Nor Evil Dreams

I really wanted to like Nor Evil Dreams, by Rosemary Harris (this one, not the actress or current mystery author). I got it for a quarter several years ago at the Brookline Library sale shelves because it was advertised as “A Simon and Schuster Novel of Suspense” and I’ve always seen myself as a repository for old gothic and suspense books. In this case “old” means 1968 rather than historical.

nor evil dreamsPrudence Brenning and her housemate Victoria are teachers at a private school in London. Though Prue is a new hire, she has heard about the anti-Semitism that happened a year or two before. Now, however, it seems to be flaring up again. Then the local temple burns down, killing the rabbi’s son. To make matters worse, Prue accidentally left her recorder for recitations on in the library common room and taped a conversation implying that the fire was intentional. Unsure of what to do, she takes the tape to history teacher and Holocaust survivor Mark Bronov.

Prue is already half in love with Mark, despite the age difference and his reclusive nature. At her urging, he tells her about his experiences in the concentration camp and his power struggle with a sadistic German officer, who escaped when the Allied forces arrived. It is this officer, Max, who may be the man mentioned in the tape, come back to hunt him down.

Mark insists on a lot of secrecy, but someone still seems to be after Prue; one day, when home sick from school and sleeping, she is almost strangled. Eventually she and Mark are quietly married and she moves in with him, which brings its own set of problems. The suddenness of the affair drives a wedge between Prue and Victoria. Mark has recently brought his orphaned nephew Janni back from abroad, a surly teenager whom Prue believes hangs out with an anti-Semitic crowd. A strange old man is hanging out around the house. Something is wrong that Prue can’t quite put her finger on.

And then!


So. Turns out that Mark is actually Max, the Nazi officer who took the identity of one of the prisoners in order to escape without punishment. He and his friends were responsible for the temple fire. He killed the old man, the real Bronov, for fear he would be revealed. But he loves Prue and is changing his ways, really. And Prue, still loving him despite her horror at his murdering ways, is thisclose to running off with him to South America like he asks, so she shoots and kills him. And serves a short prison sentence because she believes herself guilty. And plans to bring up the child she carries alone to try to make amends for both herself and Mark/Max.


It’s probably very telling that I had to start another book very soon after finishing this one, that it showed up briefly in my dreams that night, and that I’m shuddering now even writing about it. I’m not sure why it affected me so strongly. I was trying to tell my mom about it, and she said it sounded like it was very well-plotted. It is! It’s just rubbing me the wrong way.

The stubborn part of me is still having trouble putting the book in the sale pile, especially since I still have one other by her (The Double Snare). And I guess I’ll read it at some point. But it concerns amnesia and maybe a slight political subplot, and I think there are lots of other books that I would like to read first.

Has a book ever affected you in a negative way. more than just dislike?

Published in: on November 5, 2012 at 3:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Flaming Tree

If asked which author I own the most books by (not counting series books or Agatha Christie), Phyllis Whitney would be in the top five. I wouldn’t call her one of the greatest authors ever, and like those of Mary Higgins Clark her books can get a little repetitive if read too close together. Nevertheless, I’ve been picking up her books at sales ever since my mom introduced me to The Red Carnelian years ago. [Is this really the first one I’ve written about on here? I guess I haven’t read one since college.]

In The Flaming Tree, Kelsey Stewart is still trying to recover emotionally months after the car accident that took the life of her three-year-old son and led to her husband divorcing her. She is slowly getting back into her career as a therapist for critically injured children, but has taken a vacation to visit her aunt’s inn in Carmel, California.

Once there, however, her aunt begs her to take on a local case. Ruth Hammond and her son Jody were on a picnic at the point when Jody began playing near the edge. When his mother tried to grab him, they both went over the cliff to the rocks below. Ruth is bedridden but doctors say he will eventually walk again; Jody, however, remains in a vegetative state with brain damage and his father plans to send him away to an institution. Tyler Hammond is a complex man, selfish yet sensitive, and tormented by inner demons from his own childhood. He blames his son for the accident and refuses to see him (Secret Garden, much?). Ruth is cared for by her mother Dora, and Jody by Ruth’s college friend Ginnie. It is she and Ruth’s brother Dennis who convince Kelsey to work with and advocate for Jody, believing that a spark is still present inside him.

