Death In Fancy Dress by Anthony Gilbert – a British Library Crime classic in every respect

Death in Fancy Dress Paperback British Library Crime Classic

 

Death at a fancy dress ball in country house – the classic murder mystery novel originally published in 1933, now republished in the British Library Crime Classic series. This particular book has an extra element to it: the search for an blackmailer who seems to be encouraging the suicides of previously unconnected and largely blameless people. The narrator of the tale, Tony, is a young lawyer who has been engaged to deal with a tricky international matter, and on his return encounters his old friend Jeremy Freyne. Jeremy has a reputation for disguise, trickery and a flippant attitude to life, fooling people and producing jolly observations on life. Tony and Jeremy are asked to visit Feltham Abbey, to discover if the “Spider”, or the presumed master blackmailer will be there by the British Secret Service. 

 

This novel of women and men in an enclosed group involving a ball, blackmail and state secrets moves along smoothly, full of the chatter of a time when the effects of the First World War are still being felt. Wealthy people, servants and friends all mingle where there are underlying secrets and long term grudges, so when the inevitable  murder happens there is a pool of suspects for Tony and Jeremy to investigate. This well paced novel full of period detail is an entertaining story of mystery and fantastic characters. The dialogue which runs throughout the book reveals a certain level of black humour from not only Jeremy, but also the women and men who are at the party or generally live in the area. This book was written by the talented Lucy Malleson under her pen name of Anthony Gilbert, and as Martin Edwards explains in his fascinating introduction, while she did not gain the big commercial success she wanted, she wrote some excellent novels and short stories. Two of these, Horseshoes for Luck and The Cockroach and the Tortoise are also in this book, which are small gems of crime and deceit. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

 

The usual elements of a country house mystery are fully present in this novel. A victim who gains little sympathy with anyone, a number of people with reasonable motives, two people who are determined to discover the guilty party. There are some interesting and well drawn characters who are introduced and developed throughout the novel, and the author gives full weight to the female characters which is not always the case in books of the period. 

 

This is an enjoyable and very readable book with a well focused mystery at its heart. The larger search for the Spider gives a greater depth to this story which lives it above a simple murder mystery. The issues of the interwar years are well represented, as the problems left from one war are still present and in the background. I found the characters well drawn and contribute greatly to the overall effect of the book, with the unusual Merriel Ross being especially intriguing. This is a worthy addition to an already highly successful series of books and I would be very interested to see other books by Anthony Gilbert.  

The Will to Succeed by Christine Raafat – Anne Clifford and her fight for her fights – a novel

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Sometimes historical fiction can give the reader a whole new perspective on a period of time, and the sort of people who lived during a time of change and challenge. Lady Anne Clifford was a woman who had one focus in her life, the inheritance of her family’s lands. In the seventeenth century women of course were not generally seen as having independence; only an exceptional few were landowners in their own right. Her obsession dated back to the time of her father’s death, when she was only fifteen, and was informed that she would inherit a fortune but not the lands that had been entailed down the generations of her family.  From that point onwards she was willing to fight for what she believed she should have, and for that she was willing to endanger everything. This carefully written novel is a testament to the determination of a woman who fought everyone in a fiercely patriarchal society peopled with those who were influential and changeable. I found this a powerfully written and effective novel which feels as solid as a non fiction history book, but brings characters to life like the best of imaginative novels. I was very grateful to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent book.

 

Born in 1590, Anne was the only surviving child of the third Earl of Cumberland, and thanks to her mother, Lady Margaret’s, connections at the royal court she became a popular and admired lady in waiting first to Queen Elizabeth then among those in the court of King James and Queen Anne. It is when her wish of marrying Richard Sackville is realised that her determination to fight for her inheritance really comes to the forefront of the story. With a subtle hand Raafat describes a young couple very much in love. It is only when, following a long separation when Richard travels, that he falls under the influence of unscrupulous gamblers and  a corrupt court, that he seeks to redress his financial losses by commanding Anne to give up her claim to her lands in the north of England. The loss of trust, the legal inequalities which face Anne, and the varying fortunes of the couple and those around them make for a focus to a fascinating account of life in and around the royal courts of England in the 1600s.

