Rain and Other Stories by W Somerset Maugham

A masterclass in character…

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This is a collection of short stories, many of them with a colonial setting in the South Seas, though a few are set in Britain. It’s billed as having eleven stories, but four of them are extremely short fragments of description or little anecdotes – well written and quite enjoyable, but more like linking passages than stories, and I decided not to rate them. The remaining seven are quite substantial in length, with a couple reaching novella length, and I found every one of them good, and several excellent. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated excellently by Steven Crossley who created perfectly appropriate voices for each of the myriad of characters who cross the pages.

In each case, while the settings and stories are interesting, the real strength is in the depth and variety of the characterisation. Maugham makes each character completely believable, however extreme or banal their actions may be, and in almost every case, with one notable exception, he makes the reader sympathise with even those whose attitudes and actions at first seem obnoxious. He penetrates below the outer shell, showing with a few deft and sometimes shocking revelations the complexity of each individual, and how they are the product of the attitudes of their society to class, gender, colonialism and religion. His narrators often learn this lesson along with his readers, so that they share the sometimes sudden insight that changes our view of a character we thought we understood.

Book 9 of 20

Of the seven stories to which I gave a rating, one earned 3 stars, two 4 stars, and four 5 stars, and a couple of the 5-stars rate among the best short stories I’ve ever read. I found myself completely absorbed, listening for long periods with no loss of concentration (which regular visitors will know is unusual for me with audiobooks). Here’s a brief flavour of the ones I enjoyed most:

Mackintosh – Mackintosh is sent to an island in the South Seas to be assistant to the Governor, Walker. Walker is a bullying, boastful old man who rules the island like an absolute monarch. In Mackintosh’s eyes, he behaves as a tyrant towards the natives, ready to humiliate them or worse if they refuse to obey his commands. But he treats Mackintosh as an underling too, rather than as any kind of equal, and though Mackintosh thinks his growing outrage and hatred for Walker is because of how he treats the natives, the reader wonders how much it is really to do with Walker’s treatment of himself. As the story progresses, I found my perceptions of both men changing, and the ending is shocking while still arising naturally and almost inevitably out of what has gone before. Brilliant characterisation and great storytelling – probably my favourite story in the collection.

Rain – A little group of people travelling to various destinations are held up when an outbreak of measles causes them to be quarantined in Pago Pago, and they lodge with a trader. Told in the third person, we see the other characters from the perspective of Dr McPhail. He and his wife are forced into a kind of intimacy with another couple – Davidson, a fanatical missionary who believes it is his mission to save souls, even when they’d much rather not be saved, and his wife, who believes as fanatically in her husband as he believes in God. The other person staying in the lodgings is a young woman called Sadie Thompson, who they soon realise is a whore. Davidson decides to save her soul. Another substantial story in length, and with a lot to say about religious fanaticism and colonialism, but also about the patriarchy in action. Davidson is the one character in the collection who I felt was given no redeeming features. I found the ending a little obvious, but still effective – another great story.

Jane – the story of two women as seen through the eyes of the male narrator. Both are widows – Mrs. Tower, an apparently happy society woman; and Jane, her sister-in-law, whom Mrs Tower sees as her “cross” – a rather annoying bore she tolerates only because of their family connection. But then Jane does something remarkable and quite out of character – she marries a man many years her junior, changes her look and becomes a society sensation. Again this story is mostly character studies of the two women, but this time with lots of humour and a touch of unexpected pathos. A sympathetic portrayal of both women, and very well done.

The Colonel’s Lady – Colonel George Peregrine is a typical bluff ex-soldier, in a seemingly contented but childless and passionless marriage to Evie. One day he learns his wife has had a book of poems published, and although poetry really isn’t his thing he skims a couple and tells her the book is “jolly good”. However, to his astonishment the book becomes a bestseller and soon everyone seems to be talking about it, and he feels his friends and acquaintances are giving him sly or sympathetic glances. Eventually he decides he’d better read it properly, and learns he doesn’t know Evie nearly as well as he thought! Another one with a lot of humour, and a great character study of George. But it also has quite a lot to say about the relative and changing positions of men and women in this society.

W Somerset Maugham

The cumulative effect of a lot of these stories left me with the feeling that Maugham was something of a feminist, so I was astonished on googling to find that he has been accused of misogyny! My extremely limited reading so far has turned up no evidence of this – quite the reverse, in fact, with all the women shown sympathetically and due attention given to the unequal expectations of them within a patriarchal system. So I suppose I’ll just have to read the rest of his books to find out what he did to earn this reputation. Given the quality of the little I’ve read so far, that will certainly be no hardship!

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The Origins of Science Fiction edited by Michael Newton

A stellar line-up…

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This is the latest in the Oxford World’s Classics hardback collection, several of which recently have been anthologies or collections of weird and Gothic horror. This one is a slight departure into science fiction but, as the editor Michael Newton suggests in his introduction, early science fiction has its roots in the Gothic tradition; and certainly many of the stories in the collection would sit just as neatly in a horror collection. There are seventeen stories in it, most of them quite substantial and with one or two reaching novella-length. It’s in the usual OWC format: an informative and interesting introduction, scholarly in content, but written in an accessible non-academic style; the stories, each preceded by a short biography of the author, including their contributions to the field of science fiction; and the all-important notes, which explain the many classical references and allusions, historical references and any terms that have fallen out of use. I found the notes in this one particularly good – well-written and done on a kind of “need to know” basis; that is, not overloaded with too much detail and digression.

In his introduction, Newton discusses how the concerns of the time are woven into the stories – the gathering pace of scientific and technological development, the impact of colonialism, anxiety about man’s future ability to communicate with the ‘other’, whether that other may be alien, evolved humanity, or machine. It’s interesting that all of those concerns are still subjects of contemporary science fiction, suggesting we haven’t yet solved the questions these early science fiction authors posed. He also talks about how many authors at that time who were known primarily for other styles of writing ventured into science fiction, sometimes to the displeasure of their publishers and perhaps to the bafflement of their readers. Certainly some of the names that turn up here surprised me – George Eliot, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. Others are much better known as stalwarts, even progenitors, of the genre: HG Wells, of course, and Edgar Allan Poe, among others. It’s truly a stellar line-up and they have produced some stellar stories – I gave them a veritable galaxy of stars. These are the included stories:

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley – The Mortal Immortal
Edgar Allan Poe – The Conversation of Eiros and Charmian
Nathaniel Hawthorne – Rappaccini’s Daughter
Edgar Allan Poe – The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
Fitz-James O’Brien – The Diamond Lens
George Eliot – The Lifted Veil
Grant Allan – Pausodyne
Frank R Stockton – The Water-Devil: A Marine Tale
HG Wells – The Crystal Egg
Rudyard Kipling – Wireless
Mary E Wilkins Freeman – The Hall Bedroom
HG Wells – The Country of the Blind
EM Forster – The Machine Stops
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – The Terror of Blue John Gap
Jack London – The Red One
Gertrude Barrows Bennett – Friend Island
WEB du Bois – The Comet

With ten out of the seventeen receiving five stars apiece, and nearly all of the others receiving four or four and a half, it’s an almost impossible task to pick favourites, so the ones I’ve chosen to highlight are a fairly random bunch:

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot – The narrator is an introverted, artistic type who, following an illness, develops a kind of second sight which allows him to understand the inner thoughts of those around him, and occasionally to have previsions of the future. Despite a prevision showing him that marriage to the woman he loves is likely to be disastrous, he goes ahead and marries her anyway! After years of misery, a medical friend of his visits and they carry out a scientific experiment which leads to a shocking ending. This wasn’t my favourite story in the collection, although I enjoyed it and felt it was very well written. But I was so taken with the idea of George Eliot writing science fiction that I just had to include it!

The Water-Devil: A Marine Tale by Frank R Stockton – A stranger comes to stay at a village blacksmith’s where the locals gather of an evening to smoke and tell stories. On learning he’s a sea-soldier (marine), they beg him for a tale. He tells them of the time the ship he was on was becalmed in Bengal Bay, despite good winds blowing. One of the crew told them of the Water-Devil – a creature lurking at the bottom of the sea that can trap a ship with its one incredibly long arm, and then pull it down to eat all aboard! Lots of humour in this, beautifully told in the style of old fishermen’s tall tales. The ending clarifies why it counts as science fiction, but obviously I can’t tell you! I’ve only read two tales from Frank R Stockton and loved them both – must seek out more!

The Red One by Jack London – Guadalcanal. A man, a scientist, is ashore from a ship when he hears a strange booming noise. Intrigued, he sets off to investigate, but gets attacked by bushmen and can’t get back to the ship before it sails. He is taken in by some villagers who worship the Red One – the source of the mysterious noise. Although it is forbidden, he persuades one of the village women to take him to see the Red One and he’s astonished by what he finds… This is my first ever Jack London story, and I thought it was brilliantly told, with humour, peril and horror all intermingled. Lots of outdated language about the natives, of course, as is the norm for colonial tales, but in this case I felt it may have been deliberate – i.e., part of the character of the scientist, rather than representative of the views of the author – though I may be wrong. Still a great story, anyway!

The Comet by W.E.B. Du Bois – Jim, a “Negro”, works as a messenger in a bank. Everyone is excited because a comet is just about to make a near pass of the Earth. Jim is sent down to the vault to look for something and when he comes back up, everyone is dead, apparently as a result of the comet. He wanders the city (New York) and eventually finds one living person – a rich, white woman. Du Bois was a writer of the Harlem Renaissance and, while this story is undoubtedly science fiction, it’s also one of the most powerful stories I’ve read from this era (1920) about race. Excellently written, it is raw, full of anger and yet with a tone of despair, and it left me sobbing and furious at the end. I knew his name but haven’t read anything by him before – I’ll certainly be seeking out more.

So some science fiction stalwarts, some old names in a new genre and some new (to me) names who thrilled me. A truly great collection – my highest recommendation!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime edited by Martin Edwards

Taking the low road…

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Another anthology of vintage crime from the British Library, this one has the theme of Scottish stories – either stories written by Scots, or written by people from elsewhere (generally England) but set in Scotland. There are seventeen stories in total, though a handful of them are very short and quite slight. There’s the usual mix of weel-kent names, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson; some regulars of these anthologies, such as Michael Innes and GK Chesterton; and several that I’ve never come across before. Some of my favourite stories were from these never previously encountered writers, of whom several were Scottish, so that pleased my patriotic little soul and has given me a few names to investigate further – always one of the pleasures of these anthologies. The geographical spread is good too – a few of the stories are set in the big cities, but the writers have taken full advantage of the less populated areas of the Highlands and the Borders too.

In terms of quality, there was only one outright dud and that was the Chesterton story. However, regular readers of my reviews might remember that I can’t stand Chesterton’s silly religiosity, and he compounded his usual faults in this one by throwing in just about every negative Scottish stereotype you can think of, so I suspect my rating is quite subjective! Of the rest, I rated ten as either good, very good or excellent, which makes this one of the stronger of these collections. I really liked the variety – everything from humour, both dark and light, to veering towards the noir end of crime fiction, and Edwards has picked a lot of stories that show different aspects of Scottish life, from urban to rural to wilderness, from the mean streets of Glasgow to the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ Lairds of the Highlands. The vast majority of the stories are about the middle or upper classes but that’s standard for British vintage crime generally.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

A Medical Crime by J Storer Clouston – Carrington, a sort of consulting detective, tells of a case in Kinbuckie, a smallish town where a series of burglaries have taken place. The local provost has asked Carrington to investigate, since the police seem baffled. The local Superintendent tells Carrington that there are signs that lead him to believe one of the six local doctors must be involved, and Carrington has to work out which. He uses some clever trickery to do just that. An excellent story, well-written and clever enough to be enjoyable though I did have my suspicions which proved to be right for once. But what lifts it is the gentle humour that Clouston pokes at small-town Scottish prejudices. Lots of fun!

Footsteps by Anthony Wynne – Starring Dr Hailey, who was Wynne’s regular detective. Here he is invited to visit a friend who is staying in an old Scottish castle, where a few years earlier the Laird’s wife had died and the Laird had killed himself. Now ghostly footsteps sound along the corridors and Hailey’s friend’s nerves are frayed to breaking point. Hailey is a strictly rational man, so sets out to discover the truth of the footsteps and in so doing uncovers a dark story of jealousy and murder. A delightfully creepy start to this one and it gradually becomes very dark towards the end. Wynne uses the Gothic setting to create a deliciously sinister and spooky atmosphere.

The Body of Sir Henry by Augustus Muir. MacIver, now a bigwig in the police, tells a tale of when he was a young beat policeman in the Borders. One rainy night a car stops and the driver asks him for directions to a nearby village where there is only one big house (the obvious inference being that anyone who could afford a car back then must be gentry). As the car drives away, it is suddenly lit up by the reflection of its headlights in a shop window, and MacIver sees that the back seat is occupied by a beautiful woman… and what looks to him like a dead man! He decides to follow them on his bicycle to the big house to investigate. The mystery element of this is very slight but the story-telling is great, with a touch of creepiness, some humour and a healthy dash of danger.

