24 NOVEMBER 1939, Page 30

New Novels

Miss Lucifer. By Ronald Fraser. (Cape. 7s. 6d.) What Are We Waiting For By Michael Harrison. (Rich and Cowan. 8s. 6d.) Viper's Progress. By Mary Mitchell. (Methuen. 8s. 6d.)

No Arms, No Armour. By R. D. Q. Henriques. (Nicholson

and Watson. 8s. 6d.) Nanking Road. By Vicki Baum. (Bles. 8s. 6d.)

ANYONE who reads even a mere score or so of novels a year will not need to be told that each of the five listed above, if it were to come his way, would certainly remind him of some other story, similar in theme or treatment, that has gone before. This is no greater drawback than that a fresh sight or flavour should recall the memory of a faded landscape or a forgotten meal. And the world of fiction remains for the most part so obstinately its own that how else than by reading So-and-so's latest are we likely to remember any out of the capable but ordinary run of novels which we skimmed last year or the year before that? Marked dissimilarities separate the five chosen here, yet each has its affinity, greater or less, amid the organised flood of words that preceded their total of 750,000 glistening drops of human emotion through the publishers' lock-gates. Grand Hotel, Winged Pharaoh, The Aubiography of a Cad, The Balliols, The Four Feathers, Love and Death swirled out into the open on this same inky tide. It is a fortuitous pleasure in passing to note their after- taste, and less of a coincidence to observe that as a whole the class of autumn, '39, is more predominantly—or more outspokenly—concerned with sex. They are not all love stories, but (or should we say because?) all are at least in close agreement on the physical morality of the times. Amid a rich variety of confusion, that much is cut-and-dried. Amours have the antiseptic upper hand over the giddier emotions, and one is sure that, if it could be arranged for the characters of these several novels to meet between the covers of a single book, it would before long be in each other's arms that they would choose to argue and converse. To the onlooker the effect of such introductions would be no more strange than, for example, the sight of a wan Thurber figure momentarily disturbing the embraces of a Peter Arno couple in a Punch drawing-room by Pont.

The heroine of Mr. Fraser's graceful faery-tale is perhaps the only person from these pages whom we would not expect to find among the nine who met their death at the Shanghai Hotel when a bomb crashed through the roof to end their lives and Miss Baum's great jigsaw of a book. For all her casual but perfect taste in smart clothes and fast cars, by temperament Auriol Mainwaring would be averse from the muddled glitter of these grand hotels, each, as Miss Baum well knows, so like the last ; besides, her occult powers would have warned her of the approaching tragedy, which this time she would perhaps not easily avert—or, more likely still, her body asleep, she might share their distant death unscathed. For she roams at will through far places and buried pasts, but always in such elegant, bright prose that out of her rather limited resources of affection she would hardly, had she met the very snubbable hero of No Arms, No Armour, have wasted philosophy on that nice, dull young man. " Tubby " Windrush, after Mr. Henriques has robbed him of fellow- officers and soul-mates in the Sudan, might have been stationed in the Far East, and it would have been fitting irony if any

of Mr. Harrison's bewildered bores had drifted out there in quest of a wiser world—but no such luck ; for they, of course, would have seen all about it in the papers.

If, however, instead of huddling these further victims into Miss Baum's doomed hotel, we sound the All Clear, sparing and disentangling their oddly assorted lives—as from an air- raid shelter or from one of her " crowded canvases "—we would for preference spend our time in Auriol's amusing company. She knows too much of dreams, it's true, and disbelieving her perceptions of reality, we should be as puzzled as her parents or her husband if Mr. Fraser were not at hand to make her as delightfully credible to his readers as she is to the fifth real person among his many characters. She meets him, this quietly philosophic friend, in later life (but on earth all right, we hasten to add), and their delicate appreciation of each other is the happiest drawing in an attractive book.

Mr. Henriques's sensitive and licentious soldiery are a fine lot of chaps, whose pastimes and philosophies it is pleasant to share. This comment is made in no spirit of patronage, for his accounts of their routine duties and their steeplechases, their quarrels, their kindness, their gallantry and boredom, if verbose, are good to read. The author warns us that this picture of Army life on Salisbury Plain and in the Sudan refers to 1928 ; the suggestion is that the leopard has changed a number of his spots and that some of the implications of his book may have ceased to be fair. But, for all his senti- mentalising of their natural sentimentality, has he not under- rated these men from the start? The automatic response of levity in the face of pain or danger—a reflex which we feel to be more English and more precious than the Empire itself —surely that remains the same? Regimental officers doubtless still make up in their pride for the amiable, traditional stupidity they are so careful to assume by attributing the greatest stupidity to the highest ranks. Mr. Henriques's generals are a caricature—but an authentic Army caricature. If- that cherished inarticulacy of the soldier has vanished, if it is no longer copied and, alas! perfected by his womenfolk, to pretend that it was more than the male human's foolish but effective method of enduring herd-life seems even more foolish. As a soldier, Mr. Henriques takes great trouble to expose it, and at the same time to protest against it as a condition humaine—ou militaire. Admittedly the " silent Service " is less prone to be tongue-tied—but then sailors of all nations are privileged people. No, the excellence of No Arms, No Armour, is in the lasting truth of its types, and it is this, though more heartfelt than hearty, and often tedious, that must have won him the £3,000 prize in an "All Nations " competition and glowing praise from Mr. Frank Swinnerton which the publishers, who think even more highly of it than he, have included in the book and reinforced with the affable remark that this " may soon be accepted as one of the few really great novels written between the wars of 1914 and 1939." Well, I mean, honestly, old man, isn't that just a hit steep?

Viper's Progress, by the author of A Warning to Wantons, Meat for Mammon and Maidens, Beware, strains credulity more than Miss Lucifer, who is far less diabolical than the infinitely vicious fortune-hunter whose thirst for power and cleverness in achieving her nefarious ends are the subject of a book almost as ugly and fascinating as herself. Nefarious is the word ; for though well told throughout, with only very occasional false notes and slight contradictions, Miss Mitchell's tale of cruelty and greed starts as a study in evil psychology and deteriorates into detective fiction. It is slick, horrid. exaggerated and readable.

Mr. Harrison's What Are We Waiting For? cannot expect any positive answer. If he keeps his eyes as open to every- day impressions as Mr. Harrison does, one reader's guess is as good as the next man's. Hot for certainties, his questing characters follow each other like sandwich-men, though much more talkative. Each wears a label and, unlike Miss Baum's solidly-built actors in her modern " morality," longs to be free of it. Lefty, Tory, Liberal, Jew, Fascist, Communist, beggar-man, thief . . . Satire is not the answer, for Mr. Harrison has the indignation but lacks the humour. Nor is it " brutal realism," for that today requires genius to achieve conviction.