Home

2020 in Books – in which I once again fail to pick an outright winner…. ;D

54 Comments

As is traditional on the Ramblings, I’m going to take a look back over my year of reading to pick out some highlights. It certainly has been a very strange and unpleasant year, unlike any I’ve known – I hope 2021 will be better, but who knows what’s to come. Books have, as always, been a comfort and my coping mechanism; and I *have* read a little more than usual, despite the strains of coping with a pandemic world. As usual, I’m not going to do any kind of countdown or top ten – let’s just look at the bookish things which have kept me going!

Comfort reading

A favourite from this year’s BLCC’s releases!

2020 has most definitely been year when there’s been a need for comfort reading. My go-to books are Golden Age crime and once again the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of great joy. I’ve read a good number, and not a dud amongst them! I’ve also felt the urge to do a sudden bit of re-reading – for example, at one point needing pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and revisit the wonderfully perfect ending. Longing for less complex times, I guess.

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

If this year has been anything for me, it’s been the year of indie presses and subscriptions! Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, it’s been a joy to see independent publishers flourishing, supported by the love of serious readers and booklovers. I have spent happy hours with many wonderful indie imprints, authors and books, including Notting Hill Editions, Little Toller, Fum d’Estampa, Salt, Galley Beggar, Sublunary Editions and Renard Press; in fact, I did a nice little Q&A with Will Dady, the man behind the latter, for Shiny New Books. And of course it’s been lovely to keep up with Fizcarraldo Editions, who’ve released some quite marvellous volumes this year.

Which leads me on to…

Challenges/Events

I tend to steer away from most of these nowadays, as I find I get all enthusiastic about joining in then instantly want to go off in another direction! However, I did get involved in a Twitter-based readalong of the marvellous Malicroix (published by NYRB Classics), thanks to the influence of Dorian Stuber! A wonderful book and a great joy to take part in this! I’ve managed to reboot some of my personal reading projects, and even expand their scope – let’s see how that works out then…

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

I also ended up co-hosting a two week celebration of the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo with Lizzy – Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. Not only was this great fun, but it also got me reading quite a bit of my TBR – result! 😀

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

As usual, Simon and I co-hosted two Reading Club Weeks this year, focused on 1920 and 1956. These are always such fun – if you haven’t encountered them, we basically read whatever we want from the year in question, review, post on blogs and other social media and share ideas of great books from the year. We’ll be hosting another in April 2021 so do join in! 😀

Social Media

Social media of all kinds has become pretty much a lifeline over 2020 and it’s been great to be able to keep in touch over the various platforms. Book Twitter is particularly lovely and I have been lucky enough to interact with some wonderful people on there. There have been postcards going around the world and moral support offered to our online friends who have suffered losses over the year. It is a lovely place to visit. Of course, there are always so many reading events to tempt me there, but mostly I manage to hold back because I know I will fail… I didn’t with Malicroix though, so result!

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

Twitter was also responsible for the Harvill Leopard Hunt, as it shall be titled, where a number of interested bookish people contributed to a wonderful master list of books issued in that imprint by Tim at Half Print Press. It was huge fun being involved in the detective work, and the resulting checklist is a thing of great beauty and use – you can check it out here! (Do take a look at Half Pint Press too – they produce some gorgeous things!)

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

Although I was often looking for comfort reads, it hasn’t all been lightweight this year. In particular, I seem to have been haunted by the spirit of Roland Barthes! I first read his Mythologies back at the end of 2019, reviewing it in January this year, and have revisited his work at various points over the year. He’s not always an easy read, but certainly fascinating, stimulating and thought-provoking!

Professor Richard Clay with Dr. Lonnie Bunch (c. Clearstory/BBC)

This also tied in with my Documentary of Year (and Decade!) 21st Century Mythologies with Richard Clay – it was quite superb, and I was delighted to welcome Richard back onto the Ramblings for a return interview. He’s always such an interesting interviewee, brimming with ideas! No doubt I shall continue to return to Barthes – there are several titles I have lurking on the TBR…

Shiny New Books

I continued to provide some reviews for Shiny New Books, the wonderful independent recommendations website. I always enjoy reading other people’s contributions and SNB covers such a wide range of books. Always worth checking out if you’re not sure what to read next, or want to find out what’s come out recently and is worth reading!

