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#1920Club – launching the week with the genesis of a great detective #poirot #agathachristie

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And here we go, launching the #1920club – a week where we read, enjoy and share our love of books from a year from the 20th century. This time we’ve chosen something special – a date that fell 100 years ago and yielded a wide and interesting range of books – 1920!

As is so often the case, I’m choosing to kick off the week with one of my most beloved authors – the wonderful Agatha Christie! As I’ve mentioned before, I read her books first in my teens and I’ve loved and collected them since. She was an astonishingly prolific writer, and 1920 is a special year in the Agatha Christie world; because it saw the publication of her first novel, and the debut of her iconic detective Hercule Poirot. The novel is “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” and though I’ve read it many times, I relished a revisit!

Agatha Christie Mysterious Affair at Styles 1920club tea flowers golden age crime

It’s well-known that Christie worked in Torquay’s hospital as a dispenser of medication during the First World War, and it was here she conceived her first crime novel. Poirot was apparently inspired by her encounters with Belgian refugees during her work, and it’s clear she drew from some elements of her life in the book. The story is narrated by Arthur Hastings, making his first appearance as Poirot’s somewhat hapless sidekick; on sick leave from the war, he travels down to Styles Court in Essex to stay with an old friend, John Cavendish. Styles is not a happy place at the moment; John’s wealthy stepmother Mrs. Inglethorp has married a man the family dislike intensely; John’s marriage is rocky and rumours abound; and Mrs. Inglethorp has just had a major quarrel with her loyal companion, Evelyn Howard. Also staying at the house are John’s brother Lawrence, and orphan Cynthia Murdoch, an informal ward of Mrs. Inglethorp. Emotions are obviously near the surface and not long after Hastings’ arrival Mrs. Inglethorp is poisoned in the night, but in a room which is apparently locked from the inside. Evidence points to her husband, although he may have an alibi; and it seems that several other characters may have perfectly good motives for the murder.

Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man. He was hardly more than 5’4”, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little to one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.

Fortunately for all, Hastings has bumped into an old friend who happens to be living locally: one Hercule Poirot, a refugee from Belgium who has escaped and is settling in England with the help of Mrs. Inglethorp (who seems to have been aiding a number of Poirot’s fellow countrymen). Described as having been “one of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police”, he’s ideally placed to investigate and fortunately the police will not object. Enter Inspector James Japp of Scotland Yard who also knows Poirot of old as they’ve worked together previously and he’s happy to have Poirot’s input. So the stage is set for the team’s first case, and it’s a wonderfully twisty and clever one.

Even though I know the book well, it was a real joy to return to, and to experience reading it with the focus on the fact it was Christie’s first book (as well as Poirot’s first outing). For a first novel it’s remarkably accomplished, eminently readable, fiendishly clever and very satisfying. So many elements stood out, and as I could remember whodunnit I could take pleasure in simply enjoying the story and seeing such well-loved characters take their place on Christie’s stage.

via Wikimedia Commons

Because Emily Inglethorp was poisoned it was hard not to think of Christie drawing on her experience as a dispenser (and poisons recurr again and again in Christie’s fiction). Interestingly, Cynthia Murdoch is also a dispenser and I did wonder if she was a little self-portrait? The characters are remarkably vivid and well-formed, and as I implied above, it’s hard to believe this is a first novel; those characters and relationships we take for granted now almost seem to have sprung ready formed from her pen. Already there’s a lovely relationship between Poirot and Hastings, with the latter playing the Watson-ish foil to the great detective, and Christie is not averse to poking fun at her characters.

“Yes, he is intelligent. But we must be more intelligent. We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all.”
I acquiesced.
“There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.”

