The Case of the Monday Murders by Christopher Bush – a Confident and Clever Mystery

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Another Monday, another Murder? This 1936 novel, recently reprinted by Dean Street Press, is a complex tale of murder, publicity seeking and long held grudges. It depends on the characters of newspaper men in an age when all news, opinion and speculation had to be waited for, bought and eagerly read in papers all vying for the greatest impact and sales. Crime novels in this “Golden Age” of detective fiction were popular, and in a rather cheeky sideways reference to the Detection Club which celebrated the work of such greats as Dorothy L. Sayers, the “Murder League” is depicted as a dubious gang of writers churning out books to a pattern. The mainstay of this book, as with most of Bush’s detective writing, is the rich, educated and undoubtedly clever Ludovic Travers, but even he struggles with the challenges thrown up by the seemingly disparate deaths he investigates here. This is a novel of timing, false trails and red herrings, and a parrot who may well have more to say.

This novel opens with the opening in a busy newspaper office of a mysterious letter which promises to provide sensational copy for a few days. It mentions several unsolved murders, and draws attention to the fact that many of them were committed on a Monday. As in at least one of Bush’s previous books, a deadline for murder whets the fear of the reading public, and Travers is soon asked to write up at least one of the cases. It is not difficult to work out the author of the letter, and once again there is the concept of the ‘perfect’ murder, when ‘undesirables’ are killed with such attention to detail that the crime will forever remain unsolved. The suspicious death of such a man in Travers vicinity causes him to discover clues which show sophistication and forethought, but the question of a false trail means that for all his bluster and determination, Bush’s other detective, Inspector Wharton, is left to struggle with the unthinkable. Travers follows up such slim leads of information that it is perhaps easy to get muddled, but he does not do so alone as Norris is once more inspired to use his skills to follow up ideas which Palmer, the devoted servant, dredges up from memory. As in several of these books, while the police carefully exclude possibilities and provide the effort, it is Travers who risks all on a hunch, potentially costly and certainly bearing risk.

As always with the Travers novels, this is a masterfully plotted story of timing, suspense and deliberate confusion. Bush manages to introduce characters succinctly yet effectively who may have much to do with the murder of the day, but who may equally have little more than a window dressing role in the eventual explanations. Information is gathered from tenuous links going back for decades, yet much is to picked up from little details of voice, attitude, and the debris of everyday life. So much, so Cludo, but Bush’s real skill is in holding all the lines of enquiry in tension, while injecting a certain humour and understanding of life into the proceedings. For me, the downside of Bush’s novels is always the lack of meaningful women characters.  While few can create a Harriet Vane or even a Miss Marple, it is a shame that Bush seems to disregard women as very much subsidiary characters in a world of carefully nuanced and well drawn out male protagonists, with not even the rather clever Mrs Wharton been mentioned in this novel. Despite this, I continue to enjoy these books and was very grateful to receive a review copy of this reprinted and fast paced Travers books, and I look forward to following his adventures in many more books to come.

Having returned from a few days away in sunny Northumberland, and it was sunny everyday, I must report that I read several books and fought with difficult wifi. As I already had a few books to review, I will be spending a fair bit of time posting. The warm and dry weather was quite the revelation, and the people were as friendly as ever. Cogito Books in Hexham kept a signed book for me, and got three more in for me within 24 hours, Newcastle Waterstones tracked down both hardback books I was chasing, and the wonderful Barter Books provided a lovely pile of books! So, much reading to come! Anne and I spent most of a day in Barter Books, and I am pleased to say their food is still  wonderful…

The Time Machine by H.G.Wells – The Oxford University Press Edition

This book has been said to be one of the earliest novels of science fiction. While it is not a genre I know well, I believe that this book does set down some of the rules and standards that have become part of the definition of science fiction. A realistic setting, almost domestic, a real attempt to produce evidence that would satisfy a discriminating audience, and events just beyond expectation and credibility. In this novel the protagonist is not overly dramatic, his audience chosen for their professional scepticism, and the setting is so Victorian domestic that a reader can learn something of that period. In the light of the current fashion for dystopian vision, this is a chilling report of a world where evolution has defined humanity so as to be vaguely recognisable rather than the same, but developed. Written in 1895, this is a book that would shock today in its bleak view of life many thousands of years hence.

