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!

Dandy Gilver & a Most Misleading Habit by Catriona McPherson

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

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

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

Dandy Gilver &the Unpleasantness in the Ballroom – Catriona McPherson

Another day, another series depicting a woman detective in the late 1920s, early 1930s in Britain. Definitely Britain because this series of ten books about the cases of Dandy (Dandelion!) Gilver  often take place in Scotland. This book is the latest in the series in which a fairly bored aristocratic (if with an unusual upbringing ) becomes a private detective with her friend Alec.

The earlier nine books are about how Dandy almost accidentally becomes an investigator into the matters of scandal and often murder which seem to afflict the minor aristocracy and gentry in those exciting days. There are the usual panics about money and position, and the details about dress and manners which are familiar from the Maisie Dobbs books, though not so deeply significant and meaningful as in some purple passages in those books.  These are far more realistic than the Daisy Darymple books, as the characters seem more realistic though equally obsessed with food and hunger for same. Dandy’s husband, Hugh, is not the romantic lead of a woman’s dreams; he is quite fed up with Dandy’s activities when he first discovers them but is more than reconciled to them when the money she earns subsidises his estate and provides for the sons, whom Dandy seems more than happy to leave.


This is an uneven series in my mind, whether read at yearly intervals or as a catch up when they suddenly appear in the library. The second book, The Burry Man’s Day , is set in Queensferry, and deals with local customs with a clever if unlikely ending. The eight book, Dandy Gilver and a Deadly Measure of Brimstone is a very good read about mysterious goings on in a Scottish Spa. Some books in this series are better than others; McPherson is better in enclosed worlds, but not as in Agatha Christie. Her research seems excellent and nothing really jars, unless it is the heroine’s impatience with the lot of women. These are not fast moving narratives like Miss Fisher, and Dandy rarely faces danger or temptation. These books are more thoughtful, clues, motives and characters are more carefully worked through. They do not need to be read in strict order, as the stories do not really run into one another, but the supporting cast does develop and change.

This particular adventure begins with Dandy and Alec being retained by a family in Glasgow. There is a lot about ballroom dancing but nothing very taxing for the reader, and costume sewing is also important. It becomes a tangled web of motive and characters, and I enjoyed its unpredictability. Dandy and Alec have to eat, drink and even attempt dancing, but happily Grant is on hand…

These books are light reading in many ways, and are not as deep and meaningful as Maisie Dobbs! They are funny and involving, and can be informative about each community Dandy gets embroiled in with Alec’s assistance. As good summer reads I would recommend them, especially if you can borrow or get them cheaply, as frankly they are not great literature. Any more Women detectives of the interwar period out there?

Back from the far North (or further North anyway!)

I’m back from holiday! A fortnight in changeable, lovely, welcoming Orkney.  For a twenty five mile island, there are many books to be had. The Orcadian bookshop is definitely worth a look if you find yourself in Kirkwall ( perhaps an unlikely circumstance…) if only because they can order up any book in print with very little to go on. The famous author in Stromness is George Mackay Brown, poet, journalist and writer of amazing prose. We did buy a couple of his books; watch this space for further comments.

I did of course read a few books while I was there (eight or so).  It was made easier by the extreme comfort of the bungalow and the day of the gale when I couldn’t get out of the front door. This did include some Harry Potter, numbers two and three, as well as some books in various murder mystery series.  I really enjoyed Dandy Gilver and an unsuitable Day for a murder by Catriona McPherson

Having not enjoyed The Winter Ground much this is a good return to form for the Dandy Gilver series. It is set in two department stores and depicts two warring families and suicide, or murder. I thought that the descriptions of the two stores was particularly good, as well as Dandy’s reactions to the clothes on sale. The mystery takes second  place to the characterisations and descriptions of people and place. At last Hugh the husband does the right thing, and we see Dandy herself develop in confidence. The police are not generally cooperative, but Dandy still discovers a lot of the truth. My only and main criticism of the book is the family complications which had me checking the family tree in the front of the book. That is part of the plot, however, so not surprising that it’s complicated.

