The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #96)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

Now that I have some of my life back after a period where I was deranged enough to both work and study full-time (what was I thinking???? etc etc ad infinitum) I’ve decided I need to get back on track with my reading challenge, and I’m easing myself in with the slim novel The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

The Big Sleep is the first of Chandler’s novels, and the first I’ve read. It’s a mark of how far his style and the hardboiled detectives he created have become assimilated into modern culture that I could hear Humphrey Bogart’s voice in my head reading every word:

Having finished the novel it’s a source of constant disappointment to me that I don’t have Bogie’s voice in my head narrating my daily life, although admittedly if he did turn up he’d probably leave out of utter boredom:

“I walked to the kitchen. A cat appeared from nowhere, making his disgust at the lack of crunchies in his bowl known.  I poured a cup of tea. The kettle needed descaling but I couldn’t be bothered. I was out of milk. I debated whether to drink it black or go to the shop. The tea in the cup was as dark as the night outside. As dark as my soul. I put on my coat, knowing the wind outside would be colder than the welcome awaiting my return if the cat bowl remained empty.”

Hmm, it’s not really working, is it? Let’s see it done properly, with tales of blackmail, murder, riches and glamour in Los Angeles, rather than domestic banalities in south London. Private eye Philip Marlowe is summoned by the affluent and moribund General Sternwood:

“His long narrow body was wrapped – in that heat – in a travelling rug and a faded red bathrobe. His thin clawlike hands were folded loosely on the rug, purple-nailed. A few locks of dry white hair clung to his scalp like wild flowers fighting for life on a bare rock […] The General spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work showgirl uses her last pair of good stockings.”

This is the real joy of Chandler, his much-parodied use of simile, inventive and atmospheric. The images he uses accentuate the world-weary knowingness of Marlowe: “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts.” but I must confess that my sheltered existence meant I didn’t always understand all of them: “Her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust”. Whaaat? Anyone?

As Marlowe investigates the blackmail case the General has employed him to uncover, he is drawn into the seedy underbelly (I think the phrase ‘seedy underbelly’ was probably coined to describe Chandler’s oeuvre) of Los Angeles – “It seemed like a nice neighbourhood to have bad habits in”– pornography, drugs, murder, and of course, sexy ladies at every turn:

“She got up slowly and swayed towards me in a tight black dress that didn’t reflect any light. She had long thighs and she walked with a certain something I hadn’t often seen in bookstores.”

The plot is convoluted, with everyone double-crossing everyone else and Marlowe at the centre of it all, trying to hang on to some sort moral compass:

 “I got up feeling sluggish and tired and stood looking out of the windows, with a dark harsh taste of Sternwoods still in my mouth. I was as empty of life as a scarecrow’s pockets.”

He is compelling narrator, wise, brave and so much cooler than probably any of his readers (definitely me, as much as I wish I looked like this):


This is a novel to accept on its own terms – one where atmosphere and style top anything else.  Famously, director Howard Hawks queried a plot-hole with Chandler when he was filming The Big Sleep. Chandler confirmed he had no idea as to the answer.  But for escapist entertainment, a quick read with a confident narrative voice (Humphrey Bogart’s to be precise), The Big Sleep is a great example of the hard-boiled genre.

“The coffee shop smell from next door came in at the windows with the soot but failed to make me hungry. So I got out my office bottle and took the drink and let my self-respect ride its own race.”


“If you live to be one hundred, you’ve got it made. Very few people die past that age.” (George Burns)

This is my 100th post.  For more prolific, better bloggers than me this would not be a big deal but it’s taken me nearly 3 years so I’m making it A Thing:


For the 100 theme I thought I would pick two books from my TBR that are also on the Norwegian Book Clubs 100 Best Books of All Time list (compiled by 100 authors from 54 countries). And it was at this point that the post became derailed, because the first one I chose was Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I have no idea how to discuss this novel.  I have no idea if it’s even a novel. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever read, and I’ve read The Monk. I can only think it’s called a novel because there isn’t a genre of whale-compendium-philosophical-disquisition-on-the-state-of-humankind-tragi-farce-quest-adventure-stream-of-conciousness-homoerotic-existentialist-romance. I had no idea what I was getting into.  I thought it was a story about a monopedal seafaring lunatic’s obsession with a white whale. That’s some of it. But saying that is what Moby-Dick is about is like saying Animal Farm is about pig husbandry.

“With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I — being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude, — how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships’ standing orders, ‘Keep your weather eye open, and sing out every time.’”

