In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

This is the book that was chosen for me to read in the recent Classics Club Spin – a result I was very pleased with, having loved two other novels by Dorothy B. Hughes, The Expendable Man and Ride the Pink Horse (two of my books of the year in 2020 and 2021 respectively).

Originally published in 1947, In a Lonely Place is set in Los Angeles just after World War II. Dix Steele, who had served as a fighter pilot in the Air Force, is staying in an apartment belonging to an old acquaintance, Mel Terriss, who has gone to Rio for a while. Like many young men who have returned from the war, Dix has been left damaged by his experiences and is taking advantage of the peace and quiet to finish writing his new crime novel. At least, that’s what he tells people. It is quickly made obvious to the reader that the writing is a cover for something else and that Dix is actually spending his time doing something very different.

Deciding to contact a wartime friend, Brub Nicolai, who also lives in LA, Dix is surprised to learn that Brub is now working as a police detective. Brub is delighted to renew their friendship, introducing Dix to his wife, Sylvia, and telling him about the case he is investigating – a series of stranglings that have been taking place across the city. Dix is envious of Brub’s close relationship with Sylvia, which serves as a constant reminder of his own sense of loneliness and isolation. When he meets Laurel Gray, a beautiful young actress who lives in his apartment building, it seems that he has a chance to form a new relationship of his own…if Laurel can avoid becoming the strangler’s next victim.

I had high hopes for this novel and it certainly didn’t disappoint! I’ve actually found it quite a difficult book to write about because I’m not sure what would be considered a spoiler and what wouldn’t. Having said that, there’s not really a lot of mystery involved; we know from very early in the book who the murderer is – the suspense is in waiting to find out how, if and when they will get caught. However, there are still a few surprises and some revelations that don’t come until later in the story. All three of the books I’ve read by Hughes have been so much than just straightforward crime novels; she takes us right inside the minds of her characters and although they may be damaged, unhappy and not the most pleasant of people, she makes them feel believable and real, if not exactly sympathetic!

This book is wonderfully atmospheric – dark and tense and with the reader, like Dix, wondering who can be trusted and who knows more than they’re admitting to. It’s another great read and I’ll look forward to reading more by Dorothy B. Hughes.

This is book 28/50 read from my second Classics Club list

The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas, fils

Translated by Liesl Schillinger

As a fan of the elder Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers and many more, I thought it was time I tried the work of his son, Alexandre Dumas fils. His 1848 novel La Dame aux Camélias – often published in English as The Lady of the Camellias or Camille – was on my Classics Club list and when the Club announced another of their ‘dares’ this February (“Simply read a classic book from your #CClist that you classify as romantic, glamorous, sexy or alluring. It could even be a book or author that you are predisposed to love”) I thought this would be a good opportunity to read it!

The lady of the title is Marguerite Gautier, a Parisian courtesan or ‘kept woman’, who is the mistress of several men including a wealthy duke. Her nickname comes from the fact that she is rarely seen without a bouquet of camellias, red on the days of the month when she is unavailable to her lovers, white when she is free again. One evening at the opera, she catches the attention of a young man called Armand Duval. Armand becomes obsessed with Marguerite and although she informs him that he isn’t rich enough to maintain her extravagant lifestyle, he is determined to become her only lover and put an end to her involvement with other men.

We know from the beginning of the novel that Marguerite will die of consumption (tuberculosis), that she will be in debt at the time of her death and that her possessions will be sold at auction. It’s at this auction that our unnamed narrator buys a book belonging to Marguerite with an inscription by Armand Duval. The purchase of the book leads to a meeting between Armand and the narrator during which Armand tells him the tragic story of his relationship with Marguerite.

Despite knowing that the story was not going to end happily and despite not particularly liking either Armand or Marguerite, I still found The Lady of the Camellias quite gripping and difficult to put down. It’s also beautifully written (and beautifully translated from the original French by Liesl Schillinger in the Penguin Classics edition I read). Although I prefer the style of Dumas père, it’s worth remembering that Dumas fils was only twenty-three years old when he wrote this book, basing it on his own relationship with the courtesan Marie Duplessis, which probably explains the immaturity of the young Armand Duval in the novel.

