Category Archives: Arrow Books

Riotous Assembly – Tom Sharpe

My very first memories of encountering Tom Sharpe’s books were the copies that aligned the bookshelves in my grandparent’s bedroom when I was a youngster. They were firm favourites with Granny Savidge and Bongy and yet to me they were objects of wide eyed bewilderment bordering on terror. You see when the 7/8/9 year old me saw these books all I could see was that they tended to be covered in boobs and guns, both of which worried me. As you can imagine when they bought me a lovely second hand hardback copy of a Wilt omnibus when I was 15 I was again more worried than grateful and hid it, who knows where it is now. So when Chris chose it for Novembers book group (which was a few weeks ago) I was intrigued and also, with those feelings from way back when, worried about it. Did I really want to spend my time reading a smutty book about boobies and bullets?

Arrow Books, 1971 (2002 edition – though not cover shown, but one like grandparents had), paperback, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Riotous Assembly was Tom Sharpe’s very first published book back in 1971 and tells of a fictitious town, Piemburg, in South Africa and its police force during the apartheid. However this is not the sort of apartheid based story you might be suspecting as Tom Sharpe uses his wit, and some of the ‘naughty shenanigans’ I was expecting, to lampoon what was going on in South Africa at the time, especially those who enforced it.

Kommandant van Heerden, Piemburg’s Chief of Police, is called out to the house of Miss Hazelstone when she phones to tell him that she has killed her Zulu cook. This initially isn’t a worry for the Kommandant as white people (especially the English who he wishes he was and subsequently fawns over) are allowed to kill their black cooks as long as they do it indoors. However Miss Hazelstone killed him in the garden and will not move him, or what is left of him, nor will she have another member of her staff do it. Once at the house himself to try and smooth things over he discovers the unthinkable, Miss Hazelstone has been having relations with her cook since she was widowed and this was a crime passionel! As the Kommandent sees it, this could bring down the whole of society and cause disgrace for the city and so it must be covered up, at any cost.

At this moment he visualized the scene in court which would follow the disclosure that Miss Hazelstone had made it a habit to inject her black cook’s penis with a hypodermic syringe filled with novocaine before allowing him to have sexual intercourse with her. He visualized it and vowed it would never happen, even if it meant he had to kill her to prevent it.

With the help (though that a very ironic word considering what follows) of his number two (more appropriate a term for him by far) Konstabel Els the Kommandant calls a state of emergency over Miss Hazelstone’s property Jacaranda Park while he covers things up. Only in actual fact as the novel goes on we see the police bungle matters completely and make everything much, much worse.

As the book goes on it gets more and more farcical. Els is a psychopath in policeman’s clothing, there are drunken hidden priests, rubber fetishes and rumours of rabies become rife to keep people away. Much to laugh a long with all in all – quite possibly very loudly on public transport! What Tom Sharpe does masterfully here is that as you read on and belly laugh at events as they unfold you suddenly become aware that there is a lot of truth hidden in what you are laughing at. For example, you might be laughing at the outrageous notion that its fine to kill your cook in the house but not out of it, until you realise its true. You might be laughing as Konstabel Els finds even more ridiculous ways to torture someone, then you check yourself as you know that this did happen, and was happening when the book was published. It makes you think.

 ‘Madness is so monotonous,’ she told the doctor. ‘You would think that fantasies would be more interesting, but really one has to conclude that insanity is a poor substitute for reality.’
Then again, when she looked around her, there didn’t seem to be any significant difference between life in the mental hospital and life in South Africa as a whole. Black madmen did all the work, while white lunatics lounged about imagining they were God.

Yet also, strangely – in a good way, once you are aware of the serious nature deep set in the book Sharpe doesn’t make you feel bad for laughing. He has proved a very valuable point and highlighted some shocking truths but he keeps the laughter coming as he makes more and more preposterous things happen. It is a very, very clever way of writing something that really hits home, after all none of the events that go on to happen would have if Kommandant van Heerden has just arrested Miss Hazelstone as she wanted, but of course the true nature of her crime was unthinkable.

