To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear – a Maisie Dobbs book set in May 1940

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Maisie Dobbs is always working against the odds, and in this episode of her investigative career nothing is made straightforward. In this novel she is trying to maintain the work of her office in dealing with cases brought to her by various people. Any challenge brought to her at the time while this particular book is set is made more complex by the fact that it is May 1940. While London has not yet been tested by German bombing raids, there is a threat as everyone is urged to carry their gas mask. Many young people have already volunteered or have been expected to join the armed forces, including the now established RAF. Children and others have left London for supposedly safer areas, which has led to issues with family members being exiled. A lot of concern is being expressed by those who remember a conflict only little more than twenty years previously, aware of those thousands of men and some women who did not return from theatres of war. Maisie, Billy and her other friends have got vivid memories and scars of what has happened to them and those whom they loved. 


There is a sense of threat to all the characters within this book, part of a long series. There are many points which refer back to events in the previous books, and it can be read as a standalone investigation of the early part of the Second World War. Maisie’s central character allows lots of emotions to be expressed, as she is a relatively wealthy woman with her own business and excellent connections. Her own past as a clever working class girl who was offered the chance of a Cambridge education, who nursed near the front line in the First World War and lost her first love is central to her understanding of war. Her own tragedies in the more recent past explain much of her own affection for friends who have an appreciation of what she has lost. 


As she searches for the truth surrounding the illness and death of a civilian worker, there is a theme of the importance of reserved occupation status. The increasing danger to those men already serving in the army, navy and airforce is expressed as close friends’ fear for their loved ones. While the mystery of the paint is central to the book, there are times when other events almost outweigh it. It is not a fast paced investigation as Maisie and others are more than distracted by dangers to those that they love. In this book Maisie’s acute psychological techniques are toned down a little, which makes for a more conventional read. It is not the most cheerful of books, but that is standard for Winspear’s writing, and the integrity of her characters, setting and plot does make for a solid read. 


This is not the most recent entry in this series, and there is happily more to come from Maisie and her associates even as they are plunged into more terrible situations which emerge in an all encompassing war. The confidence with which the small points of life in 1940 are explored is remarkable, and the bonds of affection with which the network of friends, employees and contacts surround Maisie are a distinguishing feature of this and all the Maisie Dobbs books. I have been enjoying this series for many years, and look forward to more novels to come.       

Bodies From the Library Selected and Introduced by Tony Medawar – 16 stories of Mystery

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The recent resurgence in all things Golden Age of Detection has suggested that while many novels  and some collections of short stories have been republished, there is a whole mass of material waiting to be plundered. This collection of fourteen short stories and two short plays reveal the richness of that which is unpublished or has only appeared in limited circulation publications (including the Women’s Institute’s magazine). It includes one lesser known work of Georgette Heyer and Agatha Christie respectively, who are widely known, and others by authors who may be less famous but have come to recognition thanks to recent reprints by various publishers.


 Some of these pieces are very short, while others require quite a few pages to set up the situations and solve the mysteries. All are tied up by the end of the tale, even if some are more sophisticated than others. Not all involve actual murders but there are crimes aplenty in this book by clever and successful writers. There are some which will attract and be more enjoyable than others, for this is a mixed bag, and it is only at the end that a publication date is given, though some come with warnings about some of the language reflecting a different time and sensibilities. 


Each story or play is followed by a short biography of the author so whether it is A.A. Milne’s 1950s “Bread upon the Waters” or the less well known Arthur Upfield’s 1948 “The Fool and the Perfect Murder”, the orgins of the story is discussed and some of the writer’s other output is listed, including series with a specific detective. Here are motives aplenty, honour to be satisfied, inheritances to be secured. The earliest story is 1917, and there are representative pieces from each decade onwards within the Golden Age. The two plays require a different visualisation, but one is a radio play and the other a short stage sketch involving Japanese martial arts. Most are extracts of British life from the early to mid twentieth century, but there is one based in Australia, while Christie exhibits her international understanding. 