The Running of the Deer by PM Hubbard. Our narrator, himself a member of the gentry, has been asked by a friend to supervise the culling of the deer hinds on the friend’s estate. The other two men who are helping with the culling seem to be a little at odds with each other. During the hunt, something spooks the deer and they begin to run towards the stalkers. In the ensuing chaos, one of the two men dies. Accident? Or murder? A very well-written story, full of great descriptions of the hills in winter and of the traditions and rules surrounding deer-stalking, and the behaviour patterns of deer. The strength of the central story is all in the ambiguity of it. My favourite story of the collection!

So loads of variety and lots of writers who deserve to be much better known than they are. I’m off now to see if any of their books are in print!

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The Perfect Crime edited by Vaseem Khan and Maxim Jakubowski

The spice of life…

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The blurb for this anthology claims that it includes stories from “twenty-two best selling crime writers from diverse cultures coming together from across the world”. I’ll start by saying that I don’t think this is an accurate description. All bar one of the authors lives in Britain, US, or one of the old Dominions. The exception is that there’s one author from Nigeria. So while it is true that all the authors bar one are from what we consider in our majority white countries to be ethnic minorities, I would find it hard to say that they represent “the world” unless we consider the English-speaking nations to constitute the world.

So, putting the fashionable diversity selling-point to one side (which is where I wish publishers would put it permanently), how does it work as an anthology of crime stories? As with most anthologies, I found it something of a mixed bag. It divided for me more or less half and half between stories in the poor-to-OK range and stories in the good-to-great range. Some of this is due to my subjective taste – any story, for instance, with excessive swearing or violence is always going to get a low rating from me, but these are such commonplaces in contemporary crime fiction that presumably plenty of people find them enjoyable. A couple of others played the anti-white racism game too unsubtly for my taste. Happily, though, despite that virtue-signalling blurb, most of the authors have steered clear of “diversity” as a subject and have concentrated on writing interesting and entertaining stories.

Overall, the good stories more than made up for the less good ones. I have added several authors to my list to read some of their novels in the future, which is always a sign of success in an anthology. There are noir stories, bleak stories, funny stories, tense stories, and stories that veer very close to horror, sometimes of the camp variety. Lots of originality and variety on display. I’m a bit out of touch with contemporary crime these days, but several of the names were familiar to me – Abir Mukherjee, Sulari Gentill, Ausma Zehanat Khan, etc., while many more were new to me which again is always part of the fun of anthologies.

Here’s a brief flavour of some of the ones I enjoyed most:

Jumping Ship by Oyinkan Braithwaite – Ida’s lover asks her to take some photographs of his new-born baby. She’s reluctant, but agrees. When she gets to his house, he is not there but his wife Mina and the baby are. Then Mina disappears – and later the body of Ida’s lover is discovered. This is very good, quite creepy and tense and very well written. I haven’t read any of Braithwaite’s work before, but when I looked her up I realised that she was the author of the recent very successful My Sister, the Serial Killer, which I’ve now added to my wishlist.

The Beautiful Game by Sanjida Kay – While on a night out with her sisters, Selene meets top footballer Luke Allard. He invites Selene to his house, and they become lovers. Next morning his mum Colette takes Selene under her wing, explaining how she has to behave now she’s Luke’s girlfriend. Selene’s family are thrilled that she has caught the eye of this rich and famous young man, and tell her she has to get a ring on her finger. But there’s a room in Luke’s house… a room that Selene is told she must never enter… 😱
This is excellent – both tense and fun! It’s so far over the top as to be almost camp horror, and it’s very well written. Kay has also written several successful novels, though she’s new to me.

Chinook by Thomas King – A small town in the Rockies. A man is found dead outside the saloon. The police chief, Duke, brings in his pal, Thumps Dreadfulwater, on the investigation. The victim was a bad man so plenty of people might have wanted him dead, and Thumps and Duke work together to find out what happened. The investigation in this one is nearly non-existent but the story and storytelling are great fun. Thumps and Duke are a great pairing, and the small town setting is done very well. While I haven’t read anything by Thomas King before, I was aware of him because of the enthusiasm for his books of Anne at ivereadthis.com. His Thumps Dreadfulwater books are not easily available over here, but I have my fingers crossed that the publisher might put them out on Kindle at some point in the future.

Buttons by Imran Mahmood – Our narrator is Daniel, a narcissist, possibly autistic, with a fetish for buttons. Is he a serial killer? The question becomes important when he goes on a date – will he kill her? This is very well done, ambiguous and scary, and feels fresh and original. Again Mahmood has had a couple of successful novels, although to be honest neither of them appeals to me terribly much. I will look out for his name in the future though.

So, as I said, lots of introductions for me to new authors who have sparked my interest to investigate further. And because of the variety and range, I’m fairly sure every crime fiction fan will find some new authors and some stories to enjoy in this anthology.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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Tuesday ‘Tec! The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding by Agatha Christie

One for the Christmas stocking…

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Unlike a lot of collections put together by editors, Agatha Christie herself originally selected the stories for inclusion in this one, now reprinted by HarperCollins in a gorgeous special edition hardback complete with shiny foil highlights on the cover and delightfully Christmassy endpapers. In her original introduction, also included in the book, Christie tells us:

This book of Christmas fare may be described as ‘The Chef’s Selection. I am the Chef!

There are two main courses: ‘The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding’ and ‘The Mystery of the Spanish Chest; a selection of Entrées: ‘Greenshaw’s Folly’, ‘The Dream’ and ‘The Under Dog’, and a Sorbet: ‘Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds’.

Just six then, but most of them are longer and more substantial than a typical short story, allowing room for full mysteries complete with multiple suspects, plenty of motives and clues galore. I find this longer length works better in the mystery genre – sometimes when a story is very short, it’s also fairly obvious, with no room to hide those essential red herrings. The title story is the only one with a specifically festive setting, and Christie tells us that the Christmas house party in it is based on her own childhood experiences of Christmases spent with relatives in Abney Hall in the north of England.

