Category Archives: Book reviews

The Truth about Language

By Michael C. Corballis.

I don’t like the title. It’s a click-bait title implying that we’ve all been being misled about language. It should’ve been something like The Origins of Language according to Modern Theories. There’s no truth here because we don’t really know the truth about the origins of language. Chomsky’s idea that it suddenly sprang into existence without being subject to evolutionary processes seems deeply improbable. I think it highly unlikely that about 50,000 years ago, some bloke went from “Ugh, ugh, um, ugh” one day to “I think I’ll go down the garden centre this afternoon and buy some geraniums” the next; but perhaps it did.

Corballis’s proposal, which is not exactly original, is that language has its origins in gesture. Well, I’m giving that one a two-fingered salute myself. The main issue of his hypothesis remains the gap between expressing ideas through gestures and expressing them verbally. At best, the jaw, being another movable component of the body, is just as likely to be controlled by the same part of the brain that controls the arms, legs and head. In fact, in many people, it flaps quite independently of the brain.

Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar comes in for some flak (no, not “flack”; the word is German; actually, it’s an abbreviation for Fliegerabwehrkanone in which there’s not a single “c” to be seen), but this seems to stem from a certain amount of misunderstanding of the idea as if someone discovered some of the odder American Indian languages and wondered how on Earth their grammars could stem from a set of universal principles on which all languages are allegedly based. Any proper linguist will also look for cross-linguistic evidence that a particular aspect of the grammar of the language is not a one-off.

Although I may have dealt in historical linguistics myself, which can often progress no further than idle speculation, the origin of language is not something which to me has any real value. It may be of interest to evolutionary biologists or psychologists such as Corballis, but it contributes nothing to the understanding of language as it was and is, and is likely to remain till the next iteration of our species evolves.

The Truth about Language also has a repetitive feel to it as if it’s a series of lectures for undergraduates with short attention spans written up as a book. It does manage to hold the reader’s interest without outstaying its welcome (waggish asides about students are appreciated), but ultimately, it isn’t convincing because the gap between gestures and language generated by grammatical principles is never spanned beyond some reasonable suppositions.

The Black Friar

By S.G. MacLean

Here’s a puzzle for Damian Seeker. Carter Blyth, one of Thurloe’s secret agents has been found dead, hidden behind a wall (echoes of Sherlock or Jonathan Creek) and dressed as a friar. What’s going on? Did Seeker miss his invite to MI5’s tarts-and-vicars Christmas party?

It gets even more murky when it becomes known that various children have been going missing, that Anne Winter is up to something, and that Shadrach Jones is not some harmless gerund grinder in the days when such things mattered before student-centred learning became all the rage.

If that’s not enough, Seeker also has to deal with a whole crew of religious nut jobs who make Cromwell and his regime look positively enlightened in comparison, and the grave illness that has been afflicting Thurloe himself. (Aside: Is it just me, or has MacLean never noticed the irony of the man’s name, which contains the element Thor-?)

The second volume doesn’t quite have the engaging intricacies of the first, or the climax(es). The revelation of the machinery of Anne Winter’s trickery leads to no great moment, and the resolution of the plot line about the missing children is similarly flat. “Yeah, the kiddies were down the back of the sofa.”

Nonetheless, it’s quite fun to have the likes of Samuel Pepys and various other historical personages knocking about.

This may be Seeker’s second and last outing, or perhaps MacLean is going to take him to the mean streets of Yorkshire [Er, you do realise Yorkshire’s a shire, don’t you? –Ed.] where he can say, “There’s trouble at t’ mill” and “I certainly was expecting the Spanish Inquisition because I’d been reading MI5’s intelligence reports.” And he may also find Anne Winter still up to her pretty Royalist nose in plots to unseat Oliver Cromwell.

The Seeker

By S.G. MacLean

Damian Seeker is a secret policeman, protecting Oliver Cromwell from various Royalist plots. When John Winter, one of Cromwell’s favourites, is murdered, the authorities believe Elias Ellingworth is the culprit, but Seeker is not so sure, and his investigation reveals all manner of secrets as he attempts to rescue Ellingworth from arbitrary justice and stop a daring assassination attempt on Cromwell himself.

It’s difficult to write a synopsis of The Seeker without giving the game away, but there are drug addicts, white slavers, Royalist plots, and war crimes all tangled together. Party fun for the whole family.