Each author’s background is examined in terms of the Detection Club and similar organisations for those who were significant in the construction of detection writing. Many sorts and types of characters are depicted in these pages, all with their own agendas and thoughts. None are too long, and there are some undoubtedly pithy stories which take very little time to get the story over. One of my particular favourites  is Anthony Berkeley’s “The Man with the Twisted Thumb”, featuring the resourceful Veronica and her two excellent friends. A female “Friend of the Family” discovers her true vocation in December 1939, but really many of these are not firmly linked with their dates.


I found this an enjoyable and varied read, with different pace, settings and characters playing so many variations on the mystery theme. Sometimes the mystery is solved at the start, and just the why and how needs to be explored. I am confident that anyone with even a passing interest in the Golden Age of Detection and writing from the early to mid twentieth century will find much to enjoy here. It also serves as a useful introduction to the writing of sixteen authors, many of whose writings are being rediscovered in novels which have been recently republished. An excellent investment in a book which has many moods, virtually all very interesting.   

The Case of the Wandering Scholar by Kate Saunders – a Laetitia Rodd mystery of Victorian times

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This is the second book in a brilliant series featuring the clergy widow, Laetitia Rodd, who searches for the truth in the Victorian era. Frequently hired by her brother Fred whose own clients need people found and crimes sorted out, this is a mainly gentle mystery novel full of brilliant characters. Impeccable research gives a solid basis for this novel, yet it is carefully woven into this book narrated by a woman who is well connected, intelligent and resourceful. Being a clergy widow with no children of her own means that she has met and befriended people in many places and of many types. She shows genuine empathy with those who are suffering, appreciation of those who are doing their best, and fortunately for this book, an instinct for those with a past. The setting for this novel; the less grand houses of London, the streets of Oxford and the countryside largely untouched by industry in 1851, is impressive and entertaining. We learn about the dresses, the meals, the decor and the everyday details of life, but without the plot suffering at any point. The religious differences demonstrated between some of the characters could be a little obscure, but Saunders handles it well and they become embedded in the identity of the people portrayed. This is a thoroughly well written book which is very enjoyable as a historical novel as well as a series of mysteries. 


Laetitia Rodd lives in reduced circumstances with a friend after the death of her beloved husband, but happily her brother Fred who is a leading barrister brings her small jobs that require some delicacy and sensitive investigation. On this occasion he brings her to a very rich man who is dying, but who is desperate to see his only brother before it is too late.  Armed with expenses and mindful of the problem of tracing a renowned hermit who shares a tragic past with his brother, she adopts her usual practice of staying with her friends, a couple, Arthur and Rachel, who she encouraged to marry some years before the disappearance of Joshua Welland. As she immerses herself in the life of the countryside where he was last seen, she meets Arthur’s curate Mr Barton, and a local benefactor Mr Arden. Mrs Watts – Weston, married to an Oxford don and a formidable woman, provides valuable background and transport for Laetitia, as well as a good grasp of knowledge. As one mystery looks to be solved, another greater tragedy occurs, and Laetitia must rush to help.


This is a book that I had been eagerly waiting for after reading “The Secrets of Wishtide” with great enjoyment, and happily it did not disappoint. It is an excellent standalone, providing a great story of the further adventures of a lady who involves herself in people’s lives in order to investigate and help. She is a lady of determination and resource who combines a great sense of humour and a genuine interest in people. A non brutal crime book which really involves the reader, I recommend this book to anyone who involves a good historical mystery with excellent characters.   

The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs – a mystery from British Library Crime Classics

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The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs


This is “A Yorkshire Mystery” yet it starts off in a very different part of the country. As usual with Bellairs’ books, this 1961 novel now republished as part of the British Library Crime Classics contains a complex plot. Further, the characters Bellairs so brilliantly creates are not only consistent but have depth and variety. Unlike some detection writers of the era who seem to struggle to write effective female characters, in this novel  the female characters are varied and always interesting, even when unlikable. It is the little touches that make this and other Bellairs’ books so enjoyable and indeed memorable; the fate of bunch of flowers in this book is lodged in my mind. Martin Edward’s Introduction gives a fascinating insight into Harold Blundell and his writing “career” in which he wrote alongside his job in a bank: ”He was an amateur enjoying a paying hobby”. Given the success he enjoyed during his lifetime, and the popularity of the reprints of his titles today, his writing may not have made him rich but was and is popular. I was so glad to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent novel.


