Somewhere in England by Carola Oman – a wonderful 1943 novel of country life republished by Furrowed Middlebrow at Dean Street Press.

Somewhere in England by Carola Oman

This is a truly wonderful book from the pen of an accomplished writer produced as part of her war effort in 1943; it now appears in a republished form in the stylish format of a Furrowed Middlebrow title from Dean Street Press. It covers the life of a country house hospital during the Second World War and its links to the residents in the local village and airbase. It avoids any hint of being worthy by telling the stories of the people via Pippa Johnson, a young nurse who arrives at the house with many confused ideas about what and who to expect, and in the second part Mary Hungerford, owner of Woodside. Some may recognise some characters from Oman’s 1940 novel “Nothing to Report” as this novel is in some ways a sequel to the earlier novel, which has also been republished by Dean Street Press. This novel stands completely alone, however, and most of the storylines stand completely independently.

Pippa has little knowledge of what has gone before as she arrives in the area from a strenuous railway journey partly disorganised by her guardian Auntie Prue, and she has only a few names to go on, including the rather managing Mrs Bates. As the focus turns to Mary, the older woman encounters memorable characters both in her hospital who she must deal with, as well as her local links to the minor gentry and residents of the area who can cause problems. The humour is gentle, often poking fun at those who are talking more about war work than doing it and get themselves into situations from which Mary must try to persuade them. Like the later Delafield’s Provincial Lady novels which are set in the early days of the War, there is at least one woman who insists that her efforts are of enormous significance, but which really only upset everyone else, and there is another for whom her marriage is insupportable. Oman is a superb observer of character, as she details Pippa’s tentative first steps into life in a new community, overwhelmed by social events, reacting to the remarkable women she encounters and dealing with the advice of the Dowager Lady Merle, and the resourceful Mrs Bates. She is baffled by some of the actions of the slightly older nurses, and quietly admires her favourite author who suddenly appears in the guise of a Quartermaster. I was particularly fascinated by her journey to the house when she decides that “the results of bomb damage fell into four classes… (including) the doll’s house, with the face open…and the spilt box of matches”. Realising she is now technically in uniform; she uses a café but is frightened of dozing off as there is a stern notice saying that they cannot accommodate “sleepers”. Her move to the countryside means that she volunteers to walk a remarkable dog while indulging in the beauties of a wildflower filled environment. Mary’s concerns are more long standing, as hospital politics fill her time as well as coping with the mix ups and muddles of her family, friends, and acquaintances.

This is a book which reveals in the changing seasons and times of a significant time in the experience of the characters, of weather and plants, romance, and some sadness. There is a lot of humour as genuinely funny characters unintentionally cause problems, as well as a keen eye for the clothes and daily life being dramatically affected by war. There is a point of disaster, but also the positives of people being forced to pull together. I really enjoyed this perceptive book which is written in a light and entertaining style and how it observes people so brilliantly. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading books that were written during wartime when so much was unknown, especially when they capture the reality of people facing daily challenges.    

Faith in the City of London by Niki Gorick – A book of stunning photographs of people and Places of Worship in the centre of London – A Guest Review

Faith in the City of London by Niki Gorick – A Guest Review by NorthernVicar (Peter Barham)

My Beloved Wife does the book reviews. Unicorn Publishing – – were kind enough to send her some books, and this one is right up my street. “Faith in the City of London”, Niki Gorick, Unicorn Publishing, 2020 – ISBN 978-1-912690-73-2. I have visited several City Churches simply to explore – about a quarter of them. Let’s enjoy this book.

150 pages of stunning photos. Not photos of the architecture, the curiosities, the things I photo, but photos of churches at work and people in them. It is mainly Anglican churches – there are a few photos of the Sikhs meeting at St Etheldreda and the Muslims at prayer in the banqueting room of a City Livery Company – but the overwhelming impression is of White Anglicans at worship. Some of the breadth of the Church of England is captured, but there are a lot of vestments on view.

The photos really are stunning. Niki is obviously a very talented photographer – her website – – is superb. Highly recommended, and I will just have to have some virtual London visits. For this book she took her time getting to know the churches, the clergy and the people – and she has captured wonderful images of worship, prayer, and all the other aspects of church life. I would be very surprised if the church folk who are photographed are not very pleased with the positive way in which they have been portrayed – good too to have the names of the clergy and details of the jobs they do. A few photos of vergers, cleaners and the other people who keep these churches alive would have been nice.