Trends in my reading

A translated work I enjoyed very much this year, which led on to many other reading ideas…

I’ve continued to read a lot in translation, from the Russian of course but also from French, German, Portuguese, Polish…. I’ve enjoyed poetry, and also a lot of non-fiction this year. There have been times when I’ve felt that I couldn’t engage properly with fiction, and so essays, philosophy, history, nature writing, travel writing and books which don’t actually fit into any category have been there for me to turn to in times of need. I plan to continue to follow no path but my own and read what I *need* to read!

Outstanding books

I’m not going to pick a best of the year, because I can’t. The kind of books I read are so disparate that it seems unfair to measure them against each other. However, I *shall* highlight some particularly special reads from 2020.

First up, I have ended the year reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and it’s a stunning book. Mesmerising writing and brimming with ideas and visions, it certainly lives up to its hype and it was the perfect book with which to finish off the year.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Morley’s writing, and so was delighted to be able to review his latest book, A Sound Mind, for Shiny New Books. A wonderfully Morley-esque exploration of classic music in all its shapes and forms, I absolutely loved it.

Another author whose work I’ve loved for a long time is M. John Harrison. He’s hit the public eye a bit more than usual recently, and this year saw the release of a new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s another stunning read, proof that Harrison’s powers only increase with the years, and I was so pleased to see it win the Goldsmiths Prize! Lovely Comma Press also released a collection of his stories, Settling the World, which was another outstanding read.

A newer discovery for me is Andrew Lees; I read his wonderful book Mentored by a Madman last year, in a lovely paperback from Notting Hill Editions; it was a marvellous read, and Lees is such a good writer – in this book proving that literature and science go together. NHE published a new book by Lees this year, Brazil That Never Was, and I absolutely loved it. I described it in my review as a “wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection”, and Lees’ storytelling skills produced an atmospheric and memorable read. I can’t wait for his next book!

I can’t finish this section without mention of Square Haunting, which I covered in February for Shiny New Books. A quite brilliant book covering the lives of five inspirational women living in the same square in London, although at different times, it was an unforgettable read as well as an amazing work of scholarship – and it deserves all the praise it’s had!

*****

Frankly, that’s probably enough for one post – if I go on any longer I shall end up reliving the whole year and with 2020, that’s not something I necessarily want to do. The books I’ve read this year have been 99.9% pure joy (with the very occasional dud…) Whatever 2021 chucks our way I shall hang onto books as a way of maintaining some kind of sanity. Here’s to a better year for us all!

A Surprise at Christmas – in more ways than one! :D @BritLibPublishing #BLCC @medwardsbooks

24 Comments

Over the last few years, the lovely people at the British Library have got into the habit of bringing out a Christmas crime classic which makes ideal reading in the run up to the festive season. There have been novels, and last year a lovely short story collection. This year was no different, and so I was very happy happy joy joy when “A Surprise at Christmas” popped through my door. Selected by the series consultant, Martin Edwards, the book contains 12 seasonal mysteries from an excellent range of authors. It was the perfect book to turn to, particularly during a busy time at work and whilst attempting to fed off another reading slump; and it had an extra sting in the tale which I’ll get to later… ;D

Normally, when I feature short story collections on the Ramblings, I tend to pick out favourites or themes. However, this was such a strong selection I may end up mentioning them all! The book opens with The Black Bag Left on a Doorstep by Catharine Louisa Pirkis; she’s an author new to me, and this story introduces her detective Loveday Brooke and was published in 1893. It’s a satisfying and clever mystery and Brooke is a feisty heroine – I’d like to read more of her adventures! Next up is The Hole in the Wall by G.K. Chesterton; this tale doesn’t feature his usual detective, Father Brown, but is from 1921 and the sleuthing is done by Horne Fisher. It’s a vaguely spooky tale with a very satisfying end. Then there’s Death on the Air by Ngaio Marsh; I read a *lot* of Marsh back in the day, and this lives up to the standard I expect from her. An elderly tyrant is found dead by his radio; was he electrocuted? And how? And which of his bullied family could be responsible? Great fun!

