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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

What a wonderful week for reading!  My rereading of old favourites for the 1930 Club continued on from The Diary of a Provincial Lady to Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers (via Corduroy by Adrian Bell but I have complicated thoughts on that book and won’t manage to write about it before the Club is over).

Strong Poison was the fifth of Sayers’ mystery novels features Lord Peter Wimsey, the erudite graduate of Eton and Oxford who loves old books, music, cricket, and sleuthing.  Suffering from shell shock after the First World War, Lord Peter, the second son of the Duke of Denver, loafed about a little before discovering in his early thirties a passion for crime solving.  And so he became one of the world’s best-loved literary detectives.

He is, as always, surrounded by a cast of excellent supporting characters: his delightful mother, the Dowager Duchess; Charles Parker, a Scotland Yard detective with whom Wimsey works closely (and who will eventually become his brother-in-law); and Miss Climpson, who runs what Wimsey refers to as “the Cattery”, an employment bureau stocked with useful women who can be installed as informants in offices and homes of interest to the cases Wimsey works on.  Best of all, Wimsey is supported by his batman-cum-valet Bunter who has been with him since the war and is integral to both the running of Wimsey’s life and the solving of crimes.

Strong Poison contains all of these beloved supporting characters and introduces the most important one of all: Harriet Vane.

When we – and Peter – meet her, Harriet Vane is in the dock at the Old Bailey, accused of murdering her former lover.  A detective novelist by trade, Harriet is twenty-nine years old, a graduate of Oxford, and, Peter is convinced, entirely innocent of the murder by poisoning of Philip Boyes.  Despite her plain appearance, Peter falls in love with Harriet at first sight and becomes determined to both prove her innocence and marry her.  He alerts her to both intentions when he finally manages to meet her.  Harriet, being an entirely sane and reasonable person, is not terribly impressed and sees a number of bumps along the path to wedded bliss.  Peter is unperturbed by these concerns, including her past relationship with Philip Boyes:

‘I was absolutely stunned that first day in court, and I rushed off to my mater, who’s an absolute dear, and the kind of person who really understands things, and I said, “Look here!  Here’s the absolutely one and only woman, and she’s being put through a simply ghastly awful business and for God’s sake come and hold my hand!” You simply don’t know how foul it was.’

‘That does sound rather rotten.  I’m sorry I was brutal.  But, by the way, you’re bearing in mind, aren’t you, that I’ve had a lover?’

‘Oh, yes.  So have I, if it comes to that.  In fact, several.  It’s the sort of thing that might happen to anybody.  I can produce quite good testimonials.  I’m told I make love rather nicely – only I’m at a disadvantage at the moment.  One can’t be very convincing at the other end of a table with a bloke looking in at the door.’

Of Harriet’s concern, separate from their romantic future, that she night not have any future at all as the jury seems inclined for her to face the gallows, Peter is equally confident:

‘People have been wrongly condemned before now.’

‘Exactly; simply because I wasn’t there.’

There is much to be said for such confidence.  And so Peter sets out to use all his intelligence and ingenuity to prove Harriet’s innocence.

Strong Poison is, aside from the murder bit, drawn on events from Sayers’ own life.  Harriet, Sayers’ alter ego, was involved in an intense affair with the deeply selfish Philip Boyes, a fellow novelist.  Despite Harriet’s desire to marry and live conventionally, Boyes’ asserted his beliefs in bohemian ideals and free love, eventually breaking down her resistance and convincing her to live with him.  In Sayers’ own situation, she had a passionate affair with a poet who, like Boyes, rejected convention and embraced free love.  After two years, they parted and Sayers’ love then married another.  In Strong Poison, she had the satisfaction of killing him off instead.

Peter is Sayers’ ideal man so it is no surprise that he proves to be the perfect foil to selfish Philip Boyes.  He appears and immediately offers the one thing Harriet had tried so hard to get from Boyes: marriage.  He plays no games and tells her that her past is no barrier to their future together – after all, he also has a past.  Why should hers be more of a barrier than his?  And Peter is wonderfully accepting of other views.  When he visits with Harriet’s friends to gain a better understanding of the case, he good naturedly responds to their egalitarian beliefs – no macho posturing for him:

‘No, thanks’ – as Wimsey advanced to carry the kettle – ‘I’m quite capable of carrying six pints of water.’

