#1930Club – “… a mechanism tuned to kill…” @BL_Publishing #JohnDicksonCarr


The danger with our reading weeks, particularly when they’re from a year earlier in the 20th century, is the terrible temptation I face just to let myself wallow in several days of reading classic crime! Golden Age detective stories are my go-to comfort reading – I can’t get enough of them, especially in times of stress, and so the British Library Crime Classics have become something of a lifeline! After enjoying my time spent in the company of Agatha Christie earlier in the week, I had a flick through the BLCCs I have unread on the shelves; alas, none of them were from the year in question. However, I think it was a comment on my trailer post for the Club that alerted me to the fact that a new BLCC had just made its debut – and it was published in 1930! I asked the BL if they would be able to provide a review copy, and indeed they did, along with several rather fantastic looking other titles – thank you *so* much, British Library Publishing! I have no excuse not to wallow in classic crime during the chilly autumn evenings!

But I digress. The 1930 book in question is “It Walks By Night” by John Dickson Carr, and it’s a special release for a number of reasons. Firstly, as Martin Edwards mentions in his introduction to the book, it’s the first title by an American author to be published in the series. Secondly, it’s the first published novel by Carr, which makes it doubly fascinating! JDC was known as the king of the locked-room mystery, and I’ve read a number of his books and covered some on the blog. I *love* a locked-room mystery – and as the setting for this one was 1920s Paris, it was always likely to be a good one.

Carr’s regular detective is Dr. Gideon Fell, but this early work features another sleuth, one who apparently continued to feature in Carr’s books over the years. He is Henri Bencolin, a director of the police amongst other titles, and he’s assisted by the narrator of the story – his ‘Watson’ who is a young American Jeff Marle. Bencolin was close friends with the latter’s father, and has a paternal interest in the young man. And the mystery they investigate is a dark and chilling one, the brutal killing of a young aristocratic sportsman on the night of his wedding. However, the matter is not as straightforward as that might sound. For a start, the butchered man is found in a locked room with no way in or out which was not being watched. The method of death means he cannot have committed suicide, and yet no-one can have entered or left the room to murder him without being seen. To make things more complex, the detectives have a suspect, in the form of a madman called Laurent. The latter was previously married to the bride before being locked up for violent and insane behaviour, with the marriage being anulled. However, Laurent is free and known to have visited a plastic surgeon… Therefore, the killer could be anywhere and look like anyone, as well as seemingly having the ability to make himself invisible and pass through locked doors or walls. It’s a pretty and apparently insoluble puzzle and one which will tax the sleuths to the very end…

For the present, we were all aware only of a confused and numbing sense of terrible things moving behind a veil. That room, with its amber lights and its black-and-white flagged floor, the two men who were my companions, suddenly took on an aspect of unreality which made me feel as though I were alone. It stripped away everything…

Needless to say, I absolutely *loved* this book; it was one of those I just couldn’t bear to put down, sneaking a few pages here and there whenever I could. Bencolin is a fascinating and often enigmatic character, and makes a wonderful detective; the sidekicks, in the form of Marle plus a slightly batty Austrian doctor, Grafenstein, are very entertaining. However, there’s a real darkness and tension in the narrative; 1920s Paris is full of drug-taking and depravity, people are not what they seem, and there is a creeping sense of dread surrounding everyone at the thought of a madman murderer being close by yet unrecognisable. Carr likes to slip in chilling hints of the supernatural (which admittedly he eventually dispels) and these add to the tense atmosphere of the story. And the plot twists and turns beautifully, with additional characters such as a Sharon, a rich Englishwoman who fascinates Jeff; a slimeball of a drug dealer; and a playwright with an obscure background who may or may not be what he seems. It’s a wonderful mix and makes for a most enjoyable and absorbing read!

Isn’t the cover stunning??

As Edwards mentions in the introduction, the first edition of the book came with a clever marketing device; at a certain point in the narrative, a band was put around the remainder of the book and the reader challenged to solve the mystery with the information given so far and without reading the rest of the book. That point is marked in this edition and frankly I didn’t haven’t a chance of a solution; by then, I think I suspected just about everyone in the book and although I maybe had a bit of a glimmer closer to the end, I certainly was nowhere near the answer.

I woke in the warmth of clear blue sunlight, one of those mornings that flood you with a swashbuckling joyousness, so that you want to sing and hit somebody for sheer exuberance. The high windows were all swimming in a dazzle of sunlight, and up in their corners lay a trace of white clouds, like angels’ washing hung out on a line over the grey roofs of Paris. The trees had crept into green overnight; they filled the whole apartment with slow rustling; they caught and sifted the light; in short, it was a springtime to make you laugh at the cynical paragraph you had written the night before.

