Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate A British Library Crime Classic

This recent murder mystery from the British Library crime classic series is a grim reminder that life on the Home Front in the Second World War was not glamorous for most people. Raymond Postgate had written a successful novel, “The Verdict of Twelve”, which looked through the biographies of the characters rather than just their relationship with the crime. Whether a result of his socialist interests or his journalist experience, he was far more interested in the people who may have been guilty or innocent rather than the complications of a plot. In this novel he painstakingly describes the background of each of the main suspects and victim beyond the discoveries made by the police detective Inspector Holly, and each story has an element of sorrow or loss shaped by the events of the early 1940s. Nobody really emerges as a likable character, least of all the victim.

Councillor Grayling is a deeply unpopular man and victim. He has ambitions to be a great man in his community and home, but cannot achieve anything, it is suggested, without bullying and blackmail. His wife dislikes him, the Vicar, who is a sad man in his personality and role, suspects him of corruption, and provides information of the victim’s last journey home by train. He describes how others sat round him in the carriage and exhibited symptoms of a miserable cold. Grayling had enemies in that carriage of both a personal and business nature; consequently Holly discovers that he has several credible suspects with reasonable motives. The tone is sombre, and there appears to be desperation all around, even if most of the characters are not in actual danger from the fighting. The method of killing is particularly grisly, and could only be carried out in wartime, which adds to the background of grey misery.

I actually found this a really interesting and intriguing book. The plot is almost secondary to the almost short story approach to each character, which reveals more than strictly necessary to potential involvement in the murder. Consequently this is not a mystery to read quickly because of the plot and the need to find the guilty person; I found each character’s story well written and providing a fascinating insight into everyday life in wartime. This is not a cheerful read but a well written novel of people in all their weaknesses. As a snapshot of the times it is a deeply atmospheric book with some strong images and rather world weary reality. Martin Edwards’ introduction refers to the “dark days of the Second World War” as the background of this 1943 book, and calls Postgate “a talented … amateur rather than a seasoned professional”. This is a fair assessment of an sensitive book of the era.

 

 

 

One Pair of Feet by Monica Dickens

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A selection of covers for a well established book. Curiously, I think the most recent one is the least enticing…

This is a 1952 book which looks back on the wartime year of a young woman who decides to train as a nurse to help the war effort. She does not need the money; she is not forced into the hospital by conscription, she “could not make up her mind what to be”. She finds many snags to each of the choices, A.T.S. requiring little work, the W.V.S involves ungrateful evacuees and the Land Army requires mangel- wurzel pulling in the early morning. The idea of nursing “Had always attracted me.” and she embarks on a journey to a hospital, any hospital who will allow her to start training immediately.

For those who may not relish the idea of a medical memoir, the writer is far more interested in her situation in the new way of life she discovers at the hospital. The other nurses of all ranks are discussed as some eat their body weight, others fall in love with local servicemen, some are determined to run the hospital on strict lines, or at least whichever ward Dickens is sent to in a haphazard way.  She works nights, fails to sleep during the day, and is occasionally invited away from the hospital for social engagements. One of the funniest situations is when she visits a school and is hailed as a source of a diagnosis of an odd rash. It is a funny book, despite or perhaps because of its setting. She assists at the last minute saving of a woman, and nurses private patients with their many and various requirements. There is a moment when the war seems about to intrude with extra patients, but as in many cases it is an anti climax, as is well suggested in the build up to the anecdote.

This is a well written, amusing book full of tales which have the suggestion of truth. It is not a sentimental tale, but more in the spirit of “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” which is high praise.  As a tale of the Home Front it is almost modern in its humour, and is far from a grim recall of danger survived. Dickens emerges as an independent young woman with a keen flair for honest observation. It is of its time, but is well written and engaging, and given its subject matter, a surprisingly cheerful read. I found it a fascinating picture of war time life, cheerful in contrast with other books of the time, and can recommend it to anyone interested in the life actually lived by some of the people of Britain at a time of challenge.

