"There were peaches, plums, apricots, pears, apples, quinces, cherries, walnuts, mulberries pomegranates and vines all growing in one garden. There we...more"There were peaches, plums, apricots, pears, apples, quinces, cherries, walnuts, mulberries pomegranates and vines all growing in one garden. There were also nightingales, blackbirds, thrushes and doves ... and chattering magpies on almost every tree." Thus Alexander Burnes, a young British subaltern, likening the city he had entered for the first time to paradise. The date was April 1832. The city was Kabul.
Peter Hopkirk's masterly history goes a long way to explaining how the capital of Afghanistan and its surroundings have been transformed into the bloody battleground which features so often in today's television news. The story covers most of the 19th Century, when Russia was flexing its muscles to extend its eastern boundaries while India - at the outset run by a commercial enterprise, the East India Company, with its own army - feared an invasion from the north. Persia and Turkey had their own interests to protect and possibly to advance. Between the territories of the great powers lay a virtually unmapped, mountainous region populated by warring khanates.
Here are the men who shaped the conflict, sometimes in disguise, always in danger, often wielding swords and bayonets. They were principally British and Russian with a supporting cast of Cossacks, Gurkhas, Sikhs, Afghans, Turcomans and Kashmiris. Treachery, bluff and double bluff were the cards in the Great Game. Sieges and battles, vividly described, make for enthralling reading; heroes emerge whose deeds earned many a Victoria Cross. There were occasions when officers from the two sides could share a meal on a mountainside and drink a toast to the possibility that their next meeting might be as deadly enemies. By the end the dead numbered not tens but hundreds of thousands.
Not the least achievement of this fine book is to present much of the struggle in terms of the brave men from both sides who took leading roles, but also to preserve a clear view of the fluctuating political and diplomatic exchanges between London, Calcutta and Simla, and St Petersburg. Successive Tsars come and go, the British Parliament is itself a battleground between Tories and Liberals.
There are lessons here in abundance, not least to leave one dismayed by what has become of Kabul between 1832 and 2009.(less)
Peter Hopkirk's books on central Asia have two virtues that are not often found together: they are learned, thoroughly researched works that wrap thei...morePeter Hopkirk's books on central Asia have two virtues that are not often found together: they are learned, thoroughly researched works that wrap their scholarship in anecdote and conflict. Foreign Devils takes the author in the steps of a handful of sturdy explorers and antiquarians who, between about 1890 and 1940, ventured into the Taklamakan, Lop Nor and Gobi deserts in search of evidence of the civilisations which once flourished there and are now buried beneath the sand.
Literally thousands of artefacts were discovered by these intrepid individuals and mostly removed to museums in the west, notably but not exclusively to London, St Petersburg and Berlin. The stories of the extreme hardships that accompanied these expeditions are gripping, often awe-inducing. But Hopkirk doesn't neglect the moral issues: the vast majority of the items removed belong - spiritually at least - to China. The question is: had China been left to its own devices would these items have been recovered for the pleasure and education of later generations, or were the explorers saving them from degenerating to dust, never to be seen? In short, were the Foreign Devils saviours or criminals? Even if the reader comes down, as Hopkirk seems to himself, on the side of the former, there remain other serious issues; the British Museum, which displays a mere fragment of its huge collection, comes in for particular opprobrium.
This is more than just a vicarious adventure story; with the romance of the Silk Road that drew Marco Polo and so many questing travellers at an end, the reader will be left with much food for thought.(less)
For centuries Tibet was the innermost core of one of the most inaccessible, and therefore most mysterious, places on earth. The country was ringed by...moreFor centuries Tibet was the innermost core of one of the most inaccessible, and therefore most mysterious, places on earth. The country was ringed by mountains and protected by sub-zero temperatures. There was Everest (and possibly an even higher peak). There was Lhasa with its "golden domes like tongues of fire" and its Potala palace of a thousand rooms rising into the clouds from a sheer rock face. There was Tibetan Buddhism which could instal a Dalai Lama from the cradle. Small wonder that the brave and the curious wished to see for themselves.
Stripped to basics, these are adventure stories: Somerset Maugham meets John Buchan. But in detail they are revealed often as accounts of immense courage in overwhelmingly forbidding circumstances, sometimes of almost unbelievable foolhardiness. Remarkably but perhaps not surprisingly, virtually everyone who made the attempt wrote about it afterwards. Hopkirk has read the books, feretted among the official archives, travelled the area himself. The narrative is vivid and anecdotal but there is enough political and historical background to establish context. If the voice is the voice of Empire it is at least authentic.