John Dickson Carr was a really marvellous author, and an outstanding proponent of the classic crime story. “It Walks..” is a treat for the aficionado as it’s peppered with references to everyone from Sax Rohmer to Edgar Allen Poe (and the latter is, of course, often reckoned to be the creator of the modern detective story). There’s a darkness and depth to Carr’s books which isn’t always there in books from that era, and he also writes remarkably well. His descriptions of Paris were vivid, and some of the sequences with Jeff and the Sharon were incredibly atmospheric. There were jumps and chills and wonderful detecting and really, this book was such a treat!

Well – I reckon I *could* have happily spent the week with Golden Age crime if I’d done a bit of research and dug out some more titles from 1930. However, I’m very, very glad I read “It Walks by Night” as it was an utterly entertaining and completely enjoyable book. This particular edition (and isn’t the cover lovely?) comes with an extra treat, in the form of “The Shadow of the Goat”, a rare short story by Carr which was the first to feature Bencolin. It contains all the elements you’d expect from Carr, including hints at the supernatural, a locked room, lots of twists and interestingly it ends (like “It Walks”) on a dramatic high point which is perhaps a little unusual. Really, I can’t recommend this one highly enough; the BLCCs are a wonderful thing anyway, and this one is a really special entry on the list. 1930 really *was* a marvellous year for books! 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, with perfect timing for the #1930Club, for which many thanks!)

#1930Club – Mr. Kaggsy considers a novella by a sometimes controversial author…


As has become a tradition, when Mr. Kaggsy learned that another Club Week was coming up, he offered to provide another guest review – I think he quite enjoys his little forays into book blogging, although he’s much more of a film man nowadays. Anyway, he’s chosen an author I’ve never read (despite Middle Child’s attempts to get me to) and so here is his guest post – it’s quite a long one…. 😀

The Virgin and the Gipsy (later Gypsy) by D. H. Lawrence

1930 first editions, by G. Orioli, Italy and Martin Secker, UK

Lawrence’s novella, amounting to just over 30,000 words, was written in the mid-1920s, but only discovered after the author’s death in 1930, in France. In that year it was first published in Italy and five months later in Britain. Still in print, today’s public domain rules mean that ‘new’ editions will continue to be produced. “The Virgin and the Gipsy” (later changed to “Gypsy”) also received a fresh lease of life when it was made into a film, shot in 1969, to be released the following year. I have to confess that I only came upon the tale after the cinema adaptation.

The story commences after a vicar in his late forties, abandoned by his wife for a younger man, has transferred from his vicarage in the south to a rectorate in the north. The setting, in the fictional parish of Papplewick, the local river providing its name, represents a new placement for clergyman’s two daughters, his blind mother and his sister, another sibling being a brother from the city. The embittered minister clings to the memory of his distant wedding day: “(in) the rector’s heart still bloomed the pure white snowflower of his young bride.”

The girls’ contact with their mother is minimal, a woman described as glamorous and not dependable, “forever coming and going”. In time, the daughters are returning from a finishing year in Lausanne, Lucille approaching twenty-one and Yvette nineteen. Back home, “The rectory struck a chill into their hearts as they entered.” Lawrence’s land of the north, with its steel mills and rugged geography, is always evident: “The country, with its steep hills and its deep, narrow valleys, was dark and gloomy, yet had a certain powerful strength of its own. Twenty miles away was the black industrialism of the north. Yet the village of Papplewick was comparatively lonely, almost lost, the life in it stony and dour”

In the dull domestic setting, the household is almost matriarchal, the grandmother ruling the roost and her only daughter having a sharp tongue. One day, the adolescent girls, desperate to forge some kind of social life, go on a motoring jaunt into the countryside with two male contemporaries. At one point, ahead of them is a light cart, the sight of its driver kindling feelings within the younger car passenger: “Yvette’s heart gave a jump. The man on the cart was a gypsy… something over thirty, and a beau in his way.” Following an opening exchange the group agree go to the traveller’s winter settlement to have their fortunes read.

After her encounter with the traveller the aroused female regards him as virile and more interesting than the two privileged men accompanying her. When back in her home, “Yvette stirred luxuriously in the bed. The thought of the gypsy had released the life of her limbs, and crystallised in her heart the hate of the rectory: so that now she felt potent, instead of impotent.”

Much of the following parts of the story deal with domestic boredom, dull days indoors. “The rectory was on one side the Papple, in the rather steep valley, the village was beyond and above, further down, on the other side the swift stream. At the back of the rectory the hill went up steep, with a grove of dark, bare larches, through which the road disappeared. And immediately across stream from the rectory, facing the house, the river-bank rose steep and bushy, up to the sloping, dreary meadows, that sloped up again to dark hillsides of trees, with grey rock cropping out.”

