Fiction Holiday

I have spent the past month with some delightful old page-turners. Continuing my reading of R. Austin Freeman mysteries (see earlier post) I picked up Death at the Inn (1937) and The Red Thumb Mark (1907).  Some of my favorite writers have a decided taste for nostalgia and that quintessentially English sense of coziness. For example, in Ravensdene Court (1922) by J. S. Fletcher, which I just finished, the narrator reminisces about the old town life of northern England:

[T]here was a peculiar smell of the sea in Hull, an atmosphere of seafaring life that I have never met with elsewhere, neither in Wapping nor in Bristol, in Southhampton nor in Liverpool; one felt in Hull that one was already half-way to Bergen or Stokholm or Riga — there was something of North Europe about you as soon as you crossed the bridge at the top of Whitefriargate and plunged into masts and funnels, stacks of fragrant pine, and sheds bursting with merchandise.

And when writers like Freeman or Fletcher describe venerable old pubs, we wish we could enter those realms of hospitality and good beer.

Although, as a boy, I had often seen the street front of the Goose and Crane, I had never passed its portals. Now, entering it, we found it to be even more curious inside than it was out. It was a fine relic of Tudor days — a rabbit warren of snug rooms, old furniture, wide chimney places, tiled floors….

I mixed it up a bit with Curt Siodmak’s science fiction tale Donovan’s Brain (1942), made infamous by the 1953  B-movie version. It is nonetheless a well-told and compelling story with some solid morals. In one scene the main character Dr. Cory is chided by an old friend:

You know I detest your researches… They can’t help humanity! All they could do is promote unhappiness. They take the world back to barbarism…. We are losing our consciousness of the human dignity that distinguished man from animal. You are making the human being a highly specialized stone-age man ruled by egotism….

The protagonist later realizes that “Man can engender what he is himself. Nothing more.” Technology and social planning will never alter the raw material of human nature. The author’s less than naively optimistic view of human progress is not surprising, since he was a Jewish refugee from the lunatic eugenicism of Nazi Germany. To sum up, I plan to spend a good deal more time with such writers who offer innocent escapism and entertainment, and even occasional nuggets of wisdom.

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