The more I have thought about Riotous Assembly, the more impressed I have been left by it. The humour gets you through some of the tough bits, some of the bits that people would normally find hard to read and digest (which nicely links in with what I discussed yesterday in terms of comforting vs. confronting reading) palatable by their humour yet equally devastating, if not more so, when the reader realizes the truth in it. So yet there maybe the boobies (and more) and bullets (and more) in it that I was expecting, but the way in which they are used is both titillating and thought provoking. If you have pondered reading Tom Sharpe, or maybe if you hadn’t or had written him off a little as I had, you need to start reading his work as soon as you can.

A big huge thanks to Chris for choosing this for book group, and also for making the discussion all the more interesting by sharing his childhood in Zimbabwe and being so open to talking about that and how important the book was to him. I am now desperate to get my mitts on Indecent Exposure, as it were!

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Filed under Arrow Books, Books of 2013, Review, Tom Sharpe

The Case of the Missing Servant – Tarquin Hall

Not being funny but I would never have thought I would be recommended a book by both Gav of Gav Reads (his review here) and also my Gran, yet in the case of ‘The Case of the Missing Servant’, the first Vish Puri mystery by Tarquin Hall, these two recommendations came most highly. Had Gavin not chosen this book for The Readers Book Club earlier this month I would definitely have ended up reading it on their recommendations and the fact that this was a crime series set in India, a country I am rather fascinated by though I have not had the pleasure of visiting yet.

Arrow Books, 2010, paperback, 312 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Vish Puri is one of India’s leading private detectives, well that is what he would have you know although occasionally you are left to wonder how much of that is truth and how much is pomp. In the main Vish’s line of detection is that of families wishing for one of their offspring’s betrothed to be investigated for their background and if they might be an ideal addition to the family. It isn’t the most glamourous or exciting investigating but occasionally there are instances with twists. However off and on Puri gets a real mystery and in ‘The Case of the Missing Servant’ Puri is hired to find the maid servant of Ajay Kasliwal, a prominent lawyer, who he has been accused of murdering since her sudden disappearance. It is cases like this Puri thrives on, they are also the kind of cases where one might make enemies which might be why someone is trying to get Puri killed.

One of the things that I most admired about ‘The Case of the Missing Servant’ was how Hall created a genuinely intriguing mystery that managed to really look at Indian society and how it treats the classes/caste system in many ways. He looks at how things have changed in India over the decades and how the modern world is changing time-honoured traditions for everyone living in the country. It gives the book an additional depth, on top of the intrigue of the mystery that is at the forefront of the book. From the judicial system, or lack of it, to the situation with arranged marriages Hall manages to really encapsulate a country in a time of great change.

“In the old days, there would have been no need for Puri’s services. Families got to know one another within the social framework of their own communities. When necessary, they did their own detective work. Mothers and aunties would ask neighbours and friends about prospective grooms, and the families’ standing and reputation. Priests would also make introductions and match horoscopes.
Today, well-off Indians living in cities could no longer rely on those time-honoured systems. Many no longer knew their neighbours. Their homes were the walled villas of Jor Bagh and Golf Links, or posh apartments in Greater Kailash. Their social lives revolved around the office, business meetings and society weddings.”

Another thing that I really liked about the novel was that it is really a book of team detection. Puri might be the lead detective yet really he can, to a degree, be rather bumbling and without a team around him it would be highly unlikely that he could solve the puzzle by himself, though he would have you think the contrary. I mean without Facecream, who he sends to pretend to be a maid and spy on the Kasliwal family, or Tubelight and Flush who do some of the menial hunting (and truly dangerous and physical things) he wouldn’t be able to solve everything that came his way.

“Puri had positioned two of his best undercover operatives, Tubelight and Flush, down in the street.
These were not their real names, of course. Being Punjabi, the detective had nicknames for most of his employees, relatives and close friends. For example, he called his wife Rumpi; his new driver Handbrake; and the office boy, who was extraordinarily lazy, Door Stop.”