Hardbacks – Alfred A. Knopf Inc, US (1930) and The World Publishing Company, US (1944)

At a later time the gypsy happens along the lane to the rectory and his young admirer feels herself charged by his presence. All other ordinary days following the meeting no longer hold any interest for Yvette, even going to a party, or having the company of young men, whom she finds irritating. Around her the weather continues to be blighted by heavy rain and wintry conditions. On a February day the preoccupied young woman goes “… for a walk by herself, up the frozen hills, to the Black Rocks.” On another occasion she takes to her bicycle, and as luck would have it, runs into the gypsy, he hammering a copper bowl near to his caravan, his family about him.

Cold from being out in the day, Yvette is invited to sit and share the travellers’ fire. Her stay stretches to having a meal, she loosening her hair in the sun which has come out. “Her will had departed from her limbs, he had power over her: his shadow was on her.” As for the male protagonist, “(He) was aware of one thing only, the mysterious fruit of her virginity, her perfect tenderness in the body.” An invitation to go into his caravan to wash her hands becomes short-lived, owing to the arrival of a well-to-do couple in a car. The woman is awaiting a divorce from her husband, a former army major, under whom, it later emerges, the gypsy served in the war as “one of the common men, the Tommies.”

In time the couple drive Yvette home, fearing that there might be snow coming, her bicycle on the back of their car. More themes of class are introduced, the major has a wealthy “Jewess” wife, she preferring a younger man, the situation being almost the mirror image of the lot suffered by the rector. The couple ‘living in sin’ are resident nearby, which enables Yvette to visit them. She finds them not just interesting, but open and honest, while her father cannot bring himself to entertain any such notion. Upon returning home and discussing the pair with her older sister, Yvette asks “What is it… that brings people together? People like (the local couple), for instance? and Daddy and Mamma, so frightfully unsuitable?- and that gypsy woman who told my fortune, like a great horse, and the gypsy man, so fine and delicately cut? What is it?” The loose reply she receives from Lucille is, “I suppose it’s sex, whatever that is.

The girls’ banter carries on, neither however speaking from much experience. Yvette’s thoughts turn to the gypsy while she and her sister exchange more views. Another lengthy and intensely intimate conversation occurs later between the stricken damsel and her unmarried friends, touching upon love, marriage, and passion, the older woman somewhat hypocritically opining that a love affair with someone like the gypsy would be “monstrous”, questioning what Yvette would “think of herself! – That’s not love! That’s – that’s prostitution!”

Equally, the rector’s view of the not yet divorced couple is condemnatory, viewing them as immoral. “A young sponge going off with a woman older than himself, so that he can live on her money! The woman leaving her home and her children!” His own religious background and marital failure colours his assessment, while his daughter finds the pair “so solid, you know, so honest.” Her father is infuriated to learn that she has visited the couple’s cottage on two occasions and the unfortunate Yvette is made to send a letter to her only allies, citing her father’s disapproval.

Now, cut off from her friends with whom she felt a bond, Yvette explores her feelings: “She wanted, now, to be held against the slender, fine-shaped breast of the gypsy. She wanted him to hold her in his arms, if only for once, for once, and comfort and confirm her. She wanted to be confirmed by him, against her father, who had only a repulsive fear of her.” Her complex and mixed-up thoughts consume her: wanting revenge against her father, denigrating her matriarchal grandmother, also her aunt, regarded as poisonous, indeed anybody other than a soul who is truthful, however ‘common’ or ‘low’ that person might be.

Paperbacks – Avon Book Company, US (1946) and Penguin movie tie-in, UK (1971)

On a subsequent occasion she sees the gypsy again. “Once he came to the house, with things to sell. And she, watching him from the landing window, refused to go down. He saw her too, as he was putting his things back into his cart. But he too gave no sign.” At that time her conflicted mind prevented her from making any decision. “Almost she could have found in her heart to go with him, and be a pariah gypsy-woman. But she was born inside the pale. And she liked comfort, and a certain prestige.” Later, in the spring while out cycling, Yvette happens upon the gypsy coming out of a cottage, leading to a friendly and animated conversation. However, she learns that he plans to break camp before long and move to the north.

Soon, on a sunny March day, Yvette’s family, all but grandmother, having gone out for the day, Yvette is musing in the garden, her thoughts straying to the gypsy, but being suddenly interrupted: “She heard somebody shouting, and looked round. Down the path through the larch-trees the gypsy was bounding. …She heard the scream of the gypsy, and looked up to see him bounding upon her, his black eyes starting out of his head. ‘Run!’ he screamed, seizing her arm.” As would be quickly revealed, a nearby dam had burst under the strain of the swollen spring river. As “..a new great surge of water came mowing, mowing trees down even” the stricken pair made for the house, the very rectory where Yvette felt imprisoned. The rushing flood waters fill the ground level of the house, overwhelming the grandmother, her hand seen disappearing beneath the deluge.