I loved this collection. I’d read it before long ago and have read a couple of the stories more recently in other anthologies, but the rest had faded into the vast echoing recesses of my dodgy memory banks so that it felt as if I was reading them for the first time. I rated every story as either 4½ or 5 stars, and the fun of the stories was enhanced by the pleasure of reading it in such a well produced edition. Since I’d find it hard to choose favourites, here’s a very brief flavour of each story:

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding – When a young Middle-Eastern prince has a precious ruby stolen, he persuades Poirot to spend Christmas at a house party in King’s Lacey, where the thief is also a guest, in hopes of retrieving the stone without scandal. It’s a fun story with lots of humour, a kindly hostess and some delightful children who decide to give Poirot a murder for Christmas!

The Mystery of the Spanish Chest – On the morning after a party, a body is found in a Spanish chest in the room where the party had been held. A man is quickly arrested, but the wife of the murder victim is convinced he didn’t do it, and asks Poirot for help. Not sure that this one is fair play, but it has a good “impossible crime” element to the solution and some enjoyable characterisation, with a very Christie-esque version of a femme fatale.

The Under Dog – When bad-tempered old Sir Reuben is murdered, it appears only his nephew had the opportunity, and he is arrested. But Sir Reuben’s widow is sure that Sir Reuben’s secretary is the guilty man and calls on Poirot to prove it. Poirot makes it clear that he will consider all the suspects equally though. And first, he has to discover if the nephew is really innocent. Nice twist in the howdunit aspect of this, and it turns out that many people may have had motives. I was satisfyingly surprised when the identity of the murderer was revealed.

Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds – Poirot and a friend are dining out when the friend points out an old man who eats regularly in the restaurant, always ordering the same dishes. However, the waitress tells them that the week before he had suddenly ordered a meal full of dishes he normally avoided. When Poirot later hears that the old man has died after an accidental fall downstairs, he is suspicious and sets out to investigate. The solution here may be a bit obvious, but it’s interestingly told, turning on how we all tend to be creatures of habit.

The Dream – Rich old Benedict Farley summons Poirot, He has been having a recurring dream in which he ends up shooting himself, and wants to know if Poirot thinks someone could be hypnotising him to kill himself. Poirot says no and is dismissed. But a few days later, Farley dies, apparently in exactly the manner of his dream. Finding Poirot’s name in the old man’s diary, the police call him in. This is very well done, and I enjoyed it even though I had a distinct memory of whodunit.

Greenshaw’s Folly – Greenshaw’s Folly is a house built by a rich man, long dead. His elderly granddaughter now owns the place, and she has been dropping hints to various people that she intends to leave them the house in her will. A niece of Miss Marple’s nephew is working for the old lady, going through old Greenshaw’s diairies, so when the old lady is murdered, Miss Marple becomes involved. An excellent story, and a special treat to have a Miss Marple story to round off the collection.

Great stories and a lovely book – perfect gift material for the vintage mystery fan in your life, or better yet, for yourself! Ho! Ho! Ho!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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Tuesday ‘Tec! Murder by the Book edited by Martin Edwards

Beware writers!

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Whenever one of these British Library anthologies, be it crime, science fiction or horror, pops through my door, I rub my hands in glee, knowing that at least some of the stories will be great and I’ll be treated to a raft of authors, both old favourites and new acquaintances. This one contains sixteen stories, all connected in some way to books, book collectors or authors. I came to the conclusion, in fact, that being a writer is a very dangerous thing – so many of them seem to become either murderers or murder victims! Plenty of big names here – Ngaio Marsh, Julian Symons, Christianna Brand, etc. – and a few less well known ones, though through reading so many of these anthologies I’m beginning to recognise and look forward to some of the names which turn up regularly even if I’ve not yet read any of their novels. All those who, like me, loved The Red House Mystery and felt it was such a pity AA Milne only wrote one mystery novel will be delighted to know there’s a short story from him in this collection, and a fine one it is too!

The overall quality of the stories is unusually high. The lowest rating I gave was three stars (meaning OK), but by far the majority were either good or excellent. Eight out of the sixteen earned the full five stars. The variation in styles is also wide, from traditional “closed circle” and “impossible crime” mysteries, to humorous and self-mocking takes on the life of the poor downtrodden mystery writer, all the way to full-on thriller-style stories.

With such a cornucopia of goodies, it’s extremely hard to pick just a few to highlight, but here goes – three picked fairly randomly from my favourites to give a flavour of the variety…

A Question of Character by Victor Canning – Geoffrey Gilroy is a moderately successful thriller writer, but his wife, who had never written before their marriage, has now become a publishing sensation. When he finds himself being referred to as “Martha Gilroy’s husband”, he decides she’s got to go – a nice little murder will salve his vanity, plus it will allow him to marry his mistress, a woman who happily shows no inclination to write books of any kind. He plans the murder meticulously, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans! This is great – it becomes a fast-paced thriller half-way through and builds up some real page-turning tension.

Book of Honour by John Creasey – Malcolm Graham, our narrator, is a book distributor in colonial-era India. One day he gives a little money to a poor man, Baburao, who is trying to sell cheap postcards to eke out a living. Baburao uses the money to set up a rickety shelf from which he sells books. He approaches Malcolm, who again helps him, this time by allowing him to select some of his company’s books to sell, on credit. Baburao uses this favour wisely again, until eventually he has set up a thriving business as a bookseller, with his own shops. But Baburao never forgets his poor origins, and spends his time and money helping those in the famine camps. There is a crime in this one, and it’s rather a heart-breaker, but the overall story is of these two good men, Malcolm and Baburao, and their mutual respect and growing friendship. I thought it was excellent, full of humanity and warmth.

You’re Busy Writing by Edmund Crispin – Ted Bradley is a thriller writer who longs for peace to write. He sets himself a target of 2,000 words a day, but between his cleaning lady and her laundry worries, the telephone and random visitors at his cottage, he finds he’s constantly losing his flow just at the point when he’s come up with a killer metaphor or thrilling clue! On this day he’s already been interrupted countless times when a couple he barely knows turn up at his door, invite themselves in and make it clear they intend to spend the whole day and evening there, drinking his booze and keeping him from his work, until it’s dark enough for them to elope together, deserting their respective spouses. Let’s just say Ted finds a drastic way to solve his problem. Very funny, laugh out loud at some points, and one can’t help feeling it’s written from Crispin’s own experience, although hopefully he found other ways to rid himself of unwanted interruptions!