Kelsey stands up to Tyler and is given one week to see what she can accomplish, and her combination of nutrition, therapeutic touch, and mental stimulation proves to be effective. (Phyllis Whitney notes in the afterword that this approach was used when her own grandson was in a vegetative state.) Soon Jody is able to move his fingertips and form simple sounds. Larger problems exist in the house, however, and Kelsey believes that the questions need to be answered before Jody and his family can be healed. Why is Denis not allowed to see his sister? Why does Tyler shut himself off in anger and despair? Why did Ruth try to commit suicide? And why will no one talk about the malicious journalist who died a few months ago?

Phyllis Whitney’s later works (this is from 1985) often have a different feel from her early books. Though some elements are consistent, such as the inclusion of a real, detailed setting and information about an interesting hobby (here, Tyler is working on a documentary about the poet Robinson Jeffers). However, her later books seem to have children as a more focal part of the plot (like Feather on the Moon). They also move at a much slower pace. I found myself reading with steady curiosity rather than page-turning intensity, which worked for the situation.

In the first half of the book, the tone is peaceful and ruminative despite the horrible events that have occurred, likely because they happened before the start of the book. There is hope for healing for both Kelsey and the Hammonds. As the story progresses, however, through the calm surface of the lake we see tensions darting about like minnows. The situation in the house contains layer after layer of despair and anger and secrets, blocking out both memory and hope. I have to give Phyllis Whitney credit for the plot twist two thirds of the way through, because it really is unexpected and makes you go back and see the first part of the book in a whole different light. I can’t say that I liked it, however.



Here’s the gist: Ruth basically manipulates everyone around her, and has also been in an incestuous relationship with Dennis since they were young. Tyler has known about this and hoped it would stop when they married, but it didn’t. A few years ago, however, the journalist Francesca saw the two of them together at a resort. With Tyler’s documentary on the brink of success, she decides it’s the perfect time for blackmail. Ruth and Dennis go to talk to her, but when she won’t let up Ruth commands Dennis to murder her. Jody witnessed the entire thing and was threatened to never talk about it. The next day was the picnic on the point.

Ruth secretly has been healed and able to walk, but didn’t want Tyler to know or else he will leave with Jody. When Kelsey begins to catch on, Ruth lures her up to the same cliff and tries to push her over. Dennis had followed to finally to do something right, and in his struggle with Ruth the two siblings fall over the edge and die. Dora fills in the details for them afterwards; she had known a lot, but her devotion to Ruth was her weakness.

Also, let’s talk about the romance. When Kelsey first started to fall for Tyler I thought it an interesting twist, and better than the cliche choice of her getting together with Dennis. The tortured artist can be very attractive, and Kelsey was already emotionally involved with him as they fought over Jody’s rehabilitation. Obviously nothing could come of it, since Tyler was married, so I appreciated the boldness of a suspense book with unrequited love. In reality, that should have been my clue that Ruth had to go. Of course Tyler loved Kelsey in return, for giving him his life and hope back, and had been planning to leave Ruth before the accident made her dependent on him. Ruth conveniently dies, and no one cares much because she was the bad guy anyway. After some time to heal, Kelsey can start a new family with Tyler and Jody, who really likes Kelsey already so everything will be okay.

That poor kid will probably spend a lifetime in therapy about all of this.

I had a very hard time writing about this book. It seemed so fresh and intriguing, but the ending ruined everything for me. Even going back to the beginning to refresh my memory for the review, I saw all the characters differently. I’m really disappointed.

An interesting note: Kelsey’s situation here is similar to Menley’s in Mary Higgins Clark’s Remember Me, also about a woman whose son died when she was in a car accident, but the stories are handled very differently.

Published in: on May 12, 2012 at 8:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Street of the Small Steps

I wasn’t feeling well on New Year’s Eve  and went to bed at about ten; I think that’s the earliest in years! My cold was a little better the next morning, and since no one else was up yet I had to content myself with one of the books in my room.

As much as I love the giants of romantic suspense, I also like trying to find forgotten authors of the genre. Ruth Willock looks like one of them. In The Street of the Small Steps, orphaned Lisa Barrett has always been torn between two worlds. Her mother’s family in Zurich, famous textile producers the Eberlis, have long tried to keep her under their thumb. When her American father was alive, however, she traveled with him on his journalism assignments sometimes and got her first tastes of freedom. Now she is living with a great-aunt in London and studying fashion design at the university. An American manufacturer Jerome Curtiss is interested in some of her sketches, and an engineering student, Richard Kendal, is interested in her.

When her domineering grandfather’s health takes a turn for the worse, however, she is ordered to return home for the summer and potentially for good. Lisa understands that her grandfather comes from a different era, where women had limited roles, but she wishes she had more control of her life. At the very least, she could design new textiles for the mills. She is glad, though, to catch up with her cousins Alec and Ursula, and spend time in the city again.

