An Armful of Babies and a Cup of Tea by Molly Corbally: The beginning of the British Welfare State made Human

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This “Memoirs of a 1950s Health Visitor” is not usually the sort of book I would read if I’m honest, but having been offered a copy to review I picked it up and soon found myself hooked on this gentle recollection of life. Written as a memory of a life rich in possibilities as the new NHS tried to change the life of people in a largely rural area, the characters are as rich as any fictional account of life at the time. The arrangement of the recollections are well balanced and frequently hopeful; this is not an account of misery and suffering, but a largely positive collection of real life situations. Though largely about parents and children, this book also reminds us of how Health Visitors were also concerned with older people for whom life had become challenging, and for whom an emerging Welfare State was a new concept.

Molly Corbally had served as a nurse in the Second World War, and was keen to start a new way of life after the sharing of quarters and the responding to orders were over. She became one of the New District Health Visitors, who after a fairly brief training was sent out into a community with all its mixture of classes, income, rural, town and village all had its needs and challenges. Setting up home with a friend, Eileen, a Nursing Officer, they discovered the virtues of their own home and importantly a garden. In a new uniform, Molly discovers that she not only has to find the courage to approach new mothers in their homes, but also deal with those who had been running the clinics and voluntary charities for many years in their own way. Thus doctors, midwives, and local officials had to be approached with tact and strategy, so that they did not feel that a relatively young and new woman was bulldozing into their established practices. Women at the most vulnerable time of their lives had to be persuaded and convinced to adopt skills which may have challenged the assumed wisdom of their families; the interests of babies and young children had to be paramount over pride and practice. This was in the time when children had to be vaccinated against such things as polio for the first time, and early symptoms of such diseases had to be acted on in time of epidemic. Some familiar issues are recalled as families fight against elderly parents going into care so that their inheritance is threatened, and Molly has to act to arrange basic meals and care for those on their own. Domestic neglect and abuse has to be assessed and sorted out, especially where post war housing shortages and lack of protection for tenants meant that even the pregnant and small children were threatened with homelessness. Sometimes common sense prevails, at other times the difficulties are too profound. There is a chapter which deals with the death of two adults in a very tender way, though mercifully virtually all the children are shown sufficient and well advised care.

This is a gentle yet powerful book which deals on a human scale with the beginnings of the welfare state, as people come to recognise that there is genuine help and advice available if it can be accepted. As a piece of writing there are some little problems as the narrative jumps from one family or patient quickly without much warning, and sometimes the following of a theme means that there is not much indication of a time setting as the entire book presumably stretches over more than one decade. It is honest, as Molly shares her apprehension at advising the wife of a new doctor who has some differing ideas and her frustration with those who question newer ideas. Sometimes her accounts of her home life though fascinating does not blend so well with her recollections of work. Also, she has obviously chosen those stories which are positive, rather than perhaps recalling the daily frustrations of a huge task. Overall this is a satisfying book, steady and rewarding, and a fascinating account of everyday life in a time of change.

So, a very different book review today, but as you may appreciate from reading this blog, I do enjoy a wide variety of reading matter! Having been approached by “Two Roads” to review this book, it turned out to be a really good read. I do welcome approaches to review books, and while I do have regular dates and some blog tours to come, I will tackle most things! The only stipulation is that I review “Real” books ie hard copies, rather than ebooks in any format. There is still room in the house (just!)

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery by Leonard Gribble – A British Library Crime Classic with sporting suspense!

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A murder mystery based on a football match is rare, and perhaps not generally appealing those not interested in sport. Fortunately for those not massively knowledgeable about the football teams of the 1930s, most of the facts about the game are either given or not vital to understanding the plot. It is in fact an intriguing murder mystery irrespective of its setting, but its football theme gives another closed community from which the police must discover their suspect and find the supporting evidence.  In its time this was very much a fashionable book, tied to a film version of the mystery and featuring a facsimile of the autographs of the actual Arsenal team of the time. It came very close to being a celebrity book, with the prolific writer Leonard Gribble providing the mystery which featured at least one real person. I was very pleased to receive a review copy of this book, well produced in its new British Library Crime Classic cover.

