Friday, August 8, 2014

CATHERINE AIRD, A Late Phoenix (1971)

[A quick preliminary: Andy and I will be out of town for the next couple of days, and I'm not sure how regularly I'll be able to moderate comments during that time. Apologies in advance if comments are delayed in appearing, but don't let that stop you from sharing your thoughts! We'll be in Las Vegas, which surely is a good excuse for any delays???]

My tired, mildewy, $1 copy of A Late Phoenix

This post is in the nature of a digression, since Catherine Aird doesn't even appear on my Overwhelming List, her first novel, The Religious Body, not having appeared until 1966 (she's an out-and-out youngster, by my standards).  In fact, when I happened across an old, beat-up—and distinctly mildew-smelling—Bantam paperback of this, Aird's fifth novel, at the public library's "steps sales" (every Wednesday around lunchtime, all books $1—one of the unpondered benefits of my new job being its proximity to the main library, which allows me to visit these sales, and if the sales rarely have anything earthshattering, for $1 a book doesn't really have to shatter the earth, now does it?), I had no intention of writing about it here.  I figured it would just make for some relaxing reading to relieve the stress of adapting to the new job.

Which it certainly did.  But it also contained some themes—specifically World War II-related themes—that proved of real interest to me, and got me thinking about big issues like time and memory and history.  (You might be right in thinking "Uh-oh" when you read that, but I'm going to share the thoughts anyway, as concisely and un-ponderously as possible…)

Generally I am most interested in World War II fiction (and diaries) written while the war was actually going on or in the years immediately after.  I think this is because there tends to be, not surprisingly, a greater sense of immediacy and uncertainty in those works than in works published later.  At times, the tension resulting from this sense of uncertainty about the future—both the distant future, i.e. the by-no-means-foregone conclusion of the war, and the more immediate future, i.e. whether the author's characters, or even the author herself, would survive the present night’s raid—can be almost unbearable.  But it also feels considerably more real, and closer to what those who survived the war must have experienced, than retrospective writing—even the very best restrospective writing—can provide. 

When a later author tries to convey her characters’ worries and anxieties, it almost always stands out glaringly—spelling out the uncertainties just a bit too clearly.  Whereas in contemporary works, there can sometimes be little, if any, explicit reference at all to the future, yet somehow the sense of precariousness is palpable.  It permeates the very details of the works because it permeated the author's own life at the time she was writing.

Of course, there are exceptions to my preference.  I could, for example, sieze this opportunity to put in a plug for Connie Willis’s wonderful sci-fi duology Blackout and All Clear, written just a few years ago and known for their meticulous attention to detail and brilliant use of the Blitz and other wartime events (even more impressive, perhaps, in that Willis is American).  And even my favorite WWII memoir, Frances Faviell's A Chelsea Concerto, was written nearly a decade after the events described.

But at any rate, Catherine Aird’s A Late Phoenix occupies an interesting position in between the immediacy of contemporary accounts and the kind of retrospective account, like Willis's, that requires extensive research to pull together.  This mystery is not actually about the war, per se, in the sense that it is set in what was the present time of its publication, in 1971, rather than during the war, and deals with the investigation that follows from the discovery of a skeleton in a long-neglected wartime bomb site.  And yet it is, nevertheless, very much about the war—about memories of the war and their gradual fading, about the transition from personal memory to historical record, and about a sort of generation gap between those who recall and are scarred by the momentous events of the war and those for whom it is already firmly a tale from the past.  The investigation, led by Detective Inspector Sloan, who lived through the war but has relegated many of its details to the dustier regions of memory, hinges on elements of the Blitz which will be familiar to those interested in the period, but which are treated here with a jadedness and matter-of-fact cynicism that shows them in a different light.  For example, here's Sloan's boss reflecting on the idiosyncrasies of the Home Guard (and the clues it might offer to the bullet found with the skeleton):

"The Home Guard, man.  In case of invasion.  The people who came after the Local Defense Volunteers.  L.D.V.'s they were known as at first."  He chuckled sardonically.  "The Look, Dukc, and Vanish brigade we called them at the time."

"Really, sir?  That must have been a great encouragement."

"The Home Guard had .303s to begin with.  They had some Canadian issue rifles later but it was .303s first."

Sloan wrote that down.  Dr. Dabbe had promised him a full report on the bullet as soon as possible but this information was grist to a good detective's mill.

