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A couple of Shiny reviews!

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By now you’ll all hopefully be reading your way through all the wonderful reviews in the latest edition of Shiny New Books! There are some marvellous books highlighted on the site (very bad for the wishlist!) and I thought I’d point you to another couple of reviews I’ve been happy to provide for SNB.

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First up is a lovely reissued volume from Oxford World’s Classics. I reviewed it here on the Ramblings and loved it a lot – for a novel of this vintage to have such strong female leads was a real treat! My review is also on Shiny here if you’d like to check it out.

 

 

 

 

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The second review is for something completely different – a powerful and visceral yet often beautiful work of Dutch-Caribbean literature from Tip Marugg. The author was completely new to me and the book was a memorable read – my review is here.

 

 

 

 

So do pop over to Shiny New Books to read up on these and many other wonderful books! 🙂

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A gripping tale of Feisty Victorian Women!

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Jezebel’s Daughter by Wilkie Collins

Victorian author Wilkie Collins is probably best known nowadays for “The Woman in White”, “The Moonstone” and being best buddies with Dickens. However, a quick glance at his Wikipedia entry reveals that he wrote an awful lot of books! I read both of his most famous works many, many moons ago and loved them – particularly because of the fact that “The Moonstone” is regarded as the first proper detective story and features the wonderful Sergeant Cuff. I’ve often considered exploring his other works, but have simply never got round to it; so I was delighted to be offered a review copy of a new edition of a later novel, “Jezebel’s Daughter”, by the Oxford University Press. The book, published today, is the only critical edition available, and contains all the extras you’d expect from the publisher – an excellent introduction (best read after the book if this is your first time!), notes, background information and chronology. It also looks very pretty…!

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“Jezebel’s Daughter” was published in 1880, and Collins used some elements from his earlier (unsuccessful) play “The Red Veil” in the novel. However, the success of the book proved that drama wasn’t particularly his métier, and certainly on the evidence of the books I’ve read he definitely was better at telling an exciting story. The book’s protagonists are, somewhat unusually, two middle-aged widows and the story is narrated in the main by David Glenney, looking back from 1878 to the time of the events in the 1820s. He is the nephew of Mrs Wagner, the wife of an English businessman; the latter has been left his share of his firm on his death and she is determined not only to carry on running the business, but also to continue his planned good works. One of the pivotal parts of the story is the tale of ‘Jack Straw’, a poor inmate of Bedlam; and Mr. Wagner and his wife had been appalled at the cruel treatment that lunatics had been receiving. Mrs. Wagner is convinced that humane treatment will be more effective than harsh, and to prove this takes Jack into her home, where he becomes completely devoted to her.

Mrs. Wagner is the good side of humanity; the evil is represented by Madame Fontaine, a German woman of good family who married a poor French scientist. She had dreamed of glittering Parisian society, but her husband refused to follow the career path she had planned for him, instead remaining in Germany and becoming obsessed with the science of poisons. Madame Fontaine becomes embittered, seeing all her dreams slip away, and all she is left with is her obsessive love of her daughter Minna. When she is widowed, she is in effect left destitute (because she has frittered away what little money her husband earned on clothes and the like); her obsession with her daughter’s happiness becomes all-encompassing, and when Minna and Fritz Keller, the son of Mrs. Wagner’s German business partner, fall in love, the scene is set for plenty of high drama.

Keller senior does not approve of the match; Madame Fontaine has a reputation which has preceded her, and he is a man of rigid principles. Madame Fontaine sets out to win the Kellers over, but things are complicated by the arrival of Mrs. Wagner and Jack Straw from London. There is the hint of Lucrezia Borgia to Madame Fontaine; who will live and who will die? Will the happy couple ever be able to marry? And what secret in Jack Straw’s past links him to the Fontaines? A dramatic denouement in the Deadhouse will reveal all…

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Boy, could Wilkie Collins spin a gripping yarn! This was one of those books I just couldn’t put down as I was desperate to find out what happened. The storytelling is excellent, the suspense tantalising, and I really couldn’t foresee how it would end. The finale in the dark morgue was really chilling and I ended the book quite breathless. Really, if you want great storytelling you don’t you need look any further than Dickens, Collins and their ilk – they’re incredibly readable and so enjoyable.

However, there are several elements which lift this book above others. Having the main protagonists as a pair of middle-aged widows is very engaging, and both are well-developed personalities. Mrs. Wagner is the ‘good’ character, but she is not without flaws, displaying a stubborn streak and not recognising the danger Madame Fontaine represents. And the latter, despite her murderous intent, is not entirely evil; the love for her daughter is represented as redeeming her, and when committing vile acts she suffers fear and attacks of conscience. All the supporting characters are well-rounded and if I’m honest, the weakest was Minna, who was simply a bit wet.

