by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

Volume 6 – Issue 4 – Gallimaufry

November 11, 2010 | by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

THE COMPLETE BRIGADIER GERARD STORIES
Arthur Conan Doyle
CANONGATE £8.99 400PP ISBN 978-1847679192

Besides Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle produced another, rather less well-known, recurring character: the young French cavalry officer Brigadier Gerard of the Hussars, ready to serve Napoleon and France or die in the attempt. Conan Doyle is having a little xenophobic fun here, swiping at the French with this comic depiction of an action hero, full of bombast and bravado, who nevertheless manages some very Inspector Clouseau-type slip-ups. In the opening story, his reckless determination to deliver a missive unwittingly foils Napoleon’s attempt to spread misinformation amongst the enemy. Epistles tend to crop up rather often in Gerard’s missions, leading to all sorts of comic relief, although, understandably, not the obvious pun about French letters. Conan Doyle loved history; he even believed his non-fiction studies would grant him the literary immortality he sought. Certainly, he did not want to be remembered as the creator of a mere detective. Although these short stories combine Doyle’s interest in the past with the sense of storytelling that made the Holmes tales so beloved, the Brigadier Gerard stories are not classics. The swashbuckling attitude to war, generally out of favour with our times, is perhaps part of the reason. LM


THE TSAR’S DOCTOR: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SIR JAMES WYLIE
Mary McGrigor
BIRLINN £9.99 224PP ISBN 978-1841588810

McGrigor struggles here to place her hero at the centre of a story that is dominated by rather more glittering personalities. Although Wylie kept a diary, which documents the last days of Tsar Alexander’s life, it is a rather formal affair. Born in 1768 in Kincardine, he attended medical school in Edinburgh but was determined to go to sea. He took a post with Russia’s Yelets Infantry as a military surgeon in 1790. Shocked by the Russian habit of leaving wounded infantrymen to die, whilst nevertheless attending to officers, Wylie is credited with altering that practice. When he saved the life of a close friend of Tsar Paul I, he was appointed to the Russian court. Paul was mentally unbalanced and murdered by his son and heir, Alexander I. He in turn was prone to depression. Wylie founded a hospital for training Russian doctors and was even immortalised in War And Peace. It is frustrating, then, that such a remarkable man, central to the court, should remain so much on the margins of his own biography, crowded out by tsars and emperors and their wives and mistresses. LM


THE ACCIDENT
Ismail Kadare
CANONGATE £16.99 263PP ISBN 978-1847673398

The Accident is a fine riposte to those who questioned the first Man Booker International Prize judges when they chose to award Kadare over Philip Roth and Gabriel García Màrquez. The Accident is a rumination on love and what it does to our sense of ourselves. We begin with a car accident. A taxi on the motorway from Vienna to the airport crashes and its two passengers are killed outright. The driver survives but can only tell the police what distracted him: the sight of the couple in his rear-view mirror, trying to kiss. The implications of this action – the attempt at a kiss, as much as the deaths of the passengers – lead to enquiries. The couple, we quickly learn, both Albanian, were having a long-running affair, but friends of hers testify that she was afraid of him, and he is at first suspected of being a government agent. As the affair is told in flashback, we see what love can do. Beautifully told in sparse, simple prose. LM


SISTERS OF SINAI: HOW TWO LADY ADVENTURERS FOUND THE HIDDEN GOSPELS
Janet Soskice
VINTAGE £9.99 352PP ISBN 978-0099546542

Irvine-born twin sisters Agnes and Margaret Smith gloriously belie the suggestion that their strict religious upbringing, their smalltown childhood and their late marriages, each lasting only three years, make them stereotypically uptight Victorian matrons. The answer to tragedy in their life was to travel, so when their much-loved father died when they were only nineteen and left them a small fortune, they upped sticks for Egypt, where they cruised down the Nile. When their husbands died, they did the same again, travelling further east. One of the real pleasures of reading about their journeys is their open-mindedness and sheer joy at learning about other ways of life. Never patronising or prejudiced, they learned the language: of the countries they travelled in, Agnes publishing books about their trips afterwards. It was their journey to visit the monks of St Catherine’s in Eilat that was to change everything for them, for it was on that trip that they found an early copy of the Gospels. Soskice does an excellent job here, both in portraying the sisters’ adventurousness and in explaining the religious turmoil the Church was facing in the wake of Darwin’s theories. LM


FIRE IN THE HEAD
Les Wilson
VAGABOND VOICES £11.00 240PP ISBN 978-0956056078

Les Wilson’s first novel revisits an idea that has fascinated people since the end of the Second World War. What happened to the scientists who created the American atomic bomb? Jon Armour, an arts journalist for The Herald, discovers one of them living in a remote community on the west coast of Scotland. Campbell Aaronson is now a veteran of the campaign for nuclear disarmament. He lives with his daughter, and his neighbours include a once famous artist working on a mysterious new project and a boatman who has both an award for bravery and a dishonourable discharge from the army. All of them are united against a proposed quarry that would destroy their community. Wilson’s writing is not short of confidence or ambition. His story includes a love affair, eco-terrorism, William Blake, and reflections on the nature of art and the state of the world. Overall, it’s a lively and engaging read despite a problematic parallel story about some bad white men and a Native American shaman, and an unconvincing episode in which Armour visits Los Alamos, home of the Manhattan Project. TM