Interestingly, the fledgling Poirot is less mannered in some ways than he eventually ends up; he has his moustaches and his quirks of behaviour, some of which are essential to the solution, but we are left in no doubt of his prestige in the Belgian force and the serious situation which has led him to this country. The two are very Holmes and Watson, as was the template in Golden Age crime of the time, with the wonderful Japp taking the Lestrade role. Nevertheless, these characters have an existence all of their own, proved I suppose by the fact they’ve become as embedded in our culture as has Sherlock Holmes.

But putting this aside, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” is a marvellously entertaining read with a twisty and ingenious solution. I think it’s hardly surprisingly that Christie and Poirot went on to be such a success; Hastings is a wonderful narrator (and I wish she’d used him more than she eventually did), Poirot brilliant and Japp the perfect foil for them both. It’s classic Christie, classic golden age crime and a wonderful start to my week of reading books from 1920! 😀

#1930Club – some previous reads!

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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 – starting off the week with the Queen of Crime!

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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

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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! 😀

Looking ahead – to the past? ;D #1930Club

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Those of you paying attention will have noticed that we’re edging ever closer to October; and during that month Simon at Stuck in a Book and I will be co-hosting one of our regular six-monthly reading Club weeks! If you’re new to these, basically we pick a year and encourage everyone to discover, read and discuss books from that year. You can review on your blog, post on other social media or just comment on our blogs. We love to hear what gems you’ve discovered or want to share, and the whole thing is great fun. Simon came up with the idea and as you can see from the different Club pages on my blog, we’ve done quite a few…:D

The next year we’re going to be focusing on is 1930, and as I usually try to read from my stacks I thought I’d have a nose around and see what I have that would be suitable. I was surprised (and not displeased!) to find that I own quite a substantial amount of books from that year and more than ever I think I’m going to find it very hard to choose what to read! Normally, I don’t share much ahead of the Club weeks as it’s fun to be surprised by what people read. However, there are so many books on the pile that I feel impelled to have a look now in the hope that some commenters might be able to recommend ones they think are particularly good. The mystery this time is going to be what books I actually choose!

A large stack of possible reads from 1930

So as  you can see, the pile of possibles from books I already own is quite large… Let’s look a little more closely!

1930 Viragos

It should be no surprise, really, that there are several Virago titles from 1930 and these are all from my collection of green spined lovelies. I’ve definitely read the Mansfield; probably the Delafield and Coleman; and possibly not the Sackville-West or Smith. All are tempting for either a new read or a re-read.

Classic Crime from 1930

Again, no surprise that there should be classic crime from 1930. Sayers is a favourite of course (yes, I have two copies of “Strong Poison” – don’t ask…) and this would be a welcome re-read. The Christies are again books I’ve already read, and I know “Vicarage” very well, so the “Mr. Quin” book would be a fun choice. Hammett too would be a re-read. Not sure here what to choose, if I end up re-reading.

1930 Russians

There are indeed Russians from 1930, which might be unexpected bearing in mind the events that were taking place amongst the Soviets in that troubled era. Certainly, Platonov was probably written for the drawer; and Nabokov and Gazdanov were in exile, as was Trotsky. Mayakovsky’s last play was published in 1930, the year he died. Well. I think I’ve read the Platonov, the Nabakov, the Gazdanov and the Mayakovsky definitely. Not so sure about the Trotsky. All are very appealing.

A selection of other titles from 1930

And here’s a pile of general titles from the year in question. The Rhys is again a book I’ve read (fairly recently); “Last and First Men” was purloined from Eldest Child who I think might have studied it at Uni; “War in Heaven” I’ve had for decades and have probably read – I do love Charles Williams’ oddness so that’s a possible. I confess that the Huxley at the top of the pile is a recent purchase, as I saw it was published in 1930. It’s short stories, in a very pretty old Penguin edition, and I’d like to read more of him.

