Barstow is short, middle-aged and sedentary. He is also on the verge of a nervous breakdown, which is why he has stopped into this small hotel on his way to an enforced holiday in the West Country. Here, by chance, he encounters a man called Groom who works for an arms company and is looking for an expert to accompany him to the Balkan state of Ixania to examine a new explosive that has apparently been developed there. Barstow, a physicist who has worked with the British government on ultra-high explosives, would fit the bill, but Barstow turns him down.

That evening, Barstow finds and reads the Carruthers novel. The next day he sets out to drive to his holiday destination, but on a narrow country road he crashes the car. When he comes to, he believes he is Conway Carruthers, and that in the disguise of Professor Barstow his mission is to accompany Groom not to aid the arms company, but to destroy all knowledge of a terrible new weapon.

I’m pretty sure that we’re not meant to take this extended set-up too seriously. And throughout the novel there are explicit reminders that this whole thing is somewhat ridiculous. Late in the novel, for instance, Barstow’s companion, the American journalist Casey, comments:

I was unconvinced by this specious explanation but let it go. Carruthers, I had noticed, always liked to regard his incredible guesswork as masterly foresight.

Yet, although the adventure that follows this set-up conforms to the extravagant conventions of the sort of story being parodied, we can also see the rudiments of what would quickly become the typical Ambler story starting to take shape. Art students learn their craft by copying masterpieces; here, Ambler is learning his craft in the process of copying the cruder examples of the type. There are clumsinesses here that would quickly disappear from later works, the most obvious of which is the uncertainty of the narrative voice. The novel opens in third person, with some unseen, unknown narrator telling us what happens to Barstow, but also what is going on in his fractured mind. But this unidentified “biographer”, as Barstow refers to him in the novel’s opening “Statement”, tells us too much. Once the dramatic action really starts, the novel works largely by withholding information in a way that the omniscient third person could not do. So, at roughly the half-way point, the novel shifts to a first person account by William Casey, an American journalist who happens to be on the spot in Ixania. It’s a rather fumbling transition: Casey begins his narrative at precisely the point that the omniscient third person stops, as though each author is aware of what the other says. Only three years later, Ambler would have the narrative control that produced The Mask of Dimitrios, but here we’re seeing someone still learning how to tell this particular story.

Barstow is an amateur who imagines himself into the role of a super-spy. As such he behaves with more confidence and more physical dexterity than we might expect of a 40-year-old finding himself in such deadly circumstances. But at the same time he becomes the model for Ambler’s later heroes: an amateur unwittingly caught up in a dangerous international game. Ambler’s amateurs tend to be forced by circumstances to reveal far greater competences than they expect. There’s something of that in Barstow, but because of his other personality as a super-spy these abilities emerge not through circumstance but as a result of his delusion. Yet the delusion, despite the occasional aside from Casey, is never questioned, never undermined. His plans, ever more elaborate, daring and reliant on split-second timing, always work. And it is not a matter of chance that they work; from his damaged mind a genuine technical and tactical genius seems to have emerged. From which I get the impression that Ambler has convinced himself of the story he is telling, so that we get in effect the daring spy story that Barstow imagines rather than the parodic version that Ambler started to tell.

As a result, the broken narrative voice and the uncertainty over what story we are actually being told mean that this, overall, a less satisfying book than the novels that would follow it. Yet at the same time it is identifiably a book from which those later novels would be born, even down to the fact that villainy lies in the corporate world, heroism in the left-leaning political will of the people. By the time Casey takes over the narrative duties, Ambler is already a better writer than he was in the opening chapters; it is easy to see how some of his best work appeared so quickly in the wake of this hesitant debut.

Hide My Eyes

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One of the things I find interesting about Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion novels is that Campion ages more or less in real time. The pre-war Campion of Mystery Mile, Look to the Lady and Sweet Danger is sleek, fast, adventurous, insouciant. The post-war Campion is married, settled, more given to thought than action. Lugg starts to disappear from the stories; and his police contact, Stanislaw Oates, is promoted and replaced by Charlie Luke. Time passes, things change.

hide my eyesAnd the nature of the stories changes with the aging of the characters. Tiger in the Smoke, generally reckoned to be the best of the post-war Campion novels, is a haunting and atmospheric story of a darkly evil person emerging out of the London fog. But having just read Hide My Eyes, I’d venture to suggest that it is even better.

Though it is hardly an Albert Campion novel at all. Campion is there, making sporadic appearances throughout the text, adding a couple of hunches and a couple of deductions to the inspired detective work of Charlie Luke; but the detection is really no more than the background to a much more interesting story, and Campion and Luke are little more than peripheral figures.

At the heart of the novel is Gerry Hawker, though that is only one of the names he goes by. In part he is an affable rogue who charms everyone he meets; all his contacts are sure he is into something illegal, but he is so affable that none of them can believe it is anything really serious. Even when they encounter evidence to suggest otherwise, they dismiss it, put it out of their minds. But Gerry is also an amoral murderer who, by the end of the novel, has killed ten people. He is modelled, at least in part, on John Haigh, the so-called “Acid Bath Murderer”, executed in 1949, and whose case is referenced several times during the novel. Like Haigh, Gerry is a thief and swindler who believes that once you have taken everything else from your victim, you might as well take their life, and he is so careful and so charming that he gets away with it.

The portrait of Gerry as it develops throughout the novel is chilling and powerful. And though we see his carefree competence begin to unravel, there is still no reason to suppose that he won’t carry on getting away with it. Which is what makes the novel so compelling. This never pretends to be a whodunit, we know that he is guilty, that he is vile and dangerous, right from the start, but as we follow him throughout the one day in which the story happens he remains absolutely fascinating. Gaps and contradictions and errors in his story arise repeatedly, but he seems to sweep them aside effortlessly, and those who are with him, and indeed those who are tracking him, never see enough of the story to be able to recognise these contradictions for what they are.

