Some Books: Richard Osman’s ‘The Thursday Murder Club


This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s become an umbrella for odd books here and there, such as this one.
I am not known for liking what everybody else likes. This goes double for books, popular books, top-the-bestseller-list books. Some of this, I admit, is snobbery: I have gotten very used to being in a class of my own, a small class at that, when it comes to book and, let’s be honest about this, there is a varying degree of Lowest Common Denominator to all best sellers. Well, most of them. I point in my defence to The Da Vinci Code, which I read and thought was utter crap but, because I am too honest and have to be my own Devil’s Advocate, I must also point to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which was amazing.
So this past few years, when Richard Osman has been cock of the walk for The Thursday Murder Club, first as a book then as a series, I have taken no interest in it precisely because of its popularity. And of its subject, based on the little I had not avoided learning, which suggested tweeness and bland comedy. I did not spurn the book, just didn’t take any interest in it.
But the pickings were slim on my last visit to the Library, and I spotted it there and thought I’d see for myself, and as I always try to be honest when I’m in the wrong (not that it prevents me heading straight back there first opportunity I can), I’m reporting that I found it enjoyable, not to mention absorbing. Read it practically all the way through, in one sitting (well, I was without my laptop and the distraction of the internet…)
It’s easy to see why it has been such a big-seller. Osman writes a clear, easy prose, varying his approach throughout the book, avoiding excess and in places presenting a conversational, pseudo-amateurish element. He switches viewpoints, internal, external, omniscient and personal, in diary form, with ease and smoothness. It’s very easy to read in all its respects, without ever being bland or banal.
The Thursday Murder Club is obviously a crime novel, and a cosy crime at that, but the set-up is uncommon and the amateur detectives unusual and individual. The Cub is a group of four pensioners, all in their late seventies, living in a plush Kent retirement community, who meet once a week to go over unsolved crimes, and who become enthused and efficient when faced with two actual murders. You can see why I’d be immediately suspicious of such a premise, given its overwhelming potential to be handled atrociously. But the four Club members are a deliberately disparate bunch, unlikely friends in real life but, just as with the original concept for Last of the Summer Wine, brought together by circumstance, the need to keep their minds active and, of course, time. Too much of it for what little is left.
Each of the four bring different personalities, strengths and expertise to their pastime. Elizabeth, the leader, was clearly someone senior in the intelligence community, Ibrahim,an Egyptian, a top-notch psychiatrist, Ron a firebrand Shop Steward, and the newcomer, Joyce, an ordinary widow and housewife, was nevertheless an experienced nurse.
When we meet the Club, Joyce has just been drafted in to replace co-founder Penny, brought down by a massive stroke. They are poring over an unsolved murder of fifty years ago, a girl stabbed and bleeding to death. Everyone is convinced the boyfriend did it, though he claimed it was a panicking burglar. This case isn’t irrelevant, not a quasi-McGuffin, designed to introduce you to the Club and how they think, before they are distracted by the more proximate excitement – and fun – of two real-life murders on their doorstep, murders that they will insinuate themselves into the solving of, despite the police’s attempts to keep them out. Just remember, this is not irrelevant.
As I say, there are two murders, one bludgeoning, one lethal injection. Though the victims are substantially connected and, for half the book the second is a very plausible suspect for the murder of the first (his own murder clears the last vestiges of suspicion), there are two murderers, each with separate and very different reasons for what they have done. Both will turn out to be not wholly unjustifiable.
And Osman presents us with other suspects, all on the surface more obvious possibilities than those who are eventually revealed to us. Each of the other suspects come under consideration for a long time, and indeed all of them have something to hide that is ultimately dodgy, if not actual crimes in themselves. I did pick out one of these characters as a potential suspect at a rather early stage, just on a general understanding of detective stories, which would have been a plus point for my perceptions, except that he was the one whose guilty secret was not criminal but rather tragic.
I also have to say that the real killer – who got away scot free with the Club and the audience more or less blessing him – was also fairly obvious once you knew who it was, but not during the book. By that point, he should have been obvious indeed, given that everybody else it could possibly have been had been eliminated, but I was too absorbed in what was going on for the kind of dispassionate database headcount to pick him out.
Nor was I aware, as Osman very skilfully finessed, that there was a third killer, out in plain sight, and who might have been the most noble of them all.
But, as surely ought to be the case in all the best fiction, especially light fiction, there was more to The Thursday Murder Club than its story or its characters. It’s set in a retirement home. It’s principals are octogenarians. The two Police Officers are much younger but they’re not the point. Four people, two women, two men. Joyce and Ron have lost their spouses, Ibrahim never reveals if he had one to lose, Elizabeth is married and still loves her husband Stephen dearly, but he is slipping away from her mentally.
All four are aware that they are in their last years, that dissolution is not distant. Each have accepted that in their own ways, and are enjoying the unexpected freedom that having practically no future confers on them. They don’t waste time unless they want to, they’re unconcerned about consequences. Osman captures this robust, liberated yet still melancholic frame of mind with great deftness. Without it, the book would be what I imagined it would be.
I haven’t gone into any details about the story, for the benefit of anyone who, like me beforehand, has ignored the book and now might decide to have a look for themselves. They deserve a clear run at it without spoilers, or even hints. Two murders and other stuff, that’s all I’m saying. Give it a go. When I take it back to the Library, I shall be looking for the sequel, to see if that lies up to this story.


Some Books: H.P.Lovecraft’s ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’


This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded to encompass books in general, though as it happens, this book brings me right back to the Library.
Once upon a long time ago, for reasons too trivial and obscure for even me to explain them, I went through a phase of reading H.P. Lovecraft. This was before I discovered just how vile an antisemitic racist he was but in the days where practically all his books could be borrowed from Manchester Libraries. In more prosaic terms, it was the mid-Seventies.
I was trying to find and discover the contents of a story tiled ‘Shadow over Innsmouth’ (actually, it was The Shadow…) but I started in the wrong place, with his only novel, At the Mountains of Madness, which I took away to read on holiday in the Lake District. Despite this inauspicious start, I persevered. By the time I found the Innsmouth story, I had read most of his output and was, superficially at least, impressed by the vaunted Cthulhu mythos and that oft-repeated litany of names, like the crawling chaos Nyarlathotep, the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred of Necronomicon fame, and of course, Great Cthulhu in his house at R’lyeh, sleeping.
By the time I got to Innsmouth, I’d imbibed enough of the Cthulhu stuff to not be impressed at all with something that struck me as being decidedly more-of-the-same-and-not-nearly-enough-different. I ceased reading Lovecraft shortly after and never returned. If I thought of him at all, it was as a writer who can only be read enthusiastically once, and that at a young age, like Burroughs. Besides, I was never much into horror, being repelled and squeamish, and lacking a taste for being terrified out of my wits.
Recently, in an exchange with Garth Groombridge, Lovecraft’s name came up, for the first time in ages. I remembered my brief period of enthusiasm, and I also remembered that there was only really the one story that I had enjoyed without reservation. That was the early Randolph Carter novella, ‘The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath’. I remembered it less for what it was than that I remembered enjoying it as I hadn’t anything else by Lovecraft. I wasn’t even sure I had remembered the title correctly, though I had. It was the only work by Lovecraft that I would consider reading again, to see how it stood up.
But I was not curious enough to want to spend money on reading it again, certainly not. But fortunately, for me, I discovered the complete text online, at H.P. For those who wish to emulate me, it can be found here.
The first point I must make is that it is very difficult to read, physically, that is. It’s laid out as a 10-point single-spaced continuous document, without breaks or any means of marking progress, at an average of sixteen to seventeen words per densely-packed line. That’s before you take into account the choice of those words.
Though the story is shot through with Lovecraftian horror aspects, it’s better understood as a fantasy, and an archaic type of fantasy at that. So far as a story goes, it is negligible. Randolph Carter dreams three times of standing on a terrace overlooking sunset over a fabulous city but each time he is restrained from descending, entering and exploring the city. He identifies it as unknown Kadath, whose whereabouts, whether in this world or another, are unknown. He sets off into dreamland to find it and enter it.
That’s it, basically. The story is about the quest, the hunt, the crossing from place to place to place, over land and sea, through mountains and through caverns, braving dangers, despairs, obstacles and all manner of strange and terrible creatures. All these places and these creatures are, to put it bluntly, monotonously fantastic. This is dream country, so there can be nothing that is plain or ordinary. It’s all unreal.
And this is where the fantasy is archaic. There’s no real sense of progress, no advance, no chain of connection between setting and setting. This is fantasy of an older era, where the point was to be fantastic, be other, be exaggerated beyond the real of the world the reader inhabits. Adjectives are strewn by the bucketful, and all of them obscure and portentous. As long as it is polysyllabic, and isn’t used in everyday conversation, and suggests the writer has an esoteric vocabulary, it’s flung at the wall and expected to stick.
And no dialogue.
I realised very early on what I was in for, a Fantasia Rite of Spring without any sense of progress, and I grew bored very early on. The adjectival overkill was like a relentless diet of decadent sweetmeats, too rich to digest. Not even multiple paeans to cats could mollify me.
Clearly, I was more susceptible to this sort of thing nearly fifty years ago, more inclined to be impressed by the strange because it was strange. I demand more now.
In the end, as I vaguely remembered, Carter’s dream city turns out to be his native Boston, which even then I felt to be a bit of a let-down: to go all that way and do all that stuff only to find yourself outside your own back door? Even despite the trick ending of being sent downwards by Nyarltahotep himself, and then that hardly original ending of Carter waking up. And it had all been… a dream.
I struggled reading this a second time and kept wanting to skip over large chunks, which I could have easily done since very little of the later sections of the story were dependent upon even a skimped reading of what came before it, but I played fair as best as I could, and now I can say I’ve read it, and the intervening years have not been good to my half-misty memory of once enjoying it.

Malcolm Saville and the Problem of Harriet Sparrow

12 - Mystery Mine

When it comes to writing about Malcolm Saville’s works, some people have the advantage of access to the writer’s letters, giving them insight into his motives and opinions, thoughts and intentions in relation to his books. I don’t have that kind of access and thus I work, as I always have, from the books themselves, trying to divine the course of the writer’s thoughts from what he wrote, and using the source to try to analyse the course of his fiction.
I do know some things from ‘behind the scenes’, as described by other writers. The principal one of these, and the starting point from which this essay springs, is the revelation, at the time of Mystery Mine, that Saville had grown bored with the Lone Pine Club series, of which he’d already written more books than any other series in his career, and that he was explicitly querying why his audience still wanted more. In the end, after Mystery Mine, there would still be eight more books.
Going only by the contents of the books themselves, I’m speculating whether that disillusion with the Lone Piners hadn’t set in earlier than we’re aware of. I’m wondering if it wasn’t manifesting itself in 1957, with the publication of Lone Pine London, and the introduction of the Club’s ninth, final and seriously underused member, Harriet Sparrow.
To establish a basis for that suggestion, let’s examine the context in which Saville approached the tenth Lone Pine book. The Club had eight members, all established over the first three books, even if the two newest members, the Warrender cousins, weren’t admitted until the next instalment, The Secret of Grey Walls. They were a perfect balance: four boys, four girls.
Nor do I think it in any way coincidental that, after establishing the Club at eight members, Saville uses Grey Walls to put a restriction upon himself that no writer of series fiction should make public. In response to the wishes of his readers, who wrote to him enthusiastically, Malcolm Saville promised that the Lone Piners would always remain the same age. They would never grow up. Those were his specific words.
In promising his readers that, Saville condemned himself to repetition. If the Lone Piners would never grow, they could never develop. It would take ten books and fifteen years but it was a promise he would one day have to break.
Actually, he would break it by implication much sooner, in 1953’s The Neglected Mountain, by offering a dramatic climax in which Peter Sterling would risk her own life to save that of Mary Morton, and by doing so cement forever the importance of the relationship between her and David Morton. Saville did this, and incorporated the change it represented into his next two books, but he did this without adding another birthday to either character.
It was certainly the catalyst for some change. In the very next book, which surprised his readers by being set on Dartmoor instead of the customary Shropshire or Rye, Peter for the first time places her loyalty to her friends, or to one in particular, ahead of her loyalty to her father. What’s more, in both Saucers over the Moor and Wings over Witchend, there is a very natural change, one not remarked upon in the book, and that is in how David and Peter talk to one another. There’s a greater warmth, an extra layer of sub-text and nuance in every line. These are two young people who have had their uncertainty about the extent of each other’s meaning to each other resolved, and can talk with a greater confidence in the other’s understanding.

