The Scapegoat suspenseful tale of exchanged identities

Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat is a novel of suspense in the romantic tradition that the Dame’s mid-2oth century readers expected. There’s the requisite isolated setting, suspicious deaths, and a confusion of locals who know more than they are willing to tell.

The story begins when a depressed London professor of French history bumps into a Frenchman in Le Mans who could be his twin. The Frenchman slips his look-alike a sedative and takes off with the Londoner’s possessions, abandoning his own personal effects and his identity as Compte de Gue.

For reasons unknown even to himself, the professor takes up the role of the Count. As John takes responsibiity for the ne’er-do-well count’s family and business, he finds temporary relief from his own misery and isolation. Before long, however, the charade comes to and end, and the hero comes to himself.

Du Maurier is a clever writer, if not a brilliant one. Readers who can accept the implausible premise of the plot will find the novel keeps them interested to the end, despite its wooden characters and preposterous action.

All told, The Scapegoat is a good novel for a rainy night when there’s nothing good on TV.

The Scapegoat
By Daphne du Maurier
Doubleday, 1957
348 pages
#7 on the 1957 bestseller list
My grade: C-
copyright 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Eloise is a brat on any continent

Kay Thompson hit the 1956 top ten with—of all things—a picture book about a child who lives at the Plaza Hotel. It’s sequel, Eloise in Paris, opens with the Eloise, enfant terrible, getting a cablegram: She’s going to Paris.

At six, Eloise can’t travel by herself, so Nanny accompanies her. Hilary Knight’s très agreable drawings show what happens on the trip.

Actuellement, what happens in Paris is that Eloise makes a nuisance of herself, pretty much as she does at home. In Paris, however, she gets to parler francais to show how clever she is.

Eloise is beaucoup de hyperactive, beaucoup de undisciplined, beaucoup de uncontrollable. Would you want such an enfant terrible in your maison? Mais non!

Normally, j’aime children’s books, but I don’t aime Eloise.

The best thing about Eloise in Paris (besides the illustrations) is that it’s short. For that I say, “Merci beaucoup!” Je ne sais pas how anyone could find Eloise amusing. I have an absolument desire to throttle the little brat.

Eloise in Paris is fun for adults, but I don’t recommend it for children. They might see Eloise as a role model, which would be rawther a disaster.

Eloise in Paris
By Kay Thompson
Drawings by Hilary Knight
Simon & Schuster, 1957
#6 on the 1957 bestseller list
My grade: D+

  © 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Blue Camellia makes impossible seem plausible

Blue Camellia is a typical Frances Parkinson Keyes novel of the post-Civil War South.

Well-plotted, founded on historical fact and peopled by believable characters, it neither ignores nor dwells on the seamier side of life.

In 1886, Brent and Mary Winslow and their daughter, Lavinia, sell their Illinois farm and head for Crowley, Louisiana, where enterprising developers plan a county seat on the prairie.

The town is a depressing few frame buildings in a mud sea when Winslows arrive. Brent buys farmland outside town, promising Mary that their fortunes will turn. Together, they will achieve the impossible. They’ll have a “blue camellia.” 

Ignoring snakes, Mary dons rubber boots and works in the rice fields with Brett. Hard work and shrewd investing makes the Winslows wealthy. Meanwhile, Lavinia has had her heart broken by the black sheep of the nearest Cajun neighbors’ family.

For a while, Lavinia’s problems absorb everyone except her father: He’s absorbed in trying to create a better strain of rice. Eventually even Brett realizes something has to be done about Lavinia. Somehow, she has to achieve her own blue camellia. 

Although there’s no long-term value to this novel, Blue Camellia will keep you entertained.

Sometimes that’s enough.

Blue Camellia
By Frances Parkinson Keyes
Julian Messner, 1957
430 pages
#5 bestseller of 1957
My grade: B-
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Rally Round the Flag for Cold War comedy

Rally Round the Flag, Boys is a tale of the Cold War era written by Max Shulman, the man who gave the world Dobie Gillis. As you might expect, it’s stupid stuff, but funny.

Second Lieutenant Guido di Maggio has been ordered to Fairbanks, Alaska. He doesn’t want to go. He has a girlfriend back home in Putnam’s Landing, Connecticut, and he doesn’t want to leave her.

When Guido hears a Nike missile facility is being built in Putnam’s Landing, he gets himself appointed PR man for the project, much to the dismay of Captain Walter Hoxie, assigned to head the base. Hoxie hates civilians and anybody who likes civilians.

Determined to keep out of Alaska, Guido maps his strategy and makes a strong start. People rally around the project.

A few teenage boys are unhappy that their girlfriends are throwing them over for soldiers, but Guido doesn’t notice until it’s way too late.

All the book’s characters are drawn with sit-com strokes. There’s not enough substance to any of them to make a good novel, but Shulman makes them credible for as long as it takes to tell the story.

You’ll enjoy Rally Round the Flag, Boys the day after you have 24-hour flu.

Rally Round the Flag, Boys
By Max Shulman
Doubleday, 1957
278 pages
#4 on the 1957 bestseller list
My Grade: D+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Compulsion is can’t-put-down reading

Compulsion covers much of the same ground as Crime and Punishment, but with a far more American tone and faster pace.