The action of this book begins with a football match between Arsenal and a fictional amateur team, the Trojans. Although the Gunners are playing well, the Trojans are worthy opponents and their new player Doyce is making a notable contribution. A dramatic fall leads to an investigation which draws in the police in the persons of Inspector Slade and his sergeant Clinton. A wide ranging discovery of motives and clues takes in the women associated with the teams, as well as memories of past tragedies. Certain technical details of poisoning feature, as in many respects this is a traditional whodunnit with the police trying to work out the how, who and why, if only because one rather leads into another. The geography of the (real) Arsenal stadium of the day means that  only a certain number of people had access to the relevant room at the vital time, so the range of suspects is limited as in any good murder mystery, but there are plenty of surprises to come in this twisting novel. Slade makes one imaginative leap but essentially it is a logically worked out novel, with suspense until the last few pages.

I must admit to a certain lack of enthusiasm for this novel before I started, as my football knowledge was only extensive in the 1970s. Having started to read, and using the listing of the teams, however, I soon began to be drawn into this well written novel, featuring well written characters in what became realistic settings. Gribble was obviously a writer who appreciated the value of minor characters, as even the caretaker of some flats is well drawn. The women in the novel are not always terrifically active, but that is partly because of the largely male /football setting. The two or three who do feature are so opposite to each other that they manage to be significant. A well paced novel with an helpful and informative Introduction from Martin Edwards, this is to be recommended to even the most football resistant mystery fan, and there is much to be enjoyed as even Slade’s sidekick wonders if he has  successfully solved the crime.

Two murder mystery reviews in one week does not mean that I have not been reading other sorts of books! Other reviews are and will be available.

I am waiting for a delivery of delicious ice cream from a charity ice cream maker in Derby “Just Ice” if you want to look up their mouth watering flavours. It’s not all for me and Northernvicar though, as we are hoping that some people will join us for the Vicarage Tea Party tomorrow….!


Untimely Death by Cyril Hare – Or “He should have Died Hereafter”?

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This is a fairly unusual book originally published in 1957, now available from faber and faber. Written by a vastly experienced barrister, the law is at least as important as the detection of crime in this novel. Not that it features a detective keenly searching for clues or suspects; for a while there is a denial that there has indeed been a murder or indeed a death. The circumstances in which Francis Pettigrew even becomes involved in the situation is circumstantial and seemingly accidental; the beginning of the narrative relates to childhood memories revisited. A brief novel in many ways, a clue may be in the original title: “He Should Have Died Hereafter”.

The novel opens with retired barrister Francis Pettigrew’s admission that the holiday with his wife Eleanor is all her idea, financing and eventual passing of her driving test. They find rooms in a farmhouse in Sallowcombe, where he had spent his childhood. He further discovers that a Hunt is on, and he remembers his childhood fears as he was not a natural horse rider. The farmhouse in which they stay is run by a Mr Joliffe, a widower, who lives there with his apparently widowed daughter and her two daughters. The relationships within the family seem to be complicated, as Francis witnesses a clandestine visit. A picnic ends with a sizable walk for Francis, as he revisits old haunts and discovers dramatic changes. Bolter’s Tussock is a special place in his memory, as he discovered a body there as a child. His experiences there as an adult leave him bewildered and baffled, as well as in pain as he has another enforced attempt at horse riding. This is quite a funny section of the book, as his riding is unpractised to say the least. When there is no body to be seen, Pettigrew becomes more agitated as he wonders if he has imagined everything. The women in the novel are frank and blunt, even when life becomes complicated. This is almost a book of two halves, as what Francis thinks he has seen is later extremely relevant to an inquest and a large civil case. As Francis returns to his old workplace, the lawyer is reminded of his life’s work and old friends, and the peculiarities of the law which confuses other people.

