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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! 😀

Devious dealings and double lives! #georgebellairs @BL_publishing @medwardsbooks

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The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs

Hot on the heels of my last BLCC (from the wonderful John Dickson Carr), and as a bit of an antidote to the *big* reading for 1930, I felt the call of another dose of classic crime – and as a new edition of a George Bellairs mystery had popped through the door from the lovely British Library, it was a bit a no brainer as to what I’d choose next! I’ve read a number of Bellairs’ titles, featuring his detecting team Superintendant Littlejohn and Sergeant Cromwell; so much so, that it feels like returning to old friends when I read a new Bellairs! They’re always a delight, and this one was no exception.

The book opens dramatically, with Littlejohn being thrust straight into the action. He’s been staying in Fen country, assisting the suitably-named Fenshire police with a forgery case, when a body is discovered in the local River Lark, known as the Dumb River of the title. Normally, it runs silently and unobtrusively, but Littlejohn is visiting Fenland in the middle of a massive storm which brings all sorts of floods and drama to the area. The dead man is known as Jim Lane locally; a small man, he travels with a fairground that visits regularly, in the company of a woman called Martha Gomm. However, investigation reveals that he is really James Teasdale, a man from Yorkshire who’s married with a family. Jim/James has obviously been leading a double life, and once the two policemen have done their local detecting (as well as helping out with the aftermath of the floods), the focus of their investigations turns north to Yorkshire, and the rather appalling family that Teasdale had to suffer.

Because appalling they really are! His wife is a selfish, snobbish, grasping woman with no sympathy at all; his daughters have inherited all their mother’s traits; Jim’s father-in-law is a bullying ex-army man; and Mrs. Teasdale’s siblings are equally greedy and unpleasant. Jim has struggled to make a living and to support his dependents and in the end took to going off for weeks at a time making money through the fair, while telling his wife he was a travelling salesman; her snobbish nature simply couldn’t have coped with the reality. Really, you couldn’t want for a worse family setting, and I found myself completely understanding why the man had sought some happiness and companionship with Martha Gomm while they were on the road.

Initially it seems that Jim was killed in Fen country; however, the medical evidence proves otherwise and so Littlejohn and Cromwell have to tackle the Teasdale family in all their gruesome glory. They meet with evasion, lies, hysteria and downright nastiness; it seems that Teasdale was a disappointment to them all, and none of them actually are upset by his death. There are plenty of twists and turns, lots of drama, and it takes all of Littlejohn’s skill to find the solution; I had a vague inkling of where the mystery was going, but there were still some lovely surprises at the end.

“The Body in the Dumb River” was a satisfying and completely enjoyable story, displaying all of the traits I love from Bellairs. His writing is always excellent; economic, and yet he manages to paint character and atmosphere brilliantly. His descriptions capture niftily life in a small town with its pettiness and ridiculous need for status. He always displays a sympathy with the underdog; Littlejohn obviously does not like people full of posturing and hypocrisy, preferring the honesty of Jim and Martha’s illegal union to that of a false marriage, and recognising the happiness it brought Jim to find refuge from a horrible home life. The whole story of the two was actually quite touching, and made me reflect on the horrors through which human beings can put one another. The Teasdale family are almost grotesques, very damaged people, and this carries on down the generations with the youngest members being as unpleasant as the eldest.

The church clock was striking ten as Littlejohn and Cromwell entered the police car which was taking them to the cemetery for James Teasdale‘s funeral. The atmosphere of the town was not funereal at all. It was market day and stalls had been erected in the space in front of the town hall. There an exuberant crowd of stallholders were already shouting their wares, mainly eatables, with here and there a dash of clothing or cheap jewellery. The place was seething with life. Dominating all that was going on and looking slightly disapproving of it, was the stern bronze statue of Bishop Duddle, the only famous man who ever was born in Basilden. He had been martyred and eaten by cannibals of his diocese in the South Seas and now stood among the market folk, pointing to heaven, indicating the place to which he had gone after all his troubles.