"After the pikes and pitchforks," said Leeyes reminiscently.  "You'd be surprised how many pillars of society reckoned they could take someone with them when they went."

"Really, sir?"

"Gentle old ladies talking fit to make your blood run cold."

Not long after, Sloan's wife reminds him about the blackout which would have been in effect at the time of the bombing raid that levelled the houses where the body was found:

"The blackout," his wife was saying through his reverie. "I remember that, too."

He stared blankly.

He'd forgotten all about there having been a blackout. That highly convenient darkness. He squared his shoulders. What he would have to do—and that without delay—was to fill in his background knowledge about the war. Before Superintendent Leeyes caught him out on having forgotten—or not having found out about—something dead simple.

For any reader with an interest in the war, it's almost unimaginable that one who lived through it could have forgotten about the blackout.  It's one of the elements that lends the most anxiety and intrigue—and, truth be told, romance—to the period.  But that's just what I loved about A Late Phoenix.  It made me wonder if, in 1971, the war was still immediate enough that it didn’t yet hold the fascination that it holds for many of us now.  Anyone older than 30 or 35 would have remembered the war personally and would likely not have cared to romanticize it or perhaps even remember it too closely, and those younger than that would probably have been tired of hearing about it from their parents.  There had been no Foyle's War yet, no Bletchley Circle (nor even any official knowledge, come to think of it, of what exactly Bletchley Park was). 

I won't go into any real detail about the plot of the mystery itself.  It's a short, fast-paced mystery, and entirely enjoyable to read.  The solution to the mystery is adequate but not particularly memorable.  But what makes the novel extraordinary—and perhaps unusual for a mystery novel—is that Aird seems so genuinely concerned with this theme of how real, urgent, life-and-death events become merely historical. 

For example, she highlights the fact that the bomb site has recently been combed over by archaeologists, eagerly seeking evidence of Saxon occupation of the site.  But the body that is found instead is not old enough to be historical—it's a disappointment, really.  Such details could even lend themselves to the kind of meditation on time and history that Penelope Lively is known for, and it might also be interesting to note that Aird was herself only 15 when World War II came to an end, so her own memories, particularly of the early years of the war, including the Blitz, could have been growing increasingly murky.

At any rate, all of this made me ponder a bit about when events become firmly and irrevocably historical and no longer personal.  It's striking to think about, say, Agatha Christie, being a very young child surrounded by adults who might have followed the newspaper coverage about the Jack the Ripper murders as they happened, and some of whom no doubt tried to feign lack of interest in something so shocking and depraved.  They might well have likewise feigned lack of interest in the Oscar Wilde trial (and for similar reasons).  Perhaps few of the adults would have spoken of these events even as Agatha got older, but there must have been plenty of awareness of them.  After all, Wilde and his trial gets mentioned rather frequently by middlebrow novelists—generally, it seems, as a convenient shorthand for either bohemian sophistication (those "in the know" about Wilde) or titillated self-righteousness (those who mention Wilde in hushed whispers or even feign ignorance about the issues at stake altogether).

But by the time youngsters like Monica Dickens or Marghanita Laski came along (both born in 1915, a quarter of a century after Christie), Oscar and the Ripper (which surely should be the title of a new musical coming soon to Broadway!) might have faded into mere, sensational history, without the tinge of personal memory. Grandparents might still have recalled them, but they would have seemed distinctly un-immediate, and if Dickens and Laski were anything like most youngsters, they probably didn't take a great deal of interest in their grandparents recollections (at least, as with most of us, until their grandparents were gone and they wished they had listened).

I've always found it interesting to think about the kinds of things writers at a given time would have known or not known that we've either forgotten or take for granted as common knowledge.  It's interesting in a trivial way (Jane Austen wouldn't have known about dinosaurs, etc.), but I admit I had never really thought about how it might be more deeply meaningful, perhaps even a revealing insight into the perspective of a writer of a particular place and time.  And it certainly might make us wonder (at least those of us obsessed with a particular period and locale of literary history) what it is that makes these authors seem so familiar and comfortable, despite the fact that their personal knowledge and perspectives would necessarily have been quite different from our own.

Now you see what has happened?  My brain is hurting…

After that bit of pondering, I shall have to share one more wonderful dialogue about the unexpected effects of the Blitz—this one again a conversation between Sloan and the Superintendent:

"The greens.  On the golf course.  The rough went very early on.  Splendid fodder it made, too, I'm told.  That was a good thing."

