Lots of fairly serious reading going on at the moment, but I always keep some lighter stuff on the go at the same time (I am always reading two books at a time, often five or six, I find this refreshing and enriching). So at the moment, I am enjoying Margery Allingham's The Mind Readers as a respite from The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock and a number of other worthy but demanding books. Sunday Salon readers will, I am sure, all share this habit - what's the good of reading just one book at a time!?
Allingham is really a very fine writer, with a marvellous command of language, and a real feel for the psychological realities of daily life; but she also has a powerful dramatic feel and an ability to carry off the preposterous or unlikely when needed. This gives her detective novels, mostly featuring Albert Campion, an occasionally fantastical feel but also a real and impelling grasp of reality - even if it is sometimes only the reality in people's minds. Considered purely as a writer of prose, she is the best of the women mystery mongers between the wars - a cut above Sayers, several steps clear of Ngaio Marsh (whose prose is clunky and whose affected social constructs and cardboard characterisations, while amusing, have dated badly), and in a different world to the incompetent Agatha Christie. Only Josephine Tey at her best (The Franchise Affair, Daughter of Time) can really bear the comparison.
This book features two young boys who have invented or stumbled across a mind reading device, which is powerful but which is (thank God) difficult to control and use properly. They are caught up in family strife as well as industrial and international espionage, and there is a good dash of old fashioned detective thriller, finally overcoming villainy in an exciting show-down. She captures the incredulity of the adults, and the naive but intelligent self absorption of the children brilliantly, and the plot never flags. Among other treats is the elderly Canon Avril, who played a heroic role in Tiger in the Smoke (Allingham's masterpiece) and whose innate goodness gives him courage and insight well beyond his knowledge and his naivety. A wonderful, clean, thrilling read.
It reminded me slightly of John Buchan's Gap in the Curtain, in which a group of guests at a weekend party are shown how to see into the future - in a very limited way, by seeing just a few lines of The Times a year into the future. Each of them sees something exciting, true, and really relevant to their futures: but again, the knowledge is much less useful than it would seem. Not in the same class as the Allingham, and some of the denouements and explanations are no doubt more obvious than they seemed to me, reading it for the first time as a teenager, but well worth picking up from the cheap barrow outside the local second hand bookshop.