Monday, 21 May 2012

The Expendable Man, by Dorothy B Hughes, Persephone Books endpaper

I have been utterly gripped by this for the past two days and utterly amazed that with all the Persephone blog chat, more people aren't shouting about it - because, trust me, it's one of their best. 
From the outset, it is unsettling ... why is this respectable young doctor so jumpy and paranoid as he drives through the Arizona desert on his way to a family wedding? His anxiety is so unnerving - what guilty secret lies in his past? what can he have done?- that every page thrums with tension and every frame feels like a film noir  playing inside your head. I couldn't possibly say anything else without spoiling it, except that on page 71, Dorothy B Hughes casually shocks you to the core ...
And you realise the hints have been there all along. 

This was a 5* Persephone which made me wonder which of their other titles I'd choose for my top ten. 
So in no particular order, here goes:
Someone at a Distance ... Dorothy Whipple pulling the rug from under a happy marriage. 
Fidelity by Susan Glaspell, written in 1915, and also Brook Evans, impossible to choose one over the other as Glaspell is so shockingly ahead of her time. 
Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski ... one of the saddest stories I've ever read. 
Miss Pettigrew, of course ... she's irresistible. 
And so is The Fortnight in September, by RC Sherriff, one of the best feelgood stories I've ever read. 
Still Missing, by Beth Gutcheon. Another page-turner.
The World That Was Ours by Hilda Bernstein, a true story that's as good as a thriller. 
Round About A Pound A Week because it brings the history of poor London women - not so very long ago - so vividly alive. 

Oh dear, we'll have to call it a baker's dozen, because I couldn't possibly leave out Saplings (Noel Streatfeild) or The Village (another Marghanita Laski) and although it's a long time since I read it, Alas, Poor Lady (Rachel Ferguson) was powerful punch-in-the-gut spinster-lit. 

So that's my ten, although it's really 13. But as you can see, I'm all for feel-bad and a cracking good story over what they call 'hot water bottle' novels ... at least most of the time. 

Anybody want to argue for titles I've excluded? I haven't read them all, but I must have ticked off more than 60, plus a couple that have fallen under the bed and, I fear, will go forever unloved and unfinished.

24 comments:

Tabitha said...

I buy Persephone titles then save them for months . Do you ever do that - wait for just the right mood before you start a book? Anyhow, Miss Pettigrew is such a delightful book. And this never happens but I liked the movie as well. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, Miss Buncle's Book and The Provincial Lady in Wartime (Maybe that's not a Persephone. I am too lazy to hobble into the living room and check.) I really enjoy your blog by the way. It's so well written.

Vintage Reading said...

I'm waaaay behind with all the new Persephone titles, but I do want to read Fidelity. Loved Saplings. You've made that Dorothy B Hughes sound very enticing, too.

mary said...

Oh, thank you Tabitha - and thanks for stopping by to leave a comment. I do have a secret stash waiting to be read; trouble is, I tend to forget that they're there. Not too many because I have been cutting down on the book-buying. Although there was an Amazon moment this afternoon!
I liked the Miss Pettigrew movie, too - really good fun - but I wasn't keen on Cheerful Weather (think there's a movie of that coming out shortly) and I remember being very rude about Miss Buncle which was probably too gentle for me. But it wouldn't do if we all liked the same books! Provincial Lady is a Virago ... but I know what you mean, it ought to be a Persephone. You've just reminded me about wonderful Mrs Winter-Gammon!

mary said...

Nicola, the one I'm aching for is Harriet. If it's anything like as good as The Tortoise and the Hare.

Mystica said...

Thanks for the list and the recommendations!

Sue said...

I couldn't finish Cheerful Weather -found the characters very irritating. Shockingly I didn't finish Mrs Pettigrew either, I think because I knew what was going to happen.

My favourites have been all the Whipples but especially High Wages, Mollie Panter-Downes' volumes of short stories, The Homemaker, Family Roundabout and A Fortnight in September.

mary said...

You're welcome, Mystica. It was yesterday's procrastination task when I should have been doing my accounts. The job I hate more than housework!

mary said...

Family Roundabout would probably have been next on the list, Sue. And it's ever so hard to pick one's second-best Whipple! I love Mollie P-D too, but my favourite is One Fine Day which isn't Persephone.

penandpencilgirls said...

This is exactly the sort of list I love so thank you for making me stop and think. Hmm I do agree with you about The Expendable Man. I read it in one go unable to put it down. I'd have to swap out two of your favourites for Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary and The Home-Maker (Could axe Saplings and Round About a Pound a Day because good as they are, I don't love them). Would choose Fidelity I think over Brooke Evans. High Wages over Someone at a Distance (hmm not sure!). I've yet to read A Fortnight in September, but it's there on the shelf and also like you eager to read Harriet. That still leaves the Miss Buncles, Making of a Marchioness and Winds of Heaven though. Spoilt for choice I guess!

mary said...

