Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Multiple Mask Murders

It so happens that I have fairly recently read two detective novels which revolved round multiple masks. To be quire precise, one, Josephine Bell's Death in Clairvoyance was about six people dressed as clowns in green and white costumes and masks at a fancy dress ball and the other one, Mavis Doriel Hay's The Santa Klaus Murder, was about two (as it turns out) people dressed as the not so jolly fat man in red costume and lots of facial hair.

Josephine Bell is one of the underrated writers of both classic detective stories and thrillers. A physician as well as a prolific author, she co-founded the Crime Writers' Association in 1953 and was later its Chair. A number of her books take place in and around hospitals and one of her series heroes is a medical student, later ever more eminent doctor, David Wintringham, who is the semi-amateur detective in Death in Clairvoyance as well.

It is 1949, the war is slowly receding into memory though there are still mined areas along the coast and, naturally, rationing, and the Wintringham family, David, his wife Jill and their four precocious children are on holiday by the sea when they become involved in the murder of one clown by, it seems, another clown. Seems is the right word since the murder is either sighted ahead or seen as it is happening in another part of the hotel by a clairvoyant. The victim turns out to be the clairvoyant's husband who had introduced distinctly cheating methods into her seances and caused her imprisonment. In the meantime, there are several chapters of people trying to sort out all the different clowns, who they were, when did they collect their costumes and putting the general mayhem into order.

The Wintringham children go off to investigate on their own and very nearly end up dead - the description of them being caught in a cave after an explosion and having to escape is taut and terrifying. There is another murder, an attempted murder, a seance and the criminal is unmasked.

Fascinatingly, the whole question of clairvoyance is treated with seriousness, leaving the reader to decide whether it is real. David and others spend some time thinking about the subject and wondering whether they believe it but it is clear that Odette Hamilton is not a fraud and does, indeed, see certain things. In fact, she is of some help to the investigators. This is rather different from the usual description of seances, for instance in Sayers's Strong Poison or A. E. W. Mason's At the Villa Rosa, both assuming that such practices are fraudulent though the intentions can be good.

Mavis Doriel Hay wrote only three detective novels in the thirties and these were forgotten until the British Library decided to reprint them. The Santa Klaus Murder is the last one she wrote (in 1936) and is, in my opinion, the best. They are all very well written (Mavis Doriel Hay was also an early graduate of Oxford, attending St Hilda's College about the same time as Sayers was at Somerville) but the other two have an ai of facetiousness that is absent in this novel, though the descriptions are still amusing.

The plot revolves round a possible new will to be made by a very rich man, a Christmas party with lots of incongruous guests as well as obnoxious children and two Santa Klaus costumes. There is a map, which is quite useful though the various comings and goings in the crucial half an hour are almost impossible to follow, a locked room as well as an impossible murder and a story written quite deliberately from several points of view. All very clever and enjoyable.

Though Santa Klaus does not wear a mask, it is a fair point that the hood, the whiskers, the eyebrows (very important) and the heavy dab of rouge makes it very hard to identify the wearer of the costume. Very hard but not impossible, I am glad to say, though I share the view of many children that there is something sinister about that fat man in red.


Monday, October 24, 2016

Sixty years ago


The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (known throughout my childhood in that country as the Counter-Revolution) lasted such a short period that people tend to get the dates wrong. I have seen comments yesterday about the anniversary of the Soviet tanks invading the country to put the uprising down. That did not happen till November 4 and they did not exactly invade as they had never left. The tanks and the troops had withdrawn from Budapest but fighting had gone on in other cities such as Győr in north-west Hungary. What happened on November 4 was the arrival of huge reinforcements and a move back into Budapest.

Back to October 23. Tens of thousands of people came out to demonstrate for a variety of related causes - from free elections to the abolition of the hated socialist symbols, imposed by he occupying Soviet power; from extra holidays to the return of Transylvania and many others. But overriding all this cacophony was the call for greater freedom and greater national independence.

