A low-key science fiction movie about, oh um, the end of the world. The set-up is interesting, but it limps in the middle and reaches a puzzling conclusion.

27Day Poster.jpg A misleading lobby poster. There are no zapping flying saucers chasing Valerie French in a bathing suit.

Gene Barry with his experience in outwitting Martians from the red planet at the height of the Cold War in ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1953) is here, sporting a RAF moustache that looks so fake that we knew it would have to go and it did. Arnold Moss as the alien is so effortlessly grave that … [on him more at the end].

Five individuals from around the world - Chinese, Russian, American, Brit, and Dutch - are plucked from their routine and plonked into plastic chairs in a bland conference room looking very modernistic though not modern. There is nothing special about them, one a villager, another a sentry, a press hack, a sunbather, and a scientist. With gender diversity the Chinese and the Brit are women. The Dutch scientist is in fact visiting the United States, so that gives Uncle Sam two.

After having proven to the gathering that they are on a spaceship, Arnold Moss presents the dilemma. His planet is doomed and the population must relocate. These are planetary asylum seekers. The Third Rock will do nicely, but being pacifists, they cannot conquer though it is evident that their technology is far superior. Even big Gort seems a clumsy relic against Moss’s magic.

27 DAy.jpg You have the power! (An early iPhone advertisement?)

Apparently, neither can they negotiate. Instead Arnie will give each of the five a weapon (the size of an iPhone) that cam destroy their enemies. Note, it destroys only persons and not material. It works by thought control. If these weapons are not used by the end of the 27th day, the aliens will look elsewhere for suitable real estate and leave Earth alone, and the weapons will become useless. The explanation of the weapons is as detailed and as incomprehensible as McKinsey-speak but it covered every contingency the screenwriters could imagine, however, there is no manual for those who were not paying attention.

Knowing Earth history, it seems the aliens assume that some or all of the weapons will be used, and in effect that will depopulate the planet for their immigration. Rather like the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War stopping short of Paris, leaving the French there to murder each other and to save ammunition. Cynical. But then look at the news today.

During the briefing, Gene Barry gets the phone number of the English woman, clad in a bathing suit because she was plucked from the beach (hence the poster above), and then ‘Hey, presto!’ they are right back where they came from. She promptly throws her device into the sea, telephones Gene, and flies to LAX. She certainly has initiative and tenacity.

The Chinese woman, who says not a word and has no close-up, commits suicide. This seems to be in reaction to the massacre of her village which was underway when she was alien-napped. The cadre were practicing on the helots, they way they do.

The Soviet sentry is dumbfounded and keeps his mouth shut.

The Dutch scientist is on his way to a conference in New York City to which he now travels. Thus three possessors of this doomsday weapon and two of the devices are Stateside.

Sitting tight is not an option, because ….. Spoiler.

Because alien Arnold Moss goes on the air around the world on every radio and television channel, he is more of media hog than the Twit in Chief. He tells everyone about the weapons and names the five who possess them. Cover blown! He had not told the five that he was going to rat them out like that!

The Feds latch onto the Dutchman as he lands at La Guardia.

Barry, having peeled off that moustache, thus disguised he grabs the Brit bit at LAX before the Forces of Order spot her, and together they head off to a hideout he just happens to know. (Probably cased it when dealing with those pesky Martians earlier.)

Pause for thought. Five randomly picked individuals have a doomsday weapon in their pockets. What will they do with them? That is one interesting proposition. Some will see parallels with the New Testament; I did.

Individual choice is quickly compromised by the public broadcast of their names. The Soviet grunt is arrested, suborned, tortured, but remains silent for a time. His motivation is left a blank. In the end, rather than see the weapon used he commits suicide by throwing himself out of an upper story window.

Barry and his girl puzzle over what to do in their hideout. The Dutchman, like the Soviet, keeps the secret…for a time. Though he is pressured relentlessly by the CIA operatives, but none of his inquisitors brought a waterboard.

The second interesting proposition concerns how others react. That an alien is at work becomes accepted by authorities and the public at large. The five individuals are then seen in the ensuing panic to be agents of the alien with Rush Limbaugh-like hysteria laid on. Imagine that! A man bearing a resemblance to Barry, remember that mo, is murdered by a mob. Add Faux News to that equation and the lynchings would be general.

Barry’s idea is to sit out the twenty-seven days, and by some miracle he and his squeeze seem to have enough provisions in the two bottomless grocery store paper bags they have to survive for the duration (of the film) undetected. Until….