I also greatly admired Hall’s way of interweaving several mysteries all at once. In some crime novels we simply get one criminal on the run doing all sorts of horrendous things. With Vish Puri we not only get ‘The Case of the Missing Servant’, we also get three investigations into future spouses of families (one is ending at the start of the book, one sort of peters out and vanishes, one has a brilliant twist which I loved) and on top of that we get Puri’s own mother investigating who has tried to shoot her son. This strand for me, and indeed Puri’s mother, really stole the show for me and I loved every single chapter with her in it, in fact I am hoping that she gets her own standalone series.

 “Puri had learned from hard experience that it was impossible to hide dramatic elements in his life from his mother. But he would not tolerate her nosing about in his investigations.
True, Mummy had a sixth sense and, from time to time, one of her premonitions proved prescient. But she was no detective. Detectives were not mummies. And detectives were certainly not women.”

This I suppose is a positive way to tap into some of the flaws that I found in the book. Firstly I wasn’t sure if it knew what sort of crime novel it wanted to be. In some ways, particularly with its sense of humour and the bumbling and pompous Puri at the helm, it felt like it was a cosy crime novel (which as a fan of M.C. Beaton I have no prejudice about at all) yet with its additional depth and uncovering of Indian society it also felt like it was trying to be a more thought provoking novel too – yet in being both something was lost from both parts. I do wonder if having read Kishwar Desai’s Witness The Night’ first some time ago, which was the latter but very funny with its darkness, might have had something to do with this, maybe.

I also didn’t really think (and I wonder if this is why the Poirot comparisons have been made) that Hall liked Puri very much and was actually using him as a figure of fun in more than just a ‘ha, ha’ way. It could be, as Gavin mentions on The Readers Book Club (and we have a small tiff about it) that it is a debut novel. This could also link into the fact that I don’t think anyone could guess the culprit, as it felt a little bit like a triple twist thrown in at the end last minute, whilst I don’t expect to guess every crime novels denouement (I’m not that clever) I want to at least be able to try.

‘The Case of the Missing Servant’ leaves me a little conflicted. On the one hand I loved the fact that the book gave me so much more (I haven’t even touched on the fascinating bits about the history of Indian detection) than I was expecting and met the eye, all done without trying to prove a moral point or bash me over the head with research. Yet occasionally I didn’t connect and I am wondering if it was with Puri himself? Overall though I enjoyed it, see I am puzzled.

I think I will have to try another one to make my mind up about this fully which shouldn’t be difficult to do as they have become so popular. With two more already published, another on the way, and mentions in this book of Puri’s past cases like ‘The Case of the Missing Polo Elephant’, ‘The Case of the Pundit with the Twelve Toes’ and ‘The Case of the Laughing Peacock’ it looks like there will be plenty more to choose from, though as I like to read a series in order I should try the second, ‘The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing’, next – though I do know the ending having read some of it to Gran in hospital. Hmmm.

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Filed under Arrow Books, Review, Tarquin Hall, The Readers Podcast

Some Quick Reads…

You may have noticed around the blogosphere on Thursday last week that many a blogger was ignoring Valentine’s Day (and any possible conflicting presents they got) in favour of mentioning the new list of Quick Reads. Today, if a little belatedly, it is my turn to have a natter to you about the initiative, which after speaking to its Project Manager for The Readers I became all the more impassioned about, and also to report back on having read a couple of the books which rather marvellously seems to have cured my reading funk – hoorah to that.

Whilst I was in my ‘reading rut’ did you know that I was joining in with around 12 million other people in the UK alone? No, me neither! The idea behind Quick Reads is to get books into the hands of those who don’t read and to get those who do read to try something new and different, though for me it is the non readers that I think are the most important. The initiative aims itself at people who are worried that books will be boring, make them feel unintelligent, have bad associations with their education and much more. Basically these books are designed to appeal to the sort of person I was not so many moons ago, though before the initiative was founded in 2006, when I had been put off reading and thought it was a dull and self satisfactory kind of pass time – oh how things have changed. Obviously it has a real poignancy for me, especially as I was someone lucky enough to have friends and relatives eager to provide me with lots of reading recommendations, but many people don’t.