The picture above is of the original demonstrators, staff and students, from the Budapest university filing past the 1849 Polish and Hungarian hero, General Bem. Somewhere in that crowd are my parents. My brother and I (once I came home from school soon after noon) were looked after by my grandmother. They did not return till late in the evening by which time the demonstration had become an uprising: fighting had broken out by the Radio Budapest where the soldiers, sent to help the ÁVH (the secret police and its troops) joined the crowds, and elsewhere. As demonstrators broke off and approached military barracks, gates were opened and arms surrendered. During the night Soviet military help, which was not that far away, was requested by the government and Soviet tanks entered Budapest. The fighting spread.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

So it can be done

Now that the great Marmite row has been settled, at least temporarily, with Tesco emerging as the unlikely champion of the ordinary shopper, we can all turn our attention to other matters related to Brexit, however distantly. This story must annoy the Remain campaign a lot as David Cameron's inability to secure a five year moratorium on welfare for EU migrants was one of the Leavers' best arguments. You see, we all said, nothing can be done, nothing can be achieved. Apparently, this is not so or belatedly not so.

On October 12, the German government approved a law
to curb social benefits for EU citizens who arrive in the country without a job, as it responds to pressure to get tough on migrants.

Under the draft legislation, which still needs to go through parliament, EU nationals who have never worked in Germany will have to wait five years before they can claim benefits.
One of the mysterious aspects of the whole process that eventually led to that vote on June 23 was Cameron's lack of success in his negotiations with his EU colleagues. We all knew or, at least, suspected that he would come back with a fudge but he came back with nothing. This would have been a popular agreement and would have been very useful to the Remain camp. Given what has just happened in Germany, it could have been pushed through Parliament but HMG, as usual, decided not to antagonize the EU.

Why exactly could the colleagues give Cameron more help? Did they not care what would happen in the UK or, more likely, could they really not believe that the people of this country would vote against the European project? One wonders what kind of regrets may have been voiced privately on June 24 about those negotiations.

Of course, there is a history to the problem in Germany as well.
The strict new measure comes after a federal court ruled last year that every EU citizen had the right to claim benefits once he or she had resided in Germany for six months.

The ruling sparked fears of “welfare tourism” from countries with a lower standard of living, and angered German municipalities who were already struggling with the financial burden of caring for last year’s record influx of migrants and refugees.

“It’s clear that anyone who lives here, works here and pays their contributions is also entitled to the benefits of our social system,” said Labour Minister Andrea Nahles after the cabinet adopted the legislation.

But for those “who have never worked here and rely on state financial aid to survive, the principle applies that they should claim livelihood benefits from their home country.”
Interestingly and annoyingly for the Remain camp,
A European Court of Justice legal adviser said on Tuesday that Germany may refuse nationals of other Member States ‘social security benefits for jobseekers who are in need of assistance, on the basis of a general criterion that demonstrates the absence of a genuine link with the host Member State,
So there we are. I can be done or that is what it looks like at the moment. But it is all too late for the Remainers. Perhaps they should turn their attention to matters such as this instead of trying to overturn the results of the referendum.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Death Wears a Mask

A new month and a new theme. We are coming up to Hallowe'en (which I tend to ignore as my house is protected by my black cat who sits on the window sill and glares at all potential trick-or-treaters) so it was decided to deal with murder in costume. As before Kate Jackson is collecting all the contributions on her blog. They are very well worth reading.

Several people wrote about Agatha Christie in the first week. It is, in fact, almost impossible to produce a clutch of blogs about classic detective stories (let us not get into an argument as to what is and what is not Golden Age) without mentioning that lady and her output. Despite the fact that it is fashionable to dismiss her work (a trend that, I am sorry to say, the Baroness James strongly contributed to) the truth is that it was often of the first order on many more levels than just clever plots, Several aspects of crime and detective fiction were pioneered by her.

My colleagues among the Tuesday Night Bloggers  covered a number of Christie's novels and short stories in which people wear masks in the sense of masquerading as someone else. Off the top of my head I can refer to A Murder Is Announced (in which only about two members of a household are what they say they are), After The Funeral (in which we see the same person in two guises without realizing it) and One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (about which I cannot say anything without giving away the plot). There are others but I want to look at a slight adventure, one of the Beresfords' about whom I have written before here and here.

One of their adventures in Partners in Crime, which spreads over two stories, Finessing the King and The Gentleman Dressed in Newspaper, deals with murder committed by a masked man with the victim also being masked. The crime is committed in a private room of a rather shady cafe, called The Ace of Spades, to which the Beresfords go at midnight, having attended (in Tommy's case reluctantly) The Three Arts Ball. They hear a cry and sinister laughter in the room next to theirs and go in to find a dying lady dressed as the Queen of Hearts, who manages to whisper that Bingo did it. Nothing is exactly straightforward and Tuppence manages to work out the truth because she remembers something Tommy had told her about differences in newsprint from day to day in what must be their favourite newspaper, The Daily Leader. That and the killer's sinister laughter.