Yes, the Soviet grunt finally cracks and the weapon is now available to the USSR, which promptly proclaims it to blackmail the USA to pull out of Europe and Asia. Uncle Sam complies.

This turn of events brings patriot Barry and Valerie out of hiding in the hour of need. The Western Alliance of the American Barry, the Brit bit, an the Dutch professor stall but time is running out. The Russkies know that the weapon will lapse at the end the twenty-seventh day so if it is to be used then it must be before then. To prevent a retaliation from the weapon(s) in the USA, the best time to use is just before expiration. The Cold War context weighs heavily throughout.

Meanwhile, Barry and company test the iPhone weapon app and it does indeed work. Ergo the compliance noted above.

But the professor has a trick or two up his academic gown. When Moss handed over the devices he said it has ‘the power of life and death.’ Significant that? He did not say ‘life or death.’ This egghead applies himself to re-programming the devices with his big brain so as to kill only ‘the enemies of freedom.’ Wow!

We all have candidates for that hit list. Think of whom Ayn Rand would put on that list. Try not to think of Rush Limbaugh. Try harder!

Ayn Rand.jpg Ayn Rand

As the clock ticks and the Soviets prepare to activate the weapon app, the professor does his stuff and … that is it. ‘The enemies of freedom’ die! How easy was that! Lots of Russkies pile up in the streets.

In the aftermath at the United Nations there is an expansive spirit of unity of those who made the cut and Barry suggests offering the aliens some help. Maybe they could inhabit the parts of the Earth that are uninhabitable. The Antarctic is mentioned. New Jersey near the Kardashians seems logical? Some nice real estate in the Gobi Desert can be had for a price. This message is broadcast, and on the eighth ring Arnold Moss answers and rather than accept the offer instead welcomes the Earth into the community of 30,000 worlds! Whoa!

Huh? Was this some kind of fraternity initiation? That seemed to be the conclusion invited by Moss's last remarks. Such a test for admission is a common theme in sci-fi but here it is explained no further.

The film drags in the middle with Barry and the Brit in the hideout listening to the radio. The minutes seemed like hours to them and to me, too. The whole exercise would have been much better in a half-hour Twilight Zone or Science Fiction Theatre episode.

A few notes. Two suicides. The voluntary production code that dominated Hollywood at the time forbade suicides in word or deed. Yet there are two here. The Chinese woman early on and the Soviet soldier near the end. Perhaps because they were both commies, they were better dead than red.

Both the women endowed with the weapon reject it. The Chinese throws it on the fire burning the remains of the village before committing Chinese-kari and the Brit throws it into the sea before flying to Hollywood, well, LA. Lesson? Never trust a woman with a weapon of mass destruction.

Moss 27.jpg Arnold Moss (1910-1989)

Moss appeared in ‘The Conscience of the King’ in ‘Star Trek: TOS’ as Karidian the executioner. With his aristocratic bearing, perfect diction, and melliferous baritone voice he always dominated any scene. Something (else) William Shatner complained about. Moss was Phi Beta Kappa with a Columbia PhD who constructed crossword puzzles for the ‘New York Times’ while waiting on sets.

This film rates a miserable and miserly 5.9 from 660 votes on the IMDB. That puts in the company of some Roger Corman’s creations.  Democracy, so overrated, as Plato said.

This is a thoughtful science fiction film about racism and bigotry in a post-apocalyptic world.  It starts with 92% mortality in a nuclear war, the origin of which is unknown, after which the survivors have created ever more elaborate and human-like robots. The robots are programmed to serve the best interest of humanity! Always tricky that, just ask anyone in politics. (Only journalists know all the answers.)

Humaoids cover.jpg A lobby poster

The robots are necessary but they have to stay in their place! Evidently some Republicans survived — no holocaust is ever perfect — and those who most want to restrict the robots are members of the Order of Flesh and Blood, i.e., code for the GOP. Indeedy. These Luddites accept the work the robots do so long as they look and act like mechanical contrivances and stay in their distant and inferior place. Jack Haley as the Tin Man in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ is their idea of a good robot.

However, the robots themselves realise that such Tin Men are inefficient. They are technically inefficient, clumsy of movement, slow afoot, so they improve themselves with each new iteration. (The make-up is good on this.) The more important way in which they are inefficient is that there are social and psychological barriers between them and human co-workers. Some humans refuse to work with these talking machines.

The robots face the facts: the long term effects of the massive radiation unleashed in the forty minute war has doomed the capacity for human reproduction. The birth rate is falling at an increasing rate.

Humanoids confer.jpg The robots confer on their Key Performance Indicators.

