Thursday, January 28, 2010

Traitor's Purse by Margery Allingham (Felony and Mayhem Part 1)

Traitor's Purse by Margery Allingham (Felony & Mayhem, October 2009)

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I will take a stand and say that the classic mysteries brought back into print by Felony & Mayhem Press (the brilliant publishing offshoot of downtown Manhattan's priceless Partners & Crime Bookstore) are one of the great small pleasures of my life. The ALP tends to buy the books in F&M's Vintage series for me, for special occasions or as a surprise, and these are always occasions for pure delight. Having read nearly every Agatha Christie novel ever written, it's wonderful to discover that I haven't reached the end of the treasure trove of early 20th century mysteries.

One of the pleasures of the Vintage mysteries is the sense of culture shock -- or cultural discovery -- the Western world in their pages presents. Unlike Christie, who has been consistently in print and most likely edited to remain comprehensible to contemporary readers, the works of Elizabeth Daly, Margery Allingham, and the like retain the cultural specifics of their time. This means that stories of 1940s New York or Britain contain not only familiar extinct delights like dressing for dinner, men with hats, and hired help in even fairly modest households, but also rituals and niceties I can only speculate about. Why is it odd that the paid companion spoke that way? What does the state of the front lawn signify? How do you know that someone is wearing clothes that don't belong to them? What does it mean when the protagonists exchange significant glances over the train schedule, or someone's shoes, or the contents of an umbrella stand or a corner shop? It's like entering an exotic, highly civilized foreign country -- whether New York or London, the citizens' habits and traditions are equally unfamiliar at a distance of 80 years.

The sense of dislocation is even more pronounced, but also eased somewhat, in Traitor's Purse, the 11th title in Margery Allingham's series featuring British policeman/gentleman sleuth Albert Campion. I'd never read any of the other Campion books when this one was gifted to me -- but luckily, in this volume Campion wakes up on page 1 suffering from amnesia, so he doesn't know his own backstory either. And not only is he trying to figure out who he is and what he does, but he's been plopped down in the middle of a mysterious matter of wartime National Security, and apparently someone wants him to hang for killing a cop. Then there's the matter of a woman named Amanda who aids him, whom he thinks may be his wife -- but who turns out to be his long-time fiance, who has just decided to call off the wedding. And in the meantime he has to make polite dinner party conversation with people whom he supposedly knows, so as not to give away his mission or his mental state.

It's all pleasantly excruciating, and of course it comes out all right. The villain is satisfyingly obvious, but the scheme is quite original and not something that would have occurred to me as a matter of national security. The competence of Campion, his "lower-class" right-hand man Lugg, and his left-hand girl Lady Amanda (who sticks by him in his mission despite his having strung her along romantically for eight years, apparently), is gratifying in the extreme.

My only quibble with the book comes at the end, when the plot has been foiled and Campion's memory has been finally restored. After realizing while amnesiac that he's been an ass to his fiance all this time, and having his deep feelings for her roiling under every action sequence, and after she's decided to take him back, their reconciliation is disappointingly perfunctory. But maybe that's a remnant of British wartime sensibilities too -- stiff upper lip, no big displays of emotion, all that sort of thing. It's a story profoundly of its time -- in its fears, its virtues, and its relationships. It makes for not only suspenseful reading, but a plunge into a different world.

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

Note to readers, if there still are any about: I've taken a long hiatus from regular posts on this blog, for the simple reason that I've realized the dream I wrote about in my very first post and opened a bookstore -- which, it turns out, takes up a lot of one's time and energy. But I miss flexing my writing muscles a bit, and I find that sometimes the best relief from the stresses of working in the book industry is the books themselves. So I'm returning to this blog and changing its mission just a little. Rather than speculating about the state and future of the book industry and/or chronicling the events of the literary world (both of which are done more competently by the bloggers streaming down the right-hand side of this page), I'd like to just write a little about what I've been reading. I'll try to write something about every book I read this year, more or less in the order encountered. I look forward to it as a kind of readerly/writerly practice. Hope it's fun for you too.

The Unnamed
by Joshua Ferris
(Regan Arthur Books, December 2009)

I didn't read Josh Ferris' breakout debut novel, Then We Came To The End -- and from what I've heard from other readers, this may have made it easier for me to love his second, The Unnamed. TWCTTE had a scrim of office humor and social satire, but laughs are pretty scarce in The Unnamed -- so readers who loved the first book and were looking forward to something similar in the second seem to be somewhat disappointed. I wasn't disappointed. If it makes any sense, I was blown away in slow motion.

I started this book slowly, and later I had to put it down for a while, but not for the same reason. The story starts somewhat quietly, and it only kept me reading by the strength of his sentences and the odd believability of his privileged characters (a corporate lawyer and his pretty wife). Then it started to break my heart, over and over. The premise is pretty well known by now: the husband, Tim, is compelled to walk, far, often, and unexpectedly, and doesn't know whether his problem is psychological, physical, real or imaginary. As one review I read pointed out, this can be read as a metaphor for disease or for addiction, or just as a strange unexplainable thing all its own. Ferris' looping, time-shifting narrative, in which the condition flares up, recedes, seems to disappear, then comes back again with a vengeance, echoes painfully the cycles that physical or psychological diseases can follow. It all just keeps happening again and again, and the family strains against it, and the body screams in frustration, and the job and social life falls apart, and cures are promising until they're not, and eventually it ends, either in wellness or in death. Tim and his wife and his daughter, along with his law firm office mates and the minor characters he encounters, are painted with skillfull realism, but I think there's also a strain of fatalist magic realism through the story. Or maybe it's just that the disease/condition makes for an unwilling position of outside observation that makes all ordinary life seem strange and full of odd meanings, like a fever dream.

I had to set this book aside for a while over the holidays, because things in the story started to get so bad I couldn't keep reading it and still be good company. (It was around the part where Tim and his body/mind start to argue with each other about the existence of God, and Tim's protest against the demands of the physical results in the loss of some fingers, and I realized that this wasn't going to end well.) I finally picked it up again in January and finished it in a bar, by myself. It was the perfect place to take in the slow winding down of the story, all the ideas and experiences that filled it, and accept them, as humans have no choice but to do.

I've met Josh Ferris at a couple of events for anthologies in which he was included, and I remember thinking of him, half-humorously, as a very nice young man. I'm now somewhat in awe of his talent as a writer and the depth of his insight. This is a story like King Lear, in which one rather arrogant, powerful man's reduction to nothing but a shivering body is an irresistibly truthful portrayal of the nature of human life. That's not all there is to the story, in either of these texts or in life, but it's a deep and tough part of it to grapple with successfully, and Ferris has done it. I'm grateful for this book for the way it broke my heart.