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I’m late, I know. I have an original excuse, though: I was sequestered in Barcelona all week committing acts of tech journalism pretty much from dawn to midnight for four straight days.

A Crime in Holland (Maigret #8)A Crime in Holland by Georges Simenon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is one of the earlier Maigret novels, in which Maigret travels to the tiny Dutch town of Delfzijl to unofficially investigate the murder of a local professor, as one of the suspects is a French national. Maigret is handicapped not only by the fact that he speaks no Dutch, but also the town’s tight-knit community that looks after their own. In a way the story is somewhat pedestrian in terms of the small-town trope and the eventual solution to the crime (and a rather sexist one at that, although this was written in the early 1930s). And yet the way Simenon tells it that makes it captivating, with Maigret – always a fascinating character for me to watch – keeping it interesting as he tries to figure out what’s going on. It’s a bit slow at first, but once it kicks into gear it’s a page-turner.

The Case of the Counterfeit Eye (Perry Mason Mysteries)The Case of the Counterfeit Eye by Erle Stanley Gardner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve read Erle Stanley Gardner once before but I’ve never read his Perry Mason books – which is remarkable since (1) I liked the TV show, and (2) my mom had a bunch of them on her bookshelf when I was a kid. Now that (somewhat hilariously) the American Bar Association is reprinting the Mason series, I decided it was time to try one. This is one of the earlier ones, which starts with a one-eyed client who claims someone stole his glass eye and he wants Mason to provide him with insurance in case the eye should be used to frame him – which is exactly what happens when wealthy businessman Harley Bassett is found dead with a glass eye in his palm and three guns near the body. The style is somewhat pulpish and occasionally cornball (such as when Mason introduces himself to people as “I'm Perry Mason, the lawyer”), and sometimes it’s unintentionally funny (honestly, almost everyone who comes to seek Mason’s services in this book seems to expect him to help them without confiding anything to him). And yet it’s pretty entertaining if you like dialogue-driven mysteries and courtroom drama (which I do) – it’s a fast-paced page-turner with solid characters, and while Mason’s strategy to win the case is pretty over-the-top, it’s an entertaining enough tale that it seems churlish to complain.

In the WetIn the Wet by Nevil Shute

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

My experience with Nevil Shute is limited to his post-apocalytic On the Beach, which I read ages ago and remember liking. So when I found this second-hand, I thought I’d try it. The jacket synopsis sounded promising: mysterious old man on his deathbed tells another man his life story which impossibly takes place 30 years in the future (circa 1983). But after about 100 pages I’d had enough. The “future” turns out to be concerned mainly with the political development of England and Australia and their subsequent relationship – and that’s it. It’s so mundane that if not for the jacket synopsis, at first you’d never know he was talking about future events unless you’re fairly well versed in Commonwealth political relations and democratic structures. And even then, you might think he was merely making things up, not talking about the future – it’s not until he mentions specific years that you realize something is up. And Shute’s fascination with political evolution comes at the expense of everything else – apart from democratic processes, societal norms and technologies seem to be the same in 1983 as they were in 1953. It doesn’t help that the old man – who is of mixed-race heritage – deliberately goes by a nickname that’s also a racial epithet (ostensibly to throw it in the face of anyone who might have a problem with his racial background, which is interesting, but still, it doesn’t translate well in 2017). Other people might get something out of this, but as speculative fiction goes, I found it both tedious and unconvincing.

The Moon Is DownThe Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This short novel from John Steinbeck was actually written as WW2 propaganda for the victims of Occupied Europe. Which might normally be a turnoff for me, as I don’t have much patience for propaganda. But this is Steinbeck, who characteristically eschewed blatant patriotic stereotypes and guts-and-glory action in favor of a subtle humanist story about a small unnamed town taken over by an unnamed occupying force, and the psychological impact on both sides. There’s little action (most of it is “offstage”) and the basic message is two-fold: (1) when you take over a free country by force, the locals won’t thank you for it (apart from opportunists and traitors), and will inevitably fight back however they can, and (2) conversely, it’s no fun for the soldiers subjected to the paranoia of living in a town full of civilians that hate them and want to kill them. Steinbeck was pilloried by some American critics for the latter – what kind of propaganda portrays the enemy as humans with feelings? – but it's precisely what makes the story work, both as propaganda (it was a major underground success in occupied Europe, and even occupied China) and as a story that transcends its propagandist intentions with some uncomfortable truths about war, fascism, occupation and human nature. Which is also why the book (at least to me) resonates today. Most war propaganda is mired in the time and circumstances that produced it – at its core, The Moon Is Down is as relevant in 2017 as it was in 1942. I’d recommend this edition of the book, which includes an afterword about the backstory, the controversy and how it inspired underground movements throughout occupied Europe.

View all my reviews

Do the propaganda,

This is dF
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