After falling in love at first sight, in the way only characters in 19th century novels do, and before even getting to know Marguerite, Armand decides that he must ‘possess’ her – and then, once he has her, doesn’t trust her and fails to understand or appreciate the sacrifices she is making for him. My sympathies lay much more with Marguerite, although it took me a long time to warm to her. I think it would have helped if we had been given more information on her background, to explain why she was so obsessed with money and jewels and how she had come to live the frivolous life she was leading. Still, her story is very sad and a good example of double standards between men and women.

If you think this story sounds familiar, it has been adapted many times for stage and screen and was the inspiration for Verdi’s opera La traviata and the 2001 film Moulin Rouge.

This is book 27/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

A Bad Business by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater

This is the second collection of classic short stories I’ve read from the Pushkin Press Essential Stories series. The first was I Would Prefer Not To by Herman Melville, an author I had never tried before, and I found it a good introduction to his work. In the case of Dostoevsky, I have previously read two of his novels (Crime and Punishment and The Idiot) but was curious to see what his shorter fiction would be like. This collection contains six stories, all in new translations by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater. They are all quite different in subject and style and I think they would give new readers a good idea of what his writing is like, while also being of interest to readers like myself who are only familiar with his full-length novels.

I think my favourite of the six stories was The Crocodile (1865), in which a civil servant, Ivan Matveich, is swallowed alive by a crocodile being exhibited in St Petersburg. There’s not much more to the plot than that, as the rest of the story revolves around the conversations Matveich has with various people from inside the crocodile, but I found it entertaining and surprisingly funny, not something I’ve really associated with Dostoevsky’s work before. It also takes a satirical look at the economic situation in Russia at that time – the German owners of the crocodile refuse to have its stomach slit open to free Matveich because they would be losing their investment, particularly as the crocodile has now increased in value due to becoming so famous!

Conversations in a Graveyard (1873), also published as Bobok, is another satire in which the narrator is sitting in a cemetery after attending a funeral and hears the disembodied voices of the recently buried telling each other their stories. The literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin describes this story as “almost a microcosm of Dostoevsky’s entire creative output,” because it involves many of the themes, ideas and character types that appear in his other work. I probably haven’t read enough of Dostoevsky to be able to fully appreciate this, but I did still find the story interesting – and it reminded me very much of Lincoln in the Bardo!

The title story, A Bad Business (1862), follows a general in the civil service who, after discussing his political ideals with friends, decides to test one of his theories by being nice to people from lower social classes. Unfortunately, when he arrives, uninvited and unwelcome, at the wedding feast of one of his subordinates, things quickly begin to go wrong. A very different type of story is A Meek Creature (1876), about the relationship between a pawnbroker and one of his customers, a girl who pawns items to earn money so that she can advertise in the newspaper for work as a governess. This is a darker story than most of the others in the book and not one of my favourites.

The four stories mentioned so far take up more than 90% of the book, which means that the final two are much shorter. One is The Heavenly Christmas Tree (1876), a sentimental and poignant little story with a fairy tale feel, and the other is The Peasant Marey (also 1876), in which the narrator recalls a childhood memory of being comforted by a peasant after convincing himself there was a wolf in the woods. I liked both of these stories but felt that they suffered from being placed at the end of the collection; I would have preferred the shorter stories to alternate with the novella-length ones to provide more variety.

Although I don’t think any of these are stories I would want to read again, apart from maybe The Crocodile, it was good to have the opportunity to explore Dostoevsky further. I’m hoping to read my copy of The Brothers Karamazov soon.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Diary of a Pilgrimage by Jerome K. Jerome

I ought, of course, to sit down in front of this diary at eleven o’clock at night, and write down all that has occurred to me during the day. But at eleven o’clock at night, I am in the middle of a long railway journey, or have just got up, or am just going to bed for a couple of hours. We go to bed at odd moments, when we happen to come across a bed, and have a few minutes to spare. We have been to bed this afternoon, and are now having another breakfast; and I am not quite sure whether it is yesterday or to-morrow, or what day it is.

