Book Launch: The Drowning of Arthur Braxton

The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is the fifth novel by Wirral-based writer Caroline Smailes. The Liverpool launch of the novel will take place at 126 Mount Pleasant, Liverpool, on Tuesday April 9th, beginning at 6.30. Caroline will read from the novel and discuss it with filmmaker David Richardson. If you would like to come along (there will be cake), please contact or

Drowning of Arthur Braxton Launch

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What’s in a Name? The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

This blog post is from a student on my Star-Crossed Lovers Continuing Education course:
The Age of InnocenceI find myself fascinated by the way the names given to the characters in The Age of Innocence mirror their natures and their roles within the themes of the novel.

May Welland, who represents the epitome of what New York society could create at this time, believes that all is ‘well’ in her ‘land’. She has no desire to change anything about herself or about her world. She is ‘lacking in imagination’ and ‘incapable of growth.‘ As Newland, husband, soon discovers,

There was no use in trying to emaciate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free.

Her first name, to me, conjures up a bright summer’s day, flowers, blossom, life bursting into bloom. She is the Queen of the May, virginal, worshipped. May could also be understood in its verb form, as in ‘she may’. This represents the possibilities that Newland believes may come to fruition in their relationship. He will teach her about art, literature, travel, passion – ‘We’ll read Faust together… by the Italian lakes.’

When she becomes an Archer, she takes up her bow to aim at what she wants, and what she wants to keep – Newland. She outmanoeuvres him at every turn, while on the surface seeming naive and innocent, and removes Ellen, the woman she knows he really loves, from their lives. She is even given a scene as an actual archer winning a competition against the other young ladies. She is Diana the hunter goddess, pure but strong and determined and icy.

Newland Archer, on the other hand, feels that he has encountered a ‘new land’. While initially comfortable in the stifling society of New York, his eyes are opened to exciting new possibilities when he meets Countess Olenska and falls in love with her. He then sees the futility of the life he had loved and

His whole future seemed suddenly to be unrolled before him; and passing down its endless emptiness he saw the dwindling figure of a man to whom nothing was ever to happen.

He desperately desires to escape with Ellen –

‘I want to somehow get away with you to a world where words like that [wife, mistress] won’t exist.’

But he cannot escape his duty –

Conformity to the discipline of a small society had become almost his second nature.

Even twenty-six years later, as a widower, he realises that his conventional life has the comforting feel of the place where he belongs, and he chooses not to see Ellen again when he has the chance. He wants to keep her as a dream of what might have been. I feel that his character is used to show the conflict between the old and the new ways of looking at life.

The name Countess Ellen Olenska has an air of mystery and of being from foreign parts. Ellen is a conventional name, she is, after all originally from this society, being May’s cousin. But she now has an aristocratic title, an abandoned husband in Europe and is surrounded by rumours of adultery and abuse. She oozes sexuality. Everything about her is different – the way she dresses, her cluttered home and bohemian friends, and the way she ignores social etiquette to show compassion to others shunned by society, for example Regina Beaufort after her husband becomes bankrupt. She is too passionate and unorthodox for New York’s highly organised society, but to Newland, she is truly alive and causes him to question his suffocating environment. While he dreams of his ‘new land’, Ellen, a realist, knows it does not exist – ‘Oh, my dear, where is that country?‘ Because she has been outside society she appreciates its standards, its defined roles and customs, and reminds Newland that a secret affair would hurt the people they love. She represents the changes in society that are coming, as increased personal freedom changed the world forever.

The name of the book itself is highly significant. The so called age of innocence has no innocence at all. It is all part of an act to hide the ugly side of human nature under a glossy veneer of respectability.

The picture painted of this ‘age of innocence’ is exquisite in its irony, its attention to detail (in both its settings and relationships) and above all its humanity. It has immediately been placed in my list of favourite novels.

Posted in 2013, Courses, Southport, Victorian | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Women in Film Noir: A four week course

Pick up on South Street, which has a shockingly realistic fight scene between a man and a woman

Pick up on South Street, which has a shockingly realistic fight scene between a man and a woman

Reading quite a bit of hard-boiled detective fiction this semester has raised questions about its translation to film, in particular, classic film noir.