Quick Reads distributes these mini novels, all written by a host of well known authors with big back catalogues to quickly take a reader off into a world of escapism, in retail stores around the UK for just £1, on Amazon for even cheaper if you have a K***** (cough) and free in libraries all around, and up and down, the UK. They are also starting reading groups in prisons where it has proven that reading and literacy can curb reoffending, what could be better as an initiative.

The question is though… What are the books actually like? It is this that made me hold off from writing about the initiative until I had read some and so here, in mini review form as I know I am waffling on, are my thoughts on the ones that the non reader of my past would have grabbed if he had had the option.

Wrong Time, Wrong Place – Simon Kernick

*** Arrow Books, paperback, 2013, fiction, 92 pages, kindly sent by Quick Reads

As a group of friends go hiking in the Scottish highlands they come across a naked woman who is running from something or someone. Clearly having been beaten and half starved but unable to speak a word of English they decide to help her and take her to their holiday cottage, their kindness however is their biggest mistake as someone knows that this girl is missing and they will do everything and anything to cover up this girls existence and anyone else’s knowledge of it.

Well, wow! Simon Kernick certainly knows how to grip you from the start of this tale until the very end – which had two or three absolutely brilliant twists in it. Clichéd as it sounds I actually couldn’t put this down and read it in one great greedy gulp. It is quite terrifying, though it does go a little farcical at points and also reminded me of several horror movies, yet that is what may attract non readers to it and keep them reading because it is a pure escapist adrenaline rush. I was chilled and thrilled throughout but especially by the ending, genius. It should come with a warning for anyone who is averse to gore though.

A Dreadful Murder; The Mysterious Death of Caroline Luard – Minette Walters

**** Pan Macmillan Books, paperback, 2013, fiction, 125 pages, kindly sent by Quick Reads

In 1908, in a small town in Kent, Mrs Caroline Luard was found dead outside the Summer House in the large estate that she rented with her husband. She had been attacked and shot twice in broad daylight with no
witnesses and soon her husband became the prime suspect as the last person to see her alive and the first person to find her dead. In this short novel Minette Walters looks at one of England’s unresolved true crimes, one that in its heyday was infamous, and tries to see if she can work out who the killer was.

This was just my sort of book. I love that period in history and how detection was evolving, as it was still a relatively new form of policing, I also love a grand house as a murder setting and all the gossip that evolves below stairs and in the surrounding neighbourhoods and I love true crimes and find the unsolved ones all the more intriguing, even if it is slightly infuriating that we will never know the truth. So I naturally thought that this was brilliant. I could see this making people rush off to read more fictionalised true crimes, books from the era and of course more of Minette Walters books themselves – I know I wanted to do just this when I finished it.

So… hopefully that gives you an idea of what a brilliant initiative this all is. For me, from both the mind of someone who didn’t used to read at all and someone who is now an addicted avid reader, these two reads were just great. One provided utter escapism and took me into a genre I tend to watch in films rather than read, though might read more in the future for escape, the other reignited my desire for narrative nonfiction or a book from the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. Both were from authors I had never tried before and will definitely give another whirl.

If you fancy giving anyone you know who doesn’t read much a good start I would recommend passing them one of these and supporting a brilliant cause, or indeed (as I was last week) you find yourself in a reading funk or you just want to dabble with something new in your reading diet then pick up a couple for yourself. I would definitely recommend them on both counts. You can hear more about the initiative on The Readers this week, and visit the Quick Reads website too. Which of their books have you read and what did you make of them?

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Filed under Arrow Books, Minette Walters, Pan MacMillan, Quick Reads, Review, Simon Kernick

The Daughter of Time – Josephine Tey

Since there has been a sudden resurgence of interest in the British consciousness of late regarding Richard the Third, and the fact that a skeleton found under a car park is apparently him, I realised I knew nothing about him apart from the tale I was told at school that he killed his two nephews. A book which looks at Richard III is ‘The Daughter of Time’ by Josephine Tey and so I thought I would give it a whirl, I also remembered that this book was discovered through a mystery all of its very own. I was on the phone to my mother a few months ago and she suddenly said ‘oh Simon, you will know this. What is the book about the murder of the two princes in the Tower of London that was on radio 4 this week, or maybe it was last week, it sounded really good.’ Alas Simon didn’t have a clue but thanks to twitter and a shout out I was deluged with possibilities and then discovered that it was ‘The Daughter of Time’ and that it had been on an episode of ‘A Good Read’ which, oddly as I listen to every episode, I had missed somehow. I managed to wangle my mother and myself copies of it and whilst she read it almost the moment she had it, I was waiting for the right time. Now seemed like it.