In contrast to Gerry there is Polly Tassie, a gentle old woman who runs a small private museum devoted to the oddities her late husband had collected throughout his life. She and her husband had befriended Gerry years before, and he now uses her home and museum as an irregular base of operations. She knows that Gerry is a wrong-un, she has even discovered that he has stolen money from her and so has asked a lawyer friend to confront him and get the money back (which results in the lawyer’s death), but she cannot believe his is a serious villain. To believe as much would be to undermine everything that she and her late husband have held dear. Rather, she thinks that Gerry just needs to settle down with a good woman, and has invited the daughter of a cousin to visit in the hope of engineering a match.

Instead, this visit is the beginning of the end for Gerry, because Annabelle has an admirer, who spots Gerry leaving Polly’s home and so determines to find out who he is. As a result he finds himself being swept along with Gerry from place to place, witnessing his brazen lies and equivocations, and slowly coming to realise that he is being set up by Gerry as an alibi for a crime he is planning to commit. Richard provides the viewpoint that allows us to contrast what we know of Gerry with what everyone else sees in him.

One of the other people fooled by Gerry’s lies is the proprietor of a Soho drinking club that, in its layout and its character, reminded me irresistibly of the old Troy Club which I visited a few times. And that is another aspect of the book that fascinated me: the glimpses of a lived-in, worn-out, run-down London as it was when the book came out in 1958. The character of a cafe where the proprietor cat behind a raised counter by the entrance where she could survey her domain; the glimpse of London buses that were grimmer and more essential than they are today; the way street life is carried on. The novel turns out to be an extraordinary window into the past, far more so than is usually the case in Allingham’s novels which are often set in their own peculiar little private universe.

Most of Allingham’s novels I have found satisfying and engaging, but this has a psychological and a descriptive heft that makes it one of her very finest books.

The Deceivers

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montys_doubleA year or so back, I came across a television broadcast of the old 1950s film, I Was Monty’s Double. It is not a very good film (Clifton James was not a particularly talented actor), nor was it an especially honest film (at least two better, and better known, actors were approached to take part in the deception before James; James was a drinker, who brought the deception to an end earlier than planned because he was drunk and Montgomery was a strict teetotaler; and the whole drama involving the John Mills character never happened); but I found myself intrigued yet again by the whole notion of wartime deception. This particular deception, Operation Copperhead, as it was called, doesn’t seem to have had much if any effect on the German war effort, but still the whole idea was just so bizarre.

the man who never wasAlso, it reminded me of another film of similar vintage about another, and far more effective, wartime deception. And lo, The Man Who Never Was showed up on television just a little while later. What’s more, not long after that a different channel was showing a documentary, Operation Mincemeat, which filled in some of the details that the film missed (including giving the name of poor Glyndwr Michael, which hadn’t been released at the time the film was made, and who is one of the few civilians in the Roll of Honour on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website).

I Was Monty’s Double was a fairly simple deception: make Montgomery appear on Gibraltar and in Algeria, and the Germans will think the D-Day planning is not at an urgent stage, and maybe relax their attention a bit. The Man Who Never Was was a much more complex deception. Have a body wash up off the coast of neutral Spain as if he had died in a plane crash, have the body carry secret documents suggesting that the allied invasion of Southern Europe would be through Greece not Sicily, and then hope that the massive network of German agents operating in Spain would get hold of those documents and believe them. As if that wasn’t complex enough, they had to find the right body whose actual cause of death would not be detectable to Spanish pathologists (as it was, the body was kept on ice for so long that signs of decay were starting to show in the extremities by the time he was pushed into the sea off Huelva); then they had to create an entire backstory to make “Major Martin” appear like a real person and like someone who would be carrying such documents. What’s more, the documents contained a double bluff, since they referred to the actual plans for the invasion of Sicily, Operation Husky, but as if this was itself a deception to distract the Germans before the real attacks on Greece and Sardinia. It worked like a dream, Rommel along with masses of men and armour were actually moved from Sicily to Greece, then sat there with nothing to do throughout the Allied landings.

The more I learned about Mincemeat, the more complex it became. And then, in one of those instances that make you question the whole efficacy of algorithms, I was searching guitar tutor sites on Youtube when suddenly I came across a documentary about Operation Fortitude. Now, I knew vaguely about dummy armies being massed in Kent during the run-up to D-Day, but I knew no details, and I didn’t know it was called Fortitude. But the documentary did no more than whet the appetite, I had to know more. So I went out and got three books on the subject, as you do.

churchill's wizardsThe first of these, Churchill’s Wizards: the British Genius for Deception 1914-1945 by Nicholas Rankin, would, I hoped, provide me with a good basic overview of the subject, which would allow me to fill in details later. And I suppose it did, to an extent, though not the extent that I’d hoped. This is partly because he keeps coming back to Churchill, even though Churchill himself was rarely more than tangentially involved in any of this; he likes to give detailed accounts of campaigns and battles which often involved little in the way of deception; and he is too easily distracted, an account of radio deception spends several pages talking about Tommy Handley and ITMA. If he had kept strictly to his subject, a 600-page book would have been closer to 300 pages, and all the better for it. Nevertheless, what is in there, for instance on camouflage in the First World War, is often very good, though I could have done with more detail, for instance, on how fake buildings and patterns of light and fire were used to deceive German bombers. What I particularly like is being introduced to

dudley clarke

Dudley Clarke in and out of his Madrid ensemble.