In response to this, I will be running a short course: Women in Film Noir on Thursdays from May 2nd-23rd  from 4 to 6:30 pm. We’ll be watching classic films, Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, Pick up on South Street and Touch of Evil, and discussing aspects of film noir including, but not limited to, issues of gender.

If you’d like to take part, sign up at Continuing Education.

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Moby Dick on the Mersey 4th-6th May 2013: Volunteer to Read


Moby Dick on the Mersey is the first ever marathon reading of Moby-Dick in Liverpool and takes place over the weekend of May 4th-6th 2013 at the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool. There are still places available for readers who want to take part in this great event. There’s no need to have read the whole novel, so if you want to sign up, just click here and follow the instructions.

If you don’t fancy reading there is a great programme of whale-related events for children and adults at the Maritime Museum over the bank holiday weekend.

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Book review: One for the Money

Here’s another great post by one of my students on the course The Female Dick: Women in Crime Fiction:

Grandma Mazur in action

Grandma Mazur in action

One for the Money by Janet Evanovich is the first novel in the Stephanie Plum series. Evanovich had previously written several books in various genres initially, but did not achieve success until her first crime novel starring the tenacious bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. The series currently runs to 19 books, and if the first installment is anything to go by, I want to read the rest!

Stephanie is, at the beginning of the book, down on her luck financially. Losing her job and running out of money fast, she falls into working for a bail bond company. Attracted by the potentially high earnings, she soon realises she may be unprepared:

Not that I’ve ever let a little embarrassment stop me from forging blindly ahead on any number of dumb projects.

Stephanie begins to learn from her mistakes and arms herself with training and hardware:

…tried hard not to panic over the fact that I had tear gas under 125 pounds of pressure per square inch, which in my mind spelled nerve bomb, dangling between my knees.

Her tenacious nature helps as she gains confidence whilst trying to apprehend Joe Morelli, the outlaw whose capture will net her $10,000.

Whilst sparring with Morelli (his apprehension is complicated by their obvious attraction to one another), Stephanie crosses paths with Benito Ramirez the boxer and suspected rapist. Ramirez represents the real danger and violence in the book, and at times is incredibly menacing. The character is terrifying, and Stephanie is very brave to cope as well as she does. At one point he attacks a woman then calls Stephanie to make sure she knows she is next:

“I’m going to get you when you’re alone and not expecting me. I’m going to make sure we have lots of time together.”

With a threat like that, I think I’d take up residence at the police station, but not Stephanie. Scared though she is, she finds a way to take back control and fight on to make sure that he gets exactly what he deserves.

The use of humour throughout the book balances the violence perfectly, and I think it is a very funny book. Stephanie has a self depreciating sense of humour:

I had an alarm, I had nerve gas, I had a yoghurt. What more could anyone want?

Aside from Stephanie, much of the humour comes from Grandma Mazur, Stephanie’s maternal grandmother. She has a real streak of naughtiness about her, anything from playing with Stephanie’s gun and shooting the evening meal,“I shot that sucker right in the gumpy”, to her choice of clothing. Sartorial elegance is not Grandma Mazur’s strong point:

…wearing a pink and orange print blouse […] bright blue spandex shorts, white tennis, and stockings rolled just above the knee.

Stephanie’s parents have quite a handful with Grandma Mazur living with them.

One of my favourite moments in the book is a family encounter after an altercation with Joe Morelli.  Morelli outsmarts Stephanie by throwing her car keys in a rubbish bin, and Stephanie has to climb into to retrieve them. After cleaning herself up, she visits her family for tea:

Grandma Mazur came out of the kitchen. “I smell throw-up.”

“It’s Stephanie” my mother said. “She was in a dumpster.” 

This is a really entertaining read, well-paced and exciting throughout. The characters are well developed, and the balance of humour and action make it a book I would recommend. Stephanie is a modern day Nancy Drew, ready to use her new found investigative skills at a moment’s notice and win the day!

By Vikki Marshall

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Book Review: The Bride of Lammermoor: Hard to define, even harder to forget

Another thought-provoking post from one of my students, this time from my Star-crossed Lovers course in Southport:

bride of lammermoorThe Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott is hard to define;  the opening chapter is a story in itself, with Peter Pattieson retelling Dick Tinto’s story which he claims came from an old lady who lived at Lammermoor.  The narrator claims it is based on a true story, probably because Scott felt that the tale was too fantastical to be judged by its readers as based on actual events. Today, in the world of ever more convoluted plotting, such an explanation would be at the end of the book.