From the finding of a body in the flooded fenland to investigations in Yorkshire, Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard has his work cut out to find out the who, what, where and why. It does not help when he learns that the deceased, James or Jim Lane, apparently a fairground worker, has a whole other life in the north of England. Relationships and the truth of Jim’s true affections must be dealt with before Littlejohn can begin to investigate the series of events that led to his death. For a man that was quite quiet and secretive, he excited strong feelings among those who knew him. Those feelings may be positive or negative, but the understatement of the character of the victim contrasted with several of the other characters who were at least in one case over the top.Littlejohn gets dragged into at least two family situations which he finds rather wearing. It is fortunate that his sidekick, Cromwell, is around to help, and when crisis points are reached there is help at hand. 


This book is so well constructed that the plot works well with the characters and setting. There is a contrast between the flooded fens and the resilience of those coping with dramatic water damage, and the stoicism of those who are trying to sort out the situation, with the rather interesting family situation Littlejohn discovers in the north. I found this a really engaging novel to read, sensitively written with excellent characters. The mystery is thought provoking and Littlejohn’s thought processes very interesting  There is an impressive logic to the narrative arising from the characters involved. There is a sense of loss for the victim which feels genuine. I can certainly recommend this as a good volume in the series of British Library series, and works very well as a positive example of Bellairs’ work. 

Murder at Christmas by Various Authors – Ten classic tales of crime, mystery and puzzles

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“Ten Classic Crime Stories for the Festive Season” and they are classic, being mainly from the Golden Age era, such as Margery Allingham and Dorothy L.Sayers, but also featuring John Mortimer’s evergreen Rumpole, and a highly entertaining Ellis Peter’s tale with a twist. Assiduous collectors of Crime stories, especially Christmas themed collections, will probably recognise one or two of these tales, and certainly it is the fourth in this series of Christmas anthologies produced by Profile books, and they offer a good selection of both well known and less familiar author’s works. For those who are discovering the genre, or familiarising themselves with the concept, this is a really good collection of classics with a seasonal flavour at a reasonable price. I have really enjoyed this set of favourite characters and settings, in all their humour, challenges, puzzles and convolutions. I would recommend it!


For those who like to know these things, the ten stories are by Margery Allingham, Ellis Peters, Edmund Crispin, John Mortimer, Nicholas Blake, Michel Innes, Gillian Linscott, Ethel Lina White, Julian Symons and Dorothy L. Sayers. There are characters that many will recognise, such as the elusive Campion and singular Rumpole. There are also settings that are immediately recognisable; the country house/castle, the streets of London, the Christmas meal. A department shop also features in one story, while a ski resort hosts some well known investigators. It is notable how much is made of these settings as the mysteries of varying lengths are introduced and resolved. Some stories are brief and to the point, while others give the reader more time to settle into the situation. Many of the characters are memorable as they investigate, try things out and sometimes fail. Not all feature murders, but all relate to surprises and puzzles. 


This book is truly a feast for those interested in the twentieth century tradition of crime stories without the graphic details and violence that can sometimes be too much, especially at this time of year. Ideal for fitting into a busy timetable of activities, or settling down for a binge of elegant, funny and always interesting tales, this is a really good read!