This book really worked for me on several levels. It is a fascinating mystery as no logical explanation seems possible to what Francis thinks he has seen. There is sadness as the revelations of the novel emerge. The obscurity of the legal point is not unique to this book, but it is well handled here and a satisfactory conclusion is reached. The characters are honestly described in all their complexity, especially the women. It is a little confusing at times, and the police do not emerge in a great light. It is a reasonably quick read, logical and always interesting, and the author’s own legal background makes it reliable on the legal points. There is a fair bit of humour, and in some senses it is a psychological mystery. A most enjoyable book, and having also read “An English Murder” I am keen to find others by this author.

Lots of books to review at the moment, fortunately the weather is still too hot to do a lot more than read! (Not that I’m complaining!) The plants are looking a bit sad at the moment, despite Northernvicar’s attempts with the hose. Still, we are getting lots of cherry tomatoes. There is also the Vicarage Tea Party to look forward to, so I hope that isn’t the day when we have a sudden downpour.

Mrs. Frensham Describes a Circle by Richmal Crompton – a Wartime tale of communities

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This is one of those most fascinating of novels written during the Second World War, when nothing was settled and the defeat of Britain and her allies was still a possibility. Richmal Crompton’s 1942 novel has been reprinted by Greyladies, and it provides a wonderful range of characters whose fears, problems and lifestyle is affected in many ways, but not always by war.  There is betrayal, death and some loss, but also there are characters who find a new hope, a new purpose, and perhaps the ending they need in this unusual novel. Written with control of many characters, situations and possibilities, this is a novel of wartime but not really about the war, more about the real people in all their imperfections and challenges.

Mrs Frensham is a woman whose husband, Philip, has become terrified of life. At first this novel seems to be a tale of rural experience, a village gradually introduced to the reader through various residents. There is the young vicar, keenly welcoming evacuees to his home as representatives of his beloved East End community. His sister believes she runs the house, while really muddled by arcane Biblical knowledge. A single lady keeps her late father’s cactus alive, while thinking of new ways of helping the war effort. Events intervene and Mrs Frensham finds herself in a new community. Determined mothers, disappointed fathers and muddled children mean that many problems emerge. Each individual has their own story, perhaps grief, perhaps hope, perhaps saving up the offences of others. Possibly there will be heroism or possibly just a breakaway from what is expected. This is a story of real experience, annoying people, frustrated people, dissatisfied people. One family, neighbours of one of the main groups, are exiled as a result of war, extravagant, melodramatic and totally over the top. Crompton never allows anyone to go completely out of control, even if they are grieving for a love affair that has ended. Mrs Frensham is a quietly powerful character, involving herself in the lives of others. She recognises that sometimes fate needs a little help for the best results. The reader is never allowed to forget that there is a war on, but it is controlled. My favourite characters for their small but perfectly formed cameo are Colonel and Mrs Peterson, famed for their private but generous jokes, complete in their happiness in each other.

This is a well written novel, full of memorable characters and largely satisfying outcomes. There is romance of all kinds, but also realism in the ways that families work, with jealous siblings and some controlling parents. The characters do travel and change during the novel, but the plot is not the most central. They are groups of people happy and sad in each other, all dealing with difficult challenges, gently influenced by the actions of Mrs Frensham. Crompton shows her undoubted skill in swiftly creating a world which is less than perfect, indeed under threat, but changed by the slight and barely perceptible actions of Mrs Frensham. It is a real treat of a book, written in an uncertain time, but beautifully controlled and fascinating.

Our latest adventure was to visit Newstead Abbey on Saturday. No bookshop this time, but lovely gardens and very friendly volunteer guides. I could not actually get round the house (no lift), but the new gallery and Byron room are definitely worth a visit. There are also some well produced short films about some of the people who have owned the house and “Blood Sugar” made by a local group which draws attention to the ownership of slaves which financed some of the house renovations. Given the lovely dry weather, the park and gardens were being enjoyed by many family groups. I had taken my own books to read….