One final thought – the last four stories in the book are four of the very best. I’ve said it before, but anthologists should always aim to start with a great story or two to get the busy reader’s attention and goodwill, and then keep the rest of the best to end with, and that way the reader will promptly forget if any of the ones in the middle were a bit disappointing. This anthology starts with the weakest story of all in my opinion, but, dear reader, it’s worth rushing past that one because goodies await you in abundance! Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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Pūrākau edited by Witi Ihimaera and Whiti Hereaka

Subtitle: Māori Myths Retold by Māori Writers

Wrong reader, wrong book…

🙂 🙂 😐

This is a collection of short stories and a few poems based on Māori mythology, as the subtitle suggests. Since I know nothing about Māori mythology, I thought this might be an interesting way to fill the gap, but sadly I had to conclude that I was wrong. In retrospect this book would work much better for someone who is already familiar with the mythology and, more importantly, knows a fair amount of the Māori language. The editors have chosen not to include footnotes or even a glossary to explain the many Māori words and expressions used throughout the stories. I get that – why should they? It is not their function to mollycoddle my ignorance. I would not expect someone writing in German to footnote every word for my benefit. Rather, I would choose not to read the book unless and until it was translated into English. With this one, I started out willing to google the translations of the Māori words, but in the end there were so many of them, and some of the stories depended so totally on understanding words or myths unfamiliar to me, that I found I was spending more time reading Google than the book. Eventually I found myself abandoning stories as it began to feel as if I were doing a translation exercise in school rather than reading for pleasure. So, not the book’s fault – it is clearly aimed at a demographic of which I am not part. Wrong reader, wrong book.

In light of that, I’m not sure that anything I have to say about the stories I did make it through would be particularly insightful. I enjoyed some of them, both the retellings of original myths or the stories that took those myths and used them in a modern context. However, I felt the quality varied wildly from excellent to pretty poor. I learned a little about the mythology, though not as much as I had hoped. And I learned something about modern Māori culture, or at least about the authors’ chosen perspectives on Māori culture: the deprivation, the prevalence of substance abuse and incest, and their bitterness against the colonisers and current white population whom they see as the cause of their social problems. The stories set in modern times eliminated my cosy existing belief that somehow New Zealand was doing better on issues of racial harmony than the rest of us. But most of the stories left me feeling that I hadn’t understood them: literally, because I didn’t understand the many Māori words, or figuratively, because I didn’t understand the mythology and culture underpinning them. A fairly generous 2½ stars for me then.

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Midsummer Mysteries by Agatha Christie

The Queen of Crime presents…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

HarperCollins seem to be doing a series of special edition hardback collections of some of Agatha Christie’s short stories, and this is one of them. First off, the books themselves are lovely, much nicer even than the cover images make them appear. They have touches of foil to make them appealingly shiny, the spines are as nicely designed as the fronts, and they all have endpaper patterns suited to the theme of the collection. I’ve been lucky enough to receive a few of them and they look great on the shelf.

This one has a seasonal theme – all the mysteries are set in the types of places we all long to visit for some summer sun. Sadly, I am of course reviewing it in entirely the wrong season, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that in book-blog world it is always summer for somebody, somewhere!

There are twelve stories, plus a short extract from Christie’s autobiography about a rather unpleasant incident in her childhood (which, to be honest, I felt jarred a little with the overall fun tone of the collection even if it did fit the summer vacation theme). The stories have been culled from various other collections, so that all of her recurring detectives are represented. Poirot and Miss Marple appear, of course, as do Tommy and Tuppence, Mr Satterthwaite and Harley Quinn, and Parker Pyne, plus there are a couple of stories which don’t feature a ‘tec at all. As always the standard is variable to an extent, or at least my enjoyment is – I’ve never been a fan of either Parker Pyne or Harley Quinn, but I know a lot of people appreciate them far more than I do. In total, I gave five of the stories the full 5 stars, and the rest ranged between 3½ and 4½, so no duds and a very high standard overall.

Agatha Christie

I’ve highlighted a couple of the five-star stories previously on the blog – The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim and The Idol House of Astarte – so here’s a brief flavour of my other favourites from the collection:

The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman – A doctor friend is visiting Poirot when he receives a message from one of his patients, Count Foscatini, who says he has been attacked and is dying. Sure enough, when Poirot and the doctor get to his house, the Count is dead. Suspicion falls on two Italian men who were apparently the Count’s dinner guests that evening, but Poirot is not convinced! This is quite a slight story, but well done – a proper mystery complete with clues, etc., and rather Holmesian in style as the title would suggest.

The Rajah’s Emerald – James Bond (Ha! Not that one!) is in Kimpton-on-Sea and feeling left out. His girlfriend is staying at the posh Esplanade Hotel while he’s stuck in a cheap boarding house, and she seems more interested in her well-off pals than him. They decide to go for a bathe – the hotel crowd have private changing huts, but James must use the public huts which he discovers are queued out. So he nips into a private bathing hut that has been left open and quickly changes. However, after the swim, he inadvertently pulls on the wrong trousers – a pair that had been left in the hut by its owner. And then he finds something unexpected in the pocket… (see title for clue). This is great fun! A likeable lead character, lots of humour and a good little story – and yes, our James gets his own back on his snobby girlfriend in the end – hurrah!

Jane in Search of a Job – Jane is desperately seeking paid employment, so answers an advertisement in the paper. She finds that the job is to act as a double for a foreign princess, who fears an attempt is to be made on her life. Jane happily takes the job since not only is the pay generous, but she will get to wear some fabulous frocks as she pretends to be the princess. But all is not as it seems, and Jane will soon be in peril! What luck that she should meet a charming and heroic young man at just this time… Another one where the reader is completely on the side of the lovely lead character, and the story has just the right amount of danger, some humour and a smidgen of romance. What more could you want? This is another one that plainly shows the Holmesian influence on Christie’s early stories, but as always she takes an idea and makes it her own.

So a thoroughly enjoyable collection of stories in an attractively designed hardback. Perfect gift material, I’d say, for either existing fan or newcomer. Or for yourself, of course…

(Ooh, and as I went to get links, I’ve just discovered they’ve issued an Audible version too with Hugh Fraser, David Suchet and Joan Hickson narrating the various stories! Sounds fab!)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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Tuesday Terror! Randalls Round: Nine Nightmares by Eleanor Scott

Bedtime reading…

😀 😀 😀 😀

First published in 1929, this was Eleanor Scott’s only collection of weird stories although she wrote several books in other genres. This edition includes all nine of the stories in the original collection, plus two written by “N. Dennett”, now believed to have been a pseudonym of Eleanor Scott, which was itself a pseudonym, the author’s real name being Helen Leys. The introduction is by Aaron Worth, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Boston University, who has appeared on the blog twice before as editor of two excellent collections, Green Tea and Other Weird Stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, and The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen. In fact, Worth takes a large part of the credit for inspiring my interest in weird fiction, so I’m always pleased to see his name pop up.

