216–226: The Prussian Officer; If I Die Before I Wake; Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang; Don’t Point That Thing at Me; The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; The Red House Mystery; Coraline & Other Stories; The Lost World; Robinson; The Call of the Wild; and White Fang

DH Lawrence’s The Prussian Officer is a strangely brutal (in places), and yet excellent, collection of short stories, from the titular tale in which the brutality of the officer in question has murderous consequences. Conflict and feeling are predominant themes. (Also, and quite irrelevantly, I will never miss an opportunity to introduce people to, or remind them of, Lawrence’s poem “Snake”.)

I’m going to level with you now. I bought If I Die Before I Wake for one reason and one reason only: it had a photograph of Rita Hayworth on the front cover (she starred in the adaptation, The Lady from Shanghai). That was enough to make me think “go on, then” and add it to the teetering pile in front of me. And I’m glad I did – it’s darkly compelling, like The Postman Always Rings Twice in its blend of eroticism and violence. It’s a story of cross and double-cross and triple-cross, of hidden, sordid motives and explosive human passions. A very, very good book.

Massive shift in tone to Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, Ian Fleming’s move into children’s stories. It’s not the best book ever written, but it’s reasonably good fun. Can’t say I’d be in a rush to include it on a list of best children’s books.

Bed is the only place for protracted telephoning. It is also excellently suited to reading, sleeping and listening to canaries. It is not at all a good place for sex: sex should take place in armchairs, or in bathrooms, or on lawns which have been brushed but not too recently mown, or on sandy beaches if you happen to have been circumcised. If you are too tired to have intercourse except in bed you are probably too tired anyway and should be husbanding your strength.

Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Don’t Point that Thing at Me, aptly decribed on the cover as being like a collaboration between PG Wodehouse and Ian Fleming (in his James Bond moods), introduces the ridiculous Charles Mortdecai, a vaguely crooked, slightly overweight, frequently rather earthy art dealer. The 2015 film Mortdecai, a loose adaptation starring Johnny Depp and Gwyneth Paltrow, was a universally panned flop, which is a shame; the book itself is hilarious and deserves much, much better. Bonfiglioni gives Mortdecai, the narrator, an excellently judged voice, perfectly suited to the admitted absurdity of the plot, and a number of engaging supporting characters.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase struck me as being nothing so much as Star of Kazan-esque. It takes place in a fictional nineteenth century, in which wolves have been driven back into Britain from the Continent, and is a generally fun tale.

Almost as weird as Bertrand Russell writing short stories (at least to the uninitiated) must be the thought of AA Milne, best known for a certain bear of very little brain, penning a murder mystery. But that’s exactly what The Red House Mystery is – a really very good tale in which the instantly likeable Anthony, who “could never resist another person’s bookshelves,” takes on the role of amateur sleuth, including appointing his friend Bill “the complete Watson,” asking if he is willing “to have quite obvious things explained to you, to ask futile questions, to give me chances of scoring off you, to make brilliant discoveries of your own two or three days after I have made them myself – all that kind of thing?” Milne is a very talented writer, with a fabulous lightness of touch despite the murder at the centre of the piece – another work of his that I’ve been getting through recently is The Holiday Round, which is similarly delightful though rather less gory.

Few writers can match the bizarre and macabre imagination of Neil Gaiman, and the tales in Coraline & Other Stories demonstrate that convincingly. I spoke recently about his knack for transitions to worlds which are somehow Other, and “Coraline” itself is a sterling example. It was in the first publication of “Coraline” that Gaiman gave the from-memory paraphrase of GK Chesterton that by virtue of pith is more quotable: “Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” For those unfamiliar with the idea (I believe there was a film a few years ago), Coraline is a young girl who strays through a door into an alternative version of her own house, inhabited by the sinister Other Mother and Other Father with buttons for eyes. I don’t really want to say any more; it’s excellent and deserves reading.

The other stories in the collection are no less worthwhile. I would particularly recommend “Chivalry” (“She thought about mentioning to him that she had the Holy Grail in her front parlour, but decided against it”) and “Sunbird” (an exceptionally good story), but they’re all brilliant, with sparkling inventiveness, some lovely imagery, and tightly deployed language.

Just as AA Milne stepped into the detective genre with The Red House Mystery (q.v.), so Arthur Conan Doyle steps out of it with The Lost World, in which a violent geological upheaval millions of years in the past has led to the existence of an inaccessible plateau in the South American jungle, home to all the most fearsome dinosaurs of time gone by. So, obviously, a four-man expedition to the place is mounted – two scientists, an unlucky-in-love newspaperman, and a man-of-action aristocrat – and it turns out to be just as dangerous as you might expect.

If you choose the sort of life which has no conventional patterns you have to try to make an art of it, or it is a mess.

Muriel Spark’s Robinson is a sort of darkly, peculiarly comedic take on the castaway genre. She’s a funny writer, and a very compelling one, and this is definitely worth the price of admission.

Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang are two almost mirror stories – the one about a dog who becomes a wolf, the other about a wolf who becomes a dog. Both are excellent, and very moving, and Call of the Wild in particular addresses the idea that it’s impossible to be two things at once – Buck finds that he must either be wild or domesticated, answer the Call wholeheartedly or ignore it.

The Prussian Officer
Author DH Lawrence
Published 1914
Pages 218
Best character Syson, from “The Shades of Spring”.

If I Die Before I Wake
Author Sherwood King
Published 1938
Pages 150
Best character Elsa Bannister.

Author Ian Fleming
Published 1964 and 1965 (in two parts)
Pages 150
Best character Commander Pott. “Never say ‘no’ to adventures. Always say ‘yes’, otherwise you’ll lead a very dull life.”

Don’t Point That Thing at Me
Author Kyril Bonfiglioli
Published 1973
Pages 166
Best character Chief Superintendent Martland.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
Author Joan Aiken
Published 1962
Pages 184
Best character James.

The Red House Mystery
Author AA Milne
Published 1922
Pages 211
Best character Bill Beverley. “Bill would have said ‘No,’ because Bill wouldn’t have killed anybody in cold blood himself, and because he took it for granted that other people behaved pretty much as he did.”

Coraline & Other Stories
Author Neil Gaiman
Published 2009
Pages 275
Best line “You wouldn’t want to make a universe angry. I bet an angry universe would look at you with eyes like that.” Or: “If you came to me in company with a purple lion, a green elephant, and a scarlet unicorn astride which was the King of England in his Royal robes, I do believe that it is you and you alone that people would stare at, dismissing the others as minor irrelevancies.”
Best character The cat in “Coraline”. “I’m not the other anything. I’m me.”

The Lost World
Author Arthur Conan Doyle
Published 1912
Pages 187
Best character Lord John Roxton.

Author Muriel Spark
Published 1958
Pages 169
Best character Jimmie.

The Call of the Wild
Author Jack London
Published 1903
Pages 86
Best character John Thornton.

White Fang
Author Jack London
Published 1905
Pages 212
Best character Weedon Scott.


2 thoughts on “216–226: The Prussian Officer; If I Die Before I Wake; Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang; Don’t Point That Thing at Me; The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; The Red House Mystery; Coraline & Other Stories; The Lost World; Robinson; The Call of the Wild; and White Fang

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