The Man from London by Georges Simenon – #NovNov

I’ve been struggling to concentrate on longer novels for most of the year, despite having more time than ever before to read them! This month’s Novellas in November (hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck, ) seemed like a perfect opportunity for me to get through some of the shorter books on my TBR, beginning with this one – a French classic from 1934 reissued today by Penguin Classics.

The Man from London is my first Georges Simenon book (I haven’t read any of the Maigret novels, though I feel that I should have done by now), so I didn’t really know what to expect from it. I was pleased to find that it was suspenseful, atmospheric and, in this translation by Howard Curtis, very readable.

The story begins on a cold, foggy night in Dieppe, where railway signalman Louis Maloin is sitting alone in his watchtower, looking down on the docks at the ferry just arriving from England. It’s a sight Maloin observes every day, but tonight something is different: he watches one of the newly arrived passengers fight with another man and knock him into the water, along with the suitcase he is holding. Aware that he appears to be the only person who has seen this happen, Maloin retrieves the case from the water when nobody is around and takes it home with him. When he discovers what the case contains, the decision he makes could have consequences that will change his life forever.

Although there is an element of mystery to the book, with questions over the identities of the two men and where the contents of the case came from, this is really more of a psychological thriller than a crime novel. The fight Maloin witnesses and his reaction to it provides a starting point for an exploration of the state of Maloin’s mind as the process he has set in motion spirals out of control. He experiences every conceivable emotion over the course of the story, ranging from guilt at not telling the police what he has seen and allowing a murderer to walk free, excitement at gaining possession of the case for himself, and terror, knowing that someone could discover what he has done at any minute.

The atmosphere Simenon creates is wonderful, with the tension building and building as Maloin tries to go about his normal life, while being confronted at every turn by the face of the man he has come to think of as ‘the man from London’. The wet, foggy December weather adds to the overall mood, as do the descriptions of the places and people Maloin encounters as he moves around Dieppe trying to avoid the murderer and the police.

The short length of the book meant it held my interest from beginning to end and although I think the potential was here for a longer and more complex novel, I still found it quite satisfying. I’m glad my first experience of Georges Simenon’s work was a good one and I’m definitely interested in reading more of his books now.

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

In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse

“Doesn’t it seem to you that we have, all of us – the King and I and our good friends – wandered off into a forest of the night, filled with wolves and sly foxes? The darkness holds endless danger, we are stranded with no torch to protect us…We are lost in the Forest of Long Awaiting, a wilderness without prospect.”

Hella S Haasse’s In a Dark Wood Wandering was the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin just before Christmas, a result I was very happy with as I’d wanted to read this book for years. The deadline for finishing our Spin books was the end of January, but I knew I would need longer as I could tell when I started reading that this was the sort of book that required concentration and couldn’t be rushed.

First published in Dutch in 1949, an English translation by Lewis C Kaplan appeared in 1989 and although, sadly, I am unable to read the book in its original language, it doesn’t feel as though anything has been lost in translation – certainly not the beauty of the writing.

Set during the Hundred Years War, mainly in France but later in England, the novel begins in 1394 with the birth of a son to Louis, Duke d’Orléans and his wife, Valentina Visconti. Louis’ brother, Charles VI of France, suffers episodes of madness which leave him unfit to rule and Louis, at this time, is one of the most powerful men in France. However, there are others who are also able to wield influence over the king and Louis seems to be locked in never-ending conflict with the royal houses of Burgundy, Bourbon and Berry. It is into this world of power struggles, political intrigue and shifting alliances that little Charles d’Orléans is born.

Charles is still in his teens when his father, Louis, is murdered by Jean of Burgundy and, as the eldest son, the responsibility for the future of the House of Orléans falls on his young shoulders. Charles and his brothers swear to seek revenge against Burgundy, but then comes 1415, the Battle of Agincourt and a French defeat. Charles is captured by the victorious English and taken to England as a prisoner of war, where he will remain for decades. During this time, he occupies himself by writing the poetry for which he will become famous, but he never loses hope that one day France and England will be at peace and that he will be ransomed and allowed to return home.