In his introduction, Worth tells us that the collection didn’t sell well on its original publication, which he suggests was more to do with poor marketing than the quality of the work. While he points out that many of the stories and the general style are rather derivative of other writers of the period, especially MR James, he suggests that Scott took the weird genre in her own direction towards what would later, quite recently in fact, come to be called “folk horror”. He also says that despite the somewhat derivative quality of some of the stories she makes them her own, and describes them as “intrinsically excellent”.

Even with my limited knowledge of weird and horror fiction, I did indeed find that many of the stories felt quite derivative, not just of James but especially of Machen, and being forced into this comparison didn’t work to Scott’s benefit, since I feel Machen is significantly better at “folk horror”, even if it didn’t exist as a genre when he was writing. On reading over my notes on each story, it appears I also had some issues with her endings, being annoyed sometimes by them being left too ambiguous to be satisfying, and then with other stories lamenting that the ending was too obvious, or too neat, or too well explained. Maybe I was just in a picky, Goldilocks kind of mood! There was only one story where I felt the ending had been exactly the bowl of porridge I’d been looking for.

These criticisms notwithstanding, I enjoyed the collection overall, and there were a few stories that I thought were excellent. Scott was very good at creating an atmosphere of unease and some parts of the stories are genuinely scary, with a nightmarish quality to them. In fact, Scott claimed the stories were based on her own nightmares (although Worth amused me by commenting that “one wonders how much these were influenced by her bedtime reading”). I gave three of the stories 5 stars, one 3 stars, and all the rest either 4 or 4½, so a consistently high standard throughout with no real failures. As usual, here’s a flavour of a few of my favourites:

Celui-Lá – On the advice of his doctor, Maddox goes for a break to a small village in Breton, where he stays with the local priest. Maddox is walking on the beach when he sees a strange figure, digging in the sand. The figure sees Maddox and runs off, so Maddox goes to where it was digging and finds an ancient parchment. The priest believes the words on the parchment are an incantation – but too late! Maddox has already read them aloud! This one felt particularly derivative, but it’s well written and quite effective in creating a nightmarish atmosphere, and this was the one where I felt the ending achieved the perfect balance of being ambiguous but satisfying.

The Tree – Two young artists, a couple, take a studio, outside which grows a giant ash tree. Ralph hates it and wants to chop it down, and Nan reluctantly agrees. But then Ralph has a dream in which every axe stroke against the tree seems also to be cutting into him, so they decide to keep the tree. But somehow it has worked its way into Ralph’s mind, and now everything he paints has the tree in it, spoiling his work. Nan decides to take drastic action… Again derivative – Worth mentions Walter de la Mare’s The Tree, which overall I feel is a better story – but it’s again very effective at creating an atmosphere of impending dread.

The Old Lady – Our narrator, Honor, is a student at Oxford. She bets a friend that she can get on with anyone, and her friend chooses Adela, another student, a shrinking, silent girl. Honor duly befriends Adela, and is able to wangle an invite to her home in the holidays, where Adela lives with her guardian – a creepy, ancient old woman. Honor is invited back for the midsummer break, but Adela warns her that mysterious deaths tend to happen around midsummer. This is a spooky one, but Honor is delightfully feisty and doesn’t plan on being anybody’s victim! A very enjoyable story even though the ending is a bit too abrupt.

So a good collection rather than a great one for me, but an interesting addition to the BL’s always intriguing Tales of the Weird series.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

* * * * *

Later…

*Gulps* I forgot to put the porpy’s bit in and now he’s furious! So here he is…

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮 😮

(I’m off to hide now… see ya later!)

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Tuesday ‘Tec! Bodies from the Library 4 edited by Tony Medawar

Back on form…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The theme of this series of anthologies of vintage mystery stories is that they are all, or mostly, ones that have never before been collected in book form since their first appearance in magazines or occasionally as scripts for radio plays. I was a little disappointed in the last collection, and speculated that there must be a limited number of good uncollected stories still to be found. I’m delighted to say that this fourth anthology has proved me wrong – I happily eat my words! There are seventeen stories in this one, ranging from some that are only a few pages long right up to a short novel-length one from Christianna Brand, which frankly is worth the entrance price alone. There are some big names – Brand, of course, Ngaio Marsh, ECR Lorac, Edmund Crispin, et al – and, as usual, a few that were new to me. The last six stories form a little series, when well-known writers of the day were challenged by a newspaper to write a story based on a picture each of them were given. These are fun, showing how the authors used the pictures as inspiration to come up with some intriguing little stories. They reminded me of the “writing prompts” that are common around the book blogosphere.

Of course the quality varies, and there were several of the stories that got fairly low individual ratings from me (some of which are from the bigger names too). But they were mostly the shorter, less substantial stories, and were well outweighed by the many excellent ones. Overall, my individual ratings work out at around 4 stars as an average for the full seventeen stories, but I feel I enjoyed the collection more than a 4-star rating suggests, so 4½ stars it is (rounded up). Before I list my four favourites, I’d like to give honourable mentions to ECR Lorac, whose very short Two White Mice Under a Riding Whip is a clever cipher story; Passengers by Ethel Lina White, which is the original short story that she later expanded to become The Wheel Spins (The Lady Vanishes) – I think I actually enjoyed it even more in this short version; and The Post-Chaise Murder by Richard Keverne, a historical mystery set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, and very well done. As you can see, I was spoiled for choice when it came to picking favourites, but here are the chosen ones!

Shadowed Sunlight by Christianna Brand – as I said, this one is the length of a short novel with all the benefits that has in terms of room for character development and a more complex plot. A group of people are on a yacht when one of them is killed by cyanide poisoning. All the people aboard may have had a motive and it’s up to DI Dickinson from Scotland Yard to find the solution, which he eventually does by having a tension-filled reconstruction of the crime. The characters are very well drawn, although not very likeable, and there is a revolting “adorable child” whom surprisingly no one shoves overboard – a sad mistake, in my opinion. Dickinson is well portrayed as a detective tackling his first solo case and fearing he might fail.

Child’s Play by Edmund Crispin – Judith is the new governess to four children, three the children of her employers and the fourth a young girl, Pamela, whom they took in when family friends died in an accident, leaving her an orphan. Pamela is unhappy, partly through grief for her parents and homesickness, and partly because the other children bully her. And then she is murdered. Gosh, this is a dark one! There is so much psychological cruelty in it – not just the children’s bullying but also the mother turning a blind eye to what’s going on, and Judith’s angry reaction. It’s very well done, and remarkably disturbing for such a short tale.