the extraordinary character of Dudley Clarke, brother of T.E.B. Clarke who would write so many of the great Ealing Comedies. Dudley seems to have expressed the family’s creative genius in the form of some of the great deceptions of the Second World War. It was Dudley Clarke who came up with the idea of the commandos, and later in North Africa decided to trick the Germans into thinking there was an elite commando unit operating behind their lines which he called the Special Air Service, only for David Stirling to think that was a good idea, and turn the deception into a reality. Then there was the curious incident in Madrid when Clarke was arrested by Spanish police in women’s clothing; no one has quite managed to work out what he was doing in Madrid or why he was in drag. Don’t you just want a full biography of Dudley Clarke?

the war magicianAt the opposite extreme to Churchill’s Wizards is The War Magician: The Man Who Conjured Victory in the Desert by David Fisher, which is the story of Jasper Maskelyne. Now I was interested in Maskelyne because he came from a family of stage magicians, his grandfather John Nevil, and his father Nevil, were both renowned magicians (and one or other of the Nevils, I suspect the elder, played a significant part in Christopher Priest’s The Prestige). But this is probably not the book to read. Fisher writes it like a bad novel, with conversations that could not possibly have been recorded (including one conversation between two men as they die alone) and lots of sentimental asides about Jasper and his wife. There is no source given for anything he tells us, and though he says at the start that some of the characters are composites we have no indication who these might be. But more than that, I don’t believe it, there are details that are simply wrong (Dudley Clarke is described as the head of a spy network, but Clarke had nothing to do with spies in that sense, and as the person in charge of deception throughout the North Africa campaign he jasper maskelynewould have been Maskelyne’s commanding officer) and others that are misleading (a number of the deceptions that Maskelyne is credited with inventing are variants of things being used extensively elsewhere). I don’t doubt that most if not all of the deceptions described in this book actually happened, I just think that Maskelyne’s role is being massively over-inflated. Rankin says as much in Churchill’s Wizards: “Maskelyne’s theatrical charisma has cadged him more credit than perhaps he deserves” (that “cadged” is a nice touch); but I think I would have doubted this book even if I hadn’t read Rankin first. (I’ve just checked on Wikipedia, which says that his very brief command of the Camouflage Experimental Section was not a success and he was transferred to welfare, ie, entertaining the troops, and that according to official records his wartime role was very marginal.)

Still, the deceptions that Maskelyne was, or claims to have been, involved in are quite spectacular. These include fooling German bombers into attacking an empty bay instead of the crowded harbour at Alexandria, and using dazzling lights so that pilots could not aim their bombs accurately at the Suez Canal. Most spectacular was the preparation for El Alamein. Rommel knew that Montgomery would have to attack somewhere along a relatively short and distinct line, but he did not know where or when. The allies started creating a water pipe towards the south of the line: this would be essential for supplying any advance, but the rate of construction was such that it could not be completed before November. Meanwhile supply trucks were parked and forgotten at the northern end of the line, while tanks were massed at the southern end, then, in a carefully stage-managed operation, the tanks were transferred to the northern end where they were disguised as trucks, while fake tanks replaced them at the southern end. When the attack came at the beginning of October, it took the Germans completely by surprise.

operation fortitudeThis deception, of course, recalls the preparations for D-Day, which brings me to the third and by a long way the best of these three books. Operation Fortitude: The Greatest Hoax of the Second World War by Joshua Levine tells a story that is more complex and more wide-ranging than I had ever imagined, and Levine tells it in a way that is compelling without reverting to the fake novelistic mode of Fisher, full of telling detail that is both more succinct and more convincing than Rankin’s rather long-winded manner.

It turns out that the fake tanks and the rest in Kent were largely irrelevant to the deception, because by this stage in the war the Germans didn’t have the facilities for reconnaissance flights. They were entirely dependent on their agents on the ground, and though they didn’t realise this, they didn’t actually have any agents. I have long heard the story that every German agent in Britain during the war was either captured or turned, but I didn’t know the details. Levine very carefully lays out how Operation Fortitude was almost entirely a product of the Double Cross system. Germany doesn’t seem to have thought to put any agents in place in Britain before the war, and the first ones they tried to infiltrate once war began were singularly incompetent and ill-trained. Some barely spoke any English, most seem to have had no knowledge of the geography of the country, all were rounded up within a day or so of landing. Of these, most were happy to play along with their British captors and start relaying false information back to their handlers. That was the tentative start of the double cross system, but it really got going with the appearance of two extraordinary characters. Dusko Popov was a Yugoslav lawyer and playboy (who may have been one of the inspirations for James Bond) who got himself recruited by the Abwehr, then went straight to the British and volunteered to be a double agent. Throughout the war he ran a string of fake agents in Britain that kept Germany informed of everything we wanted them to know. Then there was Juan Pujol Garcia, a Spanish chicken farmer who volunteered himself to the Abwehr only to sit in Lisbon making up stories based on a tourist guide and an old map of Britain. At one point he told his German handlers that a Glasgow workman would reveal any secret for a litre of wine, and nobody in the Abwehr blinked an eye. It took him several attempts to get the British to take him on as a double agent, but once they did he set up a network of fake agents even bigger than Popov’s, and remained Germany’s most trusted informant right up to the end of the war. With Pujol and Popov in place, and the dozens of agents they apparently controlled, the Abwehr decided it wasn’t worth the risk of trying to infiltrate any more spies, which is how Britain (through the Twenty Committee, the XX or Double Cross Committee, led by our old friend Dudley Clarke) more or less dictated everything the Abwehr knew throughout the war.

