Archive for the ‘Mystery’ Category

It is indeed December but, operating as usual on the concept of better late than never, I wanted to share thoughts on some of the books I read in October.  October was dominated by my trip to Europe and my two weeks there hiking in the mountains, wandering through galleries, and eating absolutely delicious food left little time for reading, but I made up for it once I was home.  It was a great reading month and there are a few contenders here for my year-end top ten list:

The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson (2004) – a comforting reread of one of Ibbotson’s best children’s books.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell (2022) – there is always excitement around a new release from O’Farrell and this is solid storytelling, but not to the excellent level O’Farrell is capable of.  It is the story of Lucrezia de’ Medici, who became the duchess of Ferrara and died at sixteen – of illness, or was it poison at the hands of her husband?  Lucrezia is a distant personality but the only fully-formed character in the book, which proved challenging for me to engage with the story.  The ending was very frustrating and felt cheap, making for an unsatisfying experience all round.

The Winners by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith (2022) – Powerfully concluding the trilogy which began with Beartown (one of my favourite a few years ago), I fell deep into this book, even dreaming about it, in part because the characters are so well known to me now but mostly because this hockey-mad northern community has always felt so real.  Backman told us in the first book the fates of several characters and it was immensely satisfying, if heartbreaking, to follow them on that journey.

Horizon by Helen MacInnes (1945) – MacInnes’ thriller focuses on a British PoW who, after escaping from his camp, finds himself living in the Dolomites and helping Tyrolean resistance fighters who, despite a common language, feel only hatred for the Germans.  It’s a flimsy plot with shallow characters and usually I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it but MacInnes does a good job of evoking the stunning setting and the fierce sense of a regional identify separate from either Austria or Italy.  Reading it while in the South Tyrol, only a short distance from the plateau where much of the story is set, also added to my enjoyment.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler (1982) – a typically excellent Tyler novel about a Baltimore family, told from the perspectives of various members and tracking them from the children’s youths to middle age.  And, as usual, bleak.  I feel like Tyler has relented a little as she’s aged but I’m not sure that she believed happy families existed when she was younger.

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson (2022) – a new book from Atkinson is always a cause for rejoicing but this exceeded even my expectations.  Set in the 1920s, Atkinson focuses on missing girls, London nightclubs, and the people caught up on both sides of the law.  She turns phrases so easily and artfully that you can’t help but be delighted and knows how to manage a large cast amidst tangled plot threads better than any other modern writer I can think of.  I loved every word of this.

The Trials of Topsy by A.P. Herbert (1928) – a comic joy.  Full review here.

A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson (1985) – what better to turn to while jetting home than an old familiar favourite?  For someone who hates airplanes, this was the perfect distraction and comfort.  Here’s a proper review from ten years ago.

The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik (2022) – I was so excited to see how Novik would conclude her “Scholomance” trilogy after loving the first two books, but had to force myself through this.  With graduation now behind her, our heroine El finds herself travelling the globe and Novik loses the world and constraints she built up so well in earlier books set within the school.  Without that tight focus, the story sprawls in every sense of the word, with new characters introduced every few pages as El journeys from one magical community to another.  There are altogether too many dramatic “twists” and, in a series that has always felt mislabelled as adult rather than YA, the entire approach felt geared towards juvenile readers with its neat and bloodless tidying up.  Disappointing.

The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews (2022)Matthews has been a relatively recent discovery for me (thanks to other book bloggers) and I’m loving her gentle historical romances.  This is the second in her “Belles of London” series, which started enjoyably earlier this year with The Siren of Sussex.  I liked that book but I loved this one about a marriage of convenience.  Our heroine Julia, the quiet daughter of demanding invalid parents, and hero Captain Blunt, a veteran of the Crimea who is scandalously raising his bastard children, were introduced in the earlier book and immediately intrigued me but this still managed to exceed my expectations.  The secrets are obvious from the start, so there’s no real Gothic tension (just as I like it), and the story is full of the tenderness Matthews does so well.  If you haven’t tried Matthews yet, her North and South-inspired novella, A Holiday by Gaslight, is perfect seasonal reading.