The Police are Baffled by Alec Waugh – the plot of this will sound very familiar, so a reminder that it was first published in 1931. Two men fall into conversation in a pub, chatting about how hard it is for the police to find a murderer when there’s no apparent motive or the person who will gain most has an unshakeable alibi. One suggests to the other that they should swap murders – he will kill the other man’s wife, if the other man will kill his rich uncle. It’s short, very well written, and in my opinion much more effective than Strangers on a Train (1950). Since Highsmith would only have been ten and in America when this story made its appearance in a British magazine, I assume the similarities are simply coincidental, but they’re still remarkable. Alec Waugh, incidentally, was Evelyn’s older brother.

Riddle of an Umbrella by J Jefferson Farjeon – this is one of the six stories based on a picture, in this case a picture of an umbrella leaning against a railway signal post. The narrator is walking by the railway one night when he sees first the abandoned umbrella, then a cap on the railway line. Puzzled, he walks further along the line and discovers a body, and also that the line has been sabotaged. And then he spots that the signal has turned to green – a train is on the way! The resulting story is a mixture of thriller and mystery as he tries to avert an accident and work out why the man is dead. Short but excellent, a good plot with touches of both humour and horror.

So overall, a very enjoyable collection and I’m now waiting to see if Medawar can find even more great uncollected stories for another volume!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

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Guilty Creatures edited by Martin Edwards

“…and only man is vile”

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Another anthology of vintage mystery stories from the British Library and Martin Edwards, this time themed around animals, birds and insects but happily they are all in the nature of clues rather than victims! There are fourteen stories in total, as usual including some very well known authors, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, GK Chesterton and Edgar Wallace, some that were new to me, such as Garnett Radcliffe and Clifford Witting, and some that have become stalwarts of this series, such as HC Bailey and F Tennyson Jesse.

This was an even more mixed bag than usual for me. Although there were several excellent stories, there were an equal number that I felt were quite poor. Overall my individual ratings for each story averaged out to just over 3½ for the fourteen, so that’s the rating I’m giving the book (rounded up). However, the better stories are very enjoyable, so if you don’t mind varying quality there’s still plenty in here to make reading it time well spent.

Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – This is an unusual one in that it’s told by Holmes himself, and Watson isn’t in it. Holmes has retired to the Sussex coast and is present when a teacher from the local school staggers up the beach, mutters something that sounds like “the lion’s mane” and promptly dies. His back is covered in weals as if from a scourge. Suspicion falls on another teacher, but Holmes has his own theory. I can’t tell you what creature is involved in this one since it would be a major spoiler!

Pit of Screams by Garnett Radcliffe – a colonial tale. A Rajah keeps a pit of vipers where he sentences criminals to die. There is a pole in the pit where the condemned person can hang above the vipers until their strength gives way and they fall to their doom. It’s a spectator sport! Our narrator tells of one man, unfairly sentenced, and builds some great tension as the man hangs over the pit. The story is complete tosh and has some unfortunate outdated racial stuff, but it’s well written and very entertaining and has a delicious sting in the tail which genuinely took me by surprise.

The Yellow Slugs by HC Bailey – a Reggie Fortune story. He is called in by Superintendent Bell to a troubling case. A small boy was seen trying to drown his little sister. Both survived and are in hospital. There seems little doubt that the boy meant to kill her, but Reggie wants to know why. He believes that there must have been a very strong reason for a child of that age to act that way, especially since the boy seems to love his sister. This is a chilling and disturbing story. I’ve read a couple of Fortune stories where children have been involved and they seem to bring out his strong sense of justice and an underlying anger, presumably the author’s, at some of the social concerns of the day. The title tells you which creature is involved, but you’ll need to read it if you want to know how!

The Man Who Shot Birds by Mary Fitt – A student is in lodgings when he is visited by a friendly but thieving jackdaw, who makes off with anything shiny he can find. But there’s a man going around the neighbourhood shooting birds, and he seems to be unable to tell the difference between jackdaws and crows (which everyone seems to think it’s OK to shoot).The student is scared for the jackdaw’s safety so decides to try to save it. This is very well done and all the stuff about the jackdaw’s behaviour is lovely. The mystery is weaker, but the entertainment of the story is all in the telling. No major plot spoilers, but for the worried I can confirm the jackdaw isn’t harmed.

So some excellent and varied stories and, as always, despite the varying quality in these anthologies, they are a great way of being introduced to new authors to look out for.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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Tuesday Terror! Cornish Horrors: Tales from the Land’s End edited by Joan Passey

Not a pasty in sight…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Another recent issue in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, this anthology contains fifteen vintage horror stories, all set in spooky old Cornwall. Well, actually two or three of them are “true” accounts from memoirs and so on, rather than stories as such, but all including some ghostly or terrifying natural occurrence. There’s the usual mix of very well known authors such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe, along with some names that were completely new to me, like Mary E. Penn and someone going simply by the initials M.H.

This may be the most mixed of all the collections to date for me. There are some great stories in here, several well-known and others I hadn’t come across before, but there are also a considerable number of duds which I felt really weren’t worthy of inclusion. I gave seven of them 5 stars and another two rated as 4. The remaining six were evenly distributed – two apiece to 3, 2 and 1 stars. One of the 1-stars was particularly annoying since it was a story by Mary E. Braddon – Colonel Benyon’s Entanglement – which was shaping up to be excellent and then stopped abruptly what seemed like halfway through. Whether this is a publishing error or whether Braddon never completed the story I don’t know and I haven’t been able to track down an online version to check, but since the intro doesn’t mention that it’s unfinished, I have to assume error.

Some of the 4 and 5 star stories have appeared here on the blog before in the Tuesday Terror! slot: Ligeia by Edgar Allan Poe, The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford and The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot, a wonderfully dark Holmes story from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Here’s a flavour of a few others that I particularly enjoyed:

Ligeia – Arthur Rackham

The Phantom Hare by M.H. – Told by Bessy, a farmer’s daughter, this is the story of Hubert, a rather nasty young man who is pursuing a local heiress when he suddenly finds himself being haunted by a white hare. Local superstition has it that if a man deserts a woman and she dies of it (as you do!) then the woman will return in the form of a white hare when her former lover is about to meet his doom. Bet Hubert wishes he hadn’t deserted Bessy’s old school friend now! Very well told, with excellent characterisation of Bessy and a good local feel to the superstition, it culminates in an ending that may not be surprising but is still satisfying.