Seeker is an anti-anti-antihero (which probably makes him an antihero anyway). He works for the wrong people because history is against Cromwell and his religious fanatics, and Seeker’s reputation is one that instills fear in most people who cross his path. On the other hand, he’s quite determined to make sure that Elias Ellingworth isn’t executed for a crime he never committed, and he doesn’t mind bending reality out of shape to see fairness done rather than justice.

Seeker is James Bond without the sex and gadgets. He is a character who is based on reputation, and he only has to snap and snarl a little, and people crumbled in the face of his forthright questioning, but in the course of the novel, he only gets into a serious confrontation with Alexander Seaton to prove his credentials. Other than that, he’s so tough that when he wants to wash his clothes, he hurls himself at rocks in a river.

If anything, Seeker could do with a sidekick to lighten the load of being so tough that when he combs his hair, he doesn’t stop till he gets to the bone, and when he shaves, if there’s no blood, it means there’s still stubble. But who might step into this exalted position as Sancho Panza to Seeker’s, er, Torquemada? No candidates step forward immediately.

The plot is certainly engaging as it twists and turns even if it’s one of those books where some opening scene, which is a significant clue to what drives the tale, is soon forgotten. Nonetheless, the plot is sufficiently appealing for me to have me buying the next volume in the series.

The Essex Serpent

By Sarah Perry.

Cora Seaborne is a wealthy, happily widowed amateur palaeontologist who ends up in the Essex village of Aldwinter, which is gripped by tales of the Essex serpent. She is introduced to William Ransome, the local vicar, and his wife, Stella, the local consumptive cliché. Seaborne and Ransome are attracted to each other and eventually have sex before parting. That appears to be the main plot.

Alongside the main plot, Luke Garrett, who fancies Seaborne, is a brilliant surgeon whose hand gets injured in a fight. His rich mate, Spencer, is a champagne socialist who gets involved in London’s housing crisis. The books ends with them as a covertly gay couple even if neither of them is. Seaborne’s companion, Martha, is the object of Spencer’s interest, who stirs his social compassion, but shacks up with Edward Burton, whose life was saved by Garrett’s surgery. Stella Ransome is a satire on the Cult of Thinness, who becomes more beautiful the thinner she gets. Seaborne’s peculiar son, Francis, may be autistic, but this is never established.

The plot rambles dully along without ever seeming to have a clear direction, and the subplot about housing in London has no real connection to events in Essex. Climaxes? Seaborne and Ransome’s copulating? The revelation that the Essex serpent might have been no more than an oarfish or an upturned, missing boat? Who knows? There’s no sense of the story really driving towards a significant conclusion.

Most of the time, The Essex Serpent sounds like a novel written by a Guardian reader about a bunch of Guardian readers transposed to the 19th century, and is packed full of obvious worthiness.

Nonetheless, there is some clever writing here. When Seaborne and Ransome first meet, it appears that his interests lie more in the ovine than the feminine; but this is like one of those films where the trailer is all of the interesting bits, and the rest is entirely missable.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand

By Helen Simonson.

Msjor Pettigrew (army, retd., widower) lives in Edgecombe St Mary with half of a prized pair of Churchill sporting guns. When his brother Bertie dies, he hopes to reunite them, bequeathed separately to him and his brother by their father, but has to contend with his rapacious sister-in-law, Marjorie, and niece, Jemima, who want to sell them off; as does the Major’s own son, Roger, who is keen to get ahead in business through the sale of his father’s guns to a valuable client.

In the meantime, the Major strikes up a friendship with Mrs Ali (widowed), the village shopkeeper, with whom he reads Kipling and gets tangled up in the Golf Club’s annual dance, which is supposed to have a Mughal theme. He and Mrs Ali attend the dance, which doesn’t quite end as expected.

For a time, the course of true love encounters some ruts in the road to happiness.

There are various subplots, including Lord Dagenham’s attempt to make money out of his costly estate, and the relationship between the overly pious Abdul Wahid and Amina, who already have a son called George.

The book, as other reviews have noted, is slow to get going, and then putters along at no great pace. It is somewhat clichéd, with the Major being an Edwardian-style Sir Galahad, while his son, Roger, is a City oik with the inevitable American girlfriend; the members of the Ladies Committee all behave like clichés; the American property developer who owns an estate in Scotland is a cliché; and the members of the Pakistani community also behave like clichés.

While the book is well enough written, the style often feels staccato, with island sentences creating vignettes perhaps in a style reflecting Simonson’s job in the travel industry. There are also a few Americanisms such as the misspelling of “Maths”; and the editor should lose marks for letting the Major say “Here, here!” when he should be saying “Hear, hear!”