The reservation of other readers that this book does not look at the trespassers from the point of view of the Tibetans would only be valid if the author had set out to provide a rounded account. But that is matter for other writers with other perspectives. Peter Hopkirk unashamedly sets out to tell the many stories of those who attempted - and mostly failed - to penetrate the forbidden kingdom in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.(less)
I came to Eastern Approaches by way of a glowing testimonial in Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game (see my review elsewhere). The front cover calls Maclea...moreI came to Eastern Approaches by way of a glowing testimonial in Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game (see my review elsewhere). The front cover calls Maclean's memoir "The best book you will read this year" and for once a clever line in a blurb is hard to challenge. Eastern Approaches will linger in the memory for many a year. It was, after all, first published in 1949 and remains in print.
Fitzroy Maclean - later Sir Fitzroy - tells the story of eight years in his life, from 1937 to 1945. It begins with Maclean as a junior diplomat in Paris, then at the epicentre of European upheaval. He breaks with all precedent by applying for a transfer to the supposedly dead end of the British embassy in Moscow. Once there, he becomes a shrewd observer of a Russia in search of identity; meanwhile, on his frequent (and seemingly often overstayed) leaves he explores - by train, bus, clapped-out car and ferry, on horse and camel, and on foot - the terra incognita of Caucasia.
When war is declared in 1939 Maclean wants to become a soldier but diplomatic rules prevent it. He discovers that diplomacy and politics are not allowed to mix, gets himself proposed as a parliamentary candidate and thus forces the Foreign Office to demand his resignation. He is elected Conservative member for Lancaster but before taking his place at Westminster, enrols as a private soldier. Soon promoted as a subaltern, he finds himself in Cairo where the old pals network steers him into the SAS, leading a raid on Benghazi hundreds of miles behind German lines. There is no false glory: the raid, which reads like the script for a wartime movie, is a failure. Lives are lost, survival is always in the balance.
But Montgomery is winning the war in the desert and Maclean needs new adventures. He is parachuted into occupied Yugoslavia as head of an official British military mission to the Partisans led by Tito - this at a time when the British government is actually backing another group of insurgents. A substantial body of Eastern Approaches is taken up by a gripping account of delicate diplomacy (Tito is a convinced communist with Stalin as a natural ally) and military bravado. From time to time Maclean is temporarily lifted out for consultations at the highest levels, military and political (Churchill asks if, when he parachuted into Yugoslavia, he was wearing the kilt), but he returns each time to see the campaign through to its ultimate victory with the fall of Belgrade.
So in eight years, Maclean experienced enough for three lifetimes, enough for three books. As if that were not enough, he writes with fluency and wit, enlivening his story for page after page by pointed anecdotes and evocative recreation of people and places. In short, this is superb story-telling by one who was there in the heart of it.(less)
Matthew Shardlake, sent by Thomas Cromwell to solve a murder at a monastery on the coast of Sussex, may come to hold a place among the most credible o...moreMatthew Shardlake, sent by Thomas Cromwell to solve a murder at a monastery on the coast of Sussex, may come to hold a place among the most credible of fictional detectives. There seems to be an assumption among some readers that the investigator-with-weaknesses has become a cliché; but doesn't that miss the point that none of us is perfect? Have we forgotten that Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict? In simple terms, Shardlake is a member of the human race. His physical deformity - he is a hunchback - shapes his character as much as his body; it provides the motive for his bouts of irritability. Similarly, his volatile relationship with his assistant, Mark, reveals a man of moods, not all of them pleasing to himself.
One or two curmudgeonly reviewers have identified solecisms and anachronisms. Not many, I would say, and they do not detract materially from a period portrait which is compelling in detail without seeming artificially imposed. Background and foreground are essentially interinked. Like some others, I didn't find it easy to follow the topography of Scarnsea Monastery, nor to differentiate between all the monks; but the mystery gripped and I needed to know how it would end.
Commissioner Shardlake will be revisiting my bookshelf.(less)
I have become a C J Sansom fan and will stay with the hunchback lawyer Shardlake, especially if he retains Barak as a minder and foil. However, I agre...moreI have become a C J Sansom fan and will stay with the hunchback lawyer Shardlake, especially if he retains Barak as a minder and foil. However, I agree with some of the reservations expressed by other readers: the book does seem unnecessarily long and the plot devices a little too contrived. Best to start with Dissolution and go on to Dark Fire before Sovereign.
