Thursday, July 27, 2017

GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS & WAS IT MURDER? – James Hilton

TWICE! 
I chose these two mediocre novels by James Hilton in the warm glow of the first two of his novels I read—Lost Horizon and Random Harvest. Had it been Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Was it Murder? first, and were Lost Horizon not so famous, I likely would as yet be unread of anything by James Hilton. I'm glad it worked out this way, although I do not have much enthusiasm for writing about the two lesser books. I find no pleasure in panning books I should have exercised more self-discipline than to read at all. In fact it embarrasses me. So I will take a tip from British custom and try muddling on through with a stiff upper lip, whatever the hell that is.

I could say the very narrow nostriled pip pip Britishness of the characters irritated me into a bad mood, which certainly is part of the problem--I'll give some examples, especially from Murder. But the more I've thought about it the more I've come to believe it was story that made the difference.
In Chips, which Hilton wrote in a week and is only 25 pages, we follow the mediocre career of a teacher named Chipping in a mediocre private school (which the Brits call “public”). Chipping, called “Chips” by everyone, is an introverted fellow whose plodding determination and a bit of good luck eventually endear him as a personal institution. In overdoing Chips's habit of breaking up his speech with hmphs, Hilton succeeded in annoying me to the point I would cringe whenever poor Chips started talking. I might even have shouted at least once, “OKAY, WE GET IT, HMPH!!Chips nonetheless caught the sentimental eye of Hollywood, which turned out several successful adaptations, one of them a musical with Peter O'Toole and Petula Clark.

Two years earlier one of Hilton's first novels—and his only detective novel--then titled Murder at School, was published under a pseudonym. The title was later changed to Was it Murder?, and even later, back and forth between the two titles. I learned all of this from an excellent review posted five years ago by my friend Sergio on his blog Tipping My Fedora. Safe to say that had I seen his review before reading Was it Murder?, I would have passed on the novel. Sergio gave it only 2.5 tips of his hat out of a possible 5, albeit he's tough to please—I cannot recall any of his reviews I've seen receiving 5 tips.
As I've frequently confessed, my tendency to identify with protagonists compromises my critical faculties, meaning I probably shouldn't be reviewing any fiction whatsoever. And I don't, really. I write about what I like or don't like, based solely on the effect a novel or story has on me. I have a vague familiarity with such terms as “Golden Age” and “modern” and “post modern” and perhaps “post post modern,” if such exists, but those distinctions are out of my purview. Were I a British public school “old boy”, though, such terminology would bloody well be de rigueur, don'tcha know.
As to my identifying with the main characters, Chips made me queasy, his growing old in passive mediocrity. I have enough stubborn Norwegian DNA in me to resist so meek a surrender. With Colin Revell, the amateur detective in Murder, I squirmed with embarrassment. This, from the get-go:
A mystery always attracted him. Anything attracted him, in fact, that brought with it the possibility of being drawn into some new vortex of interest. His soul yearned with Byronic intensity for something to happen to it. He was almost twenty-eight, and so far he seemed to have done nothing in life except win the Newdigate, give a terrifying study of the Jew in the O.U.D.S. production of The Merchant of Venice, publish a novel (of course he had done that), and rake in an unexpected tenner for inventing the last line of a limerick about somebody’s chewing-gum.
Of course, he had published a novel...grrrr... I'd hoped, when I read that paragraph, that Murder might turn out to be satiric, and that the fop “detective” would entertain me in the manner of, say, Peter Sellers in his Pink Panther Inspector Clouseau disguise. Alas, 'twas not to be, despite the occasional glimmer of what may have been Hilton's random attempts at drollery. Apparently wit was absent from among the tools in his skill set—unless, of course, his humor was so precisely British it sailed untouched over my artless American head. Then there's this, which I include especially as a caveat for my two faithful female readers: “A man might have done it, if ever a man had had her type of genius to begin with. But her nerve was only a woman’s.” That's a Scotland Yard detective speaking, Yvette and Tracy, and he's no Fat Ollie Weeks parody of Archie Bunker, at least not in this brief role. It's a straight, dispassionate line, provoking nary an arched eyebrow from Revell or the conversation's other Scotland Yard detective. Good ol' boys all three, plus their literary creator.
The villain James Hilton
Then again, Murder was written in 1931, when females were deemed too delicate to open screw-top jars when a handy male was present.
As we have arrived at the place where I'm to give you some idea of the plot, I'm going to skimp, leaving you to read Sergio's account, right here. I shall say mostly what I didn't like about it: Too simple, for me, and unnecessarily complicated in Revell's unlikable mind. He spends may too much time agonizing over theories and doing precious little detecting. Scotland Yard's entry to the case adds some ballast, but as we're viewing things from Revell's arrogantly callow, i.e. aggressively gullible, perspective, the real cops seem more adjunctive than in charge. There are too few suspects. Even I, who's easily stumped by mysteries even the least Sherlockian of readers can solve, had this one figured out while Revell's theories were still still roiling about in his Walter Mitty imagination. Had he been Walter Mitty I might now be stifling laughter whilst gushing my enthusiasm on the page.
If you're wondering how a fop like Revell got into a murder investigation, I can give you a clue: The school's headmaster invited him to look into the strange death of a student. His name had come up as an alumnus of the boy's school with a reputation at Oxford for solving mysteries. The only mystery Revell mentions involved recovering a stolen document from the college library. As to what else our boy detective might have been up to during his school days, I leave you with this little ditty he's just finished writing, which kicks off this pretentious, muddled excuse for a novel:

