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“…no man is allowed a death certificate without first dying for it.” @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #margotbennett

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The Man Who Didn’t Fly by Margot Bennett

“When in doubt, reach for a crime classic”; that could well be my motto here on the Ramblings, as they *have* become such a comfort in recent years, and particularly during the pandemic. I do feel the books have gone from strength to strength, with a wonderfully diverse range of titles being published. And the most recent one I received for review was just as fascinating and engrossing as the others I’ve read, as well as taking a very unusual angle on the Golden Age crime format!

“The Man Who Didn’t Fly” was Scottish author Margot Bennett’s seventh novel, and she’s a forgotten name in the field of crime writing (and indeed writing generally). However, as Martin Edwards’ excellent introduction reveals, her books were highly regarded at the time and she was nominated for major crime writing awards. Despite this, her career took her in a different direction, writing for television during the 1950s and 1960s; and her work seems to have been all but forgotten which is a great shame, based on this novel.

Sergeant Young tried the buffet. The tea-lady, who had a contrived shade of red hair, and the new small waist with the old, spreading hips, smoothed one eyebrow with her little finger, and said she’d been talking to a gentleman from Sweden at the time, and she really couldn’t remember a thing, except that poor Mr Lee had looked in to ask about a passenger who wasn’t there. When she mentioned Lee’s name her eyes moistened and she turned away, fumbling until she found a very dainty handkerchief.

The GA Crime genre has its conventions – country house, quirky detective, locked room mystery, cast of suspects; but increasingly with the BL books, the works featured move outside that format and “Fly” is a fine example. Instead of a ‘whodunnit’ or even a ‘whydunnit’, it’s more a case of ‘what-the-heck-has-been-going-on-to-lead-up-to-this-situation?!?!?’ The book opens with the crash into the sea of a small private plane on its way to Ireland; the pilot is lost, as well as three male passengers. However, four men were meant to fly; and it initially proves to be impossible to work out who was on the plane and who didn’t actually fly. Witnesses are vague about what they saw on the day; the fourth man does not come forward to identify himself; and the detectives have to start to dig into the lives and behaviour of the four men to try to work out just what had been going on to cause the group to want to fly to Ireland – and indeed why one didn’t…

Central to the mystery is the Wade family; a widowed father plus two grown up daughters Hester and Prudence. Once the detectives have spent time getting confusing and inconclusive witness statements, they focus on the Wades, to whom all the passengers were known. Eventually, Hester is ostensibly persuaded to provide a narrative of events in the days leading up to the flight, though it is actually told in the third person. And a gripping tale it is too; the ordinary family seem to have been surrounded by so-called friends and contacts with very dodgy connections! The events are gradually explored, the narrative builds up till all is revealed and there are some lovely twists and turns along the way; but more than that I *will* not say, because I don’t want to spoil the reading of this book for anyone!

Words! We have too many words. Word poets talk all the time of love and death. People fall in love and they die, and no amount of poetic advice has ever helped them to do either of those things more successfully.… But they are always interested in money.

“The Man Who Didn’t Fly” was a compelling and surprisingly moving story, with far reaching elements; and so cleverly written. You’re plunged right into the story from the very start, and events are unclear until Hester begins to reveal the sequence of events. As you read on, there are lightbulb moments when parts of the plot suddenly become clear; and I did have a few suspicions about why particular characters were acting as they were. But there were still shocks are the end which were quite unexpected (but absolutely made sense when you got to them).

There’s a depth to the characterisation which is pleasing; Hester herself is the glue that holds many things together, both in her family and with regard to the plot! And it’s painful at times watching her struggle with her relationship with one of the passengers, Harry; a wastrel poet, she finds him infuriating and irresistible at the same time! In fact, the Wade girls, brought up by their father, were a very engaging pair and I sensed shades of “I Capture the Castle” in their situation of poverty. Bennett had strong left-wing convictions, and she does manage to have a dig here and there at the greed of human being, through the mouths of her characters! The detectives deserve a little mention, too; the team of Inspector Lewis and Sergeant Young, although at some points seeming to take a back seat in the narrative, is an engaging one. The pair have an entertaining relationship, in particular with Young’s apparent vast knowledge of culture and arts, upon which Lewis often has to draw during this investigation!

As I said, this is a hard book to discuss in detail without giving too much away; but it really is a superb entry into the BLCC range. Bennett is an excellent writer, and pleasingly this edition includes a rare short story “No Bath for the Browns” which is quite brilliant! I absolutely loved “The Man Who Didn’t Fly”: clever, twisty, brilliantly constructed and compelling from start to finish, it really was a stellar read. On the evidence of this and the short story, Bennett is a very unjustly neglected author, and I really hope the BL reissue more of her works. Highly recommended! 😀

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

“… the faint clues of a perfect crime…” #thewomaninthewardrobe #petershaffer @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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What do you read straight after a fascinating, engrossing and entertaining look at a 16th century philosopher? A British Library Crime Classic, obvs (well. if you’re me you do!) 😀 I often fancy a complete contrast when choosing my next read, and that was certainly the case here; though this book was just as pleasurable as the last one.

The volume in question is a new release from the British Library, “The Woman in the Wardrobe” by Peter Shaffer; and before you even get onto reading it there’s the fascinating fact to get over that Shaffer, one of Britain’s most influential playwrights, wrote crime novels – who knew???? In fact there were three, written partly in collaboration with his twin brother Anthony Shaffer (also an author, probably most known for “Sleuth” and “The Wicker Man”); this is the first, initially published in 1951 and returning to print for the first time since (yay, BL!)

Verity by Nicholas Bentley

“The Woman in the Wardrobe” is set in the seaside town of Amnestie; local amateur sleuth, Mr. Verity, is on his way from his villa to the sea for an early morning bathe. However, as he passes by the local Charter Hotel, he notices something odd – a man climbing into a window. Being a good Golden Age amateur, he can’t let this pass and pops in to find out what’s going on – and stumbles headlong into a dramatic locked-room mystery!

