Friday 7 October 2022

Out of the Darkness (Part Three)


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.

Geoffrey Household 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 situations. 

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.

The chilling, 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.


  1. Been meaning to explore more Dorothy B. Hughes myself. Only read In A Lonely Place, but I've had Ride The Pink Horse in my Book depository shopping basket a while, after seeing it likened to Paul Bowles' Up Above The World which I read recently.

    1. Hi PC, I don't think I have ever read any Paul Bowles, but Ride The Pink Horse is fantastic. Quite possibly her best. Knowing you love David Goodis I suspect it would appeal to you very much.