Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest: Peter Dickinson

I think this quote from Ross Macdonald is the best way to introduce this book:
Peter Dickinson has turned in a highly original first performance. The ants' nest of the title is a tribe of New Guinea aborigines transported more or less intact to London where their chief is murdered. Their observer and investigator, Superintendent Pibble of Scotland Yard, is a man of refreshing intelligence. Mr. Dickinson's anthropological invention and sociological wit, his humanness persisting stubbornly in the teeth of our instantaneous McLuhan world, give his novel real distinction.
--Ross Macdonald
I have a hard time reviewing books by Peter Dickinson. I love his writing so much that I tend not to see any flaws. This book is very strange. The story is bizarre and the writing is playful. The characters are far from normal. But not all of his books are this strange, so if you don't find something to like here, try another of his mysteries.

This book introduces Superintendent Jimmy Pibble, who often gets saddled with the unusual cases. In this case, a tribesman has been murdered in the large London home where the tribe has lived for twenty years. The death appears to be motivated by differences between members of the tribe over the future plans for the group. Yet, it also appears that all members of the tribe have an alibi.

I did not realize it until I read it in a review, but all of the story takes place in one day. Sort of like one of the CSI episodes where they have the crime solved in one shift. Except this is much more fun and less bloody. I guess if you are as focused as Jimmy Pibble you can do it all in one day.

The events leading up to the relocation of the tribe to London occurred during World War II, when all other members of the tribe were killed by the Japanese. Brief flashbacks to that time in World War II to explain current relationships are also included. Even though they were not a large part of the story, and the mystery is definitely rooted in the present situation, I did enjoy that part of the story a great deal.

However my favorite aspect of this book is Jimmy Pibble. He deals with an unusual and trying situation admirably. He is respectful of all the people he interviews, and he is open to new ways of looking at things. A wonderful character.

Peter Dickinson is the author of childrens books and young adult fantasy books, but this book is not a fantasy. Dickinson uses a lot of imagination in setting up this tribe in a London building and developing the characters of the tribe members and the Londoners who live around them, but there is nothing supernatural about the story. It is original and very different, but still a good detective story with clues and a solution that makes sense.

The Glass-Sided Ants' Nest was Dickinson's first adult novel, and it won the Gold Dagger award for 1968. The second book in the Jimmy Pibble series (A Pride of Heroes in the UK, The Old English Peep Show in the US), published the next year, also won the Gold Dagger award.

Please see John's detailed review at Pretty Sinister Books.

Many of Dickinson's novels are available as e-books at Open Road Integrated Media.

And if you prefer print copies, as I do, you can get this book, The Old English Peep Show, Sleep and his Brother, and King and Joker at Felony and Mayhem.

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Publisher:   International Polygonics, 1991 (orig. pub. 1968)
Length:      186 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       James Pibble #1
Setting:      London
Genre:        Police procedural
Source:      I purchased my copy.


23 comments:

  1. Hmm.... sounds good, but on balance I'll pass. Far far too much already!

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    1. You'll be missing a really entertaining story, Col. But I understand. Other books call to you.

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  2. I always liked his books too. Thanks for reminding me.

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    1. Dickinson's books are always very interesting and I am glad I still have a good number left to read, Patti. And several I want to revisit.

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  3. I have to say, Tracy, that the title of this one really appeals to me - a lot! And it sounds like an intriguing, unusual sort of story. Hmmm.....A well-written, believable CSI sort of story... sounds interesting!

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    1. I hope I did not mislead with the reference to CSI, Margot. But even though the focus in on Pibble's detection, he does make use of laboratory analyses, so I guess it isn't that far off. Regardless, a very entertaining book.

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  4. I think I have read all Peter Dickinson's crime stories - this one a long time ago. The part I remember is a (very tangential) scene where a woman - an escort - describes going to see a film with an admiral: he objects to inaccuracies in the naval scenes, she says the courtesan in the film is unrealistic. Something like that? I remember finding that hugely funny and entertaining.

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    1. You have quite a memory, Moira. There is the scene with the escort, which was memorable, but I had forgotten the details you mentioned. It is bits like that which make Dickinson's books more fun.

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  5. Sounds like fun. Thanks for this, Tracy.

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    1. It is fun, Puzzle Doctor. And not being British, I am sure that there are many references and much humor I missed.

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  6. Definitely going to be reading some of Dickinson's books very soon - thanks Tracy,

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    1. I do hope you enjoy them, Sergio. I look forward to the ones I haven't read yet.

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  7. By the way, this one (as Skin Deep, the American title) and three other Dickinson books are available from Felony & Mayhem as well, if you can't get your hands on older copies. We love Dickinson.

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    1. Thanks for pointing that out, Julia, and I have added that information to the post. I don't know how I could have missed that. The copy of The Old English Peep Show that I just finished reading is from Felony and Mayhem. I blame it on old age and a demanding job.

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  8. I haven't read any of his books. The cover alone is intriguing. It reminds me of a series on television where a tribe was brought to the U.S. and stayed with various families. They were shocked that we ate vegetables from cans and said there was dead vegetables in them!
    Ann

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    1. This is not my favorite cover for the book, Ann, but is the copy I had so I went with it. It does come close to indicating that the members of the tribe had not lost much of their original characteristics. And it included the quote from Macdonald, so that was a plus. I am enjoying Peter Dickinson because he is a favorite author that I still have books by him that I have not read. So many of my favorite authors I have read all the books that they wrote.

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    1. I've not yet read a Dickinson, but it's clear now that I must. Ross MacD makes a compelling case, and you flesh it out. I'm sold.

      As to not finding flaws in favorite authors' works, I never look for them. I take to heart the "suspend disbelief" rule, and I lose myself completely in the work. I expect flaws, but I overlook them--in beloved literature as well as in people I like. I don't read critically and don't write critical reviews, which is why I don't call what I write about books reviews. If I call them anything I use report. Most accurately, I suppose, they are extended blurbs.

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    2. That is an interest approach, Mathew. I don't read critically, but when I find things I don't like in a book, I have a hard time presenting that information without turning other readers off. Writing book posts is often difficult to me, but I enjoy doing it... so I keep going. And I hope you do try Dickinson, to see what you think of his writing.

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  10. Tracy, I have never read Peter Dickinson. In fact, I'm not reading much of anything these days.

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    1. Prashant, I have been through periods when I did not read much... or at least not fiction. When there was too much going on at work, or too involved in other projects at home. When my brain is being used by other activities. I do usually read more when stressed by situations though, kind of an outlet.

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    2. Tracy, I'm still trying to find a balance between my new job routine and my love of reading and writing. Hopefully, it will come back soon.

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    3. I hope so, too, Prashant. A new job takes a lot out of you.

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