As for the two chunksters at the bottom, well thereby hangs a tale… I’ve owned these books by John Dos Passos for decades and never read them (oops); “U.S.A.” is a trilogy of three novels, and the first of these was published in 1930. Dos Passos was known for his experimental writing and why I’ve never picked them up is a mystery to me. I’m thinking that if I can motivate myself to read the 1930 novel it might set me on the road to reading the rest – we shall see…

Oh – in case you were wondering what the paper on top of the pile of books was, it’s this:

Woolf On Being Ill…

I hoped to find some Virginia Woolf to read for 1930, but the only thing could see was her long essay “On Being Ill”. I couldn’t easily find it in the essay collections I own, but I managed to track down a scan of the original magazine publication online. I love Woolf in all her forms, so this one may well get some attention.

So what can we be sure will be on the Ramblings during the #1930Club? Well, for a start there’s likely to be a guest post from Mr. Kaggsy (which is becoming a regular occurrence!). I hope to read at least one Agatha, and also something of substance. I’d like to try to really work out which of these books I’ve actually read and which I haven’t, going for new reads instead of re-reads. Apart from that – well, watch this space to find out what I finally pick for the #1930Club! 😀

#1944Club – some previous reads

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Usually, when we do our week of Club reads, I always manage to dig out some previous reads from the year in question. However, 1944 is proving to be an odd one.. I haven’t managed to identify many books that I’ve read from that year, and I’m hampered by the fact that it’s only recently that I’ve started to record the publication date of the books I’ve finished. However, there are a few that I can pinpoint…

Transit by Anna Seghers

I read Transit back in 2014, and found it to be a powerful work. I found it  “a haunting and gripping novel which is relevant today, in a world which is still troubled by wars and refugees. Seghers gets inside the mind of people in exile like no other writer I’ve read, and “Transit” is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the effect of WW2 on real, ordinary people, reduced to fleeing for their lives.” Alas, I don’t think much has changed, has it? 😦

The Custard Heart by Dorothy Parker

This is drawn from Parker’s 1944 collection “The Portable Dorothy Parker”, so I’ll count it! I reviewed this little Penguin Modern recently and was impressed once more by Parker’s writing. Such a sharp wit, and yet such an astute understanding of women’s lives.

A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair

As I mentioned in my introductory post for the #1944Club, there are several Persephones which were published in 1944 and I own two of them, having read this one. It’s one of my favourites from the publisher, and I read it and loved it pre-blog. However, I find I put a review on LibraryThing in which I said “This is a remarkably good novel about the way war affects those who are fighting and those who have to stay at home and ensure. The contrast between the two types of war is beautifully written by Playfair who, although she does not go into detail about the horrors, gives us enough to imagine what is going on.” I’ve kept this one on the shelves which says a lot about how much I liked it.

And then there are the Agathas….

I’ve read all of these; I’ve read everything the woman published, dammit! But this was all well pre-blog so I can’t point you to a review or tell you anything much about them. Except that the woman was a damn genius writing machine.

And that’s all I can find in the way of previous #1944club reads. No doubt if I was more organised mentally and had more time to research the shelves I might reveal a few more. But no matter – there are plenty of lovely books from 1944 to be read and tomorrow I’ll review one of them (which is actually a re-read…) 😉

The #1944Club launches!

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Yes, it’s that time of the year again! Those of you who’ve been following for a while will be aware that I co-host a biannual reading week with Simon at Stuck in a Book. He came up with the fun idea of focusing our reading on a particular year, and we’ve done six so far with people joining in on their blogs, social media etc. We got as far as the 1970s before deciding to go for a random year earlier in the 20th century, and 1944 came out of the hat!

It’s a year that has a lot of potential for interest; World War 2 was of course still underway, and so it might be thought that publishing would have been limited. Also there could be a tendency for books to focus very much on what was happening in the world, or conversely provide escapism. And works published in parts of the world away from Europe could be less affected by those world events.