Jerome K. Jerome’s hilarious Three Men in a Boat is one of my favourite novels from the late Victorian period. I have since tried several of his other books – Three Men on the Bummel, The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow and now this one, Diary of a Pilgrimage – hoping to find another one as good, and although I’ve found them slightly disappointing in comparison, they are still amusing and entertaining. His books also tend to be much shorter than the average Victorian classic and are perfect if you need something light and uplifting between longer, more challenging reads.

Diary of a Pilgrimage, first published in 1891, is very similar to the Three Men books in structure and style. Our narrator, J, is off on his travels again, this time on a ‘pilgrimage’ to Germany to see the famous Passion Play at Oberammergau, a performance which has been regularly taking place there since the 17th century. Accompanied by his friend, known only as B, J travels first from London to Dover, then across the English Channel to Ostend and on to their destination by train. Along the way they stay in several hotels, visit some places of interest including Cologne Cathedral and, of course, find themselves in plenty of ridiculous and embarrassing situations.

Only a short section of the book is devoted to the Passion Play itself because, as J tells us, it has already been written about many times before. He spends much more time describing the places they pass through on the journey, the funny things that happen to them and the people they meet – such as the very boring man who never stops talking:

After the dog story, we thought we were going to have a little quiet. But we were mistaken; for, with the same breath with which he finished the dog rigmarole, our talkative companion added:

“But I can tell you a funnier thing than that -”

We all felt we could believe that assertion. If he had boasted that he could tell a duller, more uninteresting story, we should have doubted him; but the possibility of his being able to relate something funnier, we could readily grasp.

But it was not a bit funnier, after all. It was only longer and more involved. It was the history of a man who grew his own celery; and then, later on, it turned out that his wife was the niece, by the mother’s side, of a man who had made an ottoman out of an old packing-case.

A lot of J’s anecdotes involve his struggles to make himself understood in various foreign languages (he finds it particularly difficult to order an omelette) and the cultural differences he notices between Germany and England. The train journey also poses lots of problems, such as buying the right tickets, finding that other passengers have taken the best seats, and trying to interpret confusing timetables:

“Drat this 1.45! It doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Munich depart 1.45, and that’s all. It must go somewhere!”

Apparently, however, it does not. It seems to be a train that starts out from Munich at 1.45 and goes off on the loose. Possibly, it is a young, romantic train, fond of mystery. It won’t say where it’s going to. It probably does not even know itself. It goes off in search of adventure.

“I shall start off,” it says to itself, “at 1.45 punctually, and just go on anyhow, without thinking about it, and see where I get to.”

Diary of a Pilgrimage is not what I would describe as a ‘must-read classic’ but it’s a bit of light-hearted fun, which I think we all need now and then!

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B Hughes

Ride the Pink Horse was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin and I have finished it just in time to write about it by the Spin deadline, which is this weekend. There were two reasons why I added this book to my Classics Club list in the first place. One was that I loved Dorothy B Hughes’ The Expendable Man and wanted to read more of her work; the other, I have to admit, was that I liked the title. Otherwise, I would probably never have picked this book up based on the description alone as it didn’t really sound like my usual sort of read. And that would have been a shame, as I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Ride the Pink Horse was published in 1946 and is set in Santa Fe during Fiesta, a festival commemorating the reconquest of New Mexico by the Spanish. The central character, known only as Sailor, was once ‘confidential secretary’ to Senator Willis Douglass (in reality, his job involved carrying out the corrupt senator’s dirty work for him) until the day the senator’s wife was murdered during what appeared to be an attempted robbery. Only Sailor and the Sen, as he calls him, know what really happened that day and Sailor is determined that if the Sen wants him to keep quiet then he will have to pay him for his silence. Sailor has followed the Sen to the Fiesta, planning to get as much money out of him as possible and then cross the border into Mexico to start a new life – but he hasn’t bargained for the appearance of McIntyre, a Chicago detective who is also on the senator’s trail in search of answers.

The first thing I should tell you about Ride the Pink Horse is that it’s not really a mystery, even though it’s currently being published as part of the Otto Penzler American Mystery Classics series. There’s a detective, but we don’t actually watch him doing any detecting because we see everything solely from Sailor’s perspective and Sailor already knows how the Sen’s wife was murdered. However, there’s still plenty of suspense as we are kept wondering whether Sailor will get what he wants from the Sen or whether he will drop his attempt at blackmail and tell McIntyre what he knows instead. The way in which the novel is written meant I honestly had no idea what would happen and which choices Sailor would make, so I found the ending both surprising and realistic.

