The Peripatetic Reviewer
THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY by Michael Crichton Knopf, $7.95
From a hilltop in Kent in May, 1854, a tall handsome man in his early thirties with a full red beard observed through his binoculars the morning express of the South Eastern Railway on its way to Folkestone at fifty-four miles an hour. In its windowless van at the train’s end, in steel safes, was the monthly shipment of British coin for the army in the Crimea, and as the observer watched, the sliding door of the van was seen to open, a youth in tattered clothing was thrown clear by the railway guard, and after a convulsive movement lay still.
Twelve months later Red Beard himself, with the aid of his accomplices, was to engineer the successful theft of the same train. The payroll had shrunk to £12,000, no great sum by our standards, but the audacity of the criminals, the skill of their gentleman leader, Edward Pierce, and the fact that after being captured and condemned the culprits escaped to enjoy their loot have kept the theft alive ever since.
Michael Crichton tells this suspenseful story with the cool calculation of the mastermind, disclosing only so much as Pierce himself was willing to confide in his team. Each episode is set against the background of the underworld, the lodging houses in the slums with twenty crowded in one room, the bordellos, the pubs, and the prisons. As the author reminds us, Victorian England in a matter of decades had become “a nation of cities,” the first and wealthiest urbanized society on earth, in which criminals preyed on the aristocracy with a skill far beyond the control of Scotland Yard.
Edward Pierce himself was a fascinator and remains a man of mystery. Was he a genius up from the streets or a gentleman turned rogue? He was the owner of pubs and a fleet of cabs that supported him in style; he had a cultivation that passed muster with bankers, and he could drop into the criminal jargon with the men he trusted. They were four in number: Burgess, the burly cabman with a white scar on his forehead; Clean Willy, the most famous snakesman of the century, a former chimney sweep who could wiggle through the smallest space (but Willy was at Newgate and had to be sprung before he could be useful); Agar the screwsman, a specialist in keys and safe-breaking; and, most important, Miss Miriam, the actress who was Pierce’s mistress. An exciting and very clever piece of fiction.
LONGING FOR DARKNESS Kamante’s Tales from Out of Africa Collected by Peter Beard Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $19.95
Anyone who has enjoyed Out of Africa will remember Kamante, the sick, wary little boy who was collected by Isak Dinesen (as she collected anyone in trouble), cured, and encouraged so successfully that he eventually became her trusted helper, an inspired cook, and an invaluable diplomatic agent around the Blixen coffee plantation. Isak Dinesen is dead, her plantation was a financial disaster, and the Africa she knew and loved is in danger of destruction. But Kamante is still alive, with a head full of memories and a hand gifted in drawing.
Peter Beard, another lover of the old Africa, persuaded Kamante to talk about his years with Isak Dinesen; Kamante’s sons translated their father’s Swahili into idiosyncratic but effective English and wrote out the text; friends and the Dinesen family helped with details and old snapshots. The result of all this collaboration is a uniquely delightful book combining Kamante’s reminiscences with his sketches, Mr. Beard’s fine animal photographs, family pictures, and well-chosen quotations from Isak Dinesen.
Dinesen herself wondered more than once whether any trace of her struggles with that coffee farm would survive, and more poignantly, whether her African friends would remember her affection for them. It was a genuine affection coupled with genuine respect. The young Baroness Blixen was well ahead of her contemporaries in her appreciation of the beauty and resourcefulness of Africans and in her desire to help where help was wanted but to do it without dislocating African society. Kamante understood this and has not forgotten, and proves it, starting unexpectedly from a census of the Blixens’ numerous clocks, which were an enchanting novelty in those days—especially the large one on top of the house. “This house of Mrs. Karen rang joy day and night. Nobody felt sad. Even people coming to the shamba could not say they were going to the farm of a European. She was of such good nature.” The baroness would have liked that tribute.