A quick look at the big books from the year throws up some intriguing titles. There’s “The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham (which I’m sure I have somewhere); Christianna Brand‘s atmospheric “Green for Danger” was a classic crime novel which captured the tension of the times; Margery Sharp‘s “Cluny Brown” made her debut; and of course Agatha Christie was as prolific as ever with no less than three works (one of which was under her pen-name of Mary Westmacott). In fact, crime fiction features strongly on lists of books from 1944, and maybe the format, with a crime being committed and all being put to rights at the end, was something that appealed to readers in times of conflict.

In fact, there are a number of Persephones which were published in 1944 (which I found out thanks to Simon’s excellent post about them!) and I’ve read one and own another. I *would* like to read the Mollie Panter-Downes stories, as I loved her “One Fine Day”, but I don’t know if time will be on my side…

I have a few books in mind for this week, as well as a guest post, and it will be fascinating to see what works people choose to read and write about. As usual, I’ll have a dedicated page on the blog where I’ll gather up as many links to everyone’s 1944 posts as I can – so don’t forget to leave a comment so I know what you’ve said and where it is! Simon will no doubt be having a post that does the same and so between us we can hopefully make sure everyone is featured.

So do feel free to join in with the #1944Club – there are some interesting and varied books to be read from that year, and I’m looking forward to everyone’s thoughts!

#1977club – some previous reads

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Well, we’re halfway through our week of reading from 1977, and I thought I would take a look at some previous reads – both on the blog and off. Interestingly, I don’t seem to have covered many books from 1977 here on the Ramblings, but I don’t record the publication dates so I may have missed some. Anyways, as they say, here are a few I’ve written about before:

Interestingly, I guess you could possibly say that these are what might be called ‘difficult’ books; Clarice Lispector, who I wrote about here, definitely has a reputation as not being a straightforward read. The Strugatskys wrote some marvellous speculative and sci-fi books – this one is a wonderfully twisty tale and you can read my thoughts on it here. And the Lem was one of a series of re-issues by Penguin. Again writing under a Soviet regime, so lots of subtexts, I covered it for Shiny New Books here.

However, in pre-blog times I’ve read some substantial books from 1977, including these:

I went through a phase of reading Diana Wynne Jones in the 1980s (and was lucky enough to meet her once). She was a marvellous author (much better than a certain HP writer, in my view…) and this is one of her Chrestomanci books. She always twisted reality rather wonderfully. The Tolkien came out not long after I had discovered The Lord of the Rings , and I was keen to read anything by the author; although I’ve never found anything that matched up to the trilogy.

The very fat Agatha book was essential reading for any fan of the great Christie and I read it back in the day although if you asked me for specifics I would collapse in a heap of poor memory. As for the Woolf diaries – well, I came upon these in the early 1980s (which is when I think they first appeared in paperback). I had a daily train commute at the time and I immersed myself in Woolf’s diaries and letters and all the wonder and strangeness of Bloomsbury – developed a real obsession with the group, in fact. I would love to read them all again – maybe in retirement – but time isn’t going to permit that during this week.

I also recall that I once owned and read a copy of “In Patagonia” and I think I rather enjoyed it – but it, and my memories of it, have I’m afraid flown off in the wind…

So – some previous reads on and off the blog. I’m still planning a mix of new and old reads this week, and it’s actually nice that our club reads give me what I feel is an excuse to re-read. What are you enjoying from 1977 this week?

Dipping into Detection

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Yes, I’m afraid there’s been *more* dipping going on at the Ramblings! I think it must be a necessary counterpoint to all the Big Review Books I’m reading at the moment; I’ve obviously felt the need to also read something I can actually *finish* fairly quickly…

“Great Tales of Detection”, an unassuming looking collection (the cover is a bit dull, isn’t it?) from 1936, which was reprinted in 1976, came from a charity shop trawl recently; and I picked it up a) because it was edited by Dorothy L. Sayers and b) because the contents were by lots of lovely favourite crime authors and I think several are stories by them I haven’t read! So it was definitely one to come home with me. From the Oxfam if I recall correctly, and not too pricey (they seem to have had a bit of an overhaul since and the cost of some of their books seems to have suddenly spiked – which is a bit daft, because this has made me put several back on the shelves…)