The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken (2022) – Nancy Pearl put me on to McCracken and I’ve read three of her books this year, impressed each time with her style and readability.  This is autofiction, which is strange to me at the best of times, but if anyone can convert me it is McCracken with her excellent and entertaining writing.  I especially loved this description of her grandmother:

My grandmother was a nonpracticing lawyer, not the first woman to graduate from Benjamin Harrison Law School in Indianapolis but the only one in the class of 1927.  She was president of her sisterhood, traveled as a public speaker, needlepointed, knit, took photographs and developed them, was a small-business consultant, silk-screened tablecloths, once built a table, and still had time to worry too much.  Somewhere there’s a picture of me in a sweater set of such burlappy awfulness, steel wool to the eye as well as the skin, so cunningly unflattering to every proportion of the short, plump 1980s teenager I was, you would have thought it had been designed as a specific punishment, not knit out of love, though she did love me, which is why the photo exists: She wanted me to pose engulfed in proof.

Ducks by Kate Beaton (2022) – a superb graphic memoir about Beaton’s time working in the oilsands of Northern Alberta.  She does a wonderful job of evoking the strangeness of the camps – where everyone is from somewhere else and no one particularly wants to be there – and how it alters people, rarely for the better.  It is a hard place to be a woman and this may be the best account of sexual assault I’ve read.

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by Louise Perry (2022) – such an interesting book to read following Ducks – an unintentional pairing but a very appropriate one.  Perry, who has spent time working in rape crisis centers in the UK, lays out the ways in which women have been disadvantaged by the sexual revolution.  Well-researched, well-argued, and full of common sense, she’s not delivering a particularly new message but one that we clearly need to be reminded of over and over again.  There is an excellent review of it in the Guardian if you want further enticement.

Miss Bishop by Bess Streeter Aldrich (1933) – I don’t think Aldrich can be called neglected but would under-appreciated be the right word?  Her books aren’t very hard to find, A Lantern in Her Hand remains a standard in school libraries, and Miss Bishop was adapted fairly loyally into the film “Cheers for Miss Bishop”, and yet I don’t think she’s as popular as her excellent stories of Midwestern pioneers warrant.  Here, she gives readers a wonderful account of the life of Ella Bishop, from her entry into a brand new midwestern college at the age of sixteen until her retirement from that same school fifty years later.  Aldrich handles all the joy and sadness beautifully, as Ella’s life evolves very differently from what she had envisioned.  As always with Aldrich, the sense of community is excellent.

The Forbidden Valley by Essie Summers (1973) – what a very dramatic title for a quintessential Summers romance.  Our heroine Charlotte is shocked to hear her cousin Phyl has disappeared, leaving her two children without explanation as well as her new husband, who, unbeknownst to her, was injured the day she left and is lying unconscious in hospital.  Charlotte takes up the post of housekeeper to keep an eye on the children and figure out what is actually going on, though she hadn’t accounted for the immediate rapport with Edmund, Phyl’s brother-in-law who rushed home after his brother’s accident and is ill disposed towards the feckless Phyl, whom he has never met.   There are far, far too many secrets – when in doubt of how to create conflict, always add another secret! – but it was still a fun story to pass an afternoon with.

I’ve Got the One-More-Washload Blues by Lynn Johnston (1981) – I came back from vacation to discover the paper has entirely changed the comics section but one happy result is that they have brought back “For Better or For Worse”, which ran for almost thirty years from 1979 to 2008 and chronicled the lives of Elly, Anthony and their children.  This collection took me back to the comic’s early years when the children were young and their parents were losing their minds.

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It is 1884 and thirty-two-year-old spinster Amelia Peabody, having inherited a modest fortune from her scholarly father, has set out to finally see some of the world.  Full (some might say overfull) of confidence in her vast knowledge, quick-wittedness, and moral superiority, she has bludgeoned her away across Europe – maid and companion unhappily in tow – and arrived in Rome.

And it is in Rome that her story, Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters, begins:

When I first set eyes on Evelyn Barton-Forbes she was walking the streets of Rome – (I am informed, by the self-appointed Critic who reads over my shoulder as I write, that I have already committed an error.  If those seemingly simple English words do indeed imply that which I am told they imply to the vulgar, I must in justice to Evelyn find other phrasing.)

In justice to myself, however, I must insist that Evelyn was doing precisely what I have said she was doing, but with no ulterior purpose in mind.  Indeed, the poor girl had no purpose and no means of carrying it out if she had.  Our meeting was fortuitous, but fortunate.  I had, as I have always had, purpose enough for two.

What follows is a perfect homage to Victorian adventure novels, with exotic settings, dastardly villains, sweet young lovers, a deadly threat…and Amelia.

Amelia is the masterstroke.  She is bold and forceful and often right but frequently entertainingly blind to that which is directly in front of her.  Peters has great fun in making this clear to the reader even as Amelia, our narrator, remains ignorant.

