Death in the Stars – A Kate Shackleton Mystery by Frances Brody. Murder and mystery onstage?

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A tenth book in the series, and a successful novel in its own right, this latest mystery for the private detective Kate Shackleton brings in some new ideas and some new challenges. One of the popular wave of women detectives in the interwar period depicted in long series, this is one of the more serious books which depend on careful sleuthing rather than amusing adventures. While being undoubtedly well written, this is a rather earnest series of novels which feature a war widow who has constructed a new life as a detective for hire. She also has an interesting background as she was adopted into the family of a well off senior policeman and was brought up in very comfortable circumstances, with impressive social links, but her birth family was far more humble. These issues have been worked through in earlier books in the series, as well as her acceptance that her husband has died in the First World War. She has a helpful housekeeper Mrs Sugden and an employee, Jim Sykes, who have gained experience in enquiries, but it is Kate that takes the lead in discovering the true situation.

This book is set in 1927, when an eclipse is promised and many people are eager to witness it. Kate is approached by Selina Fellini, a famous singer and music hall star, to accompany her and her fellow star Billy Moffatt to a boys’ school to witness the solar eclipse in the company of many experts. Kate is intrigued by the request, especially when the singer asks her to charter a plane, which is a fascinating idea in that even at this point it was possible to bypass road and rail traffic. Billy is discovered unconscious and Kate promises to accompany him to hospital. As murder mysteries go, this is a studied and realistic death, rather a poisoning or quick death as mostly preferred by the traditional detective writer. As other mysterious deaths emerge, the stage is literally set for confusion and danger, as no one is above suspicion. Some of the characters still bear the mental scars of the recent war, and the waning popularity of music hall acts in the face of films affects how ambitious the acts involved can be at this point. To a certain extent it is not so much solving the mystery as observing the characters and settings which Brody handles confidently and well.

This is to an extent a book for fans of the series, but enough background emerges that I believe it would work as a standalone novel. It is not as amusing as some books of this type, but it is an enjoyable book which maintains the reader’s interest and is backed by convincing research. Brody succeeds in creating a world which convinces and characters who sound realistic. This is quite a tense read at points, but owes more to the tradition of Golden Age mystery than modern thriller.

One of the things I like about writing this blog is that I can review whichever books I wish; not always scholarly, sometimes almost light, and certainly not always new!  This series of books seems to be a reliable best seller, and it is one that I have enjoyed over the years. I hope that you find new books and authors from this blog, as I try to include something for everyone.

I have not tried to choose my top ten books of 2017, but I do enjoy popping back to track down which books I have included. Happily I have read the book for the next book group already; “Everyone Brave is Forgiven” by Chris Cleave, and have posted about it here  https://northernreader.wordpress.com/2017/04/11/everyone-brave-i…-by-chris-cleave/ ‎  It is a really good read!

 

Parson’s Nine by Noel Streatfeild A most enjoyable book to read and savour

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This 1932 book tells the story of a family through the eyes of various people within that family over a period of about twenty years, before, during and after the First World War. This is no experimental novel of different narrators or points of view; it is a straight narration of a family where nine children grow up, face the challenges of life, endure the War and some loss, and where that leaves them in a new world. This is not a book of war or tragedy; although a family with so many young people in 1914 suffer, there is much more to this book. This is a book of humour and the small things that make up family life, of women who want more, who make gestures of independence and protest. It is not a melodramatic saga, but a book of what feels like real life, by a writer skilled in pushing each character to the limit and not beyond.

Catherine is married to David, a spiritually minded vicar who needs to occasionally be challenged on his touching but sometimes misguided assumptions about his family and their real feelings. When her first child is born, David brings Catherine a list of nine names from the biblical apocrypha, and unsurprisingly she is taken aback to think of having nine children, let alone in the exact order as specified. It comes to pass that “God blessed them with nine exactly” in the correct order and Catherine is determined that there will be no more. It is at Christmas that we first see the busy Vicarage full of children, each displaying the characteristics that will stay with them, as they comment on church life, death and Christmas presents. Catherine finds herself with a legacy which will allow her a holiday alone, then send the older sons to school and engage a governess for the girls. Miss Crosby is determined that each daughter will have the opportunity to develop her talents, even go to college. She also becomes so interested in women’s suffrage that she gets into trouble; another event that must be interpreted for David. Each of the children as they grow up shows their particular traits, as one loves gardening, another the family dog, and Esdras finds biblical quotes for all occasions. As war approaches assumptions are made about who will take part in which way, and the implications of those choices continue to affect who is left.