I love the wedding photo from All Hallows by the Tower, the violinists in St Giles Cripplegate (page 130), and the Roman soldier in the crypt at All Hallows (page 138). I would have liked a few more photos of the churches in context – unless you know the City you don’t really visualise the medieval or Wren churches standing cheek by jowl with the tower blocks next door. A minor quibble!

Nice to have a foreword from the Lord Mayor, he knows how important these churches are. Nike’s preface is fascinating, as is the Introduction by Edward Lucie-Smith. I assume he is the “Jamaican-born English writer, poet, art critic, curator and broadcaster” on wikipedia – – but I don’t know that for certain. He links the history with modernity and social change and has written a very thoughtful article. “In religions, as well as in purely financial terms, the ancient City of London is still very much what it has always been throughout its existence – a place where things begin” (page 13).

It would be fascinating to be able to have a 2023 update – how did Covid affect these churches, is the City still full of office workers using their church buildings? It is worth noting that the website of the Friends of the City Churches – – gives lots of information. Services, events, regular opening times – start here. (It is mentioned on the last page of the book, could have done with more prominence). is also worth a look.

A beautiful and thought-provoking book. Thank you for the opportunity to review it.

The Wartime Bookshop by Lesley Eames – Life in a village in 1940 affected by war and the love of books

The Wartime Bookshop by Lesley Eames

Friendship, community and books are all themes in this lively and satisfying book set during the Second World War. The first in a series, it focuses on three women in the village of Churchwood in 1940. While the actual bombs may not be falling on this largely peaceful English village, the effects of the war are beginning to be felt. Rationing and shortages are beginning to intrude into daily life and even the relatively wealthy residents are noticing. A large house has been commandeered for nursing casualties of early warfare, and both patients and staff are in need of distraction. The uncertainty of what will happen to loved ones who have left to fight and what will be the effects of War on the Home Front are becoming realities for some, while others resolve to work hard for the war effort. This is a well written book that I found to be very readable, and despite the switching of viewpoint between the three main characters, flowed very well. The atmosphere was well created and was consistent, as the small details of clothes, the contents of Red Cross parcels and many other aspects of life were well conveyed. The research into daily life at the time was very thorough, but never slowed down the narrative. Eames deals well with the gap between the poorest character without much financial support to the wealthy and bored, as well as the more subtle details of differences. Overall, this is a book that I really enjoyed,

The first character to be introduced is Alice Lovell, a young woman who has just arrived in the village with her father, a newly retired doctor who is quite content to live a quiet life. She had worked for her father as a secretary, and now lacks some focus. She has a hand injury which is a long term issue and means that daily tasks need more thought and effort. She is keen to make a new life for herself, without thinking too much of Daniel, who she has strong feelings for but who she believes thinks only of her out of duty. She is determined to establish herself and make friends but has soon discovered that the village has its fair share of gossip and is heavily influenced by a Mrs Harrington, who lives in the Big House. She is warned off the Fletcher family as being disreputable and dirty. Nevertheless, she soon encounters Kate Fletcher, who she realises has a difficult life with an overbearing father and brothers who seem to delight in making more work for her. Kate is an intelligent and caring person who must work extremely hard on domestic tasks on and heavy farm labour. Her mother has died, and she has no freedom or any money to spend on reading matter, and can only dream of books, female clothing and breaking away from her horrible family. Alice is keen to volunteer to visit injured soldiers at the convalescent home, and soon discovers that they are in desperate need of books to help distract them from their life changing injuries. Meanwhile Naomi Harrington is struggling with an absent husband, past embarrassments, and loneliness. While she runs committees and is the village’s authority figure, she longs for real company. She is defensive and aggressive, especially condemning Kate for her appearance.

The people of the village and the hospital present a difficult challenge for Alice, who struggles to help Kate who has built up reserves to protect herself from public criticism. Naomi lacks trust for everyone and seeks to defend herself by a façade of authority. As the first dangers of War begin to affect the village, can everyone pull together and find the links that can be provided by books, or are there just too many differences?  