On an upper floor, hopefully now at a safe point, her rescuer bids Yvette to cast off her sodden garments, the icy water liable to cause her to freeze to death. The drenched man, shivering, tugs off his clothes as well. With the stairs gone and much of the house engulfed, both figures stand naked, the man urging that they should take to the bed in the room, now their place of sanctuary. Huddled together, their bodies warm up and the pair fall asleep.

The following day, the gypsy having departed, Yvette’s father has come back and people are fearful that the rectory will collapse, requiring the young woman to be led to safety outside, down a ladder. As time passes, after Yvette’s grandmother’s funeral, she receives a short letter: “Dear Miss, I see in the paper you are all right after your ducking, as is the same with me. I hope I see you again one day, I come that day to say goodbye… (but) the water give no time, but I live in hopes. Your obdt. servant Joe Boswell. And only then she realised that he had a name.”

Strangely the ‘bedroom scene’ is as brief as ever it could be and, given Lawrence’s later expansive sexual scenes in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, perhaps there could have been an intention on the part of the author to develop further the then undiscovered novella. The short, almost whimsical, tale culminates in the bonding of a young woman whose sensual dream might be about to become a reality. Only four decades after the story’s publication would a filmed adaptation boldly flesh out the final physical encounter to render it a sexual one.

In Lawrence’s own and original version, the final twist adds a note of sadness, unrequitedness, as if he wanted to end on an honourable note, having covered sufficiently the blossoming spirit of Yvette. Her independent mind resonates well with the will of young people today, they sometimes confronting similar, but updated, societal constraints. Against a background of propriety, morality and sexuality, Lawrence’s figures, their conversations and situations are perfectly drawn, painting scenes as real as if they had actually happened almost a century ago.

#1930Club – some previous reads!


During our Club reading weeks, I always like to take a look back at books I’ve read previously from the year in question. 1930 turns out to be a bit of a bumper year; not only do I own a good number of books from that year, but I’ve read a lot too! So here’s just a few of them…

Just a few of my previous 1930 reads…

Some of these, of course are pre-blog: there’s two of my favourite crime writers lurking in the pile, Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie. The Sayers is “Strong Poison”, a book that introduced Lord Peter Wimsey’s love interest Harriet Vane. I adore all Sayers and I would have liked to revisit this during our weekly read. Christie’s “The Murder at the Vicarage” also saw a debut, that of Miss Marple (in novel form anyway – she’d already appeared in short stories). Again, I was so tempted to pick this one up, but I went for “Mr. Quin” instead as I know “Vicarage” so well. Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” is detecting of a different kind, hard-boiled American. I love Hammett’s writing (although not everyone has enjoyed him recently…) and again was very tempted.

Katherine Manfield’s “The Aloe” is also a pre-blog read; it’s a slim and lovely Virago I’ve owned for decades and the story is a longer version of her short work “The Prelude”. A revisit to this one would have been lovely too, as her prose is gorgeous. “The Foundation Pit” by Platonov is most likely the first of his books which I read; it’s an unusual, allusive book and his writing is very distinctive. Yet another writer I’d love to go back to.

As for titles I’ve reviewed on the blog, there’s the very wonderful Jean Rhys. I wrote about “After Leaving Mr. McKenzie” relatively recently (well – 2016 actually…), and so I didn’t re-read. Yet another excellent woman prose stylist, with a haunting main character, compelling prose and a bleak outlook for women of her time and kind.

Nabokov’s “The Eye” was also a 2016 read; it’s a fascinating, tricksy and clever novella, with wonderful writing and a marvellously unreliable narrator. I love Nabokov’s prose and since I have many, many of his books unread on the shelves I should get back to reading him soon! 😀

Gaito Gazdanov is a relatively recent discovery; a marvellous emigre Russian author, many of his works have been brought out in beautiful Pushkin Press editions. “An Evening with Claire”, however, is his first novel which was brought out in the USA by Overlook Press/Ardis, and it features his beautiful, often elegiac prose in a work often described as Proustian. I believe more Gazdanov is on the horizon from Pushkin – hurrah! 😀

Not pictured in the pile above is “Le Bal” by Irene Nemirovsky. I came a little late to the party with her books; I failed in my first attempt to read “Suite Francaise” but after reading a collection of her shorter early works I came to love her writing, and “Le Bal” was one of those titles. It’s a powerful little story, portraying the dynamics of a mother-daughter relationship in all its horror and proves she was such a good writer.

So those are just a few of my previous reads, on and off the blog, from 1930. Really, it was *such* a bumper year for books, wasn’t it? So glad we chose it! Have you read any of the above? 😀

#1930Club – a great writer contemplates being poorly… ;D


On Being Ill by Virginia Woolf

It’s no secret that Virginia Woolf is a favourite writer of mine; I’ve rambled on enough about her on the blog to make that abundantly clear. So whenever we have a club, I do cast around to see if there are any of her works that I can revisit (or indeed read for the first time!) as part of our reading week. Oddly, I don’t think I’ve managed this in previous club weeks, but when I did a little research about 1930, I discovered that an essay she first published in 1926 was issued as a standalone volume by Hogarth Press in 1930. I don’t currently own it, but was able to find a digital version of the original online (as it appeared ion T.S. Eliot’s “New Criterion”) – and fascinating reading it makes.