He was an immense man, just tall enough to carry his breadth majestically. His face was sharp, smooth and teak-brown; his blue eyes small and of a startling brilliance. He wore a fine chestnut Van Dyke, an habitual cloak in winter and the (some would say cultivated) expression of an elderly ‘Laughing Cavalier’. By this time, of course, he had long been a noted figure in the world of detection, and wonderfully respected by the Yard. In fact, if that were possible, almost as much respected as disliked.

One of the guests, a Mr. Maxwell, is found shot in his room when the door is forced open. Trussed up and locked into the wardrobe is one of the hotel’s maids, Alice. At least two other male guests have been in and out of the room, but in the end the door and window had to have been locked from inside; so who is responsible for the killing? Fortunately, Mr. Verity is well known to the local police force, and when Inspector Jackson arrives from the nearby local big town he’s happy to have Verity on board. And fortunately, Detective Inspector Rambler of the Yard, an old friend of Verity, happens to be on holiday nearby. But it will take all the ingenuity of these three investigators to solve the mystery. The pairing of Verity and Rambler is particularly inspired, and Shaffer nails their differences quite wonderfully:

Verity respected the tamed logic in Rambler; Rambler the explosive vision in Verity. Both shared in common an immense bulk, a healthy appetite for the bizarre, and an absence of friends. Their differences were only such as could not be helped. Verity had a temper and a beard; but Rambler was a professional and could afford neither.

“Woman” was a wonderfully entertaining tale from start to finish and I read it with a broad grin on my face. It’s probably obvious from the use of names that Shaffer was laying out a certain amount of broad brush characterisation in the book, and certainly there’s a tongue in cheek element at play all the way through. There’s the drug addict and the London girl masquerading as something she’s not; the local lad with the bad temper; the hotel manageress with a past; and the poison of a merciless blackmailer at the heart of the story. The humour doesn’t detract from an engrossing mystery and there is a strong moral sense running through the book; the murder victim really *is* a nasty piece of work, and although  those he preys on are no saints, I couldn’t help thinking that the victim really did deserve what he got. Shaffer allows his characters to gradually develop a little, with their human foibles, and for a shortish book (205 pages) there was a lot going on.

Rambler by Nicholas Bentley

As the for the mystery and its solution, that was ingenious and *very* twisty; I shan’t give anything away, but I really wasn’t expecting Verity to reveal what he did and wouldn’t have guessed it in a million years – I love it when that happens. So “Woman” is a short, sharp, funny and clever entry into the Crime Classics series; and an extra excellent element is the inclusion of the wonderful original line illustrations by Nicholas Bentley. I love his drawings (I have fragile old books containing them), and I hadn’t taken on board before that he’s the son of E.C. Bentley, creator of the magisterial “Trent’s Last Case” – so what an intriguing connection!

“The Woman in the Wardrobe” comes with a preface by Elinor Shaffer, Peter’s sister-in-law; and the usual excellent introduction by Martin Edwards, in which he describes the book as “straightforward, unashamed fun”. I couldn’t agree more; this is definitely one of the wittiest of the BLCCs I’ve read, yet with some depth and pathos behind the story. Wonderful fun and highly recommended!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)

A bumper book of bliss from John Bude! @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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Death in White Pyjamas/Death Knows no Calendar by John Bude

Back to comforting crime, with one of the big successes of the British Library Crime Classics series – John Bude. He was a respected writer in his time but became neglected in recent year; it’s been wonderful to see his works come back into print and I’ve enjoyed many of his books featuring his regular detective, Superintendant Meredith. However, the latest offering of his from the BL is a bumper volume containing two stand-alone mysteries and they were the perfect read during a recent cold and soggy weekend.

The first of the two, “Death in White Pyjamas”, was originally published in 1942; featuring an entertaining cast drawn from the world of the theatre, it’s set mainly around the country residence of Sam Richardson, a biscuit millionaire-turned-theatre owner. Together with his partner, the rather sinister Basil Barnes, he’s set up a highly successful cult theatre, The Beaumont; he provides the backing and Basil provides the art. During the summer recess, a number of cast and crew members are staying down at Old Knolle, including Angela Walsh, a beautiful and rather naive starlet; Willy Farnham, an ageing character actor; Clara Maddison, a veteran actess; and Deidre Lehaye, the glamorous and slightly mysterious stage designer. Inevitably, there are tensions (of an emotional and artistic nature) between the various visitors; and things get worse when Rudoph Millar, a young playwright (and also Clara’s nephew), visits to tout his latest work. The team approve, Angela is smitten, and Basil (who has designs on her) is consumed by jealousy. However, all this gets put to one side when a body is found in grounds, wearing white pyjamas; and the scene is set for an entertaining and twisty tale. Will the authorities, in the form of Inspector Harting and Sergeant Dane, be able to solve the puzzle?

They were poles apart: in looks, character, ideas, ambitions, everything. Where Sam was short, fat, bald and benign, Basil was tall, slender, sleek-haired and slightly sinister. Sam, apart from business in all its aspects, was a child. His simple faith in everybody was delightful, if expensive; for he could never listen to a hard-up story without putting his hand in his pocket. If Basil put his hand in his pocket you expected him to produce a revolver. Actually, he produced plays.

Death has no Calendar” (from 1944) steps into a different world, that of the murder of a talented woman artist. Married to a slightly ne’er-do-well figure who seems mainly to be sponging off of her, Lydia Arundel inspires strong emotions in those around her; including local farmer Stanley Hawkinge who adores her dumbly from a distance; the Rev. Swale-Reid, who has had some kind of unspecified brief encounter with her in the past which has left him emotionally scarred and tormented; and Major Boddy, a retired military man who admires her greatly but knows she’s not for him. Add into the mix Lady Dingle and her lisping niece Honoraria, the latter of whom has set her sights on Hawkinge; plus the slightly dubious houseboy Willis; and you get a very volatile situation. No seasoned reader of murder mysteries will be surprised when Lydia is found dead, apparently having shot herself. Her artist’s studio was locked from the inside, and there is no way anyone could have got into it; yet there are inconsistencies. It’s left to Major Boddy, aided by his loyal ex-batman Syd Gammon, to investigate; and the tale of what they uncover is unexpected to say the least!