I found this book really enjoyable and was well balanced between the characters. I thought it went beyond wartime everyone pulling together and looked at the differences between individuals very well. Of course, the theme of books and reading bringing people comfort and togetherness really appealed. I look forward to the next book in the series and certainly recommend this one.  

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail – a gentle 1925 novel of an idyllic London street republished by Persephone

(The original cover and Persephone’s classic stylish grey edition)

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

Persephone have republished many lovely books, all deserving of praise for their quality which frequently spent a long time being unrecognised. This book, originally published in 1925 and republished as Persephone number 35, fits well into the category of a comfort read, a delightful comedy of the first year of married life. It focuses on a street in London, a pleasant place of townhouses on five floors, which in reality still exists, specifically number 23 Walpole Street. While now it would be considered incredibly spacious, with the perceived need for two servants, dressing rooms and nurseries in the early 1920s the houses were viewed as too small for a family of two children. Accordingly, while it was regarded as paradise for newly married couples, as soon as children came along their residence would be limited. Of course, to obtain a lease on such a property needed a certain level of income, and possibly some family money in case of crisis. Mackail writes from what he knows, a loving marriage, living in the most desirable (and afterwards regretted) house, the financial realities of wanting to write full time but knowing that a living must be made. P.G. Wodehouse was an enormous fan of this novel, and his letter of admiration is reproduced in the fascinating Preface written in 2002. This is a lovely book to read with real enjoyment, an almost mythical book of good-natured humour, the little incidents of life, and the desirability of living in Greenery Street.

The living, if fictional, embodiment of the fortunate couples to be found in the street are the newly married Felicity and Ian Foster, whose road to romance was beset with the usual family concerns. Felicity’s father takes to his bed with flu whenever a decision must be made, and it is a usual tale of happy chances that ensures the outcome where the engaged couple must seek their marital home. The house of their dreams proves elusive; agents send wildly inappropriate details, the street is a half remembered vision, the first house slips away. This is of course an essentially happy story, so by chance another house becomes available, the marriage is made and Felicity resolves to become the most able of housekeepers, with her books of accounts and her supposed economies. Lunch with her mother is a reliable time filler and saves bothering the servants, going to see her redoubtable grandmother of the gift of old-fashioned pearls, and she is devoted to her new role of married woman. Of course, there are hiccups: the couple do not like their maid, calling her the Murderess, there is a builder’s bill hanging over them, and their finances take an unexpected reduction. They are also subject to local issues when their neighbours begin acquiring their step ladders and other household items under the guise of loans, demonstrating  their naivety and faith in all those who live in the blessed Greenery Street. Felicity is not a good manager, but this is the first year of marriage, and everything can be coped with in this tale. Ian can be equally clueless, but the couple meet adversity together and bravely.

An unsympathetic reader would not enjoy this book, as it is very much of its time and there is no great drama; expectations of servants and lifestyles are obviously dated. It deserves to be read in the light of a charming story of a near mythically happy place, a happy time and just an enjoyable read. I really enjoyed my reread of this book, finding lots to appreciate in its gentle and yet knowing humour, its lively and positive characters, including a street of dreams. Put alongside the work of Angela Thirkell, Mackail’s elder sister, it lacks the edge and perhaps the keen, honest insight she brings to her characters and situations. This is a book to relax into, to be distracted by when perhaps twenty first century life is too much. I recommend it to fans of “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” and similar books, or as a starting point for those keen to discover the underrated ‘middlebrow’ writers of the first half on the twentieth century.   

Death of Mr. Dodsley by John Ferguson – A 1937 London Bibliomystery republished in the British Library Crime Classic series

Death of Mr Dodsley by John Ferguson

This book is subtitled “A London Bibliomystery” as it deals with a bookseller, a book shop, and a much-scorned crime novel written by one of the characters that receives an awful if classic review. This review is a very positive one, however, as it this novel features some vivid characters, a fascinating setting of a bookshop and its mechanics laid bare, and a complex and satisfying mystery with many layers. As the description says, “A bookshop is a first-rate place for unobtrusive observation…One can remain in it an indefinite time, dipping into one book after another, all over the place.” Indeed, the stratagems adopted by at least one mysterious character for close observation involve moving books to allow a clear view of what is really going on in a second-hand department, and how much where and tear is inflicted during the lingering visits of potential customers. It is a satisfying novel published originally in 1937 and now reprinted in the excellent British Library Crime Classics series, with an informative Introduction from Martin Edwards which details the life and works of John Ferguson, who won enthusiastic support from Dorothy L Sayers for his work.  I enjoyed this book, especially the development of the characters, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