Woolf was, of course, well placed to discussed the pros and cons of being ill, having suffered recurring bouts of numerous ailments (both mental and physical) over the years. But any piece of work by her is never going to be straightforward, and her essay considers all manner of things relating to the problem of illness. In particular, she finds herself surprised that the subject is not dealt with seriously in literature, a thing she considers a failing. Certainly, the topic was one she featured in her own fiction, and I could name a number of novels and characters for whom illness is pivotal to their actions and indeed their lives in her books.

Parties, he said, bored him – such were English aristocrats before marriage with intellect had adulterated the fine singularity of their minds. Parties bore them; they are off to Iceland…

Woolf being Woolf, the prose ricochets off on all manner of tangents, which is part of the joy of reading her, and she considers the relationships between human beings, the tendency of people to behave so differently when ill, and how poetry is the ideal reading when one is poorly and a chunky novel is too taxing. She considers the effect of the physical body on the mind, and how we do not always get the sympathy we expect.

That illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears that a twitch at one wrist jerks another, where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you – is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others.

Watching Woolf’s mind at play, ranging over all manner of topics, is always a pure delight, and reading this reminded me that I have several volumes of her essays crying out for my attention. Her prose is unique, completely individual, and her authorial voice unmistakable. Although I read her for the insights she brings, I also read her for the sheer joy of watching what she can do with the English language. “On Being Ill” was apparently a little neglected, although in recent year a new edition was brought out (which is now rather expensive….). Proof, if it was ever needed, that as well as being a genius of a prose writer, Woolf was also a stellar essayist. I really *should* dig out those essays… ;D

#1930Club – starting off the week with the Queen of Crime!


And we’re OFF!!! Yes, the #1930club kicks off today, for a week of reading, discovering and discussing books from that year. As I mentioned a couple of weeks back, I found that I had a surprising amount of books from 1930 already in the stacks, including a number I’ve not read. However, I was *really* tempted to start off with a re-read, and the great Agatha Christie was calling. There are a few choices from 1930, but I ended up picking “The Mysterious Mr. Quin” – and what a joy it turned out to be!

No, I don’t know why the cover has horrible cats’ eyes either…. 😦

My copy of “Mr. Quin” is from 1982, and I reckon I probably picked it up in that decade, as I was making a concerted effort to read and collect everything Christie had written. I probably haven’t revisited it in a very long time, but I recall having a great fondness for it – and I still do. The book collects together 12 short stories featuring the elusive title character and his side-kick, the very entertaining Mr. Satterthwaite. The latter is an ageing bachelor – described by his author as oddly elf-like, he is comfortably-off, a lover of art and fine living, and something of a snob. His friendships with the rich and titled give him great pleasure, and he has a keen interest in those around him, being one of life’s observers. Mr. Quin arrives into his life in the first story, “The Coming of Mr. Quin”, which is set on New Year’s Eve. Mr. Satterthwaite is a house-guest (he’s a constant presence at any gathering worth attending) and there are unspoken tensions amongst the family with whom he’s staying. He and Quin develop an instant bond, and between them discover what’s causing the discord, setting things right before tragedy takes place. This sets a kind of template for what follows, although each story is individual and cleverly constructed – and in fact the whole set-up of the relationship between the two men is quite brilliantly done.

“Oh yes – I answer for Mr. Quin.”

Before I dig a little deeper, it has to be said that these stories are incredibly entertaining, and I found the book quite unputdownable. I’ve always found Christie’s writing utterly compelling and I absolutely loved reading these tales again. However, this time round I think I appreciated her sheer artistic achievement more, and I was aware of a number of elements in the book which I particularly love in her writing. For a start, many of the stories feature Christie’s favourite trope of looking back and resolving a mystery from the past; as Quin regularly points out, you can often see things better with perspective, picking up on things you might have missed at the time. It’s one of the things I’m most fond of in her books.

“That is a curious idea of yours,” said Mr Satterthwaite slowly. “That one sees things better afterwards than at the time.”

“The longer the time has elapsed, the more things fall into proportion. One sees them in their true relationship to one another.”

The Quin/Satterthwaite stories also allowed Christie to combine her three kinds of writing: crime, romance and a touch of the supernatural. Certainly, some of the stories gave me a spooky kind of shiver down the spine! Quin and Satterthwaite often act as nemeses (another Christie trope) and are on the side of the lovers, the dead and those at the end of their tether. Christie’s strong sense of justice always came through in the books and it’s wonderful to watch her characters solve probles and avert catastrophe.