This is a good book in the series, which does not need to be read strictly in order to enjoy the novel. It may be a bit confusing if you read it as the first book by this author, though it is possible just to read it to wallow in the 1920s period details. It is a good book, a very Scottish book, and you really don’t have to go to Orkney to buy it!

Reading for pleasure…or prescribed?

I mentioned in my last post one of the issues with reading books, beyond the format you choose. Do we read for our own pleasure, as we feel interested in a novel or indeed non fiction book, or do we read because we feel we have to, for a book group or other reasons? I know that we often discover books when we are handed a book list, some of which we come to enjoy. And one of the benefits of going to a library is the possibility of trying out a new author or even type of book without risking any money. Of course, if you get hooked on a author or series you may end up spending a lot of money…

One of my favourite bookblogs, http://www.dovegreyreader.co.uk/ had a post yesterday about reading “on a whim”; putting aside the lists and instead reading a book that just seems interesting or enjoyable at the time. Sometimes I just get fed up of the books that I ought to read, and pick up something less challenging  or just more fun.

Which is probably why I picked up The Winter Ground by Catriona McPherson, being another Dandy Gilver mystery. For those of you who may be baffled , Dandy Gilver is an upper class bored wife and mother in the 1920s who likes to investigate mysteries, often involving murder in Scotland. I really enjoyed the last one that I read, The Burry Man’s Day, and thought that I would pick up this one in the library despite the fact that it is set around Christmas in the frozen north. (though it is rather chilly here, for August, not to mention the rain, hail, thunderstorms….)


This novel is set in a circus, and given that we had a circus skills workshop in the big tent in our garden (thanks, Northumberland libraries!) the other week, I thought that this would be a good read. It wasn’t on a list, and it isn’t particularly educational. It is a little difficult to follow, as the action is set in a  fading circus. The Spanish Influenza epidemic has damaged the local families and it is in some ways a sad book, but the central mystery is more tricky to work out than first appears.  I got very confused about the various names and nicknames, acts and equipment in the circus described, and while I’m sure she had done a lot of research, I think that some of the narrative got lost. I think that part of the problem was that some of the characters went by several names, including Russian abbreviations. While I found the other two in the series fairly straightforward, if not easy to solve, this one was unnecessarily complicated. Also some of the background is sad, even given the national sense of loss in the 1920s. I would definitely pick up another book in this series to read, not because I have to, but because these are well researched and atmospheric books with interesting mysteries a the centre of the book. Good holiday reads, even if the weather is anything but summer time.

Murder Mystery Solved! (Before I read the last bit…)

After all the excitement of my 100th post and my very first guest reviewer,(thanks MHH!) it’s back to my weird selection of books. Easy to get hold of, but a strange selection of history (fiction and non fiction) general fiction (some of it literary) and a fair bit of murder (only fictional, don’t panic) and anything else which takes my fancy…

My latest murder is one of a series. I may have mentioned the books of Catriona  McPherson before, but her second book in the Dandy Gilver Murder Mystery series has kept me occupied in the Festival which is in full swing hereabouts. So between being nice to people eager to discover local history and the details of the production of the King James Bible (400 years old this year) I’ve been solving a murder.

The mystery to be found in The Burry Man’s Day is not the toughest I’ve ever read of in a historical murder novel.


I think that this mystery is informative about the period just after the First World War, when social barriers had been challenged and women had won many more rights, even if customs in small Scottish towns lagged behind. McPherson lives in Scotland and may be more culturally aware than some other writers of historical mystery novels, despite their often impeccable research. I think that she has got the sense of life in a community just right, with the lively children, dubious drinkers, strict housewives and funeral practices. The headmaster and wife of the school are so well described that they would be in the running for the Mrs Proudie Prize (Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles)

  Cue extra picture of Alan Rickman in the Barchester Chronicles with the fearsome Mrs Proudie, role model for Clergy Spouses everywhere.