The book would appear to be aimed at the American market (which is where Simonson is based), hence the obligatory American characters, with a possible eye on Hollywood.

Anno Dracula

By Kim Newman.

Anno Dracula is based on what might’ve happened if Dracula had defeated Van Helsing and his merry band, and had then turned Queen Victoria into a vampire. In this world, some people prefer to remain human (or “warm” as they’re called) while others, typically social climbers, are keen to become vampires. The vampires themselves are split between the elders such as Dracula and his bodyguards, and the newborns. At the same time, being a vampire doesn’t always convey fame and fortune, and a lot of vampires live in grinding poverty. In additional, those vampires who are descended (so to speak) from Dracula can have various birth defects.

The action centres around the activities of Jack the Ripper, who specifically targets new-born vampires. The killer is John Seward (one of the characters from Dracula), who was unhinged by the death of Lucy Westenra. (No, this isn’t a spoiler because Seward is revealed to be the Ripper very early on.)

Charles Beauregard is employed by the shadowy Diogenes Club to investigate the murders. During the course of his investigation, he falls in with Genèvieve Dieudonné, an elder vampire who even predates Dracula himself.

Their investigation reveals the killer, and enables Beauregard to enter the presence of the bloated Dracula himself, the intention of the Diogenes Club being to bring him down, though not in the way the reader might predict.

The book is essentially another take on the League of Gentlemen and similar tales. The cast isn’t entirely a mixture of characters of fictional and real historical people, but it is a who’s-who of certain sorts of Victorian literature.

While I like the underlying idea, I generally wasn’t much interested in the Seward chapters, and there were episodes in the story (e.g. Genèvieve being pursued by the Chinese vampire assassin) which seemed to serve no real purpose. The episode with Lily, the little girl who has been turned and dies trying to shape shift, is never resolved. Genèvieve may promise to track down the vampire who is responsible, but nothing happens.

The language is also repetitious. Where “warm” (i.e., human) might’ve added to the colour by being used now and then, it got too much airtime; and “newborn” was the same, being overused without any explanation as to when a newborn vampire might become an “adolescent”. Newman did have Lord Godalming take the next steps in his development, but the rest of the newborns seemed to be a a bunch of idiots, constantly getting caught out in the sun.

The ending was somewhat abrupt. When Beauregard uncovered who the Ripper was, it seemed there was a substantial amount of book left, but the visit to Buckingham Palace, and the confrontation with Dracula were relatively brief things, which were somewhat glibly cleared up, still leaving quite a lot of book.

The remainder, which could be safely ignored, was Newman explaining various references, listing the copious number of people who had read the manuscript, a short story, and an article he wrote for a magazine. He seems to be rather keen on explaining himself, but ought to start a Facebook group to cover this material for the fans. The appendices didn’t really add anything to the experience.

I liked the conceit that John Seward had gone stark raving mad and was Jack the Ripper, but the real reason for Beauregard to solve the crime and gain admittance to Buckingham Palace was less satisfying. The Diogenes Club, which was allegedly some powerful secret organisation, seemed to be quite widely known, and yet remained apparently immune to the attentions of Dracula.

Anno Dracula is not a bad story, but the style sometimes irks.

Vanity Fair

By William Makepeace Thackeray.

Vanity Fair follows the fortunes and adventures of Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp after they leave Miss Pinkerton’s academy, where Amelia has been universally loved and Becky almost universally ignored because of her low birth.

In spite of her father’s bankruptcy, George Osborne (no, not the modern-day, loathsome oik) married her anyway, much to the anger of his father. He marches off to Waterloo, never to return, while Amelia remains faithful to him after his death; their son, Georgy, who is the spitting image of his father, also keeps the man’s memory alive. She clings to the boy, but her straitened financial circumstances mean that she has to hand him over to his generally odious grandfather, John, who instills less creditable virtues in the boy.

Becky, meanwhile, ends up working as a governess for the Crawley family, receives a proposal from Sir Pitt Crawley (the Elder), but marries Rawdon Crawley, which does him out of an inheritance from his aunt and leaves them living on nothing but credit. They, too, have a child (Rawdon; one of Thackeray’s irritating habits is to give the children the same names as their fathers; as well as the original Sir Pitt Crawley, there is his son, also called Pitt), but unlike the clingy Amelia, she loathes the child, and is often caught out when she can’t remember anything about him. She also despises her husband who does having some paternal affection for the child.