What I like about Levine is that he is not only a good storyteller who clearly relishes the various deceptions he describes, but he is scrupulous in showing how well or ill they worked. Fortitude was in two parts, for instance. Fortitude North suggested an army being amassed in Scotland ready to invade Norway, and though this seems to have worked to the extent that it kept German troops in Norway that might have been transferred elsewhere, that force was not huge and was not augmented by additional forces. So Fortitude North was not exactly a resounding success. Fortitude South, on the other hand, had the advantage that it was trying to suggest that the European invasion would come at the Pas de Calais. That was the obvious location for an invasion, and both Rommel and Hitler believed that that is where it would happen, so the deceivers were preaching to the converted. So successful were they that even after troops had landed at Normandy they were able to convince the German High Command that this was just a feint and the real attack would follow at the Pas de Calais once the troops there had been drawn away. Before D-Day, Eisenhower asked the deceivers to keep the Germans tied down at Calais for three days; he actually got more than two weeks.

Apart from the Levine, there have to be better books about the hall of mirrors that is British wartime deception. But even so, the stories they tell are endlessly intriguing. I have a feeling I’m developing another obsession.

Living in the Past

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Back in 1978, I remember watching a BBC television series called “Living in the Past”. In it, a group of volunteers spent a year living in a recreated Iron Age settlement. It was the first time I came across the phrase: experimental archaeology. (By this time I had long since read The Kon-Tiki Expedition and The Ra Expedition, but it would be some years later before I associated those adventures with experimental archaeology.)

I mention this only to suggest that there is nothing new in the idea of living in an Iron Age roundhouse. The various couples in the BBC series were not archaeologists themselves, but nor were they playing with the idea of being pre-Roman Britons. The programme showed it to be an often harsh and miserable existence. One family left part way through when their child fell ill, but everyone else stuck with it to the end. And if I remember rightly, there was a follow-up programme in which all of the participants insisted that they had learned from the experience.

Above all, it was not a game.

Which is where I start to have problems with Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. It is a highly-praised book, and I can understand and appreciate why that should be so. And yet I kept running up against doubts and questions.

ghost wall by sarah mossThe setting is an exercise in experimental archaeology that has been set up by a professor and three of his students. Also taking part in the exercise are a working class family, Dad, a bus driver who prides himself in being an enthusiastic and reputable amateur when it comes to ancient British history, his wife, and their daughter, Sylvie, who is the narrator. That’s rather too small a group to recreate Iron Age living, but it is just about acceptable for dramatic purposes.

The problem I have is that at no time do we get any notion of what the archaeologists are doing there. There is no aim to the experiment, and there has been no preparation for the experiment. When the students are sent out to forage for food, they have no notion of what foods might be found, or what might be edible and what poisonous. And the same goes for the professor, who has not prepared either his students or himself, and who seems to have no idea what he is doing from one moment to the next. As the supposed expert – he is, after all, teaching a course on experimental archaeology – it is as if he has suddenly found himself dumped in the Iron Age with no idea what to do next.

And because he is clearly not taking any of this seriously, neither do the students. They are all playing at the Iron Age, and by extension they are all playing at archaeology, even though for all four of them that is their chosen profession.

The only one taking any of this serious, and this is of course the point of the book, is Dad. Through him, of course, both Mum and Syl take it seriously, but only because they are terrified of Dad. And Dad is living in the past in more senses than one. He is the old-fashioned northern working class patriarch who rules his family by intimidation and violence. He is ready in an instant to thrash anyone who lapses from his strict and absolute rules. He is a monster, and far and away the most vividly drawn character in the novel. (But then, monsters do tend to leap off the page, don’t they?)

While the focus is on these three – horrific Dad, Mum cowed to inertia, and Syl more alert to what might trigger Dad’s violence than to anything else around her – the novel is chilly, sharp and powerful. But it needs the others. Or rather, it needs two of the others, the two male students are largely undifferentiated extras there to bulk out a scene as necessary. In the first place, it needs Molly, the careless, sybaritic student who gradually comes to realise what tortures, mental and physical, Syl is enduring. Molly is bright, mercurial, a flashing contrast to the dark, foreboding bulk of Dad.

But it also needs the Prof, because he is the one who enables the climactic expression of Dad’s violent and controlling nature. But the Prof is a non-entity, he has no character, at no point do we get any glimpse of why he is doing anything or what he thinks is going on at any point.

bog bodiesThe purpose of experimental archaeology, particularly of the living-in-the-Iron-Age type, is practical. How did they live? How did they do that? What was it like? But at no point does this particular exercise in Iron Age living consider such questions; Syl has learned hard lessons, and so knows how to gather burdock roots and bilberries for the group to eat, but even such essential practicalities seem of little interest to anyone else. But rather, Dad’s madness (is he mad? We are not told, but there is surely something not quite sane about him) quickly steers the professor and his male students towards that bugbear of archaeological interpretation: ritual. They construct a ghost wall, a wicker fence adorned with skulls to frighten away the enemy. And after that, Dad convinces them to take the next step, the sacrifice, the bog body, and nobody cries halt, nobody says that is not why we are here. And yet we have to take Dad’s domination over the Prof as a given, because we never see it in action. And because we never understand the Prof, we never understand why events might follow this path.

The only other book by Sarah Moss I have read is her first novel, Cold Earth, a book with which I was considerably less enamoured than most other people seem to have been. I like Ghost Wall much more than that, but it is still a novel that feels as if something is missing, a little extra depth, a little extra solidity.

Little and Black

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My leisure reading this year, as an escape from the science fiction I’m contractually obliged to read, has been roughly split between spy fiction and historical fiction. Of the latter, two books stand out not because they are among the best of the bunch, although they are, but because there is a curious congruity between them.

One is set in the late-18th century, the other in the early-19th century. Each consists of a first person narrative by a child who is alienated from their society by reason of their person: one is female, of stunted growth and ugly; the other is black with a disfigured face. Each gains their eventual status by ability in art and interest in science.

The novels are both named for their narrators. Little by Edward Carey is the story of Anne Marie Grosholtz, born in poverty in Alsace in, as the first sentence of the novel tells us:

the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact same year in which the melody for ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ was first published.