“I have a certain friend – his name is Mr Quin, and he can best be described in the terms of catalysis. His presence is a sign that things are going to happen, because he is there strange revelations come to light, discoveries are made. And yet – he himself takes no part in the proceedings.”

Interestingly, although Harley Quin is the title character of the book, it’s very much Mr. Satterthwaite who takes the central role; perhaps as the male equivalent of Miss Marple? Quin is described by Satterthwaite as a catalyst, helping the latter to take action – he acts as Quin’s ’emissary’. And Mr. Satterwaite himself is a fascinating creation, containing elements of both of Christie’s great detectives. Like Miss Marple, he is an observer of life, but that tendency has given him insight and he sees similarities everywhere. And like Hercule Poirot, his detection is mostly detection of the mind; he too uses his ‘little grey cells’ to puzzle out the solution to a problem, egged on by the elusive Mr. Quin. All three of these protagonists of Christie’s are single; spinster or bachelors; and interestingly both of her male characters have strong female characteristics, of which the novelist reminds the reader regularly. Satterthwaite himself has moments of anguish, even despair, as he thinks he’s had a wasted life; but Quin often reassures him that he has seen life and is making a difference.

“You have seen much of life,” said Mr. Quin gravely. “More than most people.”

“Life has passed me by,” said Mr. Satterthwaite bitterly.

“But in so doing has sharpened your vision. Where others are blind you can see.”

As the stories progress, Mr. Quin himself becomes more and more elusive, and a slightly darker character, until in the final tale “Harlequin’s Lane” he becomes almost sinister. I’m not going to discuss the individual stories, because I don’t want to give anything away. But suffice to say, each story contains Christie’s signature twists and sleight of hand, and I found myself marvelling at her incredibly fertile mind!

You might have seen Simon’s recent post about the Charles Osborne book “The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie”; it’s a book I’ve had in my collection for decades (in fact, I think Mr. Kaggsy may have bought it for me in our early years together). Despite the Internet being handy, I always go back to Osborne when I read a Christie; his insights and thoughts are always spot on. “Mr. Quin” allowed Christie and her characters the room to philosophise a little; and as Osborne points out, her writing is superb in places, something she’s not always given credit for.

The characters initially only appeared in this one book together, although Mr. Satterthwaite also appears in “Dead Man’s Mirror” (part of the “Murder in the Mews” collection) and “Three Act Tragedy”. However, as my burrowing into the Osborne book revealed, there are actually another two uncollected stories featuring the detecting duo. This triggered a frantic rummage in my Christie shelves to see if I had them, and indeed I have; in a later anthology “Problem at Pollensa Bay”.

“The Love Detectives” is from 1926, so could slot into the original collection (but maybe nobody wanted to have 13 stories…); it involves Quin and Satterthwaite solving an obscure murder whilst saving a pair of lovers from the gallows. “The Harlequin Tea Set”, intriguingly, is later Christie, published in 1971. It’s a longer short story, and Christie makes reference to her dynamic duo having last met in the final story of the original collection. The writing is perhaps not so sharp, and the narrative maybe more fanciful than her early works; nevertheless, it’s a gripping and involving tale of Satterthwaite and Quin, and allows them to make a welcome final return visit.

So tempted to read these soon….

So my first read for the #1930Club was a wonderful one! I’ve said before that I could happily sit down and spend a month reading all of Dame Agatha’s books from start to finish, and every time I dip into one that feeling is reinforced. The main problem I have at the moment is that instead of reading other books from 1930, I’m desperately drawn to pick up at least the two Christies above… ;D


As you’ll see, there’s a page here on the Ramblings where I’ll put links to other posts, and my co-host Simon will be doing some linking too – make sure you check his blog out for more #1930Club loveliness! And do leave a comment with a link – we’re so looking forward to seeing what everyone else reads! 😀

On My Book Table… 2 – The Chunksters…


I’m pleased to report that the Reading Chair and the Book Table have proved to be a great success chez Ramblings (well done, Mr. Kaggsy!) I have spent many a happy hour sitting comfortably with a book and a beverage; though alas, I don’t think I’ve tackled a single volume featured in my previous post about the table… That’s fairly typical of me, and I do have the excuse of the forthcoming 1930 Club which has necessitated some focus on the year in question. However, I thought I would share some images of what’s weighing down the table at the moment as possible reads – and they *are* quite chunky books!!

That’s a fairly imposing and daunting pile of books, isn’t it? Shall we take a look in more detail??