‘Crushed again!’ said Wimsey.

‘Eiluned disapproves of conventional courtesies between the sexes,’ said Marjorie.

‘Very well,’ replied Wimsey, amiably.  ‘I will adopt an attitude of passive decoration.’

And yet…Let us be clear, I enjoy these books and always find them entertaining.  But with the introduction of Harriet, I also find myself a little unsettled.  Peter’s pursuit of Harriet is determined and, in the face of Harriet’s repeated assertions that she will not marry him, that becomes a little disturbing.  And there was one statement that drew me up short:

‘…I say,’ said Wimsey, ‘that it would be better for her to be hanged outright than to live and have everybody think her a murderess who got off by a fluke.’

This seems a little out-of-character for Peter and it seems a sentiment that is more focused on his feelings than Harriet’s.  Peter can easily incorporate a wife who has been cleared of wrongdoing into his privileged world but one who still has the stain of notoriety would be a rather different matter.  This statement seems fixed on his concerns, rather than Harriet’s.  Yes, she is a proud woman but would she really prefer to be dead?  To be alive and free might appeal more to the prisoner herself.

In the end – thanks to the extraordinary assistance of Bunter and Miss Climpson – the true murderer is discovered and Harriet is freed.  All is well and we end the book with Peter still determined to marry Harriet and Harriet perhaps feeling a little more inclined in his favour.  But we’ve another five books for that story to play out across…

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Like many other people this week, I am viewing the 1930 Club as the perfect excuse to reread The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield.  This begs the question, does one ever really need an excuse to read such a perfect book?  No but I took it anyways.

For the uninitiated (are there any of you?  Is it possible that the Venn diagram of people who read my blog and people who have read the Provincial Lady does not directly overlap?), the Provincial Lady is a devoted diarist who chronicles the small goings in her life over the course of a year.  The PL lives in the country with her husband Robert (a land agent), her six-year-old daughter Vicky, and, when he is not away at school, her son Robin.  They are attended by the standard indispensable household staff for an interwar middle-class household, include Mademoiselle, Cook, a maid, and a gardener.  Life is not hard but it has its trials and they are (mostly) all amusing.

With a mono-syllabic husband who is more likely to fall asleep with his copy of The Times after dinner than make sparkling conversation, the PL pours most of her thoughts into her diary.  She aspires to cultural and social refinements but, to her disappointment, is always falling a bit short.  She can’t quite find the enthusiasm to read the books she knows she ought to read.  When in town, she swears she wants to see the exhibitions everyone else is talking about, but prefers to spend her time shopping for things she can’t afford.  She can’t seem to win the literary contests she enters, even though clearly stupider friends and relations manage to do so.  She struggles to be modern (particularly when it comes to parenting), well-dressed (always a challenge on her budget), and many other things, always falling a bit short.

Where she doesn’t fall short is with her writing.  The PL’s style is distinctive and has been copied ad nauseum since she appeared (Bridget Jones being her most famous descendant) and you can understand why.  Brevity is the soul of wit and her sentences are masterfully short with great effect.  Most winningly, she leaves herself notes and questions in her diaries for further reflection, highlighting her insecurities and random trains of thoughts, and giving us a much better sense of her personality than most verbose novelists could do.

But the best way to get to know the PL is through her own words.  I find she is always at her best when discussing the children.  Lamentably, they are neither as attractive nor as angelic as other people’s children appear to be, which she feels reflects badly on her.  Vicky and Robin are reassuringly irritating and arguably the best things about the book:

December 1st – Cable from dear Rose saying she lands at Tilbury on 10th.  Cable back welcome, and will meet her Tilbury, 10th.  Tell Vicky that her godmother, my dearest friend, is returning home after three years in America.  Vicky says: “Oh, will she have a present for me?”  Am disgusted with her mercenary attitude and complain to Mademoiselle, who replies Si la Sainte Vierge revenait sur la terre, madame, ce serait notre petite Vicky.  Do not at all agree with this.  Moreover, in other moods Mademoiselle first person to refer to Vicky as ce petit démon enragé.

(Query: Are the Latin races always as sincere as one would wish them to be?)

December 24th – Take entire family to children’s party at neighbouring Rectory.  Robin says Damn three times in the Rector’s hearing, an expression never used by him before or since, but apparently reserved for this unsuitable occasion.