After learning of Evelyn’s tragic circumstances (but also her impeccable lineage), Amelia becomes determined to take care of her.  Evelyn, far, far, far more rational than Amelia, points out that this seems inadvisable:

‘I might be a criminal!  I might be vicious – unprincipled!’

‘No, no,’ I said calmly. ‘I have been accused of being somewhat abrupt in my actions and decisions, but I never act without thought; it is simply that I think more quickly and more intelligently than most people.  I am an excellent judge of character.  I could not be deceived about yours.’

Evelyn, starving and destitute, has her rescuer and Amelia finally has some colour in a life that has been far too quiet for far too many years.

Together the ladies continue on to Egypt where Peters, an Egyptologist, quickly and entertainingly guides us through the major tourist sights, presents to us the noted archaeologists of the day, and, most importantly, introduces us to two young men, the brothers Radcliffe and Walter Emerson.  Walter and Evelyn are immediately dazzled by one another’s good looks, sweet personalities, and overall aura of kindness.  Like Amelia, you can only look on in approval.  Elder brother Radcliffe, generally called by his surname, and Amelia have a different and far more combative initial impact on one another.

Amelia and Evelyn set out in a dahabeya to cruise the Nile and coincidentally (nothing is coincidental when Amelia is involved) find themselves visiting the site the Emerson brothers are excavating.  Soon they are an integral part of the excavation team, which is thrilling enough, but then mysterious things begin to happen.  Can the ghostly shape that seems to be disturbing them in the night truly be a mummy?  No.  Even they know that.  Most of the time. But the truth is as sinister as any true Victorian pulp novelist could have wished.

I read this book first in my early teens and didn’t appreciate it.  I was still at a stage in my reading when I wanted protagonists to be relatable.  Amelia was so old (how things change!) and rigid and didn’t she know how ridiculous she was?  I put it down without thinking of reading on.

I came back to it in my late teens as though it was an entirely different book.  It wasn’t but I was an entirely different person, one who was finally capable of appreciating Peters’ comic brilliance.  I adored it and read on through the entire series (or at least the seventeen books that were then available).

The series is fantastic and I’m thinking of rereading it in full this year.  Amelia mellows with time, which is necessary to sustain our sympathy for several decades, and other enticing characters are introduced, but the freshness of Crocodile on the Sandbank does fade away a little.  Other pleasures replace it (young Ramses!  Older Ramses!) but Peters was free to have such fun with this first book and it shows.  It is never anything but a delight to reread it.

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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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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.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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photo via author's website

photo via author’s website

I was sad to hear of the passing of Barbara Mertz at the age of 85 on August 8th but only as sad as you can be about the death of a woman who has lived to a ripe old age and written more books than the world has the right to demand of any one author.  I love her Amelia Peabody series (written under her most famous pseudonym, Elizabeth Peters) but have only just begun to sample her other books.

I have never read any of the gothic, supernatural novels that Mertz wrote as Barbara Michaels nor have I read the more scholarly non-fiction that Mertz, who earned a PhD in Egyptology, wrote under her own name.  But for many years I have been an admirer of her most famous creation, that parasol-wielding terror of the desert, Amelia Peabody Emerson.  I wasn’t an immediate fan; I remember starting Crocodile on the Sandbank, the first book in the 19 volume series, a few times in my early teens and giving up in frustration.  Amelia, forceful and blunt, was not the kind of instantly sympathetic heroine I was accustomed to and it took a few more years until I could appreciate her unique charms.  In the summer of 2005, I read all of the 17 books published at that point, one after the other.  It was a bit mad but it was wonderful to be immersed for so long in Peters’ Egypt, tracking the changes in both the country and Amelia’s family over the almost forty-year period that the books cover.

He Shall Thunder in the SkyThe Falcon at the PortalThis summer, I reread two of my favourite books from the Amelia Peabody series while I was travelling in Europe: The Falcon at the Portal and He Shall Thunder in the Sky.  These books are set between 1911 and 1915 and, as fans will know, their appeal has less to do with Amelia than with her dashing son Ramses.  When younger, Ramses was one of those precocious children who are either delightful or infuriating depending on your mood.  Grown up, Ramses is proper brooding action hero material, always engaged in dangerous covert activities.  These books are just as swoon-y as I remember them being (which is to say very) though the bleak ending of The Falcon at the Portal has always made me happy that I discovered the books long after the rest of the series was available.  How did fans endure the wait for He Shall Thunder in the Sky and the longed-for happy ending?