Masquerading as another person or wearing a mask to hide the real personality is a frequent Christie device. In this story, the mask is physical - the killer assumes another's outfit in order to confuse both victim and police.

Like most of the stories in Partners in Crime this is clever but skight. As so often with Christie's work, it gives a delightful picture of life in London of a particular period, in this case, the mid-twenties - the fancy dress balls and the caffs one can go to for bacon and eggs or Welsh rabbit [that is the original spelling, by the way] afterwards; the ladies and gentlemen who manage to live on private income, which causes criminal problems and the ease with which one can acquire just the right fancy dress costume.

This is a McCarty Incog. story with Tuppence managing to get the right clothes for them to wear at the ball, pointing out that it is time they studied and imitated some American detective methods. (Their original plan or, rather, Tuppence's original plan is to work out what a particular personal ad means as a kind of practice as business is none too brisk. Actually, business for Blunt's Brilliant Detectives is never too brisk, which is surprising in the light of their success.) Tuppence is McCarty the former cop who usually solves the problem because of some simple comment by his friend Dennis Riordan, the fireman. That is what happens here.

The 1983 - 1984 TV series with Francesca Annis, James Warwick and Reece Dinsdale, a more successful version than the 2015 one abandoned several aspects of the original. There was no question of Soviet espionage, which made some of the introductory comments by Inspector Marriott (Mr Carter, the Chief, was dropped completely) somewhat incomprehensible and it was clearly decided that the audiences will not manage to understand the references to classic detective stories. No mention of McCarty and Riordan and Tuppence's costume is a rather poor version of somebody's idea of Sherlock Holmes while Tommy swelters away as Dr Watson. To be fair, none of the other detectives are mentioned either, which makes the Beresfords' lunch at the ABC Corner House (The Sunningdale Mystery) also incomprehensible. One can hear a subtext but there is no explanation.

I can't help feeling that is rather a pity. In the first place, one or two of the references would be comprehensible and, secondly, even if they are not, the idea of imitating great fictional detectives is a highly amusing one. You never know, some viewers might try to find out more.


Saturday, October 8, 2016

More about what is going on in Hungary

That referendum in which everyone was victorious has been superseded by other news. The first I heard of it was through an e-mail from a friend who is the Director of the Free Market Foundation in Hungary.  [The website is in Hungarian but if you ask Mr Google nicely he will give you a rough translation.] This is what Máté Hajba wrote:
Today is a dark day in Hungary's history. The already battered freedom of the press has suffered yet another blow, this time with the suspension of the biggest and one of the oldest Hungarian daily newspapers, Népszabadság.

The newspaper was a prestigious news outlet with excellent pundits. Free Market Foundation didn't agree with the position of the paper all the time, nevertheless we were on friendly terms, and they often reported on our activities favourably.

The publisher of Népszabadság has been recently bought by someone close to the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who allegedly directed the purchase and the suspension of operations, as the newspaper had been uncovering sensitive details regarding corruption in the governing party Fidesz.
According to the Agence France-Presse story as published in the Telegraph, the sale is merely being rumoured.
On Saturday there was speculation that Népszabadság might also be soon sold to an Orbán ally, but Mediaworks, owned by a Austrian media magnate, made no mention of any sale.
Mediaworks is insisting that the decision to suspend the newspaper's publication has been made for entirely business reasons as the newspaper, despite being Hungary's biggest-selling broadsheet is a loss-making enterprise and some rethinking is necessary.
Mediaworks, which bought Nepszabadsag and several other Hungarian titles in 2014, said that its circulation had tumbled by 74 percent in the last 10 years, racking up losses of around 5 billion forints (16.4 million euros, $18.4 million).

The title must try to find a business model appropriate to market trends, the company said, calling on "all affected by the move to concentrate on that task".
Curiously enough, nobody really believes that and the ineffectual socialist opposition has called for a demonstration outside the newspaper's offices. If it happens, it is likely to be joined by people who do not support the various left-wing parties but are, nevertheless, alarmed at another example of the Hungarian government's propensity to control the media.