COLLECTED VERSES
Alasdair Gray
TWO RAVENS PRESS £15.99 200PP ISBN 978-1906120535

Alasdair Gray’s Collected Verses brings together fifty-two years of poetry, illustrating the developing voice and shifting styles of a writer better known for his prose. His early poems, composed in the 1950s, are spoken in a melancholic voice. The self-pitying notes of ‘Loneliness’ and ‘Predicting’ give way to more mature ruminations on his marriage to Inge Sorenson, for whom a sequence is named. Different voices and styles appear in ‘Verse from Elsewhere’, where Gray selects poems that first appeared in Lanark, Unlikely Stories, Poor Things and other publications. Songs such as ‘I Don’t Like It Enough’ and ‘A Sentimental Song’ are enlivened by smart rhymes. One arresting sequence features Gray’s collaboration with artist Ian McCulloch. Here, poems about biblical and mythical figures are paired with striking woodcut drawings. A final selection features brief tributes to Archie Hind and other literary figures. These poems illustrate Gray’s flair no matter the form he chooses to work in. TM


BIRTHRIGHT: THE TRUE STORY THAT INSPIRED KIDNAPPED
A. Roger Ekirch
W.W. NORTON & COMPANY £17.99 258PP ISBN 978-0393066159

American historian A. Roger Ekirch reveals a real-life David Balfour did exist. In 1728, James Annesley was shipped from Dublin to Delaware Bay as an indentured servant.

His devious uncle Richard, only brother of the late fourth Baron of Altham, orchestrated the kidnap. After a decade of slavery in the Americas, James finally sailed back to Britain via Jamaica. His next challenge was to prove he was Arthur Annesley’s legitimate son and entitled to inherit five aristocratic titles. A bold Scottish merchant, Daniel Mackercher, was James only ally. The process of proving his identity without the assistance of DNA or fingerprint records resulted in one of the most sensational trials of the eighteenth century. Despite a plethora of witnesses, James was depicted as ‘the pretender’ and thought to be the offspring of his nursemaid, Juggy Landy. It all sounds too incredible to be true but Ekirch’s extensive court transcripts assure the reader of the story’s veracity. Ekirch does not speculate on how James coped with his multiple misfortunes but shapes his character through the recorded dialogue of others. Each chapter brings captivating information about the betrayal and resulting trial, which concluded with a surprise verdict. TM


ONE O’CLOCK GUN ANTHOLOGY
Edited by Craig Gibson
LEAMINGTON BOOKS £10 288PP ISBN 978-0955488559

What began as a news sheet distributed in Edinburgh pubs has now been anthologised. Created by Edinburgh University students in 2004 and modelled after Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, The One O’Clock Gun was satirical in intent; in practice it often reads like male-centric barroom banter. In one of his pieces, editor Craig Gibson explains, “The days of the Edinburgh gentleman’s club were long gone.” With three female contributors outnumbered by thirty-odd males, you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. There are too many stories about boozing and sexual conquests, one of which includes the line, ‘‘I’ve never screwed a chick yet that’s wanted to count my sperm.” Charming. Rants against non-supporters of the One O’Clock Gun, such as Whigams Wine Cellar: and Catherine Lockerbie of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, are immature. However, there are some poignant moments. James Woods’ poems and Alasdair Gray’s tribute to television scriptwriter Susan Boyd are of a high standard. Perhaps the One O’Clock Gun should only be fired off in the pub. Collectively, these sardonic pieces lose their punch. TM


THE BERLUSCONI BONUS
Allan Cameron
VAGABOND VOICES £10.00 224PP ISBN 978-0956056092

Allan Cameron’s fable set in a futuristic dystopia is about a society corrupted by consumerism. Here the Britain of tomorrow is a country where that famous idea of theorist Francis Fukuyama has come to pass: history has ended. Citizens exist in senseless luxury because of the Rational Consumer Implant Cards in their brains. A privileged few have been awarded the Plutocratic Social Gratitude Award, also known as the Berlusconi Bonus (named in honour of the louche Italian premier), owing to their aptitude for raking in money. It’s a licence to live in even greater lavishness – and outside the law. However, there are losers as well as winners in Cameron’s brave new world. Refugees are forced to stay in Fukuyama Theme Parks on the margins of society. This could be interesting, but Cameron’s sermonising makes piecing the clues together more hard work than fun. The narrator, Adolphus Hibbert, is CEO of a bedpan company. Hibbert, who has just qualified for his Bonus, is finding his new freedom difficult to process, not least dealing with those who are jealous of his new status. So he begins a love affair with Edith, a fringe-dweller. Though there are flashes of relevance to today’s politics, the novel turns into diatribe. TM

From this Issue

A Chequered History

by Allan Massie

The Art of War

by Stephen Phelan

On Being Modern-Minded

by Terry Delaney

Blog / Discussion

x
2
Posts Remaining