The Hatter’s Ghosts by Georges Simenon (tr. Howard Curtis)

This standalone novel by Belgian author Georges Simenon was originally published in 1949 as Les Fantômes du chapelier and is now available from Penguin Classics in an English translation by Howard Curtis. Although Simenon is better known for his series of Maigret detective novels, he also wrote many books like this one – short psychological thrillers, some of which he referred to as romans durs, or ‘hard novels’. I have read a few of them and my favourite so far has been The Venice Train; this one has some similar plot elements, but is a much darker story.

The novel is set in La Rochelle during a wet and miserable December. It has been raining for twenty days, ever since an old lady was found murdered near the canal. Since then, more bodies have been discovered, all of them elderly women and all of them strangled with a cello string. The newspapers are full of speculation over who the murderer might be, but the reader knows from the opening pages exactly who is responsible – and so does the tailor Kachoudas, who has seen something that has convinced him of the killer’s identity. As the rest of the story unfolds, we are kept wondering whether Kachoudas will go to the police or whether he’ll be the murderer’s next victim.

Although we know from the beginning who the culprit is, there’s still a sense of mystery because we have no idea why he has set out to kill so many women and how he has chosen his victims. The truth is eventually revealed and we discover exactly what is going on behind closed doors, but as this is just a short novel (as many of Simenon’s seem to be), I can’t really go into the plot in any more detail without spoiling it. Anyway, the mystery is only one aspect of the story; the real interest is in following the thought processes of the murderer as he tries to justify his actions to himself and deal with his conflicted thoughts and emotions. I was reminded very much of In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, another novel where we know the killer’s identity from the beginning and spend the rest of the book inside his mind, wondering whether he will give himself away.

The Hatter’s Ghosts is an atmospheric, unsettling novel and I loved the descriptions of the dark, rainy streets of La Rochelle. The Howard Curtis translation is clear and accessible and feels quite modern, while also preserving the tone of the 1940s. If you’re new to Simenon, or have only read his Maigret books, I can definitely recommend any or all of the romans durs I’ve read so far – as well as this one and The Venice Train, I have read The Man from London and The Strangers in the House and am looking forward to investigating some of his others.

Thanks to Penguin Classics for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book #2 read for R.I.P. XVII

Dubliners by James Joyce

I read Dubliners at the end of July but haven’t had a chance to post my thoughts on it until now as my 20 Books of Summer reviews had to take priority. This is not my first experience of James Joyce’s work as I have read one of his novels, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but that was about twenty years ago and I can remember very little of it now except a long and vivid description of the horrors of hell! Not being a fan of experimental writing, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake have never appealed at all, but Dubliners sounded much more accessible.

First published in 1914, this is a collection of fifteen short stories. Apparently they are arranged so that the first three are about children, the next few about young adults and the rest about older characters – although I didn’t notice this while I was reading and wasn’t aware of it until after I’d finished the book. Each story provides a snapshot of Dublin life in the early part of the 20th century and I found each one interesting for the insights it gave me into the people, society and culture of that time and place. However, they are not the sort of stories I personally prefer; I like them to have a beginning, middle and end, like a novel in shorter form, but many of the stories in Dubliners are more what I would describe as character sketches and others introduce ideas that are not fully developed, leaving the reader to decide for themselves what might happen next.

I’m not going to discuss all fifteen of them here and I don’t think I would have much to say about some of them anyway, but one I particularly liked was Eveline, about a young woman who made a promise to her dying mother to keep the family home together. Now she has fallen in love with a sailor who wants her to go with him to Buenos Aires and she must choose between keeping her promise and staying at home with her abusive father or seizing her own chance of happiness. I also enjoyed The Dead, the longest and most developed story in the book – almost a novella – in which a man makes an unexpected discovery about his wife at a Christmas party, while the snow falls outside. This has been described as one of the greatest stories in the English language and although I wouldn’t go that far myself, I did find it the most intriguing and satisfying story in this collection.

The other themes and topics Joyce includes in Dubliners range from religion, politics and Irish nationalism to poverty, loneliness and marriage. Together they paint a portrait of a city and its people, often bleak and miserable, but that’s how life would have been for some of these people, I suppose. Although most of the stories feel incomplete and leave a lot open to interpretation, I’m still glad I read them.