That said, the background detail and the portrayal of the Royal Progress are as convincing and engrossing as ever. Not the best of Shardlake but good enough until the next one comes along. (less)
Second novel syndrome is a fearful hurdle for an author; C J Sansom takes it in his stride. Dissolution, which first introduces Matthew Shardlake, was...moreSecond novel syndrome is a fearful hurdle for an author; C J Sansom takes it in his stride. Dissolution, which first introduces Matthew Shardlake, was a clever and original detective story, hard though it was at times to distinguish one monk from another. Now, released from the claustrophobic Scarnsea monastery, the hunchback lawyer is called again to serve Richard Cromwell, this time in the dirty and dangerous lanes of 16th Century London and the no less treacherous English court.
Other reviewers here have disclosed enough of the plot to absolve me from covering that ground again. Suffice to say that its intertwined mysteries are neatly and tightly plotted. It is true that the final explanations do entail a degree of "Before I kill you, this is what needs to be told" but there are many similar precedents in this genre.
What is so admirable about Dark Fire is the authenticity of the detail and the skill with which it is woven into the narrative. The sights and smells of Tudor London are brilliantly evoked. The big underlying issues - justice, loyalty, weapons of mass destruction, race - are integral, not grafted on. And then there are the characters. Shardlake himself, a rounded and vulnerable human being, almost carried Dissolution single-handedly. Here he is engaged with a range of easily believable people: the weasly fellow lawyer, Bealknap; the dark-skinned apothecary, Guy; the haughty aristocrat, Lady Honor; above all Barak, Cromwell's Jewish ruffian whose assignment to be Shardlake's ambivalent partner teases and pleases throughout
I have already ordered Sovereign, looking forward to more of Matthew Shardlake and hoping that Barak may not be too far away.
C J Ransom's ambitious project, which began well, looks like becoming a triumph. Comment | Permalink(less)
For a while in the last Century John Brinkley was the most famous medical man in the world. Whether he was actually a doctor is dubious. What is unden...moreFor a while in the last Century John Brinkley was the most famous medical man in the world. Whether he was actually a doctor is dubious. What is undeniable is that his glorious rise and infamous fall has become the subject of a brilliant book, authoritative, widely researched, eminently readable and consistently funny.
Brinkley first made his name by offering "rejuvenating" procedures for the male inhabitants of Kansas who had lost their zest for life - or more precisely their zest for their wife. The "Doctor's" technique involved implanting goats' testicles into human testicles. There were successes - one patient went on to father a son who was named Billy. But there were failures and it was not long before he acquired an implacable opponent in a Dr Fishbein of the American Medical Association.
Their duel over decades involved Brinkley running for Governor of Kansas (foiled by a Fishbein stratagem), pioneering sales by radio and progressing from glands to potions. A 5000 watt transmitter in Kansas eventually led to broadcasts from a million watt transmitter based in Mexico. Medical huckstering was interspersed with religious sermons on Sundays and vaudevile entertainers on weekdays. Author Pope Brock makes a persuasive case for Brinkley having been the father of Country and Western music.
While Brinkley claimed a mission to benefit mankind, his principle aim was to enrich John Brinkley. So successful was he that he was able to sail the oceans in his own luxury yacht - which he loaned at one time to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. If one of his schemes was thwarted, it only spurred him to another more ambitious, more audacious campaign.
His downfall was to institute a libel action against Fishbein. The courtroom exchanges provide a dramatic finale, part sad, part hilaroius, to an enthralling tale superbly told.(less)
As a confirmed Sansom addict, I now believe that the four Shardlake novels show an admirable progression. Revelation crowns a notable achievement.
In...moreAs a confirmed Sansom addict, I now believe that the four Shardlake novels show an admirable progression. Revelation crowns a notable achievement.
In Dissolution, the claustrophobic limitations of the community at Scarnsea and the largely indistinguishable monks were the down side. The pluses were originality of scene and the personality of the hunchback lawyer himself.
Evidence of the author's feel for place and period led one hopefully to Dark Fire, and in the matter of authentic atmosphere one was not disappointed. The dénouement - a long passage of "Before I kill you let me explain everything" - creaked a bit and earned minus marks; the great gain was the introduction of Jack Barak, a fully-fashioned character worthy to ride beside Shardlake.
Sovereign felt like Sansom maturing into complete control of his territory: historical background matched by character development. Moreover, now Barak acquired a partner in the feisty Tamasin.
So to Revelation. I share the reservations expressed elsewhere about the validity of a serial killer theme in Tudor clothes, and the odd jarring anachronism ("back to square one" for example). But the characters continue to develop: Shardlake in his agnosticism; the introspection of the black monk, Guy; and the stormy relationship of Barak and Tamasin. Overall, the author has taken on a challenging set of themes - the murders take place against, and are interwoven with, a background of religious persecution and failure to understand the nature of madness. His success, for this reader at least, is impressively convincing.