THE BOAT Knopf. $10.00 bv Lothar-Günther Buchheim
Billed as the “All Quiet on the Western Front of World War II,” this novel, the episodes of which, the author tells us, “are the sum of his experiences aboard U-boats,” is surely the most vivid and human picture of the underseas war ever written. The narrative begins in the Bar Royal, a sleazy French night spot—and in the cathouse nearby— where the officers and crew of The Boat are having a last carousal before they depart for their battle station at dawn. The drinking has loosened tongues and discipline; there is talk of other boats that made their kills in the mid-Atlantic and were battered or sunk. Clearly the tide has turned against the Germans: the Allies’ convoys are better protected by destroyers and bombers— and March was a particularly bad month. No leave is long enough to release the tension, and the odds against another return breed a numbness. These impressions come to us through the intelligence of a young lieutenant, a veteran of the Norway expedition who is about to make his first voyage in a submarine. There he sits, quietly sizing up his commander, the “Old Man,” who looks to be in his forties (actually only thirty), and who has already sunk 200,000 tons, a harborful of ships.
Once at sea the lieutenant begins to assimilate the disciplined engineering and the inescapable claustrophobia, and so does the reader. It will take ten days at cruising speed to get to their battle station, and in that interval—now on the surface, now diving to escape a plane overhead—the crew of fifty becomes a unit, dependent and watchful of the Old Man and his lean and silent deputy, the Chief Engineer. There are false alarms, as when the watch mistakes a seagull for a plane diving out of the sun. (“Nine times of ten it’s seagulls. They glide at you with their rigidly extended wings from just above the horizon and the alarm cry is out before you realize what they are. . . . But the tenth time, the approaching gull turns into a plane.”)
The lieutenant, whose senses are ours, is a likable sort, acute in his judgment of the other men, irritated by the crowding and lack of sleep, bored by the endless sex talk, brave in his breathless apprehension when the depth bombs from the destroyers wrack the ship. The link between himself and his chief is admirably forged.
This is a man’s story, punishing in its endurance, untainted by Hitlerism, and compassionate in its understanding. One appreciates why the truth and desperation in the novel have attracted an enormous readership in West Germany. The translation by Denver and Helen Lindley is colloquial, as it should be.
THE GREAT VICTORIAN COLLECTION by Brian Moore Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $7.95
At the age of twenty-nine, Anthony Maloney, a young Canadian historian, has achieved a modest success at McGill University, but his marriage is half-hearted, perhaps because of his scholarly preoccupation with the art and architecture of Victoria’s reign. Everything he has read, and the research for his thesis which took him to England, has turned his imagination into a repository of the artistic creations and the indulgent eccentricities of Britain’s Golden Age.
At the conclusion of an academic conference at Berkeley, Mahoney drives down the California coast for a look at the Big Sur. He spends the night in a motel in Carmel and dreams that the empty parking lot outside his window is miraculously tilled with a priceless exhibit of Victorian curios—fountains, paintings, furniture, jewelry, scientific instruments. erotica—and when he awakens before sunrise, there it is, aisle by aisle, a display as fantastic as the Crystal Palace of 1851. When the motel proprietor asks if he is responsible for it. Tony modestly says yes, and is promptly charged $100 a day rental.
Then the fun begins. A local reporter calls up a correspondent for the New York Times. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London reports that no objects are missing. London papers denounce the “American hoax.” A Dutch clairvoyant congratulates Tony that the objects have “materialized.” Psychiatrists from Vanderbilt University arrive to conduct tests. While the experts squabble, it is Tony who explains the wonder. When Lord Rennishawe recognizes the hidden room in which his grandfather enjoyed his infidelities. Tony’s dream is accepted as a creation in “duality,” and Management from New York flies in to take control.
What all of this does to Tony’s private life is for the novelist to tell. As long as he keeps on dreaming in that motel room, the wonder remains inviolate at his windowsill. But fantasies are easier to create than to escape from. The joy of this one is the brilliantly described assortment of Victoriana, ranging from objects as large as the famous locomotive “Folkstone” to the more refined tidbits of pornography which trouble the censors in California.