Pilate might well have added: “What is youth?”—
And so the modern father too may wonder,
Faintly remembering his own, forsooth,
But feeling it would be an awful blunder
To tell his sons a tenth part of the truth
About the sex-temptations he came under.
Therefore, in England now, on every hand,
This proper study of mankind is banned.

My gratitude to you for having read this far. Please accept my sincere and heartfelt apology.


[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]




Thursday, July 20, 2017

WHERE THE MONEY WAS -- Willie Sutton with Edward Linn

"Willie's got friends." My dad was reading to us from the Milwaukee Journal about the killing of Arnold Schuster, the man who'd recognized a notorious fugitive bank robber on a New York City subway, followed him to a garage in Brooklyn, and flagged down a police car. The flurry of publicity following the arrest of Willie "The Actor" Sutton included media interviews with Schuster, who'd come forward to claim what he believed would be a sizeable reward. That's when the threatening calls and letters started coming to his parents' home, where the 24-year-old Coast Guard veteran lived. The one my dad read to us stuck in my head like a permanent earworm. This was early March, 1952, and I was ten.
Arnold Schuster (right)
Willie Sutton and John Dillinger were the two famous criminals who invaded and stuck in my imagination growing up in a small Wisconsin town. Dillinger and a girlfriend reputedly had spent a night in the small hotel my dad eventually bought for his law practice. What stayed with me about Dillinger was that and the romantic drama of his death coming out of the Biograph Theater in Chicago. With Sutton it was "Willie's got friends." And the irony is that before Schuster's murder Sutton and his attorneys thought he had a good chance of winning an acquittal in the robbery trial he was facing. Popular opinion celebrated this lone robber, who, although he used guns as props, never shot or hurt anyone. Everything changed after the murder, as Sutton predicted it would when he learned Schuster'd been killed. "Oh my God," he said after the prison warden gave him the news. "This sinks me."
It did as he predicted, the taint by association sunk him good, as public goodwill and the trial jury turned against him. No one was ever convicted in Schuster's killing, which haunted Sutton the rest of his life. So he claims in Where the Money Was, the memoir he co-wrote with celebrity ghostwriter Edward Linn. Despite the sinking at that time, though, Sutton would rise and sink and rise and sink over and over until he died a free man at age seventy-nine. By then his Robin Hood popularity had returned despite his insistence he'd never thought of himself in that role.
"Not in my wildest dreams," he says in the book, "had I ever looked upon bank robbery as a revolutionary act, and busting out of jail had no social significance to me whatsoever. Hell, I was a professional thief. I wasn’t trying to make the world better for anybody except myself." That's likely truthful, as he saw himself, but in reading his story it's not hard to understand how others came to see the more romantic version. The others inluded Pete Hamill, New York Post columnist, who rallied support for a pardon as time was running out for one of Sutton's legs, which needed surgery or amputation to save his life. Hamill's open letter to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller came out two days before Christmas 1969.
"One by one, he hit every significant point: my age, my health, the thirty-five years I had already spent in prison, and the undisputed fact that I had never hurt anyone," Sutton said. "But more than that, he was able to hit exactly the right tone":