A Wedding in December by Sarah Morgan – a wonderful novel of family, romance and a little fun

A Wedding in December by Sarah Morgan


Families at Christmas time can be tricky, and in this book it is family relationships that really put pressure on people. Not that it is only the other brilliantly drawn characters that cause problems; there are several people in this book that are putting pressure on themselves. Maggie and Nick are a couple who have separated, and Maggie is already missing her two daughters hugely. When Rosie announces her marriage plans she is thrown into a state of confusion for various reasons. Meanwhile Katie, Rosie’s elder sister, has many problems of her own, which contributes to her determined reaction to the news. This is a story of an idyllic setting for the perfect Christmas wedding, which exposes many feelings, some hidden for years. Despite the serious elements of this book, there is a significant element of humour, as secrets are revealed. The setting is wonderful, literally a winter wonderland of snow and beautiful buildings, but the emotions which are felt are real and painful. I found this an engaging and enjoyable read, with an excellent sense of people and place. Sarah Morgan is obviously skilful in the art of balancing extreme emotion with a light hearted situation, and creating almost comic dialogue between realistic people.

I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this enjoyable book.


At the beginning of this book Maggie receives a phone call from her younger daughter Rosie. Rosie is in America, Maggie in Oxford in her lovely “Honeysuckle Cottage”, where she brought up her girls and holds many memories, and the promise of another Christmas. Sadly her husband Nick has moved out as their marriage has grown stale, especially as he has spent much of their married life abroad at academic events and archeological digs. Rosie is a great concern to her mother as she has had severe asthma attacks, but on this occasion she is calling to invite her parents to her imminent wedding at Christmas. Maggie is saddened that she will not have her daughters with her at Christmas, especially as Katie, a busy doctor in an Emergency Department of a hospital, has been strangely distant recently.  As the focus of the novel switches to Katie, we see her struggling with her heavy workload and the memory of a recent event which has rocked her confidence. She is immediately concerned that Rosie is rushing into this wedding as her fiance Dan’s mother is a wedding organiser who is keen to rush things through. As Maggie and Nick, keen to keep their proposed divorce a secret after the wedding, and Katie with her determination to question the wedding, converge on the beautiful holiday resort in Aspen, Rosie herself has her own doubts. 


The lightness of touch shown in this novel includes a drunken arrival, a determinedly independent woman, and romantic events which would influence the hardest heart. There is an isolated cottage which rather forces the situation after a discovery about a relationship, then all is revealed. There are twists and turns as it becomes clear that there are many surprises about every relationship. It is a wonderful combination of escapism with the underlying tensions of family relationships. A difficult book to put down, it is a lovely and seasonal read which I recommend for this time of year. 

Poetry for Christmas and Other Beginnings by Orna Ross – Twelve inspirational poems


Poetry and Christmas seem to mix well; the midwinter period of the shortest, darkest day seems to lend itself to thoughtful reading and response. Obviously the Christian faith makes a point of the twenty fifth of December as the point of one of the earliest mysteries in the form of the birth of Christ, but there are other festivals of light and hope that attempt to transform the shortest day and the turn of the year. The poet, Orna Ross, in this slim volume has attempted to capture some of the mystery of this time, the rejoicing and the new beginning. 


This has taken the form of twelve poems that establish both the mystery and the humanity of this annual period in a new way. From the viewpoints of birth, human, flora and fauna, this book gives new perspectives on the time of year. This means that even if you mark Christmas, Chinese Dongzhi, Jewish Hanukkah, Hindi Makaraa Sankranti or Irish Mean Geimhridh, you will find something special in this book. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review this book.


There are four sections to this book: Rebirth, Renew, Reconnect and Rejoice. The first poem, “Soaring”, looks at how a Christmas angel can soar from the mundane world. “The Next Birth” celebrates how the individual lives of a family meld together. The growth of a tree from the earth becomes symbolic of other meaning of birth. “Mid – Winter Benediction” has the form of a song of blessing, like “Bless the air on hands and face, and sun on winter’s say. Bless trees that broke the gnaw of wind, and heralded the way”. The Irish creation myth provides the inspiration for “Oran Mor”, “The great song”, in all its beauty. The final poem “Christmas Rain” contrasts the natural rainfall, “the illuminating rain” with crowds and celebrating Christmas in today’s world.


This book is full of tender and special words for the time of year, images of life, love and nature. Twelve poems sounds a small number, but there is a huge variety of rhythm and rhyme, imagery and ideas. It is a small book of big ideas,  and is a tremendous success as a book of poetry for Christmas and other beginnings.  