10 - Lone Pine London

This is where things stand when Saville came to write Lone Pine London. On the one hand, it’s all very familiar: there is the formula adventure, this time relating to forged art, and if Jon and Penny are involved the villain is bound to be the Ballinger, no matter the damage done to series continuity by having her reappear at the head of a well-established legitimate business after being arrested and presumably convicted of smuggling (you don’t seriously think that she’d have got off on a technicality in Saville’s back-and-white world). There’s even the traditional kidnapping but, shock, horror, it’s not the Twins, even if they do get themselves carried off for a few pages.
But on the other hand, there are changes of a kind the series had never previously seen. For the first, and only, time the series moves into the city, setting itself in London. The Mortons have moved, the first Lone Piners to change their address: goodbye Hertfordshire, hello North London
And then there’s Harriet.
Harriet Sparrow is something new. She’s not the first outsider to play a part in a Lone Pine Club adventure, that was Arlette Duchelle. But Arlette was French, and she was self-evidently only a one-off, destined to play no further part in the series. Harriet is different from the moment she steps out of her grandfather’s antiques shop to help Jon. Maybe she does live away from everyone else in South London, but here she is, virtually on the Mortons’ new doorstep, another lonely girl in need of the friendship that the Club offers and, at age 12, the perfect bridge for the gulf in age between the Twins and everyone else in the Club.
So Harriet gets involved and, like Jon and Penny seven books previously, she’s rewarded by being told of the Club and invited to join it.
Looked at in this light, Lone Pine London is very much a case of an author who has promised to keep things the same making changes. Why? His audience were clearly happy with things as they were. And we know for a fact that, only two books and two years later, Saville had had enough of David and Peter and the whole gang. Did his discontent start to develop earlier than that? On the evidence of the book, there’s a case to be made.
There’s also a lot more to be taken into consideration.
Unlike the Warrenders, Harriet was not immediately taken to Shropshire and sworn in. You might argue that Saville didn’t want to repeat something he’d already done, but given that his policy with the series had been to give his readers what they wanted, and that what they wanted was, as he was shortly to complain, more of the same, that’s not an argument that holds much water for me.
I’ve seen it claimed that Malcolm Saville’s frequently reinvented himself to meet the changing interests of his audience, though in the books I’ve read, I don’t see much evidence of that, except in the Marston Baines series when he set out to write for older readers, though ironically to warn them against change. The formula of his plots did not change. But there’s no doubt that in this period, he was deliberately trying out new things to keep alive, or perhaps re-awaken his enthusiasm for the Lone Piners.

14 - Not Scarlet But Gold

The Secret of the Gorge took us back to Shropshire, but look how different everything was. For the first time since The Secret of Grey Walls – and the last time – we were being taken to a part of Shropshire we weren’t familiar with. Once again, the Club is joined by an outsider, Nicholas Whiteflower, but this time there’s no question of his being invited into membership: indeed, after his initial appearance, an awkward, traumatised boy embarrassed into awful rudeness of a kind we would nowadays judge sympathetically, David lays down the law that the Club is not even to be mentioned in Nicholas’ presence.
I’ll return to that in a moment. There are other changes in this book, ranging from Peter changing the hairstyle she’s determinedly and defiantly worn every time before (even if all she’s done is coil up her plaits) to the introduction of the first really dangerous protagonist, the thuggish Simon Blandish, slapping an iron bar against his palm in a manner that convinces you he really is capable of using it.
But the biggest change is the whole tone of the book insofar as it applies to the Lone Piners themselves. It comes as a tremendous shock when not only do David and Peter regress in their conversations but so do Tom and Jenny. All the elders suddenly act at least two years younger than they’re supposed to be, as if this story follows on from Seven White Gates. (Not that Saville can keep this up: the moment Peter turns up limping from a serious cut to her knee, it’s emotional business as usual for David, who only wants to knock off the block of the junior teddy boy responsible.)
I would love to know why Saville chose this approach. It’s change, but instead of development it is regression. And then there’s the dismissal of Nicholas as a potential new member from very early on, in direct contrast to Harriet one book earlier. What had been his audience’s response to Harriet? Had they been hostile to the idea of a new member after so long? Did that contribute to Saville’s frustration over his readership’s constant demands for more of the same that we know came to a head over the next Lone Pine Club book?
So now it’s time to look directly at the last Lone Piner, Miss Harriet Sparrow.
Given the importance he placed upon his readers’ wishes, it’s difficult to imagine that they were seriously averse to young Harriet. She filled an important gap, that between the elders and the Twins. Someone who could relate to them on their own level, with none of the frustration that categorises their relationship with Tom, Jon and, yes, even their big brother David. But at the same time, though impressed with them, Harriet could be a steadier, more serious counterpart, an anchor.
So, with all that in mind, and especially the strength of character she shows in both Mystery Mine, and to a greater extent in Not Scarlet But Gold, why did he restrict Harriet to only four appearances, and why did he treat her so demeaningly in her last appearance, not to mention the final book?
Mystery Mine is the only Lone Pine book I didn’t read at the appropriate age. All Saville’s books have flaws apparent to the adult eye and without the filter of nostalgia, this book gives me some real problems. Mostly, that’s Jon’s behaviour towards Penny, both at the beginning of the book when it’s echoed by David, and later when he rants at her viciously. It’s a low spot unequalled elsewhere, and the speed with which Penny forgives it and completely forgets it winds me up.
And I have another big issue with the Doctor’s scheme to coerce Grandpa Sparrow into selling his new antiques shop – which he doesn’t actually own – by kidnapping Harriet to force him to sign it over is a total non-starter that couldn’t succeed for a nanosecond. To call it sloppy is to insult several sloppily plotted books by the comparison.
But that doesn’t detract from Harriet’s position as the mainspring of the story. This alone suggests that she had been received favourably, and indeed Saville emphasises the strength of her character when, at the end, she forcefully points out to the Twins that this is the second time she’s been part of their adventures, the second time she’s put herself under David’s captaincy and orders and what has she got to show for it? She’s still not a member. And the Twins listen to her, as well they should. The question is whether Malcolm Saville was paying the same kind of attention.
But surely he must have been? After all, Harriet comes back in Not Scarlet But Gold, when she is finally made a member. It’s her finest hour, one of many elements that make this my favourite Lone Pine Club book. Granted, the heart of the book is the overdue culmination of David and Peter’s relationship, breaking out of childhood in a manner that Saville recognised had to occur, whatever his audience thought, and which he hoped would stand as a glorious finale, a fitting and moving end to the whole series. In which he was to be disappointed.
But Harriet herself is outstanding. She’s the New Girl, coming of Lone Pine age by being admitted on an equal footing, and she’s conscious that as the least experienced member, she should go by what the others determine, but her own moral instincts fill her with revulsion at the grubbiness and mean spirit at the heart of the adventure and she stands up and says so. She’s also secure enough in herself to hold up her investiture until she gets the express approval of Jenny, who she’s never met before. Harriet wants to be on a proper footing with all her fellow members.

18 - Strangers at Witchend

She makes a fascinating new member, and gives the Club an entirely new perspective. Perhaps not enough to revive Saville’s enthusiasm – he had left out everybody except the Mortons in the intervening Sea Witch Comes Home just for the sake of doing things differently – but if he was going to be forced to continue by his readers, like Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle seventy years previously, at least he had a new element to play with.
Instead, Harriet would only appear once more, and Saville’s treatment of her then would throw out every positive aspect of her character to date.
The Third Act of the series is slightly shorter than its two predecessors, six books to their seven, and though the rot does not set in until half way, it is undoubtedly the weakest. Several factors go into this: Saville’s age, the waning of his imaginative abilities, his lack of sympathy with the times coupled with the pressure upon him to write to the era, his frustration and, I am convinced, growing resentment at having to continue the series, all these things can be sensed even in the first two books of this period, which at least have the merit of letting the other two couples break through into the maturer relationship they were destined to achieve. Well, Tom and Jenny at any rate: Saville’s strict and restrictive personal beliefs prevented him from offering that same future to the pair who were cousins, even though he gave that relationship two shots without ever being more than circumstantial.
But what of Harriet throughout this? True, there is a logistical problem in relation to her age: the twelve-year old Miss Sparrow can’t imply be carted off to Rye without any effective adult supervision, and it’s not like Saville intends to bring her parents onstage, but given how horrendous was the Amanda Gray subplot, the exclusion of a proven strong character seems strange. But it’s nothing as to what she is put through on her fourth and final appearance.
Nominally, Harriet is the central figure in Strangers at Witchend. It’s her first visit to where it all began, her first exposure to camping out and it’s she who not only discovers the break-in at the Witchend kitchen but also the culprit, the lonely, short-sighted, desperate, abandoned but nevertheless still unprepossessing Kevin Smith. And every atom of Harriet’s personality dissolves into an almighty crush on the boy that makes him Harriet’s sole focus for the rest of the book.
And it’s not just that Harriet subordinates herself totally to Kevin. She’s been established as a solid, sensible, strong-minded girl but suddenly she’s Pollyanna. From the first moment he appears, Charlie Smith, Kevin’s father, is presented as a horrible person: of course he is, he’s a criminal and in Saville’s world that means he has no redeeming characteristics at all. He’s angry, aggressive, hate-filled. His first sight of Kevin is filled with loathing, he intends to abandon his family, he snatches away the spectacles without which Kevin is functionally blind. He is an out-and-out nasty piece of work. But Harriet, of the clear moral sense, insists, in the face of evidence that leans further than that Tower in Pisa, that Kevin’s Dad loves him.
In the end, when Kevin suddenly blurts out that his Dad’s on medication he hasn’t been taking but will in future, when the Police intimate that his confession will spare him prison despite his being under Sid Jones’ thumb for crimes the Police hadn’t connected him with, the reversal is risible. Saville’s Christian convictions will not allow a child to suffer a broken home, no matter how far it flies in the face of reality.
But Harriet… The very last we see of Harriet, this twelve year old girl, is of her numb with misery watching Kevin be driven away – and bursting into tears.