One big question remains: are the Shardlake chronicles at an end? Revelation closes with one or two issues left dangling. Devotees will live in hope. (less)
Pope Brock's Charlatan, which came to me as a gift, encouraged me to seek out the author's previous book. I was not disappointed. Indiana Gothic, a sc...morePope Brock's Charlatan, which came to me as a gift, encouraged me to seek out the author's previous book. I was not disappointed. Indiana Gothic, a scrupulously honest exploration of an illicit relationship that led to murder three generations back in the author's family, will surely become a classic of modern American writing.
The early years of Ham Dillon's life on a small farm in the mid-west are sketched with perceptive detail and a light touch. Felicitous phrases shine on almost every page; Miss Halsop, the church pianist, "searching for tunes in the cracks of the keys." Ham's hard-eyed exploitation of his superficial charm in pursuit of a political career and his cold-blooded betrayal of his marriage in an affair with his sister-in-law are portrayed with careful dispassion that cannot have been easy for Brock.
The doomed relationship culminates in murder. A true story reads with all the suspense of a novel. The drama of the murder trial leaves the verdict impossible to predict. The opposing lawyers, Padgett and deBekker, are so vividly drawn there must surely be a film in the offing.
Indiana Gothic can be placed beside Lee Harper's To Kill a Mocking Bird or Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and will lose nothing in comparison. The story it tells grips and haunts beyond the final pages; and it is related with masterly style. A winner on every count. (less)
Much crime fiction is transportable. Change the names of the streets, adjust the thermometer, translate the ciao's and the auf widersehen's and the se...moreMuch crime fiction is transportable. Change the names of the streets, adjust the thermometer, translate the ciao's and the auf widersehen's and the seeya's and the actual mechanics of the plot will often work as well in Rome as they do in Boston or Berlin. But not with Donna Leon's novels. Venice is more than a backdrop; the culture of the city is integral to the fabric of the story. For sure there are other corrupt communities in the world but perhaps none quite like the claustrophobic backscratching that lies not far beneath the surface of La Serenissima.
Donna Leon's understanding of that culture is profound; the strength of her books is that they never read like an undercover journalist's exposé; background and foreground are all one. Commissario Guido Brunetti seems only to half understand it himself. This is a very human policeman whose family environment is easy to recognise, underpinned as it is by warmth and love but still with its moments of unthinking hurt.
Given that Donna Leon's touch is light and her prose unfussy, her success is no mystery.
There would have been a fifth star for Friends in High Places but for the fact that it too is, almost literally, no mystery. Brunetti patiently unravels a crime that impinges on drug trafficking but ultimately stems from corruption in the civic financial offices. The Commissario is assisted by a handful of contacts better informed than he, not to mention a secretary whose ability to extract private financial and legal records almost instantly must be unique in Italy, never mind Venice. Yet the murderer who eventually emerges in the last thirty pages is no one who has figured in the previous three hundred. And if the shooting of a lawyer in Ferrara is ever explained, I fear I missed it.
Donna Leon is no heiress to the whodunnit traditions of Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, John Dickson Carr, Agathe Christie et al. That is not necessarily a fault but this tale takes life's natural untidiness a little too far. If not for the plot, enjoy it for the people and the place. They are certainly worth four stars.(less)
Donna Leon's books quite simply inhabit Venice. Those of us who know it only superficially find it easy to recognise and by the end feel we understand...moreDonna Leon's books quite simply inhabit Venice. Those of us who know it only superficially find it easy to recognise and by the end feel we understand the city and its customs and hidden corners a little better. If we have never dropped in at that little bar for a coffee and a brioche, we can be sure we will spot it next time and not pass by.
The crime, of course, is intriguing enough to keep the reader turning pages but the pleasure is the setting in which it is wrapped: the place and the people. Above all, the people. Commissario Brunetti has few rivals in detective fiction for the way in which his character emerges through myriad small details. The reader sees him at work and at home, with strengths and weaknesses in both, but they are indivisible halves of the same man. If one were the victim of a crime, one would be fortunate indeed to have Brunetti on the case.
The Commissario alone would guarantee Donna Leon's rightful place among the best of her peers, but there are other subtle virtues not to be overlooked. In passing, Death in a Strange Country airs thoughtful views on immigration, on corruption, and on polution of the planet. And all this with a beautifully understated sense of humour.
At one point, Paola Brunetti makes a risotto for her husband. "He took two forkfuls, sighed in appreciation, and continued to eat ... Paola saw that he had passed beyond the point of hunger and was eating for the pleasure of the act ..." Contemplating the long list of Donna Leon's other titles, one experiences a similar sensation.(less)