Back to McPherson. The unexpected death of a well known local character in a very public setting sets off the hunt for a possible murderer, motive and method. The extra thing about this series of novels is the genuinely funny style. The hostess of the fete is called Buttercup by the leading character, much to her new husband’s bemusement. The same hostess has lived in America, from which she has acquired habits from the famous speakeasy’s need to hide alcohol quickly as well as suspicions of gangsters. This book is far more confident than its predecessor After the Armistice Ball. Dandy now enjoys detecting and is confident in her partner, which allows her to have a more realistic crisis of conscience at the significant moment. Despite its humour, this book makes some serious points about the damage done by the War.

Unusually for me, I worked out roughly what must have caused the events in the book quite early on. Despite my record of reading many murder mysteries, I often struggle to beat the detective to murderer, motive and method. This may be because the novel does not obey the rules concerning letting the reader having all the information in good time, or maybe because I’m just not good at puzzles. This book is so good that even if you crack the mystery early on, the process, the scenery and the characters are worth following. I have also enjoyed greatly Elizabeth Peters, Carola Dunn and Laurie King  who write good historical murder mysteries, but I think that McPherson has a slight edge on style and humour. Well worth a read.   


















































Authors of the North- at least for a time

When we moved up to the Frozen North, I suppose that I imagined that my days of going to author signings in our local bookshops, reasonably handy for London, were over. And yes, they probably have changed. One local independent bookshop, Cognito in Hexham, does seem to round up quite a few authors to sign their books ( =expensive presents for Husband and others) and seem to organise the book festival in May – hence my sighting of Phillipa Gregory as my post of a few weeks ago.

Another popular author attraction is the Newcastle University Insights lecture programme, open to the public. I have sighted Juliet Nicolson,writer of The Great Silence and more recently Juliet Gardiner writer of The Thirties and The Blitz. More about both writers at a later date.

And tonight, at our local library, Graham Pears, writer of a new crime novel, The Myth of Justice. A retired policeman of the North East, he entertained his audience with many tales of his career, including chasing an escaped lion across Sunderland. If the book turns out to be as funny as his stories, it will be excellent. I think it looks as if it is going to reveal a realistic, if fictional, story of criminal life in the North East, so  I’m looking forward to reading it. His next book comes out in March; I hope to have read this one and posted about it before then. He is due to speak in the City Library in Newcastle on Saturday as part of the Books on Tyne Book Festival. I’m actually due to go to the Free Thinking Event at the Sage, where other authors at to be let loose on the public. It looks good ( and it’s my birthday, so I’ll try to forget my age).

A book after all this gadding about?

After the Armistice Ball by Catriona McPherson is, as may be guessed from the title, another murder mystery set in the Twenties.The Heroine, Danny Gilver, does not seek to solve a murder, thinking only that there is an insurance scandal going on involving friends and acquaintances. Thus she is a fairly inept, if instinctive, investigator, and when murder is suspected she is not motivated by the need for money, furthering her career or anything except a determination to get to the bottom of a convoluted family situation. There are very dramatic events, but there are a lot of very realistic details of Dandy’s own family situation, including her rather awkward husband.

I enjoyed this book; McPherson having established a fairly laid back style and describing a woman who has to worry about her own family responsibilities as well as crime solving. There are elements which are a little repetitive, and one or two loose ends which are a little annoying. It does represent one of an ever increasing number of women detective tales written recently but set in this period, but this does depict a female young enough to be concerned with her appearance and role, but past the courtship with the handsome young detective/lord/policeman stage. I think it is the first of a series as well, and it is a worthwhile, interesting story. It does not go off into psychological studies like the Maisie Dobbs series, but is more substantial than the Daisy Darlymple mysteries. I enjoyed it, and would recommend it as a fairly easy read if a little annoying in places where the narrative does drift a little. It does not have the stamp of authenticity like Patricia Wentworth’s book in my last post, and can sometimes be a little fantastic, but it is a page turner,and worth seeking out. I will try and read the others available in the series, but you know how it is …so many books, so little time…