20 - Home to Witchend

What happened? What possessed Malcolm Saville to destroy his character this way? The new, but impressive girl who’d given him a new slant for a series he felt imprisoned by.
Obviously, I can’t answer that. It bemuses me. It smacks of a sudden, inexplicable revulsion. Each of the last four Lone Pine books had involved themselves directly with a loving relationship. We assume the audience had been satisfied by these developments. Did Saville feel trapped, unable to write about anything else despite the subject being way beyond suitability for a twelve-year old? A sort of, this-is-what-you-want-here-take it gesture?
Strangers at Witchend is the beginning of the endgame, the first of the final three books that, frankly, are not fit to be discussed on the same plane as the series to date. It’s not just the occasional below par book, like Lone Pine Five, but instead a very visible decline.
The Seventies were not kind to Malcolm Saville. He was ageing, he was out of touch, he was slowing down. He must have been deeply disappointed by the failure of the Marston Baines series, the one on which he’d pinned his hopes for a monument, an invaluable and influential warning against societal changes that he feared, but which flopped, commercially as well as artistically. He would go on to publish his last two books in 1978, terminating with finality both that series and the Lone Pine Club.
How the Marston Baines series ended shows the tremendous psychological defeat Saville had experienced. His title character killed, his successor giving up the fight against all the evils Saville saw in the world. And then a last Lone Pine book that finally, twenty years after he expressed his boredom with the series, lets him bring it to rest.
Not wholly. The Lone Pine Club ends with joy and adult fulfilment, the last and inescapable danger echoing The Last Temptation of Christ: Happiness.
But this essay is about Harriet Sparrow, the last Lone Piner, restricted to only four appearances. Surely that should be five, for doesn’t the entire Club appear in Home to Witchend? Well, don’t they?
Malcolm Saville was 77 in 1978. His abilities, his imaginative energy, was failing him. He could not have written a story featuring all nine Lone Piners. He had only once, in 1947, written an adventure with eight and promptly decided not to do that again. So the book stars the Mortons, amongst whom Peter is counted in anticipation of the denouement. Penny and Jenny get single chapter spotlights, with Jon and Tom relegated to roles supporting them. It would have been nice, but…
But what about Harriet? I cannot forgive Saville for what he did at the end. Harriet is left out of the story. She arrives only a few pages from the end, for Peter’s birthday party. She comes on stage with Kevin Smith, who gets one line of dialogue and she doesn’t. After that, Harriet vanishes, mentioned only once more, when the Twins declare the forming of a new Lone Pine Club that they will boss, to include her, Kevin, the long-forgotten Nicholas Whiteflower and the gypsy daughter Fenella.
It’s even more demeaning than her appearance in Strangers. What motivated Saville to treat one of his creations so disrespectfully and disparagingly? Harriet Sparrow is the only Saville character to be treated like this. I can only see it as intentional, as a turning by Saville on the character. It’s a consciously sore note on which to end.
If I’m correct in suggesting that Saville needed to stave off his declining interest in the Lone Pine Club before Mystery Mine, then I’d place the introduction of Harriet as the most important step in changing things up. Yet in the twenty years that she was in the series, he first restricted her appearances and then suddenly destroyed her in a manner no other character underwent. Did Harriet become some kind of symbol to him of the one thing he could not do with the Lone Pine Club that enslaved him just as surely as Sherlock Holmes did his creator? The character who symbolised change become the symbol of its inutility?
We don’t know. We can only guess from the evidence of what he wrote. I’d love to know more, but I doubt I ever will. Writers’ minds, and their relationship to what they write, are enigmas, and a lot of the time not even they understand why they do something. That’s just as true for writers of children’s fiction as it is for those who write something more ‘serious’.

Cozy Cumbrian Crime: Rebecca Tope’s Lake District Mysteries

For several years now, predating the COVID lockdown of 2020, I’ve been not going to the Library. However, a few weeks ago, returning from my first Dental appointment since pre-pandemic, I passed its doors and decided to drop in. I am now attending regularly.
Certain books I fancied reading but not buying turned out not to be in the Catalogue, but then I recalled the name Rebecca Tope, prolific writer of cosy crime fiction since 2005 and author of three series, one of which I have written about previously.
I was attracted, if that’s not too strong a word, to Tope’s work by the fact that one of her three series is set in the Lake District, only the second crime series to explore that background after the better-written but tonally inept series by Martin Edwards. I don’t read much crime fiction and I do not have much time for ‘cosy’ crime, the kind of stories where blood and violence are kept to a bare minimum and occur at a distance from the centre of the narrative. No, I wouldn’t dream of reading any of Tope’s Cotswolds or West Country mysteries, but the Lake District is an irresistible magnet.
When I last read anything by Tope, the series had extended to either seven or eight books. I’d missed the first in the series and at least one other early book but had read either three or four books in the series. The protagonist is florist Persimmon ‘Simmy’ Brown (awful name, both of them), plus a slowly growing cast of supporting players.

Tope 1

The set-up, for those not familiar with the books, is that Simmy, aged 38, is a recent divorcee whose marriage has collapsed after she had a stillborn daughter. She’s moved from Worcester to Windermere where she’s opened her shop (her parents, Russell and Angie Straw, have run a successful B&B in neighbouring Bowness for twenty years), assisted by local Melanie Todd, ambitious to work in the Hotel business, who has an artificial eye, who brings with her genius schoolboy Ben Harkness.
The gimmick is that Simmy’s flowers (her shop is called Persimmon Petals) cause her to make deliveries to places where murders have either just been committed or take place shortly afterwards. Simmy wants nothing to do with it but both Melanie and especially Ben get her involved in solving the crimes, to the advantage of local Detective Inspector Nolan Moxon (Nolan, reet guid Cumbrian name, that) who appears to be sweet on Simmy,to her embarrassment though he will eventually be found to be happily if childlessly married.
That’s basically how the series works. Simmy’s based in Windermere and lives north of that, in Troutbeck. Tope keeps the series concentrated upon the south east corner of the Lakes, more old Westmorland than Cumberland, giving each book an alliterative title, such as The Coniston Case, The Bowness Bequest or The Hawkshead Hostage. Melanie gets written out when she gets her opportunity in the hotel business and her place is taken by anorexic foster child Bonnie Lawson, who becomes Ben’s mostly platonic girlfriend, theirs being a meeting of minds rather than of bodies
That’s more or less where things were when I stopped visiting the Library, save that Tope had just introduced a potential love interest for Simmy in the form of Keswick-based Auctioneer Christopher Henderson. Chris is an old friend and family friend who Simmy hasn’t seen in twenty years whilst he’s been mostly wandering the world. They were born on the same day in the same hospital, the families went on holiday together, everybody simultaneously expected and feared, that sort of thing. Would Christopher rescue Simmy from her loneliness? Would he give her the baby she still wanted so desperately? Will she solve the murder of his parents that’s the catalyst for their reunion? If you can’t answer the last one, don’t read on.
What prompts this essay is that in the past month I have gotten completely up-to-date with the series via reading the latest four books, volumes nine to twelve, consisting of The Patterdale Plot, The Ullswater Undertaking, The Threlkeld Theory and The Askham Accusation, though not in that exact order (I reversed the middle two). As a result of which I have some observations I want to make.

Tope 2

The first of these, as any Lake District aficionado will instantly spot, is that there has been an abrupt geographical shift northwards. All four places lie in the northern Lakes, the north-east to be precise (Tope has never ventured further west than Coniston). There is an undeniable story rationale for this, and change is very often a good thing for long-lasting series, but I hope I’m not being over-cynical in suspecting that it’s more a case of Tope having run out of viable villages south of Kirkstone Pass.
I don’t intend to go into detail about any of the murders, save to record a definite, but strictly isolated change in approach in book 9, as the victim actually expires in Simmys arms, on the landing of her parents B&B, claiming to have been poisoned. The intrusion of the actual death into the vision of the audience is not repeated and every other homicide thereafter is reported from afar and after the fact.
It’s so long since I read any of the earlier books for me to recall with any certainty, but reading these four books in such quick succession left me with the impression that, along with the geographical switch, Tope has changed the style of her mysteries, to the extent that, functionally, all these books are identical.
There’s an uncanny similarity between all four. The victims and where they die are different, of course, and Simmy and her little crew more or less solve them each time, but in terms of what happens between the covers, the ‘action’ is almost exclusively concentrated upon the day-to-day, personal events affecting our florist heroine and her ‘family’, whilst the case du jours is discussed as a matter of endlessly canvassed possibilities. And given that the ongoing soap opera element has Simmy continually questioning her life and where it’s going, the effect is that of a book in which there are nothing but speculations in both of its strands. It’s woolly, to say the least.
Of course, things do happen, there are resolutions of a kind, and not just the identification of the killer, but such resolutions as we get in the soap opera are really only springboards for whatever will be on Simmy’s mind next time round.
For instance, in The Patterdale Plot, Simmy is heavily pregnant. On top of the primary fear, of a repetition of her previous stillbirth, Simmy is a mass of worries: about where she and Christopher will live that is somewhere roughly halfway between their respective businesses, how they will cope with living together full-time, how her shop in Windermere will work, not so much with Bonnie as the effective manager but with new assistant Verity, a middle-aged, empty-headed gossip who’s nevertheless useful making deliveries, whilst Ben’s younger sister Tanya helps out Saturday mornings, and the effect of the murder on her parents’ business and them personally.
Next book, the baby has been born healthy and is named Robyn, not that that slows down Simmy’s fears to any degree, over him or the as yet unconcieved second child, whilst their new home in Hartsop is a barn conversion still being converted by builder Humphrey, and will Chris be the kind of supportive new father she needs him to be, and unlike him she really doesn’t want them to get a dog, and what about getting married, is that really a good idea?
After that the wedding takes place in Threlkeld with the minimum number of guests (Simmy would have had none if she could have managed it). The honeymoon sees her off the premises for a few days whilst the latest murder victim was found dead at the other end of the village, killed at more or less the same time as the wedding. Then they do get a dog and Simmy’s got to worry about that as well as her son and her fears about being a good mother, not to mention her parents’ life-changing decision (see below).
Most recently, Simmy and Chris attend the funeral of builder Humphrey in Askam, after a bizarre and gory self-inflicted accidental death, which is followed the next day by the death of a ninety year old woman and Simmy being accused of knocking her over the head.

Tope 3

That’s just Simmy. There’s Ben Harkness’s arc. I last saw him going off to Durham University to study Forensic Science as the lead-in to a brilliant career, but it turns out he doesn’t like the course and is talking of transferring to History, which makes his martyr-to-arthritis architect mother look blackly at Simmy but actually it’s University that doesn’t suit him and he ends up taking an admin job at Chris’s Auctioneers after his predecessor is murdered. Meanwhile, he and Bonnie have tried sex but don’t think much of it, but they’re separated by the length of the Lake District, poor lambs. Simmy worries about them. A lot.
Russell and Angie? They get over and past the death in their B&B then abruptly, in The Threlkeld Theory, decide to retire and go to live in Threlkeld. Naturally, Simmy worries about them (perhaps she needn’t bother after all, Russell’s slow onset dementia has cleared up as spectacularly as Ernest Saunders). Constantly.
Bonnie herself gets to be the focus of worries in the most recent book when it turns out that Sophie Craig, the widowed mother of the unfortunate Humphrey, is actually the sister of Bonnie’s long-disappeared father (the fact the pair are nearly identical given the twenty years between them is the first pointer but it will turn out that Sophie’s known all along, as has Verity (?!?!), and how will this impact on the tiny, formerly-anorexic young girl, though given who the murderer turns out to be in the end, that’s going to be something to be further pursued in next year’s book. Needless to say, in amongst worrying about the accusation against her, which she is the only person in the whole of the Lake District to take remotely seriously, Simmy worries about Bonnie.
In case you need the reminder, these are crime fiction novels, about murders and finding out who has committed them.
But these concerns, and the constant fret and worry about what might happen, are the meat of these books, to be ruminated upon possibility by possibility.
And the true curiosity is that the same approach is taken to the investigation of the murders themselves. Though the death in The Patterdale Plot is prominent by virtue of where it takes place, it’s solving is conducted through exactly the same kind of waffling speculation as Simmy’s fears over her unborn child. There’s a paucity of fact so it’s all down to talking through possibilities, motives, means, opportunities, until the answer come almost out of the blue, thanks to a chance piece of cameraphone footage.
At least this case is solved in something of a rational manner. That can’t be said for any of the next three.