The PL also saves some of her frustration for Robert, but I have a soft spot for him so feel this is largely unearned.  Robert is a solid, predictable man who does not share his wife’s cultural pretensions but tolerates them (I think) remarkably well.  He is decidedly not a figure of high romance – however much the PL might sometimes wish him to be:

December 10th – Read Life and Letters of distinguished woman recently dead, and am struck, as so often, by difference between her correspondence and that of less distinguished women.  Immense and affectionate letters from celebrities on every other page, epigrammatic notes from literary and political acquaintances, poetical assurances of affection and admiration from husband, and even infant children.  Try to imagine Robert writing in similar strain in the (improbable) event of my attaining celebrity, but fail.  Dear Vicky equally unlikely to commit her feelings (if any) to paper.

April 12th – …Final straw is added when Lady B. amiably observes that I, at least, have nothing to complain of, as she always thinks Robert such a safe, respectable husband for any woman.  Give her briefly to understand that Robert is in reality a compound of Don Juan, the Marquis de Sade, and Dr Crippen, but that we do not care to let it be known locally.

I do find that the book is best when the PL is focused on her family.  E.M. Delafield has young children herself at this stage who clearly provided endless inspiration for Vicky and Robin’s most obnoxious behaviours. (N.B. Delafield’s daughter wrote Provincial Daughter as a 1950s response to her mother’s book.)  When the PL turns her sights to her social circle, the humour lags a bit.  Yes, she is still amusing in her pretensions and frustrations but I like her most when she is exasperated rather than insecure.

I like her least of all when she reminds me of how incompetent she is with money.  She is always short of funds: the pawnbroker knows her well and her banker dreads her visits to have her overdraft extended.  It’s never entirely clear if this is a family-wide issue (if so, Robert is remarkably sanguine, though he does know about the pawnbroker) or just the PL’s particular cross to bear.  What is clear is that she should not be allowed near money as every time she has any – or the promise of any – she spends it quickly and uselessly.  I can love her for her other foibles but this one leaves me twisted into anxious knots.

The Provincial Lady never disappoints and it was a delight to revisit her again.  But, by the end, it’s also a relief to leave her.  She is not a restful person – always aspiring to something that she can never reach, always feeling inadequate for some silly reason – and it’s refreshing to leave her behind and return to a more well-ordered world.

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The greatest pleasure of feeling a bit under the weather is picking reading material to match your frail state.  No weighty tomes or complex sentence structure here please!  Just straightforward storytelling that will capture an invalid’s attention without wearing them out.

Enter Ten Way Street by Susan Scarlett.

Scarlett (the penname under which Noel Streatfeild wrote a dozen light romances – see previous reviews of Under the Rainbow, Babbacombe’s, and Pirouette) is always reliable in these circumstances and Ten Way Street fitted my mood perfectly.  Wrapped up with blankets and with a constant stream of tea to keep me hydrated, I fell into the undemanding story with pleasure.

Ten Way Street is the London address of Mrs Cardew.  Better known by her stage name of Miss Margot Dale, Mrs Cardew is a genius in the theatre but a tyrant at home where her three children (Meggie, age 12; Betsy, age 10; and David, age 7) are at the mercy of her self-obsessed whims.  Having pulled the children out of their day schools after clashing with teachers, Mrs Cardew has engaged newly qualified governess Beverley Shaw to take care of them.

For Beverley, used to the pleasant but austere orphanage where she grew up, the Cardew household is  a shock.  The children have been brought up as accessories to their mother and are dressed up and trotted out to show off in a way that boggles her mind.  They are used to fur accessories, exquisite clothing, and caviar.  What they are not used to is an adult who cares about them.  Beverley, of course, is that adult.

Streatfeild wrote often about actors and their world, inspired by her own decade-long acting career, and she was rarely kind.  Mrs Cardew is all things horrible but, for most of the book, seems at least plausible.  It seems sad but realistic that she would prefer to spend her time lavishing attention on male callers rather than her children, or that she would have little patience with childish ailments and insecurities.  The household exists in a state of nervous exhaustion, ever sensitive to Mrs Cardew’s unpredictable moods, and the strain shows on everyone – especially the children.  But they are all quick to excuse her for she is, when the mood strikes her, a Genius on stage.

