Hephzibah Anderson: Taylor's elegiac touch lends uncommon depth to an otherwise tinselly tale.
Taylor's elegiac touch lends uncommon depth to an otherwise tinselly tale, writes Hephzibah Anderson.
Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1940 DJ Taylor Vintage Dh64
Bright Young People are not to be confused with Bright Young Things, insists DJ Taylor in an entertaining, melacholy-streaked portrait of the BYP generation. As he explains, "A Bright Young Person may have been a Bright Young Thing, but not all Bright Young Things were Bright Young People." While the BYT was a stereotype created by the media, the Bright Young Person was an identifiable individual, well-connected and well-off, often with artistic pretences, whose high-living antics were tracked in London's society magazines between the wars. As a group, they were reckless, decadent and hedonistic. They shocked their elders by throwing swimming pool parties and dancing to the beats of black musicians, by staging citywide treasure hunts and trashing expensive cars and couture ball gowns in the process. They generated endless titillating tittle-tattle for the popular press. As youth movements go, theirs was one of the most self-conscious. Cecil Beaton photographed them, Fleet Street fawned over them, Evelyn Waugh satirised them. They gave Britain a taste for the celebrity culture that currently rules the country. Cross Princes William and Harry and their girlfriends with a bunch of footballers and their wives, and you still wouldn't quite have Bright Young People - but you'd be partway there. Three characters steal some of the book's best scenes. There's Elizabeth Ponsonby, the daughter of a former government minister who later led the Labour Party in the House of Lords. This "bright, capering spirit", so beloved by her appalled parents, was one of the first people to become famous merely for going to parties. As the 1920s gave way to the more serious 1930s, she lapsed into alcoholism and was dead before she turned 40. Stephen Tennant was the youngest son of Lord Glenconner. Among the set's most sybaritic, he lounged in velvet dressing gowns, drifted round Europe and is said to have inspired various dandyish characters in novels by the likes of Nancy Mitford. He achieved nothing of lasting worth and far outlived most of his contemporaries, lingering on until 1987, long after the music had stopped. And then there was Brenda Dean Paul, a fully qualified "it" girl: baronet's daughter, exotic (she was half-Polish), cash-strapped and addiction-prone. Though she aspired to be an actress, that never really took off. In 1959, she was found dead in a Kensington flat. Others, of course, went on to win lasting success, among them Beaton and Anthony Powell. Even the names of some of the lesser-knowns will ring bells with any reader of today's Tatler. This might have limited the book's appeal: the BYPs were by definition toffs - while they danced the night away, unemployment reached a crippling high. It would be easy to dismiss the BYP as merely ghastly, but Taylor, whose backlist doesn't exactly incline towards rakishness, manages to strike an empathetic chord. This was a generation that came of age in the shadow of one world war and would soon be rendered wholly irrelevant by another. In the wake of the First World War's carnage, there was a prevailing sense that all the heroes were dead. This lot - the younger siblings and cousins of those who had perished - sensed that they could never measure up. Meanwhile, plummeting land prices were ruining their grand old estates, and the life that they'd been groomed for suddenly seemed an anachronism. Taylor's elegiac touch lends uncommon depth to an otherwise tinselly tale. The BYPs were inalienably of their time and yet strikingly modern, thoroughly dislikeable but engaging nevertheless, so jaded, so innocent. Their legacy, Taylor suggests, is "an atmosphere, a way of communicating, an outlook, a gesture, an essence".
The Virago Book of Ghost Stories Edited by Richard Dalby Virago Dh64
As many parts of the world usher in the season for spooky yarns, this classy compilation of spine-tingling tales reminds how silly we are to confine them to a particular time of year. Its list of contributors is stellar, ranging from Edith Wharton to Angela Carter, with a few lesser-known names shaking up the mix. That they all happen to be women is immaterial, says the editor, Richard Dalby, though Jenny Uglow - herself a writer and editor - argues otherwise in her elegant introduction. Either way, these stories span so many styles and epochs that the reader is unlikely to detect anything more unifying than a subtle thematic bias towards lost children and lost love. That, and an overall page-turning excellence.
You will find everything that you expect from a good ghost story here. There are gothic castles and festering grudges. Malignant spirits control cars and even saucepans. Secrets are taken to the grave but rarely stay there. There is a high-spirited offering by Charlotte Bronte, aged 17. Lisa St Aubin de Teran tells of a lynched slave, and Elizabeth Gaskell of a lonely girl on a bitter night, beating her fists on the windows of a house. Others to look for include Richmal Crompton's Rosalind and AS Byatt's ingeniously out-of-season The July Ghost.
Conan Doyle Andrew Lycett Phoenix Dh70
Arthur Conan Doyle authored some 70 books, among them historical novels, horror stories and poetry, yet he remains known for a single achievement: the invention of Sherlock Holmes. More than 130 years after he solved his first case, the deerstalker-sporting sleuth remains one of literature's coolest and most calculating characters. Even during his lifetime, Doyle found himself eclipsed by his creation's fame. Compared to Holmes, he disappointed. He had "no more mystery about him than a pumpkin," one fan grumbled after meeting him. Little wonder that the author grew to resent his pipe-puffing detective.
Literature was Doyle's first love. His mother's chivalric romances offered an escape from a dysfunctional home life, and at school he would spin macabre tales for classmates in exchange for cake. Though he went on to qualify as a doctor, he continued writing, progressing from gushy student verse to short stories. His breakthrough came in 1887, aged 28, when he pubished a mystery story featuring a detective who collected rare violins. This spry biography attempts to haul Doyle out of Holmes' shadow, depicting an author whose private life was in many ways the polar opposite of his famous character's.
Trial by Blood John Macken Corgi Dh44
John Macken's debut thriller, Dirty Little Lies, centred on GeneCrime, an elite UK police squad that supposedly uses whizzy new technology and innovative cross-discipline cooperation, bringing together scientists, pathologists, programmers and criminologists to crack the toughest cases. GeneCrime is central to this second novel, too, though it's a good chunk of the way in before any of the tangled backstory is explained.
If you can weather the confusion, you'll find yourself in the company of Reuben Maitland, the former GeneLab head who has lost his job, his marriage and his reputation. To clear his name, Reuben must find out who forged the genetic evidence that lost him everything, and the only way he can do that is by going undercover in one of London's maximum-security jails. Meanwhile, his young son is fighting for his life and a serial murderer is at large on the muddy banks of the River Thames.
Macken's day job as a research scientist specialising in forensics and genetics makes him a mine of specialist information, though he tends to use it to obfuscate rather than enrich this novel. Its hectic pace gives a fleeting sense that he is writing less for the reader than for movie scouts, and the violence is gruesome and unremitting even by the genre's own standards.