Tope 4

The big, and I mean serious problem is the shift in location to north of Kirkstone Pass. This hits the format right where it lives. For one thing, Simmy’s distance from her florist’s business removes her from being peripherally involved in the discovery of the bodies but, more fundamentally, it removes DI Moxon. As long as the deaths fall under the jurisdiction of the Windermere Police, he can be the investigating officer and Simmy’s little can attach to him, in the knowledge that, unlike most real policemen, he not only respects but welcomes their input.
But Moxon has no official standing with Keswick or Penrith Police. Indeed, Tope is honest enough to present him as almost a figure of fun to them, because his success rate is so clearly based on Simmy, Ben and Bonnie’s efforts. Without that official standing, and the leeway Moxon enjoys south of Kirkstone to furnish the flower shop mob with Police information, Simmy and Co are reduced to, yes, unconcrete speculation.
Tope does contrive to get Moxon involved in the cases, one way or another: in the case of the Threlkeld victim, it is because he was stood where the body was found less than fifteen minutes earlier and becomes obsessed with it. But Tope has created a rod for her own back here. If Moxon is to be hammered, square peg-like, into cases north of Kirkstone, credibility will vanish.
It’s already teetering after three such stories, especially so in the most recent book,which threatens to parody itself. Instead of the more or less organic collisions between Persimmon Petals and murders in and around south east Lakeland, she and her two teenage assistants are now having to be treated as semi-official crime solvers, in an unconvincingly Holmesian manner. And in the afore-mentioned Askam Accusation, Tope dabbles with metafiction by suggesting that Simmy was only accused in order to draw her and her squad in to sole the case in the first place.
I shall be very interested in seeing what form the thirteenth book takes. Because once the series starts to become metaphysical like that, the distance from its contemporary state to the factors that made it popular in the first place becomes insurmountable: one more like that and the next stage is a mercy killing.
As for the murders themselves, the last three books all eventually come up, in their very late closing pages, with a villain who has appeared innocuously and who has never been the subject of speculation. Indeed, the killers in the two most recent books are practically interchangeable, as is the unintentional fatal action. It’s a crime fiction trope, the villain being the last person you thought of, or someone above suspicion, but in these three cases, the perpetrators are peripheral figures and their exposure carries no emotional weight. Certainly the last two are a frank disappointment. The first one might be acceptable as a neat twist, if it were a one-off, but to re-run it immediately dissolves any credit Tope might deserve for being offbeat.
So after a dozen books, I’m looking at a series that’s run into serious problems artistically. I have no idea about commercially, but next year’s trip to the Lakes is fraught with peril for Rebecca Tope as well as someone wholly unconnected with Persimmon Henderson (she’s married now, remember).

Some Books: Guy Gavriel Kay’s ‘The Last Light of the Sun’


This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of what I read in the Library.
It always irked me that, once Guy Gavriel Kay finally got into North Europe as a basis for his long fantasy novels, that once he got to England, I failed to get more than two chapters into the book. The effect was to get me to re-assess his writings. Up to that point I had a complete set of his books in paperback, but not too long after I disposed of everything except The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, and thereafter have only read the out-of-character Ysabel.
But it still irked me. So finally I bought a cheap paperback of The Last Light of the Sun, determined to read it all the way through. And I discovered two things. One was that I was wrong to think the book set in a Kay-fantasy version of England (Anglycyn) because it also encompasses Wales (Cyngael) and the Norsemen (Erlings). The other was that I was right: this is a tremendously stodgy book, lacking in anything like a binding story and so full of Kay’s stylistic mannerisms that you start wincing at their repetitive trotting out barely two chapters in before concluding that the story was probably not written by Kay himself but rather by some computer programmed to sound like him.
The book is shot through with familiar characters. Wise, well-organised, supremely skilful warriors who lead tribes and nations, highly intelligent, intuitive and stunningly gorgeous wives and daughters, young men with glorious futures ahead of them in which they too will become wise, well-organised, supremely skilful warriors who lead tribes and nations, plus another version of the faerie. Read it all before, usually in warmer climates, and ever so slightly bored with more of it.
The style becomes such a noticeable issue because of the lack of an over-arching story to focus upon. Kay always starts slowly, building up a number of situations and involving multiple viewpoints and intentions before he tips his hand as to what the endpoint will involve, but when you are over 200 pages into the story, with new characters being either introduced from scratch or filled out from initial encounters seen through another character’s eyes, with no understanding of what these characters, and the peoples they stand for have to do with the story, except that they usually fight each other, details like the profusion of sentences that leave off the initial pronoun become a matter of closer concern.
I would hazard a guess that Kay, who is Canadian, who comes from the majority English-descended population, who studied at Oxford and aided Christopher Tolkien in compiling the published Silmarrillion, feels far less empathetic with northern European cultures than he does with southern ones. He makes a point of the extent of his researches into understanding the people he is channelling, their thoughts and expectations, but there is a literal world of difference between these deliberately dark lands and the sunshine of his more natural field.
The basic problem with The Last Light of the Sun is that it has no great conclusion. Kay’s epics traditionally turn upon some great victory that marks a great change in the world, or at least the pseudo-country he’s taken as his inspiration. No such thing happens here. Out on the edge of the world, in the darkness of barbarian tribes, the ultimate climax is an intended raid on a more or less isolated farm, not even a kingdom, resolved by a single combat in which the defeated participant deliberately sacrifices his life to avert slaughter.
And then the retreating Norsemen/Erlings react to their being spared by reverting to the cliché of their type, except in a different country. No change.
Or, to be fair, no overt change. The book ends with a slew of marriages that cement better future relations between the English and the Welsh, an incremental step, but after 500 pages of fantasy you want something a little more conclusive than an increment.
Kay’s books always (with the exception of Ysabel) involve multiple viewpoints and this is no different. Again, I think it’s the lack of any central purpose that eventually weaves the disparate interests of a wide cast into a common goal that makes the book feel crowded and unfocussed. Everybody has different aims in mind, different preoccupations. The three races are all enemies and whilst the marriages at the end suggest a drawing together of Anglcyn and Cyngael in future, it doesn’t change either’s relation to the Erlings.
That’s another point of contention. Kay is usually good on the feminist side. His women are intelligent, strong, leaders in their own way and in their own right, having their own spheres of dominance. Not so here. The Erlings are overtly masculine, obsessed with being hard, not soft, in order to survive their harsh world, harsh raiders, unrepentant, indeed eager killers, despising anyone who isn’t like them. Women in their world are nothing. Relationships don’t go beyond sex, which is a practical task for the proper running of the body, much like unclogging the drains.
It’s crude, it’s archaic, it isn’t interesting except to those of that mindset, of which we’ve got too many in the world to begin with. But the Erlings are merely an extreme version of this. With one exception, the strong women of this saga may be wise, perceptive, thoughtful, fit to command respect, but they’re still women and that makes them second class. They are there to be married off for political gain, run households, produce babies on an industrial basis.
It makes for a very flat, indeed dull world.
At least I can now say I’ve read the book, which had bugged me in a mild way for many years. It was a struggle: even at only two chapters a day I had to force myself to the task, and task it was which no book should be which isn’t being read for some examination. It’s the book in which Guy Kay went to the well once too often. Ysabel, the atypical urban fantasy, would follow, but that aside the pattern has been adhered to faithfully ever since, without me, now and hereafter. But that’s what so often happens with authors whose range is pre-determined, however good they may be inside an individual book, they always find themselves out, sooner or later.

Some Books: Susanna Clarke’s ‘Piranesi’


This irregular series began as a conscious decision to re-read certain books I had enjoyed many years ago when borrowed from Didsbury Library in South Manchester, and to consider how well, or otherwise, they stood up to my recollection of them. Since then, it’s expanded beyond the confines of what I read in the Library.
Thanks in large part to chronic fatigue syndrome, it took Susanna Clarke sixteen years to produce a follow-up to the widely-acclaimed and massively successful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. For some time she was at work on a sequel to that book, which I hope will eventually come to fruition, but after having herself reinvigorated by a visit to the set of the television adaptation, Clarke recovered the urge and ability to write, but chose a simpler story, an idea that pre-dated Strange & Norrell, featuring far fewer characters and requiring little or no research.
The result was Piranesi, published to unanimous acclaim in 2020. I treated myself to the paperback as a self-present for Xmas 2021 but, largely out of a certain trepidation over the mental effort I assumed it would require, not to mention the dozens of other things that occupy my mind in retirement, I did not begin the book until early October 2022, determined to catch up on a small and mixed piles of books I hadn’t opened.
The first thing to say is that Piranesi is incredibly easier to read than Strange & Norrell. It’s told in the first person as a series of journal entries by the title character, who writes in a stiff and formal manner that is nevertheless more open and lucid that the earlier novel. Most of the book takes place in what you would afterwards describe as a ‘fantasy world’, detached from the ‘real world’, which takes the form of an infinite House of rooms and levels, subject to floods and tides that might sweep the unwary away.
There are two principal characters, namely Piranesi and The Other. All other regular occupants of the House are skeletons, each given a descriptive name by Piranesi, who guards, honours and, in an offbeat manner, almost worships them. A character who Piranesi names The Prophet appears once, a mysterious character that both he and The Other name 16 (counting the skeletons but not The Prophet, there are fifteen inhabitants of the House): she comes into the book towards the end and is responsible for precipitating such ending as it has.
Piranesi is nothing like Strange & Norrell. It is shorter and simpler, in its way, and instead of immersing itself deeply in the minutiae of explanation, it uses mystification as its primary tool. We are dropped into a strange and inexplicable environment described by an individual doing strange and mystifying things that are natural to him but inexplicable to us. Description is minimal. We have no idea what is going on, or why, and we have to try to get a handle on things.
As such, this book is much less intimate. I read it in three sessions, the first of which was spent mainly trying to work out not what on Earth was going on but why the book had been written. There seemed to be no point to it. Of course I was merely being impatient, but too much of that section came over as being wilful obscurantism, where the lack of comprehension is more important than anything else.
Though we eventually got an explanation of everything we needed to know – who Piranesi ‘really’ is, where he is, how he got here – that feeling did prevail, and it was compounded for me by Clarke’s decision to remove all her explanations a long psychological way from Piranesi, aka journalist Matthew Rose Sorensen, and the House which had become his natural habitat. The fantasy, whose production and the means of it was left unexplained because no concrete explanation would have been believable, had become his natural home. And because Piranesi neither could, nor did, nor wanted to place the ‘real’ world from where he had originally come on an equal footing with his bizarre House.
All of this is based upon a first reading. At some point I shall re-read the book, this time armed from the outset with the knowledge of everything lying beneath it, and I expect the story to change quite drastically from that new perspective. And I shall need a great deal of time to ponder the implications, not just for Piranesi/Sorensen, of that ending.
Unlike everyone else, I don’t acclaim the book, not on this reading at least. Oh, what a surprise, at odds with everyone else again. But at least I finally got round to reading it.