Another striking facet was Collins using the novel to champion humane treatment for those who were ill or disabled. The book’s framing narrative is set in 1878, but looks backwards and comments on how attitudes have changed, but also how they still need to continue to evolve, as if Collins was reinforcing the need for constant change. Additionally, Mrs. Wagner’s attitude towards women and their employment is liberal, as she is determined to give them positions in the German arm of the business, despite Mr. Keller’s misgivings.

However, at the heart of this book is a cracking good story – exciting, twisty, thought-provoking and very unputdownable. On the evidence of “Jezebel’s Daughter”, Collins was more than just a one (or two!) trick pony, and I’m definitely up for reading more of his work!

(Many thanks to Katie at OUP for kindly arranging a review copy – much appreciated!)

Vintage Crime Shorts: A Trio of Tales

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After the mammoth tome which is the doorstep that is “The Idiot”, I confess I felt rather in need of something a little shorter and punchier. Re-enter “The Dead Witness” with its collection of classic crime shorts – just right to clear the book hangover! I found myself nipping through three stories one after the other, which quite surprised me – so I thought I’d round them up here.

Edgar Allan Poe – The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841)

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“Morgue” is of course considered the first ‘proper’ detective story, and despite its being preceded by “The Secret Cell”, I do agree with Michael Sims, the editor of this anthology, that Poe still deserves the title. “Cell” had none of the characteristics that Poe laid down and everyone else copied: a unique detective, with unusual characteristics, and a way of deducing facts no-one else could’ an apparently insoluble murder; the first locked room mystery; the baffled and amazed sidekick; bumbling policemen who couldn’t solve the crime. C. August Dupin is the detective, sharing rooms with a friend and exercising his brain cells (are they little and grey?) to such an extent that he can even break into his friend’s train of thought and predict exactly what he is going to say. When a mother and daughter are found brutally slain, in unusual circumstances, in the Rue Morgue it takes Dupin to solve the mystery. I shall say *nothing* about the crime or the solution, because the only downside with re-reading this story is that once you know the solution you won’t forget it, and in many ways it’s difficult to re-read! However, if you do plan to read it, please be careful of the edition you choose – I’ve seen several with cover pictures that totally give the game away…. That’s by the by, anyway. All that needs to be said is that Poe was a bit of a genius and we crime story fanciers have a lot to thank him for!

Charles Dickens – On Duty with Inspector Field (1851)

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This, I confess, I found to be a bit of an oddity. More essay than story, “Field” tells an impressionistic tale of Dickens’ trip out into the worst areas of London with the real Inspector Field, seeing how the underbelly of the city’s occupants had to live. Mixing with all kinds of criminals, accompanied at all times by police officers, Dickens shows us the downside of Victorian society – poverty, starvation, crime and prostitution. It’s a beautifully written piece, full of atmosphere and poignant observation. But I couldn’t quite work out why it was here; to be honest, I would have preferred an extract from “Bleak House” showing Inspector Bucket in action! (I believe the latter was actually based on Field). Ah well – on to the next story.

Wilkie Collins – The Diary of Anne Rodway (1856)

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Collins is of course another important progenitor of the detective story, in particular with “The Moonstone”, considered the first detective novel in the English language and featuring Sergeant Cuff. So it’s not unusual to find him also working in this vein in short stories, and “Rodway” is an early example of telling a story in the diary form and also a female doing the investigation. Anne Rodway is poor; living in cheap lodgings, she ekes out a living sewing whilst waiting for her fiance to return from abroad where he is attempting to earn enough for them to marry. Her best friend Mary is also poor, but beautiful, and the two girls are like sisters. So when Mary is attacked and dies, it is almost more than Anne can bear. The police are convinced she simply fell and banged her head, but Anne is not so sure and when she finds a ‘clew’ (I *love* that spelling!) in form the form of the torn off end of a cravat, gripped in dead Mary’s hand, she determines to find out the truth. The story of her investigations, against the background of poverty in the city, is poignant and moving – Collins really can tell a wonderful tale, and in some ways is more readable than Dickens, who does tend to lapse into extravagances of language at times! I’ve only read “The Moonstone” and “The Woman in White” of Collins’ work, and I really think I need to read more!

So that’s another three tales from “The Dead Witness” – my only quibble with the book so far would be the minor one that the compiler hasn’t put the publication date next to the title of each story. That would have been useful, in my view!

 

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