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Peril on the Isle of Skye – Mary Stewart Reading Week

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Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

I am notoriously rubbish at keeping up with reading challenges, and have virtually given up committing to anything that requires a schedule as I always fail. However, delightfully enough, Mary Stewart Reading Week drifted back into my line of vision just before it started and when I was in a position to pick up any book I fancied – so a Mary Stewart it was, and I’ve at last taken part successfully in a reading challenge! Fingers crossed for Margaret Kennedy later in the year!

wildfire

I chose “Wildfire at Midnight” for no particular reason other than I had it on my shelf and it kind of fitted in with the Scottish mood I’m in at the moment, being set on the Isle of Skye. It’s Stewart’s second novel, published in 1956, and is narrated by Gianetta Brooke, a young divorcee from a sheltered upbringing who now makes a living as a model in London. Feeling somewhat burnt out after a painful divorce from her author husband, Nicholas Drury, she sets off for a break on Skye, to literally get away from it all. On the boat crossing, she meets an intriguing gent by the name of Roderick Grant, a lover of mountains and climbing, who tells her about the peaks. However, both he and the ferryman are reluctant to discuss one mountain, Blaven, and there is a similar reticence at the hotel.

Needless to say, there are a very mixed bunch staying on Skye, including Grant; Mr. and Mrs. Corrigan, there for the fishing; Marcia Maling, a London actress; Alastair Braine, an acquaintance of Gianetta who’s in advertising; Ronald Beagle, a famous climber; Marion and Roberta, a pair of teachers; and last, but certainly not least, Gianetta’s ex-husband. So it’s kind of the country house setting of a classic murder mystery, but transplanted to a hotel on Skye, and there certainly has been murder done – and more follows.

The murder has taken place on Blaven, and the victim was a local girl, killed in an almost sacrificial manner. The local inspector is flummoxed, and the hotel is full of tension, as the murdered girl was rumoured to have been spending time with a ‘gentleman from London’ – so obviously all the men in the hotel are under suspicion. What follows involves fishing, mountain climbing, scary dark hotels at night, murder, threat, confusion and plenty of drama! Needless to say, there is a satisfying resolution and all loose ends are neatly tied up.

mary stewart

Mary Stewart’s novels, including this one, are described as ‘gothic romances’ which frankly is a little odd for this book. It’s actually a slightly spooky murder mystery with plenty of romance chucked in, but there’s nothing gothic about it! What sets Stewart apart from run-of-the-mill romance writing is the quality of her prose; she’s an excellent writer, and her descriptions of the Skye landscape and mountains are atmospheric; and she creates a wonderful tension at several points in the story when Gianetta or other characters are being menaced. Gianetta herself is a pleasing mixture of feisty and vulnerable, and you’re with her all the way, whether she’s scrambling up mountains or creeping round darkened hotel corridors or lost in mist and bogs. I confess I guessed the murderer quite early on, but that was no great problem as the fun was watching the story play out and see how Stewart would resolve it.

“Wildfire at Midnight” was the first Stewart I’ve read since my teens and I really enjoyed it. We’re not talking great literature here, but an enjoyable, compelling, unputdownable murder/romance; one of those lovely comfort reading books that keep you up all night and are pure, self-indulgent pleasure. Many thanks to Anbolyn at Gudrun’s Tights for hosting the Mary Stewart Reading Week – I had a ball with this one! :)

Sparkly new Mapp and Lucia from Hesperus Press!

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Unless  you’ve been hiding away under a non-bookish rock somewhere, you’re probably aware that the BBC are reviving E.F. Benson’s absolutely wonderful “Mapp and Lucia” for a new series this autumn. I confess to being a devotee of the original 1980s adaptation, so I may be approaching this new version a little nervously….

However, what is lovely is that Hesperus Press, one of my favourite publishing houses, has brought out a gorgeous new edition of the book and this is what it looks like:

Mapp & Lucia

It’s the usual quality Hesperus production, complete with French flaps (I do love French flaps on paperbacks!) and has replaced my rather tired Penguin volume which has gone off to the charity shop. I re-read and loved and reviewed “Mapp and Lucia” here – and if you haven’t yet had the pleasure, I suggest rushing out the nearest book emporium and picking up this lovely edition. I wonder if they will put any more of the series? :)

Murder in the West Country

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The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude

Well, thanks to my lovely local library, I have reached the 5th and final British Library Crime Classic volume they ordered in at my suggestion – “The Cornish Coast Murder” by John Bude. This was the first of his murder mysteries (I reviewed “The Lake District Murder” here) and in many ways I think it might be the best of the batch I’ve read.