Little by Eadward CareyThat enjambment of oddly disconnected detail is typical of Carey’s distinctive style. I have read and enjoyed two of his novels before this, Observatory Mansions and Alva and Irva, and though this new novel doesn’t have the same perverse air of unreality the writing has much the same curious quality. In this instance, though, the novel cleaves close to historical reality. Little Marie, who never grows above five foot, goes while still a young child to work as a housekeeper for an eccentric doctor in Berne. She becomes interested in his work, and through her preternatural abilities as an artist starts to make a contribution to his work in the study of body parts. So much so that she goes with him when two visitors, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Louis-Sebastien Mercier, persuade him to go to Paris. She plays a part in helping Doctor Curtius in setting up a business displaying wax heads of famous Parisiens. For a while Marie is taken up by one of the minor princesses in the Royal Family and spends a year living in a cupboard at Versailles. Then comes the revolution; Marie barely survives, and after struggling to pull together what remains of her and Doctor Curtius’s business, she eventually leaves for London. There, at some point after the end of the novel, she will become Madame Tussaud.

It’s a marvellous novel, full of curious details, vivid characters, snappy lines, all helped out by Marie’s own line drawings as provided by the author himself. Although this is a fairly straightforward historical novel it still has an air, familiar from Carey’s other novels, of being situated at a slight angle to reality. Yet at the same time it conveys absolute conviction, you get a sense that the young Madame Tussaud must have been exactly like this.

The other novel, which seems to parallel Little, is Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. Like Carey, Edugyan has written a couple of novels before this, though in this case I haven’t read them. I get a feeling that I should.

Also in apparent parallel with Little, the blurb on the back of my copy of Washington Black says “Inspired by a true story”. This, however, is the only reference to such a “true story” anywhere in the book. There is no author’s note to provide context, no hint of such a story in the acknowledgements, none of the quoted reviews make any reference to such a source story; so I really don’t know what to make of this claim. I am inclined to doubt it, though that does nothing to gainsay the quality of the novel.

Washington Black by Esi EdugyanWashington Black is ten when the novel opens, which makes him a few years older than Marie, but he is even more disadvantaged: he is a slave on the Faith Plantation on Barbados. At the time, around 1830, slavery on the sugar plantations of the British West Indies was even harsher than in the southern states of the USA, and Faith Plantation has just been taken over by a new owner who is particularly harsh. But Edugyan doesn’t spend too much time spelling out the familiar iniquities of slavery. The new owner’s brother, a tall, thin man known as “Titch”, has also arrived. He has a sort of soft, liberal sensibility that makes him uncomfortable about slavery, though he doesn’t act on this discomfort. However, Titch is also a naturalist and would-be inventor, and his latest invention is a balloon-powered flying craft. Wash, small and light, would be an ideal assistant in his experiments. The fact that Wash is sharp, a quick learner, and has untapped artistic ability, cements the relationship, particularly when an accident with the gas being used for the balloon explodes and permanently disfigures Wash’s face.

When a visitor to the plantation commits suicide in Wash’s presence, Wash knows that as a slave he will get the blame regardless of what actually happened. So he and Titch escape aboard the flying craft, which almost immediately ditches in the middle of a storm. There begin a series of highly coloured picaresque adventures, aboard ships on illicit business, encountering the underground railroad in Virginia, being chased by a slave catcher, heading deep into the Arctic wastes where Titch wanders off alone into the snow. Edward Carey’s novel sticks pretty close to historical reality, but the way that the language is used suggests a heightened reality; Esi Edugyan writes a careful, factual prose, but the story she tells is full of the wild action, coincidences, chance meetings and extravagant settings of an early-19th century melodrama. In both cases, I find it fascinating that the style and the story seem at odds, yet work so well together.

At a later stage in the novel, Wash falls in with a noted naturalist and his beautiful daughter. Wash’s ability as an artist earns him the chance to illustrate the naturalist’s new book, and his interest in science helps him devise a way in which an exhibition of sea creatures can be staged in which the creatures are live rather than dead. It was at this point that I found myself wishing that, like Carey, Edugyan had found some way to include Wash’s drawings in the book.

Washington Black was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a worthy honour that I don’t begrudge it in the least; Little seems to have slipped by almost unnoticed, though I think it is at least as good a novel. Together, the two make for an intriguing and remarkably satisfying pairing.

Cloak and Dagger

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There is a line that has appeared on the cover of just about every Helen MacInnes novel I have ever seen. It comes from a Newsweek review:

Helen MacInnes can hang her cloak and dagger right up there with Eric Ambler and Graham Greene.

I’m not so sure about Greene, I’ve not really read enough of his “entertainments” to know how valid the comparison might be. But Ambler!

There is a pattern that recurs in most, though not all, of the spy stories by both Ambler and MacInnes. The central character is an amateur, often a journalist or a writer of some sort, caught up unexpectedly in events way outside their normal experience. These events are usually triggered by a chance encounter, escalate at a rate that does not allow the protagonist time to get away, and despite being an amateur the protagonist proves to have reserves of ingenuity that makes him (always him) an effective player in a dangerous game. The drama plays out far from the protagonist’s familiar home territory, and there is usually a journey of some sort central to the action that keeps everyone off balance.