These two titles are on the book table for a good reason, i.e. the forthcoming #1930Club. I’ve mention John Dos Passos before, but not the Bunting (although of course I *have* wittered on about Basil on the Ramblings). All will become clear next week, hopefully…. 😉

Now – these three have been sitting around on the TBR for a while. “Imaginary Cities” (from Influx Press!!) was a Christmas gift from my brother some years back; “Night Walking” came into the house when Verso were having one of their oh-so-tempting sales; and the John Muir was a purchase on a whim because I wanted it (so there!) Having just watched a repeat of a documentary on Muir (which I somehow missed first time round) I’m keen to pick it up soon. We shall see…

These two lovelies are a little slimmer, but still very appealing. The Binet was on my book table last time, and has been on the TBR for as long as the Muir, as they arrived at the same time. The Colette is a beautiful edition of an anthology of extracts from her work, called “Earthly Paradise”. Apparently it’s now out of print and not at all cheap to get hold of – who knew? Makes me even more certain I must be careful about which books I prune when I pass some on to charity shops.

A mixed bag here. Two are newly arrived at the Ramblings – “Seashaken Houses” is all about lighthouses (I love lighthouses) and I resisted it for ages in Waterstones and then gave in. The Cunard book sounded fascinating (I can’t remember where I heard about it) and as the local library didn’t have it, I was left with no choice… I’ve had the Shklovsky for ages and keep meaning to start it and don’t – story of my life, really…

More new arrivals, this time from the very lovely Notting Hill Editions. I reviewed John Berger’s book “What Time Is It” recently; it’s the final book of three published by NHE which he did with Selcuk Demirel. I was knocked out by “Time…” and so was delighted to receive the two earlier books “Cataract” and “Smoke” – such treats in store… The third book in the picture is a selection of Montaigne’s essays; I’d often thought of reading him and then Marina Sofia’s post pushed me over the edge. Thanks so much, NHE! :DD

Another three chunksters lurk on the table, again books that I’ve had around for a while. “Liberty” is about French Revolutionary women; “Romantic Outlaws” is about Mary Wollstonecroft and Mary Shelley; and “The Wives” is about spouses of Russian authors. I long to sink myself into all three at once, which is really not practical…

And finally, a couple of slim volumes which weren’t on the pile in the first image, but have managed to sneak into the house despite Mr. Kaggsy’s best efforts (ha! not really – I think he’s given up worrying about the books, realisiing he was fighting a losing battle…) “Nagasaki” is thanks to a post on the BookerTalk blog – I loved the sound of it and couldn’t resist. “Doe Lea” is VERY VERY exciting! It’s a limited edition chapbook short story by M. John Harrison (who is a big favourite here on the Ramblings as you might have noticed..); and it’s a signed copy, one of only 200. Goodness, I went into overdrive when I found out it was available. Most pleased that it arrived safely and can’t wait to read it, yet don’t want to because I want to savour it!

Well, there you are. The Book Table is groaning a little under the weight of all these mighty tomes, and of course “The Anatomy of Melancholy” seems to be in permanent residence there helping to add to the tonnage. With my fickle mind I may not actually end up reading *any* of these next; but it’s lovely to get my books out, have them on the table, flick through them and just *enjoy* having them around! The pleasures of being a bookaholic… ;D

“A Plague is a formidable Enemy, and is arm’d with Terrors…” @i_am_mill_i_am @BacklistedPod #journaloftheplagueyear #defoe


A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe

Well, we seem to be spending time in slightly dark territory on the Ramblings at the moment: from the impulse to self-destruct we move on to plague… I blame external forces of course (lovely Fitzcarraldo volumes and flash sales, the Backlisted Podcast); nevertheless, I don’t always want to be reading lighter works, although after these two I think I might need some contrast… 😉

Daniel Defoe is, of course, best known as the author of “Robinson Crusoe”; it’s a book I read some time ago, pre-blog, and of course everyone probably knows the plot. I’ve heard him called the inventor of the novel as we know it, and certainly his characters and works have entered into the collective consciousness. “A Journal of the Plague Year” is a more unusual beast; it’s purportedly just that, a record of the year the Great Plague took hold of London, killing hundreds of thousands of its population, as well as spreading to some other parts of England. Our narrator is only identified at the very end of the book by a pair of initials, H.F., and he stays in London during the plague as our witness.

So we follow H.F. as he watches the Bills of Mortality announcing the number of deaths; as he ranges the oddly deserted streets, noting the marks on the doors of people’s houses indicating infection, with a Watchman stationed outside to let nobody in or out; and as he visits the plague pits, dug to bury the dead as there are so many of them that the traditional methods have gone out of the window. H.F. relates tales tragic and hopeful; of families dying out completely, of the charity of human beings, of the watermen down on the river going into hiding on their vessels, of a group escaping into the country and setting up camp. And over all of this the spectre of the plague looms and rages, killing seemingly indiscriminately, coming and going in ferocity, until the people of London wonder, at the height of its power, if anyone will actually survive.

But alas! This was a Time when every one’s private Safety lay so near them, that they had no Room to pity the Distresses of others; for every one had Death, as it were, at his Door, and many even in their Families, and knew not what to do, or whither to fly.