The Marsh is followed by Persons or Things Unknown by Carter Dickson (pen name of John Dickson Carr). Needless to say, there’s a kind of locked room mystery, but there are spooky elements and the bulk of the story is set in the past. I found this to be one I needed to read in daylight…. Trailing after the Dickson is Dead Man’s Hand by E.R. Punshon; the latter is again an author I’ve not come across before, but I loved this short and punchy story about the effects of guilt – excellent stuff! Then we have The Christmas Eve Ghost by Ernest Dudley, with a slightly more noir setting and a clever trap to catch a killer. Dick Whittington’s Cat, which follows, is by Victor Canning, a prolific author much neglected nowadays. I don’t think he’s usually remembered for his mysteries, but this clever seasonal tale of burglary is very entertaining.

The title story, by Cyril Hare, is another short punchy one about how retribution for past wicked deeds can come at the most unlikely time and in the most unlikely fashion – great fun! This is followed by another big name in crime writing, Margery Allingham with On Christmas Day in the Morning. A postie has been found dead, but proving how he was killed is impossible because of the route he took on his round. It will take all of Mr. Campion’s empathy to unravel the sad solution behind things. Give Me A Ring by Anthony Gilbert is the longest entry in the collection, at around 80 pages almost stretching to a novella; and it’s most entertaining, telling a nail-biting tale of an innocent young woman who strays into the path of some dangerous criminals during a London fog; the tension does ramp up towards the end! And finally there’s The Turn Again Bell by Barry Perowne, which is more of a slightly spooky Christmas tale than a mystery, but it’s an enjoyable and fitting end to the book.

What do these books have in common? Hint – it’s *not* that they’re about Christmas…. ;D

The observant amongst you will notice that the above adds up to 11 stories – and the one I want to mention last is the Surprise for Christmas I mentioned above! The tale is called Father Christmas Comes to Orbins by Julian Symons, and it’s a brilliant story of a meticulously planned burglary that goes wrong. However, as I read it I was hit by a massive attack of deja vu and became convinced that I’d read something very like it before. I had a dig through some of my other BL short story collections and could find nothing, until I suddenly hit on the idea of looking at last year’s festive book, “The Christmas Card Crime”. It did indeed feature a Symons story, entitled ‘Twixt the Cup and the Lip – and as I looked at the opening pages of that one, I realised that they were indeed the same story!! (Which is proof that I *do* actually remember what I read).

Looking at the introductions, it seems that the original version (Orbins) was published in 1963 in the Illustrated London News; the later one (Twixt) was published in 1965 in the Ellery Queen Magazine. So I presume that the title was changed for the US and that’s where the confusion arose! I was quite amused after I’d worked out what was going on, and relieved to find I wasn’t going completely insane. And it *is* a good story and definitely deserves to be featured in these collections – whichever title it’s under! 😀

Anyway, that’s by the by; the bottom line is that this is a really strong collection of Christmas stories in the BLCC range; the quality is high, the stories are entertaining, mystifying, sometimes spooky and very Christmassy. I can really recommend this collection – it’s perfect reading for the time of year!

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

Murder and mayhem down by the Thames…. @BritLibPublishing #BLCC #JosephineBell

22 Comments

It’s fairly obvious from even a casual glance at the Ramblings that I love to read Golden Age crime; as I’ve mentioned many times, I grew up reading Agatha Christie (and still love her) and have also read many of the greats in my time. So I’ve obviously taken comfort from the wonderful output from the British Library in their Crime Classics range, and continue to find the standard of stories they issue high. Interestingly, recently titles have pushed the envelope a little, which is fascinating; some stories edging closer to more modern times, and encompassing the changes taking place in society in 1960s, and embracing the police procedural, rather than the famous detective in a country house setting. However, my most recent read of one of their books, originally published in 1938, introduces a milieu which is miles away from the usual affluent surroundings – and that book is “The Port of London Murders” by Josephine Bell.