Anyway, I have dipped, reading a short extract entitled “Was it Murder?” by Robert Louis Stevenson with a very entertaining take on how you actually define murder if the murderer wasn’t present and nothing can be proved! But the other story I found myself glued to was “The Yellow Slugs” a very dark little tale by H.C. Bailey, whom I’ve read before. Bailey’s detective was Reggie Fortune, a doctor with a strong hatred of cruelty, and I first made his acquaintance in the wonderful British Library Crime Classics collection “Capital Crimes” back in 2015. The stories there impressed me, and I did say how keen I was to read more about Reggie. Now, I know there is an e-book lurking somewhere on my tablet, but I always forget about those, so this was the first story I turned to in this anthology.

“The Yellow Slugs” opens with a tragic-sounding case; a teenage boy apparently going off the rails and accused of trying to drown his younger sister. Is the boy insane or just a nasty piece of work? Reggie is called into the case in his role as a doctor, but he soon sees there is more to things than meets the eye and of course starts to investigate.

It’s not a straightforward crime; all the evidence supports the boy being a bad lot, and the pious and upset parents, as well as their genteel lodger, seem blameless. However, an actual murder is discovered and it takes all Reggie’s persistence and ingenuity to get to the truth of the matter – which is clever, chilling and quite fiendish.

I was just as impressed with Bailey’s storytelling as when I first read his Reggie Fortune stories and I really *can’t* understand why his work is out of fashion. The plotting and characterisation are excellent, the scenario dark and compelling and it’s edge of the seat stuff while you desperately will Reggie on to sort things out. Bring back Reggie Fortune stories, I say!

The rest of the book looks to have plenty of treasures too: there are a number of authors here who have been picked up and celebrated by the British Library Crime Classics imprint, including John Rhode, Anthony Berkeley, Freeman Wills Crofts and R. Austin Freeman. A number of other familiar names are here, too, from my readings of Detection Club composite works, such as Father Ronald Knox and Milward Kennedy. And of course, there are Agatha and Dorothy…

So a positive cornucopia of delights into which to dip as an alternative to Big and Intense Books: you can look forward to hearing more about the stories in this volume when I need a quick crime break! 🙂

#1968 – Some previous reads

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When I began to research books from 1968 for our club, I was actually surprised not only by the amount of books of interest from that year, but also by the number I had already read! I thought I would link to a few old reviews here, and also mention some I read pre-blog.

In the First Circle by Solzhenitsyn

I read this chunkster back in 2012, although admittedly this revised and uncensored version was not the same as that first published in 1968. Nevertheless, this powerful portrait of life under Soviet rule was a landmark book and I found myself unable to understand why Solzhenitsyn’s literary reputation isn’t higher in the West.

The Quest for Christa T. by Christa Wolf

A read from 2014, “The Quest for Christa T.” has a deserved reputation for being a difficult book. The writing is elliptical and elusive, but once you get into the flow and start reading it almost between the lines, it’s remarkably rewarding. Her prose is marvellous and I don’t know why I haven’t picked up any of the other books of hers lurking on my shelves.

The Puzzleheaded Girl by Christina Stead

In 2016 I read my first Christina Stead work, a shortish tale called “The Puzzleheaded Girl”. My response to it was unsure in many ways, and my next encounter with Stead was even more difficult. Frankly, I’m not sure if she’s an author I’ll ever return to (despite the fact her Virago editions look lovely on the shelf…)

By The Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie

Latter-day Christie featuring an older Tommy and Tuppence Beresford (I love Tommy and Tuppence) and it was a wonderful romp with a very clever plot. As I said in my review, if I had infinite time I would read all of Christie’s books chronologically from start to end (and wallow in their wonderfulness).