In a Dark Wood Wandering is an amazing achievement. As readers of my blog will know, I enjoy reading historical fiction of all types, but my favourites tend to be older books like this one as I find that they are often better at immersing the reader in a bygone time without using inappropriately modern slang or projecting modern attitudes onto historical characters. That is certainly true of this book; both Hella S Haasse’s recreation of early 15th century France and her portrayal of the key historical figures of the period feel completely real and believable. This might be a problem for some readers as it means that the women – with the exceptions of Joan of Arc and, at times, Isabeau of Bavaria – are not particularly strong characters and, after the prologue, are kept largely in the background. Having said that, Charles himself is a passive, introspective character, often no more than an observer of things going on around him, a personality much more suited to writing poetry than to leading armies. Not everyone can be a hero or a heroine, after all.

Telling the story from Charles of Orléans’ perspective has its limitations as the parts of the Hundred Years War in which Charles plays a more active part, such as Agincourt, are vividly described while others, particularly events taking place in France during his time of exile, have to be either related to Charles from a distance or seen through the eyes of other characters. One of these is Dunois, Charles’ younger half-brother, known as the Bastard of Orléans; I have to admit, I found him a much more interesting and engaging character than Charles and wished we had seen more of him.

I loved the imagery Haasse uses in her writing; her descriptions of poppies glowing in green fields, sunlight sparkling on clear water and reflections of clouds in the river unfold like medieval tapestries while the idea of being lost en la forêt de longue attente or in ‘the Forest of Long Awaiting’ (a better title for the book in my opinion) is used very effectively throughout the novel. It forms the subject of the poetry Charles writes during his imprisonment in England and is also a metaphor for his state of mind and for the state of the Orléans family and France as a whole. By the time the novel draws to a close, France is beginning to head out of the dark forest of the Middle Ages towards the light of the Renaissance. As for Charles himself, although his life may seem to have been a story of missed opportunities and wasted potential, history tells us that the fortunes of the House of Orléans would soon start to rise again.

Now I want to read more of Hella S Haasse’s novels. Not all of them have been translated into English, but of those that have I particularly like the sound of The Scarlet City, a novel about Rome and the Borgias. Has anyone read that one – or any of her other books?

This is book 15/50 read from my Second Classics Club list.

The Bastille Spy by CS Quinn

Set during the French Revolution and featuring an almost super-human female spy and a handsome, charismatic pirate, this book feels like a cross between The Scarlet Pimpernel, James Bond and Pirates of the Caribbean. As the first in a new series – Revolutionary Spy – I’m not sure whether I really liked it enough to want to continue with the next one, but it was certainly entertaining.

Our heroine Attica Morgan is the illegitimate daughter of a British nobleman and an African slave. Raised and educated in England, Attica wants to make the most of the opportunities she has been given and do everything she can to help relieve the suffering of others, whether they are those who are born or sold into slavery, or those who have become political prisoners. With her impressive range of skills and abilities, as well as her intelligence and fearlessness, Attica has been admitted to the secret society known as the Sealed Knot and as the novel opens in 1789, she is preparing to head to France on a new mission.

Armed with her deadly Mangbetu knife and her quick wits, Attica arrives in a Paris where revolution is brewing. A diamond necklace intended for Marie Antoinette has gone missing, something which could have serious repercussions for the monarchy if the jewels are not found. Attica’s task is to locate the necklace, but more important to her is the safety of her cousin Grace, who was sent to Paris on a mission of her own and has disappeared as thoroughly as the diamonds. Meanwhile, a prisoner has been murdered inside the notorious Bastille, but who was he and who was responsible for his death?

As if all of that wasn’t enough, Attica crosses paths with some of the leading figures of the Revolution, including Maximilien Robespierre who is on the trail of an elusive British spy known only by the codename ‘Mouron’, or ‘Pimpernel’. If she is to evade Robespierre’s clutches and survive long enough to complete her mission, Attica needs someone she can trust, but there’s only the pirate Captain Jemmy Avery – and it’s impossible to tell which side he is on and for whom he is really working.

The story moves along at a whirlwind pace, never slowing down for a second as Attica and her friends rush from one adventure to another, trying to stay one step ahead of their enemies. There’s plenty of historical detail in between, but something about the writing style, the language and the characters made the book feel more ‘modern’ than I would have preferred. Attica herself isn’t very believable as an 18th century woman – but then, she wouldn’t be very believable in any other time period anyway! It seems there is nothing she can’t do, from picking locks and wielding weapons to speaking a multitude of foreign languages and decoding secret messages. This makes her fun to spend time with, but I would have liked to have seen a few more flaws and vulnerabilities to round out her character.

