The Spectator

Books of the year – part two

Continuing from last week, our regular reviewers choose the books they have enjoyed reading most — and sometimes least — in 2019

Richard Ingrams

A book that gave me great enjoyment (for all the wrong reasons) was Harvest Bells: New and Uncollected Poems by John Betjeman (Bloomsbury Continuum, £16.99). The compiler, Kevin J. Gardner, professor of English at Baylor University, Texas, claimed that all the poems in the book had been subjected to his ‘rigorous scrutiny’; yet somehow a spoof Betjeman poem, published in Private Eye after the exposure of Anthony Blunt as a Russian agent in 1979 (for which I was partly responsible), had found its way into the professor’s ragbag of a compendium:

Who’d have guessed it? Blunt a traitor
And a homosexualist,
Carrying on with tar and waiter —
There’s a sight I’m glad I missed.

‘Betjeman,’ Gardner writes, ‘replicates the unmasking of Blunt in the exposure of his own subconscious feelings, which lurk behind a typical Betjemanesque facade of moral and aesthetic superficiality.’ It’s hard not to feel delighted when a pretentious academic (particularly an American one) comes a cropper in such a memorable way. And it’s not hard to imagine Betjeman, who would have hated this book, howling with laughter at the poor man’s discomfiture.

Jeff Noon

In January, Penguin will complete its six-year mission to reprint all 75 books in Georges Simenon’s Maigret series, in freshly minted translations and brilliant covers. I’ve started to read them in chronological order. Elegant style, ambiguous dialogue, deft portrayals — the books’ qualities act on the senses as a plunge into freezing water. The word processor allows us to overwrite, to endlessly fill in the gaps, reworking and reworking. By contrast, Simenon took less than a month to write a Maigret mystery. The typewriter’s mechanism persuaded novelists to get it right first time. And, very often, Simenon did.

One new mystery that stands out this year is The Newcomer by Keigo Higashino (Little Brown, £13.99), simply because its plotting is so unusual: a criminal investigation conducted through a series of tangential vignettes, each one connected by a wonderful sense of small-scale humanity.

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