The Time Traveller is in his sitting room, expanding on his thoughts about humanity to his guests, known mainly by their profession (a Medical Man, a Psychologist, an Editor and others) in an after dinner discussion. No women appear in this setting; this is a gathering of scientific gentleman presumed to be sceptical about such dubious assertions that time travel is possible and indeed experienced by one of their number. He produces a model, beautifully made, of a prototype time travel machine, and explains when it disappears that he proposes to make a larger version in which he will travel to the future. His friends are unconvinced, but soon he invites them to believe such an attempt has been made.

The future is at once a paradise and a frightening place. Those he encounters are difficult to categorise, but the Time Traveller recalls an experience that is incredibly detailed. Proof of events is not utterly compelling, but there is every reason to believe that what occurred in this otherwise remarkable house cannot be easily understood.

This is an extremely short, readable classic which is stylistically of a time when the forces of industrialisation and invention were resulting in whole new world views, often painful, sometimes exhilarating. Its late nineteenth century setting is solid, its view of a possible future almost lyrical. Wells was a scientific journalist; a new profession which meant that he was presumably on the edge of discoveries that to the eyes of his contemporary readers would have seemed incredible. Thus time travel would have almost seemed credible by contrast, and it is long before the rules of causing upset in travelling backwards and forwards in time were set down.

This edition of which I received a review copy from Oxford University Press sets out an informative introduction and includes a substantial amount of additional text. The notes explain some of the more obscure references and greatly adds to the understanding of the book. If your tastes run to classic science fiction this novel is a defining introduction, and this edition explains much of the background and achievement of H.G.Wells as one of the most innovative writers of his time.

 

Excellent Intentions by Richard Hull – Another British Library Crime Classic with a twist

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Great claims can be made for this book because it starts with a very original idea. The scene is set in the trial for murder, but it soon becomes obvious that while we begin to pick up the facts of the case, we are not to find out who the accused actually is until substantially later in the book. The British Library Crime Classics series published Hull’s very unusual “Murder of My Aunt” last month; this month’s offering is equally puzzling. Is it a murder mystery, or a legal trial novel? What is the role of the police? Will it come down to the skill of the lawyers or will the truth out? This novel starts where most murder mysteries end, when the trial for the life of the accused begins. This book was originally published in 1938, in the Golden Age of Detection, when capital punishment meant a guilty verdict was literally a death sentence. So this book deals with one death, but could possibly lead to another.

This book begins with an ambitious lawyer, Anstruther Blayton, opening the prosecution of the mysterious accused. In comparison, the judge, Sir Trefusis Smith, is perhaps thinking of retirement, but his reputation for directing a jury is formidable. One of the impressive things about Hull’s writing is that you can see and hear his characters from their words and dialogue. These are not stock characters, but manage to convey what they are thinking apparently so effortlessly. When we get to the beginning of the actual description of the crime, there is humour and depth in each of the characters, especially Hardy who describes his interest in the character of Cargate. The latter is soon found to be a thoroughly unlikable man, with no obvious patience or understanding. It emerges throughout the book that he has no redeeming characteristics, and that he bullies and threatens everyone he comes across. He is no respecter of persons; the loyal and influential are all alike to him as targets for his nastiness and suspicion. Hull almost has fun creating a character who no one could like, thereby multiplying the number of possible suspects who have found themselves in the dock. He also enjoys himself with the Hardy family, who are so numerous that their occupation becomes their name. I think that the writer is playing with the reader here, adding to the confusion. The doctor tries so hard to do the right thing, but is in uncharted territory. Railway enthusiasts may enjoy the debate on the etiquette of having a body on board.  There are many clues, but this is essentially a straightforward murder. The real question is the identity of the accused, and what will happen.

