The Day of the Lie

Monk-cum-lawyer William Brodrick made his name thanks partly to Richard and Judy but mostly because The Sixth Lamentation was fantastic. It’s the story of an elderly Nazi war criminal who seeks sanctuary at an English priory, where he tells his side of the story to lawyer-cum-monk Anselm Duffy. Investigating for himself, Father Anselm ends up on the trail of a Jewish refugee-smuggling operation that was set up in Occupied France. An intelligent mystery full of moral complexity and flawed, interesting characters, it made me keen to read the follow-up.

A Whispered Name wasn’t as good, but only in the same sense that most good novels don’t really match up to great ones. This one sees Father Anselm meet a woman in the graveyard at the priory, but she hasn’t come to mourn a dead monk, she has come to reveal something terrible about him that happened during the First World War. Again, the novel quickly heads into the foggy grey areas, and the truths are just as complicated as in The Sixth Lamentation. But it somehow felt less satisfying, perhaps because Father Anselm is not as integral to the mystery, perhaps because the truth is already several generations old, and only needs revealing.

I had hopes that The Day of the Lie would avoid this problem because it is about a tragedy that is still part of living memory: the plight of opposition activists in Communist Poland from the 1950s to the 1980s. A British journalist throws himself on the mercy of an old schoolfriend with a reputation for solving mysteries (our Father Anselm, of course), imploring him to investigate what happened to the dissidents he interviewed in the early 1980s. There are a few things Father Anselm’s old pal hasn’t told him about what really happened when he was thrown out of Poland, however, as the wise monk slowly discovers.

The Day of the Lie proved to be a great disappointment, and not just in the sense that it is not as good as A Whispered Name, let alone The Sixth Lamentation. Indeed, part of the problem is that it feels very much like reading a less involving, more plodding draft of The Sixth Lamentation. Father Anselm is even more detached from proceedings than he was in A Whispered Name, to the extent that Brodrick throws in some unnecessary commentary on what’s going on from the monk as if to remind us he is still there. I couldn’t help feeling that he exists in the novel solely as a catalyst through which the secrets are revealed. He doesn’t so much investigate as just listen to other characters tell him what happened.

Consequently the story sags considerably in the middle, after a good start and a better ending. The best thing I can say about the novel is that it provides a brilliant depiction of life in a totalitarian state. This isn’t a philosophical tour like Nineteen Eighty Four or the fantastical satire of Brave New World, nor is it yet another fictional story of life under the Nazi jackboot. This oppressive state was run by people who are still alive today. The novel doesn’t focus on the machinery of controlling human beings’ lives, but is all about what individuals do, and how the nature of their society affects them. In that sense, and pretty much only in that sense, the novel is a success.

James Herbert

Though I love a good horror movie, I’ve never really developed a taste for their literary equivalent. It’s not a snobbish snub, though some of these horror writers do bring the accusations of meritlessness on themselves when they write misogynist fantasies of sexual violence, or throw in a random sewer-based group sex scene between kids (that would be you, Stephen King, but in the interests of balance, your non-horror is sometimes fantastic).

I have no such qualms, however, about recommending some horror novels written by James Herbert, who died yesterday. In a way I suppose horror fiction appeals to the male Id in the same way that romance novels appeal to the female Id. They’re almost designed to titillate our animal sides, to tickle those parts of the subconscious that other, more sophisticated literature can’t reach. But, as with the best horror movies, the best horror novels do a lot more than just that.

James Herbert is not as well known as Stephen King, even though in the UK, Herbert apparently outsold his nearest American counterpart. I haven’t read enough of his novels to champion his entire oeuvre, but I loved The Rats trilogy (well, two of its constituent parts, anyway). All three books are about the reappearance of the kind of rats that plagued the trenches during the First World War, growing fat off the plentiful supply of buried meat, and becoming fearless due to sheer numbers.

