Satirical pulp: The Possessed, by Witold Gombrowicz, reviewed

On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland. It’s hardly an event which needs its significance re-stating, but there was one outcome which has received rather less attention than the impending crisis in Europe. After the first instalments – serialised in newspapers in the summer of that year – a bizarre, flamboyant, mock-gothic novel by an unknown writer, ‘Z. Niewieski’, was forced to cease publication on 3 September. Witold Gombrowicz, the author of The Possessed and master of Polish modernism, had penned the work under a pseudonym, and, he claimed, only for money. If that distance from the book weren’t enough, he then put an ocean between himself and the manuscript.

An untrue true crime story: Penance, by Eliza Clark, reviewed

Remember the teenage girl who was murdered in Crow-on-Sea in 2016? A horrific story. Google it. Or the journalist Alec Z. Carelli, the guy who went to school with Louis Theroux, Adam Buxton and Giles Coren and wrote a book about it? Remember how it was pulled because of the controversy over the way he obtained some of his material? Well, the publisher has decided to release that book after all. There will be no upset loved ones –except perhaps those who were affected by the true crimes mentioned None of this is true. Instead, Eliza Clark, the author of Boy Parts and recently named by Granta one of the

Ireland’s most notorious murderer still casts a disturbing spell

Mark O’Connell was three years old when Malcolm Macarthur – a silken-tongued toff in a bow tie – went on his killing rampage in 1982, and 33 when he was released from prison in 2012. Eight years later, when he began this book, O’Connell describes stalking Macarthur around Dublin in the hope of securing the kind of interview that would cause Ireland’s most famous murderer to ‘tremble in terror and awe at the moral magnitude of his iniquity. I wanted to witness the breaking down of his ego defences, the revelation of some terrible emotional truth within’. His ambition recalls that of the Romantic essayist Thomas De Quincey, in relation

Lies about the Katyn massacre added insult to the horror

On 5 March 1940, as the USSR stamped its authority on a Poland it had partitioned with Hitler, Stalin signed a decree to murder 14,700 Polish officers in the woods by Katyn. These ‘hardened, irremediable enemies of Soviet power’ were not informed of their sentence and simply shot in the back of the head, a form of execution favoured by the secret police, the NKVD, for whom this method was just part of bureaucratic procedure. NKVD forgers changed the dates on the documents found in the dead officers’ pockets at Katyn When the Nazis turned on the Soviets in 1941 and marched east, they found the mass grave. Goebbels was

A gruesome discovery: Death Under a Little Sky, by Stig Abell, reviewed

The journalist Stig Abell has such a versatile CV – moving from the Sun to editorship of the TLS and then to his present morning slot on Times Radio – that it’s no surprise he has dipped a toe into the crime-writing waters where so many semi-celebrities increasingly swim. What may be surprising, given the rigours of the genre, is how well he’s done it. Death Under a Little Sky sits on the cusp of cosy crime. Jake Jackson is a police detective in London whose life changes when an oddball uncle dies, leaving him a large house deep in a nameless part of England, complete with acreage and a

What the Royal Society of Chemistry gets wrong about free speech

Why has the Royal Society of Chemistry published a 37 page opinion piece entitled ‘Academic free speech or right-wing grievance?’ in their new journal Digital Discovery? Digital Discovery publishes ‘theoretical and experimental research at the intersection of chemistry, materials science and biotechnology’ focusing on ‘the development and application of machine learning’. So it is a little surprising for them to publish a piece that ‘argues that those who wish to have an honest debate about the limits around freedom of speech need to engage that conversation in a manner that avoids resonance with the language of White (heterosexual, cisgender male) supremacy, lest their arguments provide intellectual cover to those who

Should we judge a work by the character of its creator?

‘Most of my heroes are monsters, unfortunately,’ Joni Mitchell once said, ‘and they are men.’ The singer-songwriter was able to detach the maker from the made. Should we do the same? Is it ethical? Even possible? These are the questions Claire Dederer deftly considers in Monsters, which puzzles through the problem of what we ought to do about great art by bad men. Ideally, nothing. Early on in her quest, Dederer longs for someone to invent an online calculator: The user would enter the name of an artist, whereupon the calculator would assess the heinousness of the crime versus the greatness of the art and spit out a verdict: you

Was this footballer killed for scoring against the Nazis?