The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly – a classic seasonal mystery reprinted by the British Library

The Christmas Egg: A Seasonal Mystery Paperback British Library Crime Classic


This reprinted 1958 novel, the seasonal offering from the excellent British Library Crime Classics series, makes only glancing mentions to Christmas so can be enjoyed at any time. While not the most complex or clever plot, this book abounds in atmosphere, characterisation and a sense of place that transforms it into a crime novel for most engaging reading. The main character, the extremely well drawn Chief Inspector Brett Nightingale is a forerunner of Dexter’s Morse; with an impressive knowledge of the classics and music, he appears as a receptive and perceptive man as he absorbs information about the Russian element of this novel. He too has an active and sometimes hapless helper in the form of Sergeant Beddoes, who has to throw himself into various challenges throughout the book. This is a most satisfactory novel  that works on several levels, as the descriptions of objects, place and the realities of a criminal pursuit are set up. The sound knowledge of the streets of London in a particular area is very satisfying, as well as the dreariness of certain lives lived there. Nightingale’s leaps of deduction deserve special mention, as well as his very human qualms about his own behaviour. As always, Martin Edward’s Introduction forms a fascinating introduction to this little known but extremely able writer, and entices the reader to investigate not only this reprint but others on her list. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.


The book opens with a dead body. Princess Olga Karukhin, despite her royal birth and upbringing in Tsarist Russia lies on an ancient metal bed, under an assortment of tatty blankets, in a mean and shabby boarding house. It appears she has not really left the room for decades, and it would be a sad but not unexpected death except for an empty wooden trunk. Exactly what was in the recently disturbed trunk only emerges when the landlady reveals two objects of enormous value which she had been given by the seemingly destitute old lady. When Nightingale and Beddoes come upon the scene it is only after the local police have established some of the facts. A grandson, Ivan, is missing, and when Nightingale does some research he finds that the old lady was a refugee from the Revolution, who brought the younger man over with her. Beddoes is dispatched to various public houses known to be frequented by Ivan, and he finds this an ultimately challenging task. Meanwhile Nightingale investigates the Russian connection, and finds himself interested in a young woman called Stephanie as her boss seems to be thoroughly involved in the contents of the trunk. 


This is a mature and sophisticated novel which is packed with references to Russian objects d’arte and classical tales. Snow and challenging weather play their part in journeys and other excitements. I enjoyed reading about Nightingale’s deliberations, especially in the context of his very human and realistic concerns about his wife, musical performance and general expectations. I recommend this to any fans of classic detective novels, especially those who appreciate character led stories. Another excellent choice by the British Library, especially for this time of year.      


As I indicated a few posts ago I will not be posting a round up of the year or top ten books – I have reviewed about two hundred books this year and life is too complicated to plough through them all! I will be looking to review at least two more British Library books over the next few days, Christmas lunches permitting!

High Heels & Beetle Crushers by Jackie Skingley – a recollection of a young woman’s life in the early 1960s


This is a book of a woman with two elements to her life; a life of family, friends and loves, and the drama, excitement and challenge of training as an officer in the Women’s Royal Army Corps. The fact that it takes place as the nineteen sixties are getting established with all the change to women’s options and lifestyles. On one level hers is a ladylike existence, with heels and gloves, hats and relatively formal dresses for special occasions. While not quite chaperoned, the sexes are not expected to mingle informally and are trained on separate sites for different lengths of time. On the other hand this book has much about her training as an army officer, with command challenges and emergency training. She also writes movingly of her family background and its effect on her life choices in a vivid style which kept me engaged throughout the book. Jackie writes honestly with a distinctive accuracy for a  long period of her life. It brings to life a time of particular fashion, patterns for creating dresses and outfits in the home, and only a few cars available. I found it a fascinating and informative read, and I was glad to have the opportunity to read and review this honest autobiography.


