Tuesday, June 25, 2013

{review} creepy, noir, & memoir

What have I been reading? 

Michel Faber Under the Skin (2000)

I cannot actually say anything about this book as almost anything could be a spoiler! Um, it's about Scotland, hitchhikers, and a woman with a lot of scars. The setting is contemporary. I loved it. Anything else? It is nothing like The Crimson Petal and the White. If you like well-written, creepy books with slow and horrible revelations, this is for you. (Hmm. That rather sums up The Crimson Petal as well!)

Dorothy B. Hughes The Blackbirder (1943)

A fine, albeit highly melodramatic read for noir fans. The Blackbirder is someone who smuggles people and other cargo in and out of the United States during the Second World War. If you can afford the service, the blackbirder will organize your escape – whether that be from Nazi occupied France, or from justice.
"I didn't even know there was a Blackbirder, not really. It's all been whispers, a legend, something a refugee believes in because he needs to believe in it, because he might have a desperate need for such a man some day."
"To escape a murder charge?" Schein pointed.
Her mouth hardened. "To escape Gestapo agents who somehow manage to reach this country despite the F.B.I."
Blaike's voice was quiet. "Couldn't it be they enter by such a method as blackbirding?"
This was why the F.B.I. was searching for the Blackbirder. They couldn't chance the entrance of dangerous aliens among honest refugees. Nor the escape dangerous aliens over the same route. Somehow she hadn't thought of it that way. The Blackbirder to her had been only a shadowy figure of refuge. He was still that but a sinister blackness darkened his shadow. His helping wings could be abused. She shook away the tremor.
The heroine of Hughes' gripping thriller has been in hiding in the States since her perilous escape from France. She cannot take her safety for granted, for she is connected to some very powerful and very bad people. Moreover, she has lost contact with the love of her life. Then, one night in New York, she is recognised, and must flee for her life – south to New Mexico to find the blackbirder and search for her lover. But the FBI is on her track, and it looks like the Gestapo is catching up too… 

The atmosphere of a country that may not be sanctuary it seems is brilliantly evoked by Hughes – who can you trust? If you want to read some Hughes, I suggest In a Lonely Place {REVIEW} -- one of the best books I read in 2011.

I had very high hopes for this book, hoping it might be a bit of a World War Two meets CSI with better frocks. And it is that. Molly Lefebure was a journalist in the early 1940s when she accepted a secretarial post with the not-quite-as-famous-as-Spilsbury pathologist Dr Keith Simpson. She took her type-writer and shorthand pad into the mortuaries of London and the surrounding areas to take down Dr Simpson's autopsy findings verbatim. Throughout the war she was witness to some of the most famous investigations of horrible crimes; then, in 1954 she published this book as a record of her wartime service. 

The reissue comes at an interesting time, I think – as the romanticized vision of Londoners in the Blitz is being subject to a bit of a more or less candid debunking. Yes, people were tremendously brave – but the war also allowed a lot of clandestine activity to flourish under the blackout. It was also often hard to bring criminals to justice – given the ease with which they might be shipped out or return overseas or be blown to bits before they could be charged. Lefebure's narrative is perhaps not for the squeamish, though I was more troubled by something else, namely her constant air of occupying the higher moral ground to her victims: she has little sympathy for a fifteen year good-time girl who is strangled by two US soldiers, "more a matter of sordid accident than murder". The same judgement is not applied to a fourteen year old innocent, assaulted on her way home from Sunday School. Her remarks on prostitutes (that 'ancient but abysmal profession'), the lower classes, and the poor in general are achingly snobbish ("I wondered… why the State cannot prosecute people for being dirty"). She's quite a fan of hanging. 

However, if you can swallow that as a product of its time (and as part of a journalistic love of sensation, where everything is to be regarded as 'material'), the book is a fascinating insight into the daily dangers of life in the Blitz for a professional woman. Her writing is occasionally absolutely striking – such as the shrapnel at Southend which "fell in little showers, more cruelly than the summer rain", or the corpses of babies, "like weary imitation flowers". This memoir is apparently being turned into a TV series, and I shall be fascinated to see if our heroine becomes more empathetic and less judgmental in the transition.

