The Season for Fiction

This summer I took a long overdue detour into the realms of fiction. I read another Max Brand novel, The Gentle Desperado. His best books are a mixture of gritty humor, action and frontier chivalry. My favorite Brand western story is Drifter’s Vengeance about an oddball martial arts hero who never uses a gun. It was very much ahead of its time, penned decades before the famous Kung Fu television series. Having finished up some H.G. Wells stories, I’ve started reading Agatha Christie’s mysteries in chronological order, starting with her first book The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), which introduced the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, followed by The Secret Adversary (1922). Her second novel features the young pair Tommy and Tuppence in what is more an espionage tale than a classic whodunit. It is a fast-paced book and is interesting for its commentary on Communist Russia and the British Labour Party (and their implied political collaboration).

A very different sort of book is Ethel and Ernest (1999) by Raymond Briggs, the well-known English writer and illustrator of children’s stories. The volume was a selection of my reading group. Normally I am shy of graphic novels, which tend to be crass and intellectually juvenile while lacking the charm of traditional comics. Briggs’ illustrated story is different. Although aimed at mature readers, Ethel and Ernest is thoughtfully done. Briggs was already an established artist outside of the graphic novel genre. He merely borrowed the technique for this tribute to his parents, which covers the period from their marriage in the late 1920s to their deaths in the early 70s. It is an understated yet powerful human interest story. It also provides a window on modern Britain, which has been the subject of so many commentators in recent years, including Theodore Dalrymple.

Ethel and Ernest come from humble backgrounds. The mother is prim and conservative and has middle class aspirations. The husband is an old-fashioned Labour Party supporter—hard working and responsible, and politically naive. Briggs’ story conveys moments of joy and humor; nevertheless, the undertone is one of frugal survival in gritty working class London, sustained by a “stiff upper lip” resolve. The author doesn’t attempt any overt commentary. He lets the characters speak for themselves. But reading between the lines you can sense the loss of values and the decline of British culture.

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