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review 2017-08-23 20:35
Those who forget the past
Assignment in Brittany - Helen MacInnes

Are doomed to repeat it.


I grew up reading the spy novels of Helen MacInnes, so reading them is a definite comfort read for me, even with their outdated gender stereotypes and often frustratingly regressive relationships. Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only one who remembers the Cold War, given our current government's flirtation with fascism, and the fact that many of them seem more than willing to climb into bed with dictators and strongmen world wide. This is puzzling to me. There is no historical moment in which the Nazis and the fascists were the good guys.


Helen MacInnes knew this. Reading this at the same time that Charlottesville happened was an odd piece of serendipitous timing.


There was the tragedy of it: if only they could have realised the danger while there was still time, while they were still free to carry a gun and still free to make guns for themselves. Instead, they would now find that it costs three times as much to retrieve a position as it takes to hold it.


Assignment in Brittany was her second novel, first published in 1941, in the midst of WWII. It was considered to be so realistic a portrayal of occupied France that allied agents were required to read it before attempting to infiltrate France, the knowledge of which gives the book a verisimilitude that renders it all that much more compelling.


It begins with a rather silly conceit. Hearne, the main character, is a dead ringer for a Breton prisoner, Bernard Corlay. He is given the assignment of impersoning Corlay to try to send back work from Brittany as to what the Nazis are up to on the French coast. The novel opens with Hearne parachuting into occupied France. He makes his way to Corlay's village to assume his identity, and slowly comes to realize that Corlay has not shared with him that Corlay is secretly a Nazi sympathizer, involved in promoting Nazi activities.


One of the main complaints about this book in other reviews revolves around the implausibility of Hearne being able to fool his mother, his mistress and his fiancee. While this could be a legitimate complaint, the reality is that he didn't fool his mother or his fiancee. They both realized the truth without much delay, but kept his secret because, like him, they were part of the Resistance, version 1.0.


This is a reminder that hashtag Resistance didn't start in 2016. 


MacInnes never allows the reader to forget that oppression begins by inches. That it is better to fight from the beginning than to try to regain ground that has been lost. That those in power seek to retain power using whatever means possible, even if that means might involve collaborating with, even, Nazis. That there are no principles that some people won't sell out to consolidate authority or obtain cash and prizes.


He’s a great Christian by his way of it, and I have never professed to be one. Yet the one aim in his life is to hang on to the possessions he has got. Worldly possessions. If I remember my New Testament correctly, worldly possessions weren’t held in great esteem. In fact, if a man gives up honour or humanity for the sake of what he owns, then he is betraying the principles of Christianity. When I watch the Picrels scrabbling at German feet for the sake of their property, do you know what I believe? I believe that if Christ came back today and preached to the people, the Picrels among them would have Him up against the wall.


She might as well be talking about the American evangelical church leaders here. Jerry Falwell, is that you?


The past isn't over. It isn't even past. Here we are, again, in 2017, having the same arguments that we were having in 1941.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-08-20 19:02
The Pathologically Insecure Mr. Ripley
The Talented Mr. Ripley - Patricia Highsmith

This was both my first introduction to Tom Ripley, and my first introduction to Patricia Highsmith. I was somewhat aware of the story before I started the book, although I'd neither seen the movie nor read any of the Ripley novels. I knew going in that Tom Ripley was a sociopath and a murderer.


What I didn't realize was that this book was a "retelling" (of sorts) of The Ambassadors by Henry James. Highsmith reveals this early, with overt references to the James novel. Mr. Greenleaf, father of Dickie Greenleaf, makes the fatal error of commissioning Tom Ripley to go to Italy and retrieve his son from the dissipated life of an American ex pat. Sadly for both Dickie and his father, Dickie is a man of independent means, so he cannot be forced him by turning off the money spigot. 


Italy in the 1950's was, apparently, a relatively inexpensive place for a young man of some means and no ambition to while away his days as a dabbler. Dickie Greenleaf has a talent for leisure, if no talent for painting.



Image result for italy in the 1950's


Italy in the 1950's.


Image result for italy in the 1950's


Como, 1954


Tom Ripley, on the other hand, had a talent for mimicry, and little else. I had expected him to be charismatic, but, as it turns out, he was just a nonentity. Whatever personality he possessed came only from an alcohol-induced haze. Because of this, he was pathologically insecure. 


One of the things that struck me about Highsmith's writing is how visceral her description of the act of murder was. With the exception of murder by firearm, murder is a taxing physical act. Highsmith doesn't just "tell" the reader about the murder. She shows the reader the heat, the blood, the exhaustion, and the terror that is experienced by her characters. It is brutal and revolting.


From there, things really just disintegrate. Tom Ripley seems to operate on a knife's edge between merely disturbed and completely unhinged. His internal dialogue is often incredibly creepy.