As the subtitle suggests, this book is mainly set in the bookselling area of London, the setting for many bibliomysteries of the Golden Age of detection. However, the book actually opens in the House of Commons, as a late-night sitting features the much-noticed MP Grafton. The discovery of an abandoned detective novel together with a poor review introduces a link to the case which will soon emerge. A young but capable police constable is then shown confronting a drunken reveller, who indirectly leads him to a bookshop with an unlocked door. When he investigates, his discoverer of a murdered man at a desk provokes a case which will provide precious few solid clues, including discarded cigarette ends. While the staff of the bookshop are interviewed, including a young woman who is obsessed with American gangster films and speaks accordingly, the investigation draws in those who may or may not have a connection with the murdered man, and sufficient motive to commit the crime. It is when MacNab, a private detective who will become Ferguson’s series sleuth, appears with his special knowledge of the circumstances and shop, that the investigation really takes off. The police officers perform their function well, but it takes MacNab to discover who has achieved the unlikely, if not impossible, and why.

I really enjoyed this book because of its setting, which is so well described with a basic floor plan included. The small details such as a woman’s hair clip being discovered shows the careful attention to detail which really supports a complex plot which is underlying the action of the novel. The real achievement of this novel, I think, is the dialogue and the voices allocated to each character which really bring this book alive; from cameos of MPs to a quiet but observant bookseller, to a young police officer quaking in the face of identification, the characters have their individual realities even if their overall contribution to the narrative is relatively small. MacNab emerges as a clever and resourceful man who is able to size up the other characters well, yet he is portrayed as fallible in his genuine confusion. I thoroughly recommend this particular republished novel for its distinctive characters and fascinating plot which make it a fine example of Golden Age Detection.    

The Lost Diary of Samuel Pepys by Jack Jewers – a gripping and exciting novel of adventure depicting what Pepys did next

The Lost Diary of Samuel Pepys by Jack Jewers

This is a historical thriller with an impeccable sense of time and frequent surprises. Based on the intense and significant diaries that did so much for historians, this novel is a work of fiction which goes some way to explaining why one of the greatest diarists in history may have stopped his daily record at the age of thirty-six, and what he did after the well-known writing ceased. It manages to capture something of the uneasy peace established after the Restoration of Charles II, a sense of the difficulties in international relations, and just how close certain individuals came to acting for a reversion to a Republic. Not that this book is in any way a dry political text; rather it is a vivid and sometimes brutal, always moving thriller of sorts, a who and why dunnit, a vibrant personal story. The voice is of Samuel Pepys, who by 1669 has achieved so much in terms of education, experience and status, an able man and one who has enormous understanding of people. He does not get it right all the time, he still has his failings and can still be baffled by people and their motives.

Jewers has combined so many elements in this book brilliantly; Pepys is a man who has ambitions but is painfully self-aware, who is attracted to women who he treats with respect at least at this stage of his life, irrespective of rank, whose curiosity is matched by his bravery. The research into the setting, the real people who inhabit the book, the situations that the characters get themselves into are so well conveyed, the accuracy never slowing the action. There are so many little details; of people’s appearance, of the food and drink available, of the grimy reality of travel, accommodation and even the use of weapons. There is a diverse range of characters who contribute to the narrative, and although in the form of recollections, there is much dialogue to enjoy. The characters, including Pepys, his assistant and friend Will, those in authority and those who challenge it all spring to life on these pages. It is not an all-male adventure story, as it seems that the women of the time have learnt from their past experiences of civil war and social unrest, and have developed a keen sense of practical justice. Altogether it is a book that I greatly enjoyed and became completely enthralled by and I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

At the beginning of the novel Pepys is involved in a fire in London, where the Great Fire was a recent and painful memory. Recovering with the help of Will, he has to summon all his resources to deal with a small diplomatic crisis but is far more affected by his wife Elisabeth’s ultimation. When he is suddenly dispatched to what proves to be the troubled town of Portsmouth he knows that dark deeds are occurring there, but outwardly the prosperity of the harbour and Admiralty House seems to suggest that a sort of peace exists. The sudden and shocking murder of the Governor throws a whole new light on events in the town, that possibly corruption and conspiracy go further than financial accounts. It is only when a new and considerable element enters the fray that Pepys gains a clear picture of what may truly be at stake, and just who may be behind some of the seemingly incomprehensible events around him.