Lia soon has even bigger problems to worry about. Her mother’s cousin Nicholas, who as a barrister is in charge of her purse strings, suddenly seems intent on courting her. She has a constant feeling of being under surveillance. Everyone seems to want the sketches and mock-ups of her designs, especially a stunning cape, and she has no idea way. If they disappear, so does her shot of breaking free and starting a career with Jerome. The truth turns out to be bigger than she could have imagined.

I really, really enjoyed this book. I’ve long been interested in fashion, so that aspect held my interest, but Ruth Willock writes excellent suspense as well. I was snatching this up every spare moment I had the rest of the weekend. Lisa, and by extension the reader, has to go by instinct on who is trustworthy and who to be on guard with. She’s a bit in over her head, and making this up as she goes along.

Lisa’s situation also leads to the trapped feeling. The book was written in 1972, and I absolutely can’t imagine having someone order me to stop my schooling and my potential career to return home, to not see someone because he is a foreigner. It makes me appreciate how much control I have over my own life, and how I would feel if that control were taken away.

I liked the way the relationships were handled, especially seeing so many dysfunctional ones in Phyllis Whitney novels over the years. Lisa has her doubts sometimes about Richard, and Jerome even flirts with her a bit, but she believes deep in her heart that the love they had in London was real, and because of that I believed in him as well. It’s also refreshing for a heroine to have friends at hand with no strings attached, and no romantic tension. I’m very close to several of my cousins, so I thought the way Lisa, Alec, and Ursula all supported each other was very believable.

I picked this one up when the library at my school weeded its collection last summer, and I will definitely keep an eye out for more of Ruth Willock’s suspense novels. I wonder if there are any on Bookooch?

Published in: on January 2, 2012 at 6:43 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Moonspinners

The sky was black velvet, obscured by the veil of cloud drawing slowly across from the White Mountains. Later, perhaps, it would be thick with stars, but now it was black, black and comforting for the hunted. The moonspinners had done their work.

I’m not sure why, but lately I’ve been drawn to mystery and suspense rather than regular fiction. Perhaps it’s more escapist, or perhaps it holds my attention better when I have twenty other things on my mind at the same time. Mary Stewart fit the bill perfectly; The Moonspinners was one of the first books of hers that I read, and the later ones I’ve read more recently seem a bit more laid back.

Nicola Ferris, a young secretary at the British Embassy in Greece, is looking forward to joining her cousin Frances for a quiet Easter vacation on Crete. Frances is an avid naturalist and the secluded town of Agios Georgios is perfect, with its location in the foothills of the White Mountains. Nicola has also managed to secure reservations at the small hotel before it opens, since the owner is a wealthy native Cretan recently returned home to help out his sister Sophia.

Thanks to a lift from friends Nicola arrives a day before she is expected, and decides to take a detour up a mountain trail before heading into town. She travels farther than she intends on a search for the perfect picnic spot and stumbles across an abandoned shepherd’s hut. The discovery seems innocuous until she is confronted by a large Greek man with a knife who takes her inside.

The Greek, Lambis, is actually caring for a British man, Mark Langley, who is recovering from a gun wound. Lambis had piloted the caique bringing Mark and his brother Colin to hike and sightsee around the mountains. On the first night, however, the brothers accidentally witnessed a murder. The murderer then shot at Mark, and when Lambis sound and revived him later, Colin was gone. Since ties run deep in Agios Georgios, the two men must remain on the mountainside until Mark’s wound heals a bit and then secretly search for Colin, while avoiding a murderer who hopes to leave no witnesses. Meanwhile Nicola must return to the village to meet her cousin. Her conscience won’t let her turn a blind eye, so she feels around for information without knowing whom to trust, and and who might instead be involved in the affair.

The book was originally published in 1962, but Nicola is a smart and confident heroine. She traipses the mountainside in a dress, smokes cigarettes, and shares a blanket overnight with an injured stranger. She loves working in a foreign country, uses her fluency in Greek to her advantage, and is willing to take plenty of risks. I wonder sometimes how I would fare in situations like this, and right now my answer is not nearly as well as she did!

On this stretch of the hill there were no trees, other than an occasional thin poplar with bone-white boughs. Thistles grew in the cracks of the rock, and everywhere over the dry dust danced tiny yellow flowers, on threadlike stalks that let them flicker in the breeze two inches above the ground. They were lovely little things, a million motes of gold dancing in a dusty beam, but I trudged over them almost without seeing them. The joy had gone: there was nothing in my world now but the stony track, and the job it was taking me to do.