Technically this is an accomplished book with a lot of interest. I enjoyed reading about the characters, even if Cargate was over the line in terms of awfulness at some points. It is both a classic murder mystery and a book with a decided twist, which means that the reader must concentrate! I was very happy to receive a review copy of this latest book in the series of books, most of which I have enjoyed. This lesser known author of the Golden Age of Detection certainly wrote some good books with unusual twists, and I would hope that some more become easily available in the near future.

It is always a treat to read a new British Crime Classic, and this one is a super edition. I am reading some of the new Science Fiction classic stories that have recently come out, and am looking forward to posting a review in the near future.

Dandy Gilver & A Spot of Toil & Trouble by Catriona McPherson – The Scottish Play in a Castle

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Dandy Gilver is a character familiar to readers of this book blog. Inasmuch as she always narrates the books which she appears in, her character is self evident as quite a thoughtful person who rebels in an organised way against her class and expectations. Her role, established over the last eleven books, is as an amateur detective with her trusty sidekick Alec. They do not always get on, they infuriate each other with their habits when detecting, they are as predictable to each other as any married couple. They basically respect each other’s processes while working through the mysteries they unearth in each novel, and in contrast with Dandy’s relationship with her usually absent husband they enjoy the joking of a sibling like relationship. As in the previous novels they rarely stick to the mystery they have been hired to solve, discovering the underlying truth of what happens when they start to pursue the “wisps” of clues. The setting of the interwar period is beyond the post First World War aftermath, but here is the first stirrings of concern that there may be another war on the way.

On this occasion Dandy is summoned to a thread bare Scottish castle by the couple who own it for the moment. Minnie and Bluey know that they are in big financial trouble, and are grasping at the idea of putting on Shakespeare play staged by their daughter’s fiancé, Leonard, in order to attract rich visitors. Bluey’s mother Ottoline is still in residence, full of memories of her husband Richard who left many years previously possibly with a famous but apparently cursed necklace. Dandy and Alec are hired to find the necklace, or at least establish what happened to it. In looking for it they disturb many family secrets as well as the fabric of an old solid building. It soon emerges that the play planned is in fact Macbeth, and casting issues mean that everyone gets dragged onstage. There is thus the opportunity for many theatrical jokes, especially the Porter’s speech. The denouement is complicated, and demands much concentration, but is ultimately satisfying in way of these novels.

These books are enjoyable to read, with strong characters and some very funny moments. The in jokes on this occasion relate to Macbeth, and actors who frequently take themselves very seriously. The plot wanders a little, and there are loose ends and red herrings aplenty. This is a relaxed book compared to the earnest series set in the same period, Maisie Dobbs by Jaqueline Winspear, as McPherson takes a far lighter view of the characters and their motivations. This book fits the bill for a casual read, even if the reader does have to work a little harder at the end to understand what has been happening. It is an historical mystery series that is worth following, though I feel it could also be read as a standalone novel, and the series as a whole probably does not have to be read in strict order. The “Scottish Play” was never quite performed like this!

So, a jolly book for a hot Bank Holiday, and a new bookshop discovered! Northernvicar tracked down Astley Book Farm in the Midlands (see http://www.astleybookfarm.com/index.html) for more details. I found the beautifully shelved fiction section while he enjoyed tea and scones. Money was spent…and a first edition “Love Among the Ruins” by Angela Thirkell found!

A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves – A Persephone feminist classic

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Persephone books have been producing some superb books over many years, and this 1914 book that was reprinted in 2016 is an example of an early book which could reasonably be seen as feminist. Not strident, not mentioning the campaign for the votes that was going on alongside, this book manages to question the role of women within the family, in the workplace, and making a real difference in the economic life of the country. It is a subtle tale of a woman who is not making huge public statements, and seemingly is trapped within her family. She is challenged on many sides to think about the hidden plight of women outside her comfort zone, but the life and death treatment makes her question everything and everyone around her. The writing is so careful yet so successful that this is an immensely readable and enjoyable novel.