Novelist Meyer Levin was a young reporter in Chicago in the 1920s when two brilliant college students from wealthy homes kidnapped and killed a younger boy. Thirty years later, Levin set out to explore through fiction the question that was never answered at the time of the murder and the subsequent trial: why did they do it?

Why indeed?

Was it a genetic flaw? Or did their environments make them murderers?

Maybe Judd really believe he was a superman, above the law, as he sometimes said.

Or maybe Artie was demon-possessed.

Perhaps the sexual abuse inflicted by his nursemaid unhinged Judd.

Or perhaps, as the reporters said, they were just perverts.

Levin writes with the precision of an accomplished journalist. He puts nothing unnecessary down, omits no needed detail. Even the discussions of philosophy are so deft that Nietzsche becomes a plausible influence on the murderers. And, despite the horrific subject matter, Levin never stoops to any language unsuitable for a family newspaper.

Compulsion grabbed me with its first page and didn’t let go.

See if it won’t do the same for you.

Compulsion
By Meyer Levin
Simon & Schuster, 1956
495 pages
# 3 on the ’57 bestseller list
My grade: A

© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Peyton Place Not Worth Return Visit

I’d always assumed Peyton Place was a salacious novel. It’s not. Sex figures in the plot, but the novel’s not about gratuitous sex.

The story is set just before World War II in a small New England town with all the usual small-town characteristics, notably gossip, grudges, and inbreeding.

There is the usual cast of characters: the dedicated doctor, the cynical newspaper editor, the bullying industrialist, the spinster school teacher, the poor-but-deserving young person.

The central event of the novel is Lucas Clark’s rape of his stepdaughter, Selena. Everyone else in Peyton Place gets tangled in the events that follow.

The novel might not have caused any raised eyebrows if it had been set in the South.  We don’t associate slum lords, tar paper shacks, and shantytowns with Connecticut villages. The idea that poor white trash like Clark and his drunken pals live in rural towns graced by pristine, white church steeples is unsettling, almost obscene.

Author Grace Metalious writes about the entire town but fails to make readers care about any of its residents. There’s enough story to make a TV mini-series, but not enough character development for an enduring novel.

Peyton Place
By Grade Metalious
Simon & Schuster, 1956
372 pages
#2 on the 1957 bestseller list
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Better Without Ink?

By Love Possessed went from hardcover to Hollywood. The film has the distinction of being the first movie screened in-flight by an airline.  The film stars Lana Turner, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., and Jason Robards.

View stills and ad posters at cimema.com [nonworking link removed 2016-03-08]

I haven’t seen the inkless version. Whatever it’s faults, it certain has to have at least one virtue: it has to be shorter than the novel.

By Love Possessed: Too many pages, too many semicolons

By Love Possessed covers 49 hours in the life of Arthur Winner, a respected lawyer in a small, rural New England town in the early 1940s.

James Gould Cozzens puts readers inside Arthur’s head. They see the story unfold through his eyes. They also hear what Arthur thinks and feels about what’s happening.

Since there’s no narrator to provide context, readers have to figure out who is who  and what’s going on. That’s not easy.

At times, By Love Possessed reads more like By Semicolons Obsessed. This is dense prose, folks.

If you dig long enough, the plot that emerges is this: Ralph, the brother of one of the secretaries in Arthur’s office, is accused of rape. Arthur jumps in with all lawyerly speed. While working on Ralph’s problem, Arthur learns he’s got a few problems of his own. Meanwhile,  unhappy with lawyerly speed, folks take things into their own hands, bringing the plot to a climax while Arthur fritters.

This novel could have been a lot better if it had been 200 pages shorter. Cozzens got so wrapped up in producing a literary work, he forgot about telling a story.

Too bad.

With ruthless editing, this could have been a great novel.

By Love Possessed
By James Gould Cozzens
Harcourt, Brace, 1957
570 pages
#1 bestselling novel for 1957
My grade: C
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Looking for Love Possessed in All the Right Places

If public libraries in my area are representative, you shouldn’t have trouble finding a a copy of By Love Possessed. Within the Four County Library System in New York, there  are copies available from

If you live in the wider world, I suggest you search  for By Love Possessed on WorldCat(R) . WorldCat is a library of libraries, including many college and specialized libraries.  When I want something that doesn’t show up in my public library system data base, I use WorldCat. One cool feature is that I can enter my zip code and find the nearest site that has the book I’m seeking.

1957 Bestseller List

Fifty years ago, I was in fourth grade.  From my seat in the front corner of the classroom I could easily reach my then-favorite book, The Swiss Family Robinson. The rest of America had a quite different reading list.

Here are the best-selling novels of 1957:

  1. By Love Possessed by James Gould Cozzens
  2. Peyton Place by Grace Metalious
  3. Compulsion by Meyer Levin
  4. Rally Round the Flag, Boys! by Max Shulman
  5. Blue Camellia by Frances Parkinson Keyes
  6. Eloise in Paris by Kay Thompson
  7. The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier
  8. On the Beach by Nevil Shute
  9. Below the Salt by Thomas B. Costain
  10. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

These are the first 10 novels I’ll review in Great Penformances.