Beverley, however, doesn’t think Genius excuses Mrs Cardew’s behaviour towards her children.  In best governess-school style, Beverley sets out to get the children on a proper diet (no more gorging on caviar) and on a proper school schedule (no more jetting off to dress fittings if she can help it).  She gives them what they need – attention and discipline – and, to the surprise of absolutely no one, they slowly turn from obnoxious brats into completely normal, lovable children.

An admiring witness to this transformation is Peter Crewdson.  Invalided back to England after contracting black-water fever in Deepest, Darkest Africa, Peter is a young biochemist who has inadvertently become the object of Mrs Cardew’s very determined affections.  Originally a friend of the children, Mrs Cardew “stole” him from them (something they are resigned to – this is not the first time their mother has stolen one of their male friends) but he still manages to break away to the nursery to visit them.  Which is where he meets Beverley.  Naturally enough, the two sensible young people fall in love but all is not well.  How will Mrs Cardew react when she discovers the governess has stolen the man she loves?  And how can Bevelery even think of leaving the children who are just beginning to blossom under her care?

The ending is extraordinarily melodramatic but, after a few scuffles and a runaway attempt, all is resolved in a neat happy ending.  It’s not great literature but it is exactly right for a reader with a head cold.

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For me and many other Canadians (and enlightened Americans living near the border), one of the much-anticipated pleasures of the holiday season for many years was listening to Stuart McLean debut a new Christmas story on his CBC radio show.  You knew you could tune in and spend half an hour that would lead you from collapsing with hysterical laughter to blinking back surprisingly emotional tears.  It was a wonderful tradition.

Stuart passed away from cancer in February 2017 so intellectually I know there are no more stories coming.  But emotionally, I know nothing of the sort.  I long for his characteristically humorous and touching stories this time of the year and, even if Stuart is no longer around to read them, we still have his books to keep us company.  And so, earlier this week, I found myself reaching for Home from the Vinyl Café.

Published in 1998, this was Stuart’s second volume of Vinyl Café stories.  The Vinyl Café was the name of his radio program but it was also the name of the record shop run by Dave, the hapless hero of his stories.  Dave, his wife Morley, and their children, Stephanie and Sam, were the focus of twenty-odd years of radio stories as Stuart chronicled their lives in a normal Toronto neighbourhood with stories of neighbourhood rivalries and friendships, social faux pas (something Dave was particularly subject too), Stephanie and Sam’s growing pains and Dave and Morley’s nostalgia for their own childhoods.  They were wonderful stories and this book is a particularly wonderful collection of them.

It begins with the first – and one of the very best – of the Vinyl Café Christmas stories: “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  This appears to be available on the CBC website (here – this story starts around 24:30) so if you’re able to listen, go now and do so.  It will be time well spent.  Just make sure you’re somewhere you can laugh uproariously without alarming too many people.  Dave’s wife Morley, after years of carrying the burden of all the holiday preparations as well as the day-to-day administering of their busy family, accepts Dave’s offer to help with Christmas this year: Dave can cook the turkey.  He commits, happy to make a small offering towards marital harmony, but realises only on Christmas Eve that he has forgotten to buy the turkey.  Determined to have the perfect Christmas dinner ready for his family (who are conveniently out of the house volunteering for most of Christmas day), he uses all of his ingenuity to acquire and cook a bird.  But the path he takes is far from conventional and the results are hysterically funny.

The next story in the collection is one of my all-time favourites and could not be more different from “Dave Cooks the Turkey”.  “Holland” tells the story of how Dave and Morley met in the 1970s and their early married life.  It’s a story about the struggles to combine lives and traditions, and the work – and love, and patience – that is required to make that happen.  It’s a beautiful story and one that has stayed fresh in my mind ever since I first heard all those years ago.  Someone has helpfully uploaded it to YouTube so you can listen here (it’s been split into two parts).

There are some other equally classic stories in this book – “Burd”, about what happens when a rare bird decides to winter in Dave and Morley’s backyard, and “Polly Anderson’s Christmas Party”, which involves an awkward neighbourhood gathering and a mix up with the eggnog bowls – but others I’d forgotten.  So many of the stories look at the anxiety Dave and Morley feel as parents, worrying about Sam and music lessons, or Stephanie and teenage romances, and they show what Stuart could do so well: make fun of the little things while always staying true to the heart of the matter.