“We know what Willie did, but then he never made any secret of it. . . . When asked for an occupation, he once told a judge: ‘It was of an illegal nature. It was bank robbing.’ There were times when he was less than cooperative with authorities, but this was at least based upon principle. . . .
“In his extracurricular activities he was always a gentleman, a suave dresser, an expert on psychology, Irish history, and chess, and a gallant with women. He had an aversion to steam table food to be sure and three times broke out of jail. . . .”
"I don’t know whether Katherine’s letter or the Hamill column had any effect," he wrote, referring to a stinging appeal one of his attorneys, Katherine Spyros Bitses, also sent to Rockefeller and the newspapers, "But I don’t know that they didn’t, either. All I do know is that a few hours later they practically threw me out of the place.”
I took twenty-five pages of notes as I read Where the Money Was, and this could easily become the longest book report I've ever written. I'll try to keep it under control—my enthusiasm, that is. To avoid appearing too gullible. And yet, even if only half of what Sutton says in the book is true, it's still an account of one of the most amazing human beings I know of. About halfway through I started thinking, this guy had the soul of Mosby! For years I've been in awe of the guts, pluck, prowess, and pure joie de vivre of the Confederacy's Gray Ghost, Col. John Singleton Mosby, who, among his many astonishing feats, ran off a squadron of Pennsylvania cavalry singlehandedly one afternoon by pretending he had his own squadron just below the crest of the hill he'd reached. He swung his saber and charged down the hill, Rebel yelling, and the Yankees turned tail and fled.
Here's Sutton, dressed as a cop, on his way to rob a bank. He's crossing the street when a real police captain chews him out for...well, let's let Willie tell it:
While I was crossing a busy intersection in Philadelphia in my uniform...I was hailed down by a police cruiser. A captain got out and bawled the hell out of me for having a button loose on my collar. I felt just awful about it—yes, sir; you’re right, sir; an absolute disgrace, sir—not because a police officer had stopped me right across from the bank I was about to rob but because I was being censured by a superior. I was a very conscientious cop right up to the time I stopped being a cop and started being a thief...
On two separate occasions, motorists asked me if it would be all right to leave their car in a no-parking zone for a couple of minutes—they were just going to run in and pick something up. I lectured them severely. How could they ask a policeman for permission to violate a city ordinance? 'Now if you happened to ride around the block,' I told them, 'I might not be here when you got back.'”
Willie had a sense of humor that could have made him a star had he not preferred the challenge of robbing banks. Here's something that would have brought the house down had he delivered it in a stand-up routine at Second City:
A trio of painters once arrived unexpectedly while I was taking a bank in Pennsylvania, and I simply told them to spread out their drop-cloths and go to work. 'The pay you guys get, the bank can’t afford to have you hanging around doing nothing. They’re insured against bank robbers but nobody would insure them against you robbers.' All during the robbery I was able to keep up a line of chatter about how I could have retired by now if we bank robbers had as strong a union as they did. Everybody had a good time, and by the time we walked out the door with the money they had one of the walls completely painted.”
The guy's so good I hardly have to write anything myself, just sort of stitch together some of his better stuff—which really isn't so easy, because so much of his stuff is so good. Even the unfunny part about the beating he took that nearly killed him. His description is so long I can only put part of it here, but it's enough to give you an idea of the toughness of this funny, charming, brilliant robber:
So they took me down two flights of stairs to the target room in the subbasement. A long narrow room, with three or four bull’s-eyes at the far end, and a long wooden table just inside the door. Soundproof. They could kill you and nobody would hear you hollering. After I had been ordered to strip, my hands were cuffed behind my back and I was picked up and thrown on top of the table with my stomach sticking up. There were six detectives there under the command of McPhee. One of them held me around the neck, a couple of them held my shoulders, and two others held my feet. McPhee and the other detective stood on opposite sides of the table, and with long rubber hoses they started to beat me methodically from my private parts all the way up to my neck. Then they turned me over and beat another tattoo on my back. When they were finished, my skin was completely black. I was one solid contusion, front and back. A slab of quivering pain.
And then they turned me over and started all over again. Unbearable! Every time they laid the hose on me, it felt like a red-hot sword stabbing into me. “Why don’t you kill me, you bastards!” I screamed. “You’ll never get me to confess.” And I knew that they wouldn’t. And the more they beat me the surer I became. They beat away at me for probably half an hour, and then I pretended to lapse into unconsciousness, which is almost impossible because the body stiffens in anticipation of every blow. But I suppose the body also must become desensitized when it reaches a certain level of pain, and the time came when I was able to let my mouth sag open and just lay there, inert, every time the hose came down on me…
It's not over yet. Nowhere near over. It goes on and on…
Fortunately, for you and me, I'm running out of space here. It was bad enough to read about it the first time. Two good things came of it, though—he survived without giving up any names, and from then on cops didn't bother beating him, because they knew it wouldn't work.
Okay, we're winding down here. I'll add that once Willie started getting caught and sent to prisons his focus shifted from breaking into places to breaking out. He masterminded escapes from three prisons, one of which had never been escaped from before. And when he got too old for that activity he started practicing law behind bars, helping other inmates get out with appeals or new trials. And he became a songwriter. We'll finish here with one he wrote making fun of the U.S. Supreme Court's practice of ignoring the flood of prisoners' writs of habeas corpus by simply affirming the appealed order without writing an opinion. Here's Willie's song:
I got the Affirm the Order
No Opinion blues
The Appellate courts won’t tell me why I lose
I wrote a brief like Darrow
And I cited Blackstone’s law
But the Judges thought that Blackstone
Was a General in some war
I got the Affirm the Order
No Opinion blues
The phrases that they use have me confused
I’m going to write the Court Supreme
And I’ll ask them what they mean
By their Affirm the Order
No Opinion ruse.

