The rivals of Sherlock Holmes: early detective stories;

Hugh (edited and introduced by) [Max Pemberton Greene (1970)

An eclectic collection of detective fiction largely contemporary with Holmes’ exploits. It’s a mixed bag, featuring both well-known and now-forgotten authors, and it’s easy to see the selection process at work: the stories of William Le Queux and Baroness Orczy stand out (in completely different ways) for their skilled construction.

3/5. Finished Thursday 29 December, 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Inside the Fourth Reich

erich-erdstein-barbara-bean (1977)

It’s hard to take this book seriously: I only came to read it after finding in a second-hand bookshop for 20p. There may be a grain of truth to some of it, but it’s most eye-catching assertions have been contradicted by reality.

Erdstein positions himself as being central to one of the war’s most critical early incidents: the Battle of the River Plate, where he records his suggestion to the British embassy that they fake news of the an impending arrival of a British battle fleet to spook the captain of the Graf Spee into scuttling his ship – which he obligingly does. Not content with this, Erdstein manages to uncover a cache of weapons buried by the crew in place of their fallen comrades. These early successes set him up for an extended career in espionage and (later) law enforcement, first in Uruguay and Argentina, and later in Brazil. It is here that he encounters both Martin Bormann and Joseph Mengele, managing to shoot the latter dead.

So far so good except… We now know that Bormann died in Berlin at the end of the war, an eye-witness story confirmed by DNA evidence, which calls Erdstein’s assertion of a fingerprint match somewhat into question. We also know that Mengele was identified (again) by his DNA, and that he died while swimming, not from a gunshot.

This could just be a case of adding some eye candy to round-out a narrative, but it does call into question the rest of the book, which would actually (if true) stand as an interesting, if not particularly gripping, account of police work against real Nazis in South America in the war’s aftermath.

1/5. Finished Tuesday 27 December, 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails

Sarah Bakewell (2016)

To the extent that one can have an introduction to existentialism, this is it.

Part extended biography and part philosophical exploration, this book weaves the tale of existentialism into a readable and comprehensible form. It manages to do justice to the philosophy <>and the philosophers, both the big names and the more minor players whose contributions have perhaps been unfairly forgotten.

The towering figure in the narrative is inescapably Sartre, with all his inconsistencies and personal weaknesses set again his intellectual and written power. Bakewell doesn’t try to make him appear better than he is: his willingness to tie himself in knots to support a cause he felt he should justify doesn’t detract from the clarity of some of his other contributions. But for me the most interesting figure is Simone de Beauvoir, who – while by no means forgotten – often seems to be almost a bit-player rather than a powerful (and in some ways more consistent) exponent in her own right. There’s certainly enough of a temptation here to read her work in its own right.

5/5. Finished Monday 26 December, 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Outrun

Amy Liptrot (2015)

A story of city addiction and island recovery.

This the second study of addictive personalities I’ve read recently This is a much more satisfying read than So Sad Today, partly because of its outcome and partly because of its setting. The author leaves the Orkney of her youth for London, where she falls into an alcoholism that’s only really relieved when she returns to the island to detox. It’s impossible to avoid the suspicion that city life itself was the cause, both its anonymity (which can be positive after time in a small place) and its restricted spaces. She returns to Orkney and experiences a range of environments, culminating most powerfully in an extended period on Papa Westray, one of the smallest islands. It’s here she re-discovers herself, really: find the sense of self and self-sufficiency that was missing during her time in the city.

It’s an interesting question whether a dedicated city-dweller could replicate Liptrot’s journey: could someone used to the 24/7 lifestyle thrive in such quiet with just themselves for company? (Of course you’re never actually forced to have only yourself for company: there’s always the infinite distant company of the internet, even on the outer isles.) I suspect the answer is “no”, at least for born or adopted city-zens; for people (like me) with a closer relationship with solitude and a need for just their own company, then it’s tantalising.

2/5. Finished Wednesday 21 December, 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Abel: The True Story of the Spy They Traded for Gary Powers (Dialogue Espionage Classics)

Vin Arthey (2010)

This is a spy story in the finest tradition, with the added advantage of being true.

There are plenty of surprises, not least the fact that the protagonist “Rudolf Abel” – whose name I knew from other histories – actually adopted this, the name of a colleague (dead, unknown to him) to muddy the waters of his interrogation. In fact, Willie Fisher was raised in Newcastle upon Tyne, left for Russia with his Leninist parents and only accidentally avoided being purged by Stalin as part of the Great Terror. His time as the main “illegal” on the US east coast was largely uneventful, and (it’s possible to argue) a waste of his other talents that might have been more profitably exploited in research and training. It captures the romance and the dedication of spycraft – but also the tedium, the danger, and the fact that much of it is often pointless in even the medium term.

There remain some questions. Were the Rosenbergs really spies? – this story suggest so, whereas a lot of modern research denies it. It a story that will be revisited again as more archives are opened.

4/5. Finished Friday 28 October, 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)