Let us take, for example, one novel by each that I happen to have read recently. Neither is among the best known examples of their work, but they are both typical of their author’s storytelling.

uncommon dangerEric Ambler’s Uncommon Danger (1937) was his second published novel (Ambler’s own preferred title, Background to Danger, is, I think, better). It is the story of Kenton, a freelance journalist, travelling around Europe in 1936. In Nuremberg he loses all his money playing poker dice and has to get a train to Vienna where he hopes to find an old acquaintance who might be persuaded to lend him more cash. But on the train he runs into Herr Sachs who claims to be a Jew escaping the Nazis, and persuades Kenton to smuggle an envelope of what he claims are bonds across the Austrian border in exchange for cash. But before Kenton can return the envelope Sachs is killed, and Kenton is framed for the murder. Kenton then finds himself caught in a spy game between a wily Russian agent and a ruthless representative of a British oil company.

snare of the hunterSnare of the Hunter (1974) is, on the other hand, a relatively late work by Helen MacInnes (her first novel had appeared in 1941, so she was a pretty close contemporary of Ambler). This is the story of David Mennery, an American music journalist, who, years before, had briefly befriended a Czech girl, Irina. Now Irina has escaped to the West, and because he once knew her David is recruited to help her on her journey across Austria and into Switzerland where she can be reunited with her father, a famous author in exile. But Irina’s escape has been facilitated by her ex-husband, a powerful figure in the Czech secret service who wants to use Irina as a way of getting to her father.

epitaph for a spyThough separated by nearly 40 years, there are familiar patterns in both works: David and Kenton play much the same role, with similar competence, and the drama is largely played out in the course of a journey. (There is no journey in another Ambler from the same time, Epitaph for a Spy, but the setting is a small hotel in the south of France and all of the characters are there at the mid-point of a journey.)

Of course there are differences between Ambler and MacInnes. For MacInnes the protagonist is always a hero figure, noble, bold, in the right; though she practically always includes a traitor among those close to the protagonist upon whom he must depend. For Ambler, on the other hand, the protagonist is not morally pure, he is an ambiguous figure who learns resolution only in the face of the danger he encounters. On the other hand, once he has worked out who he can trust, those characters remain trustworthy throughout the novel.

Both writers set their work in relatively exotic European locations; Ambler tending towards Eastern Europe and Turkey, MacInnes preferring glamorous places such as Paris, Saltzburg, Malaga and the Greek Islands. But the location was intimately tied to the romance of MacInnes’s work and she included lots of confident local knowledge in her often extensive scenic descriptions. Ambler didn’t really care that much for landscape, and his  scene setting could often be quite perfunctory. There is, for instance, no sense of France in Epitaph for a Spy.

The biggest difference between the two, though, is philosophical, or at least political. For MacInnes her early novels, written during and just after World War II, invariably featured Nazis as villains; but once the Cold War got started her villains were always of the left: any communist was bad, any fellow traveller was bad, anyone whose politics were left of centre was a fool who unwittingly aided bad people. Ambler was considerably less clear-cut in his choice of villains. In novels like The Mask of Dimitrios or Uncommon Danger the villain acts as an agent for big business, because it is business that shapes European politics more than anything else. Because international business is more corrupt and villainous even than the Nazis, the good guys tend to be on the left. I suspect that Uncommon Danger is one of very few British spy novels in which the Soviet spy is a hero. By the mid-Fifties, Ambler had become less comfortable with communism, and the Russians started to become the villains, but he was never as vehemently anti-left as MacInnes always was.

Ambler’s novels are shorter and tighter: he tends to get down to plot as quickly as possible, and spends little time on extraneous details that might decorate that plot. MacInnes is more expansive, her novels tend to be considerably longer than Ambler’s. She likes to take time setting the scene and situating her characters very precisely in their landscape, she also tells a romance as much as a drama. Nevertheless, MacInnes owes a clear debt to Ambler, both are exploring a common model of the cloak and dagger tale.

Pantglas

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Pantglas means “The Green Hollow”. It is one of the names, along with Hafod Tanglwys and Bryn Golau, for that part of South Wales where the Taff is joined by its tributary, the Fan. It is best known as the mouth of the Fan, or Aberfan.

I had just turned fourteen at the time. During the summer, despite my growing dislike of football, I had watched England win the World Cup while we were on holiday in Newquay. Over the following years I watched with absolute fascination the developing Apollo programme that would, in less than three years, land a man on the moon. Both of these events have their tangential part to play in the story. But in between came those devastating black and white images. We didn’t yet have BBC2, so we didn’t yet have colour television, but that was probably just as well. The images from Aberfan deserved to be in black and white; I’m not sure they could be understood or fully appreciated any other way.

aberfan

The coal tips that surrounded the village had been raised above groundwater that the National Coal Board consistently denied existed, though the villagers had played in those streams for generations. There had been reports that the spoil tips had been seen to move, but officially this hadn’t happened, and besides it would be far too expensive to move the tips, probably more expensive than the mine was worth. And the early part of that October had been wet, a lot of rain had fallen.

Just after nine o’clock on 21st October 1966, with a sound like thunder, the coal tips slid inexorably down the hillside and buried the local school, where the last school day before half term had just begun. 116 children died, along with many of their teachers and several others. They were buried alive under slag, under thick black mud, mud that couldn’t be dug out because as soon as one spadeful was lifted, another poured in to take its place. 

Fifty years on, the film of antlike figures, miners and army and civil servants and shopkeepers and farmers and anyone who happened to live within reach of Aberfan moving across a black landscape that seems monstrously inhuman is still vivid in my memory. I was the same age as some of those victims.

the green hollowI didn’t set out to buy a book about Aberfan. I’m not sure I really wanted to read a book about Aberfan. But I  love the novels and plays of Owen Sheers that I have read; I account him one of my favourite poets, yet I have never read a book of his poetry. So, in a bookshop in Caernarfon, I picked up what seemed to be his latest slim volume, The Green Hollow. It was only as I read it that I realised what it was I was reading, and by then it was impossible to put down.

It started out as a BBC drama-documentary to mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster. Here it is presented as a verse play, based on the testimonials of survivors and imaginative reconstructions of the words of some of the victims. 