Meanwhile, here is a statement from Zoltán Kész who was Director of the Free Market Foundation and is now its Honorary Chairman as well as an independent MP [and a friend of mine]:
Hungary must unite and put an end to this rampage. Enough is enough. The government is disregarding European values and common sense. It is only power that matters to them, as with power they can steal as much money as they want. Corruption is running high in Hungary and the governing politicians are getting rich on the taxpayer and the EU, while the former gets nothing in return and the latter is being attacked by Viktor Orbán.
As a matter of fact there is a good deal of EU money being poured into Hungary but its destination is often mysterious and Hungary's economy is in a parlous state as witnessed by the huge exodus of young and not so young, often highly qualified, people.

Nevertheless, Orbán is not Putin and opposition figures are not exiled, imprisoned, beaten up or murdered. Whatever people thought of that referendum, there were no complaints of stuffed ballot boxes and nor have there been any about past elections. So why is the opposition not capable of organizing itself adequately?

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Everyone claims victory

The extraordinary outcome of the Hungarian referendum last Sunday about the supposed plan to settle a definite number of migrants in the country is that everyone is claiming victory.

Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister, has claimed victory because 98 per cent of those who voted did so to reject the EU plan. The EU's various politicians and spokespersons have claimed victory because the low turn-out meant the vote was legally invalid though it is not clear what it could have achieved in legal terms. The Economist is celebrating because the low turn-out is a defeat for populism despite the high level of vote for Orbán's proposal and despite his assertion that he will now take steps to change the Hungarian constitution to take account of the vote. The Economist is, in fact, trampling triumphantly, or so they think on Mr Orbán and his reputation in Europe.

All this triumphalism is problematic. One can see why Prime Minister Orbán's assertion of victory is a problem with a turn-out of about 44 per cent and valid votes at about 40 per cent. On the other hand, turn-out has never bothered EU politicians or their acolytes before. Indeed, this is the first time I have seen publication of the proportion of spoilt ballot papers. In other elections, such as the ones for the European Parliament, such matters are passed by without any comment. Besides, abstention is not the same as voting against. If Mr Orbán's proposals were that unpopular why did people not turn out to vote on the other side? Could it be that the motivaation was somewhat different and there was a fear that the EU might punish the country if it voted the "wrong" way? There were people who disliked Orbán's idea of a referendum but did not entirely disagree with the notion that the National Assembly should be making decisions of this kind, not the EU. And there were many who thought that as this matter is not in the Hungarian government's competence, there ought not to be a referendum about it.

There is another interesting detail that is being carefully avoided by both sides. Mr Orbán, as it happens, did refer to the referendum thirteen years ago when Hungary voted to join the European Union. He has pointed out that the vote this time was higher than in 2003. Those rejoicing in the non-legality of the 2016 referendum did not refer to the previous one for good reason: that, too, was illegal as the turn-out was under 50 per cent but, somehow, nobdody at the time bothered to talk about it.

Results in 2016 were: turn-out 43.42 per cent, that is 3,561,735 out of an electorate of 8,272,625 and as we knowjust under 4 per cent of the votes were deemed spoilt. The question was: "Do you want to allow the European Union to mandate the resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly?" 98.34 per cent of those who turned out, that is 3,282,928 voted no and 1.66 per cent, that is 55,555 voted yes.These figures do not seem to include the spoilt ballot papers and they prove nothing because a 50 per cent turn-out is required and the government had been hoping for a 70 per cent one.

Let us now look at the 2003 referendum, the one that proved oh so joyfully that Hungarians overwhelmingly wanted to join the European Union. Then, too, a 70 per cent turn-out was hoped for and a 50 per cent one required constitutionally. They got 45.6 per cent, that is, 3,666,715 out of an electorate 8,042,272. We were not told about the spoilt ballot papers amidst the general rejoicing that the Hungarians voted the "right" way. 83.8 per cent, that is 3,056,027 voted for and 16.2 per cent, that is 592,690 voted against.It is hardly surprising that there is little reference to those somewhat embarrassing figures.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Children as detectives

This is the last posting in this series of blogs about Children in Crime and as ever Kate Jackson is collecting links on her blog crossexaminingcrime. There have been some cracking submissions.

As for me, I decided to have a look at children as detectives. I thought about Roy Fuller's With My Little Eye but decided against it precisely because of what is in that brief analysis: it may be narrated by a teenager who is the detective but it is really a book for adults. Nothing wrong with that but it wasn't quite what I was looking for.

So I had a look at some of the Famous Five books, which are really adventure stories or thrillers for children. They are not as bad as some people make them out but they are not very good either. Incidentally I was delighted to see that the rather precious attempt to "update" the language of those books flopped miserably and the publishers have gone back (more or less) to the originals, which are once again being reprinted. It just goes to show that children are not as stupid as some adults think, something I never doubted.