This is book 32/50 from my second Classics Club list.

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

The Chrysalids is the book that was chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin. The deadline for posting our Spin book reviews was supposed to be yesterday, but I got confused with the dates and am a day late! Anyway, after enjoying all of the books I’ve previously read by John Wyndham – The Midwich Cuckoos, Chocky and The Day of the Triffids – I had high hopes for this one and wasn’t disappointed. It’s another fascinating, exciting and thought-provoking novel – although not quite what I’d been expecting.

I deliberately tried not to read too much about this book before I started it, so I assumed the Chrysalids must be some sort of monstrous alien beings similar to the Triffids. However, this is not really that kind of book at all; it’s a post-apocalyptic novel exploring the changes in society brought about by an unspecified (though presumably nuclear) disaster known as the ‘Tribulation’. There are no monsters, although some of the characters view their fellow humans that way.

Our narrator, David Strorm, was born many years after the Tribulation in rural Labrador, a part of the world where normal life has resumed to some extent, although the ‘Old People’ have been almost forgotten and their technological advances have been lost in the mists of time. The people of Labrador are living an almost medieval existence, ruled by religious zealots who believe that as God created humans in his image, all human life should conform to a set of strict specifications. Anyone who is found to deviate from this in any way is considered a blasphemy and exiled to the Fringes, a wild and lawless region to the south. Unfortunately, as a result of the nuclear apocalypse, mutations have become very common.

David is still a child when his best friend Sophie is banished to the Fringes after her shoe comes off, revealing a sixth toe. Having witnessed Sophie’s fate, David becomes aware of the importance of keeping his own mutation – the power of telepathy – a secret. A mental abnormality should be easier to hide than a physical one, but the very fact that he and his telepathic friends look just like everyone else makes them a bigger threat to the religious leaders who are determined to identify and drive out every blasphemy. Can David and the others continue to keep their special ability hidden – and what will happen if they get caught?

What makes The Chrysalids so interesting is that although it was published in 1955 and set in some distant point in the future, the themes and ideas it explores are still very relevant to our lives today. Intolerance, bigotry and prejudice have sadly not gone away and there is still a tendency for some groups to judge others for not being ‘people like us’. The Chrysalids raises the interesting question of what being normal actually means and why any of us should have the right to decide whether another person is normal or not. Later in the novel another community is introduced who also consider their own way of life to be superior and to them it’s the religious fundamentalists of Labrador who are seen as primitive and savage.

Like the other Wyndham novels I’ve read, the science fiction elements in this one are really quite understated; the main focus is on the changes in society and in daily life caused by an apocalyptic or paranormal incident. I think this is why I enjoy reading Wyndham so much even though I don’t consider myself a big fan of science fiction in general. However, although I loved most of this book and found it quite gripping, I felt that the message became a bit unclear towards the end, possibly intentionally, with the introduction of that other community (it’s difficult to discuss it properly here while trying to avoid spoilers). Still, I was left with a lot to think about, which is always a good thing, and I wished there had been a sequel, or at least a few more chapters, as it seemed there was a lot more to learn about this world and our characters’ place in it. If you’ve read this book I would love to hear your thoughts!

This is book 31/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute is an author I’ve been intending to try for a long time. His 1942 novel, Pied Piper, is on my Classics Club list and I decided to also put it on my 20 Books of Summer list to give me some extra motivation to pick it up and read it sooner rather than later! I have no idea whether this was the best Shute novel to begin with – A Town Like Alice and On the Beach are probably better known; however, it turned out to be a good choice for me.

The ‘pied piper’ of the title is John Sidney Howard, an elderly Englishman who goes to France in the spring of 1940 to spend some time fishing, relaxing and trying to come to terms with the death of his son whose plane came down in the Battle of the Heligoland Bight. It may seem a strange time to be taking a holiday in Europe, but Howard believes the situation in France is stable and that he won’t be in any danger. However, when the Nazis begin to advance much more quickly than he expected, Howard decides to return home immediately. His departure is delayed when an English couple staying in the same hotel ask him to take their two young children with him to the safety of England, but soon Howard, accompanied by little Sheila and Ronnie, is boarding the train to Paris for the first stage of his journey.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan and Howard and the children find themselves facing one obstacle after another, including sickness, cancelled trains and German bombing raids. Along the way, Howard collects more lost or orphaned children and together they try to avoid the rapidly advancing German army and make their way to safety.