One of my favorite elements of Mary Stewart’s best suspense books is the exotic locale she she so vividly describes. I could see in my mind the wild mountainsides of Crete, the fields and streams and tiny flowers. It’s like a mini mental vacation! The unfamiliarity of the surrounding also exacerbates both Nicola’s perception of events and the reader’s growing interest; there is nothing familiar to fall back on. The most beckoning trail could lead the danger, and the most unassuming building could house a great secret.

Even though I had read this before, I recalled only the basic framework of the plot and still couldn’t quite figure out who to trust. I even mostly fell for an incorrect conclusion Nicola draws at one point. I guess this means I can go back and reread her other books as well!

Published in: on November 20, 2011 at 7:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Assignment in Brittany

We’ll never know the half of it, he thought: those of us who lived through this war in safety will never know the half of it. Even if we can imagine all the stark bloodshed which peacetime prophets foretold, we shall never guess about the little things, the little things which add up to a horror of their own.

It has been several years since I’ve read a Helen MacInnes book, probably about four. The funny thing is that I can tell you very little about them. My Dell paperbacks from the sixties give little in the way of summaries, and the titles give no additional clues, so I can pick one up and not be sure of whether I’ve read it. This doesn’t happen often; usually I have a very good memory for plots.

I just picked up Assignment in Brittany at a booksale, however, so I know that I’ve never read it before. It’s a lovely jacketed hardcover, not a book club edition but the real deal from 1942. According to the jacket biography this was only her second book.

Martin Hearne is a British Intelligence officer who has been on several covert missions, but this may be his toughest yet. A young French soldier, Bertrand Corlay, has made it to England after the battle at Dunkirk, and as Corlay lies wounded in an English hospital, Hearne pumps him for information about himself on the pretense of establishing his identity. In reality, however, Hearne will be assuming it. His superior plans to make good use of the uncanny similarity between Hearne and Corlay, so close that even he had been fooled.

France may have signed an armistice with Germany, but the British are still very interested in any suspicious German activity in the region of Brittany. If the Nazis are able to set up base along the coast here than things could get very bad for England. The Intelligence Office needs men to act as eyes, and Hearne is the perfect choice. He has long been interested in Brittany and its people because of his own Cornish descent, and even studied for a year at the Unversity in Rennes before the war. In appearances he is a doppelganger to Corlay, and can mimic the man’s Breton accent perfectly.

Under the cover of night a plane drops Hearne off in France, and he is now like any weary French soldier heading home now that fighting is done. The ancient village of St. Deodat is fortunately small, so that he will not have to pretend to know many people, and Corlay’s mother is bedridden and nearsighted. The plan is to spend the days working around the farm and the nights scouting out the surrounding countryside. Already he can tell that the Germans seems to be at work building secret air bases away from watchful eyes and well within range of the British coast.

As with any plan, however, complications arrive. Madame Corlay is none too happy that her son is content to have an armistice on German terms. Then there is the matter of Anne Pinot. It may have been arranged by their parents, but Anne had been affianced to Corlay, and though she seems to accept him she doesn’t act like he expected. Finally, even Corlay himself turns out to have been different from what he seemed. The Frenchman withheld some aspects of his life during interrogation at the British hospital, and Hearne has to do a very careful job piecing those together if he wants to keep playing this game. When the Germans arrive in St. Deodat before long, the urgency is even greater.

Hearne is a very likable hero. He has fantastic courage, stamina, and wits, a combination that sometimes reminded me of Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, but he is also a really nice guy. Even though his focus is on reconnaissance, he assists and stands up for others at jeopardy to himself, like the American journalist whom he helps escape. Helen MacInnes also shows us the everyday courage of the people of France. They refuse to submit to tyranny, and stick out their necks to work for freedom even if it means exposing themselves to risk.

I do love reading about World War II, but every book reminds me again how fortunate we are. As the quote from the book above suggests, we simply will never know the everyday horrors that people went through. I can barely imagine rationing, let alone the deprivation of being an occupied country, the sorrow of kissing a loved one goodbye not knowing if it’s the last time, the constant shadows of fear and uncertainty that darkened every heart. Helen MacInnes lived in Scotland and England and traveled a lot before moving to America with her husband; she wrote An Assignment in Brittany in 1942.  It strikes me every time I read a book or watch a movie from the 1940s about the war that at the time they had no idea of the outcome. Germany could very well have launched a full-scale attack on the British coast before the book was out of a first printing. I don’t think I will ever read historical fiction about the war that is more powerful than something written firsthand.