Nothing for it, I decided, but to go back to the best of those children's detective stories, written for children and enjoyed by them for generations (even when they have grown up) and in many languages. I am talking about Erich Kästner's great book: Emil and the Detectives. Written and published in 1928 it is not, strictly speaking, a detective story but a thriller about a group of children stalking, pursuing and capturing a villain who had stolen Emil's money and who turns out to be a bank robber as well.


The book was illustrated by Walter Trier and those drawings have never been bettered. It remained in print since then not just in Germany but in many other countries and read by generations of children. The Nazis listed Erich Kästner as a decadent and burned all his books except for Emil as it was too popular. One would like to think that the Nazi thugs were terrified of the howls of outrage from their own children.

On a more tragic note, it was also the book that was most frequently found among the last treasured possessions of children who had been transported to the camps and sent off into those showers. When Kästner was told about that after the war, he burst into tears. Not much more one can do.

Erich Kästner was born in Dresden in 1899, spent some time in the army in First World War and after finishing his education moved first to Leipzig where he became a journalist until he was sacked for being too frivolous and occasionally near-pornographic. He moved to Berlin in 1927 but continued to contribute to Leipzig publications under various pseudonyms.
Kästner's years in Berlin, from 1927 until the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933, were his most productive. He published poems, newspaper columns, articles, and reviews in many of Berlin's important periodicals. He was  regular contributor to dailies such as the Berliner Tageblatt and the Vossische Zeitung, as well as to Die Weltbühne. Hans Sarkowicz and Franz Josef Görtz, the editors of his complete works (1998), list over 350 articles written between 1923 and 1933, but he must have written even more, since many texts are known to have been lost when Kästner's flat was burned down during a bombing raid in February 1944.
He was also a poet. Indeed, his first published work was poetry and he never stopped writing that (as what poet does?), producing a particularly moving poem on his return to the destroyed city of his childhood, Dresden, in 1945.

So, in 1928 he wrote Emil and the Detectives, the story of a boy of probably twelve or thirteen travelling from Neustadt to Berlin to stay with his uncle, aunt and grandmother as well as his cousin Pony, who turns out to be a great character. Emil's father is dead and his mother supports them through hairdressing. She and Emil are very close and support each other unobtrusively or so they think. In some ways, this reflects Kästner's own situation. His father was around and was a saddle maker but it was his mother he was close to (perhaps suffocatingly so, judging by the letters he wrote to her from Leipzig and Berlin). She had been a housemaid but in her thirties she trained to be a hairdresser to supplement the family income.

Thus the money Emil is taking to Berlin to give to his grandmother, who lives with one daughter but also receives help from another, as well as to spend is not a great deal but means much to the family. They are not well off. When the villainous Max Grundeis takes advantage of Emil falling asleep and steals the money it is a tragedy and Emil chases after him. Alone and a little frightened in the big city he meets Gustav who proclaims his presence with a honk on an automobile horn he carries everywhere, then Gustav's friends who immediately form themselves into a group of detectives, lay out a plan and keep Grundeis under observation until he goes to the bank the following morning where he is confronted by Emil. There are wonderful descriptions of Berlin, of the food people consume and of the conversations they have. But above all, there are the children who form a bond of loyalty immediately and who work out a series of quite remarkable plans under the guidance of the Professor who spends a good deal of time imitating his father, a judge.

Kästner stayed in Germany through the Nazi period, deciding that emigration was not for him. He was interrogated by the Gestapo several times but not arrested and managed to earn some living by publishing books in Switzerland and at home under various pseudonyms. In 1944 he left Berlin to escape the the final Soviet onslaught and his flat was bombed while he was in the country. After the war he settled in Munich but for one reason and another (the latter being alcohol consumption) he wrote less and was known as a children's writer for which he received a number of decorations including, in 1960, the most prestigious of all: the Hans Christian Medal for writing. He died in 1974 and while his career as a journalist, adult novelist (just one book) and poet may not be well known, his child characters live on in many countries, in many languages and for many generations.

Let me end on a happier note: part of the research consisted of me taking another look at Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine books. I was going to add a few paragraphs about them but have really run out of space. Nevertheless, I shall return to the Lone Pine books. They deserve reprinting and re-reading, also reading for the first time. There is a curious parallel between the characters of the very English Lone Pine books written by the very English and somewhat conservative Malcolm Saville and the very German children of Emil and the Detectives.