It’s unusual, perhaps, to have two mysteries collected in one volume like this, but I’m certainly not complaining. The second one, in particular, is described as having been very hard to get hold of up until its reissue here, so it’s wonderful to see it back in print. And I have to confess to having spent a wonderful weekend relaxing with both of these stories, which are extremely diverting and entertaining.

Not sure if any of the country residences in the stories are like this one, but it’s rather jolly! (T. Raffles Davison (d. 1937), architectural illustrator / Public domain – via Wikimedia Commons)

One element I’d forgotten was just how funny a writer Bude can be. As Martin Edwards reminds us, in his informative introduction, these stories came out in wartime and Bude was no doubt writing with intent to divert and entertain. There’s plenty of wry humour, the characterisation is often broad and slightly caricatured, which raises a laugh, and there are some wonderfully witty lines. However, he often lapses into lyrical passages which really capture his time and setting, and these are lovely.

… the following Tuesday dawned bright and beautiful. As the hours advanced there descended on Beckwood, like an inverted shining cup, one of those peerless June days that transform the face of rural England into an earthly paradise. The scent of the Etoile d’Hollande was heavy on the still air and the bees were working in the clover fields. The red tiles of The Oasts threw off an aura of shimmering heat. A few birds piped languidly in the feathery branches of the conifers and peace, clear and perfect, seemed to have settled over the village.

As for the mysteries, I found that I sussed out a fair amont of “White Pyjamas” reasonably early on; the motivations weren’t difficult to divine, although the actual modus operandi and sequence of events wasn’t obvious and was very cleverly plotted by the author. He tied up the loose ends nicely, as well, which I always like; although the denouement was perhaps slightly foreshortened.

Even in these democratic days it demands great courage to tell a titled woman that she has a face like a horse.

As for “Calendar”, that flummoxed me a bit more; I was pretty sure I had a bit of an idea who the villain was, but the motives were less clear, and until the Major started discovering more about the murderer’s life I was as much in the dark as he was. And I had *no* idea how the murder was committed! Boddy was a very satisfying amateur sleuth to follow; although, interestingly enough, the detecting duo in “Pyjamas” didn’t make their appearance until well into the book.

The Russian gloom deepened. Basil had now bought a samovar. The cast of The Red Ant sat around it and wallowed in lukewarm tea and primitive emotion.

A particularly interesting aspect of the stories was the fact that Bude set both in a different kind of artistic setting. The theatre milieu in “Pyjamas” was really well portrayed, and it’s no surprise to learn that the author was keen on amateur dramatics himself. There were some wonderfully droll scenes as the actors attempt to get to grips with a spurious Russian play by a made-up Russian author (well, I *assume* he’s made up because I’ve never heard of him…) Seeing their life reflect art as they descend into gloom was very funny. Acting turns up also in “Calendar”, although here the dominant art form is Lydia Arundel’s painting career, and the picture she was working on at the time of her death makes recurring appearances…

It seemed that the atmosphere of Beckwood parish was charged with electricity. The local soothsayer prophesied the end of the world. A fireball passed over the church. A puppy with two heads was delivered in the house of the District Nurse. Old Mrs Faddian slipped on a wet brick path and broke her wrist. A hooded figure was seen near Beddow’s Bottom. Tragedy, swore Beckwood, was in the air!

So this bumper book of Bude was a real winner for me, hitting the spot perfectly just when I needed some relaxation and escapism. Despite the bulk of the book, I flew through it and absolutely loved it. Both “Death in White Pyjamas” and “Death Knows no Calendar” are worthy additions to the BLCC range and evidence of John Bude’s talent for writing wonderful and entertaining murder mysteries. If you enjoy Golden Age Crime and need some enjoyable escapist mysteries, this book and John Bude are for you! 😀

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

On My Book Table… 8 – what next?

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May has been an odd sort of reading month for me. I’ve read fewer books than I might have expected, given the amount of extra time I’ve got through not going out, paying visits to London and the like. I must admit to feeling a little bit twitchy after about 10 weeks of lockdown, with the only places I go to being the post office and the occasional nip into the local Co-op for veg. Browsing the local charity shops was one of my great pleasures and I’ve no idea when I’ll do that again. But I’m trying not to be too ungrateful, as I can work from home and safety is the main thing. Nevertheless, books *have* still made their way into the house, and I have been having a little bit of a shuffle of the book table, trying to decide what to read next – never an easy task for me… 😀 Here’s what’s been attracting my attention recently!

Some beautiful Elizabeth Bowen titles…

I have been shouting a bit recently on social media about Elizabeth Bowen; and the random discovery that there were some enticing-looking editions from Edinburgh University Press, bringing together uncollected short stories, essays, broadcasts and the like, was just too much to resist. They arrived, together with two other, older collections, as well as a book of Bowen and Charles Ritchie’s love letters. As I’ve said, I really could go on a Bowen Binge right now.

Classics, chunky and slimmer…

I’m also a huge fan of classics (fairly obviously) and there are a lot vying for attention right now. Carlyle and Chateaubriand have been lurking for a while, with Huysmans and Barbellion more recent arrivals. However, Ruskin has been someone I’ve always intended to read (so I really *should* get round to it before I get any older). The little hardback about why Ruskin matters turned up somewhere in my online browsing, and so I picked up some selected writings of Ruskin himself while I was at it. A new copy of Woolf’s “The Waves” may have fallen into my basket at the same time – I quite fancy a re-read and my original copy (which is nearly 40 years old) is just too crumbly and fragile to be comfortable with.