The book is in three parts, ‘Children’, ‘Rescuers’ and ‘Survivors’. The first part follows a group of children and their parents as they wake that morning (something in the rhythm of the words at this point reminded me of the opening of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas) and set out for school. It’s a mixture of the usual (plans to go and see a film or watch a football match, the ordinariness of stopping in a sweetshop along the way) and the aspirational (dreams of being an astronaut). 

The second part is the testimony of those who worked, desperately, hopelessly, to rescue the children. The medical student who had been on his way to a family christening, the young journalist on his way to what initial reports said was an outhouse collapsing at a school, the bank clerk in his best suit, the mayor’s secretary who found herself drafted in to go door to door and ask if there were any children who weren’t home. In Wales at that time the practice was to draw the curtains when there had been a death in the family; at one point the journalist realised that every house in the street had their curtains closed. Perhaps the most affecting moment came when rescuers got into one more or less intact classroom and found the teacher, a one-time rugby star who had been drafted in only a few days before as a temporary replacement for a teacher who had had a heart attack, obviously trying to protect his huddled class of wide-eyed, wide-mouthed children. Every one of them was dead.

The final part is the testimony of residents of Aberfan in 2016, some survivors and some of their descendants. In some ways this is a feel-good story, the town pulled together and most of the surviving children did quite well for themselves. But the shadow, the hollow eyes, the ghosts never go away. The past is ever present. And along the way we learn that after the tribunal that blamed no-one, prosecuted no-one, forced no-one to resign, the National Coal Board inspected the remaining tips at Aberfan and declared they were safe and there was no need to remove them. It took the formation of a local committee, and the sort of direct action that included sacks of slurry on the Welsh Secretary’s doorstep, before the tips were eventually removed. In a development that seems particularly Welsh, once the committee had been successful the members formed themselves into a male voice choir. The choir is still going.

The Green Hollow is an odd book, falling somewhere between oral history and epic verse, but it is one of the most powerfully affecting things I have read for a very long time.

Barry Unsworth, Mooncranker’s Gift

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I first encountered the work of Barry Unsworth when I read Stone Virgin. I cannot now remember why I picked it up, perhaps a review, but I loved the book. Something about the mood, the tone of voice, the atmosphere, captivated me. I went back and picked up his earlier, Booker-shortlisted Pascali’s Island, and then bought most (though I have recently learned, not all) of the books he published subsequently. These include his Booker Prize winner, Sacred Hunger, The Ruby in her Navel, which I happen to think is the very best thing he wrote, and, of course, his last novel, a sort-of sequel to Sacred Hunger, The Quality of Mercy. When he died, less that a year after that novel came out (on the same day that Ray Bradbury died, as it happens, prompting one American commentator to say that Bradbury invented the future, and Unsworth invented the past), I made a promise to myself that I would read, or in most cases re-read, all of his novels and write about them. Circumstances get in the way, but as we were preparing for our holiday this year, Maureen asked me to recommend something for her to read. I thought she would really enjoy The Ruby in her Navel, and while I was taking that off the shelf for her I thought that it was maybe time to pick up one of the Unsworth’s I’ve not previously read for myself. Which is how I came to read Mooncranker’s Gift.

mooncranker's giftMooncranker’s Gift was his fourth novel, which makes it the earliest of his books I have yet read, it was also a book or two before he turned to the historical novel, which is where he was at his absolute best. The contemporary novels of his that I have read have never quite hit the spot in the way that his historical writing did. On the other hand, Mooncranker’s Gift is largely set in Turkey, as is Pascali’s Island, and he is at least as good at evoking a foreign setting as he is at evoking an historical setting. If this suggests a certain ambivalence about the book, well that’s fair enough: there are moments of beauty and moments of dazzling writing that clearly herald his finest work; but at the same time there are clumsy moments that suggest a writer still awkwardly learning his craft.

There is also an uncertainty about what he is doing with the novel. It is, in part, a rather crude 1960s sex comedy (the novel was first published in 1973), and both the sex and the comedy require a sprightliness that is not really Unsworth’s natural style. But intimately interweaved with this is a meditative work on guilt, corruption, and the distinction between love and desire. This is something that Unsworth is considerably better at, and it is in these passages that you get a glimpse of the writer he would become. The trouble is that this thematic heart of the novel requires a much better story to bear it up.

Mooncranker is a one-time academic turned television personality who is now an alcoholic has-been making a living touring obscure parts of the world to deliver lectures on his past glories. He is a pathetic, self-obsessed figure who has practically no awareness of what is going on around him in the world. He is in Istanbul when young Farnaby encounters him. Farnaby is someone who has never quite worked out what he wants to do with his life and is currently living in Istanbul to research aspects of Turkish history in which he has no interest whatsoever. Farnaby had met Mooncranker ten years before, when Farnaby was just 13 years old and living with his aunt and uncle while his parents divorced. He had, at more or less the same time and with the same excessive enthusiasm, discovered religion and masturbation. 

He had also discovered Miranda, a friend of the family who was a year or two older than he was. They partnered each other successfully at tennis, explored the grounds, and started hesitantly developing a relationship. Then Mooncranker appeared on the scene. Mooncranker also has his eye on Miranda, and for him young Farnaby is just a nuisance who is in the way. At one point Mooncranker gives Farnaby a crucifix, which turns out to be composed of sausage meat wrapped in white bandages, and which quickly begins to decay in the summer heat. I was, I confess, never entirely convinced of either the gift, which seemed particularly ludicrous, or of Mooncranker’s exact motives at this point. It is a significant moment that shapes Farnaby’s future, it is the moment that the entire plot hinges upon, and it made no sense to me. 

Be that as it may, the stinking, rotting crucifix is apparently enough to destroy Farnaby’s religious belief and allow Mooncranker to walk off with Miranda.

