"The Party's Over"
Today in Semantic Quibbling: "Great" vs "Good"

Review Round-up: Dressed to Kill, The Morning Gift, Aurora Floyd

Dressed to KillThree odd ones - Milton Ozaki's worst pulp (or, if not, close to it), Eva Ibbotson's strangely flawed The Morning Gift, and Aurora Floyd - a (very) old 'sensation thriller' that's the best of the lot...

Milton Ozaki's Dressed to Kill (1954) is a fairly uninspiring pulp read - the genre (and Ozaki) both have better to offer. Rusty is a down-on-his-luck private who, in the search for quick cash, starts chasing down stolen cars for insurance companies. Much to his delight, he finds one right off the bat - a Cadillac that as we speak is driving across the state line. Rusty zips off after it and repossesses the car, much to the chagrin of the leggy blond behind the wheel. 

On the way back to Chicago, Rusty and the girl head reach some sort of... negotiation. Cash won't do, but when she suggests they stop at a motel, he thinks a deal might be in the works. The intended tryst comes to a swift halt, however, when he finds a body leaking out of the trunk of the car...

It isn't just the purple prose or the meandering plot, Dressed to Kill flounders because Rusty himself never has any sort of clear motivation. The best part of the book comes in the opening few pages, when we understand that Rusty is broke and the car hunt, however, petty, is going to pay the rent. But once he's got the car, he's suddenly, abruptly adrift: he kind of wants money, he kind of wants sex... then he kind of wants to stay out of trouble, then he kind of is in trouble.


By the end of the book, he's juggling multiple women, the police, the mob and a 'treasure' of $250,000 in stolen loot. But the reader is never actually clear where Rusty stands. Is he serious about selling out to the bad guys? Is he serious about playing along with the good guys? He's never really in trouble with the police, so it isn't an 'innocent man accused' thing.

Hell, even the financial motivation falls by the wayside when - almost as an afterthought - he picks up $40,000 by snitching on some (useless) thieves. Rusty's not an enigma, he's just a weak character: someone that meanders from scene to scene with no real will of his own. It isn't so much agency as consistency. If every story is about "someone that wants something", this isn't actually a story at all.

The Morning GiftEva Ibbotson's The Morning Gift (2007) is the beautiful (in the classic sense) story of romance, set against the dawn of World War II. Ruth is the brilliant daughter of a family of eccentric geniuses, born and raised in Vienna. Quin is an Englishman - a young professor and a family friend.

When things fall apart and Austria is occupied by Nazi Germany, Ruth's family flees and she (unwittingly) is left behind. Quin is in the country to accept one of his many prizes - he Does Science in a rugged, manly fieldwork fashion, but is apparently also the best teacher in the world. Ruth's plight captures his attention and, in order to squirrel her out of the country, they get married. As a British citizen, she can leave. And leave she does - Quin takes her back to London and deposits her with her family. As not to mess with the soon-to-be-asked-for divorce, they vow to never see one another again and keep their marriage a secret. Plus, Ruth already has a husband-to-be - a famous concert pianist - and if he learned, well... actually he wouldn't care. He's pretty self-absorbed. But still...

Oddly enough, the most compelling parts of The Morning Gift are all related to the war - not the fighting itself, but the plight of the Austrian-Jewish refugees in Britain. Professors working as cleaners, violinists as waiters, etc - all desperate from news from home, keen to pick up any sense of hope. The scenes focused on the forlorn (but oddly charming) antics of the expatriate community are by far the most emotive.

Against this background of genuine emotion, Ruth and Quin do the dance of the rom-com. They flirt and fret and run and hide and OH THE DEPTH OF THEIR FEELINGS. It doesn't help that we are clearly dealing with the political and genetic elite. Ruth is a precocious student who combines her oh-so-wacky character quirks (she sings to the sheep!) with a sort of embarrassed ambition - she doesn't mean to be smarter than everyone else, so, here, why doesn't she do their homework as well? She's the princess from Enchanted, except with better hair (we learn a lot about her hair). Meanwhile, Quin can do aaaaaaanything - he Makes With the Science, teaches like a god, is adored by all women everywhere and oh, he's got his own Scottish castle. Did we mention that? It is important.

