Family Matters by Anthony Rolls – A domestic British Library Crime Classic!

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This fairly recent book in the excellent British Library Crime Classics is unusual in several ways. The most obvious is that the victim is a well-developed character throughout the book, as the death does not occur until three quarters of the way through the novel. The singular nature of this novel is that Rolls succeeds in creating an intensely dislikeable character who comes to dominate this novel; usually the victim is relatively vaguely drawn lest the reader develop sympathy with him or her. This is assuredly not the case in this novel in which for much of its length the characterisation is all and the plot only really spins along faster towards the end. While there is something of the suffocating or threatening about this book, Rolls manages to hold it together well and in a most clever way. Apparently, according to Martin Edwards’ introduction, Dorothy L Sayers said of it that there may have been a plot hole, but it was so convincingly written that the reader accepts it and moves on.

Robert Arthur Kewdingham is a domestic tyrant in his failures. His home life with wife, son and elderly father becomes a burden to himself and the others. He has strangely eccentric ideas and passion for collecting which threatens to swamp the house in so many ways. He seeks to deceive himself and others with his flirtations and suspicions, his money making schemes and his threatening behaviour. Significantly he becomes increasingly drawn to medicines of his own devising, so when he becomes ill no one cause can be observed. Those around him develop their own agendas out of curiosity and desperation. Murky motives abound and opportunities are seized to harm; the novel becomes one of many questions and subplots as various people feel compelled to react to events.

This is a clever novel for its insights into a stifling family life of mutual destruction and dislike. Each character, however minor or seemingly insignificant, has a part to play in a complex but somehow just believable chain of events. Rolls telegraphs what is going to happen at so many points in the novel; yet the reader is left guessing throughout. I think he achieves this through the small details of a house described so vividly in detail, as the collection seems to ooze from every surface and be produced to all comers. The detail of the party toys is so complete that I could visualize not only their insignificance but their symbolic destruction as part of the proverbial last straw as Mrs Bertha Kewdingham is pushed beyond endurance. The encounter with John Harrigall in London captures the wildness of city weather to echo the insufferable nature of the accusations voiced by Robert Arthur vexed by suspicion and hatred.

This is not a book to be enjoyed in many senses, as no character really emerges as a pleasant or positive. However, it is a clever book in its careful construction of the destruction of a character, not just physically but mentally. It is one of the few books where I have been tempted to look ahead to see if the protagonist can get any worse, and how far Rolls can push the boundaries of understanding of motive. It may have its inconsistencies and sometimes go beyond the limits of believability, but it is a character driven murder mystery written with confidence and control, and it is unusual in its concept.

One of the reason I have reviewed this book is that it was the only one I could not find as we arranged my complete collection of British Library Crime Classics on my dedicated shelves, and I discovered it half read on the heaped up bedside table (whoops!). I have also had more than usual trouble getting hold of the latest novel, “Fire in the Thatch” as it had sold out! Finally I ordered it through Blackwells University bookshop in Derby…I was beginning to worry that I would miss out! At last I have my copy; watch this space for more!

What does it mean? by Angela Thirkell – a peace time classic comfort read

This is a strange title for a book which does lack much of a narrative arc, or indeed plot. This is a later book in the Barsetshire series, being originally published in 1954, and while it includes with many of the favourite characters of those who have followed the series thus far, it is far from a novel of action or drama. Rather it is a series of set pieces; dinner parties, rehearsals for a play, committee meetings, in which certain characters come to the fore and there is a development whether great or small. Having said that, this is a most enjoyable book in which those with a working knowledge of the inhabitants of Barsetshire and beyond will appreciate and enjoy finding out what happens to those whose progress they have followed for so many years during war and peace.