Pursuing Christopher Priest: 16 – Expect Me Tomorrow


To begin with a minor, indeed trivial point, Expect Me Tomorrow is the first novel of Christopher Priest’s career whose title does not begin with the definite, or occasionally indefinite article, since the purely SF work, Inverted World, published in 1974 (and Wikipedia lists that as ‘The Inverted World’).
As with The Evidence, two years ago, this novel, though started earlier and suspended, was published in time for me to award it to myself as a birthday present. Unfortunately, on the initial impression of a first reading, it like its two immediate predecessors, continues Priest’s falling off of his once very high standards.
Reading the book, I found that I had very little sense of engagement with it. In that sense, it reminded me of An American Story, which is about Priest examining the conspiracy theories debated to this day about the 9/11 Terrorist attacks, in that the character(s) invented to analyse this material exist only in their professional capacity and not on any human or emotional level, and the ultimate conspiracy Priest comes up with to provide the novel with a foreboding conclusion is largely extraneous to the ‘facts’ of the matter (no insult to Priest is intended by those inverted commas, they mean only to distinguish between the publicly debated conspiracies and the purely fictional one Priest raises himself).
In the same way, though it occupies itself with two distinct time periods, one past, one future, this book is also about a factual situation that is clearly Priest’s spur to write the book, and its characters are again vehicles to present factual arguments and examinations. The subject this time is climate change, global warming and the complete breakdown of Earth’s ability to sustain human life.
Actually, the book has two subjects, and the other is also real, though I was not aware of that until very late on, when certain aspects of that part of the story began to suggest a factual basis, and a Wikipedia search confirmed this was so.
As with, for example, The Prestige, Priest uses different narrators, not to create a sense of unreality, but to lay out his two tracks. One is Dr Adler Beck, a Norwegian glaciologist, conducting research in America in the 1860s/70s leading him to the conclusion that, given current trends, the Earth is approaching a calamitous cooling-down period that will lead, sometime in the Twenty-First Century to a new Ice Age. Dr Beck’s story is told in the first person, interrupted from time to time, by letters from his twin brother Adolf (known as Dolf), a singer and businessman.
The second is Chad (Charles) Ramsey, an experienced civilian profiler attached to the British Police with the honorary rank of Inspector, who has just been made redundant, in unpleasant and unnecessarily harsh circumstances, in the year 2050. Chad also has an identical twin brother, Gregory, an investigative reporter working for TV channel BNN (British National News).
Chad’s timeline, related in the third person from his viewpoint, is in a near future hell where global warming is now global heating, where icecaps are melting and sea-levels rising, and the world is either about to reach the final tipping point or has already long done so. Priest uses Chad as a vehicle to essentially, and in as detached a manner as he can, set out a comprehensive extrapolation of the mid-Century from where we are now (though he might be being a bit optimistic about us lasting that long).
There’s no apparent connection between Beck and Chad but we know there will turn out to be one, and by the time Priest makes it explicit, it’s clear that it is familial: Beck is Chad and Gregory’s great-great grandfather in the patrilineal line, circumstances have led to a change of surname on the part of Beck’s son.
Beck, and his twin Dolf, are shown several times experiencing strange, short-lasting but terrifying incursions that paralyse them, during which they hear a voice asking them questions, that they neither understand nor can respond to. It takes no great leap of imagination to anticipate that this is Chad who, through a newly-invented device that works in conjunction with an enhanced communication system that’s like an internally implanted Zoom connection, can make contact with his remote ancestors.
As with An American Story, Priest is writing what is primarily a polemic about climate change. Chad, an intelligent, happily-married and childless middle-aged man, is basically the vehicle for all these points. Priest has never been much of an emotional writer, having begun his career in the 1960s New Worlds era of cool detachment. You read him for his ideas but in this book as much as its last but one predecessor, the human beings are pretty thin. Not cut-outs by any means, but they exist to present the ideas, not for any intrinsic appeal in themselves. A long dropping off from books like A Dream of Wessex, The Affirmation, The Extremes etc.
This side of the story builds up to an epic but mostly intellectual conclusion. The planet is overheating but Beck’s theories as to a forthcoming Ice Age, not to mention the discovery of a semi-miraculous super-antibiotic derived from a rare Norwegian plant will mark a counter-balance for long enough for science to get in top of and be able to effectively manage the climate crisis. No, it’s all too much a bit deus ex machina for my acceptance, and give Priest credit, he acknowledges as much himself through he does still push this miracle escape.
But I’ve deliberately been avoiding the other aspect of the story and now is time to bring it forward. Dr Adler Beck, to whom we keep returning, is a highly intelligent, staid, thoughtful and successful scientist, who marries an equally brilliant scientist with whom he has two children. Dolf, who we never actually get to see in the flesh until much further in, is nevertheless clearly defined as the scapegrace of the family. We automatically suspect his accounts of his varied life, his travels all round the globe and his successes as an opera singer and businessman as being completely made up.
In this, we’re encouraged by two things. One is the presence in the narrative, though very rarely seen, of one John Smith, a serial fraudster who preys upon gullible and vulnerable women. The other is that Gregory Ramsey, in 2050, is concerned about his and Chad’s black sheep relative of several generations previously, the scandalous Uncle Adolf.
This is the other basis on which Priest builds his story. As I said, it was not until the very end of the book, when photos of Adolf Beck and ‘John Smith’ appeared, and a lot of factual claims about the British Criminal Justice system were made, that I started to wonder. Adler Beck was a complete fiction, but Adolf Beck was not. His identification in Court as ‘John Smith’ and his committal to two prison sentences as a fraudster and exploiter of vulnerable women was real. The facts of the case as presented by Priest were all correct and indeed public knowledge. Adolf Beck was convicted, twice, by an inept legal system, prejudicial conduct by the Judge, police indifference and incompetence, as well as wrong assumptions. His protests that he was the victim of mistaken identity were all true, and his case led directly to the creation of the Criminal Appeals Court.
The photos of Adolf Beck and ‘John Smith’ may be seen without buying the book on the Wikipedia page about Beck’s case.
The story, of which I was not previously aware (I may have been a Solicitor for thirty plus years but I did not do Criminal Law), was fascinating, and on a purely technical level, Priest’s grafting on to this unfortunate man of a twin brother worked seamlessly. But I’m bound to say that I do not see the Adolf Beck case as having any connection to the issue of Twenty-First Century climate change. There is no organic connection, and the only connection between the two stories is made entirely via the fiction that Priest attaches to this horrendously treated victim.
Of course, all this is from a single reading, and a return visit may establish things I’ve overlooked. But for me, Expect Me Tomorrow is another disappointment after so many fascinating and involving books. That said, it’s still better than The Evidence, which is at least comforting.

Considering John Crowley: Flint and Mirror


Without wishing to sound as if I am boasting, some years ago I was privileged to take part in a short e-mail correspondence with John Crowley, who contacted me after reading my review of one of his books in which I expressed, well, shall I say, disappointment? He took the time and trouble to set out his intentions with regard to some of the specific factors I’d drawn attention to. The fact that he thought to reply in the first place was generous to begin with, but his graciousness in responding to my criticism was humbling.
I was contacted by him again some time later, about the response he’d sent me, which he was considering publishing, again showing graciousness in checking that it would not cause me any difficulties: of course not! Then, earlier this year, curious as to whether, and where he might have put this into print, I contacted him.
And thus it was that I learned he had written and published another book, one that, given he is now 80, he expects to be the last he will write. I bought it promptly, though it has taken me some time to complete, and I have only now finished it.
The delay is a combination of other concerns and reading commitments, that stopped me starting the book for several weeks, but also of my attempts to read the book in the peace and quiet of having just woken up and, given that the book is written through an intentional haze, distanced from the participants, and thus filtered through a sense of fable and legend, not a story that can be properly enjoyed when handicapped by not having quite woken up. It requires focus, and I at last learned to give it the concentration it required, again on an early morning, but with deliberation.
Flint and Mirror is a true story, for, as Terry Pratchett used to put it, a given value of true. It is a historical story, about the Tudor period when Queen Elizabeth I determinedly solidified England’s hold upon and in Ireland, an act whose consequences are still being felt today. The Queen is a character, as is her Astrologer and Magician, Dr John Dee, who we remember so vividly from the Ægypt Cycle.
But the Queen is more a peripheral character, seen and heard at a distance, working her will and influence through appointees and Lieutenants, intermediaries and Governors to and in Ireland. These include, by magical means, the book’s principal character, Hugh O’Neill, red of hair and beard, The O’Donnell, Irish Lord made English Earl, forced to spend most of his time on both sides of the divide.
Hugh is not the only one whose paths we follow. We meet him in exile in Rome, telling his story to Peter Lombard, and we return to his beginning and take with him the steps that lead him to flee to Rome, in the aftermath of defeat, and from a future of imprisonment under James, and doubtless execution.
But whilst he is the pre-eminent figure, beholden to his patron Her Majesty the stiff-necked, autocratic Queen, resolute on absolute obedience to her commands, to whom he speaks through the mirror that is one part of the title of this book, he is also beholden to the sidhe, the magical powers of Ireland, via the little piece of flint he carries with him everywhere until almost the end, the other side of the title.
What makes the book so hard to follow for those not in full waking consciousness is that, although we see Hugh and his compatriots, and the English who even then are their oppressors, and we hear them speak, we are not really on a plane with them. They are removed from us, figures of whom we are told, creatures of legend even when at their most solid and palpable. There is no continuity so to speak of. We see them at different times, in different places and states. What happens between must be regarded as unimportant, and ignored.
We drift, we flit, drawing near to watch another scene.
This time period, according to Crowley’s afterword, has interested him for decades but only now has he found himself ready to draw all of its strings together. Beyond the shallow study of this period, when studying Elizabeth I at school in either my First or Second Year, I am not familiar with this time period, and take on trust that what we are told here, the fantastic elements aside, is true to what happened, if perhaps also leavened with interpretations that might be more personal? It might be worth my making at least a token study of the period before I read this book again, which will be undertaken with a great deal more concentration and not at 6.15am.
Oh, and in case I’ve overlooked saying this directly, this is a very interesting book and far more appealing to me than was Ka.

Who’d be a Mother in a Malcolm Saville book?


Different authors tackle the matter in different fashions but practically all children’s fiction, especially in the adventure tradition, has to deal with the same question: how do we get rid of the parents? Somehow or other, if the boy and girl heroes are to have freedom to get into difficulties and danger, and out of it by, mostly, their own efforts, as respectable heroes must, some means must be employed to get Mother and Father out of the way.
Parents are a constant stumbling block. If they’re not stepping in to firmly rule out the merest possibility of little Jane or little Johnny doing the remotest thing dangerous, they’re taking over from their precious little dumplings to solve the problem for them. The last thing you want in an adventure story is for Mum and Dad to do anything except provide you with a hot bath and a generous feast once the Police, or the Secret Service, have finished congratulating you.
This isn’t, obviously, a universal law of children’s fiction, but as the point of the genre is to have children participating in adventures in their own right, in the majority of cases the author will be looking to keep the adults on the sidelines for as much of the story as he or she can.
I’m particularly interested in Malcolm Saville’s approach to this question, having spent the last half-decade in acquiring or re-acquiring thirty-nine of his sixty-five novels, a total of sixty percent of the whole. Certain patterns are very evident in his writing, one in particular. But before I go on to look at his approach to parenthood, I want to begin with an admittedly cursory look at how other writers have dealt with this thorny question.
Take, for example, Enid Blyton. When I was young, I read her books avidly, progressing from Binkle and Flip and Little Noddy to The Five Find-Outers, the quartet in the Adventure series and, of course, the Famous Five. I grew out of these by my late teens and haven’t read anything by Blyton since one nostalgic Sunday in my early twenties when I burned through half a dozen Famous Five books in the same number of hours, shortly prior to letting my complete set go.
So I am not the most reliable of commentators on how Ms Blyton handled her characters’ parents but my memories suggest that for the most part, she kept them in the background and let the children go about their business more or less under the parental radar. Take the Famous Five: Julian, Dick and Anne were brothers and sister and George their cousin. Her parents, the distracted scientist, Uncle Quentin and his wife Aunt Fanny, featured far more often than the other Kirrin’s parents, probably because Uncle Quentin was a source of plots, but for the most part, the Kirrin brood had both parents, they just went off on their own more often than not, under the leadership of the quasi-adult Julian.
If I remember correctly, the Secret Seven all lived at home, as did the Five Find-Outers, each with a full complement of parents, who provided meals at regular intervals but otherwise took little or no notice of what their various offspring might be doing with their time (the number of times they were congratulated by the Police for foiling crimes, you’d think they’d at least start to get wary, but no).
The one Blyton series that I remember being different is the Adventure series. This brood consisted of four children split into two brother-sister pairs. Philip and Dinah live with their widowed mother, whilst Jack and Lucy-Ann are orphans living with an unsympathetic uncle until, after the first adventure, they are adopted by ‘Aunt Allie’. This kind of set-up is unusual for Blyton, and I remember no explanation for the loss of either Mr Mannering or the Trent parents (though the book’s publication in 1944 may enable us to infer causes).
Blyton intended this series to run to only six books (as she had originally intended with the Famous Five), though audience demand led her to write two more. It’s interesting that the sixth book ends with Aunt Allie agreeing to re-marry, her new husband being the only other regular adult character in the series, Secret Service agent Bill Cunningham (aka Bill Smugs). It’s a suitably Austen-esque end to the series, though the interesting part is that, after six books of no detectable romantic interest between Alison and Bill, it’s the four children who suggest, in fact almost demand, marriage, and the adults who sound almost indifferent in agreeing to it!