Some slightly more sombre volumes

One thing I *have* been taking advantage of during these strange times is online bookish stuff; by which I mean mainly the festivals. The Charleston Festival moved online and there was a marvellous broadcast of an interview with Virago’s Lennie Goodings by Joan Bakewell – what a pair of inspirational women! However, one author has been very much in my sightline, from the Charleston Festival and also the Hay Online Festival, and that’s Philippe Sands. I’d previously read his short work on the city of Lvov/Lemberg and “East West Street” had been on my wishlist for ages; so stumbling across it just before lockdown in a charity shop was a treat. Sands is a notable human rights lawyer, and his most recent book “Ratline” deals with the life (and afterlife) of prominent Nazis. His talks for Charleston and Hay were sobering and fascinating, and had me gathering together a number of titles covering difficult WW2 and post-War topics. Arendt, West and Czapski are all authors who’ve considered the inhumanity of our race, and bearing in mind the fragile stage of many countries at the moment, any of these books could be timely reading. It’s ironic that I’ve never attended either festival in person, but this current crisis has given me the chance to…

Books about books and books about authors are always a good thing, and there are plenty lurking on the TBR. One of the Nabokovs I’ve had for a while, the other arrived recently; as did the Steiner. The Very Short Introduction to Russian Literature takes an intrguing angle, and might be well matched with Isaiah Berlin (and indeed Nabokov). This could be another wormhole…

Or, indeed, I could just go down a British Library Crime Classics wormhole!! This is quite a nice pile of their titles, though nowhere near as impressive as the one Simon from Stuck in a Book shared on Twitter! These are a mixture of review copies and ones procured by my dear friend J., who seems to come across them in charity shops more than I do. They’re such a wonderful comforting distraction to read – and there are two Lorac titles in there which are *very* tempting!

Random books…

Finally, a little random pile of various enticing titles! I have been dipping into Mollie Panter-Downes’ “London War Notes”, which has been distracting and surprisingly cathartic. Since I’m not likely to be at the beach any time soon, “A Fortnight in September” by R. C. Sherriff is also very appealing – I do love a Persephone. Bachelard is another book which have been lurking for a while, and since reading “Malicroix” I’m keener than ever to get to it. The two white cover Fitzcarraldos are the last two I have unread, and both appeal strongly. And last, but certainly not least, is a lovely collection of essays by Joseph Brodsky, into which I’ve also been dipping. They’re marvellous, but best read slowly with time to digest in between – such a good writer.

So – an *awful* lot of choices and I find myself very undecided about what to actually read next. Have you read any of these? Which would take *your* fancy?????

High jinks in the Alps! #carolcarnac #crossedskis @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

After finishing Esther Kinsky’s wonderful but rather melancholic “Grove”, I must admit that I did feel in need of a little contrast and perhaps something lighter. Enter another beautiful British Library Crime Classic, which was just the kind of escapism I needed. And after travelling to a somewhat muted Italy, this book took me off to the crisp clear snow of the Austrian Alps!

“Crossed Skis” by Carol Carnac is subtitled “An Alpine Mystery” and it was first published in 1952, since when it’s become extremely rare – so kudos to the BL for republishing it. And interestingly, it turns out that I’ve read Carnac (whose real name was Edith Caroline Rivett) before; she also published crime novels under the name of E.C.R. Lorac and several of those mysteries have also been reprinted as BLCCs! I read and loved “Murder by Matchlight” at the start of 2019, and her stories have also turned up on BL anthologies; fortunately, too, I have more Lorac titles on the TBR…

Anyway, back to Carol Carnac and the book in hand! “Crossed Skis” opens with a group of eight young women and eight young men setting off on a skiing jaunt to Austria at the start of January. The party has been assembled in a bit of a rush, with some last minute additions, and not all the members are actually known to each other. Bridget ‘Biddy’ Manners is the organiser, and somehow manages to corral her motley crew together to catch the boat train from Victoria. The journey is relatively uneventful, the group seem to gel quite well apart from a bit of ragging, and all are looking forward to escaping from the dull, damp British winter into a brighter, more exciting setting; understandable really, as it’s clear from the narrative that the things we moan about today are often the same things being moaned about nearly 70 years ago…

The reason we get into a mess in England during heavy snow falls is that we don’t cater for it. It always takes us unawares.

However, back in London, all is not well. A body has been discovered in a rented room in Bloomsbury, burnt to death; but it’s no accidental event. A brutal murder has been committed, and a sharp-eyed detective spots the mark of a ski stick left behind outside the house. Can the crime be connected to a group of skiiers? Who *is* the murder victim? Is there a criminal hidden in amongst the Austrian party? And will Chief Inspector Julian Rivers, himself a keen skier, be able to track down the murderer before it’s too late?

That’s a simplistic summary of what is a very clever and niftily constructed work, as Carnac dexterously runs the two separate strands of her plot alongside for a large part of the book. Alternating chapters and sections watch the group of 16 arrive in Lech am Arlberg, settle into their lodgings and take to the slopes. The bright clear landscape, the plentiful food and the chance to escape from everyday cares is a striking contrast to what’s happening back at home; although cracks do start to appear with some odd happenings taking place.

It was a disgusting evening, pondered Rivers, as he left the lights of St Albans behind and accelerated on the first long straight stretches of the Barnet Road. Wet snow drove depressingly against the windscreen and slush flew out in dirty cascades from the wheels, while mist tended to settle in the hollows. Into Rivers’ mind there flashed a visualisation of crisp, dry shining snow on the Scheidegg-Wengen slopes, hot sun and the hiss of skis flying on a delectable unbroken surface of glittering whiteness. He swore softly as a huge northbound lorry threw a small avalanche of dirty slush right over his own car. Snow?- heaven save the word!

Meanwhile, back in the coldest and dampest British January you could imagine, the detectives of the CID are following up the few hints they have about the murder victim. Negotiating a still bomb-damaged city, they have little to go on, and can’t even really identify the corpse properly. However, the detectives are not only skiiers themselves, but also gifted with imagination; and a recent crime has points which hint towards the involvement of a criminal with particular skills. Gradually, they build up a picture of the kind of person they’re looking for, which points them in one direction only.