—WORDS AND MUSIC BY
W. F. SUTTON
(CIRCA 1966)

The song went on and on, the verses were endless,” Willie writes. “But then so were the writs that were being sung about.”
I guess by now you can see why Willie had friends. I don't know about friendship, but, although I'm a tad late, I am one unabashed, unashamed admirer.


[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]




Wednesday, July 12, 2017

THE DOLLY DIALOGUES – Anthony Hope


If love were the only thing, I would follow you—in rags, if need be—to the world's end; for you hold my heart in the hollow of your hand! But is love the only thing? I know people write and talk as if it were. Perhaps, for some, Fate lets it be. Ah, if I were one of them!

 

Anthony Hope

"But if love had been the only thing, you would have let the King die in his cell. Honour binds a woman too...my honour lies in being true to my country and my House. I don't know why God has let me love you; but I know that I must stay.” – from The Prisoner of Zenda

 

Thanks to Anthony Hope I am weaned from romantic love's impractical glow, shone on me of late by James Hilton and Anthony Hope. By accidental coincidence Hope bookends my flirtation with the notion of a love so fine between a man and a woman—requited or not—that it's truly unto death. I was beginning to warm to the idea, expressed so richly in Hope's Zenda trilogy and Hilton's Random Harvest. One more throat-tightener like those and I might have started searching Facebook for Norma with the Mona Lisa smile I haven't seen since the last kindergarten reunion I made it to somewhere in the past. Just to make sure, see if the heart was still game whether or not the brain remained intact. Fortunately, in the nick of time last week, Hope's The Dolly Dialogues intervened and stopped me from hurting myself and others.