Thirkell also wrote a book called “Coronation Summer”, which deals with the Coronation of Queen Victoria; this book deals with the preparations for the Coronation of another young queen, Elizabeth II. As throughout the country, people prepare to watch the ceremony on a few television sets or the quickly released films in the cinema. In Barsetshire there are a couple of people who will actually be at the Abbey in their full regalia, while others are to be in buildings with a view of the procession. The majority will remain in their homes on the great day, especially as the weather was wet and cold, a running joke throughout this novel. The great celebrations will come on the following day, when there will be a Pageant, a children’s Play, and a sketch by celebrated actors. Obviously a committee must be formed, headed by the now very grown up Lydia Merton, and anyone whose has endured or enjoyed a committee or public group will appreciate the humour and frustrations as characters gather and get diverted as they collect costumes and props. Some come forward by habit, others show unsuspected talents. Rehearsals, singing, talented accompanists and other portraits of well -loved characters emerge, full of their confusions and contradictions.  Small problems are solved, slight risks such as speedy driving met, the atmosphere is one of relief at the end of war and the easing of rationing. At the end a love affair is resolved, including self -sacrifice and a gentle tenderness.

This is a book for those who know and appreciate Thirkell’s characters, which makes up   slightly for the fact that it may be challenging to get hold of a copy. I greatly enjoyed its mixture of scenes of country life and reflections of national themes, but it is so character dominated that the plots is difficult to grasp. It is essentially a cheerful book, when those who are challenged by great shyness find a way to cope, and the problem of a huge house elegantly met. There is a generally positive picture of the servants whose moral behaviour is well known; the Bunce girls are active in the plot despite their frequent pregnancies. This is the sort of comfort reading which the later Thirkell books are known for, despite her acknowledged confusion concerning names and even marriages that she had described in the earlier books.  I really enjoyed this book, and found it an enjoyable treat after reading many of the Barsetshire chronicles.

While it may be difficult to get hold of a copy of this book, I seem to have acquired two copies of the first edition, and it is a lovely book to read. How much does the edition you have make a difference to your enjoyment of a novel?

The Habit of Murder by Susanna Gregory – or a tale of a small Suffolk town

The fact that this is the “Twenty – Third Chronicle of Matthew Bartholmew” may be a little off putting if you have no idea who Matthew is, or where or when this “chronicle” is set. Or you may be a devotee of these books, who has obviously been eagerly waiting for each new episode to emerge either in hardback or paperback at the rate of one per year. Either way, this book is undoubtedly a treat, and as I am definitely in the second group (so bad I buy the new hardback) I can only assume but fairly believe that even if you are new to these books, you will still find much to enjoy in the latest adventures of Matthew Bartholomew, physician in fourteenth century  Cambridge. Together with his great friend, Brother Michael, and in this book, Master Langlee, they have yet another murder or two to solve, and as usual find themselves in enormous danger while doing so.

This adventure takes place in the lovely and wealthy (to this day) Clare in Suffolk. Matthew, Michael and Langlee travel to the small town in the hope of getting more funding for their college, Michaelhouse, in Cambridge. They travel with other representatives of various colleges to attend the funeral of noted benefactor, Elizabeth de Burgh, and discover a remarkable state of affairs. The castle and household of Lady de Burgh is in a state of constant tension with the townspeople, often over the parish church which is a show piece of new and challenging architecture. When one of the travellers and a much loved inhabitant of the castle are found dead, suspicions, rumours and really dangerous situations occur, when no one seems innocent and suspicious deaths are recalled. Relations between town and castle deteriorate and in the midst of danger and distrust Matthew and Michael undertake to solve the murders. This is not a bleak story however, as much humour emerges as they meet an enclosed anchorite who is more sociable than those in the outside world, a hermit who enjoys shopping trips, and a gang of young men who follow outrageous fashions at all costs. There is also a group of monks who were soldiers before taking their vows, and who therefore take the role of peacekeepers and great drinkers.  As usual, Matthew finds himself in danger while trying to bring the killers to justice, see the sights of a beautiful town and raise funds for his desperately poor college.  Michael asserts his natural authority, while Langlee finds some old drinking friends.

This is a brilliant addition to the series of books, which are frequently but not exclusively set in Cambridge. Clare is a tourist attraction to this day, and it is fascinating to read a book where real characters in the town’s history are liberally brought to life. The style of writing is as ever funny, intriguing and draws the reader into situations where impeccable research into clothes, medical matters and religious observance are skilfully absorbed into the story. The characters are consistent and although there is murder and sudden death throughout, there is no gratuitous violence. Fear, suspicion and jealousy abound, but there are also ridiculous characters whose naivety and ineptitude in preparing for war or discovering the really guilty is staggering.  There are also disturbing concepts, such as the treatment of women and what they have to resort to doing in desperate circumstances, but these are dealt with in a sensitive manner and eventual justice emerges. This is a splendid book for all lovers of historical fiction with a murder mystery theme, and would probably work as a stand- alone novel for new readers to Gregory’s series.