Saville Swallows

The other giant of children’s fiction writers, Arthur Ransome, who invented the children’s holiday adventure genre with Swallows and Amazons, dealt with the issue of parents in a similar manner. His twelve books deal with three families, the Walkers, the Blacketts and the Callums, who have five parents between them. Mrs Walker and Mrs Blackett are the two most visible, both of whom are effectively single mothers: Mr Blackett has passed away before the series starts whilst Commander Walker is on duty overseas for most of the series, leaving his wife to cope with their pack. Professor and Mrs Callum simply don’t appear (though the former gets a wonderful single line in the never completed thirteenth book).
What Ransome does is to take the various children away, enabling them to sail and camp and construct adventurous fantasies around what they do and where they are that are all the more appealing for the knowledge that a happy real life, with a loving and supportive mother, lies behind it all, a moment of disaster away. Adults are never far away, but either they lean into the children’s games with the same imaginative spirit, as does Ransome’s alter ego, Captain Flint, or they are sympathetically indulgent, caring only that their offspring are well and happy, and that by doing so they are encouraging their growth and maturity.
As for Ransome’s other characters, much the same occurs. Mrs Barrable (the Admiral) takes on a parental role in the two Norfolk books, though her role is more that of the indulgent grandmother, as her character was originally conceived to be. Among the Coots, only Port and Starboard, the Farland twins, are without a mother, and they, in consequence, are in certain ways more mature than even Tom Dudgeon, having taken on a degree of responsibility to their AP (Aged Parent), though it is Tom who benefits from having a father with whom he can talk seriously about his concerns.
Ransome’s disciples, Kathleen Hull and Pamela Whitlock, go about things differently in their Persian trilogy, as befits the pair of teenage schoolgirls who wrote The Far Distant Oxus. The Heatherly’s parents are overseas, in the Far East, and the Aunt they live with when not at school has negligible understanding of them and is easily fooled when they want to get their own way in Escape to Persia. In contrast, the Clevertons have lost their mother and their father is impossibly but conveniently utterly complaisant, perhaps not least in the tribe’s final scene, about to start a polo match on his tennis court.
As for Maurice, the mystery boy, who knows? He is, after all, a complete mystery but, like all the Hull/Whitlock children, he can do as he wants and no-one to gainsay him.
I am only familiar with Geoffrey Trease so far as his Bannerdale series is concerned, four children forming a set of friends. Bill and Sue Melbury live with their mother: their father is not dead but divorced, and removed completely from consideration by emigration, but they are brother and sister. Tim Darren lives with his parents and has two younger siblings. Penny Morchard stands out on two scores, the only only child in the quartet, and the only one to have lost a parent to an early death. In a foreshadowing of Malcolm Saville, Penny has lost her mother.
What these four authors have in common is that in the vast majority of cases, they provided most of their child heroes with both a mother and a father, but took steps, in their varying fashions, to more or less remove their influence, positive or negative, most often by placing the children in settings where they are either taking responsibility for themselves, or else are benignly allowed to run their holidays in the way they most enjoy. Those children who lack both parents obey no pattern as to which has been lost.
Now it’s time to look in a bit more detail at Malcolm Saville. Those thirty-nine books in my possession consist of four complete series. The other twenty-six were written for, and feature younger children, of an age where they are more directly reliant upon their parents, or adult equivalents, and whilst I have not read any of these, I do not think it is an unreasonable assumption to suggest that the observations I’m about to make will not apply to these books.
Those four series are The Lone Pine Club, the Jillies, the Fabulous Buckinghams and Marston Baines. I put them in this order, both as to the order of their creation, and my subsequent discovery of them, but also because I believe that this is the correct order as to their importance in Saville’s career: the Lone Pine Club will always come first.

14 - Not Scarlet But Gold

We’ll look at the other children who come into the Lone Pine story later on, but the first thing is to note is that of the nine members of the Lone Pine Club, no less than six are only children. The Mortons – David, Mary and Dickie – are the only siblings involved and in similar vein they are the only members to be blessed with two parents who appear in the story. Given that they were inspired by Saville’s own family (which consisted of four children, two sets of twins), this is hardly surprising. The Morton family, and the number of occasions where both Mr and Mrs Morton are involved, make them unique as the only whole and rounded family across all his work (those familiar with the Buckinghams may dispute this but I will distinguish that series in due course).
Indeed Mrs Morton – intelligent, kind, loving and supportive – is the biggest exception to the title of this essay. She’s introduced alone in Mystery at Witchend whilst her husband is on active service with the RAF, effortlessly combining the maternal and paternal duties and respecting her children’s individuality. Yes, in both Wings over Witchend and Lone Pine London, she expresses her disquiet, indeed loathing for the dangerous adventures her brood and their friends insist on getting themselves into, but that aside she is the maternal figure incarnated. As one would expect from someone based upon Mrs Saville!
Certainly, she and her husband come over as the ideal couple, contented, proud and, we can infer, still very much involved with each other. Indeed, given their willingness to let their lot go off on their own for extended periods, leaving just the pair of them, I think we can safely infer that, in the deep background that is never permitted visibility, this pair have the best sex-life of any of Saville’s adults!
But after the Mortons, the story is very different. Petronella Sterling, brought up by a father noticeably older than all the others after her mother died when she was young. Tom Ingles, whose entire family were killed by a German bomb, living with substitute parents that he consciously sees as Uncle and Aunt. Jenny Harman, whose mother has died at some never hinted-at time, long enough ago for her father to re-marry, providing her with an older and awkward stepmother who has very little sympathy for her yet who she has to call ‘Mother’. Jon Warrender, whose father was killed during the War, protective of his mother. Penny Warrender, whose parents play virtually no part in her lives, who has lived with her Aunt and her deceased Uncle for so long that they have become more effective parents to her. And Harriet Sparrow, whose parents may be kind and loving but about whom we know only literally no more than that they live in South London, Harriet whose devotion to her grandfather takes on a worryingly displaced aspect, as if the love she would normally have for her parents is instead lavished one generation higher.
Intriguing. Four children who have lost one or both parents, and the other two divorced from their parents either by circumstance or emotion. Let’s look more closely at each of them.
Peter Sterling – and though it was not unknown for certain girls in children’s fiction to be known by boy’s names, it is still odd that we so naturally think of a beautiful young woman by such a name – is defined in many ways by her not having had a mother. We don’t know exactly when she dies: at one point Saville suggests it was when Peter was a baby, but mainly it’s just when she was very young. That she has died is literally the only thing we know about her. This left Peter to be brought up entirely by her father, a fussy, old-fashioned, rather prim gentleman, as befits a father who is significantly older than any other parent in the series. Indeed, in Strangers at Witchend it’s clear that he’s very much a contemporary of Albert Sparrow, grandfather to Harriet, a girl no more than five years younger than Peter.
It’s from her father that Peter gets her characteristics of fearlessness, independence, self-reliance and her love for and understanding of nature, birds and animals. In the beginning, that goes a bit too far: in Mystery at Witchend she visibly has to struggle to accept the Morton children as equals whose wishes and desires are as important as her own. We’re told that Mrs Morton virtually adopts her as a second daughter on sight, and the relationship between her and Mrs Morton is always strong, but, and I find this significant, there’s never any sign of Peter acting as if Mrs Morton is a surrogate mother. Peter has done without a mother effectively all her life: she doesn’t need one by the age of fourteen.
When we’re introduced to Tom Ingles, it’s as an evacuee. His home has been destroyed by bombing, his family has been split up, his father is in the Army, his mother and baby brother have gone to the Somerset coast and he’s gone to live with his Aunt and Uncle. Oddly enough, and never explained, it’s his Aunt Betty who is his actual relative (even though her married name is the same as his) though we never learn whether she is related to his mother or his father.
Tom seems to be peculiarly unaffected by this complete separation from his family, far less than his separation from the London streets! Some of this is due to his naturally sturdy nature and some to the adventure this total change of scenery represents, but later on things become a little strange.
The War is still ongoing in Seven White Gates but by The Secret of Grey Walls peace has been restored and England is slowly getting back to normal. But Tom is still at Ingles Farm, and this is not just the immediate aftermath of peace. General demobilisation has taken place: Tom can go back to his family now, reunited. The fact that he hasn’t done so tells us that something rather serious has happened.
Surprisingly, and I think unhappily, Saville leaves it until The Secret of the Gorge, the eleventh book, not published until over a decade later and after four post-War appearances by Tom, before explaining as if in an aside, that his whole family was killed by German bombing in the War, when his father was on leave in Somerset.
I think it very poor that Saville waited so long before coming to this point. It’s not as if the excuse of not wanting to remind his readers of their own losses as a consequence of the War can be put forward because, in the preceding book, he had not only had Jon Warrender acknowledge his own father’s death at Normandy – and in admirable terms – but had made that very death fundamental to the entire story.
Not only that but, aside from this almost offhand mention in 1958, Saville makes no other mention of the loss of Tom’s entire family. It’s one thing to exclude any emotional response to being separated from his parents but another and much more suspect thing to have him make no response to their being wiped out. Even Jon shows a sense of loss at the death of his father, and Penny too expresses how much she misses her uncle but from Tom there is nothing: they might as well not have existed.
Jenny Harman is a third Lone Piner without a mother. We know she must have had one, it’s a biological imperative, but never at any time does Jenny herself, or her father, mention her. We have to draw inferences from negative information. Instead, she has a classical stepmother, not actually Evil, but definitely classifiable as Evil-Lite. Since Jenny appears to be used to her stepmother and seems to have adjusted to calling her ‘Mum’, we have to assume that, like her best friend, Peter, Jenny’s real mother has died when she was very young, perhaps no more than a baby. I find it difficult to believe that if Jenny’s mother had died when her daughter was five years old or more, Jenny would not be making comparisons between her and her stepmother, certainly in Seven White Gates when her father is away in the Army and unable to act as a buffer.
Of course, it’s possible that Mr Harman may have divorced his first wife for her actual adultery, the only circumstance in which he, not she, would have got custody of a young girl, but that would be to admit the existence of divorce in Malcolm Saville’s fictional universe, and I think we all know that that could never happen.
Except for a few brief moments in Lone Pine Five, and these when Jenny has brought in a paying guest, the second Mrs Harman displays no motherly instincts towards her stepdaughter. Indeed, to take it a bit further, her generally stiff and awkward nature and her categorisation as being older than her husband, makes the entire marriage seem unusual. When married couples do appear in the Lone Pine books, and indeed in other series, they’re generally portrayed as contented and even happy. In the case of the Harmans, it’s a puzzle why they ever married in the first place. Mr Harman seems more set to placate his second wife than enjoy a loving relationship with her, and if he re-married to provide his daughter with a mother, he got that seriously wrong.
Mention must be made of Mrs Harman’s final appearance in Where’s My Girl?, when she undertakes the long drive from Shropshire to Dartmoor on Jenny being kidnapped, rather than her husband. You might argue that she has done so out of a sense of duty, that Jenny may have undergone vile experiences that she would more naturally talk of with another woman, than her father, but that fails to take account of her genuine, but considerably belated, wish to be reconciled to her stepdaughter.
As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s a good, kind and generous impulse, but it fails because throughout the series, Saville has never even attempted to stand this woman up as a human being as opposed to a cardboard cut-out. The work to make this long overdue display of maternal concern has never been started.
Thus far we have had three Lone Piners who have lost their mothers before they could have any influence upon them in respect of the youngsters’ adventures. The three remaining members each have a living mother, but only Jon Warrender has a mother who is seen to bring him up and play the full part of a parent.
Jon’s situation is actually a reversal of those we’ve seen thus far. His mother – who in eventual course we will learn is named Margaret – is not only still alive but, when he is not away at school, provides him with a permanent home. But the marriage has been disrupted, and again by death, except that this time it is his father who is missing, literally in action.
It’s early yet, but we can already draw a conclusion that further examination will only sharpen, and that is that it is far from wise to be a mother in a Malcolm Saville book. With the major exception of Mrs Morton they are not welcome, not wanted and in far too many cases, not allowed to survive.
Why then the reversal with Jon’s parents? One answer would be that it is essential to the plot of The Gay Dolphin Adventure for Jon’s father, not his mother, to be killed off before the story begins. Without Mrs Warrender’s survival and, rather more pertinently, her need to make a living for herself, her son and niece, there is no Gay Dolphin Hotel and no Smugglers Treasure to hunt out. Captain Warrender survives Normandy, and simply goes back to whatever trade, profession or job he pursued in Civvy Street, and to wherever he and his family lived. The story, and the social structure of 1945, requires Saville to introduce another mother. It’s to be noted, however, that unlike Mrs Morton, Margaret Warrender has a full-time job that keeps her from being too maternally protective to limit her brood’s adventuring.
Much of the above applies in nearly the same degree to Penny Warrender. Penny does have living parents, but they are removed from her by nearly half the globe so their presence in and influence over her life is pretty negligible. It’s the old Colonial legacy that was still credible in 1945 but which almost immediately became anachronistic. The parents are out serving the Empire, but want their child educated in England, so when she’s not at boarding school, Penny lives with her other family, her Aunt, Uncle and cousin.
We’re not told at first how long this arrangement has been in existence, although later, when the situation has become barely tenable, it’s fixed as an impossible to credit three years. Penny treats her Aunt and Uncle as virtual parents, and her cousin as a sibling. She suffers the same loss as Jon in respect of his father’s death, and is as devoted to her Aunt as he is.
Penny’s own parents appear in one book only, Saucers over the Moor, returning to England for six month’s leave. Saville avoids the emotional reunion, restricting it to a cursory flashback and jumping almost immediately to an unstrained contentedness. This wasn’t the kind of thing he was there to write about, and at least half of his audience would probably have loathed it, but I think he should have made more of Penny’s emotions about having her parents back than he did. It’s also noticeable that, within no more than a day or two of arriving at the holiday home they’ve booked on Dartmoor, and no more than about ten days into their reunion with their only daughter whom they’ve not seen for three years, Mr and Mrs Warrender decide to push off into Cornwall and leave said daughter behind with no apparent separation anguish on either side. In fact, they seem more eager to take the Morton twins with them than their own flesh and blood!
Which leads us to the last and least decently used Lone Piner, Harriet Sparrow. Like Penny, Harriet has both parents alive and well. Unlike Penny, she lives with them, in South London. And that is the sum total of all we know about these two Sparrows and Harriet’s relationship with them. Pardon me: we also know that her grandfather, Albert disapproves of his daughter-in-law. Why, and whether or not he is justified in so feeling, is a complete mystery. But it’s noticeable that it’s his daughter-in-law that he disapproves of, not his son-in-law, when the question of which one is of no significance to the series.
And it should also be pointed out that whilst Penny does think of and miss her parents, here and there, Harriet only mentions her mother once and her father not at all, and then in purely matter-of-fact terms. All her love is reserved for Granpa Albert.
These are the Lone Piners, and the case would appear to be established already, but there is yet more evidence to consider. The Lone Piners are not the only children to appear in the series, and their parental relationships can’t be overlooked, though we don’t need to discuss these in the same depth. We should note at the outset that, with one exception, they are all only children.
Taking them in chronological order, we start with Fenella, the gypsy girl. She is an immediate exception because whatever we may think of the insecurity of her lifestyle, Fenella is blessed with parents who love and value and care for her, never falling short of that ideal. In contrast, though it seems absurd to treat Charles Sterling as a child, it can’t be overlooked that his long estrangement from his father is a consequence of the death of his mother.
In Lone Pine Five, Percy Smithson has both mother and father, neither of them an advertisement for ideal parenting. Mr Smithson is a leftover and vulgar War-time spiv, but Mrs Smithson, though equally vulgar and genuinely doting on her wastrel of a son, is held up as pathetic and ridiculous.
Arlette Duchelle of The Elusive Grasshopper not only has both parents but loves them dearly, and they her. Excited as she is about the foreign fields of England and her unexpected adventure, she has tears for being separated from them, and her enthusiasm for everything she sees is doubled by the thought of bringing her experiences and the curiosities of England back to them to enjoy.
Though she’s not a child, Charles’ future bride Trudie Whittaker is both an only child and a motherless one as well. And it’s noticeable that whilst she takes on the role of den mother to the Lone Piners whenever they’re at Seven Gates, there’s never any suggestion that Trudie might have or even want children of her own.
Dan Sturt, in Saucers over the Moor, is eighteen and, at that time, not yet an adult, but is another only child. Like Jon, his father has died and he lives with a supportive mother, but is becoming increasingly independent of her. Nicholas Whiteflower in The Secret of the Gorge, is an orphan under the wardship of an ageing spinster Aunt, a substitute mother with no experience of motherhood. Paul and Rose Channing in Sea Witch Comes Home, the only siblings apart from the Mortons, are yet again motherless. What’s more, their father is self-centred, unreliable and prone to abandoning the pair for his own entertainment. True, they have an Aunt living with them, who spends the whole book on a coach trip, but who is quite clearly there as a housekeeper and not for any emotional support.
Johann Schmidt of Not Scarlet But Gold is an orphan who never knew his father and whose mother has died, whilst George Crump of Treasure at Amorys is another from the single child of single parent mould, as is Ned Stacey of Man with Three Fingers. Both these two stand out as having surviving mothers, but both mothers are presented as fat, unintelligent and lacking completely in parenting ability. Ned, being older, and being Tom’s friend, is possessed of energy and ambition that George will never have.
Which leaves us only Kevin Smith in Strangers at Witchend, about whom I confess I have a prejudice. As if Saville has locked himself into relationships, he’s presented as a boyfriend for Harriet, and a particularly unworthy one at that. Kevin has been effectively abandoned by his aggressive criminal father and his fat, blowsy mother, another useless parent in the tradition of George Crump and Ned Stacey’s mother. Neither parent has anything in their favour, yet because Saville’s conservative and Christian beliefs won’t allow him to produce a broken family, Kevin must go back to them, in defiance of all real circumstances.
To achieve this, Kevin’s father has to have his anger and nastiness suddenly alibied to an illness that will vanish when he starts taking his medicine, as he promises to do whilst, despite being a professional criminal who has been adulterating gold and silver, as well as having committed crimes the Police haven’t associated him with, will get off without a prison sentence. Talk about defying reality!