As Martin Edwards points out in his excellent introduction, Bell has already made an appearance in the BL series, with short stories in the “Crimson Snow” and “Deep Waters” collections. This novel is an early one by the author, and it’s set around the Port of London and on the river Thames in that fascinating period between the two wars when many people were struggling to make a living. As the book opens, the San Angelo drifts into port having survived dreadful storms in the Bay of Biscay. The ship is late, and as well as its cargo being delayed, some of it has been lost in the river. We’re introduced early to the two main characters, Harry Reed and June Harvey, both of whom live by the Thames; Harry saves June’s young brother Leslie from drowning, sustaining an injury in the process and two are drawn together. Both are from working class backgrounds; but June works in a lingerie shop and is attracting the attention of the flashy Gordon Longford who moves in more exalted circles and seems to have very suspect connections. Meanwhile, the police are trying to uncover dodgy dealings and drug smuggling down by the river – although one of their officers may be getting too close for comfort. Mix in a murder or two, a little illegal salvaging, some very inquisitive schoolboys, a few larger than life working class families and a somewhat dubious doctor, and you have quite the recipe for an absorbing and exciting mystery!

It’s the setting, of course, that makes this book stand out initially. As a hinted above, this is miles away from a country house or a small cosy English village; instead we are in an area where life is often brutal and short, work is hard and exhausting, and scraping a living to bring up your family is never easy. There are glimpses of the struggles and the poverty in the scenes involving various medics and a Relieving Officer, who try to do their best to help those in need but with limited resources. In these pre-NHS days, getting a doctor out if you were ill was expensive; and there seems to have been little aid available to those who couldn’t work because of illness. This background, and the awareness of the grim poverty which existed, is unusual in Golden Age crime, and adds a fascinating element to the book.

As for the story itself, well it’s really unputdownable. Bell writes well, portrays her locations and characters vividly, and really brings this lost world to life. Harry and June, a little tentative and unsure of each other at first, are an engaging pair and both are very cleverly woven into the plot. The latter itself is very twisty and turny, and although we know fairly early on who the villains are, it’s entertaining watching how they try to escape justice and how the various arms of the law do their best to encirle them. I shall say nothing about the ending of the book except that it is dramatic and fitting and very satisfying!

On the evidence of this and the short stories, Bell is definitely an author I’d like to read more by, and “Port” is an excellent additon to the BLCC range. There is perhaps a slight touch of cliché in her working class characters’ dialogue (although it may be accurate to the time – and she did research the River Police and their work whilst writing the book, so may well have mingled with Thameside locals); but this never gets in the way of the story. The subject matter (drug addiction and smuggling, murder, poverty) is actually quite dark, but that adds to a gritty portrayal of hard-working life in the 1930s. However, she balances this with some wonderful humour, particularly in her portrayal of two families, the Popes and the Dunwoodys, locked in neighbourly rivalry. The saga of their move from dilapidated soon-to-be demolished houses into more modern flats is a hoot, and also very telling of its time. And Bell’s creation of Leslie Harvey is particularly memorable – writing a convincing child character can be difficult, and Leslie is a believable scamp, somewhat reminiscent of the gang of boys in the wonderful Ealing film “Hue and Cry”.

“The Port of London Murders” was my final read in November, a difficult reading month at times which was redeemed at the end! It was entertaining from start to finish, a real joy, and evidence if it were needed that the quality of releases in the British Library Crime Classics series is not dropping. These books have brought me much comfort this year, and I suspect this won’t be last one I read before 2020 is over!