When we lived in Suffolk we frequently visited Clare, which is a lovely little town with some superb examples of pargeting, which is a decorative tradition in which patterns and simple pictures are made in the wall plaster of various buildings. If you are ever in the area, do take a trip there, as there is a large park with a railway station in the middle, as well as lots of little shops to explore.

Company in the Evening – Ursula Orange – Wartime comedy and romance

This extremely enjoyable novel by Ursula Orange was originally published in 1944, but it is far more than another wartime novel. Indeed, the mid war setting hardly makes reference to the ongoing bombing in London. This is a first person novel which seems very ahead of its time, featuring a woman coping, just, with the slings and arrows of a job, a live in relative, a small child and recent divorce. Her reactions as recorded in this novel are so understandable; even the title of the book reflects just what she claims she does not need, company in the time she relaxes from her job in London. This is a book from an era when the servant problem existed, but the problems which emerge are far more personal than employer problems. This is a book which tackles many themes, not all of them stuck in the mid twentieth century, and is an honest, funny account of life.

Vicky, narrator and chief protagonist, is on her way to her widowed mother’s house as the book opens. Up until now she has arranged her life very much on her own terms; after a carefully arranged divorce from Raymond she is bringing up her daughter Antonia with the assistance of Blakey, cook, sort of nanny and general servant. Sadly, her brother Philip has been killed in the early part of the war, leaving a very young pregnant widow, Rene. It is partly to move Rene back with her that Vicky is making the visit, partly to relieve her mother of the burden of a large house. While she realises that such sacrifices are demanded of many at this time, she regrets her loss of independence as she has an organised life involving three days a week working for a literary agent. Rene proves to be a difficult housemate, unsure of Vicky and soon at odds with Blakey. Barry, a local headmaster, has been seeing Vicky for a while, but she is not interested in more than friendship. In a traumatic episode, Vicky runs into Raymond, and her life becomes more troublesome.

This is a well written, involving book with plenty of humour amongst the annoyance of daily life. I enjoyed Vicky’s internal monologue, convinced that her determination to bring up Antonia alone is a responsible one, but also guilty that she has no siblings, proud that she behaves well without much discipline, and that she appreciates small treats. I enjoyed her minute examination of conversations, her understandings and misunderstandings, as they all seemed drawn from life. The problems that she encounters in her paid work are particularly appropriate for the novel, as a short story author behaves delightfully badly. This book is very well written and full of observation, controlled and well planned given the time of writing, when the outcome of the Second World War was not decided. Altogether this is a book ahead of its time in terms of realistic romance, daily life described and humour. Having just checked my review of Orange’s other reprinted book, the strangely named “Tom Tiddler’s Ground” (see this book has a similar honest humour and is equally enjoyable. It is definitely a great discovery on the part of Furrowed Middlebrow and Dean Street Press, and I am really grateful for the review copy.


Dead Man’s Music – A Ludovic Travers Mystery by Christopher Bush

Dead Man's Music: A Ludovic Travers Mystery by [Bush, Christopher]

This sixth book in the Ludovic Travers series by Christopher Bush really hits its stride as a novel featuring the successful business author working on a case, albeit with the overall control of Superintendent Wharton and an invaluable contribution by Franklin. Originally published in 1931, this fast moving book presents riddles of music, recognition and international criminal activity. While Travers himself remains a little elusive, the mystery is a first class combination of unusual situations, clues and red herrings. Dean Street Press have reprinted another classic in this novel, and all lovers of solid, first class murder mysteries will enjoy reading this cleverly constructed book.