Rawdon and Becky eventually separate after he walks in on her and Lord Steyne, who has her dupe, to some degree knowingly. Rawdon becomes governor of Coventry Island and eventually dies of yellow fever.

Becky and Amelia’s fortunes are reversed as the latter comes into money and improves her social position as a consequence, while the former, penniless, ducks and dives her way across Europe until she ends up in garret in Germany and is rescued by the kind-hearted Amelia in spite of Major Dobbin’s warnings.

He was friends with George Osborne at school, and arranged his marriage to Amelia even though he himself was in love with her and continued to be so until she saved Becky. At that point, Dobbin declared that Amelia was not worthy of his love, and it was only then that she realised what a terrible mistake she had made. Indeed, Becky redeemed herself by talking some sense into her painfully innocent friend, and Amelia, now clinging to Dobbin, finally marries him.

Becky goes off with Amelia’s vain, rotund brother, Joseph (Jos), who worked as an official in India, but had fled in terror from Waterloo. He returned to India, ignoring his family, and having returned to England, he prefers to indulge his appetite on the road home to London, filling his face at every inn on the way. Having been rescued from Becky early in the novel, he ends up in her clutches and eventually dies in Aix-la-Chapelle.

Thackeray called Vanity Fair a novel without a hero. Neither Amelia nor Becky are admirable. Amelia is the very model of a martyr-like female character, who idolises her husband even though he was going to abandon her in favour of Becky, and who clings just as damagingly to her son, damagingly for both of them. Even at the end, when Dobbin, the only decent character in the whole story, finally marries Amelia, Thackeray implies that her limpet-like attachment to him will be a continuation of her unhealthy obsession with the object of her desire.

Becky is sly, but her charms only really work on men, minor female characters in the story not being deceived by her. She often, though, emerges triumphant from her encounters by ingratiating herself with her opponents. However, this is not without some cost such as Lady Southdown’s unpalatable medicinal ministrations and her tedious pamphlets.

Unlike stories about tricksters where the greater villain is outwitted, Becky is generally the greater villain, although the reader doesn’t mind that she fleeces Lord Steyne, and may only feel a slight amount of disquiet when his man threatens her with fatal consequences if she doesn’t leave Rome while his lordship is there.

It is only at the end of the book that either of them do something decent. Becky bluntly tells Amelia the truth about her late husband; Amelia marries Dobbin after recognising how badly she treated him. But Becky continues to lie, cheat and steal her way around Europe while Amelia finds someone new to smother.

Vanity Fair was originally a serial publication across 1847-48, and perhaps, if it could be read in the same fashion (in facsimile?), it might make the book seem less rambling as Thackeray turns moral essayist, trying the reader’s patience at times.

The novel ends somewhat abruptly having (so the notes say) been extended beyond the original endpoint (the Eothen chapter) as if Thackeray needed to wrap things up without worrying about the denouement too much. But perhaps the implicit message is that Vanity Fair is the way of the world, and neither Amelia nor Becky will ever really change.

Jane Eyre

By Charlotte Brontë

Having been orphaned at a young age, Jane Eyre has been raised by her wicked aunt, Sarah Reed, in the company of her ugly cousins. No matter how much Eyre tries, she can never please her aunt, who eventually packs her off to school after Eyre rebels against Mrs Reed.

Lowood school is run by the parsimonious Mr Brocklehurst, who maximises profits and minimises nutrition until typhus devastates the place, leading to the reform of the institution. Helen Burns, who accepts all the unjustified criticism which is levelled at her, duly succumbs like the good Christian martyr she is.

Eyre thrives in the school and eventually becomes a teacher before seeking a position elsewhere as a governess. She goes to Thornfield, the house owned by the well-built but ugly Mr Rochester, where she tutors Adèle Varens, the bastard daughter of one of Rochester’s mistresses. The house is the centre of local social gatherings, but it also harbours a secret which is a danger to the occupants.

Eyre duly falls in love with her master, who shares her feelings, and they’re about to get married when it’s revealed that Mr Rochester is already married to the mad Bertha Mason, the secret in the attic of Thornfield who tried to barbecue her husband and eat her brother.

Eyre flees, disappearing into the wilds of northern England where she becomes destitute and reduced briefly to begging until she’s taken in by the Rivers, a family with whom she has a remarkable affinity. In fact, anyone would think they were all related.

Oh, that’s right. They are related.