Saville Alpine

These then are the examples Malcolm Saville has offered throughout the whole length of his career, thirty-five years and twenty books. We have seen enough already to make it extremely difficult to deny certain consistent themes. But this is one series only. Are these a peculiarity of the Lone Pine Club alone? For this, we need to consider the other series written by Saville for his older readers.
Saville’s third novel, published in 1945, was his first outside the Lone Pine Club series but the Michael and Mary books were aimed at younger readers so we next look to the Jillies series, beginning in 1948 with Redshank’s Warning and aimed at the same age group as David Morton and Peter Sterling.
The Jillies series was the most compact of Saville’s career, six books written in the space of as many years, granting it the dubious honour of being the first series he concluded. Though the books had similar characteristics to the Lone Pine Club, they were much simpler, with only five characters, two families and no only children.
The series takes its name from the Jillion family, Mandy, Prue and Tim. These three are a lively, unorthodox and extrovert bunch, and Saville in private correspondence confirmed that he found them much more fun to write about, which shows. The Jillies are the life of the books and it is a life we enjoy with them.
What’s the first thing that we notice? The Jillies’ mother is dead. This at least is secured to a concrete time-line, three years prior, long enough for her to have been of real influence on her children, though we known nothing of her save that Prue takes after her mother in looks, and perhaps in temperament, though this is purely inference. The children’s father, significantly, is known by the nickname his younger daughter has created for him, JD (Jilly Darling). He’s an artist but as a father he’s very much in the mould of Richard Channing, though impractical rather than selfish. He loves his children and takes them seriously, but as a competent father he’s not in the running.
Thank heaven then for Mandy. Though she was only twelve/thirteen when she lost her mother, Mandy has taken over as substitute mother to her younger siblings, and done a much better job of it than her only adult equivalent, not only exerting authority over Prue and Tim but keeping their loyalty as well. And all without disrupting her schoolwork or sports!
It’s all fundamental to what makes Mandy Mandy: her self-reliance, her mental confidence, her forthrightness and her determination to be taken – and treated – seriously. Mandy is still a schoolgirl, with the ability to switch back into being just that, but she is older than her years because she’s had to be, and even when she makes mistakes, she remains unabashed, because she’s earned her pride.
The other family, the Standings, Guy and Mark, are deliberately intended as contrasts. They’re the same ages as the two Jillion girls (though where Guy and Mandy obviously fancy each other like mad, the only instance of possible affection between the younger pair comes when Prue flings herself on Mark in The Luck of Sallowby, when he returns from being kidnapped).
The Jillies are meant to be an unconventional family, to which the absence of their mother is intended to contribute. The Standings therefore are conventional, with both parents and a more stable and better off home. However, the Standing parents appear in only two books, and otherwise are happy to let their boys go off miles away from the family hearth, most notably at Xmas (Two Fair Plaits). And mother and father are very different characters, again to an extent that you wonder what they first saw in each other. Mr Standing is an easy-going, relaxed and rounded man who has seen Mandy and is clearly very happy to encourage his older son to meet her as often as possible.
But Mrs Standing is a very different kettle of fish. She’s socially conscious but, more importantly, she’s stiff, humourless and completely lacking in empathy. She doesn’t like her boys associating with the slapdash and more common Jillies, doesn’t approve of, or perhaps rather understand their independent spirit and willingness to rough it, but on the other hand can be bribed into letting them shoot off to spend Xmas with virtual strangers by the prospect of spending her own Xmas in a Hotel, no doubt an upmarket one.
Two families: one without a mother, the other with one who makes up a very unflattering picture of maternity.
As there are only six books, there is correspondingly a limited number of other children to survey. No less than three appear in Two Fair Plaits: the kidnap victim, Belinda Ferguson, whose mother is dead and who has to leave her father behind to spend Xmas with her grandmother, Joyce, the bargee’s daughter, a nasty and cruel piece of work taking her cue from her parents, and Sandy Barton, the Docklands kid, a working class nipper brought up by honest, hard-working parents who know their place: all three are only children once more.
Nicholas Thornton in Strangers at Snowfell is no child, but is presented to us as yet one more character who is both an only child and whose mother has passed away.
In contrast, Lizbeth Schmidt, in The Sign of the Alpine Rose, has an elder but rather taciturn brother but for most of the story, has only the one parent. This time it’s her mother, and the circumstances of the story mean that it has to be her mother that has been bringing her up, because the plot revolves around her missing father being a War prisoner whose return from captivity is the object of the adventure.
Francis Curtis in The Luck of Sallowby is once again an only child, and one with presumably both parents, we just don’t get to see anything of his mother, whilst Patricia in The Ambermere Treasure, is yet one more only child, terrified that her father, whom she loves, is going to die a long way away and that she will not get to see him before he does. Her mother is away with her father, so once again the woman is off the scene. The evidence stacks up.