I love these stories.  I have read them countless times and I will read them countless more, alongside all the other volumes of Stuart’s books.  They bring me great pleasure at this and any other time of year and I hope, if they’re not already a part of your life, you will give them a try.  I can’t imagine them not bringing you joy.

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After reading Anne of Green Gables in July, I was reminded of an eternal truth about books in a series: you can never read just one.  Or at least I can’t, particularly when it is this series which so dominated my childhood reading.  How could I leave Anne after just one book?  So I read on, quickly progressing through first Anne of Avonlea and then Anne of the Island.

Anne of Avonlea is an odd book or perhaps it is just a very typical second book, written in a rush to capitalise on the extraordinary success of Anne of Green Gables.  Published in 1909, only a year after Anne’s debut, Montgomery seems to have lost her sense of humour – and her sense of characterization.  When the first book ended, Anne was maturing and recognizing (with humour) her tendency towards indulging in overly dramatic flights of fancy.  In this book, she embraces those melodramatic tendencies wholeheartedly, becomes dreamier than ever without ever really coming back down to earth, and is insufferably condescending to her more prosaic friends.  She has relapsed to a stage which readers of the first book thought she had outgrown and no one benefits from it.  (There is a very good discussion of this in The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass by Elizabeth Rollins Epperly.)

The book still has its moments but Montgomery, desperately short of plot ideas, covers by introducing new characters at every turn.  We meet Mr Harrison, a grouchy farmer with a foul-mouthed parrot; Davy and Dora, twin relatives who Marilla takes in after they are orphaned; Paul Irving, the most sickeningly sweet child ever written; and Miss Lavendar, who is even more prone to silly fantasies than Anne.  None of these count as improvements to Avonlea society, as far as I’m concerned.

As usual, it is Anne’s humblest adventures that are the most entertaining.  Montgomery writing about ethereal fantasies and really anything involving Paul Irving is insufferable.  Montgomery writing about village gossip is delightful.  The disastrous repainting of the church is one of the book’s greatest moments and Anne’s horror at having to strap one of her misbehaving students – and then find he respects her more for it, thereby crushing all her high ideals – is marvellous.  And these moments are made better because they offer not just Anne’s perspective but a whole array of them, from besotted but still level-headed Gilbert Blythe, from sharp tongued Rachel Lynde, and from quietly amused Marilla.

If Anne of Avonlea is both frustrating and disappointing, Anne of the Island, happily, is an entirely different experience.

Published in 1915, Montgomery has several years to figure out how to next approach Anne’s story (and to write many sentimental stories and novels to expunge her overly dramatic tendencies).  The result is the 2nd best book in the series and one of the most important books of my childhood.

The novel covers Anne’s four years of college, which takes her away from Avonlea and from Prince Edward Island entirely, over to Redmond College in Kingsport, Nova Scotia (a fictionalised version of Dalhousie University in Halifax, where Montgomery studied).  She is accompanied by some familiar faces, Charlie Sloane and Gilbert Blythe, and joins up with friends Priscilla Grant and Stella Maynard, who she met at teacher’s school in Anne of Green Gables.  And, most importantly, she makes two very important new friends over her four years: Philippa Gordon and Roy Gardner.

Roy Gardner enters Anne’s life during her third year of college, an answer to all of her romantic fantasies.  Having by this point survived – and rebuffed – multiple marriage proposals (most very easily, with due horror, but one with great pain) since none of the men matched her vision of a future husband, it is almost too perfect when Roy appears in the midst of a rainstorm, perfection made flesh:

Tall and handsome and distinguished-looking – dark, melancholy, inscrutable eyes – melting, musical, sympathetic voice – yes, the very hero of her dreams stood before her in the flesh. He could not have more closely resembled her ideal if he had been made to order.

But ideal men aren’t very interesting – a fact the reader recognizes long before Anne.  Roy is clearly a red herring but it is easy to understand why a wealthy, worldly, handsome man who adores her has so much appeal.  He is so far removed from the Avonlea boys she’s grown up with, although the Redmond girls seem to think the Avonlea boys have a certain appeal, especially handsome, intelligent, and determined Gilbert Blythe, now studying to become a doctor.  Really, there is no doubt that Anne and Gilbert will end up together but my god does Montgomery put her readers through an emotional rollercoaster before that happy ending comes.