Legend in Green VelvetImmediately after reading those two books, I had my first delightful encounter with one of Peters’ early stand-alone mysteries.  Legend in Green Velvet was published in 1976 and though it is a little rough around the edges and more madcap than I’m usually prepared to tolerate, it was great fun.  Susan, an American archaeology student obsessed with all things Scottish, finds herself in trouble almost as soon as she arrives in Scotland.  After receiving a mysterious note from a man who is later found murdered, Susan becomes an object of interest to both the police and an odd group of people who seem to want her dead as well.  In the company of Jamie Erskine, a handsome young Scot, Susan finds herself fleeing through the hills and hiding in the heather in a delightful send-up of all those novels that take an overly romantic view of Scotland and Scottish history.  I could not stop giggling while I read this, which is always a good sign.  Peters writes marvellous banter and Jamie is a fabulous non-alpha hero (another thing, I’m learning, Peters excelled at).

Devil May CareBut as much as I enjoyed Legend in Green Velvet, Devil May Care, released in 1977, was even better.  It has equally well-written banter, an even better non-alpha hero, and the sort of easily explained away supernaturalism that even I can enjoy.  When Ellie comes to housesit at her Aunt Kate’s large home in Virginia, she is looking forward to being left alone with the cats and the dogs and, to be honest, having a bit of a break from her boring fiancé.  But when ghosts start appearing, all seemingly members of the town’s founding families, even the level-headed Ellie is a bit spooked.  With the help of Donald, a handsome young neighbour, and a few of Aunt Kate’s other friends, Ellie begins to work out what is going on.  It is wonderfully fun to read, especially the interactions between Ellie and Donald, and I can’t help but suspect that Peters, already an established author of suspense novels as Barbara Michaels, had great fun writing a satirical take on the genre.

With so many of Peters’ books left to discover, I can only feel thankful that she was so prolific as well as so talented.  She may be gone but I still have much of her legacy left to discover.

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I read Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie back in April and, I have to be honest, at this point I would be hard-pressed to tell you ‘whodunit’.  This is not one of her best works but it is very fun, like almost everything Christie wrote.

The story is quite outlandish: a fortune in jewels is smuggled out of an unstable Middle Eastern country in a schoolgirl’s tennis racquet, though the owner of the racquet has no idea what she carries.  The bulk of the action takes place at Meadowbank, the all-girls’ school where the tennis racquet and its owner reside during term time.  With several new teachers and new girls at the school, as well as a new gardener and suspicious visitors all milling about, there are plenty of suspects when murdered bodies begin showing up.  One clever student finally decides they need the help of an expert and so the famous Hercule Poirot arrives on the scene – in the final third of the novel.  He, of course, solves the mystery in his own precise and efficient manner though the cast of suspects is large and their motivations are wildly and unnecessarily complicated.

While the book is pretty ordinary over all, Christie excels at writing about Meadowbank.  The staff and their relationships are introduced with typically insightful details and the students felt like individuals, not just a mass of carbon copy school age girls.  They are allowed to be at very different stages of development, even the ones who are the same age, which is of course just what happens in real life.  Everyone in the story takes for granted that development varies by individual and that some fourteen year old girls may look and think like women while others are still entirely child-like.  I haven’t read enough Christie in the past few years to have really gotten a handle on her again and so I am always surprised and delighted by the frankness of some of her passages, particularly on topics like sex.

Written in 1959, the book’s spy element feels very much of its time but rather out of step with the dignified detection of M. Poirot.  Still, it adds an enjoyable dash of glamour to have Princesses, Sheikhs, and undercover intelligence operatives running about the story.  It is silly and fantastical but it also lets you know from the very first page that this is a story that is meant to purely entertain and bears even less relation to the real world than Christie’s other books.

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Having now read five of Jo Walton’s books, it’s probably time I said something about them.  But what to say?  They are all solidly entertaining and competently written yet, with each one, there was always something just a little off.  Sometimes I could pinpoint what that was; other times it was just a niggling sense while reading that something wasn’t working properly.  It wasn’t entirely distracting (except in Farthing, which I’ll talk about later) but it was certainly something I felt while reading each book.  Before I start picking things apart, do know that I did enjoy reading these and think they are fun, intelligent novels that I would heartily recommend to any reader.

I started with Tooth and Claw, which is absolutely my favourite of Walton’s books.  Both Ana and Marg wrote excellent, detailed reviews when they read it and it was their enthusiasm that led me to it in the first place.  Inspired by Anthony Trollope’s works, particularly Framley Parsonage, Walton has created a loyal tribute to the Victorian novel, opening at the deathbed of the family patriarch then moving on, like any good Victorian novel, to the ensuing feud and lawsuit over the will, the romantic concerns of the maiden daughters, the tense political machinations in one son’s city workplace and the crisis of conscious faced by the clergyman son, troubled by his father’s last confession.  The twist, as you’re almost certainly aware, is that all of the characters are dragons.