Only part of the story is told from Attica’s point of view. There are also some chapters which focus on Robespierre, as well as some in which we follow the adventures of Attica’s cousin Grace. Next to the larger-than-life Attica, Grace is a quieter, less memorable character, but I enjoyed the occasional change of perspective.

I might be tempted to read the next book in this series, but at the moment I don’t think so. However, I’m determined that 2020 will be the year I read Hilary Mantel’s French Revolution novel, A Place of Greater Safety, which I’ve only been putting off reading because of the length.

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

Death in Room Five by George Bellairs

George Bellairs, author of over fifty crime novels, many of them featuring the character of Inspector Littlejohn, seems to be enjoying a resurgence in popularity recently due to various publishers bringing a selection of his titles back into print. This one, Death in Room Five, is the second I’ve read and like my first, A Knife for Harry Dodd, it has been reissued by Agora Books.

In Death in Room Five, first published in 1955, Inspector Littlejohn is looking forward to taking a break from detective work and enjoying the sun, sea and sand of the French Riviera. His holiday has hardly begun, however, when a party of British tourists arrive, one of them is stabbed to death in the street, and Littlejohn finds himself drawn into a murder investigation. The dead man – the Alderman Dawson, from the fictional English town of Bolchester – appears at first to have been a respectable, honourable pillar of the community, but Littlejohn soon discovers that there is no shortage of people who had reasons to dislike Dawson or to benefit from his death.

This is an interesting and well-constructed murder mystery with plenty of suspects all with a possible motive for wanting Dawson dead. In order to understand the background of each suspect’s relationship with the Alderman, Littlejohn has to make a brief journey back to England to interview the residents of Bolchester (leaving the long-suffering Mrs Littlejohn to continue their holiday alone) but most of the action takes place in the south of France. I loved the beautiful descriptions of the Riviera, and the French setting also allows Bellairs to explore an intriguing motive for the murder – Dawson’s involvement with the French Resistance during the war.

It’s quite a complex mystery and although I didn’t find the solution particularly convincing, I appreciated the way Bellairs misleads us with red herrings and keeps us guessing to the end. However, I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as A Knife for Harry Dodd because I thought the characters in that one were more interesting to read about. Apart from the formidable Mrs Beaumont, I found the characters in this book less memorable and so the novel as a whole was not as entertaining. I did love the setting, though, and was pleased to discover that there are several other Littlejohn mysteries set in France, as well as on the Isle of Man, which is where Bellairs lived after his retirement. I’m looking forward to trying some of them.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Love Without End: A Story of Heloise and Abelard by Melvyn Bragg

I’ve never read anything by Melvyn Bragg before, although he has been writing since the 1960s and most of his novels fall into my favourite genre, historical fiction. His new book, Love Without End, a retelling of the story of Abelard and Heloise – often described as one of the greatest love stories of all time – sounded appealing to me, so I thought I would give it a try.

The novel opens in 12th century Paris, where Heloise is living with her uncle, the canon Fulbert. She is intelligent, resourceful and exceptionally well educated for a woman of her time, particularly in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. When the renowned philosopher and scholar Peter Abelard returns to Paris after an absence of a few years, Heloise longs to go and sit with the male students listening to his lectures, but she is aware that this is an opportunity open only to men. A solution is found when Canon Fulbert allows Abelard to join his household as private tutor to Heloise, but he quickly comes to regret this decision when he discovers that his niece and her tutor have fallen in love.

I’m not going to say any more about the legend of Heloise and Abelard – if you don’t already know the story you probably don’t want me to spoil it for you, and it’s so well documented the details can easily be looked up online anyway. All I will say is that, like Romeo and Juliet and other legendary lovers, their romance is dramatic and tragic. Melvyn Bragg’s account follows the usual, accepted outline of the story, using sources such as the Penguin Classics collection of the translated letters of Abelard and Heloise, although he also uses his imagination to fill in some of the gaps and mixes some fictional characters in with the real historical ones.