On one hand, they're both achingly lovely people, who always do the right thing and are very nicely suited for one another. On the other, there's something a bit disconcerting about watching two aristocrats gentle court while, in the background, the world burns. Not to ascribe authorial intent, but it feels almost like the author agrees: there are occasional moments of real, legitimate pathos - Ruth and Quin will stop, stare, nod solemnly, then resume the waltz of the will-they-won't-they. They're charming, cute characters, but it is touch to muster the will to care about the fate of Quin's ancestral estates when, at the same time, we're aware of real people with real problems. All the angst in the world counts for naught against this sort of background. Ironically, if only Ms. Ibbotson weren't so good at writing the hard stuff, but her skill with the 'real' people only makes Quin and Ruth seem all the more unworldly.

[This is bizarre - and really crossing a line as a review, but there's a big part of me that wonders if a lot of my issues with this book wouldn't be resolved by a serious, ten page, anatomically-detailed, utterly filthy sex scene. As it is, the consummation (let's be honest, that's not a spoiler - THEY HOOK UP, OK?) is quickly curtained off. But, although dignified, this only serves to make Ruth and Quin more ethereal and passes up an opportunity to make them, well, real people. Whereas some moments of sweaty panting might actually ground them, show them filled with genuine, human desire and weakness and, you know, squishy lustthings. Anyway, there you go - the first and probably last time I recommend porny sex as the Solution to a book's problems. I'll go take a cold shower now.]

Aurora FloydMeanwhile, if you do enjoy watching aristocrats flit their eyes at one another, you could do a lot worse than Mary Elizabeth Braddon's Aurora Floyd (1863). The titular heroine is also a rambunctious, quirky heiress - her father is an infinitely-wealthy banker, her mother an actress (deceased). After a wild (and horse-obsessed) childhood, Aurora goes off to school, calms down, comes home and breaks hearts. 

The center of the book is a love triangle between Aurora, the haughty Bulstrode and the cherubic John Mellish. Bulstrode and Mellish are both aristocrats in their own way - Bulstrode the heir to a long bloodline (and oh so conscious of it), Mellish a genial country squire. They take turns flirting with - and, indeed, becoming engaged to - Aurora. It is genuinely harmless fun. At least, until Aurora's DARK SECRET comes out: it seems that she was secretly married while an impulsive teen. And her husband IS STILL ALIVE. #thunder #lightning

How Aurora handles her secret - and how her suitors handle its revelation - takes up the latter half of the book. Well, that and a silly murder mystery. Ms. Braddon has no qualms about telegraphing the obvious, but this could also be a matter of the book's relative antiquity. While the plot now seems hackneyed, Aurora Floyd was a bestselling "sensation thriller" at the time. 

Curiously enough, the book excels when specifically contrasted to The Morning Gift. Aurora Floyd is sympathetic to its aristocratic protagonists, but also puts them in context - both social and literary. Bulstrode and Mellish are nobles, they're deliberately people not like us (the reader). They have virtues that are not ours, but they also have problems. Mellish is taken advantage of by all of his servants: he's the center of a parasitic ecosystem that lives off his foolish generosity. Bulstrode is a proud idiot - so engrossed in his heritage that he can't make friends, fall in love, or do any of the thousand things that we (the reader) can. In fact, Ms. Braddon is so mocking of her protagonists that, at one point, she needs to make a soothing aside:

"I take some pride... in the two young men of whom I write, for the simple patches that I have no dark patches to gloss over in the history of either of them. I may fail in making you like them, but I can promise you shall have no cause to be ashamed of them. Talbot Bulstrode may offend you with his sulky pride; John Mellish may simply impress you as a blundering countrified ignoramus, but neither of them shall ever short you with an ugly word or an unholy thought." 

They aren't like us... but they're not bad people.

Moreover, they're not perfect. Again, Ms. Braddon goes out of their way to give them a sort of comic absurdity - Mellish "pours Worcester sauce into his coffee" in excitement while Talbot writes pamphlets that are "a noble specimen of the stately and ponderous style of writing". Again, they aren't like us... but they are human. As a result, we don't mind their petty dramas about land and title, because they are, through their flaws, easy to empathise with. 

Bringing it back to The Morning Gift, this seems to be the key difference between the books. Although both feature the (slightly inane) (non-)problems of posh twits, Aurora Floyd is more comfortable with making them real. The Morning Gift is escapist, but almost regretfully so; featuring two super-human beings, the embodiment of all that is Good in a world turned to Evil. Aurora Floyd is much gentler - with protagonists that are much like us, even if they aren't really like us at all. They may be posh twits, but they're our twits, and even as I can't really share their problems, I can still cheer them on.