Honesty, I would have enjoyed this without the dragons (for I do love a nice, busy Victorian family drama) but the dragons add a touch of brilliance to an otherwise familiar story with even more familiar stock characters.  Around them, Walton has created a rich, rigid fantasy world, with social conventions every bit as strict as the Victorians’, a world made so much more fascinating by its originality.  I had been so sceptical going in (because, really, dragons?  In a Victorian-style novel?) but I was shocked by how quickly Walton pulled me into their world.  Within a few pages, it seemed perfectly natural that yes, these were dragons and of course this is how they behave.  Admittedly, a little more energy was put into creating a fascinating society than into original characters but I think it was a wise choice.  The characters and the dilemmas they face are familiar which, in a novel so full of the unfamiliar, anchors the reader.

From there, I moved on to Walton’s most recent book: Among Others.  Now, the first thing to love about this book is that the heroine, Morwenna Phelps, is a reader.  Before anything else, that is how she defines herself, which means the novel is full of glowing passages about books and libraries and their general wonderfulness (example: “Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization”).  Can’t complain about that.  Specifically, Mori is a huge fan of science fiction and there are a number of book-specific discussions that I am sure would delight anyone who shares her reading tastes.

The story begins with fifteen-year old Mori preparing to head off to boarding school while currently living with a father she barely knows and sinister, disapproving aunts.  Her twin sister is dead, Mori is crippled, and her mother is an evil witch, all of which adds something distinctly different to this story.  It is not every heroine who can commune with faeries.  The real interest and virtue here, though, lies in Morwenna’s intellectual development, mostly through her reading and her discussions with the book group she meets at the public library.  At school, she is a conscious outsider, generally happy to maintain her distance from and her prejudices about her classmates, but among her fellow readers, people who share her tastes in books, she comes alive.

I found Mori’s reading, her search for friends and her adjustment to her new school and her unknown father all very interesting but I’m not sure if the fantastic element of the book (encounters with faeries and her mother the witch) really added anything.  Mori spends a lot of time explaining (the book is in diary format) how evil her mother is and how she and Morganna had to stop her but the reader never really sees the evil Mori is so determined to destroy.  When Mori’s mother does appear, it felt bizarrely out of place.  In a novel that is so much about internal development, this external villain seemed awkwardly tacked on.

It is a gripping read – Walton has a special genius for writing in a way that makes it impossible to put the book down – but there was nothing about it that resonated with me, no character I became attached to, nothing that stood out as particularly memorable or special.  I know a lot of other readers adored this and found it amazing but that did not happen for me.  The only thing that really stands out in my memory is my frustration with Mori’s need to constantly assert that, though she attends a nice boarding school and her father lives in a nice house, they didn’t have money.  Why was it necessary to a.) make Daniel poor and dependent on his sisters, and b) have Mori be so ashamed of the appearance of wealth?  All the wealthy girls at the school are, unsurprisingly, disparaged.  I am so frustrated and disappointed when a writer stereotypes in this way.

Somewhat more sceptical after that, I started in on Walton’s Small Change trilogy.  Beginning in 1949, these books take place in post-war Britain but not as we know it.  In 1941, Britain made ‘Peace with Honour’ with Hitler, handing over complete control of the Continent, allowing the Reich to devote its energies to war with Russia, and creating a very different world from the one we live in.  British civil liberties have been distinctly curtailed, anti-Semitism is, if not officially condoned, then at least more blatant than ever before, and, within parliament, a set of politicians sympathetic to the style and aims of the Third Reich are seeking to gain more power, by any means – even murder.

Farthing, the first book in the trilogy, begins with the death of Sir James Thirkie, who, in 1941, was the architect of the Peace, at Farthing, the country house where the influential, semi-fascist politicians of the so-called Farthing set gather.  The married daughter of the house, Lucy Kahn, and her husband David had been unexpectedly invited to join the house party that weekend.  After the murder, it quickly becomes clear that David was invited so that the murder could be blamed on him.  As a Jewish person in an increasingly anti-Semitic Britain, he is the perfect scapegoat.

The book alternates between two perspectives: that of Lucy Kahn and of Scotland Yard Inspector Peter Carmichael.  Lucy’s babbling first-person narrative overwhelms the reader with significant details that the police are completely oblivious to, as Carmichael’s steady approach to the case turns up all the logical but misleading answers.  The two perspectives merge into one engrossing story, revealing not just the murderer but a society even more disturbing than the reader had imagined, where justice and truth have very little place.