Mary, wife of James, mother of three adult children, has lived in considerable comfort for many years. She is gently consulted on matters of the household and her daughters’ marriages, but she is also patronised by her son and husband who always know best. Laura is successfully married and her first baby is expected, Trent is the son who is confident of his own role in the family business. Rosemary wants to marry, but she has also made a study of socialism and the condition of working women, and manages to persuade her family that her mother’s impending loneliness would be best assuaged by a study of the young women employed in the chain of tea shops that the family owns. To Mary’s surprise, her investigations together with her secretary, Miss Percival, means that she gets involved in the actual lives of some of these girls, and finds that the assumptions of independent means were often unfounded. The women are working hard and their health is being affected by the lack of rest time and the uniforms they are obliged to wear. It is when she presents these findings to her husband that their relationship is threatened; for their entire marriage he has known how to show just enough affection and thoughtfulness to keep her happy. He is not intentionally harsh, but assumes that her money can be used to develop the business without consultation, and without much thought for his female employees. Beyond this concern, Mary’s view of her husband is severely shaken, and for a while the whole marriage is in the balance.

The preface to this book, written by the popular author Samantha Ellis, brings out the radical and challenging nature of this book, set against the story of its author and her relationships. This is more than just a family saga, yet can be read as a story of a woman trying to assert herself within her family and have an effect on those women employed in business.  Thus it is a book which works on several levels, yet is so subtle that the narrative is not obscured by political or social arguments. Read this book for the enjoyable story, but also come to appreciate the overwhelming sense of a challenge to the status quo beyond the vote. Both within an outwardly happy marriage, and in a profitable, successful business, the daily life of women is depicted as difficult, even oppressive, and someone or something must change. I thoroughly recommend this book as a satisfactory read for this year in which we think about the women who campaigned for the vote, and so many other aspects of a fair deal.

This Persephone book was sitting on the side waiting to be read for far too long, and I am so glad that I managed to find it in the pile to read and review. I am looking forward to reading more very soon!  The Ellis Preface in this book is particularly interesting,  as it gives a fascinating view of the author’s life and times, and added greatly to my understanding of the book (after I had read it, just in case of spoilers…)

Bella Poldark by Winston Graham – Or why I reread a series of twelve books!

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This is a book that I have read twice, along with the other eleven books in the Poldark series. It is really difficult to write a review of the final book in the series without giving too much away. This is especially true when many people have only watched the television version and are effectively still in the early books. Do certain characters, notably Demelza, Ross, George, Elizabeth survive? Who has which children? Who marries who? How on earth do they get to the situations they are in? These questions and so many more are dealt with in the eleven books that lead up to this one, and this one answers some questions if not all that the attentive reader has by this point. It is a book which seeks to expand a story with many strands and aspects already in place; its final place in the series means that it has to finish off many parts of the stories even if it possibly was not intended as such.

Who is Bella? Why does her name give the title to the book? Compared to Ross and Demelza, why should she be the focus of the story? The Battle of Waterloo has been and gone, but all is not well as a result of it in faraway Cornwall. Unwise marriages and investments have also left their mark, and here recovery may or may not be made. This book includes both sorrow and loss as well as joy and gain, just as the other books have done, but with a sense of finality. The setting is once more thoroughly explored so the reader feels as if they recognise the houses and the countryside as well as the people, could almost draw a map of the walks and journeys. It is a big book which achieves a lot within its pages, giving information about people and their feelings so lives are changed. The reader’s understanding is extended, the expectations of the characters either fulfilled or defeated.