*** Arrow Books, paperback, 1951 (2009 edition), fiction, 321 pages, very kindly sent (to me and my mother) by the publisher

I think that ‘The Daughter of Time’ might be one of the most unusual mystery novels I have read in terms of its structure. From the cover you would think that Josephine Tey would be writing a historical mystery set in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s of Richard’s rule. This is not the case at all and in fact the whole novel is told in the confines of one room as Inspector Alan Grant lies on a hospital bed after having an accident chasing after a criminal. Grant is beyond bored and needs something, anything, to take his mind off the ceiling which is all he can see when he is awake. Friends have brought books but none of them are gripping him. However when his friend, and star of the theatre scene, Marta brings him an array of faces that have mysteries behind them he finds himself struck by the portrait of Richard III. What intrigues him all the more is that people have such a definite reaction to him, mainly as a wicked tyrant, hunchback and murderer. Yet as Grant looks at his face he isn’t so sure he sees a killer, and having met a few he feels he would know, and so he decides to find out more and indeed if this man could really have killed his nephews and what might have driven him to it.

“So that was who it was. Richard the Third. Crouch-back. The monster of nursery stories. The destroyer of innocence. A synonym for villainy.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a Josephine Tey novel, yet this wasn’t it. Whilst I have not read her before, though I have read a fictional account of her, I imagined that her novels would be gripping but might be a little bit twee – I am not sure where this assumption has come from. What Tey delivers with this novel is a cleverly twisted take on both the historical novel and the crime novel and I loved how different it was. I didn’t think just by having Grant reading about Richard III, and then having the help of an American Scholar at the British Museum visiting to help him, that I would be transported to the era and yet on occasion I found myself very much there, especially when Tey writes fictional accounts by other authors of what they think went on in her own fictional book.

I did have a few small quibbles with the book though despite how much I enjoyed it. Occasionally I felt that Tey included too many excerpts of the dry historical tomes that she seemed to be berating and so there were chunks of ‘The Daughter in Time’ that felt rather wooden by default and broke the spell for me every now and then. Secondly I didn’t feel Tey could decide if she had to spell everything out for the reader in terms of the history of the time, and the events before and after it, in case you didn’t know it or if she assumed that anyone reading the book would know what happened and so she weirdly veered between the two. Sometimes you would have a really detailed picture of what was going on and others I was re-reading and re-reading the pages to see just how everyone was linked to whom and in what way.

This mainly happened in the middle of the book safely sandwiched between the section in which we get to know Grant, and the wit in which he describes his nurses, and his friends and how his interest in Richard III starts and then in the final section of the book where he starts to think that maybe Richard III wasn’t the ogre, and more importantly the murderer, that everyone has come to think of him as. The ending gets really gripping and builds up quite a pace, which seems so ironic as its told in the most mundane of hospital rooms, very clever.

Whilst I can’t say I was completely hooked throughout the whole of ‘The Daughter of Time’ (I feel I am being a much tougher reviewer at the moment, I am blaming ‘The House of Mirth’ for being so wonderful and everything I have read since just not being able to match) I did enjoy it as a different take on historical and mystery fiction. It is very much a book about books and the importance of them both fictional and non, and also a book that reminds you to question everything you are told as fact, some of it might not be true. A good read indeed that is written in a way I haven’t experienced in a novel of these genres before and one I would recommend trying if you ever need something to escape into.

Who else has read this and what did you think of it? I am undecided if I should try more Tey or not in the future, would you recommend I do so or not, and if so where next?

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Filed under Arrow Books, Josephine Tey, Random House Publishing, Review