The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham – A Village Mystery

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This 1937 murder mystery, reprinted by Vintage, is a fine example of Allingham’s writing. The introduction to the omnibus edition, in which this book appears, is written by Jane Stevenson, as even as a fan of Allingham, she writes that the author is not so good at plots. Stevens points out that her skill is depicting characters, of all types, classes and origins. In this book she uses Campion, her fallible hero, to observe, comment and in his own time, act. Suspects, bodies and bystanders all mingle into one as he observes the way a small community reacts to sudden death. Each character, even the seemingly minor ones, has a worked out story, characteristics and motives, far more sophisticated than that of many of her contemporary writers. This being a Campion novel, there is a lot of self- depreciating humour on his part, but underneath, as always, he develops a plan to not only save the day, and also explain it as well.

A frequently used method of attracting attention is to place an announcement in a paper, and on this occasion it is the announcement of the funeral of an old school enemy of Campion’s. Harris, or the “Pig” as he was known owing to his distasteful range of bullying ticks and appearance is apparently no more. At the funeral there is a slight hint that he has survived, but Campion is distracted by another school friend known for his totally forgettable appearance. It is only a few months later that he is summoned to sort out a seemingly impossible crime which proving a significant embarrassment to his old friend Leo. A man fitting Harris’ description, his brother, has been squashed by a falling stone urn, when apparently no one was nearby to push it off the ledge. Leo assembles a collection of people that evening, including Janet who Campion will later go on to describe as “not clever”. There is a suspicious Vicar, who later turns up in a state to make Campion reasonably expect he is involved in the inconvenient disappearance of a dead body. Other newcomers to the village come under suspicion, especially when one offers to sell information. Dangerous situations emerge as more than one person is threatened, the mystery deepens, and even the infamous Lugg is in danger.

Allingham is not always regarded favourably in comparison with her contemporaries, and has not benefitted from as many screen adaptations. Nevertheless, she has a masterly way with dialogue and the creation of characters who are never sketched in, but proper people, whatever class or social setting they feature within in the novels. This book is not as positive about women as some; the female characters vary but are not seen as active in the resolution as in “Sweet Danger” for example, though each woman has her own backstory in this narrative. Campion is fallible and bewildered at times, thrown off balance by memories of schooldays. The inimitable Lugg makes helpful suggestions as always, and is largely ignored by his sort of master. Sometimes it seems as though Campion solves mysteries despite Lugg rather than with his support, but the bond stays strong in this novel. Overall this is perhaps not the strongest Allingham novel, but an enthusiastic story, full of assumptions overturned and red herrings exposed.

We are still sorting out here after our Norfolk trip. One discovery was that Blickling Hall, a sizable National Trust Property, has the largest secondhand book shop of any NT property in the country. Moreover, it is incredibly well organised and mainly accessible! This discovery made for a quiet hour and a half, and rather too much money spent. A fellow Angela Thirkell fan I met found four first editions of the books. (I bought three…) I also picked up a rare Delafield, but on finding the price was £95 put it down again! If you find yourself in the area it is well worth a look for older books which can be hard to find; the average price is nearer £2.50 each!

The Woolworths Girls by Elaine Everest – The start of a series

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This is the first book in the Woolworths series, and having read the third novel before it, this book answers a lot of my questions. The community of women with some additional men forms very quickly, then changes, develops and reforms. This is as a result of several things: war, romances and some very deep feelings. The background of common employment in Woolworths draws some very disparate people together and the beginning of the Second World War means that some are sent away to face unknown dangers. There appears to be room for the joyful, the worried, those who have been alone and those who have always been loved. It is a sort of soap opera, very melodramatic, but the author manages to keep it under control well. In some senses it is comfort reading, well written and reliable in maintaining interest; indeed, preventing sleep as one more chapter seems so attractive.