Over the range of twelve books written over an immense range of time (from the mid twentieth century to the beginning of the twenty first), it is no surprise that there are weak spots or even novels which are not up to reader expectations. They are sometimes repetitive, melodramatic and predictable, and there is at least one character who I found annoying. They are also familiar, comforting, entertaining and challenging, as it is always difficult to foresee what will happen to certain characters. The early loss of one of the central characters shows that Graham was not above killing off characters if he felt the narrative warranted it, so no one is truly safe. So there is the urge to read on, not sure what will happen next. There is uncertainty if Graham really intended this to be the final book; as he wrote it only in the year before his death it is possible that he intended to revisit some of the characters. So this is not the book where everyone dies, happily. I have read all twelve books twice, I really enjoy both television versions, and I am fighting the temptation to read the books all again. I think that they are that good. There are some books which I have not enjoyed so much, but it remains my favourite series of books for readability, engagement and sheer enjoyment. “Bella Poldark” is a suitable place to finish, and this is a master storyteller still at the height of his powers.

Just finishing laying plans for the Derby Book Festival 2018. Lots of great authors making their way to Derby this year!

Bookworm – A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan – Only for children?

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This book is very dedicated to the childhood books and some young adult books that speak strongly of a certain era. The author uses her recital of books as a framework on which to hang many details about her family and growing up as the ultimate bookish child and teenager. There are many anecdotes connected with certain books and reasons why they were so central to her life, and the life of her son who is beginning to appreciate stories. It is in many ways a book that maintains the interest of the reader of itself, and Mangan is certainly an engaging writer, but it is a little self consciously clever. It is honest and carefully written, gauged to recall many favourites for others to recognise. Those who are book obsessed will find much to recognise both in terms of individual books and the urge to read them at all costs, and it is here that much of the humour emerges.

‘People say that life is the thing but I prefer reading’ is the quote from Logan Pearsall Smith that Mangan uses to open her life story. From her earliest days, even recounting her parents’ backgrounds, Mangan makes it clear that her first and sole obsession has been books, even in the face of disapproval from her mother. Her father’s quiet presentation of books on a regular basis is of vital importance, beyond illness and childhood itself. There is exaggeration (her father having ‘800 siblings’ as befits his catholic background) and prodigious feats of memory as she discusses her first nursery experiences. Thus picture books are recalled, first story books and bedtime stories. I am not sure that anyone’s memory of individual books devoured at such an early age would be so good, but I appreciated that determination to read at the expense of a social or even a family life. There is a chapter on the Enid Blyton stage, with an interesting view of that writer’s amazing output and the resulting quality of her books. There is much to be learnt here about children’s books of the twentieth century and how well they have survived in the new world of gender and race equality. I certainly recognised the mixture of feelings about Coolidge’s “Katy” books, for example, and while I missed out on the “Sweet Valley High” craze I did recognise many other books which were important at certain stages.

I suppose that I have two problems with this book. This is a memoir of childhood reading, and while I agree that this implies that children’s books may well feature heavily, I am not sure that someone so book obsessed would not have got more early experience of adult novels. Bearing in mind those pre Harry Potter days, children’s and young people’s books were less common and expensive, whereas adult books were often left lying around even in non book obsessed houses. Murder mysteries, romances, sagas, were to be found everywhere, and certainly in greater numbers in libraries than gripping children’s books. So why was  Mangan never caught with inappropriate advanced reading matter? The other problem I have with this book may well be an editorial decision, as a list of books covered in each chapter is at the end of the book. Sadly (and frustratingly) the authors are not listed alongside, so any checking back has to be done in each chapter. I enjoyed much about this book, and it was a treat to read about another bookworm, but the many stories of Mangan’s family are familiar from her other writing, and I was surprised how few adult titles were mentioned. I enjoyed this book about books, and it is a useful addition to that particular genre, but it could have been more satisfying.

I hope I don’t sound too grumpy about this book, because I did enjoy it in many ways. I suppose not every child was allowed to read adult books quite so freely as I was! I have had quite a busy week of it so although I have some books and ready to review, I have not got round to all of them yet. There are plenty of good books to come!