Now, ten years later, when Farnaby reluctantly meets Mooncranker at his uncle’s behest, he finds a broken figure so far gone with alcoholism that his memory has been largely destroyed. He has no notion who Farnaby is. He clearly needs hospital treatment, and Farnaby finds himself in the unwelcome position of having to get him into a hospital and keep him company there. In one of his more cogent moments, Mooncranker begs Farnaby to go and find his secretary who has recently left him. Farnaby is minded to turn the request down, until he learns that the secretary is Miranda.

She, it turns out, has gone to a spa hotel in the mountains of Anatolia. Farnaby follows her there, and a little later Mooncranker discharges himself from hospital and travels there also. What follows, pretty much the whole of the second half of the novel, is also the best part of the book. There is some bravura comic writing when the various residents of the hotel take to the pool in the twilight and snatches of disconnected conversations twist in and around each other for page after page. There’s a remarkable sense of place as various characters explore the mountains behind the hotel with their ruins of former civilisations. There is rather crude sex comedy as the various guests try to get laid with varying degrees of success. And there is a complex examination of belief and trust that suggests something of what Unsworth would become.

It is not, I suppose, a bad book; but it is not a place to start one’s reading of Barry Unsworth.

Theological Gothic

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I read and enjoyed Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent when it came out a couple of years ago. But I’ve now had the chance to read her other two novels: After Me Comes the Flood, her first novel which came out in 2014; and Melmoth, the most recent novel, which came out in 2018. And as a result, I think I was maybe looking at the wrong things in The Essex Serpent.

essex serpentNo, not the wrong things; but there was an awful lot of stuff going on in that book, and I was distracted by the surface story of an independent woman just at that point when Victorian society was starting to see the modern coming at it. That is a good and important part of the book, but it disguised the underpinning that ties it to these other two novels.

Yes, she is recreating the Gothic, and yes, her own upbringing makes the religious aspects stand out. But it is the way these two things are put together that is what I find interesting, and that ties these three otherwise very different novels together.

after me comes the floodTake After Me Comes the Flood, a journeyman effort with a structure that isn’t entirely successful. It is the story of a lonely, middle-aged man who, in the depth of a heat wave, shuts up his shop and drives away to visit his brother. But along the way his car breaks down and he approaches an isolated country house only to find that the disparate group of people staying there seem to be expecting him. It turns out to be a coincidence (Perry likes coincidences in her plotting, Melmoth is full of them), they are waiting for someone with a very similar name that none of them have met before, but for a week the protagonist assumes a different personality. I have often said that first novels can often display, crudely and obviously, themes that will be developed more subtly in later works, and that is the case here. People going somewhere they are unknown in order to be someone else, even if only temporarily, crops up in both of Perry’s later novels.

The inhabitants of the house turn out to be people displaced from a local asylum when it closed down, and the family members and friends who look after them. In true Gothic mode, it is not always clear which is which. But the setting and the people turn out to be healing, at least for the protagonist.

But the most interesting character in the house is Elijah, a one-time priest who lost his faith. Now he is unable to go outside: because there is no God, there is no one to hold up the sky, and therefore if he ever ventures out he is terrified that the sky will fall on him. This is not madness so much as an extreme doubt, and despite this he is the most humane and sensible person in the house. He is also a complete innocent, who sees instantly that the visitor is not who everyone else takes him to be, but doesn’t see the need to say anything about it. He is, in other words, the most charming and engaging character in the book.

He also seems to me to be pivotal to what Perry is doing here. Despite what we know of her biography, it is not religion per se that matters in these books: it is belief. It does not matter what Elijah’s religion was before he lost his faith, what matters is the way that belief shapes his world regardless of where those beliefs came from. He stands helpless in the middle of a world that is only partly physical, and it is the other part, the unseen and unseeable that most affects his behaviour. Belief is crippling; religion is just a framework we construct to restrain those beliefs, but do away with the framework and belief floods back in its raw form. Read The Essex Serpent with this pattern in mind, and the figure of the rural vicar and the intrusion of the supernatural acquires a different aspect. Belief is the darkness that makes these novels Gothic.

MelmothSimilarly, in Melmoth, the idea of the witness, the lonely, black-clad woman always there at the edge of your sight who knows your sins and is waiting to take you away on her immortal journey, is a part of the unseeable that has a greater effect on behaviour than anything physical. She is a belief system cut loose from any religious affiliation: she is there among the people of Manila, among the Turks and Armenians at the time of the massacres, among the Jews of Nazi Europe, among the scientific rationalists of modern day Prague. She is a mental disease (more properly, a dis-ease) whose vector is childhood stories and faded documents; she is guilt personified as a shadow on a chair, a shape in the distance, a bird at the window.

The central character is Helen, an English translator living in Prague. Twenty years before she committed a crime and ever since then she has tormented herself with guilt, denying herself pleasures, friendships and ease. She lives an austere, hair-shirt existence. Inevitably, the structure of the novel demands that the revelation of this crime should come at the climax of the book; but Perry ignores that structural demand, so we find out what Helen did at about the three-quarter mark. Unsurprisingly, the guilt is worse than the crime.

Then someone hands her a file of documents about Melmoth (the novel references Charles Maturin, but changing the sex of the wanderer is the least of Perry’s changes in the character). Helen is ready to believe, and suddenly she conjures the woman in black and her attendant jackdaws wherever she turns, though she fails to notice that those who have passed on the documents have emerged undamaged from their own awareness of Melmoth. She is a story, but you don’t have to listen to stories; she is a belief, but you don’t have to believe. Melmoth is what is seen, not necessarily what is there.

Perry is an interesting writer. I think Melmoth goes as far beyond The Essex Serpent as that novel went beyond After Me Comes the Flood. So I wonder what she will do next. Though I also wonder how far she can follow this particular Gothic belief system.