This book shops the assembling of three girls as they all seek employment at Erith’s branch of Woolworths. Sarah is the much loved granddaughter of Ruby, thoughtful of others and showing great ability. She quickly attracts the interest of Alan, trainee manager of the shop, who gradually reveals his secrets. Maisie is newly married, seen as glamorous owing to her dressmaking skills, already fed up of living with her mother in law. Freda, the youngest, has escaped from her abusive stepfather and arrived in the town looking for Lenny, a much loved but troubled brother. Ruby also has George, Sarah’s father staying frequently. At various times the various girls move in and out of Ruby’s house, as social events centred round the shop come and go. Betty Billington is the assistant manager of the shop, who comes to reveal her sad past as she becomes closer to the girls. As war approaches the girls find love and affection for the shop, but the demands on them and those they are close to brings some anxiety and even sorrow.  Music, clothes and the dangers of being on the home front run alongside the drama people change and various people come and go from Ruby’s house.

This book benefits greatly from being only the first in a series of books which is evidently going to run for a while, so many of the ends of the story do not have to be tied up. Having said that, many elements of the story are resolved and this book stands alone in many respects. The way is left open for several sequels however, as the characters have emerged as more than interesting enough that one wonders what will happen to them in the future, and the time scale of quite early enough in the war leaves many possible avenues open for peril!  This is a most enjoyable read, and I recommend it as a substantial novel which goes far beyond just a romantic drama.

My trips round bookshops continued on Tuesday with a visit to “Bookwise” in Newark. We arrived fifteen minutes before it closed (we did not know it existed – Newark is a confusing place!) so it was a bit of a supermarket sweep situation. Northernvicar found many lovely books, I found some really old hardbacks, as well as a copy of Everest’s “The Butlins Girls”. Now just to find somewhere to put them all. Bookwise is a charity shop which has branches locally, raising funds for local music making by children and young people. The Newark branch is due to move apparently; round the corner. If you find yourself in the area, why not have a look? See their website here

Murmuration by Robert Lock – An intense time-slip novel

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This is simply a splendid book. Full of convincing and realistic characters, their various voices convey not only their personalities but also a sense of time. Beginning with a comedian who finds a style only to lose so much else, the honest story of a young man who witnesses the unexplained develops a book held together by a familiar yet stunning sight, the aerial ballet of starlings. A murmuration of starlings is the unearthly sight of birds moving in harmony in patterns of light and darkness, which defies description. The leading characters live and love in well described settings, and in the case of Bella, a realistic life view of her own limitations. The combination of realism, romance and just enough unexplainable elements combine to make this a fascinating read. It is a historical novel with a twist, a series of stories linked by the pier where the characters work. The pier becomes at times almost another character, as it sturdily projects over the sea, an anomaly in later times as a Victorian relic.

I enjoyed the pace of this book, the pace and the tension as certain characters see what no one else can see, feel unique atmospheres. Those who enjoy historical novels for their understanding of people of the past will find much to savour in this book, as the setting of the pier comes to dominate their different lives and loves. This is a book of many layers; in one sense the narrative works through a series of incidents in people’s lives, in another sense, the links backward and forwards in time mean that the links are ambitious, but always seen from the viewpoint of the pier. Thus deaths, miracles and reimagining of the site are seen in different lights by the characters depending on their complete life view. There are moments of touching faith, religious and other, as glimpses of the dead come to the living. There are some shocking moments in this book; it is not for the sensitive reader, but it can also be gentle and insightful.

This is a complex book of many elements, layers and points of interest. The characters are relatable, the incidents described memorable, the decline of the pier and resort moving. It is a book which involves every reader at different levels. I was glad to receive a proof copy of this book, and it is a fascinating read which defies easy description.

I am especially keen on this book as a quote of mine appears inside the front cover! It is a complex read though, and perhaps not for holiday reading unless you enjoy a challenge while relaxing. I have a number of books to review over the next little while, some thanks to Richard at Heffers bookshop in Cambridge where I enjoyed an hour our two last Monday. Crime (Fictional) still dominates in that part of my old University city!