For the Flesh and Blooders the answer is simple, ahem, as always, to get rid of those damn robots. Period. Their service makes us soft! Rid of them, humanity would fend for itself and grow stronger again, scientific evidence be damned! Ayn Rand should get credit for this part of the script. In her world the will power of rugged individuals could triumph over any old facts.

The Flesh and Blooders wear party hats and harass those who support and use robots. (On the hats, read below.) They skulk around robot recharging stations. Among themselves, the robots call the charging stations temples and refer to the master computer with admirable and anticipatory political correctness as the Mother/Father or Father/Mother. As it turns out, there is a point to this mumbo-jumbo.

Humanity is dying out and the robots will have to put a stop to it. And they do!

The drama is played out with two principle characters (Don Megowan and Erica Elliott).  The irony is that the Luddite leader, vociferous and violent, is himself an undercover humanoid!  But wait there's more. His squeeze is also one of THEM!  The explanation of all of that is ingenious and thought-provoking.

It is all talk and no action against cardboard sets spray painted in primary colours.   It seemed more like a play than a movie, but the talk is interesting and I paid attention. A rarity that. That there is no action, that the women are fully clothed, and that it is complicated talk must together explain the democratic rating. The Maestro of 'Dark Corners of this Sick World' Robin Bales, no democrat he, also shreds it for the inertia and the inconsistencies in the story, while admitting that it is full of ideas. The alleged inconsistency is that it starts out about the downtrodden robots and then shifts to the future of humanity. Get with it Robin! It is a segue. Stories develop.

By the way, he, too. suspected theatrical origins but evidently found no confirmation, an inference since he left the point hanging. Just the sort of omission he derides in the films he reviews with his razor tongue.

Don Megowan, large of size, chiselled of chin, deep of voice, dark of hair, was a stalwart in television westerns for years, while Erica Elliot quit with this role, she also started with it, as did the director Don Doolittle whose coda was a nice touch.

Doolittle Dr.png Dr Doolittle, who talked to the vacuum tubes.

The opening credits say ‘Introducing Don Doolittle’ and the Internet Movie Data Base indicates this introduction was also his finale.

The hats the Flesh and Blooders wear are ersatz Confederate forage hats. They were sold as novelties at the centenary of the Civil War. Yes, I had one.

Humanoid hats.jpg Big Don is the big one.

Did they purloin those hats from the dustbins after a revival of ‘Gone with the Wind?’ Who knows. It is all of a piece with the hundred dollar budget for the film.

I came across it on You Tube when trawling for 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s science fiction.

It has whet my appetite for ‘Real Humans’ (2012), a Swedish series aired here, which for reasons lost to time, we did not watch.

Jaded cinephiles will think of Isaac Asimov’e ‘I, Robot’ and ‘Blade Runner.’ Readers may recall 'Tin Men' (1965) by Michael Frayn, which tried awfully hard to be funny.

Future Man won!

'The Man from Lisbon' (1978) by Thomas Gifford was homework for our 2018 Iberian excursion. It chronicles the escapades of Reis who lies his way into an engineering job in Angola in 1915. Africa seemed better than the Western Front.  I got it from Audible, about which more below.

Gifford Lisbon.jpg

From humble origins, his father a mortician, Reis strives to better himself.  But to get started he needs an angle in the stultified society of Portugal and this he procures by faking a degree from Qxford University in engineering. There will be few Oxonians in Angola, he reasons, and he will not be challenged. He does have some technical school training in mechanics so off he goes, diploma in hand, with his adoring wife and faithful sidekick in tow for Africa.

His forgery is nothing more elaborate than some expensive paper on which he writes out a diploma for himself. That ought fool ‘em! It does.

The little he knows together with the willingness to do the hard work himself lead to success in Angola.  Soon he is doing two full time jobs as director of public works for the colony and director of the Angola railroad company with ease and raking in the escudos.  While other engineers think the railway bridges will fail under the weight of the new engines he has imported, Reis is confident they will not. It is a confidence based on nothing. Damn those pesky stress tables!  Even the laws of physics yield to his will power! Miraculously they do. It seems those stress tables were fake news avant le mot.

He returns to Lisbon loaded with dosh but blows his fortune on the vanities of automobiles, luxury fittings in his home and office, speculative investments that come to nothing. Getting desperate. he tries yet another bold swindle and this time the stress tables are right and he goes to the slammer in Oporto!  I stopped at this point because I did not care about his fate, though I see on Good Reads some were gripped. It runs to be in all more than 21 hours. Agony without ecstasy.