The notion of romantic love is a many splendored laugh in The Dolly Dialogues, a series of vignettes narrated by “man about town” Samuel Travers Carter, describing his dalliances with “Lady” Dolly Mickleham and her titled acquaintances. All except callow young men are cynics regarding the love of the Zenda stories.One such youngster, Carter's cousin George, confesses he desperately in love, claiming he's “the most miserable devil alive.” He blushes and his hand trembles when the girl rides by in a carriage with an older woman. Carter introduces him to Dolly with the suggestion the girl might show up at one of Dolly's frequent parties. Carter tells Dolly George is in love, and suggests maybe, because she is married, she can assist the young man.
Dolly glanced at George. 'Oh, what fun!' said she.
'Fun!' cried George.
'I mean, how awfully interesting,' said Dolly, suddenly transforming her expression.”
Of course within a blink or two, George shifts his romantic interest to Dolly, seeing her as the love of his life. He no longer blushes when, soon after meeting Dolly, he and Carter are walking in the park when the other girl drives by in her carriage. “'George, George!' I cried. 'There she is—Look!' George looked, raised his hat with sufficient politeness, and remarked to me: 'Hang it, one sees those people everywhere.'”
Hope makes it quite clear, considering the limitations of Victorian literary convention, that Carter and Dolly, although they're cousins and she is married, have been lovers, and perhaps still are. It's also obvious that Dolly, despite paying lip service to the idea of the Zenda sort of love, is just as cynical as Carter. At her invitation, Carter reads from a guest book containing comments about her she's invited from acquaintances:
Lady Mickleham,” I read, “is usually accounted a person of considerable attractions. She is widely popular, and more than one woman has been known to like her.”
I don’t quite understand that,” interrupted Dolly.
It is surely simple,” said I; and I read on without delay. “She is kind even to her husband..."
She never gives pain to any one, except with the object of giving pleasure to somebody else, and her kindness is no less widely diffused than it is hearty and sincere.”
That really is nice,” said Dolly, smiling.
Then there's Carter's dream that he and Dolly are dead and awaiting at the door to Elysian Fields. The gatekeeper, Rhadamanthus, denies Carter entrance. Now it's Dolly's turn. Rhadamanthus starts out noting negatives in the book he uses to guide his judgment:
The account runs on,” he explained, and began to consult his big book. Dolly leant back in her chair, slowly peeling off her gloves. Rhadamanthus shut the book with a bang.
It’s not the least use,” he said decisively. “It wouldn’t be kind to pretend that it was, Lady Mickleham.”
Dear, dear,” said Dolly. “What’s the matter?”
Half the women in London have petitioned against you.”
Have they, really?” cried Dolly, to all appearance rather delighted. “What do they say, Mr. Rhadamanthus? Is it in that book? Let me look.”
And she held out her hand.
The book’s too heavy for you to hold,” said he.
I’ll come round,” said Dolly. So she went round and leant over his shoulder and read the book.
What’s that scent you’ve got on?” asked Rhadamanthus.
Awake again, Carter is dallying with Dolly in her backyard. Carter reads aloud an inscription someone had carved into the sundial there: Life is Love, the poets tell us, In the little books they sell us; But pray, ma’am—what’s of Life the Use, If Life be Love? For Love’s the Deuce.
Dolly began to laugh gently, digging the pin again into her hat.


[Find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]