Bellairs is not without humour, though, and his description of Jim’s funeral is a wonderful mix of pathos and farce. His characters are occasionally maybe a little over-dramatised, but I guess that’s so he can create sympathy for his underdogs. He’s a very open-minded author, too, having his characters refer to travellers as good people and much more worthy than the middle-class horrors of Yorkshire; it’s very clear where his sympathies lie. And he’s also an author that mops up the loose ends of his story, rounding things up at the very end so we find out what happened to all of the characters after the mystery was solved (well, all except one!)

British Library Publishing have done us some huge favours by creating a wonderful collection of classic crime stories which would otherwise have languished in obscurity; and George Bellairs is one of many authors I’m glad has been rediscovered. “Dumb River” is another excellent entry in the Crime Classics list, and comes highly recommended from the Ramblings! 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t the cover stunning??

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

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

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

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

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

Nautical mysteries and watery graves @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks

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Deep Waters: Mysteries on the Waves – Edited by Martin Edwards

My go-to books for stressy times have in recent years become the British Library Crime Classics; and so being back at work and being busy meant that I was naturally very keen to reach for one of these lovely volumes! I’ve read several rather wonderful anthologies of stories, edited by the redoubtable Martin Edwards, and the most recent one collects together a marvellous of array of short stories involving water. And bearing in mind that that can mean anything from an ornamental pond to the sea, there certainly is a lot of scope for murder, mayhem and mystery involving the wet stuff!

Another lovely British Library Crime Classic – isn’t the cover wonderful?

Edwards provides a useful introduction, looking back over watery crime writing over the years, as well as providing a short piece on the author of each story. The collection launches (ahem) with a Sherlock Holmes yarn, “The Adventure of the Gloria Scott“; this is a notable story in the Holmes canon, as it’s one in which the Great Detective reveals something of his past (as well as being very clever and entertaining). The final story is a Michael Innes ‘Appleby’ story first published in 1975. And in between there is an excellent selection of writers, from better known names like C.S. Forester, Edmund Crispin and E.W. Hornung, to more obscure authors like R. Austin Freeman and Josephine Bell, and relative unknowns such as Kem Bennett. I was particularly happy to see one of H.C. Bailey’s ‘Reggie Fortune’ stories included, as he’s a relatively recent discover for me and I absolutely love him. Both author and character are very individual and idiosyncratic, and I imagine Bailey’s writing is not necessarily to everyone’s taste. But I think his stories are clever and wonderfully written, and I do wish more were available.

Well – it’s hard with short story collections, because I can never decide to pick favourites or not. And this (like previous collections) is so good that there isn’t actually a dud in there. However, I’ll mention a few which really struck me. “The Echo of a Mutiny” by R. Austin Freeman was a longer entry in the book, and featured his regular detective Dr. Thorndyke, as well as an atmospheric lighthouse setting and a clever solution. Gwyn Evans’ “The Pool of Secrets” had some wonderfully outré elements and a fiendish plot. “The Turning of the Tide“, a mystery by C.S. Forester (better known perhaps for the Hornblower series), was short, sharp and shocking. And “The Swimming Pool“, the Reggie Fortune story, is really quite dark and remarkably ingenious.

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

But I could really pick out any of the stories to commend, as they’re each one of them an entertaining and enjoyable read, with clever detectives and perplexing puzzles. These are such wonderfully twisty tales where, as well as the sleuth’s usual brilliant methods of deduction, knowledge of such arcane subjects as the tides, marine life and types of tobacco can help solve the mystery. There really is such an appetite for Golden Age crime fiction nowadays; and I’m not sure whether it’s just that we’re looking for escapism from the madness of the modern day, or the reassurance of a world where things may get turned upside down but an all-seeing, all-knowing detective can put life back together again and normality will return. Whatever it is, for me the British Library Crime Classics are the perfect distraction from the craziness of daily life; and this particular collection is definitely an outstanding entry in their catalogue.

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

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