Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Adventures in reading

C.S. Lewis once wrote about how the great thing about the Church is that it brings completely disparate people together – people who probably would never have chosen each other as companions – and unites them into one body. He was probably drawing on a memory of Chesterton, who said the same thing about the Family – it’s a group of people put together through no choice of their own, who are nevertheless bound together by love and loyalty.

Lewis said that there’s a great danger in elevating “choice” above providence, and that you can’t tell how broad a person’s sympathies are just by looking at his group of friends, because friends are chosen – if a man didn’t see something he liked and valued in another man, the other man wouldn’t be a friend. The same thing goes for books: it’s no use leading me up to your bookshelf at home and proudly declaring that you like all the books on display. Of course you do; you CHOSE those books. The true test of a man’s breadth of taste and interest would be if he were plunked down in front of a bin of random clearance books (25 cents apiece) outside a used book shop, and were somehow still able to find something there to read that he could manage to enjoy.

I know Lewis wasn’t really talking about books, he was talking about community, but that phrase about being able to enjoy books one wouldn’t select stuck in my mind, and I’ve come to regard it as a bit of a challenge. As I go to country auctions, I’m in the way of ending up with a lot of random books. Typically, books are sold in box lots, so if you find one book you really want, you have to take along at least a dozen more that are bundled into the box. (And honour requires that you take them all – it’s bad form to just pull out the book you want and abandon the rest of the box, because the whole point of an auction is to clear away a lot of stuff that the original owner wants to get rid of, so he doesn’t have to load up a dumpster with the unwanted junk.) So now I’ve made a rule for myself; out of every box of old books that I buy, I will read at least ONE that I didn’t specifically set out to buy, and try to discover something interesting in it.

So far, I’ve drawn a mixed bag, which I suppose is to be expected, though there have been some pleasant surprises, and I’ve managed to get through all of them. Fortunately, most of them are easily read in about 2 days – this was light reading for the ‘20s and ‘30s. I can’t summarize all of them in this one post; I think I’ll put up my reviews a few at a time, so these books will not entirely disappear from the world:

1. The Sword of Monsieur Blackshirt (1936) by David Graeme.

This actually turned out to be a surprisingly good read. It’s about the adventures of a sort of a French soldier-of-fortune during the time of Henri IV. Lots of swashbuckling fights between sinister uber-Catholics and Huguenots, with a mysterious lady with a mysterious secret. It’s just good fun. I looked up the author, and he wrote 3 period novels around this half-gypsy, half noble hero, Raoul de Rohan. But he also wrote a great many more set in the modern era, under the name Roderic Graeme, featuring a gentleman-crook named Richard Verrell, alias “Blackshirt” – the descendant of the original French Blackshirt. He sounds to me a bit of a Raffles-type character. I’m debating whether I should try to locate some of these other novels, though since I obtained the first at Fortune’s hands, it seems to go a bit against the spirit of the thing to just look them up on abebooks.com and baldly order them. Maybe I’ll just keep an eye open and try to find one as I go to auctions and used bookstores. More sporting that way.

2. The Treasure Hunt of the S-18 (1936) by Graham M. Dean

This is an old-fashioned boys’ adventure story. I picked it out of the box because it has a nice red cloth cover with a printed black picture of an underwater diver, in the old-style diving suit with the round metal helmet. The hero, Tim Murphy, is a reporter for the Atkinson News, and is also an ace airplane pilot. Most of his adventures involve daring flights, and he helps the FBI stop a smuggler who also runs a daredevil flying show. Then the scene switches, and he gets involved in a search for treasure on a sunken ship off the coast of Mexico. This is where the divers come in, and also the S-18 submarine, which has been bought by a rich adventure-seeker named Ford, who is racing against a sneaky bad guy named Sladek. There’s a lot of fighting and shooting, but nobody gets killed, except for the wicked smuggler/pilot McDowell – he sabotages somebody else’s parachute but mistakenly picks it up himself, so when his plane is being attacked he leaps out and plummets to his death. Nobody’s fault but his own, really. And one other thing – there’s absolutely not even ONE female in this whole book.

3. The Champdoce Mystery, by Emile Gaboriau (Eng. Translation 1913)

This is actually an older, Victorian novel. It concerns a French nobleman in reduced circumstances who lives like a miser and brings his son up like a peasant, in order to restore the family fortune by careful management. The boy, Norbert, gets tired of living like a peasant and rebels when his father tries to marry him off to an heiress. He’s fallen in love with Diana de Laurebourg, a poor girl from an ancient noble family. She’s a scheming minx who sets out to capture him, but really loves him, though she can’t stop herself from scheming. When Norbert has a violent fight with his father, she manipulates him into going back home with a vial of poison in order to bump off the old man. At the last minute, he prevents his father from drinking the poisoned wine, but the old man has a stroke anyway. To please his father, Norbert agrees to marry the dull heiress. Diana, in revenge, marries somebody else, and they both settle down to be miserable.

Diana still has her scheming ways, however – she gets Norbert’s wife to admit an old flame to the house one night when Norbert is away, and tips off Norbert that his wife is cheating on him. He arrives home unexpectedly and kills the interloper, then discovers that his wife is pregnant and assumes that it’s the other man’s child, so he has the baby dumped in a foundling hospital right after birth. And so his life is ruined.

Then the story switches gears completely, and we get a whole bunch of new characters who are supposedly reciting and reading this tragical history. Norbert, now the Duke, is searching for his son, who he realizes now is really legitimate, and these fellows are planning a swindle.

I was on the point of abandoning the book at this point, because I had no idea who any of these people were – they, and others, were never introduced, and I kept checking the page numbers because I felt sure that a chapter must have fallen out of the book somewhere. All that stopped me was that one of the characters mentioned a M. Lecoq, and I was sure I’d heard that name somewhere before. Finally it came to me: “Lecoq was a miserable bungler,” were the words of Sherlock Holmes. Of course, this was one of the illustrious detectives Watson suggested to his friend as his peers – so this was the predecessor of the great detective stories.

On that basis alone, I kept reading, but it became stupider as it went along. The real heir is living just around the corner, and the scoundrels try to kill him before he can interfere with their plan. Meanwhile, he has fallen in love with…Diana’s daughter. Realizing the writer was going for a Wuthering Heights thing, where the second generation expiates the sins of their parents, I hurried to the end, where the wicked are caught and commit suicide or go to prison, the lovers are united, and the Duke finally finds his son.


Blogger Hiram said...

I read an Emile Gaboriau years ago -- same plot structure, with a pile of apparently unrelated characters who eventually reveal the connections. It was enjoyable once -- but I have never had the desire to go back and read it again.

7:13 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Well, this one is going to the thrift store, but I have another one to get through: 'Baron Trigault's Vengeance'. I don't anticipate any great work of art, but maybe it'll be a worthwhile mystery.

9:41 pm  

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