Hello, Penandpencilgirls ... how nice to have a new visitor! I've just been over to your blog to admire your list of exhibitions. I'm looking forward to the Clark Impressionists, too.

penandpencilgirls said...

Oh thank you! I love your blog ofc. I used to enjoy visiting the Clark when I lived first in Boston and then years later in NYC so am really pleased to have these pictures coming to London. Worth the membership alone, but with the Hockney earlier figure I'm really getting good value this year!

mary said...

I've never been to Williamstown, is it? but have seen so many stunning paintings of theirs on loan over the years.

Darlene said...

This is where anglophilia gets me into trouble, Mary. I would see 'Arizona' in the synopsis and think "oh that's too bad" and not investigate any further because it's not set in England. The book sounds really, really intriguing though! 'Alas, Poor Lady' is languishing but I've been stealing glimpses lately and Round About a Pound a Week is one that I don't have but must buy one day...and definitely 'Harriet'!

mary said...

Alas, Poor Lady is gut-wrenching, Darlene - but you're not a spinster so you don't need to take it to heart! I think you'd love Pound a Week.
But think of all the wonderful books you miss because they're not set in England! No Willa Cather? Could you dip a toe in the Irish Sea and try William Trevor? Could you try to pretend that Arizona was ... ooh, I don't know. The Cotswolds? A far-flung outpost of St Mary Mead?

kristina said...

I used to live in Williamstown and work at the Clark! I do miss it terribly. It will be like a little bit of home in London. K x

mary said...

What a wonderful place to work, Kristina. That would be my dream job. You'll be at the RA every day!

Darlene said...

I have dipped my toe! The Story of Lucy Gault was lovely...it must be ten years since I've read it. And Rachel sent me a copy of O Pioneer! over a year ago but my fascination with covered wagons has been over for decades. I am quite fond of Rachel though so I will pick it up one day, I will...

I am the stuff your stereotypical spinster is made of. Roman laughs at my fondness for scrambled eggs on toast for dinner and I couldn't be happier than when he is away and I can read for hours on end. He thinks that if he dies first I will live on books and biscuits surrounded by tins of dog food, all by choice. Whatever floats your boat I say!

A Trifle Rushed said...

Mmmmm I love your list, I'd prefer to hear about the books under the bed, it'll save me some money!
I have a stack of Persephone's I haven't yet read, I must sort some out for the summer!
Jude x

mary said...

As long as you don't start eating the dog food ...
Did you ever read Wm Trevor's Reading Turgenev - so sad, a real wallow.

mary said...

Well, I never managed to finished Few Eggs and No Oranges - though Darlene would tell me to try again, because I remember she loved it - and The Runaway is definitely under the bed, and Every Eye would be too, only it had to go back to the library. And Making Conversation, that was very forgettable.
I think I come to them with very high expectations and then feel let down by the occasional dud ... silly really, because don't feel such passionate involvement with any other publisher!

A Trifle Rushed said...

Phew! I haven't any of those in my to read pile!
And your right we wouldn't expect all our Penguins to be perfect!

Darlene said...

Mary, I really hope you do finish Few Eggs! It was a fabulous read, in fact, I've been thinking about it quite a lot now that I'm thoroughly engrossed in Millions Like Us. Which leads me to ask for your help...how much is 'two and six pence'? It's the 'two' part that I'm not sure about...would it be pounds? It's in my book as the price paid for a dinner by a new bride and groom during WWII.

(haven't read Reading Turgenev btw, I'll look it up)

mary said...

Two shillings and six pence in old money, Darlene; also known as half-a-crown. I would certainly have bought a dinner during WW2, in fact restaurants were obliged to offer a set price meal - I can't remember whether it was 2s6d or 5s, but I have an elderly friend who said that it was the only time if her life she could afford to dine at the Savoy etc.
By the time I was growing up in the 60s, 2s6d was a week's pocket money for a 10-year-old, or a reasonably generous tip from an uncle. Post-decimalisation it became 12.5p ... well today the half-pence no longer exists, and 12p buys almost nothing. Maybe a small chew in an old-fashioned sweet shop if you can find them. The kind that cost 1d in my day!
Hope this is a thorough answer!

Darlene said...

Very, and thanks so much! The 'two' is definitely not 'pounds' then...my goodness, that would have fed a dinner party.

Oh the days of 5 cent bags of chips *sigh*.