If this is to be a series celebrating what gets us through these new dark times then it would be wrong to avoid mentioning the ridiculous number of novels that I have read over the past year by Dorothy B. Hughes and Geoffrey Household. Books I would have had no idea even existed a year or so ago, but which have been the source of incredible pleasure, and which have left me feeling a huge amount of admiration for their writers’ use of imagination and words, and their ability to entertain and inspire. Generalising wildly, these two authors are probably best-known for one title each, and arguably the film versions of these are better known than the books, and yet I have enjoyed many other works by them far more. I don’t know what that says about me.
Nowadays many of Dorothy
B. Hughes’ less well-known books can be easily or affordably read on Kindle. There
are, I think, ten Dorothy B. Hughes titles available through the
under-appreciated and slightly misleadingly named The Murder Room, an Orion
digital imprint, all at below £4 a go. For a long while all I had read by her
was the now celebrated novel, In A Lonely Place, which I got to while working
back via the New Order song, and then the Nicholas Ray film starring Bogart and
Gloria Grahame the suicide blonde, the subject of Peter Turner’s brilliant Film
Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Back then In a Lonely Place was only
available as an import paperback via The Feminist Press’ Femmes Fatales ‘Women
Write Pulp’ series which I strongly suspect I got my copy of one lunch-hour in Judd
Books near Euston, a remarkable shop, which makes me think of happy times
inside my mind: “Music and writing, words, memories, memories way back.”
Dorothy B. Hughes’
writing is incredible, I think. Sure, her work could be classed as suspense or
mystery or crime fiction. Maybe she wrote thrillers, maybe her books were noir
or pulp, but so much of the hard-boiled stuff makes you wince whereas Hughes wrote
what is enduringly classic literature, and she could take the reader to places
psychologically and emotionally other writers wouldn’t be able to even imagine,
for she went deeper, was more poetic, and she could really write.
I have become rather
obsessed with her New York-centric wartime titles, which The Murder Room has
made available, a remarkable run of books that were patriotic perhaps, but
there’s something more, something deeply personal in her vehement anti-fascism.
There are the fifth columnists and enemy spies in 1941’s The Bamboo Blonde,
and then there’s The Fallen Sparrow, whose avenging hero is a veteran of
the International Brigade, who’d been fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and
was captured and handed over to the Gestapo. And that’s just the background
story. The Fallen Sparrow is, incidentally, dedicated to Eric Ambler, “2nd
Lieutenant Royal Artillery, somewhere in England, because he has no book this
year”. Hughes’ writing is often likened to Ambler’s, so it’s nice to see there
was a real-time bond, and hopefully mutual appreciation.
Her novel The
Delicate Ape deals with post-war politics, and the fear of a resurgence of
fascism in a defeated Germany, in the shadows of Allied complacency. That makes
sense, until you remember this book was published in 1944, considerably before
the war was over. The ending is quite striking, and I don’t think it’s giving
too much away in quoting it here: “He knew the fight must be fought over and
again, each year, each day, each minute. The beast would snarl anew, the
delicate ape would scheme. Man must fight on until peace was as fixed on the
earth as the stars were fixed in the cosmos.” Amen! And then, just when you
think you have Hughes worked out, you find her other 1944 anti-fascist book Johnnie,
which turns out to be pure farce, and as funny as any P.G. Wodehouse New
York novel, which is not something I remember reading about Dorothy B. Hughes
before. Incidentally, in Johnnie she writes about the New Order in a way
which is a reminder of the old brouhaha over the poor choice of group name.
And then, yes, Geoffrey
Household, who also has many of his books available now digitally via Orion and
The Murder Room. I assume that if he is a household name it is for Rogue
Male, the story which begins with a very-English sportsman trying to
assassinate a fascist dictator (who is clearly Hitler). It’s a book written
pre-WW2, but after the war was over Household would go on to write many, many
more novels. While it is Rogue Male, with its celebrated depictions of
the hero being pursued through the Dorset countryside by Nazis, which endures,
Household would write plenty of other wonderfully entertaining adventures that
I like more.
said that he considered his war against the Nazis to be a personal vendetta.
And, credit to him, he was almost 40 when he enlisted in 1939 before war broke
out. He spent WW2 in intelligence and security work and seems to have had a colourful
and lively time of it. He did much of his service in the Middle East, which
will have provided plenty of background for his excellent novel Doom’s
Caravan and some of his superb short stories which are set in that region.
He could certainly
create a cracking yarn. Among his best are A Rough Shoot, which features
oddly UKIP-like Establishment neo-fascists, and Watcher in the Shadows which
has as its background the impact of undercover work in WW2 and its
ramifications. Both books also feature glorious pursuits through the English countryside
for those that love such things.