At the moment life at the Vicarage is busy. Today Northernvicar and I went to Leeds to see a couple of museums as part of our M.A. course. We know how to live! Selwyn, the Vicarage cat, was so appalled by his abandonment that he fell down the back of a cupboard on our return…

Blue Murder by Harriet Rutland – a Dean Street Classic

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“A Golden Age Murder” it proclaims on the cover of this book, another Dean Street Press book send to me for review. It is the final book published by Harriet Rutland, and it is a strong book notable for several twists and turns, some of which are totally unexpected. A clever book, it is an experience of reading a novel written in war time (1942) when the dangers of the blitz are a real and indeed intrude into the action. This is both a classic and an unusual novel, even if the identity of the killer is not obscure long before the end, even if only because there are relatively few possibilities. The horrible nature of the characters is so cleverly written that sympathy is in short supply, but the narrative is so compelling the reader will want to see how it works out.

Murder happens in a household where the parents are awful, the daughter difficult and the son and wife challenging. A beautiful young teacher is involved, a will is debated, and the threat of physical danger is ever present. A locally unpopular head teacher is dangerously susceptible to the charms of Miss Charity Fuller, and indeed dominates his school with more than an iron rod, much to the dismay of the teachers and at least one parent. His wife, Mrs Hardstaffe (Rutland loves playing with names in this novel) is a hypochondriac with money which proves to be a dangerous combination. The daughter, Leda, is a tough, capable woman, obsessed with her dogs and war work. Into this unhappy household comes Arnold Smith, failed writer searching for inspiration. As he becomes enthusiastic about writing a murder mystery, he keeps saying that he is going to “murder” one or more of the people around him, as he becomes a lodger in the challenging household.

This is quite a tightly written novel where there is a full set of motives. The police appear and feature as amusing characters, trying to do their best, but they seem largely ineffective. Not that they are figures of fun, but their questioning does not seem to bring results. There is a painful description of a maid who is a refugee from the German forces; while she is quite faithfully described she reflects a time when the full horror of the treatment of Jews is only just emerging. So she is seem as sensitive and melodramatic when perhaps later views would have been more sympathetic.

This is perhaps not the best of the Golden age novels, but it is a deeply interesting portrayal of a time and the people living through it. The lesser characters are well described, as even the cameo of an evacuee’s father takes its place in the overall picture of a horrible head master. This book features some truly chilling moments, and yet given the time at which it was written almost takes it into a picture of a country at war, when not everyone ‘pulled together’.  I recommend it as a gripping read of characters stuck together by fate, destruction being a real possibility.

 

The Late Mrs Prioleau by Monica Tindall

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This fascinating book from Furrowed Middlebrow is many things, a family story, a mystery, a wartime novel, but most of all it is a portrait of a woman’s life. Told by Mrs. Prioleau’s daughter in law, another Mrs Prioleau, it is a largely dispassionate hunt for the details of a life which had a tremendous effect on those around her, especially her children. Reaching back into the late nineteenth century, the background of much of the novel is the displacement resulting from the Second World War, as people discover more about themselves and those they love. The narrator, Susan, has the style of a murder mystery writer who tries to cope with the tension and the damaged siblings of her husband, largely away at war. Her realisation of all the elements of a life she only observes when it is at an end provokes a parallel realisation from the reader that choices made can reverberate through the years.

The book opens at the funeral of a matriarch, as the eldest son, Austin, is distraught at his mother’s death. It becomes obvious that he is an obsessive character, left bereft by the loss of his mother who kept a stern watch over every element of his life. Susan becomes involved in trying to clear the house, move Austin on, at the gentle insistence of a doctor and family friend. She soon discovers that the older woman kept clothes and items not really consistent with her life as recalled by those around her. Austin makes scenes, is obsessed by his dogs, and generally continues to behave in an odd way. While Susan is told that he suffered shell shock in the First World War, his bizarre behaviour seems to reveal more questions than answers.

This is not a miserable book, as it is lightened by the burden of a parrot, and other odd incidents which surround a dysfunctional family. It becomes obvious, however, that both daughters of the family tried to get away from home as soon as possible, even if that meant that they made poor choices. The grandchildren are allowed an almost dangerous amount of freedom, but they appear essentially resilient. Susan’s own war work takes her to many places, and gives her opportunities to find out more about the family. I wanted a resolution to all this searching, and I was not disappointed by the revelations of the book.

This was sadly the only book published by Tindall, a carefully written story of lives consistent with difficult choices. I think it has a lot to say about women’s lot in the early twentieth century, and much of its background of the writer enduring life on the Home Front contributes to our understanding of women’s experience. The narrator is from New Zealand so she gives a largely dispassionate account of British life under trial. The thoughtful introduction written by Gillian Tindall portrays a writer with more talent than ambition, whose sole novel more than deserves this reprint by Dean Street Press. I was very pleased to get this copy of the book to review and recommend it as an unusual and touching novel.