Of passing interest was the account of early twentieth century Angola and its myriad natural riches. The colonials are sun-stunned alcoholics for the most part and the natives all but absent. Reis’s basic knowledge of mechanics sufficed, together with his readiness to get his hands dirty by doing the work himself, for his early successes, and also set him apart socially. The few other engineers in Luanda supervised natives who did the dirty work, but Reis did it himself, and got it done in record time and with good effect. These successes of course angered the others.

The references to World War I ring true because Portugal did join the Allies and suffered for it.  But scant are these references.  The Portuguese division on the Western Front was obliterated in a single day in an offensive. Its replacements met the same fate later. The survivors brought home Spanish flu.

The prose has many nice images. This Iowan Gifford could write, if only he had something to say.

Thomas Gifford.jpg Thomas Gifford

But my disbelief did not remain suspended. How could that hand written fake Oxford degree in Portuguese fool anyone?  Second that will power prevails over stress tables, i.e., the laws of physics. But most of all, there was nothing about Reis of interest, a superficial egoist. So what, a dime a dozen they are.

The narration is by a Portuguese speaker who handles the proper and places nicely while mangling the English. Possessives invariable are said as 'es' and extra letters creep in elsewhere, too, e.g., 'dastardsly' and more.  This became predictable and distracting. Twenty hours of this narration would be enough to put me off going to Lisbon in 2018 and so I took no chances.

However it was the inanity of the narrative that exhausted my good will.  Thomas Mann's 'Felix Krull' was the confessions of a confidence man (like Reis) whose career revealed the venal and moral corruption of post World War I Germany, told with wit, insight, grace, and rueful good humour.  It dissected events and individuals with a scalpel.  Not so here, where soft focus prevails.  Me, I kept hoping the jerk, Reis, would get his comeuppance, and the sooner the better. I left him stewing in the Oporto slammer.

In contrast Captain Future together with his Futuremen in ‘Worlds to Come’ by Edmond Hamilton (aka Brett Sterling) from Radio Archives has to save the universe from a shape-shifting critter out of the sixth dimension! That narrative had purpose AND drive!  This, too, was from Audible.

Capt Futue 14.jpg

Loved the death rays, atom pistols, proton canons, and other NRA boy-toys.  Then there is the robot assistant who took itself apart to pass through a small hole in a wall and reassembled himself on the other side. That reminded of something I tried once without success near a girls' dorm.  The deathless brain floating around in a plastic box caused me to re-examine some of the leftovers in the refrigerator Tupperware. Yuk! Is that the fate for professors emeritii, I had to ask?

Of the moon pets the less said, the better. I am not picking up after them! And that is final.

The scientific explanations of the hijinks was pulp fiction which where it all began (1940-1951) and so suitable for a climate change denying anti-vaxxers. While I turned off 'The Man from Lisbon' I could not turn off 'Future Man' and I will go back for another episode of exploits, there being at least another fifteen! Whopee!

Ed Hmaitton.jpg Ed Hamilton

There is a ponderous entry on Wikipedia about 'Future Man' that almost destroys the pleasure in it. It has all the appurtenances of Cultural Studies. (I always fear the worst when I hear the phrase ‘Cultural Studies’ and it has never let me down. The worst follows that term as the night, the day. It is an even more reliable indicator of nonsense than 'Post-Modern(ism.')

I acquired both books from Audible, whose customer service is superb.  I reported a problem in downloading these titles on the web page and got a phone call within the hour walking me through the correction. This was followed by an email setting it out in writing for future reference.   Many profuse thanks. Of course, the problem was obvious once I realised it. Doh!

My listening is done on solitary dog walks while Majic sniffs the trees on nights when the diva is rehearsing or performing, or mornings when I am at the gym where I passed a hundred visits on the current annual membership as I have each of the retirement years to date.  

The poet Robert Penn Warren wrote ‘The Legacy of the Civil War’ (1961). In it Warren asks readers to imagine General Robert E. Lee shaking hands and congratulating the strutting Southern governors of the 1950s and 1960s barring children from schools, encouraging baying crowds of Bible-grasping gorgons to shout abuse at children, licensing hissing mobs to burn churches, sanctioning lynch parties, raping and pillaging for sport, and praising masked men hiding in the dark. Would Lee approve such deeds done under that flag he served? No, he would regard such acts as the desecrations that they are, and he would have said so.

The old remains new.