Despite all the drama and tragedy, however, I found this novel strangely flat and emotionless. There seemed to be no real chemistry between Heloise and Abelard; although Bragg tells us that they are passionately in love, I never really felt that for myself. Even the setting never came to life; I wanted to know what it felt like to live in 12th century Paris, what it looked like, sounded like, smelled like…but instead I came away with the feeling that the story might as well have been taking place in any city and at any time.

Even so, I might have still enjoyed this book if it had just concentrated solely on the story of Abelard and Heloise. Recently, though, I’m finding that authors rarely seem to write books set entirely in the past anymore. Instead we get two alternating storylines – one set in the past and one in the present. In this case, the present day story follows an author, Arthur, who is visiting Paris with his daughter, Julia, to finish researching and writing a novel about Abelard and Heloise. It is supposedly Arthur’s novel that we are reading in the historical chapters, while in the modern day chapters he and Julia talk about his work and how he has interpreted various parts of the Abelard and Heloise legend.

The Arthur and Julia storyline appears to exist purely as a way for Bragg to discuss and comment on various aspects of the relationship between Heloise and Abelard or to explain things for the benefit of the modern reader, rather than leaving us to reach our own conclusions. Most of the discussions involve Julia questioning Abelard’s behaviour and Arthur trying to defend him by pointing out that she needs to put things into historical context and judge Abelard by the standards of the 12th century instead of the 21st. I found both Arthur and Julia very irritating; their dialogue seemed unnatural and not the way two people would speak to each other in real life. They just didn’t feel like real human beings at all and were a distraction from the Heloise and Abelard story rather than an interesting addition to it.

This was disappointing, but if you’ve enjoyed any of Melvyn Bragg’s other books maybe you can convince me to give him another chance? Also, if anyone has read anything else about Abelard and Heloise – or even some of the original letters and writings – please let me know what you would recommend.

Thanks to Skyhorse Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Casanova and the Faceless Woman by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon

Casanova and the Faceless Woman is the first in a series of historical mysteries by French author Olivier Barde-Cabuçon, set in pre-Revolutionary France. There are currently seven books in the series but this one, translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, is the first to appear in English. When I was offered a copy for review by Pushkin Vertigo I was immediately intrigued because although I read a lot of historical mysteries I don’t think I’ve read any set in this particular period.

It’s 1759 and Louis XV is on the throne of France. He is not a popular king – unrest is growing amongst those who feel they have been oppressed under his reign and his rumoured liaisons with innocent young girls have not helped his reputation either – and there are several different factions plotting to overthrow or discredit him. Not long before our story begins, Louis had been the target of an assassination attempt and narrowly avoided being stabbed to death thanks to the quick actions of the Chevalier de Volnay. As a reward for his bravery, Volnay has been given the title of Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, responsible for investigating particularly unusual crimes on the king’s behalf.

One such crime occurs when a young woman is found dead in a dark Paris courtyard with the skin torn away from her face. On arriving at the scene, Volnay removes a sealed letter from the corpse intending to examine it later, but it seems that someone – perhaps several people – have seen him do it. Over the days that follow, as Volnay sets about trying to identify the woman and hunt down her killer, he himself is hunted by those who want to retrieve the letter and will stop at nothing to get it back.

Volnay interested me from the beginning because he is such a mysterious character. We are told very little about him at first, with the secrets of his tragic and eventful past being revealed very gradually as the story progresses. He seems very alone in the world, his only companions being a monk (with whom he forms a fascinating crime-solving partnership) and a tame magpie. There is a sense that he is not somebody who finds it easy to love or to trust others, and so, when he enters into a relationship with the beautiful Chiara D’Ancilla, we worry that he is going to get hurt – especially as his rival in love is the legendary Casanova.

Giacomo Casanova is one of several real historical figures who have important roles to play in the novel; others include Madame de Pompadour, the king’s mistress, and the Comte de Saint-Germain, the alchemist, sorcerer and musician who has fascinated me since I first met him in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. I don’t think Casanova has appeared in any other novels I’ve read, although his career as writer, adventurer, gambler and, most famously, seducer of women, makes him an ideal subject for historical fiction. His character is well developed and convincing here and Barde-Cabuçon explores events from his past in order to explain his present behaviour, but I could never quite warm to him because my sympathies were with Volnay from the start. While Casanova seems to treat his romance with Chiara – and his involvement with the stolen letter and all the intrigue surrounding it – as a game, for Volnay these things are literally a matter of life and death.

I’m not sure whether Louis was really as disgusting and depraved as he is depicted in the novel but his reign certainly wasn’t seen as very successful and I think the author does a good job of conveying the mood in France in the years leading up to the Revolution and the discontent of the people with the king and the aristocracy. However, as a mystery novel, I thought the plot felt a bit more complicated than it really needed to be and the action moved between one set of characters and another too quickly, so that there were times when I struggled to hold on to all the different threads of the story. I also found the ending unnecessarily dramatic with one twist too many – although I had been intrigued by some of the revelations near the end, which left me wanting to read the next book in the series. I hope it’s going to be available in English soon too as I would love to see more of the Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.

The She-Wolf by Maurice Druon

First published in French in 1959 as La Louve de France (The She-Wolf of France), this is the fifth novel in Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series. The series – which began with The Iron King – tells the story of Philip IV of France and his descendants, a line of kings “cursed to the thirteenth generation” by the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, whom Philip sent to burn at the stake. So far, the curse seems to have been very effective, as in the first four novels we have seen poisoned kings, strangled queens, failed marriages and family feuds.

In this book, the action switches to England for a while, where Isabella – Philip’s daughter – is unhappily married to the English king, Edward II. Feeling that her husband cares more for his favourite, Hugh Despenser the Younger, than he does for her, Isabella has turned to Roger Mortimer for comfort. As the novel opens, Roger escapes from imprisonment in the Tower of London and flees to France, where he hopes to gain support to return to England at the head of an army.

Meanwhile, Isabella’s brother, Charles, has just become France’s fourth king in eight years following the death of their elder brother, Philippe V. The new Charles IV proves to be a weak king but others who surround him at court continue to plot and scheme, looking for ways to gain power for themselves. But unknown to Charles, the person who could pose the biggest threat to his reign is far away, growing up in the care of Marie de Cressay, his existence known only to a select few.

It’s been a few years since I read the fourth book in this series (The Royal Succession) and I worried that I might struggle to remember what had happened in the previous novels. Luckily, the prologue gives us a reminder and then fills us in on the details of the reign of Philippe V the Long, who had just taken the throne at the end of The Royal Succession and is dead before this book begins. I was sorry that we weren’t able to spend more time with Philippe in The She-Wolf as I thought he was a much more interesting character than his brother Charles, but I’m sure Druon must have had his reasons for not writing much about that period and moving quickly on to the next king.

So far, most of the history covered in this series has been new to me and the books have given me a good introduction to the reigns of the Capet kings of France. With The She-Wolf I was on more familiar ground as there was more focus on English history and Isabella is someone I have read about several times before (both in non-fiction such as Helen Castor’s She-Wolves and in novels including Isabella by Colin Falconer and, indirectly, Susan Howatch’s Cashelmara which I’m currently re-reading). I was a bit disappointed that Isabella isn’t really given a chance to shine in this book; despite her strength and intelligence, it is Roger Mortimer who is shown to be in control and making all the decisions. Having said that, I did like the fact that she and Roger are portrayed as being genuinely in love; this helped me to believe in their characters and their relationship.

Edward II comes across very badly in this book (which does usually seem to be the case and I can’t really think of any positive portrayals of him in fiction). Druon takes the view that Edward’s relationships with Piers Gaveston and then Hugh Despenser were of a homosexual nature, although there is some debate about this today, and he also sticks with the traditional story surrounding the method of Edward’s death, which again has not been proved. The book was written in the 1950s, though, and I assume they were probably the accepted theories at that time. I can’t comment at all on the accuracy of the French sections of the novel, but I think it’s clear that Druon did his research – as with the other books in the series, there’s an extensive section of historical notes at the back which are referenced throughout the text. And as ever, Humphrey Hare’s English translation is clear and easy to read.

I was disappointed that the battle of wits between the scheming Mahaut d’Artois and her nephew Robert, which has played such a big part in the previous novels, was pushed into the background and I was also sorry not to see more of two other recurring characters, Marie de Cressay and Guccio Baglioni. For those reasons, although I did enjoy this book, it’s not one of my favourites in the series, but I’m still looking forward to reading the final two and finding out what happens in the next one, The Lily and the Lion.