Leland Griggs / Public domain (via Wikimedia Commons)

The book’s title is apt for a number of reasons: crossed skis are bad luck, which they certainly will be for some of the party. And it’s also a good metaphor for the narrative itself, as the two straight lines of the parallel plot strand finally dovetail beautifully at the end, where there’s a very exciting and dramatic climax! It’s wonderfully inventive and certainly keeps you guessing right up until the finishing line; there were any number of suspects at the start, and although one (maybe two) characters came to the fore as the most likely, Carnac avoided the obvious.

Once again Kate realised that there was an element of terror in this mountain loveliness: the massive clouds and the snow slopes made the wooden houses seem puny. Only the gaunt stone church standing abrupt on its little plateau seem to have any quality of strength, as though, if the village were submerged, the stone tower and steep roof of the angular Gothic building might survive above it all.

Pleasingly, too, not all characters bright young things; Catherine (Kate) Reid and Frank Harris are more mature members of the party, and Martin Edwards opines in his excellent introduction that Kate is most probably a representation of Carol Carnac, herself a keen skier. If I had to make any criticism it would be that the minor members of the skiing party are perhaps a little lightly sketched in, so that some of them blended together a touch. But that’s only a minor quibble. The detectives are a lively lot, too, and I had to laugh at Carnac’s description of their reading matter at one point in their travels:

Rivers had taken with him The Way of All Flesh and Erewhon, by Samuel Butler, and two Anthony Trollopes, and he read his way uncomplaining across Europe. Lancing had bought six Penguin detective novels, from which he derived much entertainment: he left them all in the train at Langen, ”as propaganda”, he said to Rivers.

So “Crossed Skis” was a pure delight. As a mystery, it’s thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining and it certainly transported me away from lockdown for a few hours of pure escapism and puzzlement. Carnac writes beautifully, capturing her locations vividly, and that element of the book is one which really hit home with me. The book was published and set in the early 1950s, an era we don’t always connect directly with the Second World War. Yet as the vignettes of life in London make clear, this was a city which was still in many ways a bombsite; for example, the house where the murder takes place is one of a few surviving in a row, still standing in the middle of piles of rubble, where the owner scratches out a living taking in lodgers. Carnac’s prose captures strikingly the sense of being in a cold, damp, miserable post-War London with rationing and no cheer at all. No wonder the skiing party was keen to get away! “Crossed Skis” is yet another winner from the British Library Crime Classics imprint, and I really hope more of Carol Carnac’s titles will see the light of day.

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

Murder? It’s just not cricket! :D @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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Settling Scores: Sporting Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards

Yes. There *really* is a lot of classic crime on the Ramblings at the moment, and today’s offering ventures into territory I rarely go near – sport! As I mentioned when I reviewed “The Arsenal Stadium Mystery“, sport and I don’t generally get on. However, I loved that particular book (and it brought back memories of old-school football before it got really commercial). I also loved J.L. Carr’s wonderful “How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup” so I approached the latest collection of short stories in the British Library Crime Classics range with great interest; as the title indicates, the subject is sporting mysteries.

I should state straight away that I loved these anthologies from the BL; Martin Edwards always chooses a wonderful selection of stories, and the ones in this collection are no exception to the rule. ‘Sport’ is a broad term, and the tales collected here include anything from swimming through cricket, racing, boating, golfing, rugby and of course football, to even take in fishing. It’s a wide-ranging selection, therefore, and the authors are an equally interesting bunch.

Many names will, of course, be familiar: there’s Arthur Conan-Doyle, Gladys Mitchell, Julian Symons and Michael Gilbert for a start. Other writers, like J. Jefferson Farneon, have been brought back to the public eye thanks to the Crime Classics range. There are authors who are less familiar, like Gerard Verner and David Winser; and the pleasing inclusion of Celia Fremlin, who writes wonderfully suspenseful works. Most delightfully, there is another Reggie Fortune tale from H.C. Bailey, which to my mind makes the collection worth every penny! 😀

It was a Monday morning in August. Mr. Fortune was explaining to Mrs. Fortune without hope that duty would prevent his going to the house in Scotland to which she had promised to take him… A place in which there is nothing to do but take exercise he considers bad for his constitution, and the conversation of country houses weakens his intellect. All this he set forth plaintively to Mrs. Fortune, and she said, “Don’t blether, child,” and the telephone rang. Reggie contemplated that instrument with a loving smile.

Fortunately, there wasn’t a dud amongst the stories, and the collection was a beautifully immersive (and distracting!) read just when I needed it. As always with short story collections, it’s hard to pick out favourites, so I’ll just mention a few titles which particularly stood out. The aforementioned Celia Fremlin contributes a wonderfully dark tale of domestic noir which is very clever and gets deep into the complexities of male/female relationships; I highly recommend her book The Hour Before Dawn if you can get hold of a copy. Sherlock Holmes is, of course, always a delight. The Great Gladys (Mitchell) contributes a very short but sharp story about murder at a swimming gala. “Four to One – Bar One” by Henry Wade delves into bookmaking and early protection gans, with a suprisingly amoral look at things. “The Wimbledon Mystery” by Julian Symons takes what is perhaps a more genteel sports into the realms of spying, which is quite fascinating. And of course, there’s Reggie…

H.C. Bailey – George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

As I’ve said many a time, I love the Reggie Fortune stores. I know Bailey’s work is not fashionable, and his style considered mannered (as Martin Edwards reminds us); yet I love Reggie’s aparrent vagueness, his sense of justice and Bailey’s often snarky descriptions. “The Football Photograph” is a twisty tale from a 1930 collection which features jewel thieves and an initially unfathomable murder. Along with his regular police sidekicks, Bell and Lomas, Reggie investigates and finds unexpected links to a footballer. But can the team break a perfect alibi and find out the truth? As Reggie says at the end, “One of my neater cases. Pure art. No vulgar emotion.”

“Settling Scores” is, therefore, another exemplary collection in the British Library Crime Classics range. Even if you don’t much like sport (ahem!) you’ll still love this marvellous selection of classic mysteries. It’s wonderfully diverting and entertaining, and the perfect antidote to the rather scary events we’re living through – highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

On My Book Table…6 – a bit of a shuffle!