This is not a novel for the easily disturbed by physical descriptions of fighting or basic medical procedures. It is however an immersive read that truly brings alive the people, the events and dangers of life at the time, and wraps everything into a memorable adventure that I really enjoyed and recommend to all who enjoy a lively and well written story.    

Bournville by Jonathan Coe – a Novel in Seven Occasions in British life

Bournville by Jonathan Coe

The subtitle of this book is “A Novel in Seven Occasions” and it is such a substantial and rewarding novel to read. Though published in 2022, it’s sense of the fairly recent past is acute; each section is set in the time of a national event in Britain beginning with VE Day in 1945 and culminating in the strange and complex events of the Pandemic lockdowns of 2020. It is about a girl who grows up through the events, her family and friends who all manifest their reactions to national events in their own way. There are cleverly drawn links throughout the sections; as with many families there is compromise, challenges and difficult characters to negotiate as one individual establishes contacts and influence in so many ways and is gradually superseded by the concerns of others. Not that this is a depressing and worthy book that maintains a steady pace of predictable events; there is the humour and reality of daily life, the dialogue that can mean so much and so little. Coe is a writer with a real skill for writing of times that are half remembered, half history, and in this book, he skilfully conveys a real sense of what it felt like at the time.

This book’s strength is the way it inhabits each time, with all the small details that make the depiction of the setting, dialogue, and behaviour so reminiscent of each time so vivid. Yet every story is held together with the sense of a place at the heart of Britain, Bournville, the place of chocolate making, a single industry important to generations of a family. I really enjoyed my visit there and soon got an impression of a community proud of its history and origins throughout some difficult times. I especially liked the independent bookshop, the aptly named “The Bookshop on the Green”. This book sums up a unique place though the eyes of fictional residents, and combines family stories, national events and so much more in such a clever way.  

The framework of this novel is based on seven nationally significant events. Following a neat Prologue set in March 2020 as rumours and indications of a strange virus emerge across Europe, the first Occasion is VE Day, as experienced by Doll, Sam, and their daughter Mary. As the official end of War approaches and is indeed announced, the family and those around them are unsure how to react, what they must do to mark this event which has been so longed for by so many. Anti German feeling survives, yet the girl is more concerned with her feelings about piano lessons and half known adults. The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II is combined with the pride in a television set that no one really understands and the shock which is London to Mary. As the nature of courtship emerges, decisions are made, and new realisations arrived at by several people. The World Cup final in 1966 demonstrates the long effects of feelings about Germans even as a new generation grows. The Investiture of Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969 is seen through the eyes of children beginning to appreciate the nature of life and love. 1981’s Royal Wedding is a time of gathering but also revelations, that even chocolate is being challenged, that families and neighbours can be surprising, that this a time of change but also the same beliefs. The Funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 is a shock to everyone, bringing more questions, observations on music, life, and how the death of a stranger can reveal the truth about those we think we know. The Occasion of the 75th Anniversary of VE day in 2020 coincides with the complexities surrounding the first Lockdown, its effects on everyone’s daily life, and how it challenged virtually everyone to reassess everything. This is about the poignancy of memory and the reality of life in completely different circumstances.

I found this an incredibly powerful novel which spanned so much time but also managed to be relevant to today. The characters are beautifully drawn and linked to each other in so many clever ways. The effects of the past are considered in the light of the present and their meanings for the future, but this is not a book of abstract thinking but deep humanity in all its richness. I thoroughly recommend for this book as an immersive read which lingered in my mind for long afterwards.   

The Woman in the Wardrobe by Peter Shaffer – a light 1951 detective mystery reprinted in the British Library Crime Classics series

The Woman in the Wardrobe by Peter Shaffer

Most of the time when a book is republished in the British Library Crime Classics series, it becomes available to fans of the classic crime genre who have previously been unable to access a copy. In this case, however, it has once more become rare with online copies being quite expensive. So it is with special care that I read this one, and despite its rarity, offer a review. Keep a look out in those secondhand shops!

