Thursday, 29 November 2012

A Damsel in Distress. By P.G. Wodehouse

A Damsel in Distress

P.G. Wodehouse

E-book downloaded from the Internet. First published 1919.

This is a romantic comedy, not a part of any series (Jeeves, Blandings...) though some of the characters in this book foreshadow people like Lord Emsworth and Lady Constance from the later books. George Bevan, a successful composer of music for comic plays, falls in love with an Earl's daughter, who is herself in love with someone else. How he successfully woos her forms the main story, such as it is. There is a lot of snappy conversation, many well-sketched characters and a couple of hilarious scenes. Though the writing had not yet, in 1919, reached the heights attained in later books like 'Right Ho, Jeeves', and there are no 'nifties' I can quote, yet it is certainly better than that of PGW's ostensible rivals, such as Richard Gordon or Henry Cecil. The plot though, has none of the intricacies of the 'golden age' stories. All the same, a good book to read - again and again, though each time after a lapse of a few years.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Psmith in the City. By P.G. Wodehouse

Psmith in the City

P.G. Wodehouse

E-book. Downloaded from the web. First published 1910.

This is a continuation of the adventures of Psmith and Mike after they leave school. Mike's plans to attend University (Cambridge) are dashed when his father looses money. Consequently he is employed in the New Asiatic Bank in London as a beginner clerk. His initial gloom at his sudden loss of all the chances to play cricket is lightened when Psmith also joins the bank. The two combine to continue their career of ragging all and sundry, in particular the pompous, self-important and slightly (only slightly) nasty manager of the bank. Great writing, though not yet reaching the heights attained by PGW a decade or two later. The book is apparently based on PGW's own initial experiences after school. It also contains a fair bit of writing on cricket. 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Pastorale and four other stories. By James M. Cain

The Baby in the Icebox
Dead Man
Brush Fire
The Girl in the Storm

James M. Cain

Everyman's Library. First published 1928, 1932, 1936, 1936 and 1939.

The first two stories of planned crime. The next two are of accidental murders. The last one describes a violent, but not criminal, event. All are set in California, during the depression. All involve drifters, young, homeless, jobless and hungry. The setting and the characters, and the incidents, particularly in the third and fourth stories, are reminiscent of Steinbeck - 'The Grapes of Wrath', 'Of Mice and Men', and the characters, though not the spirit, of 'Cannery Row'. 

Mildred Pierce. By James M. Cain

Mildred Pierce

James M. Cain

Everyman's Library. First Published 1941.

Mildred Pierce is a Southern California housewife who develops her pie-making skills into a decent, mid-level, restaurant business and uses that to get over her desertion by her nice, but feckless husband, who has lost his comfortable fortune, and leaves her and her two daughters, the elder of them just approaching teenage. This is the first part of the story, and is full of details of the making food and serving it and financing the venture. The next, more interesting part of the story is her effort to retain the love and respect of her classy, but cold, elder daughter, Veda, after loosing the younger one to a sudden, fatal disease. She scrounges and sacrifices to get an expensive piano and more expensive lessons for Veda because she believes her daughter is a genius with the instrument. Veda thinks so too, until a professional musician disabuses them both of that idea. Veda doesn't give up, but cold-bloodedly keeps using her mother's money, friends and contacts to further her own career in music, now as a singer, while all the while despising her parent for her middle class background and lack of sophistication. At the end of the story, Veda elopes with Mildred's high class lover to pursue a career in commercial singing, and Mildred is back where she started, having lost her business, and remarried her first husband. 

Not a crime story, and different in focus from the previous two stories in the collection (see previous blog), this one is not even a morality tale. But I liked this better than the other two. The focal point of the book is the psychological tension between mother and daughter. Their characters are well etched, though somewhat exaggerated. The writing style is sparse, except when its about music (or about the food). It's not a book that makes you feel good about anybody, and in that sense it is not a satisfying read. But I would still call it a good book because it the characters  and the story (minus the dramatic exaggerations) are so believable.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

The Postman Always Rings Twice. By James M. Cain

The Postman Always Rings Twice


Double Indemnity

James M. Cain

Everyman's Library. First published 1934 and 1936.

These two stories appear in volume of collected stories by Cain. Of the 8 stories in the book, the above two are novelettes, of about 100 pages each. In addition there is a long novel of about 300 pages (to be dealt with in the next post) and then five short stories about 10 to 15 pages each. 

Both the above tales describe insurance related crime. In the first, a drifter gets a job at a lonely petrol filling station run by a husband and wife team. The drifter then teams up with the wife to kill the husband for his insurance money. But the crime goes wrong, involving him in further murders, until he is convicted and sentence to be hanged. The story is narrated by him in the first person as he waits for the sentence to be carried out.

The second story describes an insurance agent who visits a house to sell automobile insurance, and then is seduced by (or seduces) the wife, and then, together with her, hatches a plot to sell accident insurance to the husband and then stage an accident for him. Again the plot goes wrong, leading to all sorts of complications, and finally conviction and the death sentence.

Both stories are reminiscent, to me, of James Hadley Chase, books like 'The World in my Pocket' or 'No Orchids for Miss Blandish'. But Cain just about predates Chase, and according to Wikipedia, the latter was inspired by the former. Cain's stories are set in Southern California, in Los Angeles and its environs, during the great depression in America. I was steered to Cain by Internet articles on Chandler, and in general, the 'noir' detective fiction of Hammett, Chandler, et al. Unlike Chandler, Cain has a sparse, direct and only very slightly ironic writing style. He does not spend time describing the setting or building up character. All the same, the reader is very quickly able to build up a clear idea of the people. The stories however are straightforward, linear and simple, and to me at least, mostly predictable. Thus I was not impressed, and do not find any larger meaning in these two stories.