Yes, you read that correctly! Instead of starting our reading week with the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie, I’m exploring a different Golden Age crime author! Christie is always a name I turn to, but I wasn’t feeling either of this year’s possible titles; so I turned to Dean Street Press and their stellar collection of reissues! They were kind enough to provide a copy of one of their 1929 books – “Water Weed” by Alice Campbell – and it turned out to be a fascinating read!

Campbell (1887-1955) had an interesting background; hailing originally from Atlanta, Georgia, she moved to New York City at the age of nineteen and later to Paris. Here she married the American-born artist and writer James Lawrence Campbell, and just prior to WW1 they moved with their first child to England, where they settled and had two more children. “Water Weed” was Campbell’s second book, and it’s an accomplished one!

Longer than the average GA crime novel (at 281 pages) it weaves in a number of different strands which makes it all the more satisfying as a read. The story follows the adventures of a plucky young American, Virginia (Ginny) Carew, who’s on a trip to London. Here, she and her father run into an old friend, Glenn Hillier, but Glenn is changed; from a cheerful, hearty young American, he seems to have turned into a nervy, unsettled person. It soon becomes clear that the problem lies with an older woman, with whom Glenn is besotted; known as the Cuckoo, she and her children, Pam and Henry, live in luxury in the English countryside, and before long Ginny is down for a visit.

However, the country house is anything but an idyllic setting; there are tensions between any number of characters, suspicious retainers, and both Pam and Henry have their quirks. Things build up to the inevitable murder, and further drama occurs because Glenn is a suspect and then disappears, suspected of suicide. Can Ginny get to the truth of things? And is she in danger herself? More than this I will not say, but any potential reader can be reassured that there are twists and turns and drama aplenty!!

Campbell is a really interesting writer and despite my flippant comparison with Christie, both are very different authors. And there’s actually quite a lot to unpack from this book, as I picked up a number of layers! I feel that Campbell brings a different perspective to GA writing, maybe because of her cosmopolitan background, and although the primary focus is on the mystery, it’s not just a whodunnit. Instead, she explores what we would now call mental health issues, healthy and unhealthy relationships and the psychology behind what’s going on. Christie does that too, of course, but perhaps not in the detail that Campbell displays here.

There’s also a surprisingly frank focus for the day on sexual matters and the extreme tendencies of some of the characters! Nothing graphic, of course, but sexual attraction is not underplayed, and Glenn can admit to a love affair, Cuckoo’s preferences can be baldly revealed and the devastating effects of her behaviour on her family clearly spelled out. I sensed also, perhaps, that Campbell was making a contrast between clean, healthy young Americans and decadent, warped Europeans – but maybe I’m reading a little too much in there!

So my first experience of reading Campbell was a fascinating one. She’s an excellent writer and has created here a beguiling blend of mystery, drama, romance and the adventures of Americans in Europe. The story builds to a tense climax, and doesn’t downplay the physical results of assault. Campbell’s heroine Ginny is feisty and convincing, and the story’s ending is a satisfying one. I’m so glad that the #1929Club gave me a chance to discover this author, and thanks again to Dean Street Press for kindly providing a copy – do check out their site for a wonderful collection of reprinted classics! Your TBR may have to expand a little to cope… 😉