A close examination of pictures from the March on Washington in 1963 will show Warren there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial come to give his own thanks. He received three Pulitzer Prizes for his work, living most of his latter years in New England, no longer welcome in his homeland, and it shows in the poetry.

warren classroom-2.jpg

A callow undergraduate, I heard him recite some of his poems and the memory has since remained bright. There are some short excerpts on You_Tube.

Raimund Gregorius, known as Mundus, teaches dead languages to gymnasium students in contemporary Berne, Switzerland. He eats and drinks dictionaries of ancient Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, barely noticing when his wife leaves him. His only topics of conversation is the ablative case in Latin, declensions in Hebrew, and inflections in demotic Greek. He can bring boredom to any dinner table and so is invited to few, well, none.

Night Train cover.jpg

Think Immanuel Kant, Mundus is a man of unvarying routine, a routine not interrupted by the aforementioned wife’s departure. Every morning at 8:15 a.m. he walks across a bridge to the school, where students and staff are silently agog at his myopic intensity. This he has been doing for thirty plus years for he is now fifty-seven.

In the rain, with wind inverting his umbrella, he trudges to school with a brief case full of marked essays to return to students whose every error, great and small, has been meticulously annotated, and he has prepared a lecture on the main themes in their work, mostly about their errors, which lecture he calls to mind as he wrestles the umbrella.

Losing the battle with the wind, he sees ahead a woman in a red coat, standing next to the bridge rail in the rain staring at a piece of paper. (Immediately I saw Irene Papas in the rain from ‘Zorba the Greek.’) The rain continues and the paper is sodden. Is she going to jump off the bridge into the gorge? He quickens his step; as he approaches he can see the ink running on the page. He looms up and she is startled out of her reverie and in reaction he drops his brief case spilling out the essays. In the ensuing confusion he takes her to a coffee shop across the bridge to regain composure. Even before getting away from the rain she extracts a piece of paper from him and writes down a telephone number, which in the coffee shop is copied again on a dry piece of paper, while Mundus sweeps the sodden copy along with escaping essays into his brief case. She keeps the telephone number once it has been transcribed.

They speak French and he discovers that she is Portuguese. He takes her along to the school where she can dry out in one of the women’s cloak rooms. He is thus late for his class; moreover the janitor is stunned to see Mundus late AND in the company of this woman, dripping on the just mopped floor. She goes off to dry, and with a word of thanks leaves. Enigmatic.

He goes to the classroom and thinks about what he has just seen, and done. He did not ask her the obvious questions. What were you doing standing there on the bridge. What is so important about that telephone number? Who are you? What is a Portuguese doing in Berne? He has spent his life not taking an interest in others and does not start now. Yet he cannot let it go.

As he hands back the essays, he notices the wet paper with the telephone number on it. (The pedant in me wondered how he could tell it was a telephone number, and not an account number, or social insurance number, a series of soccer scores, or…. ) He stumbles through the morning double class, quite uncharacteristically letting errors go unmentioned, and then goes to lunch. Ah, the life of the scholar.

This man is a loner and seldom mixes with others. On that score he has reverted to routine. He sits in another café letting the food and drink he ordered get cold: Portuguese, a Romance language derived from Latin, but that is all he knows. Instead of eating he goes to a bookstore that specialises in languages and finds Portuguese books. As a scholar he relates to books. He does not look for Fado music, or a Portuguese restaurant, or DVD of Lisbon travelogue. Bored on a rainy day and in awe of Mundus, of whom he knows, the store owner, who just happens to know Portuguese, reads some passages to him from a book of reflections, the substance of which reminded this reader of Michel Montaigne’s musing on life. Mundus likes both the sound of the spoken Portuguese and the musings which owner translates for him. He buys the book, along with a Portuguese dictionary and grammar and goes home, blowing off his afternoon class. This is the first class he has ever missed.

Overnight he begins to learn Portuguese. That may sound impossible but Ekkehard with whom once I shared an office in the Netherlands was a linguist who soaked up a language like a sponge. After a few days in the Netherlands he was speaking Dutch. Mundus finds the train connections to Lisbon by telephone (no internet for him) while dodging inquirers from the school come to look for him at the door and on the telephone, and he sneaks out of his apartment to go to Lisbon! By train. At night.

He has that telephone number. He has that book of musings. But why is he going? He asks himself that very questions more than once. He does hesitate but on he goes.

The local takes him to Geneva, where he changes trains for Paris, where he will change again for Irún in Spain and then on to Lisbon. While he rides he reflects on what he has left behind, a routine set in concrete that contains within its walls more sub-routines, and nothing at all, a series of nested do-loops that lead nowhere.

Night train station.jpg A European train station at night.