 

I found this a carefully executed book, which gives a believable picture of life for a woman of determination and strength in difficult circumstances. There is an immense amount of research demonstrated in this book which never gets in the way of the story; the small details of jewelry, clothing and everyday life of travel and setting is combined to make a tremendous narrative. This is a novel of powerful women and determined men, long journeys across the country, and the dispute which had a serious effect on several lives. Anne’s story is indicative of the problems that many wealthy women faced over the centuries, that their lives, loves and children became ways of control over them as the second best gender. This is a fascinating novel , and I recommend it as a fine example of historical fiction with a unique woman at its centre.   

Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown – 2 wives in the 1950s and contemporary America

 

Alice Hale has something to hide. She also does not want to move to a house in the suburbs. So if her perfect relationship with Nate is a bit stressed, she seeks distraction and friendship with her neighbour, it is hardly surprising.  When she discovers the papers of one of her predecessors, Nellie Murdoch, in the atmospheric house, she becomes thoroughly engaged in the 1950s and a very different life. This is a book of two women, both distinctive characters, both married, and facing problems. The layers of research into a woman’s lifestyle in the 1950s is impressive but never gets in the way of the story. The two accounts of  the women’s lives move both stories on well, and maintain the suspense as in a really moving way. I particularly enjoyed the way questions are asked by the characters, an echo of some of the questions I had as the narrative preceded. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this well constructed and written book.

 

The book begins with Alice tackling the garden of the house that she did not want to move to when she saw it. Not that she is a gardener, or indeed a cook, or knows how to sort out this shabby house with all its challenges. She finds that the house seems to be conspiring against her, especially as she is already stressed about her change of role from high powered PR executive to writer and housewife. Her husband Nate is a caring individual who has always demonstrated genuine concern for her, and he is extremely keen to start a family. 

 

Following a recipe of the time, Nellie Murdoch is introduced. It is July 1955 and she seems to be a housewife with a keen interest is cooking and gardening, and evidently a husband who has views on what she should wear. Richard has a weak stomach, but Nellie takes care to give him food to help. As the book progresses, it emerges that while Richard is determined to start a family, he is immensely controlling and becomes quite brutal. Alice soon finds some letters from Nellie to her mother to go along with the cookery book and magazines she has already discovered, and tries to fit together a picture of this mysterious woman’s story. As she has to come to terms with a lot herself, she becomes more involved with the 1950s life of Nellie.

 

I found this a fascinating book, well plotted and hugely readable. It has much to say about the experience of women in both the 1950s and the twenty first century. While Nellie is confronted by the need to be a “perfect” wife, she is in many ways doing everything she can to fulfil that perception. Alice’s experience shows a different sort of pressure to have and do it all; a profession which of itself proves challenging, and seeking out a role to replace it. This book presents a vivid picture of women’s lives in the light of expectations for a “perfect wife”, and I recommend it as a really sensitively written novel. 

 

 

 

The Second Persephone Book of Short Stories – Insights into lives throughout the twentieth century

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This is a book that shows off what Persephone books are all about in one volume. Thirty stories, some longer than others, all have the special flavour of stories that represent the unique nature of the publishing house. They appear in the order that they were published, the earliest from 1896, the most recent from 1984, and all are written by women. There is a short biography of each writer in the back of the book, which is useful as while some authors are well known, having published books that are popular, whereas others are less famous. 

 

The variety of stories is therefore wide, with nine wartime tales which of themselves vary between those which acknowledge the reality of war, and those which instead look at the people who happened to be living at the time. Most of the stories are based in Britain, but several are based in other countries which represents the balance of Persephone books overall. A number of stories have appeared in other Persephone collections of stories; there are a few Mollie Panter- Downes volumes already published set in both war and peace. While some stories have been featured in Persephone’s own twice yearly magazine, others have been more difficult to access. As always the distinctive grey cover of this book distinguishes this book as one of an excellent series; a well produced and attractive book which would be a wonderful gift.