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The world is a little bit scarier than usual at the moment, as we’re all quite aware, and so I’m trying personally to balance keeping my awareness of what’s happening at a sensible level and trying to keep myself on an even keel. Books have always been my go-to in times of stress and frankly are being a little bit of a lifeline right now. Anyway, after all the recent excitement of the #fitzcarraldofortnight, plus a number of new arrivals, I thought it was time to take stock and reorganise a little. Reading from one publisher is a lovely experience, but as I have so many other books lurking I wanted to try to clarify what I planned to pick up next. Of course, I never stick to reading plans, but it’s always fun to spend time shuffling books, as well as being very therapeutic… 😀

After spending some time digging among the stacks and moving books about, I ended up with a few piles I currently want to focus on and here’s the first:

This rather chunky pile has some of the weightier books (intellectually and literally!) that are calling right now. Some of these were in my last book table post, but some have snuck in when I wasn’t looking. There’s a lot of French writing there and both the Existentialist Cafe and Left Bank books sound excellent. Barthes is of course still hanging about in the wings even though I haven’t added him to the pile. I could go for a Barthes fortnight (or longer…) quite easily, but that might a bit brain-straining. Some of the volumes *are* reasonably slim so I might be able to slip them into my reading between bigger books – we shall see! 😀

Next up, some of the review books I have pending:

These are only *some* of the review books lurking, but if I put them all in a pile it looks scary and I panic, so I thought a modest selection would do. There are some beauties from the British Library Crime Classics and Science Fiction Classics range, as well as Camus and a classic Russian play and Frankenstein! They all sound so marvellous….

And this is the pile of recent finds or other titles I really want to read at the moment:

More French writing. The top two are books about French authors – I’ve read the start of each and they’re marvellous. The Queneau is short but essential (and another play! I’m reading more drama!!), the Hitchens and the Christiansen arrived recently, as did the beautiful Persephone (which I think I might well pick up soon). And the Makioka Sisters is there because there’s a readalong going on. I doubt I’ll get to it – I’ve failed every one so far this year, getting nowhere near either Proust or Musil. But it’s there just in case.

However, there *is* another pile of interest lurking. Coming up in April, Simon and I will be hosting the #1920club, the next in our themed weeks of reading from a particular year. I’ve been thinking ahead about which books I’d like to spend time with, and there really are some wonderful titles from 1920. I always try to read from the stacks and a quick dig revealed I had these books on the shelves:

All of them are beautiful titles, and most of them would be re-reads – which is not really what I want to do with the reading clubs. I have another new title lurking digitally which I am definitely going to overcome my aversion to e-reading and get to; but with the re-reads I shall have to be picky so that I can perhaps focus on unread books. Though it *would* be nice just to spend the week re-reading Agatha, Virginia and Colette…

And of course, just after I had finished writing this post, a lovely collection of review books popped through the door looking like this:

There are some wonderfully exciting titles there, including a new Crime Classic from the British Library; two editions from their new imprint focusing on Women Writers (which is being curated by Simon – well done, that man!); and a fascinating book on Artemisia Gentileschi with an introduction by Susan Sontag – how timely!

So there we go. The state of the books at the moment. I have just finished reading Lennie Goodings’ wonderful book about her life in the book trade and with Virago which I will eventually get to reviewing (I’m very behind…) – I highly recommend it. And I confess to being unsure as to what I’ll pick up next, although it may have to be escapism in the form of Golden Age crime. As usual, watch this space! 😀

2019 in books – *why* do I find it hard to pick favourites?? :D

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As we slide into a new decade, it’s time for a look back over 2019 and the books I read – and there really were some crackers in there! But I really struggle to pick favourites, because so many of my reads are outstanding for different reasons. I can’t possibly do a Top Ten, so instead I thought I’d post some thoughts about favourite books, publishers and genres – here goes!

Russians

Inevitably I have read more Russian authors this year, although there was a slight hiatus at one point so that I ended up thinking the blog was suffering from Russian Reading Deficiency! However, a quick dose of the Gogols soon sorted that out! Spring was the season of Dostoevsky’s “The Devils”, in a lovely new edition from Alma Classics, and it was an intense read which absorbed me for some time; it was a bit of a marathon in the end, but worth every minute spent reading it. A really epic book in many ways, full of the humour and drama you’d expect from Dosty – wonderful!

I’ve also been enjoying some more modern works from the wonderful publisher Glagoslav; they’ve put out some excellent titles from countries I haven’t always read from before. A really interesting imprint, and one to watch.

Golden Age Crime

There has been, I’m pleased to say, a lot of Golden Age Crime on the Ramblings this year. It’s a favourite reading genre of mine and much has come from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics imprint. There have been some excellent books released, lots of new authors and some really great anthologies. Plus plenty of Reggie Fortune, which makes me happy! I also revisited the Queen of Crime, who’s always a joy to read; next year, I must spend some time with Lord Peter Wimsey!

Poetry

There has also been much poetry on the Ramblings in 2019, which makes me very happy. I discovered the Morden Tower poets, Basil Bunting, Tom Pickard and the vastly entertaining (and very clever) Brian Bilston. I also went back to Philip Larkin, one of my favourite poets ever. I still don’t read enough of the wonderful verse volumes I have on my shelves so that’s another thing I need to rectify in 2020. Interesting how many of the poets I love are from the cold North (a place I’m often drawn back to) – and published by Bloodaxe Books!

Essays and Non-Fiction

I’m not sure why I’ve been drawn to non-fiction works so much this year, but I seem to have read quite a lot! There are of course all the lovely books put out by Notting Hill Editions, who make an art of issuing fascinating essay collections which are also beautiful to look at. If I can find my Shostakovich, I’ll share a picture of all my NHE books at some point…

Equally, Fitzcarraldo Editions release some really thought-provoking works and I rather crave adjoining book shelves with my Fitzcarraldo and Notting Hills next to each other. The Ian Penman collection was a particular treat this year from Fitzcarraldo; and other publishers have produced equally fascinating books, like the marvellous “Selfies”.  A lot of these books lie outside any strict definition of fiction or non-fiction, and I do find I like that kind of book nowadays.