The subject matter of the novel is not miserable, or over dramatic. The style is gently amusing, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps and grasp the implications of the written record. It is a carefully written book, generous to the characters, full of tiny details which make it a convincing story. It feels like a book of its time, but beautifully written and controlled. I really enjoyed reading this book, appreciated its subtle wit, and found that it carried me along with its fascinating story. This is a book to be savoured and a pleasure to read, and I was really pleased to find it in my local library in its Greyladies edition.

I have been finishing off plenty of books over the last few days, so I ought to have something to post about!

The Plumley Inheritance by Christopher Bush – A new Dean Street Press classic reprint

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The start of a new series of a detective novels is exciting, even when they were originally published in 1926. Dean Street Press have started to reprint the books of Christopher Bush, and they sent me number one to review, for which many thanks. The detective in question is Ludovic Travers, referred to in this novel as Ludo, but in this opening mystery the focus is on Geoffrey Wrentham. Both men have served with some distinction in the First World War, and Wrentham has just been demobilised, which leaves him both relived to be returning to his home village, but a little bewildered by events which seem to threaten his own money. The adventure that he embarks on is full of excitement and a little danger, alongside painstaking working out of clues, with some village characters thrown in. The mystery of the Plumley Inheritance is not easily solved, and keeps everyone guessing until the end.

Henry Plumley is a man with many investments and interests. His sudden, public collapse and subsequent death leave instability in the businesses he has run, and questions about what his final motives implied to those dependent on them like Wrentham. Ludo is eager to help, having worked for the dead man on a peculiar list of requirements which has puzzled him for months. Trying to decode this list together with subsequent mysterious events occupies Wrentham for much of the novel, and his recent war experiences lead him to risk all searching at night time for further clues. There is a suspicious death and guilty goings on, but the ending seems satisfactory. The setting of a country vicarage and a village means a limitation to the number of suspects, though Plumley’s several properties are a little confusingly named. The nearest phone is miles away and there are certainly no car chases, which probably reflects the lack of personal transport in 1919 quite realistically.

This book is not the confident work of a seasoned mystery writer but sheer enthusiasm and imagination make it a jolly read for anyone interested in early mystery stories. In many ways it is the story of a village, a man returned from war, and his attempts to rediscover his peacetime role. Apparently there are over sixty books in the series to come and I assume that Ludovic will take over the detecting as the character of Wrentham is not really strong enough to carry a series of tough assignments. (A quick check on the later books suggests that this is very much the case). Altogether the republishing of these books seems to promise a feast of challenging reads and enjoyable mysteries to come from an engaging writer.

In the face of Hurricane Brian I am going out tonight to take part in a concert…a Last Night of the Proms no less!  Apart from singing in the choir I am reading a section of “Bed Among the Lentils” by Alan Bennett, performed on tv by Maggie Smith. Literally a tough act to follow…

Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell, A Barsetshire classic

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This Angela Thirkell book is the last of the pre Second World War novels published by this author as it came out in 1939. Reprinted by Virago Modern Classics in 2016, it is therefore available to all interested in the Barsetshire series of books, but this volume stands alone as a picture of a fairly select group of people. I enjoyed it for the picture of Mr. Jack Middleton, established in a country house with his long suffering wife, Catherine. He is the enjoyable character of the book, as his frustrations and self delusions stay just this side of driving those around him to despair. He enjoys the sound of his own voice, his perception of his position in local society, and his pronouncements on life. Even his dog, the patient Flora, puts up with his belief that she is devoted to his every wish, as she politely ignores his studied fictions.

