Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Nymph and the Lamp

A romance, not my usual fare, but so smoothly told and with such a keen command of detail that I could hardly put it down.

It begins in 1920 when Isabel marries a man on the spur of the moment and returns with him to his place of work, an island of sand dunes and wild horses off the coast of Nova Scotia. Her husband Matt, who "thinks in dots and dashes," is in charge of a wireless station there, relaying messages between passing ships and the mainland.

They share a rough building with a twice-torpedoed "moody anchorite" who plays Chopin and hates women ("what a lot of soft, empty, self-seeking creatures they are"). He is pursued by a half-wild seventeen-year-old, who roams the island on horseback armed with a rifle. A love triangle develops and there's a mystery that no one will speak of.

What keeps the book from sinking to the level of trashy romance are the vivid descriptions of Halifax and life on the island, of travelling by steamer and the business of sending and receiving in Morse code. There are also some fine portraits of people themselves, like the lightkeeper's wife whose "fierce green eyes" remind Isabel of "a farm cat gone wild and peering at her from the top rail of a pasture fence."

The woman made an extraordinary appearance, dressed as she was in her best prewar garb, even to a pair of worn high button boots, a whaleboned lace collar and a broad hat trimmed with artificial roses. She sat astride like a man, with her heavy black skirt and cumbrous petticoats tucked above her lean knees. As the pony came half leaping, half sliding down the steep sandbank her long figure rose and sank in the saddle with movements inelegant but utterly assured; and the great hat, secured to her tightly coiled hair with a pair of long jet-headed pins, flapped its brim faithfully at every leap. There, thought Isabel, go I in ten more years.

In his memoir In My Time, Thomas Raddall claimed this as his favourite book because it grew out of his own experiences. He himself was a wireless operator on Sable Island, which is the model for the island in this story.


The book was first published in 1950 but has gone through numerous editions, attesting to its popularity. You can see some of the covers at The Dusty Bookcase. The cover of this edition is lovely but misleading. Isabel is supposed to be a plain 30-year-old, while the eagle is pure artistic licence.

An enthusiastic review at A Certain Bent Appeal.

Similarities with Jane Eyre

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Code

Mike Hammer on skates? Why not? What better training ground for a PI than the NHL where "what we do to each other on the ice would be criminal in any jurisdiction... Even the cleanest body check would be an assault."

Thus Brad Shade, aka Shadow, a former player who had to hock his Stanley Cup ring after his career washed up and his marriage fell apart.

He worked as a snoop for a few years, doing divorce and insurance work before an old teammate offered him a job as a scout for the LA Kings.

The story begins with Brad checking out a hot young prospect playing for Peterborough in the O. The one-line evaluation he sends to the GM on his Blackberry:

I heard the kid fart and it sounded like a harp.

But a team needs more than that before committing big bucks to a potential franchise player. As Brad starts digging, a murder occurs and suddenly things don't look so rosy any more. The suspects are numerous, the draft is getting closer, and Brad's job is on the line.

Still, he hangs onto his sense of humour and cracks wise as he tries to sort it all out. A Zamboni driver is a "Guy Who Turns Right for a Living." Working out at a weight room, he tosses 225 "like a salad." He meets a guy whose "green eyes looked like two basil leaves in a big bowl of tomato soup," and a couple of plainclothesmen "who took the job title too literally."

The chapters are short, the dustjacket is clever, and there are appropriate hard-boiled observations about the game:

I never once did something impulsive on the ice. I picked my spots. And I had no loyalties, no friendships. I would do to an ex-teammate and a friend exactly what I'd do to a total stranger -- in fact, I might have even gone at it harder with guys I had run and drunk with, just because I feared that I might go soft and sentimental. Players and general managers and coaches used to say that I was "greasy," which I took as the highest compliment. If you look at the names engraved on the cup, you'll find a lot of greasy guys. Greasy guys are great to play with but brutal to play against. "Greasy" is whatever it takes with a lot of liberties and lubrication. I still think of myself that way. I couldn't be greasier if I jumped in a deep fryer and started doing the backstroke.

The author has written several non-fiction books about hockey, the most recent of which is The Devil and Bobby Hull.