Oh, and some July things... I'm gearing up for my third year of Paris in July, hosted by Karen at BookBath and Tamara at Thyme for Tea. Sadly this year I won't actually be in Paris, as I was last year. But I'm prepared to make the best of it... ;-)  And HeavenAli is hosting Anita Brookner Reading Month too: I'm hoping to find a Brookner I haven't read, but, it's long been my problem that they all seem to similar (in a good way) that I can't remember what I've read... Something to work on!


  1. At first glance I thought Murder on the Home Front was a mystery - there seems to be a bit of trend in war-set mysteries right now. But this sounds much more interesting - "World War Two meets CSI with better frocks" made me laugh!

    1. It was interesting as social history, indeed; she just really rubbed me up the wrong way. Don't let me put anyone off reading it, please, esp. as it is such an interesting 'privileged' contrast with something domestic like Nella Last's War.

  2. Oh, I was really interested in the Lefebure when you mentioned it in your earlier post but now, after the "I wondered… why the State cannot prosecute people for being dirty", I am rather quite put off!
    Have fun with the July events! Sadly, I will have to give them a miss as I'll be heading off to Italy for a holiday. (Okay, so maybe that's not so sad after all.....) :p

    1. Oh, lucky thing! - that's the sort of sad you have when you're not having sad. So jealous!

  3. It's so frustrating when you can't say much about a book because of spoilers, I mean on one hand it's great because the book in questions tends to be brilliant, but on the other hand...

    I'm interested in The Blackbirder though would have to pass on the Blitz book because of my recent reading (too much on it at once). Another time, maybe, especially given it's a primary source.

    1. Hughes' The Expendable Man arrive in the post too, so I see some more noir in my future very soon.

  4. I remember your other review of the Hughes. It sounded fabulous, but somehow I didn't get it on my TBR. Well, it's going on now! Thanks for this recommendation! I love good noir.

    1. I can't praise In a Lonely Place highly enough - so cinematic, so frightening, so noir! The whole package. Go on!

  5. Murder on the Home Front rings a bell - was it on radio 4 quite some time ago? I'm sure I remember hearing it read as a book of the week, or a dramatisation. The Blackbirder sounds interesting, but very different to anything I might usually read, but that's no reason not to try! My Paris read is much lighter I'm afraid http://goo.gl/BjpB9

    1. Thanks Christine - I'm popping over for a visit. I'm not sure re Murder on the Home Front - the cover of my copy says it's a "major TV series from the makers of Downton Abbey" (!), but maybe they had to haul in their grand ideas when they actually read it... ;-) I'd start with In a Lonely Place if you want to read some Hughes - really scary and beautifully written.

  6. I'm waiting impatiently for the next by Michel Faber. He is way overdue.

    1. He's so versatile - maybe he's off inventing a new genre. ;-)

  7. To her credit, the late Molly Lefebure's narrative of autopsies in 1940s Britain is very descriptive, if adjective-laden. What detracts from the book is her 'jolly hockey sticks' attitude and storytelling: it is reminiscent of Kenneth More's delight at losing his legs in Reach for the Sky.

    Her cheerful and unwitting disrespect for the dead is as repulsive in 2015 as her enthusiasm for birching the lower classes. In Molly's judgement, murder victims largely had their own stupidity, cleanliness or depravity to blame for their predicament. They certainly deserved better than be dissected while mortuary staff ate sandwiches, or have their crime scene photographs displayed at her dinner parties for fun.

    Miss Lefebure, who sometimes refers to herself in the third person, is a sycophantic proponent of hanging. One feels she would dispatch the 'dirty old' lower classes personally if given the chance and never suffer an atom of regret. Indeed, she'd probably invite her rah-rah chums to gloat over the condemned before enjoying lashings of ginger beer.

    1. The further I get from the book, the more horrible she becomes (the classicism of dirt, for instance), even when I factor in the 70 years. Thank you for your comments.

  8. I remember her book about Christie and Haigh, 'Murder with a Difference,' being much better. The TV show 'Foyle's War' features a military driver played by Honeysuckle Weeks that matches Ms Lefebure's persona almost perfectly ...

    1. No doubt she was pleased with the hangings of those two... I hadn't realised how many books she had written, so perhaps I should give her a go in a context in which her personal voice doesn't predominate.


{READ IN 2018}

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  • 62. The Visitor - Lee Child
  • 61. No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Stories - Lee Child
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  • 60. The Queen's Accomplice - Susan Elia MacNeal
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  • 36. The Girl with All the Gifts - M. R. Carey
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  • 28. Richardson Scores Again - Basil Thomson
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