The book begins with Jackie’s earliest memories of wartime. Her father was a part of the aircrew of a Lancaster bomber which did not return to Britain in early 1944. Her mother was widowed as a young woman with two small children. While she depended on older women in the family, when she met and married Reg Pearce she lost some of her independence. Jackie in particular did not get on with him, as his attitude is controlling and snobbish, and there is the suggestion of him attempting inappropriate behaviour with her. She records her difficult school experience in which she made friends, but was left with the recommendation that she was suited to clerical work. She seems to have had a happy gift of making friends of both sexes, and even as a nervous eighteen year old she finds herself coping with life in an isolated hotel as a trainee receptionist. She has met an army officer in training at Sandhurst, and a long term relationship ensues. She feels deeply the challenges of maintaining a relationship while trying to have her own career, as they are separated geographically and there is the understanding that women cannot have a career when married. On a mundane level the “beetle crushers” in the title are the clumpy black shoes issued as part of the uniform for female army officers. 


The story of this book is not all straightforward, as a traumatic event shapes Jackie’s life. Her recovery with the help of friends and new acquaintances is a testimony to the positive effects that such support can have, and Jackie’s moving writing. 


I found this a positive read and a valuable insight in a woman’s life in a time of change in so many respects. As attitudes to gender issues, divorce and other elements of life are described, this book is particularly informative for people who want to know about society’s pressures in the fairly recent past. This is a well written book of social history focused on one young woman’s experience, a powerful testament to flourishing in a sometimes challenging times, and finding happiness after a time of severe adversity.   


I was fortunate enough to be approached by Jackie herself to post a review of this book, and I have honestly enjoyed finding out more about this fascinating person’s memories.

The Naseby Horses by Dominic Brownlow – a powerful novel of crisis and mystery for people and place

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This is a book which attempts to define the undefinable. The connection between siblings. The aura which only some people can see. The way that the history of a place can seep into both the natural aspect of the surroundings and the buildings that have stood there for many years. This is a book which suggests that memory is not just that which personal to an individual, but that it dominates community for generations. A book which gathers in the countryside and wildlife around a house which is already transformed by its atmosphere is undoubtedly powerful. The story has at its heart a mystery; a missing girl, a teenager. This is a mystery which is not a sudden spontaneous event, however, as there is soon evidence that the narrator’s relationship with his sister is not straightforward and there is a suggestion of knowledge which defies explanation. Moreover, there is an enormous volume and pressure of history which suggests that there is an element of the missing in this area of the country. This is a mystic and metaphorical novel in which atmosphere is dominant and everyone and everything is seen, as much as it can be, through the eyes of a newcomer who is struggling to formulate his response. I am glad that I was given the opportunity to read and review this book.


The book tells the intense story of Simon, a seventeen year old who has experienced epileptic seizures for most of his life, and has been trying to find a way of coping with  the seizures themselves and the absence that he knows occur. There is also the aura, the space between consciousness and unconsciousness which he experiences before the seizures, which gives him a different perspective on the barriers between the present and the past. He tries to stabilize himself by reciting quotations from Berwicks Book of Birds, though he still sees the tiny details of his surroundings in an odd way. He becomes aware of people around him , both present and suggested.   People present emotions that he struggles to deal with. His parents seesaw between fear, guilt, frantic worry and seeking normality. It is them that brought the family out of London into this bleak, obscure and mysterious Fenland village, and it is only an uncle who has any sense of Simon’s clinging onto the birds around him as a stabilising force. Meanwhile as the notion of the Horses associated with the battle of Naseby breaks in, Simon discovers the power of community memory of a curse that no one wants to admit to in so many words.


This is an intense, powerful and impressive debut novel by a unique voice. It makes an important contribution to the body of literature on mental health. Its view is in the form of an historical mysticism and a personal search for self as well as a missing sister. This is a challenging read in so many ways, and says so much about a reaction to the natural world in terms of awareness and concern. The presence of a disturbing painting, the invasion of the house by half seen people from the past, the mental confusion of the main character all add up to a disturbing and strong novel. This is a brave and unique novel, a strong novel and a powerful read. Well worth investigating, and an excellent choice for a new publisher, Louise Walters Books.