Vienna, April 1938. To mark the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by the Third Reich, the German football team plays a match against the Austrian team, which will cease to exist when the match is over. The Austrians are much better, but can’t seem to score – aha, the match has been fixed by the Nazis. And then, in the 70th minute, Austria’s best player, Matthias Sindelar, can’t take the pretence any more and puts the ball in the German net. At the end of the match, to underline his feelings, he performs a victory dance in front of the Nazi dignitaries. This might sound like fiction but it really

Murder most foul: The Marriage Portrait, by Maggie O’Farrell, reviewed

There’s a moment near the end of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue ‘My Last Duchess’ when it becomes clear that the duke, whatever he might claim, did kill his wife: ‘I gave commands;/ Then all smiles stopped’, he lets slip. In The Marriage Portrait, Maggie O’Farrell’s sombre, haunting novel based on the historical couple described in Browning’s poem, this revelation comes rather earlier. The young Lucrezia knows with ‘a peculiar clarity’ that her husband ‘intends to kill her’ right from the first page. After leaving Florence to begin her married life with Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, Lucrezia died within a year. History records her death as being from ‘putrid fever’,

Why are crime writers so weird?

What a weird lot crime writers are. I don’t come to this conclusion lightly, since I’m a crime writer myself, but on the evidence of this magisterial but wickedly entertaining book the conclusion is inescapable. As you turn the pages, the evidence mounts up. One crime writer has been considered a serious candidate for sainthood and another has been convicted of murder. Wilkie Collins simultaneously maintained two mistresses and their children but never bothered to marry either. Mary Roberts Rinehart, an early 20th-century queen of American suspense fiction, narrowly escaped being murdered by her chef because she wouldn’t promote him to butler. Agatha Christie famously engineered her own disappearance, and

Murder, suicide and apocalypse: Here Goes Nothing, by Steve Toltz, reviewed

Angus Mooney is dead. Freshly murdered, he’s appalled to find himself in an Afterworld, having always rejected the possibility of life after death. Moreover, he can observe his murderer getting on increasingly well with his innocent widow. Mooney’s Afterworld is a deeply unsatisfactory mixture of computerised bureaucracy and urban chaos. In a landscape undreamed of by Dante, his guide is no cicerone but a woman with a welcoming bed and good contacts in Management, who knows her way around the local drinking spots. The Australian novelist Steve Toltz specialises in the blackest of comedy. His first novel, A Fraction of the Whole, was shortlisted for the Booker in 2008. Here

Will Macron surrender to the mob?

It has been a torrid few days in France. In the early hours of Saturday morning, a former Argentine rugby international, Federico Aramburú, was shot dead on a chic Paris street after an altercation in a bar. The suspect is a notorious far-right activist who allegedly told Aramburú that he didn’t belong in France. On Monday Corsican nationalist Yvan Colonna died, three weeks after he was beaten into a coma by fellow prisoner and infamous extremist, Franck Elong Abé, an Islamist who was captured fighting for the Taliban a decade ago. It is alleged that Abé justified his attack on the grounds that Colonna ‘had bad-mouthed the Prophet’. Even among battle-hardened Jihadists, Abé was

The crime which inspired Crime and Punishment

‘Whether I am a trembling creature or whether I have the right…’ The much quoted words of Rodion Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Crime and Punishment, encapsulate the novel’s main question. Fyodor Dostoevsky first pitched the idea of ‘the psychological account of a crime’ to a publisher in 1865. Three decades earlier, a real-life murderer, Pierre François Lacenaire, waiting for his execution in a French prison, wrote: ‘Only I can decide whether I have done wrong or right to society.’ As Kevin Birmingham shows in his new book, this is but one detail of Lacenaire’s story mirrored in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece; moreover, Dostoevsky’s reflections on the case influenced the way he understood