 

The first story looks at what women think, whereas the Canfield Fisher story looks at the sole notable achievement of a woman. I enjoyed the story of a young woman who has suffered oppression by her parents, and discovers her own life. The real pain and irony of fleeing the invading armies in France is especially memorable although it features a man. Some stories are tragic, but others are inspiring and even humourous. Many are clever, and have much to say about women’s lives in the time when they were written.

 

While it would be possible to go through all of the stories and provide a comment on each, I would suggest that finding your own route through this book would be more successful. The very essence of this book is to give a short insight into a life, either over a long period or a very brief glimpse of an incident. Short stories can be an acquired taste, but they have the advantage of offering something for everyone’s taste in a book like this of diverse authors. This is the second book of short stories that Persephone has published, and either one is to be recommended as offering an impressive selection of tasters of women authors who had something to say in the twentieth century, or to demonstrate the power of fiction in lives affected by change and challenges.     

An Unconventional Countess by Jenni Fletcher – a Regency romance with a cliffhanger!

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This is a Regency romance with one immediate twist; at least two of the female characters always says what they think and follow their beliefs, whatever the consequences. It makes the men around them think and react in interesting ways. This being essentially a romance novel there is an attraction for a man who perhaps breaks the mould or at least expectations. The hero of this book is a real naval hero, veteran of Trafalgar, and show stoppingly handsome. To make him entertaining and interesting, he has a troubled background, and is painfully self aware. Anna is a very strong character, who is running her own business, looking after her widowed mother, and has some bitter experience of aristocratic men. This is a novel where anticipation and surprises are the dominant feature, as well as firmly held views on the different levels of society. I was really pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this lovely book.

 

As the story begins two men are drawn towards a biscuit shop, a highly successful and fashionable shop in Bath, which is full of those drawn not only by the promised healing properties of the spa water, but also the social scene. Both men are convinced that the two young women they have seen through a shop window are beautiful; but both have their own reaction. The younger and more naive Henrietta attracts Ralph who has few scruples about young women, whereas the good hearted Samuel Delaney is instantly attracted by Anna, who is less than impressed by aristocratic men. Anna is resourceful and protective of Henrietta, which attracts  Samuel, as indeed her personality intrigues him. She encounters his grandparents, who are a seemingly ill matched in their obsessions, but who love each other deeply. Lady Jarrow is determined to help her much loved grandson, as well as rescue an old friend. As she makes firm suggestions or decrees about people’s lives, she takes a firm line with everyone in quite a funny way. 

 

There is a party, a departure from Bath, and some very detailed exploration of how two characters with seemingly little in common find a deep mutual attraction. They have many challenges to face and events beyond their control occur. 

 

This is the sort of book which I wanted to read quickly to find out what happens. It is a gentle and uplifting read, with a lot to recommend it for many readers. I really enjoyed the strong female lead character who is decisive if occasionally misguided. Lady Jarrow is a fantastic creation, who deeply loves and wants the best for others, despite the fact that she hides it behind an obsession with horses and riding. Samuel is a man with hidden depths, a brave naval officer who realises that he must respond to those he loves. Anna is capable of great love, intelligent and loyal. I really enjoyed this book which is comfortable with its setting as the research is never overwhelming but accurate. I really recommend this book to readers of historical romance, especially in the Regency period, and also those who enjoy a good uplifting story.   

Hitler’s Secret by Rory Clements – an historical novel of danger and revelations

 

In 1941 there were plenty of secrets as Hitler’s forces were in the ascendant. As even the vast Russian territory seems under threat, France has fallen, and America is on the edge of becoming involved in a war which is affecting all of Europe. Tom Wilde, historian and American, is asked to attempt the impossible, to retrieve a package from Berlin. This is the story of a man who must go deep into enemy territory, take on security services both official and unofficial, and move around an area already on high alert. As he tries to find a way through, he must try to determine who will help, and who is willing to kill to stop his progress. 

 

This is a grim tale, with little holding back on the brutality of a country at war and an individual taking huge risks. The unsettling theme of not knowing who can be trusted and who is playing a double game pervades the book, as every seeming advance is questionable. The book shows real audacity in its development of characters who have their own agendas which are not always obvious. As surprises occur, dangers mount up and the vivid picture of immenses risks occur, nothing is straightforward in a novel about a secret which could rock the German hierarchy. I found this a gripping and exciting book, in which nothing is predictable, and I was grateful for the opportunity to read and review it.