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

Classic crime in wartime fog…. @BL_Publishing @medwardsbooks #ecrlorac

30 Comments

I have to confess that real life has been a little stressful lately. Work (in a school) has been much more complex than usual, and although it does get me out of the house, it’s draining and somewhat weird. Though I mustn’t complain because at least I am working. However, juggling the 1956 Club plus PC woes left me in need of a little comfort reading, and a recent release in the British Library Crime Classics range was the perfect thing!

“Checkmate to Murder” is the latest title to be reissued by the BL from E.C.R. Lorac; she’s one of the authors who’s proved to be a particular hit, with many of her books having been republished so far.  I’ve read a number of these, including a recent favourite “Crossed Skis” (published another of her pseudonyms, Carol Carnac) and I love them. Lorac is brilliant at conjuring atmosphere, and a previous release “Murder by Matchlight” brought alive vividly its Second World War setting. “Checkmate…” was first published in 1944 and is also set in wartime, in the depths of the blackout; and a clever and twisty tale it turned out to be!

The book opens with a dramatic setting: in an artists’ studio in Hampstead, artist Bruce Manaton is deeply involved in the portrait he’s painting of his actor friend Andre Delaunier. As the painter continues to portray his model, seated and dressed in striking Cardinal’s robes, two other friends Robert Cavendish and Ian Mackellon (both highly respectable men) play chess at the other end of the room. Flitting in and out is the painter’s sister Rosanne, who’s preparing dinner; and the local cockney char, Mrs. Tubbs, also pops by. Suddenly there is a commotion at the door, and a local special constable Lewis Verraby bursts in, hauling an injuried soldier with him. He claims that the old miser next door, great uncle to the soldier and landlord of the studio tenants, has been murdered – and that the great nephew is the murderer! However, Verraby himself is not quite what he seems, and neither is this case; and it will take all the ingenuity of Lorac’s regular detective, Inspector Macdonald, to get to the bottom of things!

Sometimes these past two years I’ve thought human beings were making a bee-line for hell.

I have to confess to simply devouring this book – it was just such a good read! Lorac plots brilliantly, and certainly this story had me guessing right up until the end. There are, of course, a couple of obvious suspects from the start; and I hoped that the eventual solution would be nothing as simplistic as either of them being the murderer. Her cast of characters was by necessity narrow, as because of the setting of the foggy blackout, and the posting of sentries of sorts in the area, there was a limit to who could be around within the relevant time frame. Although I did guess one element in the eventual solution, I had no idea to whom that element applied, nor how the murder was committed – so it was all very clever. The wartime setting is always an evocative one, and Lorac captures it quite brilliantly, with the fog and the blackout and the tensions and the shortages all elements affecting the characters’ behaviours.

It’s hard to discuss more specifics of the plot without giving too much away, so all I’ll say is that there were any number of tangled threads including property development, poverty, greed and artistic temperament. As for Lorac’s characters, well they are a really entertaining bunch; Bruce and Rosanne are engaging siblings, both with strong artistic talents but with Rosanne allowing hers to be subsumed in supporting her brother. The actor Delaunier is a wonderful larger than life figure, Mrs. Tubbs is probably a bit of a Cockney ‘salt-of-the-earth” cliche (but still great fun and also highly appreciated during the War years), and Cavendish and Mackellon are convincing foils for the temperamental artistes. As for the detecting team, they’re always satisfying and as ever with Macdonald it was great to watch his leaps of intuition followed by the actual working out of how his supicions may have actually been carried out; although he does keep his cards close to his chest until the very end!

So another joyful read from the BL, and the perfect distraction just when I wanted it. I don’t know that I’ve ever needed comfort reading quite as much as I have during 2020, and so having the Crime Classics to turn to has been a real boon. The Lorac reissues have been one of the highlights of the series, and this was a particularly strong entry. I could quite easily develop a BLCC addition – if I haven’t already done so…. 😀

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

28 Comments

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

15 Comments

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

20 Comments

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?

43 Comments

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

33 Comments

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

12 Comments

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!

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: