Blue Murder by Harriet Rutland – a Dean Street Classic

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“A Golden Age Murder” it proclaims on the cover of this book, another Dean Street Press book send to me for review. It is the final book published by Harriet Rutland, and it is a strong book notable for several twists and turns, some of which are totally unexpected. A clever book, it is an experience of reading a novel written in war time (1942) when the dangers of the blitz are a real and indeed intrude into the action. This is both a classic and an unusual novel, even if the identity of the killer is not obscure long before the end, even if only because there are relatively few possibilities. The horrible nature of the characters is so cleverly written that sympathy is in short supply, but the narrative is so compelling the reader will want to see how it works out.

Murder happens in a household where the parents are awful, the daughter difficult and the son and wife challenging. A beautiful young teacher is involved, a will is debated, and the threat of physical danger is ever present. A locally unpopular head teacher is dangerously susceptible to the charms of Miss Charity Fuller, and indeed dominates his school with more than an iron rod, much to the dismay of the teachers and at least one parent. His wife, Mrs Hardstaffe (Rutland loves playing with names in this novel) is a hypochondriac with money which proves to be a dangerous combination. The daughter, Leda, is a tough, capable woman, obsessed with her dogs and war work. Into this unhappy household comes Arnold Smith, failed writer searching for inspiration. As he becomes enthusiastic about writing a murder mystery, he keeps saying that he is going to “murder” one or more of the people around him, as he becomes a lodger in the challenging household.

This is quite a tightly written novel where there is a full set of motives. The police appear and feature as amusing characters, trying to do their best, but they seem largely ineffective. Not that they are figures of fun, but their questioning does not seem to bring results. There is a painful description of a maid who is a refugee from the German forces; while she is quite faithfully described she reflects a time when the full horror of the treatment of Jews is only just emerging. So she is seem as sensitive and melodramatic when perhaps later views would have been more sympathetic.

This is perhaps not the best of the Golden age novels, but it is a deeply interesting portrayal of a time and the people living through it. The lesser characters are well described, as even the cameo of an evacuee’s father takes its place in the overall picture of a horrible head master. This book features some truly chilling moments, and yet given the time at which it was written almost takes it into a picture of a country at war, when not everyone ‘pulled together’.  I recommend it as a gripping read of characters stuck together by fate, destruction being a real possibility.


Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – A Shiny New Edition!

For today’s post, go to Shiny New Books website. I am reviewing a new edition of Sense and Sensibility as part of a new Classics Collection by Oxford University Press. It is a lovely book with a fascinating Introduction by John Mullan, and as you see from the review, I could replace many classics in my collection with these editions…

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Dandy Gilver & a Most Misleading Habit by Catriona McPherson

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It is possible that you have heard of Dandy Gilver and her detecting missions set in the 1920s. Catriona McPherson who has hit on a rich vein of organisations that need investigating as dubious activities have resulted in murder. Her novels are historical fiction, and to her credit each place she writes about is thoroughly researched. In the past she has looked at hotels, department stores, and grand houses. The latter was intriguing as she is a member of the minor aristocracy herself, married to the challenging Hugh whose own interests extend only to hunting and shooting. She has become a detective with her good friend Alec partly because her marriage is tedious despite her two sons, when her interests are meant only to cover clothes and social visiting. The fees that she often receives for finding the missing, solving the murder mysteries and sorting out the good from bad have provided a decent heating system and a small estate for her younger son. In this novel she is asked to investigate the death of a nun and disappearance of some disturbed inmates of a hospital on a cold moorland site.

This volume is a well written picture of a religious community attacked by mysterious intruders. A fire and the vandalism of a room have rocked the institution, but not as much as the death of the senior sister. Sister Mary set up the community to include an orphanage, and it is here that much of the comedy occurs as Dandy (her nickname is an endearing feature of all these novels) has little experience of children and their needs. The many “Sisters” who inhabit this story are confusing and make the narrative difficult to follow, though they are given different personalities. It is a complicated tale with many characters, perhaps too many if honestly examined. This is a post First World War novel, where women are becoming more free to work, live in different settings and challenge the old order. Not that Dandy is a strident feminist in any sense, but she sees no reason why she cannot follow the mystery to its end. The characters she investigates become dizzyingly complex, the clues multiply, and her confusion is echoed by the reader. I was keen to discover who did what to whom and why, but even at the end some of the red herrings were not resolved.   This is not an elegantly worked out plot, but the drama and incident along the way make it an engaging read.

In many ways this is a lightweight novel meant for entertainment rather than education. Having said that, its implicit messages about men left mentally scarred by what they have experienced in the trenches is interesting, as is the fate of children born out of wedlock but cheerfully and generously treated in this community. The women gathered as Sisters seem not to question their lot, but perhaps have made a reasonable choice given the perceived “shortage” of eligible men, even if they are younger than the women who lost loved ones in the War. It is an exciting and interesting read, while the deficiencies of clear plotting do not spoil the novel as the narrative and characters are so strong. Best read as part of the series, it does refer back to other books, but could be read as a stand alone novel. I enjoy the details of the clothes, especially the arcane information of the parts of the Sisters’ habits, which actually become an element of the story. This is a good read for those interested in the period, and I recommend it for fans of modern historical fiction.

Love At All Ages by Angela Thirkell

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This is one of Thirkell’s novels that has not been reprinted by Virago, so it may prove a little more difficult to track down. It is also one of the last of the Barsetshire chronicles, appearing in 1959, and it has the tell tail signs of a late Thirkell; when she admits to being unsure about some of her own characters, and admits she cannot make the effort to fill in a back story for those not central to the tale. On the positive side, it triumphantly continues and completes the story of some characters, and hints that others will develop well with time. Love comes for an older pair, favourite couples discuss their long standing relationships, and young people take their first tentative steps in romance. There is a resolute bachelor and Nurses and Nannies aplenty. This book ends some stories and begins new ones, but Thirkell’s grasp of some of the details of her created world do waver, and this may affect the enjoyment of the novel by those readers who have studied her novels thoroughly.

This book rejoices in many aristocratic titles and some of the characters resign themselves to studying their Burke and Debrett more closely in order to understand those around them. A baby is born to titled parents much to the delight of an American Duchess and her predecessor, the Dowager. The Christening provokes a wedding, and a visitor suggests a new focus for the sister left behind. Lydia and Noel Merton celebrate their long relationship and some of its vicissitudes, including the fearsome arrival of a wartime telegram. Lydia remains one of my favourite characters, and her professionally distinguished husband Noel is one of the most interestingly described men, with his harmless flirtations. Ludo, of whom much is expected, is growing into his role, full of references back to his success with the Clover theatricals in “Coronation Year”, and becomes attracted to Lavinia. So the major families of Barsetshire flourish and continue, even if sometimes the names seem a little muddled; Wickham and Wicklow are both men who know the country and estates, and I have been trying to separate them over many volumes.

As always this is a book of the middle classes and minor aristocracy, clergy and congregations. The lower classes are sometimes dismissed as peasants unable to cope with the new post war world, unsure of hospitals and how to handle pensions. There is a survival of servants who know their worth as the last of the functionaries who can actually run houses, but Thirkell as always gives them limited characteristics. The mistake in this book which really stood out for me is the identification of Martin Leslie as the man who suffered the loss of a foot in military service; without checking back I am fairly confident that while Martin indeed suffered a leg injury, it was Robin Dale who actually lost his foot. This is a minor quibble very much in the spirit of Mrs. Morland, whose best – selling yearly books bear a strong resemblance to Thirkell’s during the mid century.

This is a book for Thirkell’s many fans, who will find much to delight and divert in this novel, as characters reappear even if only in passing reference. It would work as a standalone novel, and certainly Thirkell’s books do not have to be read in strict order, but to get the maximum enjoyment from this book which aims to dispel the “Universal Dullness” of the world, a working knowledge of Barsetshire and its many citizens would add greatly to the reader’s enjoyment of this entertaining tale.

I managed to find a copy of this book in Derby Central library in a special display to celebrate the successors of Jane Austen. I’m just a bit sad that it will have to be returned, but I did find another title I don’t own so watch this space for another obscure Thirkell…

Unnatural Habits – a Phryne Fisher Mystery by Kerry Greenwood

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This is number nineteen in a series of twenty mysteries, but it is probably possible to read it as a standalone novel, once the basics have been grasped. Fans of the tv series “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” will quickly pick up the context of the story. Miss Phryne is a wealthy woman living an independent life in Melbourne, Australia in 1929. She has a taste for discovering the truth about people and solving mysteries, whatever the danger and cost. She has many contacts in the high and low life of the city, as well as the medical and legal authorities, and exploits them with wit and intelligence as well as generosity.

This particular novel in the series is a strong story. There are at least three mysteries to be solved which quickly emerge as Phryne organises the rescue of a determined girl reporter, who subsequently disappears. Three heavily pregnant girls also go missing, and in trying to track them down Phryne discovers abuse and domestic violence, which she tries to ensure is not continued.  Girls are also disappearing in what seems to be a slavery ring, and this must be stopped. Phryne’s own resistance to organised religion, in contrast to her devout assistant, Dot, is raised when she investigates the treatment of pregnant unmarried girls by a local convent. All this activity is overseen by the friendly policeman, Jack Robinson, and Phryne’s unique group of friends and allies.

To a certain extent the reader needs to suspend disbelief to enjoy this book, as the main characters do amazing things. Like James Bond, with whom Phryne has been compared in her exploits, she can summon up unusual abilities and disguises at will, and the reader knows that she at least will always survive. That is not to suggest that the writing is lightweight or less than consistent, as Greenwood’s writing is stylish and full of humour. Her characters are attractive in the main, and her culprits and villains suitably loathsome. As in all her novels, her research is impeccable, and the back stories of each character are understood. Greenwood also takes great delight in describing the clothes of many characters, especially her heroine’s, and the reader is left in little doubt that Phryne’s attraction to all is easily explained. I was a little surprised that the entire household become so involved in the investigations, but these are an unlikely group which has emerged over the series of novels.

This is a most enjoyable book and is obviously very late in the series. It could be read on its own but would be more appreciated if some or all of the earlier books had been read before this one. I have read them out of order as I borrowed or bought them, and they are easily followed. I find it a great alternative to heavier literary fare, and would recommend it as a historical adventure.

The Twisted Sword by Winston Graham; the eleventh Poldark novel

This book is number eleven in a series of twelve, so there is a risk of spoilers of many books in reviewing it, but it is such I brilliant book I thought that I would take the risk. If I am honest, I found books nine and ten (“The Miller’s Dance” and “The Loving Cup” respectively) good and readable, but it is this novel which really had me gripped. Not many books literally keep me awake because I must read more, but this one did on more than one occasion. A big book in every sense, it maintains suspense and yet carries multiple storylines so effortlessly that it is a great read.

Time has passed, children have grown and are now in the midst of their own relationships. George is becoming accustomed to being a married man again, but finds that his wife and son can still surprise him in various ways. As always, his suspicions and grudges are affecting his business decisions, and not always for the better. Clowance is not always finding her husband easy to predict or live with, but always challenging. Jeremy has achieved much, most of which is beyond his dreams, but has changed from the steam engine obsessed boy to a man of responsibility

The biggest change is to Ross and Demelza as they emerge from the background of the previous books and the fortunes of their children to become the loving couple with attraction to both each other and those that they encounter. Transplanted to France, Demelza rediscovers her adventurous spirit which means that she shines socially despite her lack of language. Ross becomes the man of individual strength and purpose which brings him into conflict with those who are dangerous to cross. This is the essential relationship which powers all of the novels and which flourishes once more in this book. In good and very bad times they cannot be completely separated, and it is probably their story which meant that I enjoyed this book so much.

This book is dominated by a battle which changed the history of France and much of Europe. If the prospect of military action puts you off, this is not the diagrammatic battle of obscure history books; rather the human experience of scrappy action and injury. There is a family tragedy which takes the breath away, but it serves to remind the reader that life in the early nineteenth century was often brutal and short. Not the most cheerful of the novels, but intense and ultimately hopeful.

This book is a dazzling display of narration and suspense. In a series of novels written over decades, the emphasis has changed several times and while all the books are readable and enjoyable, it is as if Graham was keen to give a renewed focus to Ross and Demelza in the context of their family and it is this element which gives the book its standout quality. It is intense and memorable, and probably the best of the later books in the series.

If you are addicted to the tv series, and finding the whole idea of reading all the books a little overwhelming, or if you are part way through the series of books and flagging a little, this novel alone is a great reason to keep going!




Kitty Peck and the Child of Ill Fortune by Kate Griffin

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If you remember a novel called “Kitty Peck and the Music Hall Mystery”, this book is the sequel or second one of a series concerning a Victorian Music Hall empire which did not hold back on detail. The first book was remarkable for the clever way it described the London streets and buildings in intense detail, but without unnecessary padding. The people around young Kitty are also described with honest realism, old or young, scarred and beautiful. Kitty’s situation at the end of that novel is a stunning surprise to all, but I think it would be possible to read this present book with enjoyment as a standalone novel.

“Paradise” is the ironic name of an area of London’s less salubrious back streets, riverside, buildings containing dubious businesses, and the three Music Halls in which Kitty and a number of the main characters work. The running of this business involves not only obvious accountancy skills which are undertaken by the “Beetle”; a legendary character, but the moral grey areas of exploitation of people. This is a book which contains violence and fear, tension and deceit. Several characters are not what they seem on various levels, and there are some confusions which inevitably involve the reader in flipping back to check for clues. It is told from Kitty’s point of view, and there are splendid details of her newly acquired dresses, contrasted with the less than neat circumstances that she finds herself in throughout the novel. A small child is in peril, other people die, and this is high melodrama of the most dramatic kind. Family members give Kitty problems, but in the same way she begins to understand the pressure that they have been facing.

This is genuinely a tense, gripping read which holds the reader’s interest from beginning to end. Kitty Peck in this book is not really affected by many romantic distractions herself, even if her companion Lucca is afflicted. There are so many challenges to face on so many levels that Kitty must develop independence and self -belief fast, even if she becomes overwhelmed by the whole picture. She emerges as brave and immensely resourceful which is good as danger threatens everywhere, and she can only depend on herself ultimately. I confess that ending is haunting, and perhaps best not read late at night. This is a grim book in many ways, though totally absorbing. I do not want to spoil it for anyone, but there is another book just out which always suggests that Kitty survives.

This is a book which would be enjoyable for anyone who enjoys historical novels with mystery and adventure. Perhaps far fetched, perhaps the whole idea of a fiercely independent woman with such power is anachronistic, but it is a stirring and enjoyable book which I recommend highly to both fans of this genre and those keen to discover more about Victorian London from an impeccably written novel.

The Reformation in Fiction – a list of books with comments!

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Here is something completely different! A few months ago I gave a lecture on the Reformation in Fiction – one in a series of talks on the Reformation in England. I was then asked to summarise it for a magazine article, which meant that it became more of a list of books with comments on what I thought made them relevant. I thought that some readers of this blog may enjoy lists of books, so here is the short version. I actually read extracts of most of the books listed here, so it was a bit of a fight to keep it short! Some of the books may have also been reviewed on this blog, so do look them up under the authors’ name to the right of your screen.

This third talk looked at the place of fiction in understanding the Reformation. Limited to the Reformation in England, there was still a lot of ground to cover. The reason for historical fiction was summed up in Hilary Mantel’s Reith lectures which are probably still available in transcript form online. The understanding of previous generations emerges through fiction, as what people felt, heard, saw and said can  be explored, even if not proved in documentation. All history is of necessity selective, so why not help people to understand what it was like to actually experience the Reformation?

Two series of books help us understand what life was like in a monastery in England pre Reformation. Ellis Peters “Brother Cadfael” books are set in a monastery in Shrewsbury in the 1130s. From them we learn about the monks who have lived in the world like Cadfael himself, as well as those who entered young with ambitions for advancement. The monastery offers sanctuary and help to the sick and needy, as well as having to maintain its position in the community. Similarly, Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew books set in Cambridge in the 1300s are about the variety of monks, priests and academics who inhabit the small town and the politics, rivalries and jealousies that emerge between the different orders.  Life in a convent is represented by Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “The Corner that Held Them” as it describes the inhabitants of a small English convent.

The period of the Reformation has been covered via historical fiction writers over many decades. Some will remember Jean Plaidy’s many books about the Tudors and their supporters such as Sir Thomas More. His refusal to acknowledge the break with Rome and his fate was movingly described in the play “A Man for All Seasons” which I was fortunate to study at school. More recently, the life and times of the man, Thomas Cromwell,  who implemented many of the reforms of the times has been explored to enormous effect by Hilary Mantel in “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies”, the result of so much research and subsequently adapted for stage and television.

Alison Weir has produced many non-fiction books concerning British history, but her latest fictional series on the six wives of Henry VIII includes “Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession”, which shows Anne as actively interested in the reformation of religious faith in England. Elizabeth Freemantle’s first book, “The Queen’s Gambit” looks at Henry’s sixth wife, whose writing and publishing of books encouraging worship in English placed her in real danger from her husband, who was inconsistent in his views on reform.

The actual dissolution of the monasteries pushed through by Cromwell and his commissioners has been described vividly in C.J. Sansom’s “Dissolution”. A lawyer, Matthew Shardlake, is sent to solve a murder in a fictional monastery, but it soon becomes obvious that the entire establishment is riven by corruption and bitterness. As the monastery physically crumbles, the process of dissolving the religious houses of the country proceeds and their wealth redistributed. “A Cold Wind Blowing” by Barbara Willard, a much less well known book, also recounts the destruction of a monastery and its effects on the people who have been dependent on it for generations. The human cost of the Reformation is exhaustively described in Hilda Prescott’s huge book, “The Man on a Donkey” which looks at the convergence of characters which led to the Pilgrimage of Grace, the movement of people which began in the north as a protest against the religious reforms. A very real threat to the rule of Henry VIII, this book looks at people from various backgrounds who actively rejected what was done to change the practice of worship which had lasted for generations.

An account of how the religious controversy of Henry’s reform still dominated the reigns of his successors, S.J.Parris “Heresy” is dominated by the dangers of religious controversy in Elizabeth’s England and beyond. Rory Clements also recounted the real danger that England stood in from Catholic – inspired invasion during Elizabeth’s reign in “Martyr” as the settlement achieved was still precarious.

So this list of books may seem a little overwhelming, but their use of fictional characters jointly strives to give a picture of before the reformation, during the religious changes, and the effects of an uncertain settlement. There are many non-fiction books available which tackle the Reformation, but fiction can deepen our understanding of the real people involved.