Cornish-Coast

The book is set in the quiet Cornish village of Boscawen. Here lives the Reverend Dodd, who likes nothing more than spending a happy evening in front of his fire reading a murder mystery, then discussing it over a meal with his friend. the local doctor Pendrill. However, one stormy night his neighbour, Julius Tregarthen, is found shot. The latter is a grumpy and unpopular local landlord and Magistrate, living alone with his niece Ruth. But who could have wanted him dead? There are only a few suspects – Ruth herself; Ronald Hardy, a shell-shocked author living locally who is keen on Ruth (and vice versa!); and a local poacher seen arguing with Julius earlier on the day of the murder. Unfortunately the local police are stumped, despite coming up with several theories – and Hardy has done a runner, which confuses the issue completely.

Fortunately, the Rev Dodd has imbibed much criminal expertise from his reading of crime novels, and is happy to put this into practice, joining the local Inspector in his investigations. He has the advantage of local knowledge, of course, being the Vicar and party to everyone’s problems and comings and goings. So while the hapless Inspector Bigswell runs around trying to find clues, evidence and checking out hypotheses, Dodd sits in his chair and comes up with an intuitive solution.

This was *such* a lovely read – full of atmosphere and humour, but plenty of drama as well. Bude’s other novel was very much a police procedural, but this one had much more to it. Dodd made an appealing detective, and his sparring with Pendrill and Bigswell was lovely. The plot was beautifully twisty and turny and I didn’t guess the end, which is always a delight nowadays. The scene where Dodd and Pendrill discuss the latest novels they’re going to read, name-dropping such notables as Sayers, Freeman Wills Croft and “my old friend, my very dear old friend, Mrs. Agatha Christie. New adventures of that illimitable chap Poirot, I hope” was a hoot and signposted the whole tenor of the novel – because the ‘little grey cells’ are very much how Dodd solves the mystery. The denouement was much more effective in this novel too – some of the others I’ve read have been slightly anticlimactic.

I’ve had a ball reading the British Library Crime Classics, and I hope they keep reissue these lost authors – on the evidence of those I’ve read so far, they certainly don’t deserve to be forgotten!

Speak, memory – spending an evening with Gazdanov

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An Evening With Claire by Gaito Gazdanov

It’s funny how publishing fashions and favourite books go in phases; some authors are read consistently, whereas others dip in and out of the public eye, until it takes a big push by a publisher to bring them back into the book arena.

Gaito Gazdanov is very much one of those writers. He had a varied and fascinating life and career, surviving revolution and civil war in Russia, escaping into exile and ending up in Paris where he joined the émigré life. Here, he split his time between earning a living as a night-time taxi drive and writing his wonderful fictions. They were published and translated and earned much praise from authors such as Gorky, and Gazdanov went on to do have quite a life, including broadcasting on Radio Liberty (and you can actually hear his voice online here – thanks to Pushkin Press for pointing this out).

claire

And yet in recent years he’s been something of an unsung writer – certainly, despite my extensive Russian reading, I hadn’t come across him until Pushkin started issuing his works, starting with “The Spectre of Alexander Wolf” and soon to come “The Buddha’s Return”, which I’ve reviewed for the forthcoming edition of Shiny New Books.

However, Pushkin Press are not the only publishers to be promoting Gazdanov, as the Overlook Press/Ardis in the USA put out this year his first novel “An Evening with Claire”. Originally published in 1930, this was the work that brought him to the attention of his fellow writers, and it’s easy to see why it was such a hit with émigré Russians in particular. The novel opens with the narrator, Kolya, spending the eponymous evening with Claire. Her husband is away and it’s obvious from what he says that he has been in love with her for years. However, they seem to be constantly misunderstanding each other and the reader is left to wonder whether this is a relationship that has any kind of future, and why the two are drawn together. As the night wears on, Kolya begins to remember his past. Journeying back in his mind, he recalls his childhood, growing up with his mother and father in Siberia; his days at school; the death of his father; the coming of the War, then Revolution and Civil War; and finally his escape to a new life.