So you see my problem. Once upon a time one of my tutors was talking me through how to write a research proposal and the only thing I remember him saying was “don’t do what I did, and write down a tirade of barely-literate pseudo-threats”. This comment makes complete sense now, because his research was on Moby-Dick, and if I was trying to capture it in any sort of meaningful analysis I think I’d end up resorting to a tirade of barely-literate pseudo-threats.

I realise this may sound like I didn’t like it, which is not true.  Moby-Dick is beautifully written, compelling, hypnotic, thought-provoking, and completely unique. It’s full of sage counsel for life:

“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

The ending is devastating, and it is without a doubt the weirdest thing I’ve ever read.

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”


If you’d like to read a thoughtful, useful discussion of Moby-Dick rather than the confused nonsense you’ve just waded through here, then I highly recommend that you head over to Shoshi’s Book Blog for her excellent review.

Secondly, Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert (my edition trans. Alan Russell), whose linear narrative helped me recover from my Moby-Dick book hangover. Apparently Flaubert said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” I find this extremely unlikely. Madame Bovary is a silly, vain, self-pitying materialist who places value in all the wrong things. She never changes – this is how she begins and ends the novel.  Madame Bovary could never have written Madame Bovary, which is scathing in its treatment of bourgeois aspiration and acquisition. However, while she runs up debts to fill her house with things and constantly hankers after some ideal self-indulgent life that is based entirely on what she has read books, there is not a total lack of sympathy for Emma:

“Before the wedding, she had believed herself in love. But not having obtained the happiness that should have resulted from that love, she now fancied she must have been mistaken. And Emma wondered exactly what was meant in life by the words ‘bliss’, ‘passion’, ‘ecstasy’, which had looked so beautiful in books.”

So, she’s naïve, and in her naiveté has married a man whose “conversation was as flat as a street pavement, on which everybody’s ideas trudged past, in their workaday dress, provoking no emotion, no laughter, no dreams.” But she is also self-pitying, believing herself so hard done by in her comfortable middle-class existence with a man who loves her: “Had she not suffered enough? Now was her hour of triumph.” that at times I really wanted to slap her.

Emma really doesn’t know what she wants “She longed to travel – or go back to the convent. She wanted to die, and she wanted to live in Paris.”, and this makes her ripe for seduction by an absolute rake.  Although I didn’t like her, I did feel a bit ashamed for laughing at seduction which involved lines such as this:

“Goodbye! I’ll go away, far away, and you’ll hear no more of me. But today, some mysterious force has impelled me to you. One cannot fight with fate! Or resist when the angels smile! One is simply carried away by what is charming and lovely and adorable!”

Emma in her vanity falls for this nonsense, spoken by a man whose “pleasures had so trampled over his heart, like schoolboys in a playground, that no green thing grew there.” Of course her appeal wanes, and she is deserted by the cynical seducer:

“Emma was like any other mistress; and the charm of novelty, gradually slipping away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, whose forms and phrases are forever the same.”

Madame Bovary is a wonderful novel, accomplished and engaging, and while the sexuality of the heroine may no longer be scandalous, it remains an entirely relevant challenge to the socio-cultural values placed on materialistic gain.  I suspect Madame Bovary is a character who divides readers, and in this instance she divided the one reader. One the one hand, I thought her utterly contemptible. But at the same time she was a woman who wanted more, at a time when women didn’t have very many choices.

“Her will is like the veil on her bonnet, fastened by a single string and quivering at every breeze that blows. Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that restrains.”

Very possibly if I’d been born into nineteenth-century bourgeois French society I’d end up a silly, vain, self-pitying materialist, placing value in all the wrong things (of course, I’m nothing like that now *cough*). I’ll end on a more sympathetic view of Emma than I’ve given here; this recent film adaptation seems to view her more kindly, if the trailer is anything to go by:


“Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!” (Dr Peter Venkman, Ghostbusters)

This week I bought my first Christmas present of the year.  I was really pleased with it.  Then as I gazed at it I realised the first present I’d bought this year was for my brother & sister-in-law’s cats.  From my cats.  I’m gifting between cats.  That’s who I’ve become.


So I’m sharing my pain as mad cat lady with the interwebs. But I also love dogs, its just I can’t convince one to live with me in my tiny London flat. So in a spirit of inclusivity, and a rejection of the idea that you are either a dog-person or a cat-person, I’m looking at one novel about a feline, and another featuring a sarcastic dog.

Firstly, The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide (trans. Eric Selland).  This short novel is a delicate, sensitive study of the unspoken ties that bind. A small stray cat, adopted by the neighbours, arrives in the house of the narrator and his wife.  They live a quiet life, he a poet and she a proof-reader, and the cat brings a spirit of unpredictability into their lives:

“Chibi’s dependence would manifest itself in unexpected ways, even while performing acts of incredible athletic skill.  Casting aside the Ping-Pong ball, she turned about at an acute angle, yet in the next moment she had placed her tiny paw on the head of a toad concealed in the shade of one of landscape rocks. Then just as suddenly she flew to the other side of the garden, extending one of her front legs to slip into a clump of bushes.”

The novel is a mix of the closely observed and the philosophical/metaphysical:

“When she began to sleep on the sofa – like a talisman curled gently in the shape of a comma and dug from a prehistoric archaeological site – a deep sense of happiness arrived, as if the house itself had dreamed this scene.”

Hiraide captures how animals bring their own energy, changing dynamics in relationships, affecting homes and the people therein. They are catalysts (no pun intended) and their full effects can be both quiet and far-reaching:

“I opened the window and welcomed in the guest, accompanied by the winter sunrise, and the mood inside the house was restored. Chibi was our first New Year’s visitor. They call the visitors who go around to all the houses on New Year’s Day to wish everyone happy new year ‘pilgrims’.”

You don’t have to like cats to enjoy The Guest Cat.  Chibi could be any animal or transforming external force; it is her impact rather than her cat-ness that Hiraide is interested in.  The Guest Cat’s story is one of love, change, resilience and loss.

 “’See, I told you. She’s our girl.’

…or so my wife said, although she knew she wasn’t really ours. Which is why it seemed all the more as if she were a gift from afar – an honoured guest bestowing her presence upon us.”

Here are my two, utterly engaged with the whole idea of buying their cousins a gift, and with being part of a blog post:

004 (4)

It’s quite hard to find a dog in literature which doesn’t end in a way which has me in floods of tears. Thankfully, the full title of the well-known comic novel by Jerome K Jerome is Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog!  It is a blessed relief to tell you that fox terrier Montmorency makes it through in one piece. Thank goodness, because look at this face:

fox terrier

Image from:

“To look at Montmorency you would imagine that he was angel sent upon the earth, for some reason withheld from mankind, in the shape of a small fox terrier. There is a sort of Oh-what-a-wicked-world-this-is-and-how-I-wish-I-could-do-something-to-make-it-better-and-nobler expression about Montmorency that has been known to bring tears into the eyes of pious old ladies and gentlemen.”

J and his friends George and Harris are hypochondriacs who are convinced they all have terrible diseases. In order to recouperate they decide to sail a boat along the Thames to Oxford. J’s dog is not impressed:

“The only one who was not struck with the suggestion was Montmorency. He never did care for the river, did Montmorency.

‘It’s all very well for you fellows,’ he says; ‘you like it, but I don’t.  There’s nothing for me to do. Scenery is not my line, and I don’t smoke.  If I see a rat, you won’t stop; and if I go to sleep, you get fooling about with the boat, and slop me overboard. If you ask me I call the whole thing bally foolishness.’

We were three to one, however, and the motion was carried.”

Usually I’m not keen on anthropomorphism, but with Montmorency it really works.  He acts as a slightly detached commentator on his three bally foolish companions and never loses his dogginess – he remains very much the fox terrier. The four of them head off to the water and as anyone who has read the novel will know, very little happens yet much hilarity ensues.  The three men are absolutely useless with any practical considerations, such as putting all their food into one disgusting stew:

 “Towards the end, Montmorency, who had evinced great interest in the proceedings throughout, strolled away with an earnest and thoughtful air, reappearing, a few minutes afterwards, with a dead water-rat in his mouth, which he evidently wished to present as his contribution to the dinner; whether in a sarcastic spirit, or with a genuine desire to assist, I cannot say”

I love the idea of a sarcastic dog.  Three Men in a Boat was apparently first intended as a travel guide, which seems astonishing for such an unrelentingly funny book.  Attempts to act as a guide remain, but the humour always forces its way in:

“From Abingdon to Nuneham Courtenay is a lovely stretch. Nuneham Park is well worth a visit,  It can be viewed on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The house contains a fine collection of pictures and curiosities and the grounds are very beautiful.  The Pool under Sandford lasher, just behind the lock, is a good place to drown yourself in.”

By some miracle they make it to Oxford, and Montmorency shares my love of the city of dreaming spires:

“We spent two very pleasant days in Oxford. There are plenty of dogs in the town of Oxford. Montmorency had eleven fights on the first day, and fourteen on the second, and evidently thought he had gone to heaven.”

I must admit though, I’ve never fought a dog any time I’ve been to Oxford. It’s also safe to say he would not approve of the theme of this post:

“When Montmorency meets a cat, the whole street knows about it; and there is enough bad language wasted in ten seconds to last an ordinary respectable man all his life, with care.”

To end, a reminder that the dividing line between cat & dog may not be as clear-cut as we think:

“People say I have a period face” (Tom Hiddleston)

Judge for yourselves, ladies and gents:


I would say 1920s myself, although I bet he gives good late-18th century too (dedicated to my friend M, who has never quite recovered from the fact that both Benedict Cumberbatch and Jamie Parker insist on being married to women who aren’t her).

This week I received my dissertation results. It was much sooner than I expected, as frankly, I’m still in recovery from the whole thing. I’d love to claim I’ve learnt loads about ritualistic bloodshed on the late Jacobean stage, but in reality what I’ve learnt is that you should never, ever, never under any circumstances attempt to undertake a full-time MA while also working full-time (even if your results are good ;-) ).


Now that I have  some spare time the main thing I’ve been doing is… nothing at all. Bliss. I am vegging out to my bursting-at-the-seams digibox and of course, reading for pleasure.  Hence this week I thought I’d look at books that have been adapted for the small screen (sadly neither feature Tom Hiddleston).  I should say from the off that I won’t be looking at the behemoth of literary adaptations which currently dominates popular culture in almost all its forms:

Most-Shocking-Moments-Game-Thrones (1)

Sorry ‘bout that.

The BBC normally saves its big literary adaptations for the autumn season, but there were two broadcast over the summer to whet the appetite of us bookish types, which I had to delay watching. Now I have handed in my millstone I’ve finally been able to watch them both (but as this is a book blog I’ll be concentrating on the paper versions).

giphy (4)

Firstly, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. This was adapted into an impressive  (and pretty expensive-looking) seven-part series, featuring two fine actors who I’ll watch in anything, Eddie Marsan and Bertie Carvel:

It’s fair to say I am not the target audience for this novel.  Magicians, meh. However, the fact that I made it through this close to 800 page tome is a ringing endorsement. Clarke has written a very readable alternative history of England during the Napoleonic wars, whereby Wellington employs magician Jonathan Strange to help him beat Napoleon:

“In the early summer of 1813 Strange again performed a sort of magic the like of which had not had not been done since the days of the Raven King: he moved a river. It happened like this. The war that summer was going well and everything Lord Wellington did was crowned with success. However it so happened that one particular morning in June the French found themselves in a more advantageous position than had been the case for some time. …His lordship was in really excellent spirits that summer and he greeted Strange almost affectionately. ‘Ah Merlin! There you are! Here is our problem! We are on one side of the river and the French are on the other side and it would suit me much better if the positions were reversed.”

Strange of course obliges. Back home, his scholarly mentor Mr Norrell disapproves, thinking English magic belongs in books, to be rarely practiced by himself first and foremost, and secondly by Strange “yet within Mr Norrell’s dry little heart there was [a] lively ambition to bring magic back to England”.

The two men are entirely different – dashing, ironic, friend-of-Byron Strange, and small, anti-social Norrell “the dullest man in Yorkshire”. Of course, they are entirely similar too, and of course they quarrel horribly. While there is war abroad, there are tensions at home, and not all of them between England’s foremost magicians. An evil faery, with the entirely excellent appellation of The Gentleman With Thistle-Down Hair is going round enchanting people to his evil ends:

“’Yet we ought to kill someone,’ said the gentleman, immediately reverting to his former subject. “I have been quite put out of temper this morning and someone ought to die for it. What do you say to the old magician? –Oh, but wait! That would oblige the younger one, which I do not want to do! What about Lady Pole’s husband? He is tall and arrogant and treats you like a servant!’

‘But I am a servant, sir.’

‘Or the King of England! Yes, that is an excellent plan! Let you and I go immediately to the King of England.’”

Will the Gentleman with Thistle-Down Hair be stopped? Will Strange and Norrell reconcile? Will the Raven King return to claim his place as Lord of English Magic? The only spoiler you’ll get from me is… England wins the Napoleonic Wars.

I’ve mentioned before that I love Marc Warren as a baddie, and so special mention must be made to his performance in the BBC adaptation as the Gentleman with Thistle-Down Hair – another great performance, another great outfit:


Secondly, The Outcast by Sadie Jones, which was adapted into a two-part drama:

Damn, this was hard-going. Not because of Jones’ writing, I hasten to add, but because the injustice of the treatment towards a nine year-old boy who loses his mother is infuriating, and the hypocrisy that surrounds him is absolutely sickening. Lewis Aldridge grows up in 1950s Surrey, in a village built on things unsaid.  When his sparkling, vivacious, alcoholic mother drowns with Lewis the only witness, he and his father spiral into separate pits of despair, unable to reach out to one another:

“he saw the moment between the not knowing and the knowing, as he woke, and he  recognised it, because it was how he felt on waking too.  He wanted to obliterate it. He wanted to take his son’s head in his hands and crush the feeling from it. He wanted to hold him hard and kiss him and make Lizzie come back to them through loving him badly enough. He wanted to hide his face and never think of it again.”

Jones is very good at this, capturing the messy, conflicting, contradictory emotions housed within one person, behind a still façade. Lewis becomes an expert at this outer calm, learning to bury all that he lacks the words to express:

“He didn’t feel sad anymore, it just went away and he felt hard as anything, hard as a diamond…

‘Lewis? Do come back in. Please.’

What could he do? He went.”

Lewis’ unnatural calm disturbs people; they find him uncomfortable and so they isolate him.  He is unable to join in with the social niceties layered upon the secrets and lies of post-war British society and so this innocent, damaged boy is excluded, while a wife-and-child-beating sadist is welcomed as the powerhouse of village society.  The Outcast is a novel that had me outraged at the injustice of it all, and at the cruelty of the refusal to acknowledge another’s pain “the world had exploded, but Sunday lunch would go ahead as usual.”

Lewis’ behaviour becomes violent as his desperation emerges in uncontrolled outbursts. The locals refuse to see their own complicity in what happens to him, and only Kit Carmichael, a fellow outsider, sees the village and Lewis for what they are. She loves him, but are they both too damaged to find their way to each other?

The Outsider is psychologically acute, well-paced, and unflinching in its portrayal of the damage human beings can do each other:

“It was an odd feeling, a looking-glass feeling, that he had, that all his life he had been on one side of the glass with everybody else on the other and now the glass had broken and the thick, broken pieces were at all of their feet.”

When I was cemented to my chair for 14 hours a day giving myself RSI through poor typing technique in a desperate attempt to meet the dissertation deadline, I would time my short breaks to the length of a Tim Minchin video. They broke the monotony, made me laugh, and stopped a short break spiralling into half a day.  Here he is singing about not being cool which, now my MA is in, is the obvious topic choice for my doctorate as I have a lifetime of research behind me (contains strong language):

“Autumn, the year’s last, loveliest smile.” (William Cullen Bryant)

I’m clearly not alone in a love of autumn: the interwebs are awash with the beauty of it all, stunning scenes of colour change and mists of mellow fruitfulness (or something).  I was overwhelmed with images and so of course I abandoned pictures and opted for this montage of autumn scenes (because a family of beavers having a bath is quite the most brilliant thing to ever grace my viewing):

Back to books.  Firstly, the obvious choice of Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym.  Nominated by Philip Larkin in 1977 as the most underrated novelist of the twentieth century, it turned out to be a good year for Pym as this novel was also nominated for the Booker. Her popularity has grown steadily since this time, eradicating the problem faced by Letty, one of the titular quartet:

“She had always been an unashamed reader of novels, but if she hoped to find one which reflected her own sort of life she had come to realise that the position of an unmarried, unattached, ageing woman is of no interest whatever to the writer of modern fiction.”

Despite the title, this novel isn’t about a seasonal change but about a time in life. The quartet of Letty, Marcia, Norman and Edwin work together in an office and are heading towards retirement, all of them facing the prospect of an abundance of spare time spent alone. They are all single and slightly baffled by the world around them.

“How had it come about that she, an English woman born in Malvern in 1914  of middle-class English parents, should find herself in this room in London surrounded by enthusiastic shouting, hymn-singing Nigerians? It must surely be because she had not married. No man had taken her away and immured her in some comfortable suburb where hymn-singing was confined to Sundays and nobody was fired with enthusiasm.”

The world has changed a lot since 1914, and in the late seventies these four are looking for meaning at a time when the world is ready to place them in a home and suggest they while away their days stultifying inactivity.  Pym is interested in those thought to be terminally uninteresting; she observes lives lived on a small scale and pinpoints the quirks, the pain, the tragedy and the humour.  Quartet in Autumn could be a bleak read, and it does deal with a great deal of sadness.  The four are lonely and misunderstood and not sure what to do about any of it.

“Norman went back to work. He had a few days leave still in hand. ‘You never know when they might come in useful,’ he said, but he felt that those extra days would never be needed, but would accumulate like a pile of dead leaves drifting on to the pavement in autumn.”

But Pym is one of the best writers at evoking a gentle but incisive humour into things, and she holds her story right on the precipice between tragedy and comedy. She encourages us to laugh at life, but with kindness.  This is perfectly realised through the character of Marcia:

“Ageing, slightly mad and on the threshold of retirement, it was an uneasy combination and it was no wonder that people shied away from her or made only the most perfunctory remarks”

Yet Marcia is not a victim.  She is not well, but she is determined and she goes her own away, like her unique use of libraries:

 “The library was also a good place to dispose of unwanted objects which could not in her opinion be classified as rubbish suitable for the dustbin…one of the library assistants (a woman) had her eye on Marcia, but she was unconscious of this as she deposited a small, battered tartan-patterned cardboard box, which contained ‘Killikrankie oatcakes’ at the back of a convenient space on one of the fiction shelves.”

Quartet in Autumn is a little gem, beautifully observed and in its own quiet way, utterly scathing of the disregard shown to members of society who are inconvenient to the majority.

When she wasn’t writing novels, Pym enjoyed strangling cats (Image: Mayotte Magnus © The Barbara Pym Society)

When she wasn’t writing novels, Pym enjoyed strangling cats (Image: Mayotte Magnus © The Barbara Pym Society)

Secondly, autumn often evokes the return to school after the summer holidays, so I thought I’d look at A Good School by Richard Yates, which was published the year after Quartet in Autumn. I braced myself for this one, as Yates can be soooo depressing, but this wasn’t too bad… despite being brutal in places. Dorset Academy is a prep school funded by the eccentric, elderly and rich Abigail Church Hooper; a small, isolated “funny school” where the sons of well-meaning parents who can’t afford somewhere more prestigious are bullied/ignored educated.

“And I can see my father starting to turn away then, concluding the pleasantries, looking tired. He wasn’t old that summer – he was fifty-five – but within eighteen months he would be dead. ‘Well,’ he would say, ‘as a matter of fact I’d never heard of it either but it’s – you know – it’s supposed to be a good school.’”

We follow William Grove, a shy nervous boy desperately trying to fit in and survive at Dorset.

“He still hadn’t cried, except in the privacy of his room late at night (and even there you couldn’t be sure of remaining alone; the doors were locked only by sliding wooden bolts, easily picked open with a knife or a screwdriver; nobody was safe)but he’d come to adopt a chronic posture of humiliation. If a wretch was what they wanted, he would be a wretch.”

But rather than a relentless tale of bullying, what emerges is a claustrophobic atmosphere where everyone is damaged to a greater or lesser extent.  Grove does survive, and even finds some pleasure editing the school paper. The bullies are insecure victims themselves.  The teachers are lonely and without vocation:

“Mr Gold despised all Dorset boys on principal – rich, spoiled little snot-noses – but he had to admit this Haskell, was kind of an interesting kid…But when Mr Gold tried to tell his wife about it that night, in the kitchen of their home in Unionville, she didn’t want to listen. “’Interesting’?” she repeated. “You’re telling me ‘interesting’ and ‘sophisticated’ about some fifteen-year-old prep school kid? Come on. I think you’re going soft in the head Sidney.” And he guessed she was right”

What Yates shows is that sometimes there are circumstances that just have to be borne, survived and then left as soon as possible. It’s not always a great tragedy, just something you made it through. The novel is set around the time of Pearl Harbour, a bleak reminder that there can be many worse things to try and survive beyond your school days.

To end, something more cheerful: a clip from a documentary filmed at my school.  This is how we began every school year:

“I’m leaving because the weather is too good. I hate London when it’s not raining.” (Groucho Marx)

As a companion piece to my last blog post where I looked at the London Underground in novels, this time I’m looking at alternative portrayals of the London Underground.  Those of you who know the London Underground may feel its alternative enough in itself – I certainly think the experience of using it is most accurately represented by David Shrigley’s map:


Fantasy is sometimes the best way to capture reality, and certainly the two novels I’m going to look at capture the same  experience as Shrigley’s map. Firstly, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. I am soooo late to the party on this one.  Neil Gaiman is a hugely popular writer who is adored by his readers.  I knew he was wise and engaging because I’d watched this:

but I’d never read his novels because I thought I didn’t like fantasy. Neverwhere appealed due to the London setting and now I’m a total convert. I now know what Gaiman’s legions of fans know: that he is a wonderful writer, funny and perceptive, with something to say. Richard Mayhew moves from Scotland to London – a perfectly recogniseable, ordinary London:

“It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces…a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them and despised them…a city inhabited by and teeming with people of every colour and manner and kind”

However , when Richard helps a slumped figure on the pavement in front of him, he finds himself in the alternate universe of London Below:

“Understand this: there are two Londons. There’s London Above – that’s where you lived – and then there’s London Below – the Underside – inhabited by the people who fell through the cracks in the world. Now you’re one of them.”

The idea of ‘people who fell through the cracks’ is the most pervasive idea in Neverwhere. These people are ignored and marginalised in London Above, barely recognised and overlooked by the inhabitants they come into contact with. London Below is a warped reflection of London Above, a violent place where the warning to ‘Mind the Gap’ on the Underground is ignored at your peril, for the gap will drag you under:

“It erupted over the side of the platform. It was diaphanous, dream-like, a ghost-thing, the colour of black smoke, and it welled up like silk under water, and, moving astonishingly fast while still seeming to drift almost in slow motion, it wrapped itself tightly around Richard’s ankle.”

Gaiman has great fun with this, taking the everyday in London Above and twisting it slightly, like the random empty carriages you sometimes see: “from time to time Richard had noticed carriages like this, locked and shadowy on Tube trains, and had wondered what purpose they served”; in this instance the carriages hold Earl’s Court (other characters include the Angel Islington and the Black Friars), a medieval court complete with log fires, bugle players and  jester.

Richard offers to help the Lady Door, a young woman who can open any door to any place, and whose family have all been murdered, while she tries to evade capture. His learning curve is steep, as London Below is filled with the familiar, and the deeply disconcerting:

“there are little bubbles of old time in London, where things and places stay the same, like bubbles in amber…there’s a lot of time in London, and it has to go somewhere – it doesn’t all get used up at once”

Smog, fogs, alley ways, cobbled streets…all fall between the cracks and end up Below.  Probably the most terrifying characters are the hitmen for hire who track Richard and the Lady Door through London Below:

“there are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar apart: first, Mr Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr Croup; second, Mr Croup has eyes of a faded, china blue, while Mr Vandemar’s eyes are brown; third, while Mr Vandemar fashions the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr Croup had no obvious jewellery; fourth, Mr Croup likes words, while Mr Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing alike.”

There are some utterly beguiling characters too, and the Marquis de Carabas may have succeeded in usurping Will Ladislaw as my literary-crush- of-choice.  He’s brave, loyal, charming, self-serving, untrustworthy and a master of ironic detachment.

 will-ladislaw-portrayed-by-rufus-sewell       The-Marquis-de-Carabas-neverwhere-819354_400_628

(Rufus Sewell as Ladislaw and Patterson Joseph as the Marquis in the BBC adaptations of Middlemarch and Neverwhere. Yep, it’s safe to say I have a bit of a type, which I like to call Byronic kitsch.)

Neverwhere is perfectly paced, emotionally affecting and politically engaged without being didactic. Highly recommended.

Secondly, Whispers Underground by Peter Aaronvitch (tagline: “Using the Underground is a killer…”). This is the third in Aaronvitch’s Peter Grant series, about a detective constable seconded to the Folly, the division of the Met which deals with supernatural occurrences.  Grant isn’t the most accomplished apprentice wizard:

“I barely knew four and a half spells and you couldn’t have got me to give it up and that’s despite close brushes with death by vampire, hanging, malignant spirit, riot, tiger-man and the ever-present risk of overdoing the magic and getting a brain aneurysm”

His mentor Nightingale despairs, but Grant is a good police officer and by following vestigium “a pocket of residual magical effect” he is able to recognise crime scenes that may have a slightly broader cause-and-effect than usual.  The novels are essentially police procedural, but with an extra dimension:

“Nightingale can put a fireball through ten centimetres of steel armour and I can singe my way through a paper target nine times out of ten but really, in the interests of community policing, it’s better to have something a bit less lethal in your armoury”

So it’s not magic galore – Grant identifies suspects, follows up leads, takes part in stakeouts, it’s just that these activities might lead him into weirder circumstances than his Met peers. In this instance, the murder of a young American with a piece of magical pottery leads him deep below London, into the abandoned tube network and sewers:

“In a film you would be able to open the door by pushing a false brick. I picked a brick at convenient waist height and pushed it, just to get that stupid notion out of the way. The brick slid smoothly in, there was a click, and the door cracked open.”

Whispers Underground is a light, easy read, well-paced and with much humour derived from the intersection between magical phenomena and the demands of modern policing:

“Six whole days on the Murder Team and I’d only managed to fulfil about two and a half actions. Not only was it not going to look good on any performance review, but I also doubted that being engaged in a supernatural sewer battle with an underground Earthbender was going to serve as much of an explanation.”

To end, the song which gave the title to my previous post.  Well, it is a classic, and I’m terminally unimaginative:

“Going underground, going underground” (The Jam)

There were a few blissful weeks over the summer when everyone took their kids on holiday and my commute to work was almost bearable, because it was done with approximately two-thirds less people than usual.  Now those halcyon days are well and truly behind us and everyone’s back at work, I thought I’d try reading about public transport to see if it fills me with new-found affection for my early morning travel.  Given that I’m reading during said commute, with my book touching my nose and my head wedged into someone’s armpit, there’s still some way to go, despite the efforts of some wonderful staff.


Firstly,  Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay. This was the first of Hay’s three crime novels, and is part of the British Library Crime Classics re-issues, which I completely adore. I love these so much I even bought one full-price the other day, rather than waiting for them to turn up in charity bookshops, which is something I never do.  This could be the start of a slippery slope….


The wonderfully-monikered Miss Euphemia Pongleton is found strangled by her own dog leash on the stairs of Belsize Park station (for those of you who know the Misery Northern line – see, it can get worse – you could be dead).   Suspicion falls on her wastrel nephew Basil Pongleton, whom she was constantly inheriting and disinheriting:

“It’s awfully difficult to explain and I had a ghastly time with the police yesterday. Wonder they didn’t arrest me right away, but they’re keeping an eye on me. I noticed a fishy-looking fellow with police-feet lounging opposite my window in Tavistock Square this morning”

The dialogue is definitely part of the appeal of golden age detective fiction for me, it’s just wonderful. While Basil is dithering around making matters worse, his eminently more sensible cousin Beryl tries to unravel the mystery.  Miss Pongleton lodged at the Frampton Hotel, and each of the eccentric fellow boarders has their part to play.  My favourite was Mrs Daymer:

“a middle-aged lady who liked to accentuate the gaunt strangeness of her appearance by unfashionable clothes. She would explain proudly that they were of hand-woven material…perhaps their intimate connection with the sheep justified their particular unwieldiness”

Mrs Daymer, who gives off a smell of wet sheep in the rain, is unperturbed by the murder as she writes crime fiction and likes to “suck [people] dry” for her novels. Between her and Beryl, they manage to piece together what happened.  This being the golden age, there is a missing will, confusion over some pearls and an obese terrier (ok, so that last one isn’t really a trope but I had to give him a mention). Murder Underground is not the most taxing mystery (I’m useless at guessing who done it, and even I got this one quite early) but it’s a great example of this period in detective fiction, and very readable.


If only this poster was right… unfortunately I find it the swiftest way to passive-aggressive tutting, both given and received.

Secondly, Metroland by Julian Barnes. I don’t always get on with Julian Barnes.  I can see he’s a highly accomplished writer, but I find him coldly intellectual and distancing.  However, in Metroland I think he does capture something about a certain time in late adolescence and the wish for a brave new world. Christopher and his friend Toni live in the suburbs at the tail end of the Metropolitan line, and wish they didn’t:

“Toni and I prided ourselves on being rootless. We also aspired to future condition of rootlessness, and saw no contradiction in the two states of mind; or in the fact that we each lived with our parents, who were, for that matter, the freeholders of our respective homes.”

Yes, Christopher and Toni are hugely pretentious snobs.  They desperately wish to be French, which leads them into unintentionally hilarious scenarios like trying to be flaneurs along Oxford Street.  They also talk about art with a capital A:

“Art was the most important thing in life, the constant to which one could be unfailingly devoted and which would never cease to reward; more crucially it was the stuff whose effect on those exposed to it was ameliorative.”

Oh dear.  But in case you’re wondering why on earth you would want to spend any time in this idiot’s company,  I do think it’s worth it.  As I said, I find Barnes can be cold, but actually his portrait of Christopher is quite affectionate, and although you laugh at his pretentions, he’s not contemptible, just young and striving for something different to that with which he has grown up.  Christopher gets his wish and moves to France, but of course he doesn’t quite end up living the life he imagined. Metroland is about how its not always a disaster to not achieve your dreams, and how ordinary can also equal happy.

To end, a wonderfully British reaction to an unusual happening on the tube (for those of you not of these isles, rest assured that the response from passengers at the end is actually a huge outpouring of unconditional enthusiasm, I promise you):