But if Walton is clever with her pacing and her entwining of Lucy and Carmichael’s stories, she is completely lacking in subtlety.  If a point is going to be made, it is best to hammer it in five or six or more times in the most blatant language possible.  The most ridiculous example has to be Walton’s ‘casual’ insertion of homo- and bi-sexual characters (pretty much every second person who showed up).  Oh dear, it’s awkward and clumsy.  And the hilarious significance attached to how characters took their tea made me wish desperately that they would all switch to hard liquor.  In a country-house mystery, you can imagine how many times tea is served.  When Carmichael isn’t rhapsodizing about his favourite tea (I wanted to drown him in it by the end) someone else is making suggestive remarks based on his choice.  It was just so heavy-handed that it became almost embarrassing.

However, as usual, Walton has created a very real world and, despite my frustrations with Farthing, I immediately moved on to Ha’penny, eager to be back in this menacing alternate Britain.  Here, Carmichael is still our detective and Lucy Kahn is traded in for a new female narrator: Viola Lark.  Viola is an actress from a privileged background who is rehearsing a new production of Hamlet, to be performed in front of the Prime Minister and Hitler, on the German leader’s much-anticipated Friendship visit to London.  When her co-star is killed by a bomb, Viola suddenly finds herself back in contact with one of her estranged sisters and pulled into a plot to assassinate the two leaders.  Carmichael, while investigating the other actress’ death, slowly begins to uncover the murder plot and even more of the conspiracies at the heart of the government.

The single best thing about this book is Viola’s family.  A family of six sisters, the Larkins (Viola changed her name for the stage) are clearly based on the Mitfords (though they too exist in the Small Change universe).  Tess’ progression from the politically naive and disinterested woman on the first page to willing accomplice only a few chapters later was an unconvincing stretch but, oh well.  She was Mitford-esque and I can forgive any number of sins for that.  Just see how the family is described:

We were strange obsessive children, and we became strange obsessive adults.  Tess went to Oxford and had her debutante year and got married appropriately, safely, to Sir James Thirkie, baronet.  Pip demanded, and got, a finishing year abroad to learn German, did learn German, contrived to meet Hitler and managed to hook a leading Nazi as a husband.  During the war, when German bombers were flattening London, and killing poor Tess in her shelter for government wives, we felt bad about Pip’s position, but all was forgiven later, as all was forgiven the Germans generally.  I became an actress. Siddy came out, married, had a baby, divorced, caused scandal by leaving the baby with her husband, visited Moscow and became a real communist, married again, and rapidly divorced again.  Dodo paints, and has the occasional exhibition, is married to a prominent scientist who has something to do with atomic research, and has two delightful children.  Rosie, whose obsession was the most normal, came out, rode to hounds, met and married the Duke of Lancashire and produced sons…My sisters – I don’t necessarily like them, and I’d rather be stuck with pins than spend a week alone with any of them, but I love them.

Yeah, subtlety: not really Walton’s thing (further proof of that: the ‘leading Nazi’ husband is no one less than Himmler).  It’s all amusing nonetheless, particularly for Mitford-loving readers.

Finally, there is Half a Crown, the strongest of the three novels, made so by its convincing female narrator and much more logical progression.  There is a lamentable return to tea as the prime topic of conversation but I can just about forgive that.  The contrast of Carmichael, now head of the Gestapo-like Watch as well as the leader of the secret Inner Watch (which rescues and ships Watch detainees and Jews to safety – a sort of underground railway) and Elvira Royston, his debutante ward who begins the book oblivious to the evils of the government, believing fascism is ‘fun’, is the most effective juxtaposition of the series.  Both characters develop more over the course of the novel than anyone in the earlier books and do so, more importantly, in a rational manner.  Set in 1960, the tension, after more than 10 years under an intrusive and constructive government, is far more extreme than in the earlier books and much more terrifying.

Of all the characters we are introduced to in the three books, Elvira is the only one I felt real sympathy towards.  Elvira is granted no extraordinary powers.  She is intelligent but young and trusting, a product of the society in which she was raised.  She knows that if you see something suspicious, if you hear someone disparaging the government, you should report it.  That is what keeps society ordered and safe.  She even believes that after she is arrested and interrogated.  It isn’t until after her second arrest, having committed no crime, that she begins to really understand just how sinister and dangerous the establishment has become.  She is not cunning but she is brave and capable and the dramatic ending is rather magnificent.  A bit absurd and optimistic in the world Walton has created and wildly contrary to the tone of the series, but magnificent nonetheless.  Elvira still has faith and trust that at least one person can put everything to right again and that person does.  It is completely wonderful and ridiculous and I loved it.  Half a Crown rewards the reader’s investment in the first two, less impressive books with an outstanding conclusion that makes full use of the terrifying society Walton crafted.