The main narrative tells of a love affair between Lucy Ashton and Edgar Ravenswood. Lucy is the daughter of Ravenswood’s enemy, Sir William Ashton. The affair turns tragic because of the manoeuvring of Lady Ashton (Lucy’s mother), who orchestrates the annulling of the couple’s engagement and then attempts to arrange a speedy marriage between Lucy and the Laird of Bucklaw, whom she considers a more worthy husband. Although it appears that Lady Ashton’s plans have worked, in the end there is a tragic conclusion.

The novel is very well written in a Gothic style, full of foreboding, where the buildings and countryside almost become characters in their own right. After the introduction, the main story itself starts in Chapter 2 with an opening line:

In the gorge of a pass or mountain glen, ascending from the fertile plains of East Lothian, stood in former times an extensive castle of which only the ruins were now visible.

Later in the same chapter Scott writes,

The last proprietor of Ravenswood Castle […]was compelled to part with the family seat and to remove himself to a lonely and sea beaten tower […]looked out on the lonely and boisterous German Ocean. A black domain of wild pasture-land surrounded their new residence.

Thus Scott introduces the surroundings before he introduces his characters, but they are equally well described and well rounded. Edgar Ravenswood is portrayed as an almost Byronic hero, none more so, than when, later in the story, he confronts the Ashtons:

He planted himself full in the middle of the apartment[…] He bent his eyes with a mingled expression of deep grief and deliberate indignation. His dark coloured riding cloak displaced from one shoulder[…] he had a sword by his side and pistols in his belt.

Lucy, who is only seventeen, is described as

exquisitely beautiful yet somewhat girlish features were formed to express peace of mind, serenity, and indifference to the tinsel of worldly pleasure…[her] expression was… gentle, soft, timid and feminine.

Unlike the Jane Austen novel Persuasion (the first novel on this course), the book feels based on reality and is not set just in a middle class cocoon in which world events seldom intrude. The story, which takes place in a turbulent time in Scottish history just prior to the union with England, involves aristocrats, the moneyed middle class, the not-so-rich middle class and the working class/peasantry. Scott distinguishes between the working class and the others by using Scottish vernacular. A good example is a conversation between Ravenswood and his faithful retainer Caleb, when Caleb mistakes Ravenswood for a ghost:

“But is iy you in very blood and body? For I would sooner face fifty devils as my masters ghaist, or even his wrath; wherefore, aroint ye, if ye were ten times by master, unless ye come in bodily shape, lith and limb.”

“It is I you old fool,” answered Ravenswood.

The story has echoes of Shakespeare: the two main characters both meet a tragic end as in Romeo and Juliet; there is a foretelling of a foreboding event which comes true, as in Macbeth, and the similarity to that play continues with three old crones who are not dissimilar to the three witches. In addition, the character of Lady Ashton has the Machiavellian ways of Lady Macbeth.  One final similarity is that Shakespeare often based his plays on folk tales.


Lucia di Lammermoor, Met production

The novel, an overlooked masterpiece, has such an interesting story that it is a wonder that no film or television adaptations have been made. This is especially annoying when TV dramas have been made of far inferior material. It would appear ideal for a BBC mini series. The story does, however, form the basis for Donizetti‘s 1835 opera Lucia di Lammermoor, although this adaptation sacrifices the subtlety of the book for pure melodrama.

The question of how to sum up the book is a difficult one, is it a Gothic Romance? Is it a tale of ill fated love? is it a historical romance? Is it a parable about how the old ways and the old hierarchies are breaking down? or is it a character study of star crossed lovers? Well the answer is that the book is all of them. However it is greater than the sum of its parts and the reader feels sad when it comes to an end. Not only is it hard to define, it’s a story that is hard to forget, in fact, I wanted to read it again, and that, to me, is a sign of a good book.