Garden Open Tomorrow by Beverley Nichols

I’m rather sad that I’ve already read this, and fairly recently, because I’d love the excuse to read another Beverley. But then, who needs an excuse to read Beverley???

The Wedding Group by Elizabeth Taylor

It’s quite a while since I read any of the wonderful novels by Elizabeth Taylor – and actually an annual readalong of the books by the lovely LibraryThing Virago group was actually one of the factors which impelled me into starting Rambling! And this was one of my favourite Taylors, a little darker than some of her other works.

The Heart-Keeper by Francoise Sagan

This was a really *weird*  one…. Kirsty at The Literary Sisters kindly passed it on to me, but I found myself unable to really get to grips with what it was about, finally concluding “Basically, I found myself totally flummoxed by this book! At just over 100 pages, it seems to struggle to get its point across and really I still don’t know what it’s trying to be after thinking about it for several days. I haven’t found a lot about it online and it may be that it either sunk like a trace after its publication or other readers are as confused as I was!” An odd one indeed, and not a title I’m likely to revisit (in fact I don’t even know why it’s on my shelves still – off to the donation box with it!!)

The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove JanssonI’m a relatively recent convert to Tove Jansson, but I absolutely love her work, both for adults and children. “Sculptor’s Daughter” was her first book for adults, and it’s a beautifully written work which presumably blurs fact and fiction; it appears to be simply autobiographical, but I’m not so sure! Whichever it is, it’s lovely!

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There are also a number of books from 1968 which I read pre-blog so of course haven’t reviewed, and some of them are strikingly good. Solzhenitsyn’s “Cancer Ward” appeared in the same year as his other magnum opus and was equally powerful. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, a collection of Joan Didion’s essays, was I think the second book of hers I read and I remember being mightily impressed. On the poetry front, when I discovered my local library was stocking Persephones, I borrowed “It’s Hard to be Hip Over 30” by Judith Viorst, a wonderfully witty, wry and entertaining collection which I highly recommend. And I’m pretty sure I’ve read “Maigret Hesitates”, though with the amount of books Simenon wrote, it’s hard to be sure…

So – I hope you’re all getting on well with your #1968Club reading – there really are a *lot* of wonderful books to choose from! 🙂

 

Thrills and spills in a lost world – #1951club

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They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie

The author who’s been a constant in most of my reading life is Agatha Christie; I first read her in my teens, collected all her books, and every return visit I’ve made to her work has been a delight. So the first thing I do when we decide upon a year for a ‘club’ is to see which titles of hers were published then, and as she was so prolific there’s usually something I can read! 1951 is no exception, as it saw the publication of her thriller, “They Came to Baghdad” – and what a marvellous read it turned out to be!

A 1980s cover that has nothing to do with the book…

I reckon I’ve read most, if not all, Christie titles, but with the thrillers I’m never quite sure. The latter (and indeed her other crime books) have tended to be overshadowed by her Marple and Poirot oeuvre, which is a great shame, particularly on the evidence of this book. I started “Baghdad” with absolutely no memory of it and no real knowledge of the plot but it took no time at all for me to be completely sucked in to Christie’s wonderful narrative and storytelling powers.

“Baghdad” has a far-ranging plot and features a large cast of characters. Central to the plot, and the heroine of our story, is a young woman called Victoria Jones. An inveterate liar, constantly making mendacious claims to liven up her life or get her another job, as the story opens she’s been sacked yet again. Running into a personable young man, Edward, she’s annoyed to find he’s off to work in Baghdad the next day, and determines to follow him out there despite having only a few pounds to her name. Miraculously, a job materialises the next day and she sets off as a companion to an American lady with a broken arm.

Meanwhile, while Victoria sets off on her adventure, the world has much trouble brewing. A number of other interested parties seem to be converging on Baghdad, and there are even hints that world leaders such as The President and Uncle Joe, will make it to the city. Initially, it isn’t clear who is on which side, although a man called Dakin and his sidekick Crosbie appear to be on the side of the angels. Then there is the great explorer Sir Rupert Crofton Lee, whose role seems ambiguous; Anna Scheele, who seems to have an air of the Mata Hari about her; and Carmichael, an undercover man vital to world security.