Translated Literature

Mention of Fitzcarraldo brings me by necessity to Olga Tokarczuk’s “Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” which definitely *is* one of my books of the year. I was blown away by her “Flights” last year, and this title didn’t disappoint. I read a lot of translated works, and am eternally grateful to translators. NYRB and Pushkin Press have issued numerous wonderful books in translation that I’m so happy to have read, like “Isolde” and “Rock, Paper, Scissors” and “Portraits without Frames”…. I was also so happy to rediscover Mishima and find that I loved his work just as much as ever. Well, I could go on and on, but suffice to say that I am made a happy reader thanks to the efforts of all those fine people who translate books! 😀

John Berger

Berger deserves a special mention; I’ve read a number of his books this year (and there is a review pending of one I finished very recently) and each has been a wonderful, thought-provoking and unique experience. Several have been in beautiful editions from Notting Hill; and he’s proved to be a a very human (and humane) writer with so much to say. I really have no doubt that I’ll continue to read him in 2020.

Reading Clubs

I’ve been very happy to once more co-host two Reading Club weeks during 2019 with Simon from Stuck in a Book. This year, we focused on books from 1965 and 1930, and it was such fun! We plan to continue in 2020, with the 1920 Club happening in April, so do join in – we have the most wonderful discussions and it’s a great way to pick up ideas for books to read!

Documentaries and Interviews!

c. ClearStory/BBC

I took a slight tangent on what is, after all, a book blog in March when Professor Richard Clay’s “How to Go Viral” documentary aired on UK TV. I first became aware of his work back in 2014 via his documentary on French Revolutionary iconoclasm, followed by his fascinating look at the history of graffiti and then his epic series “Utopia”; and so I was delighted when Richard agreed to be interviewed for the blog. I do love a good documentary (and apart from a few notable exceptions, there’s been a bit of a dearth lately). Richard’s ideas are so very interesting, and you can read the interview here and here. He’s been filming a new documentary recently, so that’s something to look forward in 2020! 🙂

The Summer Big Book

The Notebooks

I can’t finish this rather rambly post without mention of a very special reading experience I had in the summer; if I was forced at gunpoint to pick a read of the year, I would probably have to mention Victor Serge’s Notebooks, published by NYRB. I’ve raved about Serge’s writing many times on the Ramblings, and was ridiculously excited about the release of this very chunky collection. At just under 600 pages, it’s no quick read, but a wonderfully rich and rewarding one; it accompanied me on my travels during the summer, giving me a glimpse into Serge’s life and mind, as well as all the notable people and places he encountered. A brilliant and immersive read, and one I won’t forget.

It has been a very difficult time out there in Real Life recently, with a feeling (here, at least) that the world is slipping gradually into being a more harsh and intolerant place; reading and books and ideas have always been my coping mechanism, and will continue to be essential I suspect. Anyway – this post will have to do as a bit of a snapshot of my 2019 reading, although I can’t help feeling I’ve missed too many out. There are *so* many books I’ve read and loved this year that I feel mean not mentioning them; I’ll just suggest you go and read my posts to see what books have meant the most to me! 2019 has been a great reading year, and here’s hoping 2020 is as good!

*****

A lot of people have been doing their “Books of the Decade” this month, and I did consider this for a brief moment. However, the blog’s only been here since 2012, and frankly before that I couldn’t tell you what I was reading!! My end of year posts during the blog’s life would no doubt give you a flavour of how my reading tastes have evolved – and I’m sure they have – so check them out if you wish!

Dark deeds, Russian Imperial fortunes and murder – seasonal joy from @BL_publishing @medwardsbooks #BLCC

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The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly

As we edge ever closer to the dreaded C-word, I must confess to being quite happy about the opportunities for reading created by the darker nights and the need to hunker down somewhere cosy! I seem to have been drawn to classic crime a lot lately – those kind of books do seem just right for this time of year – and an added bonus is the annual treat of a seasonal release from the British Library in their Crime Classics imprint. This year’s book is by another author new to me, Mary Kelly, and when I read the blurb I realised that it was going to be ideal reading…. ;D

Getting kind of festive chez Ramblings! 😀

“The Christmas Egg” was Kelly’s third book to feature her detecting duo of Chief Inspector Brett Nightingale and Sergeant Beddoes. Published in 1958, it’s subtitled “A Seasonal Mystery” and the action takes place over three days just before Christmas. The setting is a London still physically showing the after-effects of WW2; there are bombed out areas waiting to be rebuilt, and a kind of tension in the air, with a feeling that times are changing. Gangs of burglars are on the loose, and the old values have fallen away to be replaced with a more nebulous environment. Living in squalor in this world is Princess Olga Karukhin; an exiled survivor of the Russian Revolution, she’s discovered dead as the book opens. Although you might anticipate the possibility of an elderly woman living in poverty to dying in the depths of winter, it transpires that this was murder – and when it emerges that her trunk of valuable treasures has been emptied, the plot really does thicken! Throw in a potentially dodgy dealer in jewellery and antiques, an infatuated young woman, the dead woman’s feckless grandson Ivan, plus a gang of toughened criminals and you have all the ingredients for an exciting and fascinating mystery – which this certainly is!

As I said, Mary Kelly is not a name I’ve come across before, but as Martin Edwards’ excellent introduction reveals, she was very highly rated in her day although she only published a handful of works before abandoning writing. The book is unusual, focusing as it does on the subtleties of class (which was undergoing significant changes at the time) and also on the motivations of its characters. There’s plenty of detecting, yes, and the book doesn’t shy away from showing the police having to do legwork, calling in reinforcements, making mistakes and having a real struggle with their adversaries. Nightingale and Beddoes are an engaging pairing, bouncing off each other and sparring pleasingly, and I wish I’d had the opportunity to get acquainted with the detecting duo in their earlier adventures.