The true story eventually comes out, with Jane learning that she’s inherited £20,000, which she shares with her cousins. While the sisters Mary and Diana are personable, their brother St John is religiously cold and austere. He wants Eyre to marry him so that she can assist him in his missionary work in India, but she has no interest in following him.

No, because she’s still thinking about Mr Rochester. When she gets back to Thornfield, Eyre finds a ruin, the house having been burnt down by Bertha Mason, who fell to her death during the conflagration. Mr Rochester did not escape unscathed, having lost an eye and a hand to ensure everyone else escaped safely.

Eyre finds him in Ferndean, where they rekindle their love, get married, and live happily ever after.

Jane Eyre is a Bildungsroman, the story of Eyre’s life over a period of about ten years as she goes from being a child and dependent to a financially independent woman. Like Cinderella, she wins Prince Charming, although unlike the fairytale character, she gains financial independence as well.

Jane Eyre is a Gothic-style novel with the mystery of the mad woman in the attic, and the remoteness of Thornfield and Ferndean, and Whitcross. However, it’s not principally a Gothic novel, but the elements are present.

Jane Eyre is a romance with Eyre falling for the athletic, but unattractive Rochester, who likes his plain Jane. This contrasts with St John Rivers, who has the physique and the looks, but lacks the personality or humanity, and is too concerned with his grand plan to annoy people in India with his religious views.

Jane Eyre is semi-autobiographical, appearing to be based in large measure on Brontë’s own life from the ghastly aunt to the dreadful school to her affection for a man who did not return her feelings. (Well, the novel is semi-autobiographical.)

Jane Eyre is probably wish fulfilment because unlike Brontë, Eyre gets her man, rejecting the blandishments of Rivers in favour of returning to her true love, who is largely dependent on her because of his injuries stemming from the fire that destroyed Thornfield.

Jane Eyre is a tale of incipient penury-to-riches, and, therefore, financial independence. Although Brontë may not have liked Austen, the concerns seem to revolve around financial security for the genteel classes.

Religion also plays a significant part in the novel, but is not always portrayed positively, and for the most part, the piety seems to be about a century or so too late to be convincing in an age when, I get the impression, the populace were mostly Sunday Christians or, if they weren’t, they were regarded as slightly cracked.

There is also quite a lot of parallelism. Helen Burns is what Eyre probably ought to have been in contemporary eyes at the time – a quiescent little creature forever accepting she is at fault. The Reeds and Rivers contrast with John, Eliza and Georgiana contrasting with Mary, Diana and St John. John Reed fritters away his inheritance and eventually commits suicide, while Eliza becomes a nun, and Georgiana, who has morphed into a lardy, marries well. Mary and Diana Rivers become good friends with Eyre while St John, mirroring John Reed, wastes his life in another way.

Jane Eyre is a book of its age, being somewhat windy and turgid at times. It’s one of those books where a lot of nothing happens (which can be safely skimmed), but the reader knows when it’s worth paying attention, and when he or she can go and have a shower, come back, and find they’ve missed nothing in the interim. It also stretches credulity where it turns out that Eyre and Rochester have fancied each other all along, but the revelation is so abrupt that it lacks plausibility, and Eyre never ceases to sound like a governess. Her flight from Thornfield into destitution is also somewhat ridiculous because unless people of the period were already half-starved, they were at no risk of dying of hunger within a couple of days or even collapsing from it, but Victorian-era women did seem to have a habit of wilting at a moment’s notice.

Life and Death in Shanghai

By Nian Cheng.

Because Nian Cheng (properly, Zheng Nian) had worked for Shell in Shanghai, her house was ransacked and vandalised before she was eventually hauled off to prison where she was detained without trial in terrible conditions and frequently berated to confess to being a spy for the British. Throughout this time, she steadfastly refused to admit to some crime she’d never committed, and often pointed out how absurd the arguments and claims of her interrogators were.

After six years, Zheng was released, although because she wanted to be exonerated, she initially refused to leave prison, but had no choice in the matter. Even outside prison, she was still under surveillance from her neighbours and her student, Da De. She also discovered, as she had feared, that her daughter, Meiping, had died. Officially, the girl was supposed to have committed suicide, but this, it became clear, was a lie. She had, in fact, been murdered when the extremists were trying to force her to denounce her mother.

Her daughter’s killer only received a nominal sentence.

After the deaths of Zhou Enlai and Mao, life gradually started returning to normal, and Zheng was eventually able to leave China, first for Canada and then the US where she died at the age of 94.

