8 SEPTEMBER 1939, Page 15


By FORREST REID BLOSSONI LIKE THE ROSE. By Norah Lofts. (Gollancz. 7s. 6d.) THE MIDDLE PASSAGE. By Roland Barker and Willisun Doerilinger.

(Macmillan. 8s. 6d.)

MR. CINDERELLA. By Rex Stout. (Faber. 7s. (Id.) MOURNING AFTER. By Zoe Johnson. (Bles. 7s. 6d.) ANAToLE FRANCE, in one of his books, describes a satirical drawing made by Gustave Dore during the Crimean War. It shows a monk writing in his cell. The country all around is .given over to massacre and incendiarism. 'I he air is thick with arrows. The convent itself is being assailed and its walls are collapsing. This one cell has been preserved as by a miracle and rests poised on the edge of the ruins, ready to fall at any moment. A hand-to-hand encounter is taking place on the very threshold.of the room. And in the midst of it all, his nose buried in his manuscript, the infatuated writer continues to write. "Voila," comments Anatole, "cc que c'est que de vivre dans les bouquinsl Voila le pouvoir des paperassesl" I confess that at this horribly anxious hour, sitting down to review the novels on the table before me, except that I am acutely aware of the situation I appear to be very like Dore's monk. True, by the time the article is finished all may have passed off safely, the uncertainty at least will be over, therefore, however unimportant the task, it may as well be done. It is certainly an unfortunate moment for a novel to make its first appearance. On the other hand, the kind of novel that is most likely to be read at such a time is, I suppose, one that tells a story of adventure and incident, and these four books are of that kind—two being really adventure stories, one an entertainment, and one a crime story.

Blossom Like the Rose is a romance of the seventeenth century told in the first person and well told. The talc begins in England with Philip 011enshaw as a boy, hated and neglected by the Squire his father, because he is lame. Philip makes friends, however, with some of the villagers, all Puritans, and with Nathaniel Gore, a colonist returned from Salem, who later on is to have a strong influence on both his character and career. The father, a loose-living Cavalier marries a second wife who bears him sturdier children, but he remains an unscrupulous woman hunter, and as Philip gradually grows up father and son become rivals. The story here reaches its first climax; then breaks off sharply, and the scene of the rest of the book is laid abroad. With Nathaniel Gore as leader, Philip and some twenty-five others set sail for America where they are going to establish their Zion. Linda, Philip's love, whom his father had tried to seduce, but who is now the wife of Eli Makers, a farmer, is among the number. Eli is intensely religious, Philip is tormented by jealousy, yet the most original thing in the book is the queer friendship between them. Philip thinks he hates Eli, and then saves his life. Eli, later, saves Philip's, and Linda, ever between them, eventually abandons them both and departs with a stranger. It all rings true, and the struggles to establish a colony, the Indian raids, the internal jealousies and antagonisms, furnish abundant material for a moving chronicle. Mrs. Lofts, in fact, has written a thoroughly sound novel, and one of its excellencies is its unconventionality. In her drawing of the characters, in her working out of the plot, it is clear that she is keeping faithfully to life as she sees it. There are no coincidences, no surprises, no improbabilities. It would have been easy to guy the psalmsinging Eli, to accentuate the harshness and narrowness of his piety; Mrs. Lofts makes us realise his essential sincerity. It would have been easy to bring Philip and Linda together, but that is not her conception of the tale she is writing. Her reward is that we accept it in all seriousness. Two or three passages perhaps may shock, but they are not there for that purpose, and their veracity is unquestionable. The Middle Passage, though containing almost a plethora of incident, is to my mind a far less engrossing novel. Again the first scenes are English, but here we are in Cornwall, the hero, Stephen Bishop, is a young Cornish sailor, and there is quite a sprinkling of Cornish dialect. As early as page 7, nevertheless, with "Meet Tom Doddy, Father," it is not difficult to determine the nationality of the authors. And in fact these English scenes are of very minor importance, merely there to give the tale a start and to furnish a conclusion. In them Stephen is accused of wrecking an East Indiaman off the Lizard. Of course he is innocent, but the evidence against him is strong, he was caught on the spot, and actually his father is in touch with the wreckers. So, leaving his sweetheart behind him, he escapes in a schooner called the Black Joke, and the rest of the story, after various sea adventures, is concerned with the slave traffic between Africa and America.

For the Black Joke turns out to be a slaver, and Stephen, having made friends with her commander, enters the trade, and eventually becomes the partner of Bias Covado, a slave factor on the Guinea Coast. The plot thickens; Covado's wife makes amorous advances; but Stephen neither welcomes the advances nor cares for the occupation in which he is engaged. He accepted it because there seemed to be nothing else and he imagined (mistakenly of course) that he could not return to his own country. The story moves along these lines, with plenty of fighting, violence, and brutality, but though the authors know their ground and supply an abundance of local colour, the book never became real to me in the way Blossom Like the Rose did. Incident after all matters little, everything lies in the presentation, and The Middle Passage struck me a carefully-prepared, conscientious but somewhat heavy tale. The breath of life is not in it nor in its characters, so that we remain perfectly indifferent when by chance Stephen learns that his innocence has been established at home and that he is free to return to his beloved.

Mr. Cinderella transports us to another world. It is a comedy novel, one might almost say a nonsense novel, with an improbable plot; yet because Mr. Rex Stout has talent it is infinitely more living than The Middle Passage. Its hero is Tully Clinker, a young chemist employed in the Stringer Laboratories, its characters are amiable, its dialogue consists largely of American slang that somehow is not only expressive but engaging, and besides the improbable plot there is also Tully's sentimental romance, the nature of which has been described admirably by Jim the nigger when pec:. into the future of Huckleberry Finn's father. "Ley's 1‘, „ angels hoverin' roun"bout him. One uv 'ern. is white shiny, en t'other one is black. De white one gits him to right, a little while, den de black one sail in en bust it all up Tully is an innocently tough and extremely likeable your._ man, but with this remarkable idiosyncrasy, that he dreads wealth, and is perfectly content with his modest salary as a research chemist. On this the story turns, for when he invents the ideal lipstick, and against his wishes it is put on the market, money begins to pour in, and when he tries to get rid of some of it by what seems a more or less wild-cat speculation, that too turns out to be fabulously lucrative. The dark angel wants the money, the "white en shiny" one loves Tully for himself, and out of the struggle between them, and Tully's helplessness, Mr. Stout has constructed his tale. It is a very clever one, and like all good farce has its roots firmly planted in reality, while its branches soar into the fantastic and the absurd. But it is in his dialogue that the true humorist finds freest scope, and Mr. Stout is no exception. Fortunately there is a great deal of dialogue, and I can recommend the novel as a companionable and amusing one.

Mourning After is a thriller in which a young man, rendered suspicious by a peculiar clause in his uncle's will, jumps to the conclusion that this wealthy relative has been poisoned by his sons and daughters. He employs a private detective, and also proceeds to investigate the matter on his own account. But this is not an ordinary crime story. Cousin Michael, as presented by Miss Johnson, is a sadistic degenerate, his chief motive being the desire to make trouble; and when his scheme fails he commits suicide. From an odd little touch on the last pages we gather that the seeds he has sown are to yield an unpleasant crop after his death, and that quite unexpected touch struck me as the best thing in a tale which on the whole I found unconvincing.