The supporting characters are lively and well-painted bunch too; Majendie, the antique dealer, is an old acquaintance of Nightingale’s, and his hidden depths are gradually revealed during the story. Nightingale’s wife (an opera singer) appears off-camera – he apparently sings too – and he spends part of the book dealing with a young shop assistant from Majendie’s who is not only important to the plot but also has a huge crush on the detective. The Russian element is intriguing (and if you have any knowledge of Imperial Russia, you can probably guess what kind of egg the title is referring to!), and the links back to the past from the 1950s are a reminder that events like the Revolution are really not so far away.

Such a lovely cover illustration – the BL do always choose some wonderful images!

There is a wonderful extended sequence towards the end of the book involving several characters imprisoned in a car racing through Kent in the foul winter weather, while Nightingale expounds on the mystery; this was brilliantly handled, and the book was one where I had a genuine fear for safety of characters. The plot is marvellously twisty, where you really don’t know which side people are one, and I loved that ambiguity. I shan’t say too much more, because the joy of this book is in the reading, but it’s one with plenty of surprises, a vividly conjured atmosphere and location (much of the book is set in Islington) and some stellar characters.

“The Christmas Egg” was a wonderful read, and an excellent addition to the British Library Crime Classics imprint (and their Christmas-based reading!) I ended up thinking it was such a shame Kelly didn’t write more stories of Night and Bed (as they’re ironically referred to at one point), as they really are a wonderful pairing and the occasional reference to their backstories made me extra keen to know more. Kelly’s work was highly regarded by such luminaries as Edmund Crispin, and she was a member of the prestigious Detection Club, so it’s wonderful to see her work creeping back into print. It’s a quirky and entertaining seasonal read, and would be perfect in your Christmas stocking! 😀

Scientifically dabbling detection! @BL_publishing @medwardsbooks #BLCC

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The Measure of Malice: Scientific Detection Stories
Edited by Martin Edwards

You may have picked up a couple of things on the Ramblings i.e. that I’m very behind with my reviewing and that I got a bit bogged down in November with “Berlin Alexanderplatz”…. The first couple of sections of that were so downbeat that I ended up interspersing them with some Golden Age crime, and my! was it a joy in comparison!!

The book in question is the latest collection of short stories in the British Library Crime Classics series, and it’s a wonderful gathering of works called “The Measure of Malice”; the subtitle “Scientific Detection Stories” makes it clear that we’re to be treated to a varied and marvellous selection of tales where the detecting heroes employ all manner of scientific methods; some of which to have a sounder basis than others… ;D

“Measure…” has been expertly compiled by Martin Edwards (the man really *does* deserve an award for services to detective fiction!) and opens neatly with a classic mystery featuring Holmes and Watson, “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”. This is quintessential Conan Doyle with a race to save a wrongly accused man, crimes that stretch into the past and overseas, the introduction of Inspector Lestrade and Holmes at his best; it is the latter’s scientific study of footprints that proves so crucial in this case. Most satisfying!

The book is stuffed with other familiar names; Dorothy L. Sayers‘ short tale, “In The Teeth of the Evidence” has poor Wimsey suffering the dentist and solving a devious crime. Edmund Crispin‘s “Blood Sport” is even shorter, and unusually doesn’t feature his regular detective Fen; instead, Inspector Humbleby traps the killer with a particular kind of specialist knowledge. Some of the sciences are very outre, like the belief that the last thing a person sees as they die is imprinted on their retina; others are ahead of their time; and some of the techniques are a really chilling, such as the method employed in “The Man Who Disappeared”.

I particularly liked the fact that this collection drew on a good number of less well-known authors, and the stories by C. E. Bechhofer Roberts and J.J. Connington were very clever and entertaining. L.T. Meade shares credit for two of her stories with other authors, Robert Eustace and Clifford Halifax; both are clever and atmospheric, and she’s obviously a woman whose work needs tracking down and rediscovering. I was less taken with Ernest Dudley‘s “The Case of the Chemist in the Cupboard”; the story itself was clever and devious, but his detective Doctor Morelle has an insufferably patronising attitude towards his female assistant Miss Frayle (who is obviously quite smart) and I ended up wanting to slap him!

Langdon is one of the outlying suburbs of London, but most of it was built last century. Then it attracted men who are making comfortable, third-class fortunes. The result is that it consists chiefly of genteel villas, each in its own piece of ground, which have tried hard to be unlike one another with contortions of inconvenience. Some of these are still inhabited by the survivors or descendants of those who put them up. Others have been converted by the forces of progress into modern ugliness as blocks of flats offering modern comfort to those who do without babies.

Breakfastless and pallid, Reggie came to the hospital built in the lowest, dampest situation which the hills of Langdon provide.

I’ve left the best for last. Any anthology which features Reggie Fortune, surgeon and Home Office Consultant, is a winner in my mind, and this one contains a wonderful story entitled “The Broken Toad”. I’ve sung the praises of H.C. Bailey and his marvellous detecting creation before on the Ramblings; I love Bailey’s writing, Fortune’s idiosyncratic character and his fierce determination to protect the innocent (particularly children). “Toad” is a pure delight, featuring Reggie’s tolerant wife Joan and his regular sidekick, Lomas of the CID. The mystery itself is quite brilliant; the sudden death of a policeman by poison in the middle of the night is unfathomable, and it takes all of Reggie’s ingenuity and deductive skills to get to the bottom of matters. In doing so, he uncovers a real nest of iniquity and the story is utterly gripping. Really, what’s needed is a concerted campaign to get Reggie republished! 😀

“The Measure of Malice” is a lovely chunky anthology of nearly 350 pages; and yet it took me less time to read than a small section of “Berlin Alexanderplatz”… This is another wonderful collection of Golden Age crime from the British Library, and the books are a real treat for the connoisseur of detective stories (or indeed just the casual reader!) Perfect reading for dark evenings when you’re snuggled up in front of the fire (or in whatever cosy corner you might have) – definitely a book for your Christmas list! 😀

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