The next thing I want to mention is the setting, which is wonderfully atmospheric. Santa Fe is not actually mentioned by name – Sailor, who is from Chicago, just refers to it as a ‘hick town’ – but it can be identified by the descriptions of the Fiesta and the festival traditions such as the burning of Zozobra, the wooden effigy of ‘Old Man Gloom’. Hughes creates an amazing sense of place and a feeling that, for Sailor, Fiesta is not a fun or exciting experience but a stifling, claustrophobic one – a trap from which there is no escape:

The whole town was a trap. He’d been trapped from the moment he stepped off the bus at the dirty station. Trapped by the unknown, by a foreign town and foreign tongues and the ways of alien men. Trapped by the evil these people had burned and the ash had entered into their flesh.

Sailor himself is not a very appealing or pleasant character, but as we learn more about his past – and his unhappy childhood, growing up in poverty with an alcoholic father – it becomes easier to have sympathy for him. One of his least attractive traits is his racism, so be warned that he uses offensive language to describe the Mexican and Native American people he meets during Fiesta. However, as he gradually befriends Pancho, a good-natured merry-go-round owner, and Pila, the young girl who rides the ‘pink horse’ of the title, there are signs that his attitude is beginning to change, as seen here in this conversation with McIntyre:

“…they don’t shove you around. They give you a smile. Even if you don’t talk their language they don’t shove you around. The way we shove them around when they come up to our town.”

“I know,” Mac said. “I’ve thought sort of along that line myself. We’re the strangers and they don’t treat us as strangers. They’re tolerant. Only they’re more than tolerant. Like you say, they’re friendly. They give you a smile not scorn.”

I loved this book and am so pleased it came up for me in the Classics Club Spin! I think The Expendable Man is still my favourite of the two, but I’m looking forward to reading more by Dorothy B Hughes; In a Lonely Place will probably be next.

This is book 25/50 read from my second Classics Club list

Nightmare in Berlin by Hans Fallada

The war had destroyed everything, and all that was left to him were the ruins and the ugly, incinerated detritus of former memories.

For this year’s German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline, I decided to read a book by one of my favourite German authors, Hans Fallada. Nightmare in Berlin was one of his final novels, written just before his death in 1947, and although I don’t think it’s as good as some of his others – particularly Alone in Berlin and Little Man, What Now? – I did find it an interesting and powerful read. This 2016 translation by Allan Blunden is the first time the book has been made available in English.

Nightmare in Berlin begins in the spring of 1945, just as the war ends and the Red Army march into Berlin. Dr Doll, who had been a successful author before the war, and his much younger wife Alma, live in a small rural town and, unlike most of their neighbours, choose to welcome the Soviet troops into their home. Doll is rewarded by being appointed mayor of the town, but soon finds that he is being viewed with suspicion and resentment by his fellow Germans. Eventually, they decide that it’s time to move back to Berlin, having fled from the city to the countryside during the war. When they arrive in Berlin, however, they discover that someone else has moved into their apartment and that it’s going to be much harder than they’d expected to pick up the threads of their old life.

As Doll sets out to look for help in finding somewhere to live and in getting medical treatment for his wife’s injured leg, he is struck by the greed and selfishness of many of the people he encounters, who think nothing of cheating other Germans to get what they want. Disillusioned and depressed, Doll is overcome with shame and apathy, beginning to despair for Germany’s future.

In this time of the country’s collapse and defeat, no feelings last for long; the hatred passed away, leaving only emptiness, deadness, and indifference behind, and people seemed remote, out of reach.

