The 20 Books of Summer challenge runs from the beginning of June to the end of August each year, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. This is my fourth year of joining in, and my most successful yet, the best I’ve managed before being 15 out of my 20. I always aim to go for the full twenty. It is a realistic goal – I’ve actually read 34 books during these three months – but for this challenge I’m strict about all books being from my TBR and acquired pre-2020. I set out with the 85 in my bedside bookcase to choose from, but even that number couldn’t match my reading moods and I ended up cheating terribly, swapping in other books – but all acquired pre-2020. So that’s 17 old books for the challenge and 17 new books read this meteorological summer. The highlight has to have been finally reading the five books of the Patrick Melrose novels which make sense as a series in a way that doesn’t do them justice read as singles.
The last two volumes I read are novellas, so I’ll keep my reviews below short too…
The Two-Penny Bar by Georges Simenon
Translated by David Watson
I started reading this one, the 11th Maigret, and it felt familiar. I’d not paid attention to the cover which says ‘previously published as The Bar on the Seine‘, and yes, I read this back in 2008 having been recommended it by someone as one of the best Maigret books. Here’s what I said then:
The Bar on the Seine by Georges Simenon
I’ve not read any Simenon since my teens, and what better author to take to Paris with me. This slim novel turned out to be a quite complex little murder mystery suffused with the languor of a hot summer in Paris. Maigret was planning to escape to join his wife (a prototype for Rumpole’s ‘She who must be obeyed’ one thinks) on holiday in Alsace, but work gets in the way when he gets involved in trying to find a murderer amongst a disparate bunch of Parisiens who get together at weekends at a tavern down the Seine. A good little roman policier but I need to read some more Maigrets though to get a better measure of the pipe-smoking detective.
I would add that it begins soberly in prison with a condemned man sort-of dobbing in his accomplices who hang out at the Two-Penny Bar – a more literal translation of the book’s original title, La Guinguette à Deux Sous. It’s the same translation too, revised. Two things struck me this time in particular: I loved Madame Maigret’s increasingly exasperated telegrams to her husband who, by the end, is over three weeks late in joining her in Alsace. I also enjoyed a great passage where the forensic experts of 1932 are able to pinpoint the area one of the suspects absconds to by analysing the earth embedded in the tyres of his car once it turns up again.
The first time Maigret visits the bar, he discovers the group revelling in fancy dress, pretending to be a wedding party – with men in drag, panto dame style, and the costumes and free-flowing booze hiding a multitude of sins going on. This was rather bizarre, but of course, allows the murderer to hide in plain sight, so to speak. An intriguing Maigret, this one! (8/10)
Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh
I’ve still not managed to read Welsh’s debut, The Cutting Room (it’s on the shelf) despite loving her ‘Plague Times Trilogy’ (see Q&A here, and reviews of the three volumes here, here and here), but her second novel, Tamburlaine Must Die, matched my mood yesterday for a quick, but gripping short read.
It’s the story of the final days of Christopher Marlowe in 1593, narrated by the man himself to us. It begins with Kit avoiding the plague in London at the home of his patron, Thomas Walsingham (who was related to the spymaster Francis Walsingham). No sooner than Walsingham takes advantage of his protégé, than Marlowe is summoned back to London to appear before the Privy Council accused of various crimes of heresy, derived in part from the actions of Tamburlaine in his play, and seditious information that Thomas Kyd, with whom he had shared lodgings, had given up on the rack as coming from Marlowe.
Kyd and Kit. The goat and the cat, someone had once called us. But the names didn’t stick. They were so plainly the wrong way round. If anyone were the goat it was I, with my Machiavellian cast and goatee beard. Kyd, on the other hand, had a feline quality. It suddenly struck me that all grace would be racked from him now. The realisation brought tears to my eyes. The world swam and for a while I forgot I was a haunted man. Poor Kyd was a good companion and a fine playwright whose friendship I’d just disowned. I knew he’d understand my denial as I forgave his betrayal, but the weight of bad faith rested heavy in my belly.
Marlowe is not imprisoned though at this stage, being free to go about his life in London. However, when a letter containing a white linen square arrives, a reference to Tamburlaine, he finds himself being hunted down and others demanding services of him, and that he will be damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t take one side or the other.
Welsh immerses us into the Elizabethan world seen through Kit’s eyes, in language that is appropriate to the period without being arch. It is intense, but not dense, poetic as needed, including quotations, notably from Tamburlaine. Told in one long chapter narrated by Kit, I found it a gripping conspiracy story, and when time allows, I want to dust off my copy of The Reckoning by Charles Nicholl, which chronicles Marlowe’s life in full, and provided Welsh with inspiration for this novel. I loved this novella. (8.5/10)