The other character of note is the marvellous Philippa Gordon.  I loved everything about this book as a child but it has only been on rereading it as an adult that I’ve recognized how much Philippa enriches the story.  Philippa is a contradiction from her very first introduction: a beauty from a wealthy Nova Scotian family, she could have married well (to her choice of suitor – both Alec and Alonzo are waiting for her still) but chose instead to come and study mathematics at university.  Despite an active social schedule through all four years, Philippa handles her academics with aplomb and sits at the top of the class.  And, perhaps most importantly, she can do what Anne cannot do: acknowledge when she is wrong, recognize a chance at happiness, and go after it with all her considerable energy and determination.

Phil and Anne approach their romances from very different perspectives.  Anne has dreamed of her ideal man for years.  She knows just what he will look like, has devoted considerable time to composing his perfect speeches, and can envision an idyllic future spent staring into one another’s eyes.  For her, the idea that Roy Gardner, her fantasy made flesh, won’t be as satisfying a life partner as Gilbert Blythe, her intellectual equal who would rather work beside her than worship her, is one she fights against.  She has a fixed vision and it is one that she sticks to.  When she finally consults her heart, it is almost too late.

Phil, on the other hand, never believed in romance.  She believed in marriage, certainly, and expected that one day she would marry one of the rich young men from her social circle and settle down to a life like the one she’d always lived.  Her time at Redmond is her way of postponing – at least for four years – having to decide which of the interchangeable eligible young men she will accept.  She throws herself into university life and has a marvellous time.  But then something changes.  She meets Jonas Blake, an awkward young minister, and that’s it.  Jonas is exactly the sort of man Phil has always joked about not being tempted by – ugly, poor, and far from at ease in company – but she falls in love almost immediately.  And when Jonas doesn’t dare to think she could be interested in him, she makes it very clear that she is.  Phil, knowing what she wants, is not going to let her chance at happiness slip away.

Nor is she about to let Anne do the same.  Marilla and Rachel Lynde may want to tell Anne that she is making a mistake by rejecting Gilbert, but they don’t.  Phil, on the other hand, is more than ready to do so.  Repeatedly.  For years.  Phil is not afraid of a little blunt talking and I love her for it.  As a child who found Anne too whimsical and Diana too timid, Phil was the first Montgomery character – and one of the first literary characters – I ever truly identified with.  And that hasn’t change remotely in the 23 years that have passed since I first encountered her.

Anne of the Island isn’t quite as good as Anne of Green Gables but it is close.  I could write about it endlessly but I’ll save that for another day.  I’ve read it countless times already and I shall certainly return to it again.  And again.  And again…

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Five years ago in the late and lamented Slightly Foxed bookshop in Gloucester Road, I picked up Rosabelle Shaw by D.E. Stevenson (alongside a handful of other books).  I’d discovered D.E.S. a few years before but had never heard of this title.  I assumed it was obscure for good reason (already recognizing the varied quality of D.E.S.’s output) but for a meager £4 wanted to find out for myself.  So home it came with me only to languish for five years unread until I picked it up this August when I was home sick with a cold.

Unusually for D.E.S., this is a historical piece.  Opening in Edinburgh in the 1890s, we meet vivacious young Fanny who has caught the eye of the steady, determined farmer John Shaw.  The two are soon wed and Fanny finds herself living on John’s well-managed farm in East Lothian, unsure how to handle both rural life and marriage.  So far familiar stuff for fans of D.E.S.  Fanny is sweet and charming and finds a friend in the old local doctor and amusing – but useful – guidance in an old book.  The marriage is off to happy start and a daughter, Rosabelle, arrives followed a few years later by a son.

But the Shaw’s calm family life is disrupted by the arrival of a young boy, the only survivor of a mysterious shipwreck.  Saved by John Shaw, Fanny takes the orphaned child into her home and it is not long before the two are closely bonded.  Jay, the boy, grows into a jealous, calculating child and Fanny’s championing of him causes an understandable rift with John.  Her own children try to accept Jay as a sibling and playmate but his moody, brooding ways make it difficult.