This book offers a Preface written by Elinor Shaffer, sister-in-law of Peter and twin brother Anthony. She explains how both men admired the classic detective mysteries of their youth, and how they combined their efforts to come up with detective novels. This book is definitely attributed to Peter, but both men went on to write theatrical and film scripts respectively and it is possible that Anthony did contribute to this sole available detective novel. Martin Edwards in his Introduction points out that this book is largely meant to entertain, and the original subtitle was “A Light-Hearted Detective Story”.  To sit alongside such series detectives as Christie’s Poirot, Shaffer creates a memorable Mr Verity, who also exhibits considerable confidence in his ability to solve mysteries with the minimum of effort. He is respected by Scotland Yard, “In fact… almost as much respected as disliked”, for his seeming ability to deal with a mystery when the police detectives have collapsed exhausted. This story soon emerges as a locked room mystery, with the added element of a locked wardrobe, and it is a great puzzle to all concerned, as well as a severe challenge to the staff of The Charter Hotel where the murder takes place.

The small town of Amnestie in Sussex is known for its fish, and its notoriety in certain newspapers for visitors to the main hotel. Verity is a leading resident and known as an assiduous collector of antiquities often obtained by dubious means. It is when he is strolling past the hotel one morning that he sees a man emerge from a first-floor window with a furtive air, move along the balcony and climb into neighbouring room and shut the window. Being a curious man, he enters the hotel to mildly enquire of the Manageress, a Miss Framer, why at least one guest was behaving strangely. While he is conveying the mystery to the bewildered woman, a man appears on the stairs with cries of bloody murder. Apparently, the victim is a Mr Maxwell, and the distressed man is definitely the person lately observed by Verity effecting an unorthodox exit and entry. Showing his usual calm ability in a crisis, Verity lifts the fainting woman with one hand and summons the police by phone with the other. As he escorts the man to the scene, Verity is able to spot “sights of interest”, such as a gun and bloodstains. As other guests, police officers and interested parties turn up, Verity has quite a battle to keep the crime scene undisturbed, and soon shows his mettle as an investigator. A would be royal, disguises and of course the woman from the wardrobe, ensure that Verity has his hands full in sorting out the impossible from the significant. The local police represented by Jackson and Matthews, are often bemused but are useful for some of the less exciting tasks, and many are drawn into the investigation which quickly becomes complex.

Overall, this is a fairly unusual crime mystery that kept my interest throughout as Verity and others try to sort out what is really happening. This edition also benefits greatly from the fine (and funny) line drawings by Nicolas Bentley. Its status as the only detective novel to issue forth from this famous playwright ensures its value, but for me its contents make it a very special book that I was very pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review.

The Dressing Room Murder by J.S. Fletcher – a classic 1931 murder mystery republished by Oreon at The Oleander Press

The Dressing Room Murder by J.S. Fletcher

Theatrical murder mysteries are always a hit with me, and this 1931 novel recently republished by Oreon at the Oleander Press is a terrific read in the fine traditions of alibis and much more. Joseph Smith Fletcher wrote many detective stories (including The Yorkshire Moorland Mystery which I have reviewed) and this one is satisfyingly complex and introduces some excellent characters. Set in a small Yorkshire town, the fictional Hatherford, the action of the novel revolves around the town’s central theatre and a bloody murder which takes place in the main dressing room. Not that there is brutality or excessive gore, this novel stays true to the Golden Age pattern of puzzle rather than violence. The puzzle is elegant and well developed, as secret entrances, a small town’s worth of suspects plus a theatre company and adherents and a very specific time of murder is established. The two main detectives, Marston the Chief Constable, and Detective Sergeant Stell, are determined, well connected and occasionally inspired, but not infallible as various leads emerge and must be discounted. I enjoyed this story of a community beset by the murder of a man who has just returned to the area after a long absence and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