Mundus’s recollections of academic conferences, seemed familiar. All those people trying to prove (to themselves as well as each other) how smart they are. Yes, the one-up-man-ship is eternal, phrased ever so politely and usually by reference to some obscure secondary source from a foreign language. Who needs primary sources, after all. But also all those smart people for whom the subject is simply a commodity, today it is Louis Althusser and tomorrow it will be Michel Foucault, and then Jacques Derrida, with no inner feeling for or commitment to the subject matter, despite the ritualistic mouthing these days about passion. The passion is always about the ego, the self, not the subject. Though such poseurs would be the first to decry universities advertising degrees like products, they themselves approach their subject in the same detached way.

Mundus nails many academic pretensions on show in any seminar or conference.

- the high-flown gibberish that means nothing outside the classroom and very little within it
- French notions introduced as seasoning not substance, and unnecessary at that
- study is not fodder for an academic career, it is life itself with colour and melody to which a reader submits but does not conquer

Amen, Brother Mundus.

In Lisbon he begins to investigate the author, Amadeu de Prado. and pieces together his biography. There is detective work here, and the characterisations of the still-grieving sister thirty years later is a masterpiece as also some of the surviving school friends, especially Maria.

Lisbon_12 .jpg Lisbon

Amadeu is Mundus’s alter ego, yet he, too, was a creature of habit. Amadeu lived through the Salazar years and like all Portuguese still bears the marks of those days, good and bad. This is a new world to Mundus as he interviews family, friends, teachers, and others who knew Amadeu, who died years ago of a brain disease. Amadeu’s life is a microcosm of the life in Novo Stato of Salazar in his latter years with the PIDE, the secret police, had a free hand.

In Lisbon he makes no mention of the mysterious telephone number or the woman in red on the bridge who was the catalyst, but only that it seems. Indeed he stops thinking about her altogether and she does not reappear. If she did, I missed it, as explained below.

The musing is beautifully realised. Particularly striking to this scholar was the exchange of letters with the head of the school he left behind. When I mentioned this novel and this episode in particular to a lunch gathering of jaded scholars, there was a respectful silence, which I took to be each imaging the exhilaration that would follow walking away from a yet another pile to essays to mark, yet another pro forma about key performance indicators, yet another research grant application, yet another decanal briefing.

All that and more is true, but it does seem to go on and on for 4 5 8 pages. Mundus wanders through Lisbon, travels to Coimbra, and Finessterre in Spain, following links in Amadu’s life. Then he goes back and forth to Bern and…..THE END.

Like a bad student, doing a reading assignment badly, I kept watching the percentage tick by on the Kindle, ever so slowly. I kept at it because of the jewel like prose, the insights into friends, filial love, comradeship, chance, and so on, but there is no narrative drive. All trip and no arrival.

Pascal meericer.jpg Pascal Mercier.

The story is very well measured and the prose is exact, and yet a certain mystery remains. The film derived from the novel passed through the Newtown Dendy a few years ago and I was tempted by the prospect of a European travelogue but put off by the prospect of watching Jeremy Irons for two hours. Seeing him always makes me think, and no doubt this is just me, that he has haemorrhoid pain which he manfully bearing, just short of grimace.

The travelogue reminded me of my travels in those parts. I went to Geneva (from Zurich) by train to burrow into the archives of the League of Nations housed there by the United Nations when I was investigating the International Brigades for ‘Fallen Sparrows’ (1994) and then on by train to Neuchâtel to see some Jean-Jacques Rousseau manuscripts, an article based on this study appeared later. To this nerd boy both were thrills. In Geneva I found a 3” x 5” card file prepared by a Greek diplomat in 1939 of individual Brigadiers walking out of Spain to France: name, nationality, age, gender. Nothing much but authentic to the touch. Each soldier an Odysseus and few with an Ithaca to which to return. In Neufchatel I held in my hands, there being no requirement to wear gloves, pages that Rousseau himself had written. He would go on and on for pages after page of quarto, say thirty of them, and then there would be one cross-out, the prose just flowed from his quill in a steady pulse for twenty or thirty pages before it hit a rock. These are nerd-boy thrills.

Moe recently we took a night train from Amsterdam to Prague and back with DeutscheBahn. We did not do much musing. On boarding there were no directions or staff, but everyone with heavy suitcases, narrow corridors, and tiny compartment numbers elbow high. The compartment was a broom closet and the train was boiling -- it must have been sitting in the sun for hours. Food was nearly non-existent. But there was worse. The toilet. [Gasp!]