Both the plot and the characters were well done, and drew me in so that I could barely put down the book. Even glancing through it to write this post I can still feel the uncertainty I mentioned above. My only complaint, which I recall as being true of her other books as well, is that she doesn’t do endings very well.It’s all suspense-suspense-building suspense-climax-end of climax; there’s no denouement, so that I finished the book and thought, “wait, what just happened?” I had to reread the last few pages, and I still wish she gave a bit more closure.

I have acquired most of her books over the years, and I’ll have to remember to work her into the rotation with the other mystery and suspense authors. I was looking up information about this book and came across a review that criticized the misleading Dell paperbacks for labeling this as romantic suspense, and I suddenly realized that that’s the reason I probably liked but didn’t loved the ones I had read before. They’re fantastic espionage stories with a hint of romance, whereas I think I had been expecting something more gothic. Now I want to reread the others as well.

Another review claimed that the book was given to American soldiers being sent to France later in the war. I have no idea whether or not that’s true, but if it is it speaks for the resonance and accuracy of the novel. Assignment in Brittany was also apparently made into a movie in 1943. Hopefully I’ll be able to watch it either through Netflix or TCM.

Published in: on July 31, 2011 at 11:24 pm  Comments (5)  
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The Thirty-Nine Steps

“I felt the sense of danger and impending calamity, and I had the curious feeling, too, that I alone could avert it, alone could grapple with it.”

The Thirty-Nine Steps is one of the plays at the Walnut Theatre this season, so in anticipation I finally got around to reading the original spy thriller by John Buchan. I’ve never seen any of the film adaptations either, so I went into the story completely fresh.

Richard Hannay is an ex-military man who has now retired to London. Just when he believes that his life can get no more mundane, his upstairs neighbor Scudder accosts him with a story of great political import. Apparently a plot is afoot to assassinate a crucial Greek leader, a move calculated to hurl the continent towards war. Only Scudder knows the details of the plan, but must lie low since the enemy knows he knows. Suddenly Hannay finds himself fleeing to rural Scotland to preserve both the information and his life, with Scudder’s enemies and the local police hot on his trail.

Because his story seems too bizarre to believe without evidence, Hannay must rely on instinct and luck to determine whom he can trust, all the time under the watchful eye of an aeroplane circling above. He survives solely by using his wits and peak physical condition. Though he describes himself often as an “ordinary man,” his experiences in the service and in South Africa have primed him well. He can crack a code, play a role, and in general “use [his] brains as far as they went.” He is full of both ability and effort despite his modesty.

When I think “thriller” and “espionage” I tend to picture non-stop action, with the focus on discovering and stopping some sort of plot. The Thirty-Nine Steps is in some ways more like an adventure story; the notes mention slight nods to Robert Louis Stevenson. Hannay’s desperate crossing of Scotland is episodic in nature and focuses mainly on evading his pursuers, even though there are some high-speed chases and explosions. Since most of the plot was handed to him, he does not need to take the initiative to figure things out and confront the Germans until near the end of the novel.

My copy is one of the Oxford World’s Classics, which lays claim to being the “only critical edition” of the book. While I found Christopher Harvie’s introduction to be an interesting read after the book, his Explanatory Notes seemed for the most part completely unwarranted. Apparently (according to sources cited in the Introduction) John Buchan has entire literary journals devoted to him, and these scholars delight in retracing Hannay’s precise journey, but I care little for footnotes explaining exactly which train station and line he is using at various points. I don’t need military background on every experience Hannay references (in fact, it detracts from the reading), and even one unfamiliar with American slang could probably deduce that when a Kentucky man references the “Blue-Grass country” he means home. Yes, the book is a classic, and an important entry in the development of the genre, but not everything need noted.

I’m much more well-read in the history of detection novels than suspense, and most of my spy reading has been Helen MacInnes stories, so I was unfamiliar with the precursors mentioned. Apparently, shortly after the start of WWI, Buchan was ordered to a long bed rest and wrote this “shocker” as a means of amusement. He had written many historical and military pieces beforehand, so the book draws slightly on some facts, and later played an important role in war propaganda. He seems a very interesting character and had long careers in both publishing and politics. His biography might be an interesting read, in addition to the subsequent Richard Hannay books.

This was a short read, about a hundred and twenty pages without the introduction, and was also my final book for 2010. It is on both the Guardian and 1001 Books Lists.

Published in: on January 1, 2011 at 4:25 pm  Comments (4)  
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