I guess it would be
fair to describe Household as being an old-school English Gentleman: cultured,
privileged perhaps, maybe an enlightened patrician, certainly a wilful non-conformist
and bon vivant, cultured and confident, but also a true internationalist (his
choice of word, not just mine) who was passionate about a Europe without
frontiers, something he focuses on in his excellent short story collection Europe
As It Was.
As a young man,
between the wars, he was an adventurer and travelled extensively, working
abroad in various exotic locations where he absorbed the local colour and
customs with gusto. In another age he might have been a Captain Oates or a Roger
Eagle type figure. He would certainly be appalled today by the global growth of
populism and the alarming rise of the Right in Hungary, Sweden, Italy and
indeed here in post-Brexit Britain.
Among the Household
titles you can currently buy for less than a pound on Kindle are The Three
Sentinels and The Last Seven Days of Georges Rivac. Both are
wonderful and wise, and perhaps can be cited as prime examples of his schtick,
which was to write entertaining adventures featuring unsuspecting, decent,
principled (and on the face of it, at least) ordinary chaps who get inadvertently
caught up in absurdly awkward and occasionally preposterous dangerous
Quite probably my
personal favourite Household book is his Rogue Justice. It is not
universally loved. Who cares? It is quixotic, yes, absurdly romantic,
certainly. And far-fetched? Oh yes. Fine. I guess not everyone wanted a sequel (to
Rogue Male) forty years on, written when Geoffrey was 80-odd, but it
serves as a moving full-stop or coda to his life and beliefs. And I am a sucker
for stories of the people’s unofficial resistance to the Nazis. As Household’s
hero wages his personal war against fascism, we come across a colourful
international cast of partisans, who are sometimes aristocratic “resisters of
rank” horrified by the vulgarity and evil of the Nazis. And our hero certainly
gets about, travelling through (if I remember rightly) Poland, Slovakia,
Rumania, Turkey, Greece, Albania, and Palestine, before the end is in sight.
While reading the
book, and while writing this, I have been haunted by Esther Ofarim singing ‘The
Partisan’, which is I think one of the most moving things in existence. It’s an
extraordinary song, and its provenance is as intriguing, from its origins in
Russian, written and sung by a French woman, Anna Marly, in exile in London
during WW2, through its English adaptation by American tin pan alley cat Hy
Zaret to Leonard Cohen giving it a new lease of life in 1969.
Esther Ofarim first
recorded ‘The Partisan’ with Wally Stott (one of several connections between
Esther and Scott Walker) for a 1969 LP, simply called Esther Ofarim. If the album was recorded to capitalise on the
success of Esther’s big hit with Abi (yeah, that one!) then it was a
wonderfully strange way to do so, featuring a truly international set of songs,
from Lassus to Ringo, via Hebrew ballads, Brecht and John Jacob Niles. She can
also be seen singing ‘The Partisan’ in a mesmerising German TV clip with a
gamine crop, performing in front of a collage of revolutionaries’ names.
Esther returned to
the song, as ‘The Song of the French Partisan’, for her 1972 LP, which was
recorded in London with the producer Bob Johnston, another Leonard Cohen
connection. Actually, I yearn for a collection of Esther sings Cohen as much as
I do for a Billy Fury sings Jimmy Campbell one. She seems to have really been
able to get inside Leonard’s songs.
The 1972 version of
‘The Partisan’ contains a wonderfully subtle change of lyrics: from “I have lost
my wife and children” to “I have given up my children.” This changes the song’s
dynamic entirely, as Esther herself becomes part of the narrative. She sings as
one of the hunted female Jewish members of the Resistance who so bravely and clandestinely
fought the Nazis and their appeasers. It is quite incredibly poignant that way
around. I think this is the version she has continued to sing down the years.
Please excuse my tears.
spinetingling arrangement was by Nick Harrison, about whom I know very little.
I presume this is the same man that created wonderful arrangements, of strings
and things, for cult favourites like Julie Covington’s The Beautiful Changes
and Mandy More’s But That Is Me, and I strongly suspect Jimmy
Campbell’s Half Baked, not to mention the Stones’ ‘Angie’ and the Real
Thing’s ‘Children of the Ghetto’. I could be wrong. I could be right. And,
yeah, it is hardly surprising his work with Esther is so beautiful.
Robert Gildea, in his
excellent history of the French Resistance, Fighters in the Shadows (and
that sounds like a line from ‘The Partisan’ doesn’t it?), wrote that “extraordinary
circumstances created possibilities for extraordinary deeds.” How would we have
acted in those circumstances? I guess, or rather hope, we will never know,
though we may face personal adversity that tests us. But I suspect it is the
kind of question that lies at the heart of some of those wonderful books by
Dorothy B. Hughes and Geoffrey Household, which is part of their appeal for me.