By John Ross

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Book Review: Leigh Brackett’s No Good From A Corpse

Below is another post from one of my students. If you have time to leave feedback, it would be much appreciated:


Not very far into this book I thought to myself, this woman writes like a man. Before going any further, I decided to find out a bit more about her and lo and behold, film director Howard Hawks had been under the same impression, apparently saying “Get me that Brackett guy”, or words to that effect. The name Leigh could have been mistaken for a man, and in 1946 it was unlikely that a woman would write in the hard-boiled manner Brackett had done. Hawks hired her as a scriptwriter for The Big Sleep, an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel. He, Hawks, had not been impressed by the story of No Good from a Corpse but thought Brackett wrote in the Chandler vein.

Begging to differ with the great man, I enjoyed the story. But who am I to judge? Set in Los Angeles, it has snappy and direct dialogue and the right characters for the genre. The tough guy private detective Edmond Clive has a“wide, mischievous  grin [that] did a lot for his face ”, which was sinewy and angular. Apparently, he could look tougher than the people he sent up, yet “…his eyes were alert and friendly, his smile nice.” You did not get much humour from him though, even when his side kick Jonathan Ladd Jones, supposed to be on a job, was held captive by two dubious women. Clive found Johnny, a large blonde on his knee, peeping through pink chiffon and ruffles. Needless to say, there had been a bit of gin involved. Clive fights with the blonde. “You come one step closer honey and I’ll land you one square in the wind.” His contribution to humour, when he and Johnny were leaving, was “If she does that well with gin bottles, what couldn’t she do pitching for the Yankees!” Clive is struck on the head, badly beaten up and hit by a car. He’s quick with his fists and not averse to slapping women. So there’s a little bit of violence throughout.

Clive’s girlfriend is Laurel, a nightclub singer, popular, but has a past and is afraid of someone or something. An old friend of Clive’s, Mark Hammond, his wife Jane, her brother and sister (Richard and Vivien) and Kenneth Farrar, who had been hanging around Laurel, are all connected with intrigue. Then Laurel is murdered, and Clive is determined to find her killer and clear Hammond. Laurel’s husband, who had recently been released from prison, is a suspect along with his ex cell mate Big Fella, but in a violent episode they are both killed, and later, Farrar.

Sugar, hat check girl at the club, and Vivien are both femme fatales, although Sugar has a fatal “accident” quite early on, Vivien lasts a bit longer. She’s flirtatious and curvy but psychotic and amoral.  There are not many suspects left alive at the end of the novel, but Clive is hard-boiled to the end, protecting Jane and her family, including the deranged Vivien, by allowing her a tough, violent watery end rather than the courtroom.

No Good from a Corpse was Brackett’s only full length novel in that style. In his essay Leigh Brackett: Much More Than the Queen of Space Opera! ,  Bertil Falk admired her because she moved freely between genres, without apparent difficulty: film scripts, westerns and fantasy, being prolific in science fiction. David L. Vineyard remarks on her “Chandleresque observation”,  the book almost being a parody of the form. Whereas Andrea Janes (Spinster Aunt) felt respect for this woman who writes like a man, until she read it, asking “Was this a hard-boiled masterpiece and not a little piece of pastiche?” I cannot make my mind up on that issue. Andrea also has issues on what she calls “casual misogyny” and general tough guy posturing. Isn’t this part of the genre?

The book is like a journey. Sometimes fast and then slower but the dialogue keeps the suspense going. It is violent: Clive takes the law into his own hands, but I was caught up in the story. Maybe it’s a pity Brackett didn’t continue Clive’s character in a sequel. He might have lightened up a bit.

By Erica Gregson

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Book Review: Vera Caspary’s Laura

Below is a blog post written by one of the Continuing Education students on my course The Female Dick: Women in Crime Fiction.  Viewing the blog as a platform for critical analysis and discussion, I set ‘blog posts’ as assignments for my classes. We’ve had some very interesting insights from students who are new to blogging. Here’s a great piece on Laura:


The setting is Laura’s elegant apartment in summertime, New York. Detective Mark McPherson puffs on his pipe and gazes in admiration at her captivating portrait as he investigates her apparent violent death. The body was discovered inside the front door, shortly before her wedding, her face cruelly destroyed by a shotgun blast. Laura was intelligent and attractive with a successful career in advertising. She was generous with her money, took time to listen to anyone with troubles and was adored by all who knew her. McPherson focuses on the two current men in her life – tanned, muscular fiancé, Shelby Carpenter and wealthy, self- important columnist , Waldo Lydecker. Shortly after Waldo accuses McPherson of falling in love with a dead woman – in strides Laura to the melodramatic accompaniment of a thunderstorm! Laura explains the dead woman was in fact Diane Redfern, a young model occupying her flat and wearing her clothes while she spent a weekend alone in the country. The living Laura joins the list of suspects and McPherson needs to unravel the tangled web of lies and evasions.