The book then jumps forward to the eve of WWI.  Jay, uncharacteristically affable and forging a strong bond with his adopted father, is as dangerous as ever – especially to Rosabelle, who finds herself deeply attracted to him despite knowing how untrustworthy he is.  Meanwhile, her neighbour Tom watches with concern…

D.E.S. is hardly a known for her consistency but this is an unusually uneven novel, with abrupt mood changes and an embarrassingly loose plot with far too many cardboard characters.  And yet, that said, it was the perfect undemanding read for my sick day.  I loved the end of the book, with Rosabelle forging a friendly and loving partnership with Tom, having married him to provide a barrier from the alluring Jay but truly coming to love him.  It is the exact opposite of the highly dramatic scenes with Jay and far more in keeping with D.E.S.’s usual style, which she was still developing in 1937 when this was first published.  She’d only written a handful of books then and hadn’t yet settled into the light romances she would do so capably for the next three decades.  She still had a bit of melodrama left to get out of her system – Rochester’s Wife was published in 1940 – but it’s clear her lighter side was trying to break through while writing this.  The result is messy but a very interesting read for any D.E.S. fan.

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I try to be a broadminded reader.  I like to try new authors, read topics I know nothing about, and sample different genres.  But the one genre I’ve never been able to take much interest in is crime. This could be because a) I have no idea what distinguishes crime novels from mysteries so am happy to lump them both together under the heading of “Things I Do Not Much Like” and b) I have absolutely no appetite for anything violent.   I don’t find it difficult to read, I just don’t see the point.  My desire for cliffhangers and uncertainty is nil.  So, while I’ve admired the stylish British Library Crime Classics that have been released over the last few years, I’ve never felt tempted to pick one up.  Never, that is, until I heard about Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville.

So what made this one different?  The premise sounded mildly interesting – a young man, our hero Jim Henderson, is invited to a house party hosted by Mr. Carson, a mysterious and decidedly shady jewel expert.  But Jim doesn’t know the host and he and the other guests have nothing in common.  Why are they there and what is in store for them?  When I do dabble in the genre, I enjoy a good country house mystery so the omens seemed good.  But what was even more promising was the book’s introduction, which stresses Melville’s admiration of A.A. Milne’s work, particularly The Red House Mystery, and the strong influence of Milne’s style on this work.  After that, I had to read it. (And I also had to muse about Melville’s chosen penname.  Did he chose Alan in homage to Alan Milne?)

The story was published in 1934, when Melville was in his mid-twenties.  His hero, Jim Henderson, feels about that age but is actually a decade older and, after having served in the war, has spent several years struggling to find work.  When we meet him, he is unemployed but optimistic despite his lack of marketable skills, as noted in his frank self-assessment:

Pleasant and extremely good-looking young man, aged thirty-four, possessing no talents or accomplishments beyond being able to give an imitation of Gracie Fields giving an imitation of Galli-Curci, with no relations and practically no money, seeks job

Though lacking in resources, Jim possesses that which is most important for the hero of any sort of mystery/thriller: an entertaining side-kick, in this case his old school friend, Freddie Usher.  Freddie is a well-heeled chap, in possession of a sporty car, family heirlooms, and a great deal of leisure time.  But his main value to us is as someone for Jim to exchange Milne-esque dialogue with, as when Jim asks for the loan of Freddie’s evening clothes:

“Sorry, old man.  It’s impossible.”

“But, Freddie…”

“Impossible.  Quite imposs.”

“Remember we were at school together.”

“Which merely shows a lack of discretion on the part of my parents, and has nothing whatever to do with the present question.”

Freddie, like all of Carson’s guests except the penniless and decidedly jewel-less Jim, is encouraged to bring his jewels along with him – in this case, the Usher diamonds.  Not fishy at all.  Alongside the two young men, the party is made up of a varied and mostly forgettable mix of people – the only exceptions being Lady Stone, a redoubtable doyen of charitable causes, and Carson’s lovely daughter Mary.  And lurking in the background are Carson’s household staff, bruisers all of them.  The weekend promises to be interesting.

And it is, mildly.  I had fun reading this – the effortless pacing and snappy dialogue made it a quick read.  But the plot itself is rather silly and a bit all over the place and the ending is marred by an overly dramatic reveal that serves no value at all.  All in all, a pleasant but unmemorable foray into the unknown.  It hasn’t made me one jot more interested in crime or mystery books but that would have been too much to expect from such a slight book.

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