I have quite a pile of review books to get my teeth into at the moment; more murder from Dean Street Press, some classics and some soon to be published titles from Legend Press, and Martin Edwards’ “The story of Classic crime in 100 Books”. I think that the latter might mean I spend more than a few pennies on classic crime novels myself…

Tom Tiddler’s Ground by Ursula Orange

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This reprint of Orange’s book is a welcome addition to the Furrowed Middlebrow series published by Dean Street Press, and it is one of the best I have read. As a fan of Angela Thirkell’s novels, I thought I knew this territory well; a wartime look at life in a village with the focus on some individuals out of their comfort zone. This book is set in the early days of the Second World War, before bombs fell in blitz, when evacuees were debating whether to stay in countryside safety or return to London, when people were preparing for challenges to everything they knew.

Caroline Cameron is a young woman who seems to have it all, child, husband, money and a lovely home. Constance Smith has a lovely home in a village, Chesterford, but no children and a distant husband, Alfred. When war threatens Constance welcomes not only her old school friend Caroline, her daughter and Nanny into her home, but also an evacuated mother and child. Challenges soon emerge as Alfred’s behaviour becomes more flirtatious and ambitious, and the mother from London   struggles to look after her child. When Constance’s brother George comes to the village, Caroline is diverted by his sense of humour, but also embarks on an affair in London with an actor. Mysterious letters, Constance’s developing affection for the evacuee child and the scandalous behaviour of a local teenager threatens the peace of the village long before war wreaks havoc in the country at large.

This all seems rather grim, but Orange is a skilful and amusing writer. I particularly like the asides in brackets after many characters, especially Caroline, speak, revealing what they wished to say in reality. It is this factor, together with a stronger plot, which is the main difference from Thirkell’s writing, as well as it being a stand alone book. It features many strong characters, well written and believable.  For example, Caroline spends the weekend with her lover at friends’ house, and although these characters only appear briefly they are very funny, with no idea if they have servants or how they survive. I really enjoyed the working out of the plot and thought that the characters were consistent and realistic in many ways.

This is an easy to read and involving book, of its time and reflecting the uncertainty of 1941, when no one knew how the war would proceed. The characters, though a little confusingly named, are funny, realistic and generally understandable. It is in many ways a jolly book, despite the time at which it was written, and a rewarding read. It does not totally resolve the situations it creates, and it is not a substantial piece of writing, but I would recommend it to anyone interested in this period and the experience of women at the onset of war.

Dean Street Press are publishing excellent reprints of Golden Age Crime novels, and they are worth seeking out. I have downloaded several onto my kindle, despite not being a fan of ebooks, and they have been useful to read on my kindle app when waiting around. I still prefer physical books, and have so many waiting for  attention (putting on shelves?!?) that seven days in a week are far from enough! Still, who needs to be able to see the carpet?

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

In the busy build up to Easter, when family and friends are perhaps looming, today’s book may be a challenging read. I would recommend you do find time to read and enjoy it, even if it is not always comforting story or series of tales.

 

I was so keen to read this book that I invested in the hardback (that, and I was in a favourite bookshop just before we moved house). I am glad I did, partly because the cover of the paperback is a sad let down in terms of suggesting that this novel is only a wartime romance. There is romance in this book, but of a very down to earth type, full of the chat and understanding that make the various relationships between the characters seem real.

There is a lot going on in this book. Mary is a young woman who wants to be involved in the war from the very start. She believes and hopes that she has signed up for secret war work, but it is not a spoiler to say that she ends up in a classroom, and it is through this situation that she meets Tom, who soon becomes fascinated with her and her unlikely set of attitudes. She also encounters some children who for various reasons are not evacuated, and she becomes involved with their lives. Tom’s friend Alistair joins up, and his experiences of life in the army are described with the detail that reveals that, as Cleave mentions in his afterword, he based that section on his grandfather’s accounts.

The beginning of the blitz as well as one character’s progress at the front gives an intensity to this book that made me put it down at the end of chapters to understand what had happened. Cleave plays tricks on the reader as bravery, even survival, is completely at risk. While there are four main characters, there are the friends, relatives and colleagues who maintain the dialogue, sometimes the plain speaking, which makes for a sometimes painful realism. Not that this is a sad or cheerless book; indeed, sometimes the conversations between the main characters are laugh out loud funny. Maybe it is gallows humour, but it is the sort of humour that does happen at times of stress or endurance; it’s the first time I have seen it not only written down but maintained between so many of the characters.