“Plague” is not a book that’s a quick or easy read, but it *is* incredibly vivid and compelling; Defoe captures the landscape of Mediaeval London and its people quite wonderfully, and it’s obvious that he knew both well. The City comes alive, with its narrow winding streets, dirt and grime, bustling population and wooden buildings. Really, the city itself is the main player in the story; HF, although he reveals a little about himself, is an observer and chronicler, there to be our eyes and ears, giving us a terrifying glimpse into the past.

…there was more of a Tale than of Truth in those Things.

You might wonder whether a book like this is relevant to us in our modern world, but it most certainly is. So many of the elements of life Defoe writes about are incredlby modern: from the quack doctors and those peddling scam cures, to the nascent mass media to the folk devils created by the popular imagination, this is a world very recognisably ours. So many things resonated with me; truly, humans and their quirks and their world might change superficially but underneath we’re still pretty much the same and driven by the same desires and fears.

We had no such thing as printed News Papers in those Days, to spread Rumours and Reports of Things; and to improve them by the Invention of Men, as I have liv’d to see practis’d since.

The writing and the narrative structure are fascinating as well. The book is incredibly atmospheric, with Defoe/H.F. capturing the sense of impending doom that spreads over the city, that feeling of being trapped and unable to escape the coming doom. The concept of the streets of London being empty and deserted is one that nowadays we would always connect with some kind of disaster taking place, and it was no different back in Defoe’s day. In many ways the book set the template for plague literature to come; for example, Camus draws heavily on it, although his book is an allegory. The book is very discursive, too, contrasting H.F. going back and forward between events with laws and regulations, statistics from the Bills and stories of individuals or groups trying to escape the plague. That structure echoes the ebb and flow of the plague as it moves from west to east across London, its virulence rising and falling, until finally the tide turns and its strength diminishes before finally dying away. Interestingly, the forthcoming Great Fire of London is referred to, although oddly H.F.’s narrative implies the plague was gone before the scourging flames of the Great Fire arrived to finish it off. Strangely, I believe modern thinking is that H.F. might be right…

Penguin Classic and Norton Critical Edition – both have a lot going for them!

I found “Plague” an utterly absorbing read, one which opened a window onto an area of the past as well as convincing me that the underlying nature of human beings really doesn’t change. Certain sections were quite chilling, particularly the part when H.F. visited the Plague Pits where people were being flung nightly in an attempt to keep everyone properly buried. These pits are still there under the modern city of London we know, and have been excavated in recent years when works are done in the metropolis; it’s a little scary how the past reaches out into our lives. I was also struck by the fact that, despite the city having been razed by the later fire, so many of the place names H.F. mentions are familiar ones which still exist now. Apparently, the city was rebuilt over the original street plan, but with brick instead of wood and no open sewers – all of which must have been a vast improvement on the narrow, filthy and teeming streets of plague time…

So – is this history masquerading as novel or the novel as history? I don’t actually think that matters for a book as special as this. Defoe himself was five when the plague broke out, so may well have had some memories of the tumult. Additionally, he had an uncle called Henry Foe (H.F.!) who stayed in London during the plague, and it’s probable that he drew on his uncle’s memories or journals. However, he’s known to have consulted any number of reference works on the period, and knowing enough about what had happened coupled with his talents as a writer combines to make the narrative a most convincing one – and as has been said elsewhere, the nearest thing to a gripping contemporary account.

You might wonder why should you read this book nowadays? Any number of reasons, really. To get a glimpse of human beings under extreme situations, and a look at old London before it was lost in the fire; to see that there really isn’t much in our modern world that hasn’t happened before; and to enjoy the writing of an early master of the novel. “Plague” is dark reading in places, but there are also uplifting moments and an underlying faith in the fact that whatever gets thrown at it, humanity will survive. I don’t know that I would have picked this up if the Backlisted Podcast hadn’t sung its praises so highly; but I’m really glad I did!


As you can see from the image, I have two different editions of “A Journal of the Plague Year” – I suffered raging indecision when trying to decide which edition to buy and ended up with the Penguin Classic (you can’t go wrong with a Penguin Classic) and the Norton Critical Edition. Both are excellent versions to have, being based on the original 1722 edition, but the supporting material is different in each. The Penguin comes with useful notes and chronology, Anthony Burgess’s introduction to the 1966 Penguin English Library edition, as well as glossary and map. The Norton Critical version perhaps looks a little more widely, with excerpts from other plague literature which come up to the contemporary, as well as other material from the time. I read the Penguin because the type was bigger(!), the book easier to hold (Penguins tend to flop open nicely and stay in place), and the extras were just enough for me at the time. However, I’ve been dipping into the Norton supporting material too, and it *is* good. So maybe if you can find both of these versions at a reasonable price, you should consider investing in them both… 🙂

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