Although this is obviously quite a bleak novel, it does have its more uplifting moments: there are times when Doll is shown some kindness and compassion, restoring his faith in human nature at least temporarily. The relationship between Doll and Alma is portrayed as a warm and loving one, so that no matter what is going on around them, they know they can always rely on each other. However, the Dolls are also both reliant on drugs, taking morphine and sleeping pills to escape from reality and get through the day, and the middle section of the novel follows their experiences in the hospitals and sanatoriums where they are being treated for their addictions. This part of the book was of much less interest to me (I wanted to see more of post-war Berlin, rather than the inside of a hospital) and I felt that it seemed to come out of nowhere – drugs were never mentioned until the Dolls left their rural town to return to Berlin and yet they had apparently both been addicts for a long time.

Nightmare in Berlin seems to be a very autobiographical novel. Hans Fallada (born Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen) struggled with morphine addiction himself, as did his younger second wife, Ursula Losch. Like Dr Doll, he was appointed mayor of a small country town shortly after the Soviet invasion and then spent the remainder of his life going in and out of hospital. I think the book might have worked better as non-fiction rather than a novel, but maybe Fallada found it easier to write about his own experiences by disguising them as fiction. Still, this is a fascinating novel and worth reading for the insights it offers into the mood of the German people in the aftermath of the war.

This is book 24/50 from my second Classics Club list.

I Would Prefer Not To by Herman Melville

I’ve never read anything by Herman Melville – I know I should have read Moby Dick by now, but it has never sounded appealing to me – so when I spotted this new collection of Melville short stories from Pushkin Press it seemed a good opportunity to experience some of his work without having to commit to a 600+ page novel.

I Would Prefer Not To contains four stories, although the final one takes up more than half the book and is probably better described as a novella. My favourite was the first story, Bartleby the Scrivener, which was first published in Putnam’s Magazine in 1853. The narrator is an elderly Wall Street lawyer who employs two clerks, or ‘scriveners’ – Turkey and Nippers – whose job is to make copies of legal documents, and one office boy, Ginger Nut. An increase in work leads the lawyer to look for a third scrivener and, as he has been having difficulties with the temperamental natures of the other two, he decides to hire Bartleby, a quiet man whom he hopes will be a good influence on the others.

At first Bartleby works hard at his copying, but when the lawyer asks him to proofread a copied document, he replies with, “I would prefer not to”. Over the following days, he refuses to do more and more of the tasks that are requested of him – never giving an angry or rude response; always just those same five words: “I would prefer not to”. As the lawyer decides how to deal with this unexpected problem, the reader wonders what is wrong with Bartleby and what has caused his unusual behaviour. I enjoyed the story, but it left me very confused and I didn’t really understand what Melville was trying to say. However, after turning to Google for help, it seems that the meaning of the story was deliberately ambiguous and it can be interpreted in many ways, which made me feel a lot better about not understanding it!

Next is The Lightning-Rod Man, a short and intriguing tale of a salesman who arrives at the narrator’s house in Albania during a thunderstorm and tries to sell him a lightning-rod. The narrator is sceptical and says he will trust God to keep him safe, but the salesman won’t take no for an answer. Again, the meaning is not immediately obvious, but it’s an entertaining story and reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe. The third story, John Marr, is the weakest in the book, in my opinion. The title character is a retired sailor trying to adjust to a life on land, in a remote community on the American prairies. Feeling isolated and out of place, he remembers his seafaring days through songs and poems. The piece included in this collection is taken from John Marr and Other Sailors, a volume of poetry published in 1888, so maybe it would have worked better if read in the context of the original book.

Finally, we have the novella Benito Cereno, in which an American sea captain sailing off the coast of Chile encounters a Spanish slave ship in distress. Boarding the ship to see if he can help, he meets the Spanish captain, Benito Cereno, who tells him how the ship came to be in trouble. As he observes the behaviour of Benito Cereno and his slaves, he begins to wonder whether there is more to this than meets the eye. This was another interesting story, but I felt that it was much too long and too easy to guess the twist; we see things only through the eyes of the narrator, who is frustratingly oblivious to what is really happening on the Spanish ship. It was also another difficult one to interpret: was it a racist, pro-slavery story or an anti-racist, anti-slavery story? It could be either and it can’t be assumed that the views of the narrator reflect the views of the author.

So, now that I’ve had my introduction to Herman Melville, will I be reading Moby Dick? At the moment I think I would prefer not to, but maybe I’ll be ready to tackle it one day in the future!

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.