 

The book opens with Martin Bormann, Hitler’s closest personal fixer, having to deal with a situation which seems potentially difficult to sort out. He summons his useful and loyal unofficial agent, Otto Kalt. Bormann tells Kalt that his task is crucial and must be carried out correctly, as he realises that everything depends on it. Meanwhile, Tom Wilde is an academic in Cambridge, a historian and American. At this point he has been working on his German language skills, conscious that sooner or later he may well be called on to help in the war effort on Britain’s side. When he is approached he is shocked that he must go to Nazi Germany, as he does not have that much confidence in his ability to pass as a German. As an arrangement is made, he puts to his partner Lydia and the mother of his small son that he must leave Cambridge for training and preparation. He enters Germany with a weak cover story, and he is unaware of where the trail of the package will take him. 

 

This is not a restful, and occasionally brutal book. Clements’ eye for detail is impressive, as his research is incredible but not obviously written up. The reader discovers much about characters and situations in Nazi Germany alongside Wilde. Although the novel is in the third person rather than through Wilde’s eyes, the reader feels something of his confusion, fear and suspicion of those around him, just as he experiences some understanding of those he meets. This is an extremely well written book, full of tension, surprises and atmosphere. Just as Clements’ Tudor spy series creates a whole world of historical fiction, this is a terrific read that I found totally absorbing. I recommend this to all historical fiction fans, especially those who have an interest in the Second World War period.  

You, Me and the Movies by Fiona Collins – a novel of films, love and life

 

Arden Hall is a woman whose has certainly lived. Or has she? When she makes a discovery on a hospital ward it means that everything she has believed needs rethinking. So far, so normal for a novel. What makes this novel standout is the films, the memories that are evoked of a love, a year and a half of loving someone. This is a novel in which entire crucial conversations can take place in films; well known, lingering images in the mind which just hit the spot. Arden has watched The List of films with a special man – Mac – and she can never forget. Laughter and tears, romance and hurt, love and regret, everything is in a novel that keeps the reader enthralled. As it flips from a remembered love to an intense present, this a celebration of film and love. I was delighted to have the opportunity to read and review this entertaining novel.

 

Arden has escaped from an abusive relationship and is in a job which she finds predictable, despite the fact that it is in television. Her son Julian is still close to her, but she has avoided other friendships, even with Becky, who she has known since university. It is on a rare occasion that she agrees to visit another friend when she recognises another patient, Mac Bartley – Thomas. She was eighteen when they originally met, and in alternating chapters she remembers their relationship at Warwick University. It was founded on the films that they watched together, as he was a lecturer in Film Studies. Being badly injured in a road accident has left Mac virtually unable to speak, but at the end of every visit he manages a brief reference to a film on the List they watched. They enjoyed Fatal Attraction, Casablanca, and others, as she comments on the feminist implications as they enjoy their intense meetings. Arden is desperate for their relationship, especially as she struggled with her own family. Her mother has styled herself as “Marilyn” as in Monroe, and is an incredibly demanding woman. Having been named for a character in a Monroe film, Arden has survived her difficult childhood partly through obsessively watching films, and it is partly because of her interest that she targets Mac. As she recalls that happy time, their adventures together and the need for secrecy, she contrasts their affair with her marriage to the controlling Christian, and how she changed as a person. She meets James, a neighbour of Mac’s and begins to enjoy her regular hospital visits, especially as she  finds purpose in her life with the reminders of the special films Mac briefly alludes to at the end of each visit.

 

It is the films which provide much of the power to this novel, as each one has special resonance for an aspect of Arden’s life, both then and now. This is a funny, sometimes moving book, which handles both time periods particularly successfully. It is easy to believe in the fashionable student, enjoying an illicit relationship with a married man, and the sad, disappointed woman she has become as a result of relationships which could never replace the first heady love. This is an enjoyable and and entertaining read, and I thoroughly recommend it to those who are fond of twentieth century films as well as sparky romance.