To go into the plot in any more detail would probably take as long as the book, and spoil it too. Suffice to say that Victoria has many adventures, from getting a job in Baghdad, being kidnapped and imprisoned, trying to rescue spies, getting roped in by the forces of good and even having a stint in the desert as a fake archaeologist (one of her various aliases is the niece of the famous Dr. Pauncefoot Jones, a recurring character on everyone’s lips who eventually appears). The plot is twisty and turny, full of action and red herrings, hugely enjoyable and very, very entertaining.

Agatha Christie in Syria in the late 1930s

Christie is sometimes condemned as lightweight, but there is an underlying theme of seriousness here that shouldn’t be ignored. 1951 was a year when there were plenty of tensions in the world; the post-War euphoria and sense of rapprochement between East and West at the defeat of Hitler had died down, the Iron Curtain was well and truly in place, and the arms race was seen as a growing threat to the world. Christie was obviously aware of the global situation and has the two sides going for a cautious approach to rapport which is threatened by a third party. It was obviously something she felt strongly about, having lived through two World Wars, and she has the likeable Dakin say at one point:

The delusion that by force you can impose the Millennium on the human race is one of the most dangerous delusions in existence. Those who are out only to line their own pockets can do little harm – mere greed defeats its own ends. But the belief in a superstratum of human beings – in Supermen to rule the rest of the decadent world – that, Victoria, is the most evil of all beliefs. For when you say, “I am not as other men” – you have lost the two most valuable qualities we have ever tried to attain: humility and brotherhood.

The moral message aside, there is so much to love in “They Came to Baghdad”. Christie knows how to pace her book and tell a story, and I ended up staying up much too late to finish it. Her characters are believable and the switch in one particular person’s behaviour entirely convincing; there’s humour too, and some beautiful descriptions which give a strong sense of place.

Victoria, breathing in hot choking yellow dust, was unfavourably impressed by Baghdad. From the Airport to the Tio Hotel, her ears had been assailed by continuous and incessant noise. Horns of cars blaring with maddening persistence, voices shouting, whistles blowing, then more deafening senseless blaring of motor horns. Added to the loud incessant noises of the street was a small thin trickle of continuous noise which was Mrs. Hamilton Clipp talking.

A love of archaeology shows in her descriptions of Victoria helping out and developing a fascination with ancient history; this speaks eloquently of Christie’s own life and her involvement in the expeditions of her husband, Max Mallowan. But one of the strongest elements which came through in my reading of this was the sense of a lost past and a missing landscape; the setting for the story, described and evoked so beautifully by Christie, has no doubt been changed beyond recognition because of war and conflict and this added an extra poignancy to the book.

Surely those were the things that mattered – the little everyday things, the family to be cooked for, the four walls that enclosed the home, the one or two cherished possessions. All the thousands of ordinary people on the earth, minding their own business, and tilling the earth, and making pots and bringing up families and laughing and crying, and getting up in the morning and going to bed at night. They were the people who mattered, not these Angels with wicked faces who wanted to make a new world and who didn’t care whom they hurt to do it.  

You could, if you chose to, criticise the book I suppose; the plot is probably a little fantastic, Victoria’s escapades unlikely for a girl of her background, and there is the occasional mild racial stereotype. But these are tiny little things when set against the sweep of the story, the cleverness of the writing and the plot, and the sheer enjoyment of reading the book. Christie’s love for the area shines through, her sympathy for and empathy with the people and their way of life is evident, and her desire for a tolerant, kinder world is clear. We could do a lot worse nowadays to take that message on board; but in the meantime, if you want an enjoyable, entertaining thriller, set in an evocative lost landscape, you need look no further than “They Came to Baghdad” – wonderful book!

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