Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Vet in Harness – James Herriot
Herriot is a veterinarian, but few professional writers can match his ability to engage and engross a reader. This book differs from All Creatures Great and Small in that it contains more of the gritty side of a vet’s job. A difficult birth of a lamb can be a messy affair, and Herriot describes it in a graphic and matter-of-fact way. Though he accepts the fact that suffering is a part of life, he’s also able to fully appreciate the joys the world has to offer. Put simply, he’s a happy man. In almost every episode his subject is a sick animal, though equal attention is paid to the feelings of the owner and to his own responses. Herriot has a sharp eye for the foibles of human (and animal) nature and conveys his observations with a humor that’s sly and gentle. In this decidedly down-to-earth book an intriguing character makes repeated appearances. Whereas the author presents himself as an ordinary soul of limited abilities and precarious finances, Granville Bennett (what a name!) is a super hero; even the most devilishly complicated surgery is warm putty in his hands. He’s also a force of nature, consuming life’s bounty in tremendous gulps and basking in the possession of everything a man could hope for, from a gorgeous wife to a Bentley automobile. Perhaps, in Granville Bennett, Herriot created a mythic figure – a God of the Vets.

Murder at the Pentagon – Margaret Truman
Margaret = Margit. In creating her heroine, Major Margit Falk, Margaret Truman may have been indulging in a “What I could have been” fantasy. Margit is the whole package: she’s a helicopter pilot and attorney; she’s attractive; she’s tough, intelligent and guided by principles of honor. She also knows her limitations; when she’s asked to defend an officer accused of murder she declines, citing her total lack of experience in criminal cases. But the request becomes an order. The young man she’s representing happens to be homosexual; thus Truman, in 1992, tackles the issue of homosexuality in the military. Margit does some digging and learns that the murdered scientist had been about to blow the whistle on a heavily-funded but ineffective missile defense system; she also becomes convinced that her client is being set up. But she’s unable to accomplish much because people in positions of power are thwarting her efforts. Margit realizes that she was picked for the job precisely because it is beyond her capabilities; she’s being used. As a mystery/thriller, this is only so-so. The writing is competent and Margit is a strong character, but the plot has too many gaping holes and loose ends. The main point of interest lies in the fact that the author is the daughter of a president. As an Insider, her cynicism about DC matters. She portrays a city in which integrity and idealism get trampled by a military/political establishment that will employ any means to protect their interests.

The West Pier – Patrick Hamilton
Hamilton creates a creepy predator in Ernest Ralph Gorse and a sympathetic victim in Esther Downes. But do we need every detail of Gorse’s machinations to separate Esther from her life savings? It’s as if the author found vicarious pleasure in working out and presenting to the reader the minutia of his villain’s stratagems. The perspective in which we view these events is odd. Esther’s flaws are human ones; she tells about twenty lies in the course of the novel, though none are malicious and her deceitfulness presents a moral dilemma for her. When, at the end, Gorse accomplishes his goal – the poor girl is stripped of every penny she owns – I felt the far-reaching damage done to her. Yet I also felt that the author didn’t share my compassion. He makes me feel pity but he seems to relate more to the inhuman individual who inflicts the pain. There’s a gloating exhilaration in the scene when Gorse blithely drives off, leaving Esther waiting for him at an inn without the money to pay for their tea and cakes. Hamilton embraces a set of warped values, which may be the right way to write about a psychopath. In the Author’s Note he states that The West Pier is the first in a series of novels dealing with this character, but he assures the reader that it’s a complete story in itself. Not really. The duping of Esther Downes is too minor an incident to stand on its own; it should have been compressed to the size of a chapter and been part of a longer work, one in which Mr. Gorse will move on to much more serious matters.

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