Saville Maryknoll

Between the two middle books of the Jillies series, Saville started his fourth series, featuring the Buckinghams, sometimes called the Fabulous Buckinghams. Like the Jillies, this new series was aimed at the same mid-level audience, featured two families and consisted of six books but there the comparisons fall short, because the Buckinghams series played out over twenty-five years, including a seventeen year gap with only one book to appear during a break that must twice have seemed that the series had been concluded.
There’s an even smaller cast of characters in this series, just three, being Juliet and Simon Buckingham and their half-Polish friend Charles Renislau. And, for a wonder, the children all have mothers on the scene! That’s not to say that the pattern has changed in any substantial way, for it hasn’t. Juliet and Simon live with their father and mother, but after an opening chapter featuring the Buckinghams at home and meeting the deliberately mysterious Charles for the first time, Mrs Buckingham drops out of proceedings until the final chapter as her two children go off on a cycling/sleeping rough holiday.
And Charles lives with his mother, though his circumstances are very different and, for almost all the first book, he believes his father is dead, a Polish violinist/composer whose talent and violin Charles has inherited, but a patriot killed in the defence of his country in 1939.That this isn’t going to be so is clear to any astute reader from the moment they learn that Mrs Renislau has gone abroad on a mysterious mission. Charles is afraid she is sick and has gone to die in a European Sanitorium, but though the pages of Saville’s books are littered with dead mothers and other parents, each one of them has had the decency to die and get any trauma over and done with well before the book starts: no-one will have the temerity to die during a story.
But for the moment, Charles’ mother is absent and only comes into it in the final chapter, by which time we know that his father Alex is alive and is about to be restored to his loving son.
That’s the situation in the first book, but it’s what follows that is, if anything, more interesting. Both Mrs Buckingham and Mrs Renislau survive to the end of the series, though neither acquire first names to match those of their respective spouses, and in the remaining five books, the ladies make only one appearance between them.
This is Mrs Renislau in The Buckinghams at Ravenswyke, when Juliet and Simon come up from Shropshire to the North Yorks Moors for a holiday without their parents. After that though, Mrs Renislau, who has suffered the agonies of separation from her husband, believing him to be dead for a decade, and who has had him restored, completely vanishes. Her husband and her son spend their lives permanently on tour, and she doesn’t bother accompanying them, not even as far as London.
As for Mrs Buckingham, it’s interesting to note that their four remaining adventures see them go off twice with their bachelor Uncle Joe, the artist, but also twice with their thriller writer father, James. But on neither of these occasions does their mother join the party, not even for a stay in Amsterdam. Instead, she makes excuses both times to avoid joining them which, in the works of another writer, could perhaps lead to unworthy suspicions as to what she’s doing behind their backs!
As to guest children, there are only two, who both appear in The Long Passage. Little Sarah has lost her father and is having to move to smaller accommodation with her widowed mother, whilst the American, Maisie, has two stereotypical Malcolm Saville American parents, but is very much the product of a nuclear family: both girls are, needless to say, only children.
Though they’re neither of them children, it’s interesting to note two other characters in the series whose parentage is relevant. In A Palace for the Buckinghams, the shiftless and unpleasant Barry Salter is both a thief and a lazy lout, but he is also an only child whose mother has died after a second marriage, leaving him to be thrown out by his stepfather. And Carla Jensen in Diamond in the Sky is in the same position, her mother having recently died and her relationship with her stepfather by no means cordial, though in her case she is the one who wants to terminate contact.

Saville Tuscany

For completeness’ sake, I do want to cast a brief eye at the Marston Baines series, though this was written for older teenagers and features older characters, who are young adults rather than children.
Aside from the adult and bachelor titular hero, the seven books of the series feature appearances by eight people of University age or slightly older, who during the series form into four couples. There is also a young boy in one book.
Of the young adults, we learn about the parentage of only three, and needless to say they have all lost a parent, the two young women their mother, and Simon Baines, the real main character of the series, his father. With one exception, each of these characters is an only child, though that’s very much a matter of assumption, based on not one of them ever mentioning a possible sibling.
Running through these quickly, Simon Baines begins the series by having lost his father to a car crash only two months prior. This leads to an invitation to join his estranged Uncle Marston in Tuscany to recuperate mentally (Simon’s father ‘did not approve’ of his brother, for reasons never given: given that Marston was a very successful writer of thrillers who has lived in Italy for a dozen years, it comes over as awkward, but maybe the late Mr Baines also knew his brother was a British spy). Simon goes abroad, leaving his mother behind to cope with having lost her husband without any support from her son, but the reader needn’t worry: we shall never see her or hear from her again.
Both Annabelle Corret, who appears in The Purple Valley and Power of Three, and Francesca Brindisi of Dark Danger and The Dagger and the Flame are girls who’ve lost their mothers before their first appearances, though they both have loving and supportive fathers. Francesca is the odd one out in the set as having a younger brother Pietro, who only appears in the first book but makes enough of an irritating impression there to do for both.
Oddly enough, one other of this mixed group not only has both parents but we see both father and mother, albeit in different books and countries. Rosina Conway, who becomes engaged to marry Simon, makes her debut in Three Towers in Tuscany, whilst on holiday in Italy, but her industrialist father makes a separate appearance back in England, complaining of industrial unrest, just before Marston’s real job is revealed to the reader.
In contrast, when Rosina reappears in White Fire, set on Mallorca, she is on holiday with her mother, a demanding hypochondriac, and a woman who leaves no good impression, being primarily self-centred. The same book also features the young boy I mentioned, William Adams, in respect of whom Rosina has become a kind of informal nanny. William, like her, has two parents but is here with one, his workaholic (and criminal) father who has virtually no time to spare for him, whilst his mother is somewhere else entirely, with no explanation why she isn’t part of the family or why she has left her young son.
So there we have it. Four series, thirty-nine books, thirty-six children, eight young adults and a smattering of other characters whose parentage and family status we are exposed to along the way. Of those children a total of twenty-four, two-thirds, are only children, as are seven of the young adults. The only adult characters mentioned as having siblings are James and Joe Buckingham, Jon and Penny’s respective fathers, who were brothers, and Jasper and Micah Sterling.
Of these same children, seventeen, under a half, have both parents living, though Penny Warrender and Harriet Sparrow’s parents pay either no, or a very limited part in their lives as we see them. Six others have a mother but no father, two of whom are either ineffectual or never seen.
In contrast, twelve characters have a father but no mother, a condition that also applies to three adults. Tom Ingles, Nicholas Whitefeather and Johann Schmidt have lost both parents. The mothers of Kevin Smith, the Standings, the Buckinghams, Charles Renislau and young William Adams play little or no part in their lives
These are just figures, but figures that represent thirty-five years of writing and thirty-nine books. This is not the result of deliberate planning. This is evidence of an unconscious bias, perhaps a conscious decision, on Malcolm Saville’s part, to exclude mothers in only the tiniest number of cases, by making them invisible, or putting them out of the way or, which is where things start to get faintly disturbing, killing them off beforehand.
What lies behind this? Part of it is authorial convenience: parents are a mixed blessing in children’s fiction, a threat to independence and adventure, and yet a safe haven to return to, reassuring figures. But whilst statistics are never entirely the story on their own, what we have here suggests something deeper. Of the starring roles, only the Mortons and Jon Warrender have mothers who play an active role in their lives. The Buckinghams and Charles Renislau start with active mothers but these fade completely very early on. Of the rest, those who have mothers are rarely if ever seen with them.
We know Malcolm Saville to be deeply Conservative, conservative and Christian. In this, he was a man of his time, born in 1901, brought up in stricter, more disciplined times. Remember too that, if we admit Swallows and Amazons in its rightful place as the progenitor of the Children’s Holiday Adventure, the genre itself was less than fifteen years old when he wrote Mystery at Witchend. All these point to a man whose instincts were very masculine oriented, notwithstanding the care he took in creating believable and admirable female characters.
But girls or women were still inferior to boys. They lacked strength, physical and mental, they were affected by emotion, they lacked initiative and rationality. They deferred to boys. Wherever there is a pairing in any of the series we’ve looked at, in every case the boy is older than the girl. These are automatic assumptions on Saville’s part, as are the premises of his appeal to both genders: the boys read for the adventures, the girls for the relationships.
That attitude carries over into everyone’s parentage. Fathers are to be looked up to, but mothers are next to invisible, because mothers, being female, automatically equate adventures with danger and will restrict and hinder their children’s activities. Twice, Mrs Morton openly expresses her dislike of her own children and their friends getting involved with crooks and the Police. In contrast, only once – and that in the penultimate book – does Mr Morton, privately and contingently – worry about whether they should be let out alone, and by now we’re discussing seventeen year olds.
So mothers are to be excluded. They’re wet blankets, worriers, obstacles. They’re not wanted. But why do so many of them have to have been killed off, and leave no trace of ever having influenced their children? Mrs Sterling. The first Mrs Harman. Mrs Jillion. Madame Corret. Countess Brindisi. This persistence with killing off so many mothers only places greater emphasis on those others who have survived but who might as well be dead for all they play any part in their children’s lives.
The predominance of this syndrome suggests to me that Saville was actually not conscious of it. He didn’t want mothers playing a part in his characters’ stories – except for Mrs Morton, whose avatar was his wife – and given his chauvinistic instincts, it may have just seemed easier to have them drop dead before page 1 than to clog up his story with even a minimum bit of fussing.
As to his aversion to giving his characters siblings, I have no suggestions to make. The Mortons, the Channings, the Jillions, the Standings, the Buckinghams and Francesca Brindisi are all siblings but everybody else is an only child. Saville could certainly write for families, and among the Lone Piners there seems to be a theme of lonely children coming together to bond in the Club as a substitute family, but otherwise, his insistence upon ‘onlies’ is curious. Unless we’re meant to read something into his own family of four children, that is.
So there you have it. I am not well versed in the world of children’s fiction, so I don’t know how Saville compares to the mass of his contemporaries. Those with whom I am familiar in any degree – Blyton, Ransome, Trease, Rowe Townsend – seem perfectly happy with extended families in the way that Saville is not in the books covered here. I believe he was much more attuned to families in the series aimed at younger readers, where the danger was much reduced, but this I have to take on hearsay.
Nevertheless, I certainly wouldn’t agree to be a mother appearing in a Malcolm Saville book, not for a million pounds!

A Riddle of Joy: Patricia McKillip R.I.P.

This is not so much late as antedeluvian, but I have only just this moment learned that Patricia Killip, a writer of fantas who was once a very strong favourite of mine, passed away as long ago as May 2022. I can’t let the knowledge pass without paying tribute to her.

My first experience of Ms McKillip was in the early Eighties when a friend pointed me towards her ‘Riddle of Stars’ trilogy, three books published between 1976 and 1979. I loved them. I still do. They are among my favourite works of fantasy and I own them in a beautiful hardback and dustjacket set. The Lord of the Rings, The Book of the New Sun, A Riddle of Stars and The Fionavar Tapestry. These are the works that have stayed in my imagination throughout the near thirty years since I lost interest in reading fantasy.

Needless to say, once I’d read this trilogy, I sought out other books by McKillip. Prior to this she had written two children’s books and two short fantasy novels. I acquired and enjoyed each of these. As new books appeared, I bought them eagerly, relishing the rmantic prose, the imagination, the atmosphere she conjured up. From 1995’s The Book of Atrix Wolf her novels were published in beautiful, small hardbacks with fantastically lush and detailed cover paintings that made them beautiful objects. These were import copies, stocked by the Manchester Deansgate branch of Waterstone’s, who had a great import selection.

But after half a dozen of these, with my overwhelming interest in fantasy pretty much expired, I brought my collection – complete to that point – to an end. And over time I sold the books. Not all of them. In addition to the Riddlemaster Trilogy (the omnibus has multiple names) I have kept one of those earlier fantasy books, The Throme of the Erril of Sherril and what I believe was McKillip’s only SF novel, Fool’s Run.

But for a very long time I was as avid a reader as anyone could be, and though I have sold off many more books than I kept, I only have good memories of reading Patricia McKillip’s books, and I can’t let learning of her passing go by without saying how much enjoyment I had from her writing. I will have to re-read the Riddlemaster again and soon. Thank you, Ma’am, and sleep tight.