The Man in Seat 61 recommended this service, and said it stopped four times. Get a new abacus, Mate! It was twelve times, each punctuated by bells, whistle, red flashing lights, and much yelling, no doubt all dictated by safety. We arrived exhausted and swore off such travel.

It had to happen sooner or later. Lord Peter Wimsey has become the Duke of Denver, upon the death of his older brother Gerald. That dukes are higher than lords is news to me.

With the title Duke comes ducal responsibilities, most of which were new to Peter Wimsey. There are vexatious relatives, disputatious tenants, ravenous charities, clogged drains in the strangest places, a crumbling pile that is crumble still, elderly retainers to retain, so that when he is called to Oxford, off he goes! What a relief!

When he was but a lord, to him the relatives were polite, the tenants deferential, the charities distant, the drains unknown, the ancestral pile was for holidays, and the retainers retained. As duke, it all changed.

Late Scholar cover.jpg

Called to Oxford? One of the Duke of Denver’s entailments is to be The Visitor to a not very distinguished college at Oxford. While every other Oxford college Visitor is a royal of one magnitude of another, this college has the Duke of Denver. Investigation in the muniments room of the aforementioned crumbling pile reveals that generations ago a Duke of Denver handed over some dosh to replace a roof or two at the college and in return for that largesse the title The Visitor was bestowed upon him for his lifetime, but in a subsequent change of the college constitution the limitations ‘his lifetime’ was omitted, perhaps by error.

Well, no matter, an escape to Oxford is most welcome for the poetry quoting, incunabula collecting, Saxon speaking Wimsey. It is a return to lost youth for this old soldier.

Peter is now married to Harriet (née Vane) and it seems to be after World War II and in the early 1950s. The stately home is crumbling in part because of a fire caused by an errant German bomb and taxation is vexing.

Together they descend on the college to find themselves in the middle of an acrimonious and bitter conflict among the twenty of so fellows of the college over the status of a tenth century book in its library. The conflict is so vitriolic that no one speaks of it! Immediately I found this scenario easy to believe.

These scholars seem to do little else but plot one against another, while seldom is heard a discouraging word from their lips. Backstabbing, undermining, poisonous rumours, slanderous gossip, attribution of venal motives, all communicated by innuendo and sotto voce, these are the weapons of choice. Meanwhile, at high table meals the weather is much discussed. This is brutal realism at its best.

Even the engineers and economists among the brethren have taken sides over this book. On the one hand, the goal is to sell the book to raise money for yet another roof and on the other hand is the over-our-dead-bodies group! Yep, prophecy there.

Each fellow votes in a time honoured, and otherwise incomprehensible, arcane ritual and each poll results in a tie. After three such votes, some of the parties invoke the right to summon The Visitor to adjudicate. Enter the Duke!

While the vote remained tied in those three rounds, the constituency shrank. The senior most fellow, the Warden, went missing and another died falling down stairs. Two others had unlikely accidents, which while damaging, were not fatal, but which precluded participation in the voting ritual. In the best tradition of krimis the ritual does not admit of absentee or proxy voting. Is someone mowing down the voters? Are there two mowers, one on each side of the question, the keepers and the sellers? Are there only two sides to the issue?

Before any Solomonic adjudication can occur there must be sleuthing to find out what is going on.

Harriet takes no convincing to join in, and engages her own distaff Oxford network, and the ever reliable Bunter mines the college servants with his usual dexterity.

Nothing is what it seems to be.

As in C.P. Snow’s Cambridge novels, all of which I have read [Groan!], the scholars do little scholarship but make an enormous fuss over the rituals and prerogatives that fall to them, like passing the port. It is all too credible.

Dorothy Sayers created Wimsey in the 1920s.

Dorothy-L.-Sayers-e1480006131475.jpg

While Ian Carmichael brought him to life on the small screen in the 1970s.

Casrmichael.jpg Ian Carmichael as Peter Wimsey

Bunter was an older man, and he and Wimsey had been through trench warfare in Flanders together and had survived, thereafter bonded for life, and with a considerable amount of unspoken communication.

Despite the dreadful experience of Flanders, Wimsey (and for that matter, Bunter, too) remains Edwardian in manner and morēs. Wimsey is an enthusiastic and effete dilettante, who quotes obscure poems in dead languages and playwrights unknown all the day long while playing the piano and sporting a monocle. His private collection of incunabula is the envy of museums. His flow of witty banter is without end and without purpose. Noel Coward could not have bettered him as a caricature.