So in many ways plot is not the main element in this book. Instead, we see the internal life of Kolya, his emotions (or lack of them), the world through his eyes and the changes he lives through. In particular, the second half of the book, focussing as it does on the chaos and confusion of the Civil War, is extremely powerful and effective. Kolya joins up against his family’s wishes – his mother is distraught, his Uncle Vitaly angry – and in many ways passes through the fighting unscathed. All the way through the book he has had a strong inner life into which he retreats, and in many ways this tends to shield him from the harsh realities of conflict – and they are here, but Kolya seems able to almost ignore them. As the upper hand switches from one side to the other, and the Red finally seem to be winning, Kolya reaches Sevastopol – literally the end of the road, and the only option is to head away from Russia on a boat.

Gaito Gazdanov - picture from Russian Dinosaur blog

Gaito Gazdanov – picture from Russian Dinosaur blog

“Claire” is like and unlike Gazdanov’s other books: stylistically, you know you’re reading the same writer, with his beautiful, elegiac prose. However, the subject matter is very autobiographical (and the excellent introduction to this edition by translator Jodi Daynard discusses this element) , and there is an immediacy to the book where you feel you’re living through events alongside Kolya/Gaito, in a kind of haze of experience. Comparisons have been made to Proust, in the importance of memory in Gazdanov’s work; I’d certainly agree that it’s a strong part of his writing, but not the only one. He has a particular view of the world, slightly detached, fantastic even in some of his writings; it’s very individual and often leads to him blurring the lines between the real and the imagined which is fascinating.

“And while I found discussions of political issues – Russia and the REvolution – strange, I found their sense, or rather their movements, even stranger. I thought about them as I did everything else, most often at night; the lamp above my table was lit, outside the window it was cold and dark; and I lived as if I were on a distant island; right there, beyond the window and beyond the wall, ghosts crowded together, coming into the room as soon as I thought about them. The air was cold in Russia then, snow was deep, houses appeared black, music played and everything flowed by in front of me … The Moscow fire roared and roared…”

The novel also captures strongly what it was like to live through the last days of the Russian empire, as Kolya’s family and friends carry on as normally as they can with the world collapsing around them. As we learn how Kolya and Claire met, as we witness his frequent inability to grasp reality or understand what is going on around, we get a view inside the mind of a man who witnesses and survived remarkable events, and went on to use them in his fictions. In the late 1940s/early 1950s he was still referring to these events in his work, which is not surprising – living though a cataclysm at an early age is going to leave its mark.

Gasdanov’s fiction is unique – his prose is hypnotic and compelling, his storytelling masterful and his ability to evoke place, character and atmosphere is excellent. I only wish I had discovered his work sooner; however, I should give myself a slapping, because had I read the Nabokov short story “Torpid Smoke”, first published in 1932, I would have come across reference to this wonderful book. The excellent Russian Dinosaur blog recently featured an interview with Bryan Karetnyk, translator of the Gazdanov/Pushkin volumes. This was fascinating reading in its own right, but even more so because Karetnyk remarked that he had heard mention of Gazdanov in this early Nabokov tale – it seems that the latter was well aware of the former and thought him worthy of mention alongside Pasternak and Ilf & Petrov, amongst others! And I’d agree – Gazdanov is a quirky, individual and wonderfully talented author and I’m pleased to hear that there’s likely to be more of his writing appearing in English (and there’s a short story you can read here) – so yay for translators and their publishers!

(Review copy kindly provided by The Overlook Press – for which many thanks!)

——

On a minor aside, much as I adored “Claire” and kudos to Overlook for publishing it, I really have to say that it would have benefited from some much tighter proof reading. Apart from several examples of split words, often names (Bu nin instead of Bunin; Eliza veta instead of Elizaveta), there were some silly mistakes that should have been picked up – for example unless “pouring over a book” is a new Americanism I’ve not heard, it really should be “poring”!

A notable birthday

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agatha-christie

Just a quick mention that today is the birthday of one of my favourite writers – Agatha Christie. What needs to be said about her? Creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, author of some of the most famous crime novels ever. Agatha is the writer whose books I can always return to in times of need, and I think I would insist on a complete set of her works on my desert island!

“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow; but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”
― Agatha Christie

Some Tovian arrivals!

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(Yes, I know there’s no such word, but it sounds good, doesn’t it?)