Landscape in Sunlight by Elizabeth Fair – a Furrowed Middlebrow slice of 1950s British life

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Village fetes, cars stuck in country lanes, eccentric retired artists; so much in this book suggests a harmless book of country memories, shaped into novel form. To a certain extent that is true, but this is more. The characters that make up a community are fascinating, with all their foibles and faults, but this is a writer who goes beyond a surface description, these are real people whose effect on others they realise, and the setting which is just very funny. Elizabeth Fair produced a novel full of characters that would have been familiar in 1953, when this novel was first published, and now it has been reprinted by Furrowed Middlebrow, and I am very grateful for this review copy. These characters remind us of people we may meet now; dreamy impractical academics, determined people realising they must wait for others, the spoilt and the pretentious. Fair handles them all well, setting them in situations which test them, but also allow them the small victories that make up life in anything but tragic circumstances.

“Landscape in Summer” begins as plans begin to evolve for the annual fete in aid of church funds. This is of great concern to Amy Custance, always called Mrs Custance, wife of the abstracted Vicar who spends more time thinking about the ancient Greeks than his family or parishioners. Their daughter, Cassandra, is governess to Leonard, youngest child of the Templer household, an interesting combination of adults with their own agenda, and two preoccupied teenagers, Lily and Felix. Eustace is a vastly eccentric but actually good natured   retired artist, whose obsessions include mythical scorpions and getting rid of his tenants, Mrs. Midge and her difficult son, Lukin. He is keen to get his hands on the cottage so that his brother Henry will move out, before his morose view of life and passion for his car proves too much to bear. Miss Templer is artistic and delightfully vague, while Lily is trying to save Lukin from his severe introspection. All these characters clash over daily life and their ambitions, but there are mild disagreements over fallen fences and tennis matches rather than deeply wounded feelings. Genuine emotions are felt and indeed examined by Cassandra and George, as the latter’s father Sir James is alternately generous and helpless in the face of those around him, including his own servants. George and Cassandra spend the novel trying to sort out those around them, while trying to discover the truth about their own feelings.

As with Angela Thirkell’s novels, this is not a hysterically funny book, but full of slyly amusing scenes where the incidents of daily village life take on importance. Cricketing whites hang out of windows, beloved cars get stuck in fords, and no one quite dares to tell anyone what they really thing. There is romance, but also friendships, lively young women and strange young men, and a repair man who rarely finishes anything. This is gentle English humour, comforting and non challenging. Today we may condemn the class attitudes and the servant problems, but acknowledge that we are quietly attracted to a way of life with such people. Perhaps not great literature, but an undeniably enjoyable novel, comforting and funny in its descriptions of life which has mostly disappeared but with people who still exist.

This is a very suitable book for this lengthy period of sunny and dry weather, with dry fields and burnt verges.  We have just returned from Norfolk,m which was very dry and sunny. We had some good visits, including to “Norfolk Lavender”, a place with fields full of hardy lavender and where they distill oil for many uses. Many purple things were bought….

Blood on the Tracks – Railway Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards. An excellent British Library Crime Classic

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Ranging from Arthur Conan Doyle to Michael Gilbert, this collection of stories edited by Martin Edwards represents a Golden Age of murder mysteries encapsulated in short stories. The common theme is railways; travel on them, as settings for untimely death, and even the use of trains as weapons. As pointed out by Edwards, they are enclosed spaces in which ‘locked room’ mysteries are contrived, as only a limited number of people are travelling in the carriages and coaches, thus providing a certain number of suspects. This collection of stories, all chosen as representative of the authors’ output, are strong tales creating a world of steam trains, timetables and solutions. I was grateful to receive a copy of this book.