Not that this book is devoted to Jack, as an entire series of romances and minor revelations occur without him realising as befits a Thirkell novel. They are essentially accidental, but take some disentangling before many of the characters are happy. Lillian Stoner, Jack’s widowed sister in law, brings her adult step children to stay in an adjoining cottage to Laverings for the summer. Dennis is a delicate musician, whose ill health has given cause for concern, but now he is full of the music he is composing for a ballet, a dream requiring funding. Daphne is a sturdy, determined girl, able to cope with the most difficult individuals, but curiously vulnerable in romantic situations. Lady Bond is one of the determined gentry that Thirkell excels in, keen to organise meetings to do the right thing. Lord Bond is far more uncertain, needing Daphne to achieve mastery over a piano key. The two male leads in the romance stakes are uncertain of many things, as Alister Cameron proceeds with caution, and C.W., the younger Bond, allows confusion to reign. Another situation remains far more delicate, and lingers in the background in in this otherwise robust book.

As always, there is a cast of minor characters, who provide the more realistic background to life in this rural area. They are the ones with real control, real wisdom of a sort, ranging from the expert Ed to the obliging postmistress. Some other characters feature in other Barsetshire books, one of my favourites being Mrs Tebben with her obsession about leftovers which extends to cards at one of the set pieces in the book, the Agricultural Show. Miss Starter is another obsessive, concerned about her diet and royal links, but with quiet insight into other people.

While not being one of the strongest novels in the series, this is another comfort read which speaks of another time, another place before the danger of war and the cynicism about certain characters which typifies the later books in some respects. A lovely summer read, this is a book of characters who remain in the mind and a simple reassuring story line. A comfortable book to both discover and re read.

I seem to be reading a lot of comfortable books at the moment, but fear not, I will soon be back to crime and mystery. I have just finished a fascinating book about a singular lady whose domination of her family is really disturbing. “The Late Mrs Prioleau” will be arriving soon!

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

This is a great book, a family favourite, and if only the ending section could be longer. If you have not yet read ‘The Nine Tailors’ you should, as quickly as possible. It has a suspicious death, mistaken identity, fascinating characters with super backstories, and bell ringing. So much bell ringing, it is a classic for those who have even the slightest interest in the subject. As a picture of interwar life in the fens of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, it is a detailed account of flooding and the problems of maintaining usable roads and fields. The characters really work as people, in all their failings and strengths, and the search for justice on several levels occupies many minds.

Sayers most famous character, Lord Peter Wimsey, is travelling in a snowy winter with his faithful manservant, Bunter. A mechanical failure leaves them searching for shelter, which they find with the Rector of the church in Fenchurch St. Paul. Despite his wife trying to calm him, the reverend gentleman is concerned with the attempt to ring a peal, which could be derailed by the absence of one of the regular ringers. Wimsey knows ringing and the obsession it can be, so takes a rope and there is much detail about the ringing of the peal. Wimsey also becomes involved in the village community, the traditional ringing of a solo bell for a death, and the loss of Lady Thorpe, whose family has been suffering after the theft of some emeralds some years before this tale. The crime has left other victims as those involved with the missing gems still live in the local area.  When a body is discovered Wimsey and Butler commence investigations, which involve tracking one person to France. It is an involved story, but so well told with many accurate church descriptions that Sayers’ specialist knowledge is displayed.

My favourite part of this novel is the section that I wish could be longer, as a flood hits the three Fenchurch villages. Without spoiling the suspense, the rector and wife organise the sanctuary of many people and their livestock in the church and rectory. During the two weeks of isolation the community comes together and Wimsey discovers some facts which solve the mystery.

This novel shows Sayers writing at the height of her powers, with her favoured Wimsey central to discovering what has really happened, and becoming a trustee for a determined young woman. Each character, however, is really well drawn in this book, even if they are not central to the story, and I get the impression that Sayers really enjoyed writing it. Despite the absence of Harriet, it remains my favourite Sayers novels, and the cold and wet weather setting is a refreshing read for hot weather!

(Image via Amazon)

Some of you may remember that one of my Christmas presents (apart from Selwyn the Vicarage Cat) was the Folio set of Sayers Wimsey novels as illustrated above. I set myself the challenge of reading all five books by the end of June. I am going to fail! I still have Gaudy Night, and remembering that I had to give up reading a paperback copy because it was awesomely long in an unwieldy  form I know that I will not read even this lovely edition in a few days…Still, I have really enjoyed reading these books and will be tackling G.N. as soon as possible!

