Thursday, November 18, 2010

58. The Painswick Line by Henry Cecil

I can't even remember where I found this book, I think at the Spui bookmarket in Amsterdam. I remember thinking that it had a certain anglophile feel to it that appealled to me but that also I was getting into something unknown. With books that give me this kind of feeling, they need to be devoured quickly or they may get stuck on my on-deck shelf indefinitely. My pace is so good right now, I thought I should just knock it down. I was glad I did so. The Painswick Line is not a masterpiece and it's probably not even an author I will follow up with, but it was an enjoyable read and gave me a bit more insight into popular British reading in the second half of the 20th century. For you see, I have learned that Henry Cecil is the Richard Gordon of the Legal profession (Richard Gordon, if you didn't know, is the James Herriot of the medical field (James Herriot is, of course, the James Herriot of the veterinary field)).

I like to go into new novels fairly blind, with as little external information as possible. Though sorely tempted, I don't read the author blurbs or any of the quotations (I am definitely never tempted to read the book blurbs as they are almost always spoilers and should just be fucking banned). However, about halfway through the book, I started to get the idea that the main gist of this novel was to share funny anecdotes about the craziness of the world of law in Britain.

The base story is a vicar who reveals in court that he is able to accurately determine which horse will win the race. He has been doing it for years, but always purely as an intellectual exercise. He stayed true to his humble calling and never made a penny with his skill. But of course his skills do not go unnoticed and soon his small parish is hounded by punters and press and even the judge who presided over the trial where he revealed his ability. The judge's son is a scoundrel (though treated with the utmost respect by both his father and the author; very little moral judgement in this book either) and the father needs a large sum of money to keep him out of debt and thus jail. Though this plot seems sufficient for a humourous novel, it is actually resolved quite quickly and the book follows the son through several legal scams, some of which work and other that don't. The end of the book has the son of the judge (who has now since passed on) turning 84 and finally deciding to give up a life of crime so he can end his days at home with his always-loving wife (the daughter of the vicar).

So as you can see, this is not a tightly woven narrative. I didn't really mind the meandering structure, especially when it became apparent that the point of this book are all the little legal wrangles and boondoggles the son (and other people) get into. I think that this kind of book was really an enjoyable read for educated professionals in 50s and 60s Britain, especially lawyers. Some of the details went over my head and I did glaze over a bit when the language got a bit too industry-specific. However, it is a pleasant, non-judgemental read and didn't make me want to smash up the house as 30 seconds of network news or a single television commercial can. The back of the book had several other recommendations, including the Richard Gordon Doctor books, which look like they might be a lot of fun.

[Note: I have now broken my one-year record of total books read this year, at least as long as I have been keeping record. I'm happy, but with my new obsession of trying to get an average of 50 books a year, I am not satisfied. I've got less than 6 weeks to hit that average hard!]

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