Ludovic Travers literally bumps into Wharton travelling to investigate a probable suicide, and when he goes to observe the case, he finds that he recognises the corpse as an eccentric man he visited in response to a request for a discerning man. The strange tale of his visit slots into his explanation of the case so far, and Wharton is persuaded that there is far more to investigate than first appeared. Claude Rook is recognised despite all attempts to disguise his body, and the music which Travers so enjoyed becomes a dominant theme in this novel. Some actual sheet music seems to represent something highly valuable, even if it seems to make no sense to the musicians consulted by Travers. The other mysterious character that Travers encounters and remains puzzled by is a housekeeper accorded far more privileges than usual to even a senior servant. Her silent communication may be an important clue, and her presence in another house raises even more questions. John Franklin’s involvement as usual involves risk and foreign travel; he seems to be the man of action compared with Travers’ flashes of inspiration. When combined with Wharton’s phenomenal memory for past cases, they are a formidable team and a fair result emerges.

It is always possible to see the influences of other Detection Club members in Bush’s writing; the original encounter with Wharton’s vehicle is very reminiscent of Lord Peter Wimsey’s accident in “The Nine Tailors”, and it seems as these novels proceed Palmer the manservant is echoing the faithful Bunter. Not that the Travers novels are copying Sayers standard works; the plot and the crime remain far more central and Bush was apparently not so likely to get waylaid by social and other speculation. This is strong novel of complicated but enjoyable plotting with some unexpected twists and interesting characters. Even minor characters are well drawn and contribute to a satisfying whole. I truly enjoyed this book, provided as ever by Dean Street Press for review, and look forward to following Travers, Franklin and Wharton in the new cases just released.

On Saturday I enjoyed a visit to Waterstones in Nottingham, where I spent far too long investigating the fiction section. Sadly two of the books on my list were unavailable, but I did get “Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves” by Rachel Malik. It looks to be very interesting!

Sheep’s Clothing – A “Detective Frolic” by Austin Lee

This is another crime classic reprinted fairly recently, this time by Greyladies. How much Miss Flora Hogg becomes a series detective is not clear, but this 1955 novel introduces her as a single lady schoolteacher who is enabled at the death of her police Superintendent father to give up her career and becomes a Private Investigator. It is a promising beginning in which her indeterminate age allows her to be active in pursuit of the guilty, yet mature enough to be taken seriously. While her first case involves the residents of her village, she is able to dash up to London to further investigate the murky doings which have led to murder. She also seems to enjoy friendly relations with the current police force in the area, so she is allowed access to their findings. The Inspector is a man of commendable intuition, and this is very much a joint effort at solving a mystery beyond murder.

When Miss Hogg first sets out her new business plate, she is far from certain that she will attract a clients, so asks her friend Milly to stay, thus providing culinary humour throughout the book. Miss Emily is a redoubtable lady of over eighty (so positively ancient in the 1950s!) who has an annoying problem with things being moved and going missing from her long deceased father’s study. Miss Hogg quickly sizes up the situation and offers her help, which involves checking the first of several people who have suddenly become incredibly interested in her father’s effects. Meanwhile, a visiting Bishop is causing excitement in the Vicar’s household, then has the misfortune to end up dead in the study. A murdered senior cleric certainly demands investigation, and soon interrogation of all of the American citizens. Some seem to have something to hide, while other scholars deny any interest in the late explorer’s long stored collection.

This book is subtitled “A Detective Frolic”, and it fits into the bracket of cosy and humourous murder mystery. Later in the book a character emerges called Lord Hounslow, whose concern at his phone bill threatens to obscure some important evidence, especially when he is assured that he will not be charged. This is a spirited book, with a memorable detective who solves an ingenious plot. Alongside the humour there is some fascinating problem solving and this is a controlled piece of writing which draws the reader in and maintains interest throughout. I will certainly be looking for another Miss Hogg mystery to follow her adventures on the basis of this novel.

This is a Greyladies edition which I discovered in Heffers’ Bookshop in Cambridge. Further investigation (Thank you Detective Fiction and Literature department!) shows that I can get hold of at least one more by this author, so there goes my pocket money again!

Death in Devon – The County Guides series by Ian Sansom – A jolly read?