I’ve voiced a lot of my annoyances with these books but I really must stress how much I enjoyed reading them.  Some authors, very few, have the talent of plotting and executing stories in such a way that the reader can’t tear him- or herself away.  Walton does this brilliantly.  I am not sure I’ve ever come across someone who is as effortlessly readable.  Even when I was cringing during Among Others and Farthing, I could not put them down.  One sentence flowed into another, I flew from one page to the next, and so on until I came to the end.  Sometimes Walton’s and my tastes and styles did not align but I remain convinced that these are solidly good books and imaginative, entertaining reads.

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Had anyone given up hope that I was ever going to post a review again?  No, just me?  My reading blocked translated into a writing block, hence the numerous filler posts you’ve been feed over the past few weeks.  Thank you for not abandoning me in the meantime.  Happily, I am reading again, meaning that I have something to write about, starting with Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

As the story begins, Luke Fitzwilliam finds himself in a train compartment with Miss Pinkerton.  Luke knows instinctively, cringingly, when he finds himself alone with Miss Pinkerton that his journey will not be as peaceful as he had hoped:  “Being a man of many aunts, he was fairly certain that the nice old lady in the corner did not propose to travel in silence to London” (p. 5).

Luke is returning to London after years spent in the Far East as a policeman.  Miss Pinkerton is going to Scotland Yard, convinced that a murderer is responsible for a number of recent deaths in her village of Wychwood and likely to strike again.  Luke dismisses Miss Pinkerton’s fears as those of an easily excited old lady.  However, when Luke hears that Miss Pinkerton was killed within hours of their meeting and then sees the announcement of yet another death in Wychwood, of the very gentleman that Miss Pinkerton had identified as the next victim, Luke sets off to investigate.  Armed with a policeman’s professional knowledge and a truly flimsy and suspicious back story, Luke descends on the village and, like many of Christie’s protagonists, wanders around casting suspicious glances at all the wrong villagers (and lustful ones at a particularly clever young lady who fingers the murderer long before Luke).  Clueless narrators – or ones who are very confident but have the wrong end of the stick completely – work wonderfully, particularly when they’re as sympathetic as Luke.    

It’s certainly not one of Christie’s best efforts; indeed, it’s not even particularly memorable.  It is, however, still good fun and a pleasant, cozy story to spend a few hours with one afternoon.  If nothing else, it entertained me with some excellent quips about aunts that seem very much like refugees from Miss Marple stories:

Every man should have aunts.  They illustrate the triumph of guesswork over logic.  It is reserved for aunts to know that Mr. A is a rogue because he looks like a dishonest butler they once had.  Other people say, reasonably enough, that a respectable man like Mr. A couldn’t be a crook.  The old ladies are right every time. (p. 204)

How strange that a book about murder can be so delightful and comforting.  Classic Agatha Christie, I suppose, to make the reader feel so safe and entertained even as the body count grows to rather alarming heights.  Murder is Easy only confirmed what I realised when reading The Moving Finger in the Spring: Christie is far wittier and intelligent that I had remembered and clearly deserving of more of my attention.  Perhaps she will finally help me conquer my prejudice against the mystery genre!

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A new Amelia Peabody Emerson book!  I’d almost forgotten how much I missed her (and Emerson and Nefret and Ramses.  Especially Ramses) but it only took a few sentences of A River in the Sky by Elizabeth Peters for me to remember. 

As with most of the books in the series, it was rather light on plot but if I were reading these books for the plots I would never have made it through the first book (to be fair, it took me three tries to get through that one, but those were the days before Ramses).  It does have the normal, wonderful dynamics of the Emerson clan, not to mention Ramses being dashing and heroic and a generally all together too romantic figure.  We can’t forget that.  I love Emerson and am quite fond of David and Nefret (not Amelia particularly) but it’s Ramses who draws me in.  He’s the reason I reread these books over and over, ignoring weak plots and insanely dramatic adventures.

Rather than the familiar setting of Egypt, this volume is set in Palestine in 1910 (placing it between Guardian of the Horizon and The Falcon at the Gate) where the Emersons become entangled with German spies, a strange interfaith fellowship, and the hunt for the Ark of the Covenant.  And Ramses finds himself kidnapped.  Of course.  It’s that kind of old-fashion storytelling makes these books so irresistible: the romance, the adventure, the exotic settings, the nefarious villains.  Usually, I enjoy the archeological details as well, but those are few and far between here, of very little significance to the events that move the plot along.