I usually enjoy novels with World War II settings, but I find it particularly interesting when they were actually written during the war itself. It makes a book feel very different when you know that at the time of writing, the author had no idea what would happen next or how the war would eventually end. It’s intriguing to think of how a 1942 reader may have viewed a book like this compared to those of us who are reading it today with the benefit of hindsight and a knowledge of history.

Another thing which makes Pied Piper different from a lot of other wartime novels is that Shute’s protagonist is so ordinary – not a soldier or a spy or a romantic young lover, but a quiet, unassuming old man who becomes a hero unintentionally through a mixture of circumstance and his own basic decency and humanity. The only link between Howard and the sinister ‘Pied Piper of Hamelin’ (apart from the obvious connection with children) comes when we see Howard making whistles from hazel twigs for his young companions to play with.

Although Howard and the children witness and experience some terrible things during their journey, they also encounter several people who offer kindness and generosity, so the novel shows us both the best and the worst of human nature. The book is structured using a framing narrative where Howard is relating the story of his adventures in France to a friend in a London club during an air raid several weeks into the future. This means we know almost from the first page that Howard has survived to tell the tale, yet there’s still plenty of suspense and I was genuinely afraid for him and for the children at various points throughout the novel!

Which of Nevil Shute’s books should I read next?

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This is book 7/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

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This is also book 29/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe

This 1722 classic by Daniel Defoe is not a book I was planning to read this year, if at all; I’m not really a fan of 18th century literature (I prefer the Victorians) and I should really be concentrating on the classics on my Classics Club list anyway. Then I noticed that it was being serialised by Pigeonhole in daily instalments and I was tempted – although I ended up just reading it on my own, at my own pace. Although it’s not a particularly long book (by 18th century standards), my progress through it was very slow at first, until I hit a point somewhere near the middle where I became more engaged with the story and then flew through the rest of it.

Considering that this is one of the very earliest novels in the English language, it’s surprisingly readable, although like other early authors, Defoe never uses one word if he can use fifty and doesn’t bother with things like chapter breaks either. However, with a bit of concentration it’s easy enough to follow what is happening and I certainly found reading this book a more enjoyable experience than, for example, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa!

It’s difficult to know how much I can say about the plot without spoiling it. I find that publishers of classic novels often give away too much on the back cover or in an introduction, but in my reviews I prefer to treat them like any other book and assume that readers know nothing about the story and don’t want me to tell them exactly what’s going to happen. Having said that, the full title of this particular novel, along with Defoe’s own preface, do give quite a detailed outline of the plot, so be aware!

I think I can safely tell you that our narrator, Moll Flanders (not her real name, but one she is given much later on), is born in Newgate Prison to a woman who is convicted of theft and transported to Virginia, leaving Moll to be raised by a foster mother. What follows is the story of Moll’s ‘fortunes and misfortunes’ as she reaches adulthood, has several marriages (some happy and some disastrous), gives birth to many children, most of whom are never mentioned again, falls into poverty and is drawn into a life of crime. Although Moll does some terrible things, whether she is driven to this by necessity or whether she could have chosen a different path is open to interpretation. Either way, she never quite loses her compassion and sense of humour and you can’t help but hope that she’ll find some happiness in the end.

What is certain is that the world Moll lives in is not an easy one for an unmarried, working class woman to navigate. It’s not hard to see why she places so much importance on finding a rich husband and why, when for one reason or another each marriage fails, she searches for other ways to survive. I found it interesting that Defoe chose to write a novel like this, from a female perspective, and that, although there’s obviously a moral to the story, he did seem to have a lot of sympathy with Moll’s situation. It’s also interesting that the novel is actually set in the 17th century rather than the 18th, something I hadn’t even been aware of until I came to the end where we are told that Moll had written this account of her life in the year 1683, at the age of around seventy.

Although I can’t say that I loved this book or that it’s become a favourite classic, I’m pleased I’ve read it. Maybe I’ll read something else by Daniel Defoe one day, but first I really need to concentrate on finishing my Classics Club list!

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.