The Rats sees this plague slowly encroach on 1970s London, emerging gradually from the darker, more decayed corners of the capital, before growing bold enough to spread to the nice neighbourhoods where the politicians live. The true monster at the heart of the first book is not the killer rodent, but the nature of society itself. Nobody much cares when the rats are attacking vagrants and other undesirables, when the numbers are still small enough to control. Indeed, nobody’s much surprised that the poorer areas of the metropolis are plagued by rats. Only when that plague reaches the nice middle class neighbourhoods is the government moved to do anything, though they don’t have a clue precisely what.

The second book, Lair, is the weakest of the three. In this one a new plague of rats breeds in Epping Forest before spreading to neighbouring areas. It would be simple just to napalm the entire forest, but of course, they can’t do that. It’s not even really necessary to read Lair before reading the trilogy’s zenith of a conclusion, Domain.

Domain came out in 1984, when Reagan was heading towards a landslide victory and developing a military strategy around the concept that it was possible to win a nuclear war. Domain starts with that nuclear war (and the winners, arguably, are the ones with the scaly tails). As such it is a departure from the first two books, yet at the same time it represents the culmination of all the themes Herbert had been developing in the previous books. All of a sudden there is no middle class government to come up with a plan to save the day and kill off the rats. The human survivors in the ruins of London are on their own.

Some fans of the first two books consider Domain a poor conclusion, primarily because, despite being twice as long as than the others, it doesn’t feature a greater degree of rat versus human action. This doesn’t detract from the book for me. Ultimately, Herbert seems to confirm, the greatest threat to us never was the rat anyway.

Like the zombie movies of George Romero, The Rats trilogy isn’t really about monsters running around killing people (though of course, there is plenty of that). No matter how bad things get, there is always a human being around to make things worse. Such jaded world-weariness doesn’t make for many happy endings, but it plumbs a line of realism that grounds the more fantastical elements, and makes you remember the books every time you see something dark scuttling past out of the corner of your eye.

The Swiss Family Robinson

Shipwrecked by a storm, a Swiss couple and their four sons find themselves stranded on a beautiful but apparently uninhabited desert island, an ocean away from civilisation, with only their own initiative to keep them alive. But it’s not all bad. They build a house in a tree, a chapel in a cave, find ingenious uses for absolutely everything (pity the poor turtle who becomes the basin) and generally live an enviably idyllic bucolic life. But the island may not be as far from other people as they might think.

This children’s classic still stands up to the test of time, but the inordinate amount of praying probably dates it, as does the sheer number of animals dispatched with hatchets. The place would end up like Easter Island with these five hacking and slashing their way around the place as they do here.

Apparently Johann David Wyss intended the novel as an educational book to teach kids about natural history and science, but most of the time these short asides don’t get in the way and seem more like your know-it-all granddad sharing a nugget of knowledge on everything in the garden. Though it does get faintly ridiculous when the mother and one of the boys are kidnapped and their would-be rescuers stop to admire the seaweed, and then the bushes, and then a kangaroo.

Other than that, the story is fast moving, eventful and still very readable. It’s just a pity it’s no longer suitable for children. Even leaving aside all the talk of savages and cannibal nations, some of its anachronistic values lead to much unintentional humour. Even when she’s broken her leg, the much-put-upon mother is still put to work sewing. The only time her four male companions show any concern for her workload is when they lament the amount of time she’s spending at her spinning wheel. And even then it’s only because they worry she won’t have time to prepare a proper dinner for the hungry menfolk.

As such, these days it’s probably more of a curio for nostalgic adults like me, who probably have more memory of the Disney movie, which deleted one of the sons and added a boy-who-is-really-a-girl (though nobody realises until nearer the end). It’s a decidedly secular affair by comparison, the animal cruelty only extends as far as riding around on the back of a pissed-off ostrich, and none of the characters react with horror when they see their first black man.

Incidentally, this is the first book I have read as an ebook. Even though I work in publishing I have been a begrudgingly slow adopter of the whole ebook thing. It’s mainly down to a childhood spent idolising those paper things on the shelf and wanting to see my name on the spine of them, a materialist streak that has never gone away. Somehow a book that only exists as text on a screen seems somehow less like a real book. But I appreciate that’s not an issue most people have. And admittedly there’s a certain appeal about just being able to get almost any book instantly, wherever I am, and for free in the cases of out-of-copyright classics like this one.