The last couple of weekends have been really busy, mainly taken up with moving Offspring to other towns (!) – so reading time has been limited and also book shopping time! However, I did have a couple of nice arrivals on Saturday, and also collected a *large* volume from the library:

The Tove Jansson biography is from the library and I’m really looking forward to it. However, the other book in the picture, her novel “True Believer” has a little bit of history to it…

My dear friend J. (who has featured on here during bookish trips to London!) is also a Tove fan, and through a mistake made by an online seller, ended up with an extra copy of this book. They replaced the mistaken second copy and told her she could donate the duplicate TB to charity – so I was volunteered as the charity, for which I’m jolly grateful, and the book arrived safely on Saturday! Many thanks, J!

As for “The Book of Daniel” – I read about this quite a while back and was intrigued enough to want to read it. However, as Mount TBR is so enormous I put off buying a copy, particular as the online prices weren’t that low.

But a charity shop copy in very good nick for 75p just can’t be resisted!

So, a few quality arrivals bookwise – always a good thing! :)

“Like Jeeves – but With a Murder”

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Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay

I seem to have been spending a lot of time recently with the British Library Crime Classics collection – thanks to my local library coming up trumps with getting these in for me – and the latest is the first title by Mavis Doriel Hay, the enticing sounding “Murder Underground”. Unfortunately I’ve been reading Hay’s novels out of order (and she only did the three crime titles) but it doesn’t seem to have mattered too much.

murder underground

The title, of course, immediately gives away the subject of the book! Miss Euphemia Pongleton (often referred to irreverently as The Pongle), resident of the Frampton Private Hotel, is found dead on the spiral staircase at Belsize Park underground station, strangled by her own dog leash. Surprisingly, an underground station during the morning proves to be very under-populated although a suspect is soon picked up. There is much gossip and theorising about the killing amongst the denizens of what is actually a boarding house (The Frumps, as they’re called in the novel). These include the novelist Mrs. Daymer, Mr. Slocomb, the youngsters Cissie and Betty (who is engaged to The Pongle’s nephew Basil), Mr. Grange and Mr. Blend – not to mention Tuppy the dog! What follows is a comedy of confusion, as motives and actions get blurred, all sorts of obfuscations take place, and it isn’t really clear who was doing what and when, who had a motive, who stands to inherit under which of many of Miss Pongleton’s wills, and who actually is who!

This was in many ways an odd sort of crime novel, and Hay has an unusual way of telling her story. Much is not made clear by the multiple narrators, the actual crime is revealed gradually and we hear of it by hints and references first, and to be honest Hay really doesn’t play fair with her readers. So much of the action seems to take place off-screen, or is related by characters retrospectively, that it’s hard to get into the story sometimes.

Basil becomes the main suspect but his actions are inexplicable and all over the place, and it’s sometimes hard to follow what on earth he’s up to and what on earth is going on! Of course, this may be what Hay intended and certainly the book is an enjoyable read. However, I guessed the murder and the motive surprisingly early on, which is a shame.

EPSON scanner image

This perhaps sounds a little negative and it shouldn’t. “Murder Underground” is an atmospheric romp, very much conjuring up the time in which it was written – the classes are firmly in place, the servants all drop their aitches and Basil’s relatives are all snobs. However, the class distinctions can be seen to be falling away in that Basil is planning to settle down with a working girl! But there is a slight tendency to descend into cliché, particularly with the character of Mamie, a “good time girl” with whom Basil has been spending time. Her clothes, make-up and speech are really stereotypical, more so than anyone else in the book; and I found it odd that Basil would spend time with her, and his Betty would just accept this!

When I was up in London recently I was chatting with a guy behind the counter in the London Review of Books bookstore (and what a lovely place that is!). We were talking about the BL Crime Classics and got onto the subject of Hay’s books and how “Death on the Cherwell” suffered by comparison with “Gaudy Night”. However, he came up with a phrase that I think sums up what these books are about, when he described them as “Like Jeeves – but with a murder”. He’s right, of course – this book in particular has a goofy main character who digs himself in deeper and deeper, and has to be rescued by others!

This was in the end an enjoyable, cosy read with plenty of silliness from the main protagonists, lots of red herrings and buckets of atmosphere. I guess my criticisms perhaps come from expecting too much of the book, but it was fun and I’m glad I’ve read it!

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