Peters also includes many not-so-subtle hints about Nefret’s changing feelings for Ramses (which we were already beginning to see in Guardian of the Horizon).  She is typically quiet and underused and Amelia only seems to record Nefret’s skin colour (flushed versus pale as expressions of emotion) rather than actual conversations.  Poor Nefret.  The boys get to run around playing spies and even Amelia gets to poke wrong doers with her parasol while Nefret stays in town, taking care of servants and being coddled by the senior Emersons.  Nefret has always been the most uneven character in the series – a strong modern woman who fades into the background in most books, the reader only being reminded of her when Ramses decides it is time to explore his unrequited love for her.  Terribly frustrating.

This isn’t Peters’ strongest book in the series but it’s still good fun and a quick read.  Already, I’m seriously contemplating a reread of some of the others books.  There’s nothing like a good adventure story to start off the summer.

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It has been years since I read anything by Agatha Christie.  If I’m honest, I am far more familiar with the various television versions of the Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries than I am with the books themselves.  My parents were (are) mad for that sort of thing – the Edward Gorey-animated introduction to the PBS Mystery! programme is one of the strongest visual memories I have of childhood (particularly the woman swooning on the top of the building).  I think that this over-exposure prejudiced me against mysteries; I always find myself shocked when I come across something from the genre that I enjoy.  I was convinced that mysteries were not for me, being too formulaic and too focused on intricate plotting at the expense of characterization.  I’ve certainly come across a great many that could be classed this way but clearly, clearly!, I was choosing the wrong books.  Having enjoyed mysteries by so many other Golden Age authors, I’m not sure why I was still holding out against Christie.  Perhaps because she was the most prolific, the most famous, the one who defines the genre more than anyone else?  Regardless, and I think it’s best to get this out of the way now, I was wrong and everyone else was right.  Let us speak no more of it.

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie is narrated by Jerry Burton, a young pilot who has removed to the country with his sister to recover after a crash.  I knew even before I started reading that this was a Miss Marple mystery so to find it narrated by a young man was a surprise, but a delightful one.  I am also inexplicably fond of the name Jerry, so it made for an excellent start.  Jerry is a wonderful, young, humourous protagonist and I very much enjoyed seeing everything through his eyes.  His evaluation of his landlady, for instance, is very much not the sort of thing I expected to find anywhere near Miss Marple:

Emily Barton, I think, has a mental picture of men as interminably consuming whiskeys and sodas and smoking cigars, and in the intervals dropping out to do a few seductions of village maidens, or to conduct a liaison with a married woman. (p. 82)

Jerry attempts to piece the mystery together himself but, of course, it takes the arrival of Miss Marple in the final quarter of the book for all to be revealed.  She appears only a few times but, being Miss Marple, sees and knows all and, really, has there ever been a more delightful detective?  Anyone who demands such universal affection and awe without jealousy or malice?   

I didn’t find the mystery itself very engaging but, again, that sort of thing rarely appeals to me.  I’m perfectly happy for authors to run around knocking off stray characters but only in so much that it creates situations for my favourite characters to interact.  Yes, if I’m going to read a mystery there better be a hint of romance as well.  I am predictable, aren’t I?  Happily, there are several romances taking place in what is really quite a short volume.  Megan, who is described by Miss Marple as “someone of high courage and good brains” (p. 159), is the love-interest for Jerry, though he takes some time to come to that realisation.  Her awkwardness and plain-speaking appealed to me greatly, though not to most of the villagers, who viewed her as more than a little odd.  There is a very stereotypical Cinderella-transformation scene that as a 21st Century woman I believe I’m supposed to find offense but which I really just found myself swooning over (again, predictable).  Megan is no simpering miss though, and plays a very active part in the resolution of the mystery.

I should also note that the copy I was reading was the very clever and appealing HarperCollins facsimile first edition, published in 2005 to mark the 75th Anniversary of Miss Marple’s first appearance (October 1930 – The Murder at the Vicarage).  As a true bibliophile, I got no small amount of pleasure from reading the story in its original typeset and, to my way of thinking, hardcover is always superior to paperback.  I’d love to see more books reissued this way for anniversaries.  It really does make for a special reading experience.

All in all, I was charmed by this one and happy to acknowledge that yes, my prejudices were misguided.  So what to read next mystery-fans, if I am to attempt to continue my recovery from avowed mystery-hater?  I would love to continue with another Miss Marple book – what do you think I’d enjoy?

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