The novel opens with Marston and two other town worthies enjoying a drink in the Hyacinth club. The urgent message is relayed to Marston that Sir John Riversley, actor manager of a visiting theatre company, has been found murdered in his dressing room at the Theatre Royal, just before his performance as Hamlet. While the police officer is a relative newcomer to the district, he is quickly informed that Riversley was born and brought up in the town, and that this engagement of his players marks his first return since his career has taken off so spectacularly on a worldwide basis. The weapon is in situ, the actor’s own rapier plunged into his back while he sat at his dressing table. His traumatised dresser and the stage door guardian reveal that the actor was a creature of habit and had only arrived at the theatre a short time before, leaving a small window of opportunity for his attacker. While such a person had not used the stage door to enter and exit, anyone with knowledge of the theatre would have known of other ways to access the dressing room. As Marston and Stell begin to investigate, it seems that there are those with a motive to dispatch the actor, ranging from some in his own Company to a distressed fan from the other side of the world. It also emerges that there may well be those who bear the famous man a long standing hatred from his youth in the town, especially as Yorkshire people are apparently good at bearing grudges. As potential suspects emerge, there seems to be several leads, but alibis, defences and so many other aspects of the matter must be worked through, not least the victim’s own secretive behaviour in the hours leading up to the attack. Can Marston and Stell solve this mystery before anyone else is put in danger?

This is a well written mystery which kept me guessing until the end with its layers of clues and leads. The setting is well used, with vivid accounts of locals and those connected with the theatre company. This is in many ways a classic mystery containing so many elements of the Golden Age of detective fiction, and I recommend this reprint as a really good read from the time and representing the genre so well.

The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien – a fascinating historical novel in a unique format revealing the story of Cecily, Duchess of York

The Queen’s Rival by Anne O’Brien

A historical novel featuring a non-Tudor Queen sounds unusual, and this novel deals with a remarkable woman who experienced much in the fight for the throne, and for someone to hold on to it. It is also unusual because of its format; this fascinating novel is told in the form of fictional letters, prayers, short chronicles and a few eyewitness accounts.

The life of Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, during the War of the Roses period, was complex and dominated by acute swings of fortune. A straightforward, liner fictional account would be difficult to manage, and would not have the flavour of current events and often crisis that this book achieves. The atmosphere of this book is in the moment, as turns of fate and current events concern or cheer Cecily, often confined either literally or by necessity on the edge of events. It reflects her worries for what is actually happening to various members of her family who are poised for battle or doing something that she feels may imperil her or the family’s interests. So, it is through the medium of these fictional letters between Cecily an her children and her two sisters, alongside the “headlines” from “England’s Chronicle” that spell out events with an immediacy which is rare in historical novels. Altogether it is a unique book which conveys the thoughts and prayers of a woman involved in the events of a turbulent time in British history in a convincing and fascinating way.

Cecily was married to Richard Duke of York, whose lineage put him high in the succession to the English throne. Henry VI had come to the throne as an infant and had never really been free of the dominance of others who sought to advise and effectively rule through him. When the novel begins there has been a significant downturn in Richard’s fortunes, and Cecily is left with her younger children to withstand an attack on Ludlow where she is living with her youngest three children. When even the castle is attacked and her household ransacked, she stands firm in her belief in her husband and the Yorkist cause. This is a time when the throne was hotly contested, where the interests of the various powerful families could sway who was to rule. In letters to her family Cecily discusses what is happening, together with prayers and sometimes accounts of significant meetings Cecily will effectively communicate her honest thoughts and reactions, her pleas for help and the more mundane matters of family life. Tragedy overtakes her quite early in the book, but she quickly rouses herself to fight on in her family’s name. She is shocked and surprised by a marriage contracted by one son with its implications and has many occasions to try to reason with others. Her relationship with her two sisters is particularly revealing, as she honestly sets out her news, her disquiet with some of their actions, and sympathy for their plight.

This is an honest novel which reveals so much about Cecily’s life and times in all its challenges and changes. In some accounts she is a shadowy figure, but in this book, she is central to the action and analysis of what is really going on. I really enjoyed this book, which neatly avoided lengthy accounts of battles or discussions of inheritance and succession by its format. Although I had a working knowledge of the main events of the period, this novel brought them to life in a new and very involving way. It may have taken me a while to get around to reading this novel, but I am so pleased that I have now done so, and I recommend it as a vivid and vibrant account of a life lived in the heart of history.