I enjoyed this book, even though I struggled with some of the tragedies. The style is so confident, whether dealing with disaster or hope. The theme of racial discrimination is tackled as a fact, rather than a point for preaching. There is sadness at the difficulties some people, some children face. It challenges the assumptions that all children were evacuated away from the bombing, which many contemporary sources argue simply did not happen in a significant number of cases. There are disturbing images here, but also the hope and survival of the human spirit. The hysterical reaction to the bombing of London feels slightly drunken, as characters come to terms with loss and change to familiar landscapes in all senses. It is that element which remains with me as I recognise the dawn realisation that so much has changed, but much is the same.

So I would recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the Second World War, as well as vivid, human writing about life changing experiences. It is an intense read rather than a fast one, not gripping in the sense of a thriller but in the sense of human curiosity. This is not an easy read, but such a richly written book that I would suggest you get your hands on a copy you can keep for some time and relish.

 

The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham

If you have read previous posts on this blog, you will have noticed that I have an interest in life in Britain during the Second World War. I have picked out some of the Persephone titles which reflect the experiences of women such as Winifred Peck, as well as Furrowed Middlebrow’s offerings of fascinating memoirs like Chelsea Concerto. I have long enjoyed the books of Margery Allingham as her unusual hero Albert Campion solves mysteries in a wartime setting as well as introducing the foggy “Tiger in the Smoke”. So I was interested to track down a copy of The Oaken Heart  being  “The story of an English Village at War”. It is available to order from bookshops in a lovely edition by Golden Duck publishers, which look to be a small Essex business.

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This is an unusual book in two ways; it is an unusual book for Allingham, who is known mainly for her murder mystery books, notably featuring Albert Campion. It is also unusual as a book in that it is almost a real time record of one village’s experiences of daily life in the Second World War. There is one suggestion that it was originally written for the American market, not just to earn its author money, but also to help with the effort to persuade the U.S. public to join in the war effort. The narrative ends in February 1941 when it was far from clear how the war would progress yet alone end, and there is a sense of controlled fear that everything and everyone is still very unsafe. Invasion of this country by enemy forces was still, after all, a very real possibility.

The author was living in a large house in an Essex village in 1939, and the stories and experiences reflect the lives of those around her as war looked increasingly likely, people were evacuated to the village from London, the outbreak of war and the departure of men and women into the Forces. There is a small railway, a school, shops and all the small businesses and concerns linked to a mid century British village. There are characters who behave well in adversity, and the general tone is of resigned acceptance of the imminence of destruction, whether personal, local or national. Thus there is the urgency of gas mask distribution, the preparations for evacuated schoolchildren who turn out to be mothers and children, and the reality of bombs falling in the area if not immediately on the village itself. There are the daily practical concerns of a large influx of people who need not only housing but also feeding and clothing. Book manuscripts must be hidden in biscuit tins, windows taped up and a place for London couples to argue provided. A straw shelter from bombs is built but is most used for cattle over winter. Various elderly people adopt a fatalism which means that they do not seek shelter; and the dropping of flares and incendiaries provide firework type entertainment.

This book is an account of life by a woman dealing with unprecedented experiences; her daily life and the departure of her husband and others to fight. It is reality finely drawn, as the foreword says “And The Oaken Heart    reflects her truthfulness on every page”. It is not a smooth, highly planned narrative, yet it is not a diary in the sense that it contains reflections on this war and those whose lives are being threatened and transformed by its progress. There are funny tales of the determination of one man to build a glass topped extension, but not to hit the last nail in as that is when it is bound to be destroyed. This is no bland ‘Britain can take it’ propaganda as it is too honest; it reflects the real fear as well as the determination to survive and flourish.

It perhaps feels wrong to say I enjoyed this book as there is an element of suffering and fear present. It is an eminently readable narrative, fascinating in its eye for detail and its honesty, when much of the writing about this time almost romanticises the romance of peril. This is the story of a woman who has to visit a bomb scarred London and misses buildings no longer standing, and also who confronts the potential ending of everything. It is also well written and personal, as she recalls and records the strange events and personalities that make up the village around her. The Golden Duck edition that Blackwells tracked down for me contains a short diary and other information, pictures and photographs which all add to the reality. If you have an interest in the Home Front in Britain I would definitely recommend this book.