A long-forgotten tale of sorcery and a severed head

Laikipia Plateau, Kenya Our local chief Panta wore a government-issue khaki uniform with epaulettes, beret and swagger stick. On a pleasant stroll to our farm springs, he observed how plenty of blood had been spilled over this water. We sat on the glassy-smooth black rocks around the water pools and the chief retold for me a story more infamous in its day than the Happy Valley tale of Lord Erroll’s murder, but now completely forgotten. Welshman Dicky Powys, from a family of authors and philosophers and cousin of our ranching neighbour Gilfrid, arrived in Kenya in 1931 to farm. Young Dicky learned the local Maasai vernacular fluently and got on

A glimpse of the real Patricia Highsmith through her diaries and notebooks

There are three ways of knowing Patricia Highsmith. First, of course, she was the author of 22 novels and several story collections published between 1950 and 1995, the year of her death. Then the woman herself: Mary Patricia Plangman, born in Dallas in 1921, long-term resident of New York City, when young a socially and sexually active lesbian, later in life a mostly solitary literary figure in almost constant movement around Europe. Much biographical work has been written about her. And, finally, a revelation: she was the keeper of not only an intimate diary for most of those years, but also workbooks she called ‘cahiers’, all now published in a

More penny dreadful than Dickensian: Lily, by Rose Tremain, reviewed

Rose Tremain’s 15th novel begins with a favoured schmaltzy image of high Victoriana: it is a night (if not dark and stormy, then certainly dark and wet) in the year 1850, and a baby has been left at the gates of Victoria Park. Then we have an uncanny detail: the baby is sniffed out by a pack of wolves, one of which bites off her little toe. Thankfully, a police constable finds her and walks through the night to Coram’s Fields to deliver her to the Foundling Hospital. From there she is sent to be fostered by a loving family on a farm in Suffolk for six years, only to

Should we forgive Penelope Jackson?

The most poignant detail, I think, about the story of Penelope Jackson – jailed for 18 years for stabbing her husband to death – was the reaction of her late husband’s younger brother Alan. He said he intended to visit her in prison:  ‘I want to say to her, ‘What you’ve gone through I can quite imagine. I know what he was like towards me and my wife. You’re not on your own’.’  Alan Jackson was estranged from his brother – whom he described as an ‘arrogant bully’ – and said:  ‘No one deserves to die the way he did but I can believe Penny would have been pushed to

The Met must face the truth about Sarah Everard’s murder

‘We are sickened, angered and devastated by this man’s crimes which betray everything we stand for,’ said the Metropolitan Police in response to the sentencing of Wayne Couzens. He is the former police officer who, when in service, kidnapped, raped and murdered Sarah Everard, later setting fire to her body. The case in March sparked national outrage about the levels of male violence towards women and girls. Not only do significant numbers of police officers spectacularly fail women when it comes to sexual and domestic violence, but they commit these crimes themselves. The two things are connected. If male police officers see women as worthless, and if there is little

The man who made Manhattan: The Great Mistake, by Jonathan Lee, reviewed

What makes a city? The collective labour of millions packed into its history; the constant forgetting of incomers who arrive to create their own version of a place, their own versions of themselves; the desires of great men, whose improvements are partly intended to secure a better life for their less fortunate fellows, and partly a plea for their own immortality. This is a novel about all three, disguised as one about Andrew Haswell Green. According to one of the few memorials to him still standing, he was the ‘Directing Genius of Central Park in its Formative Period’ and ‘Father of Greater New York’. He was behind the consolidation of

Sweden’s gun crime epidemic is spiralling out of control

The shots were fired at 1pm on a Sunday, in spite of a heavy police presence at the scene. A 44-year-old shop owner was killed by a bullet to the head. The murder victim was a hard-working man who was trying to make a better life for his family. Now he is dead: another victim of Sweden’s gun-violence epidemic. On 28 May, two days before the shooting, riots had broken out in the same neighbourhood, the immigrant area of Hjällbo (pronounced ‘Yel-boo’) in Gothenburg, as a local criminal gang clashed with shop owners and their relatives. On the surface, the events were sparked when a 14-year-old boy was pushed off