Alone again, Tom returned to his private reveries. He ought to open a bank account for Tom Ripley, he thought, and from time to time put a hundred dollars or so into it. Dickie Greenleaf had two banks, one in Naples and one in New York, with about five thousand dollars in each account. He might open the Ripley account with a couple of thousand, and put into it the hundred and fifty thousand lire from the Mongibello furniture. After all, he had two people to take care of.




His psyche seems to be fragile.


He definitely wanted to see Greece. He wanted to see Greece as Dickie Greenleaf with Dickie’s money, Dickie’s clothes, Dickie’s way of behaving with strangers. But would it happen that he couldn’t see Greece as Dickie Greenleaf? Would one thing after another come up to thwart him—murder, suspicion, people? He hadn’t wanted to murder, it had been a necessity. The idea of going to Greece, trudging over the Acropolis as Tom Ripley, American tourist, held no charm for him at all. He would as soon not go.


Like Broken Tune, I'm of two minds about Ripley's great escape. On the one hand, I certainly don't sympathize with Tom Ripley and I wasn't rooting for him. On the other hand, it was interesting to watch his mind work, and I can see how he could have fooled the Italian authorities in 1955.


Based on this book, I slot Highsmith into the category of Shirley Jackson - incredibly talented woman who writes disturbed characters disturbingly well. I am wondering if anyone has read Ripley Underground, or any of the other Ripley follow-ups. I'm considering it for Halloween Bingo! 


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text 2017-08-20 03:16
Reading progress update: I've read 217 out of 285 pages.
The Talented Mr. Ripley - Patricia Highsmith

It was senseless to be despondent, anyway, even as Tom Ripley. Tom Ripley had never really been despondent, though he had often looked it. Hadn’t he learned something from these last months? If you wanted to be cheerful, or melancholic, or wistful, or thoughtful, or courteous, you simply had to act those things with every gesture.


Tom Ripley is a deeply disturbed individual. I keep flashing to various eps of Criminal Minds/CSI while I'm reading.

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review 2017-08-19 01:11
The Crime Coast by Elizabeth Gill
The Crime Coast: A Benvenuto Brown Mystery - Elizabeth Gill

This is one of three golden age mysteries published by Elizabeth Gill, a largely forgotten author who published her first book - this one - in 1931. She published only 3 mysteries because she passed away unexpectedly at 32. All three of her books have been reissued by Dean Street Press, and are available from amazon for only $1.99.


I was, frankly, lukewarm about her main character, Benvenuto Brown, amateur sleuth and brilliant artist. Perhaps he will grow on me during the course of the remaining two books.


However, while I didn't really become attached to Ben Brown, I really liked Paul Ashby, a young London lawyer who finds himself embroiled in a mystery. He is trying to locate a young artist, Adrian, on behalf of his father, whom he has met and who gave him the strange commission before leaving London for the French Riviera. Paul meets and falls in with Adelaide Moon on the train from Paris to Marseille, an alluring young woman who is known to associate with Adrian.


As the story progresses, Adrian is accused of murdering his former lover, who is discovered completely nude except for a whole bunch of jewels. Shortly thereafter, Adrian disappears, and Ben, Paul and Adelaide attempt to solve the murder to clear Adrian's name, while Paul becomes increasingly enamored of the fair Adelaide. 


“As leading ladies say on first nights, this is the happiest moment of my life,” he murmured, watching blue smoke vanish into the blue air. “It’s the sort of thing one dreams about on a wet, grey day in London—only better. I’ve never had the imagination to dream of such a day as this or such a boat, or—or you,” he added, only so low that he thought perhaps she hadn’t heard.


Gill has a gift for descriptive writing, evoking the beautiful turquoise sea of the Riviera with gems like this:


“Can you dive with your eyes open?” she said. He nodded, and in a second she was a red bird skimming through the air, a moment later a goldfish in the translucent depths. It was a good dive, and Paul pulled himself together—she was watching him. He went in neatly and for cool moments of silence saw the green world slide past his eyes, saw the smooth stones of the ocean bed, and fish that flickered and vanished mysteriously, before he shot up into the dazzling sunshine.

There is a classic reveal at the end of the story, with Ben explaining all to his rapt listeners. The mystery relies on a great deal of coincidence, as these golden age mysteries often do, but it is an enjoyable, and surprising, whodunnit, nonetheless.
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text 2017-08-16 05:38
Reading progress update: I've read 100%.
Grey Mask - Patricia Wentworth

I will have more on this tomorrow!


I wasn't at all sure what to expect with this one, but I really liked it and I'm sure I will read more Patricia Wentworth! I'm really glad I decided to participate in this quick buddy read!

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