The characters come to life as the story develops and we see them through different eyes as the role of narrator switches between the various chief suspects and the detective. Laura is struggling to combine relationships with her career and independence. She remains very fond of the middle aged, narcissistic Waldo, who took her under his wing for eight years. While she changes from “a gauche child to a gracious New Yorker” her former lover becomes a father figure. Any other relationships that survived the over-protectiveness of Bessie, her devoted maid, would succumb to the acerbic criticism of Waldo, master of the art of insincere flattery followed by a vicious put-down! Only Shelby, the irresponsible, poverty-stricken philanderer persisted. Waldo’s white, flabby obesity compares unfavourably with Shelby’s impressive physique. Both Waldo and Shelby belong to a previous Golden Age and it is not surprising that Laura is having second thoughts. Waldo loves her too much and Shelby too little. She is a modern woman in a man’s world where “dolls and dames” are much misunderstood. For example, Waldo warns McPherson “The activities of crooks and racketeers will seem simple to you in comparison with the motives of a modern woman.”

Laura has strong feelings for the straight talking but sensitive and imaginative McPherson. Our hero and heroine are well-matched. Lying somewhere between the old world charm of golden age detectives such as Poirot and hard-boiled types like Sam Spade, our hero prefers psychology to forensic science. Waldo asks “Why don’t you go out and take some fingerprints?” Despite having few tangible clues, McPherson responds “There are times in the investigation of a crime when it’s more important to look at faces.” His strategy proves successful as he skilfully draws out secret thoughts and unconscious behaviour which finally lead him to the truth – just in time to save Laura’s life.

The author is ahead of her time in exploring the effect of power, control and obsessive love on Laura, who is far from a helpless victim. We understand Laura better as Caspary allows her readers to be tricked by the charming veneer and wrongly assume benevolence but Laura never changes her views. Does this make her a poor judge of character or does her understanding, non-judgemental approach to people make her vulnerable to predators as well as popular?

Caspary had a successful career in copywriting for an advertising agency before becoming a novelist and Hollywood scriptwriter. Her personal experience lends authenticity to the novel which was written in the early forties. It is difficult to criticise such an accomplished author and any mild irritation that I feel about Laura’s vagueness and inability to give a straight answer is balanced by an increased sense of mystery and drama. As in the words of Waldo Lydecker, speaking when Laura was presumed dead: “It’s the contradictions that make her seem alive to you. Life itself is contradictory. Only death is consistent.”

By Bryony Welch

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Publishing Moby-Dick

This afternoon I launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce and publish a print edition of the excellent website. This will be a high-quality edition, in paperback and hardback, with all the annotations created by Margaret Guroff for her wonderful site, and will be part of our Moby-Dick marathon, Moby-Dick on the Mersey. The campaign runs until February 1st, so there is just one month to get your hands on one of these lovely books. Details are over on the Kickstarter page.

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Laura at Liverpool Fact

Dana Andrews

Dana Andrews as Detective McPherson

Laura is one of my favourite crime films. Over many viewings, I’ve never ceased to be thrilled by its Victorian and Gothic undertones, its witty one-liners and its central crime of passion. Gene Tierney’s Laura in the eponymous 1944 film is ethereal and naive whilst still being a driven career woman and social climber. Despite Laura’s alluring power over men, one never loses sight of the fact she exists in a man’s world, and it is the men around her who describe her, a point driven home by Clifton Webb’s narration and Dana Andrew’s character’s detective work. For a more detailed description of the plot and a comparison of the novel and the film see my review on the Venetian Vase.

Laura will be shown at the Fact in Liverpool’s city centre on Sunday, January 6th as part of their ‘Vintage Sundays’ series, and we’ll be studying the text on ‘The Female Dick: Women in Crime Fiction’ course, running January 24th- March 28th 2013(enroll at the University of Liverpool Continuing Education by the 14th of January).

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