Bunter unfailingly addresses him by his title and always stands in his presence. Always and always. Bunter out butlers even that fellow James Stevens in ‘Remains of the Day’ (1989).

Harriet, mindful of her own modest origins, tries after a fashion to loosen them both up, with little success. Nor does she seem aware of the changing times of the 1950s.

The unalloyed Edwardians Wimsey and Bunter are an odd couple in world of a Labour government and many new social attitudes. Still that is part of the fun.

Like Sherlock Holmes and more recently Hercule Poirot, Wimsey has his re-animators. This is the fourth title by Paton and I have liked it enough to read another. Though I did find it wordy, but Peter is like that. There is much talk, often about nothing much, and too little detection. It must be struggle to be arch and witty when talking about staircases and fence posts, but Wimsey is made to do it. Poor fellow.

Jill Paton Walsh.jpg Jill Paton Walsh

He even indulges in the future subjunctive interrogative at times, such is his mastery of all things Fowler. (Mortimer, skip it. It would take too long to explain.)

Even in the sleepy village I know well, the absence of the senior scholar for three months would be noticed and some effort made to figure how what happened to the missing savant lest the key performance indicators be spoiled.


Our hero, Eddie Grant, he of the chiseled jaw, martial arts belts, multi-lingual talents, and accomplished lady killer …. [Is there nothing beyond him?]

Lazare cover.jpg

The set up is this. Ed (I refuse to call a grown man with such a cv as above Eddie) is the son of World War II veteran whose assignment in 1944-1946 was tracking down art looted by Nazis. His father died earlier, in suspicious circumstances that Ed mentions but apparently was not motivated to do anything about at the time. Then the father’s assistant from the wartime assignment dies, again in suspicious circumstances. This assistant left a letter to Ed's father, not knowing he had predeceased him, and asked that his executor deliver it by hand.

Since the dad is dead the messenger, a daughter, delivers it to Ed. She is of course a beautiful woman who falls under Ed's spell, taking her place in the queue.

It just so happens that Ed has many contacts in the worlds of policing and art, and these he now mobilises. Why he did not mobilise them when his father died is unknown. Even more mysterious is why he did not mobilise them when his wife and child were murdered after his father's mysterious death. All of this death is supposed to awaken sympathy I suppose but it just makes Ed seem a jinx and jerk. Four dead before he goes into action.

Then the big black Mercedes limousine appears bearing -- as it must -- Germans.

So much for subtlety. The plot is by the numbers and the characterisation are connect the dots.

I quit at about 25% on the Kindle. I was reading topic sentences only and flipping on; it was time to move on.

At the start there is much too much backstory forced into the opening pages so that we may appreciate Ed, followed later by extensive and pointless descriptions of hairstyles. clothing, drinks, furnishings, cars, and so on and on. This later I guess is the Paris part. If this superfluous detail were cut to the standard say of Georges Simenon the text would reduce by more than two-thirds. Good grief. Amid all the bland descriptions there is very little story. With John Stuart Mill, I suppose that we know a person by deeds not by the recitation of a backstory. What do I care about the backstory until there is a front story?

Nor is it possible to warm to Ed for whom everything seems to come easily though he moans and groans about it.

This is described as 'a novel of Paris' and I wanted to test that proposition. There is much Paris in the early going and I consulted by Michelin map, but then we head off to Orlando in Florida and…. I supposed it gets back to Paris but without me. The Florida trip seems mostly to be an occasion for more pointless description.

After re-reading all of Iain Pears krimis with Jonathan Argyll and Flavia di Stefano chasing lost paintings the reference to a lost Raphael was intriguing, but this treatment is not arresting for this reader.

I had a look at the comments on Good Reads to see what I was missing. I looked at the effusive ones, further confirmation that this source is not credible.

Pearce J.jpg John Pearce

Speaking of sources without credibility, one of the local rags has a weekend feature called something like ‘Books that made me’ in which minor celebrities, well I guess they are but they are unknown to me, list and comment, briefly, on five books that had a formative impact of their being. Nice idea, but the execution is kindergarten.

These celebrities seem not to do much reading and certainly not of, say, a novel of consequence or a historical study of insight. Instead we have excited drivel over self-help manuals, diet plans, children's books - see I said kindergarten - and Mills and Boon stories, Alice’s adventures. In some cases it is pretty clear it was a stretch for the subject to think of five books. When one of these pieces refers to ‘Death in Venice,’ ‘Swann’s Way,’ ‘Absalom, Absalom,’ 'The Iliad,' 'Crime and Punishment,' 'Hotel Baltimore' and their kind, let me know.

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