From the beginning the stories in this volume include mysteries of bodies found with interesting clues. Not all the bodies are found on a train; in some the bodies are found in or near the lines. Weapons must be found, means of killing established, bodies horribly mangled to conceal other wounds. Rarely are these gentle deaths by poison or other sophisticated means, but often well thought out and dependent on the accuracy of time tables. Other crimes such as theft are facilitated by the use of trains; depending on frequency and predictability, opportunity for deceit. There are also inverted tales to be found, as the murderer is described from the start and the suspense is to be found in the possibility of detection. Sophisticated stories prevail here, as men and women plot and plan but circumstances intervene. Not all the mysteries here are sorted out by detectives; the truth emerges in various ways and there is always a satisfactory ending. I particularly enjoyed the story by Dorothy L. Sayers, as the detection and resolution is not the obvious eventual solution. At least one of these stories reveal accurate knowledge of incidents on railways which ended in death; all depend on understanding of trains, signals and the way they were run.  A few of the stories relate to the supernatural or non human agencies, they are literally haunting in their use of the supernatural and atmospheric reality of trains cloaked in steam. The power and predictability of trains is well examined here, not as dreary modes of commuter transport but scenes of struggle and emotion in so many ways.

Given the range and variety of these stories and the fifteen different authors who wrote them, it would be reasonable to expect one or two weak efforts, but actually they are all strong in their way. None have the depth and subtlety of the novels set on trains as they are all brief works, but all are clever working out of mysteries set either on trains or the lines on which they run to time and significantly, signals. This book would appeal to fans of mysteries in the grand traditions of the Golden Age, even if some are earlier and later than the inter war period. It would also be of great interest to the many who appreciate the preserved trains and lines throughout Britain, and are fascinated by the railways of previous times.

Of course , Northernvicar has shown great interest in this particular volume in the British Library Crime Classics series! I imagine he will find time to polish off a few of these stories; he has already checked some of the accuracy of the circumstances. A great value for money book….

A Necessary Murder by M.J.Tjia – A complex Mystery – or two!

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This is a historical crime novel with a lot of flair, brilliant use of existing historical facts, and a shrewd appreciation of strong female characters. This is a second outing for the unconventional detective, Heloise Chancey, Victorian courtesan, social leader and forthright woman of her time. Not for the nervous reader, this is London in all its rat infested splendour, but with a healthy element of gracious living as Heloise is very good at what she does. The rather daring use of a notorious case from real life adds something to the story, as well as the main character’s unaccustomed domesticity in a good cause. Old experiences and terrors add to new passions and outrages to bring this modern historical novel a new perspective on Victorian life.

The book opens with Heloise and the faithful Amah preparing for a gathering of Heloise’s friends and acquaintances. Theirs is an unusual relationship; far more than the usual mistress and maid as they are intensely sensitive to each other’s feelings. This domestic scene is not the first thing however; a brutal discovery by a maid leaves the reader in no doubt that this will be a no holds barred book. The evening party to which various influential people have been invited is a little confusing in terms of names, but the disruption which occurs is unequivocal as Amah returns from an intriguing situation which has brought back memories of past traumas. The somewhat dramatic murder which she becomes involved in is only the start of a multi layered investigation in which frank and fulsome details are given, and there are several twists which almost made me drop the book with surprise. None of the senses are ignored as the smells, textures and feeling of life in the more sordid parts of London are evoked by this clever writer. This is in clear contrast with a claustrophobic account of a family home rent with suspicion.

As with the first book in the Heloise series, “She Be Damned”, this is an author who is determined that women will have the most significant roles. Most of the men in this book show signs of confusion in comparison. It has a strong narrative of mystery, betrayal and surprise; many murder mysteries are less complex! There are some shocking elements of murder and sex here, but they are admirably controlled and in context. There are small confusions over names and timing, but assumptions about women and class are admirably overturned. Heloise is a fascinating character in every sense, as despite much opposition she is determined to survive and flourish. Her composure is shown and maintained by her magnificent taste in clothes, jewellery and other accessories, and Tjia has obviously done much research into these areas. She also has a great sense of time and place, while avoiding most of the ‘Victorian life’ clichés. Altogether this is a good and compulsive read, full of atmosphere and at times foreboding, and a worthy second volume in this excellent series.

I was really pleased to receive an advanced copy of this book and am delighted to take part in the tour to promote it!