"Was it, sir?" Sloan didn't play golf.

''Well, it wasn't when it came back after the war because, of course, you'd got used to it not being there."

"Quite," said Sloan noncommittally.

"And we had sheep on the fairways. After all, as the Committee said, there was a war on."

"Quite," said Sloan again.

"You had to pick up all the bomb and shell splinters you could on the way round to save the mowing machine."

"As well as replacing the divots?" That much he did know.

"And the Rules had to be changed." The superintendent was getting well into his stride now. "You could take cover in a competition without penalty for ceasing play during gunfire and while bombs were falling, you know."

That the war inspired changes in the rules and play of golf is the kind of thing that might have been too trivial (or too bland and commonplace) for a wartime writer to take note of, and might be unfathomed by (or else seem too far-fetched for) a modern writer looking at the war historically.  But it's the kind of thing that Aird handles brilliantly.


  1. I have always, always liked Aird's novel "The Religious body." THAT is a good if convaluted mystery! This is a new one to me, but since I am reading WWII fiction just now, perhaps I ought to give it a try? Oh, Scott, even though it isn't as long as yours is, now I had to add to my overwhelming list! Tom

    1. I'm on the lookout for The Religious Body as well. I definitely think Aird is a writer to watch out for. I love mysteries that have more to them than just a whodunit, and this one at least certainly falls into that category.

  2. Fascinating review and I think you've picked up on some good points. I am old enough to remember growing up in the 1960s and 1970s and the war *was* still quite fresh in people's memories. Our perspective is very different now but these older works of fiction can give us another view. And this book certainly sounds worth reading if for nothing else than that!

    1. Oh, then you may find Aird's novel particularly interesting, Kaggsy. Growing up in the US, memories of the war were obviously quite different than in the UK, so I am more or less just speculating, but you would know firsthand some of the changes Aird is recording. If you read it, do let me know what you think!

    2. I've finally read and reviewed this Scott - loved it! My review is here: and thanks so much for pointing me at this!

    3. Love the review, Kaggsy, and thanks for the shout-out!

  3. I do agree with you Scott - most people seemed determined to forget the war, which on a daily basis was fear of anniliation, hard work, poor food, lack of heating, transport, etc, and a country which was shabby and bankrupt at the end of it. In the late 70s, a new generation who were not there became interested in it. I think the BBC programme 'The World at War' started the interest. Another novel you may be interested in is 'The Fancy' by Monica Dickens. This was written in wartime and covers two areas I have not seen covered elsewhere - factory work, and rabbit breeding, which was encouraged by the government to increase meat supply. Dickens worked in a factory, and seems very knowledgeable about both areas. By the way, 'fancy' in this case is an old word for hobby or interest, in this case rabbit breeding.

    1. Thanks, Michelle Ann. I can certainly imagine people wanting to forget, but somehow the extent to which they were successful had never quite hit home until I read this novel. So interesting. Oh, and I do have the Dickens novel on my TBR list, but haven't gotten to it yet. So many books...

  4. For a contemporary wartime mystery try the Great Gladys's Sunset over Soho....(1943)

    And for a contemporary school story (just for the heck of it...) the rather extraordinary - well the first half anyway - The Chalet School in Exile.

    I really like Catherine Aird and I'm not sure I've read this one. I shall seek it out.

    Hope you have a great break Scott.

    1. Thanks, Cestina. You know, I read Sunset over Soho quite a while back, before my recent obsession with Mitchell, so a re-read is surely in order. I also read The Chalet School in Exile, but I have the edition that I believe was heavily edited when it was reprinted, but is disappointing. But I quite enjoyed it.

    2. Oh that's a disaster Scott, you really need the hardback....many of us CS fans consider it one of her best books. The focus on the necessity of continuing to believe in the difference between "Germans" and "Nazis", given when it was written, is quite extraordinary. It also continues throughout her later books, also written during or just post war.

    3. Sadly, the current Amazon US price for the GGB edition of Exile is $100.00, so my enjoyment of it may have to wait for a reprint. Though admittedly it's a steal compared to some of the Elsie Oxenham's now selling for $300-400!

  5. I have a couple of her books yet to read. This one sounds really good and I love the cover!

    1. I really think you'll enjoy it, Peggy Ann. I can't wait to read more of Aird's books myself. I'll look forward to reading your review!


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