Thursday, July 6, 2017

RANDOM HARVEST -- James Hilton

If you don't like spoilers, don't read the Wikipedia entry for Random Harvest. I'm glad I waited until after, although by then I was feeling a tad foolish for letting James Hilton keep a bright guy like me from guessing the ending. Other things bothered me about Random Harvest: It got me to wondering if I really am the sentimental dupe I'd been joking in several prior reviews here about being, and it made me feel hopelessly ingenuous, like a bumbling oaf, reading how sophisticated the British gentry tend to be (I might have said naïve or callow had Hilton not used the more sophisticated ingenuous).
A couple of things got me past these discomforts, to keep me reading. One was Hilton's irritating use of ALL CAPS to emphasize certain words. Possibly the typesetter was to blame for not using italics, but Hilton went way overboard in assuming we couldn't get the emphasis from context alone. To wit: "Not that Charles would be an easy man to MAKE happy, even if he HAD got the right woman. But he isn't happy NOW—that I DO know—" Being irritated by so much of that made me feel a tad critical, less ingenuous, and eventually it got to where I hardly noticed it. And this was because of the other thing that helped me forget how inferior I am to the British gentry: Hilton's superior writing and storytelling. Random Harvest is so good it didn't bother me that I could never write that well or think up a story that good.
Here's some of that writing that grabbed me and held on, a description of London with surgical insight and the—dare I say it—sophistication of a literary mind:
There was a charm, a deathless charm, about a city whose inhabitants went about muttering, "The nights are drawing in," as if it were a spell to invoke the vast, sprawling creature-comfort of winter. Indeed no phrase, he once said, better expressed the feeling of curtained enclosure, of almost stupefying cosiness, that blankets London throughout the dark months—a sort of spiritual central heating, warm and sometimes weepy, but not depressing—a Dickensian, never a Proustian fug.
 
Now to the story. Were I Hilton trying to entice a prospective literary agent to read my query, I'd call Random Harvest a "romantic mystery" first. If that didn't work, I'd try another agent with "mystery/romance" or, better yet, "mysterious romance", and so on until one ultimately took the bait and read my irresistible plot synopsis, which would go something like this:
Harrison, a Cambridge graduate student, has an oddly engaging conversation with a garrulous stranger on a train. They meet by coincidence later at Harrison's college, where the stranger, whom we now know is Charles Rainier, wealthy industrialist and member of Parliament, is the speaker. They hit it off, and Rainier soon hires Harrison as his personal secretary. Rainier confides in Harrison, explaining the oddness of their train conversation was a result of his memory loss from the moment of a WWI battlefield injury to his waking up two years later on a park bench in Liverpool. He remembered enough to learn his name and find his family, whose industrial empire he then saves from ruin during a stock market crash. All the while his memory is returning incrementally in déjà vu-like flashes and fragments that haunt him with a vague sense of some sort of significance but nothing more. The breakthrough comes when he remembers he'd gotten married during the missing two years and that his wife was pregnant when he left her temporarily to meet with an editor in Liverpool, hoping to sell some stories he'd written. He arrives, slips on a rainy street, is hit by a car, and wakes up on the bench with the hole in his memory. Now, twenty years later, the hole is finally filled in, and he's off alone to find the love of his life. Harrison and Rainier's current wife, whom his respects but doesn't love, set out to find him.
If the agent were to read this far, I would add that a backdrop to Rainier's story is the encroaching threat of WWII, and its effect on the British sensibility. There's much talk of the malignant presence of Adolf Hitler, England's passivity despite a growing anxiety, and the League of Nations' impotence.
Here's Rainier's take on it
 
We are like people in a trance—even those of us who can see the danger ahead can do nothing to avert it—like the dream in which you drive a car towards a precipice and your foot is over the brake but you have no physical power to press down. We should be arming now, if we had sense,—arming day and night and seven days of the week,—for if the Munich pact had any value at all it was not as a promise of peace to come, but as a last-minute chance to prepare for the final struggle. And we are doing NOTHING— caught in the net of self-delusion and self-congratulation.
 
And here he is expounding on Hitler in words that, although Random Harvest was published in 1941, read as if they just might, with a change in tense, be found in something current, such as The Atlantic: “...the fact that all seemed to depend on the workings of one abnormal human mind gave every amateur psychologist an equal chance with politicians and crystal-gazers. And behind this mystery came fear, fear of a kind that had brought earlier peoples to their knees before eclipses and comets—fear of the unknown, based on an awareness that the known was no longer impregnable.”
 "If you forgive people enough you belong to them, and they to you, whether either person likes it or not squatter's rights of the heart." -- James Hilton
 
I might also play the “crystal gazer” and state with confidence that Random Harvest not only would become one of the top-selling novels of 1941, but its movie adaptation would win an Academy Award nomination.
The title, you may be wondering, what in hell does it mean? This citation, appearing on the novel's title page, might be a clue: "According to a British Official Report, bombs fell at Random." —German Official Report


[For more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]