Unlike Jung Chang, whose parents were part of the Party elite until they were brought down by the Cultural Revolution, Zheng was from a wealthy, privileged background, which made her a class enemy. Although life in China was different after 1949, she still had a nice house with servants and a collection of some clearly very expensive objets d’art. Even when she left prison, she still behaved very much like a 太太, partitioning off her accommodation and having a garden. Her attitude seems to have been that her case should be dealt with immediately in much the same way that people in China barge up to the counter in a bank and expect the teller to deal with them even though someone else is standing at the window.

The dialogue in the book is often a weak point. Early on when Mr Hu first turns up, he fires off a staccato outburst of unconvincing clichés. When Zheng is summoned to the first meeting for Shell’s former employees, the conversation with Chi (Ji? Qi?) has a rather stilted quality to it. The “reconstructed” dialogue works better in the interrogation scenes where Zheng can skewer the warped logic of her interrogators.

Why do Zheng’s friends, Winnie and Henry, have English names (and ridiculous ones at that) and not Chinese ones? Does cook not have a name? And Ah-yee, who is Zheng’s servant after her release from prison is, er, 阿姨 [āyí] which means “nurse; nanny; housemaid”.

At the start of the book the Cultural Revolution is meant to be new and unknown, but in one passage Zheng says “Since the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the number of slogans everywhere had multiplied by the thousand”, and yet this implies that it’d been in progress somewhat longer. The incident with the cat, where Fluffy leaps to Zheng’s defence against the Red Guards, is pure feline theatre.

I finished the book with a feeling of ambivalence. On the one hand, this is yet another tale of human rights abuse from China from a period the Party barely acknowledges and doesn’t want to talk about; it’s a historical document of a sort that needs to exist even if professional historians might not find it so useful; on the other hand, I never entirely warmed to Zheng or found her a sympathetic figure, and I wonder what sort of character she might have been if this book had been written by some neutral third party.

The Final Count

By H.C. “Sapper” O’Neille.

Following up work he began during World War I, John Gaunt perfects a means of delivering an utterly lethal contact poison, and before you can say “Jack Robinson”, Carl Peterson, this time in the guise of the wealthy Mr Wilmot, gets his hands on him and starts to manufacture the poison, and the antidote (well, a barrier cream which prevents the active agent from coming in contact with the skin).

Before you can say “Jack Robinson” a second time, Hugh Drummond is on the case, along with his chums, to thwart Peterson’s nefarious plan to load up a dirigible with the poison and spray the unwitting and unprotected British public.

Drummond soon discovers the safe house where Gaunt had been being held and where the man had left clue about the poison and the antidote. But the raiding party gets trapped in the cellar of the house until one of Inspector McIver’s men believes that it is his superior on the other side of the door.

Our heroes eventually find their way to the Black Mine where Peterson has been manufacturing the poison, and where it traps them for a time until Gaunt himself, already one isotope short of a chemical element, saves them, and they go after Wilmot’s dirigible.

That is the location for a very exclusive party for which Drummond already has tickets (which confirms in his mind that Wilmot is Peterson, who is trying to kill his nemesis once and for all). When the boys get on board the vessel, the rank smell of flowers later subconsciously alerts Drummond to the plot. When Wilmot asks him to give the loyal toast, he realises the poison is in the supposedly exclusive Chinese liqueur that Wilmot has had served to his guests. The poison has a particularly pungent smell which is being masked by the scent of the flowers.

Drummond shouts a warning to the guests, and then forces the poison on Peterson, who gets it spilt on his wrist. The antidote only gives him some protection before the toxin kills him.

The final volume of the Carl Peterson quartet ends with his girlfriend, Irma, appearing at Drummond’s side as he surveys the wreckage of the dirigible and claiming, as Peterson claimed at the end of the previous volumes, that this is not the end, although according to the narrator, Drummond never sees her again.

Unlike the other books in the series, this is told in the first person from the perspective of John Stockton, a friend of Robin Gaunt’s who gets caught up in the affair and becomes part of Drummond’s circle. Like other books in the series, it tends to be waffly. There are long chapters devoted to Robin Gaunt’s story whereas the conclusion to the novel is comparatively abrupt. The encounter with Peterson on board the airship and his demise is, perhaps thankfully, not recounted at unnecessary length, but it does seem to be a little anticlimactic after four novels. Somehow, of course, he had to be hoisted by his own petard and the circumstances prior to his death (i.e., a formal dinner) didn’t lend themselves to, say, a prolonged chase.

And so ends the career of the notorious supervillain, Carl Peterson.