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This is the second book in the County Guides series, and it is just as surreal as the other that I have read in this set, being focused on the strange and perhaps wonderful Swanton Morley, the ‘People’s Professor’. If you have not encountered this fictional character, possibly someone who should have existed, he is a compulsive writer of guidebooks to the counties of Britain. That is a small piece of his work; he writes articles, books, pieces for magazines and newspapers and many other occasions on every subject. Mainly seeking to guide people, he seizes every opportunity to gather and disseminate his formidable knowledge. Surfing, constructing a fire, the composition of a safety kit, Latin; every subject can and is covered. To be fair, his motives are less financial and more the spread of what he sees as necessary knowledge, but those around him struggle to keep up with his divergent thoughts and insistent demands for research and photographs. He is transported in a Lagonda (the books being set in some vague period in the late 1930s) transformed into some sort of mobile study, driven by Miriam, his fascinating and sometimes frightening daughter. The books are narrated by Stephen Sefton, a young man who has come from a privileged background, receiving the sort of standard education that Morley despairs of frequently and vocally. Sefton admits to suffering from the after effects of fighting in the Spanish Civil war, the trauma of battle alongside the natives of a country that he struggled to understand. Thus his somewhat outlandish experiences with Morley are set against a remembered background of sudden death and survival against the odds.

In this episode in the recalled writing of the County Guides, Morley decides on Devon for his researches, given that he has been invited to speak at a boys’ school. When they arrive, it is to discover that it is a family concern; the Standish family seems full of distinct characters while the boys and parents seem to provide a chorus of confusion. A mysterious death is soon discovered, an unofficial tour of caves occurs, and the exact use of a darkroom becomes elusive. There is mayhem as animals disappear, a school speech day and party are memorable and a school trip culminates in a surfing lesson. Morley inserts and insists on arcane knowledge at every opportunity, in-jokes, obscure information, and what would be a mystery investigation becomes confused by extraneous information.

This is a strangely enjoyable book, with elements of farce, a satire on detective novels of the time, and some genuinely amusing situations and comments. It can be read as a surreal chase, a mystery novel with added humour and obscure information. I suppose I found the idea a little disturbing on this occasion as the death reported fairly early on is casually dismissed. Sefton is a little hapless, but is traumatised by his experience of war, and there is a theme throughout this book of his distress compared with the strange people and events going on around him. This is in many ways a clever and entertaining book, punctuated with photographs of the period, but it also has an underlying layer of sadness in the face of losses and challenges past and yet to come.

I must confess that I have only just finished reading this book, having bought the other two in paperback. I am fairly confident that they can be read in isolation, once you have sorted the main characters. I hope so, anyway; book three seems to have escaped! The joys of having so many books! Not that I am complaining….

A Notable Woman – The Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt edited by Simon Garfield

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This is an unusual book in many ways. It features a woman’s diaries which covers most of her life, yet she was not a great celebrity. It does not focus on the Second World War or any other specific period of great upheaval, except the mid twentieth century generally. While Jean Lucey Pratt did write a biography of an actress which achieved some notice, her other writings disappeared. She was in many senses an unremarkable woman, but her journals which cover two thirds of the century disclose personal observations and thoughts on her life and the world generally that their very honesty compels attention. They have a unique quality of drawing the reader in beyond their actual content; a portrait of any individual can be fascinating if they are as well written as this one, especially edited with such skill as is shown here by Simon Garfield.

Jean Lucey Pratt started to write her journals in 1925, when she was fifteen. She described her family, her friends and those she was attracted to with accuracy that they soon emerge as real people, behaving as oddly and unexpectedly as family and friends appear in a young person’s eyes. Soon her attraction to people emerges, her feelings described with such searing honesty that she becomes a person of consequence. Her coverage of the war years is not dramatic and adventurous, as she finds the work that she can do does not involve a uniform. She goes on to describe her love life, her disappointments and her attachments. Friends bring joy and confusion, and she finds great interest in her somewhat solitary life in a cottage as she listens to the radio and lives with cats and kittens. Her writing is vitally important not only as an expression of her talent, as she is aware of her perilous financial situation, and knows she must try to raise money by any means while she tries to maintain her small household. Ironically it is these journals for which she will be remembered, even if she had little idea of their value as social documents.

This is not a book for everyone as it has little plot, beyond a life story, and that is one which is geographically and socially limited. If you are interested in the minutiae of the daily life of a woman of the twentieth century, this is a fascinating record of real life. Garfield’s editing apparently removed much of the cat- based repetition which could have become boring, but this is a record of the daily incidents in the life of a woman with few romantic illusions, but many relevant observations. I took a long time to read it, and genuinely enjoyed it as a book, and recommend it as both a good read and a fascinating social document.