Mariana by Monica Dickens

Monica Dickens is a popular author for those who enjoy mid twentieth century British Women writers, especially as many of her books were autobiographical. It is no wonder then, that Mariana was the second book published by Persephone, and reprinted in their “Classics” series. The date of original publication, 1940, may suggest war time novels, but much of this book is pre war, the story of a girl growing up and meeting the challenge of what seems like an intensely felt life. The beginning and end of this novel are set in the early part of the war, with all the heightened emotions and appreciation of danger, but this is essentially the story of a girl, a young woman, finding life and love.

The first element of the novel may strike a chord with anyone who spent childhood holidays in the same place, with the same people. “Mary” is the main character of these reminiscences; we see her experiencing childhood adventures and the first stirrings of romance with a relative, Denys, enjoying the predictable pleasures of childhood. An only child, she lives with her mother and actor uncle in a small London apartment and finds school challenging. This is no misery memoir as her decision to go to drama school is described in all possible detail, a very funny account of her struggles to conform to the idiosyncratic demands of the course, and the glorious final performance which distinguishes her career as a would be actress.

Throughout her life her mother is a permanent if fascinating character, allowing much experimentation in the face of her own romantic confusion and business endeavours. When Mary goes to Paris and gets engaged in a set piece of scenery and charm, her mother is accepting as always, being secretly perceptive to what her daughter actually wants from life. Marriage is seen as important, not just to be drifted into, even if it brings the potential for pain.

This is a gentle book about how women had choices in the interwar period that their mothers lacked. It is a funny and entertaining book, with characters who could be real, living in circumstances not all of their choosing, but making the best of things in this time.  The style is friendly, with no great melodrama but understandable emotions. I can recommend it for those who are keen on “middlebrow” novels, and I am glad that Persephone have kept this particular Dickens book in print.

I recently enjoyed rereading this book; for me it has become a comfort read, a novel that has many touching incidents. Heaven knows that we could all do with such a thing at the moment. I found one or two other Monica Dickens books on a forage in Barter Books; I am inspired to find out where they have been (double) shelved…

High Seas Murder by Peter Drax

This offering from Dean Street Press, sent to me for review, is essentially a very different Golden Age Detective Story. In the excellent introduction, Curtis Evans reveals that Drax wanted to write a ‘credible’ story, having decided that the existing detective novels did not stand up to close inspection. I believe he did a magnificent job. This book is so detailed, so realistic that it is possible to forget that there is a murder to consider. The characters, far from being the upper class set in country houses so loved by some murder mystery writers, are real people, often tired, scared, and broke. Despite the sub- title, there is no super star detective, just steady police work to sort out the events leading to a suspicious death.

The ‘High Seas’ of the title are experienced by a group of fishermen, all having their reasons for risking their lives to bring back a bumper haul of fish. Larry wants to get married, Dan wants to earn enough to run a chicken farm, Tubby wants to practise his zither, and Carl, the Captain, wants to justify his outlay on a new ship. A near impossible sea not only affects their chances of survival, but also a ship, Ivanhoe, that they discover. The victim of the novel is a real person, with thoughts and determination of his own. Everyone in this novel has a back story, even the seemingly minor characters, who inhabit the rooms, offices and pubs described in vivid detail.

This novel seemed a little challenging to start with as the technical detail of the fishing journey is so carefully written that I thought that it was just a sea themed book. When the chief characters reach land however, their progress and interaction with the locals of Gilboro’ feels so real, it’s difficult to convey how effective the writing is over a well sustained novel. The lawyers are slow to react, but suspicious of everyone, real characters in their actions. The police are not really proactive, but do their duty in an orderly manner. They do not rush around seeking answers, but do everything necessary.

It is always difficult to review a mystery novel without spoilers. This is a highly satisfying novel, full of real insight for those people who scratch a living, and have the normal curiosity about their neighbours and friends. The sea going details are so correct it could be a non-fiction book which reflects Drax’s career, but it is peopled by a cast rich in humanity. It is a tragedy that Drax was killed before writing many more novels, but the few others that he did complete and are newly republished by Dean Street Press look to be worth seeking out and enjoying.

As always, I have enjoyed this Dean Street Press book which I am grateful to have received for review. There are more to come!

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