In the Mist by Mary E. Penn – Narrated by the local vicar, who tells of two young parishioners, Winnie and Noel, who are deeply in love. But Noel is a jealous type, always accusing Winnie of flirting, and one day in the midst of an argument Winnie breaks off their engagement. Later that night, they meet on the cliff edge and Noel tries to win her back. But Winnie falls over the cliff and disappears, presumably sucked out to sea. Did she fall though or was she pushed? This isn’t really horror – it’s more melodramatic romance, but it’s beautifully done and thoroughly enjoyable.

The Coming of Abel Behenna by Bram Stoker – Two Cornish fishermen, Abel and Eric, had grown up together and were best friends. But both have now fallen in love with the same woman – the frivolous and indecisive Sarah. Since she refuses to choose, the men propose they should toss a coin for her and she agrees! The winner will take the small accumulated wealth of both men and go off on a trading voyage for a year to try to make enough money to marry on. Abel wins, and duly sets off on his travels. But will Eric, mad with love and jealousy, stand by his bet? This is an excellent story, Bram Stoker at his very considerable best. It is a story of passion, guilt and revenge – nothing supernatural, purely humanity and nature combining to chill the reader’s blood, and the ending lingers long after the last page is turned.

The Mask by F. Tennyson Jesse – Another about a woman with two suitors and just as dark as the Stoker story, but otherwise entirely different. Vashti Bath chooses James Glasson, a cold and domineering man destined for success. An accident damages him badly, though, destroying his prospects and forcing him to wear a mask, and he becomes even harsher to Vashti. Soon she turns to her other old suitor, Willie Strick, a weaker man but still passionately in love with her, and they start an affair. But then one night James returns home unexpectedly and finds Willie and Sarah together… Again a story of human passions rather than the supernatural but it gets very tense towards the end and has some real touches of horror.

The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot

So plenty of excellent stuff here, but because the quality ranges so wildly and because several of the best stories are ones that have been collected many times before and may be familiar to horror readers already, I’m a little wary of giving this one a blanket recommendation. If you’re newish to the genre and haven’t read many of the stories I’ve mentioned, then there’s plenty in here to interest and entertain despite the duds. However if you’ve already read several of the stories I’ve named, you might end up disappointed with the rest of the collection. For me, there were enough good stories that I hadn’t read before to make it enjoyable overall.

(Since he was in Cornwall, the porpy
enjoyed a little paddle in the sea…)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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Future Crimes edited by Mike Ashley

Time travel, telepaths and technology…

:mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

A new anthology in the British Library Science Fiction Classics series, this one brings together ten stories each featuring a crime mystery in a futuristic setting. It is edited as usual by Mike Ashley, who also provides a short introduction to the collection and an individual mini-bio of each of the authors. Most of the stories date from the 1950s and ‘60s – still in the heyday of the science fiction magazines – and there’s a lot of play on time travel, telepathy and advanced technology, with the occasional alien thrown in for good measure. As always, some of the authors are so well known even I, as a dabbler in SF, know of them, such as Isaac Asimov and Anne McCaffrey; some have become familiar to me through their inclusion in earlier anthologies in the series, such as John Brunner and Eric Frank Russell; and a couple are new names to me, such as George Chailey and Miriam Allen deFord. While most of them are SF writers crossing over into crime, crime fans will also be intrigued to see PD James putting in an appearance, crossing in the other direction into SF.

As in any anthology, the quality of the stories, or my enjoyment of them at least, varies quite a lot. Overall, I gave three of them five stars while another three really didn’t work for me, and the rest all rated four stars, so I’d consider this as a solid collection rather than an outstanding one. In tone, they range from fairly light-hearted amusements to rather bleak, almost dystopian tales, verging on noir once or twice.

Here’s a brief look at some of the ones I enjoyed most:

Mirror Image by Isaac Asimov (1972) – This brings together Asimov’s famous detective duo who appear in several novels together – Elijah Bailey, an Earth police officer, and R. Daneel Olivaw, a humanoid robot built by the Spacer community. Daneel is on a space-ship, where two famous mathematicians are also partners. They each claim to have had a brilliant mathematical idea and consulted the other, and now accuse the other of having stolen the idea from them. Each has a robot servant, and each of these robots, programmed not to lie, is backing its own master’s version of events. Daneel persuades the ship’s captain to consult his friend, Elijah. While Elijah uses the Three Laws of Robotics in working out the solution, it’s really his knowledge of human nature that gives him the clue he needs. Very well told, ingenious plot, and it’s always a pleasure to meet with this duo.

Murder, 1986 by PD James (1970) – A disease brought to Earth from space has ravaged humanity. Most of the remaining population are carriers – Ipdics (Interplanetary Disease Infection Carriers) – and are subject to severe restrictions by the relatively few unaffected humans. Ipdics are not allowed to marry or breed, or have close contact with the unaffected. So when Sergeant Dolby discovers the body of a murdered young woman, the general feeling is that it’s unimportant since she was only an Ipdic, and one less Ipdic is a good thing for humanity. But Dolby can’t see it that way, and decides to carry out his own investigation. This is a bleak story, but very well told. Although only thirty pages or so long, James finds room to show the cruelty with which the Ipdics are treated, driven by the strength of the human survival instinct. As you might expect, this is one of the strongest stories in terms of the mystery plotting, fair play and an excellent, if depressing, denouement.

The Absolutely Perfect Murder by Miriam Allen deFord (1965) – This is a light-hearted bit of fun – a nice contrast to some of the grimmer stories in the book. Our anti-hero Mervyn is tired, very tired, of his nagging, over-bearing wife. For the last couple of years he’s been trying to think of a foolproof way to murder her (because despite this being in the far future, apparently divorce laws haven’t moved on from the mid-twentieth century). Now he learns that time travel has been made commercial, and decides to pop back into the past and do the deed there. While the twist in the tail might be a little obvious, it’s entertaining.

Elsewhen by Anthony Boucher (1943) – Mr Partridge invents a time machine that can only go back a maximum of two hours into the past. Needing money to develop it and to win the love of his life, Mr Partridge decides to use the time machine to commit a murder that will result in him inheriting his rich great-uncle’s wealth. But private detective Fergus O’Breen gets involved in the murder investigation and he’s not a man to let a little thing like time travel baffle him! This is a great twist on a standard locked room mystery and on a novel way to create a perfect alibi. While the time-travelling paradox aspect befuddled my mind (as it usually does), the mystery plotting aspect is excellent. It’s well written and very entertaining, and probably my favourite story in the collection.

So plenty of good stuff here, and it’s fun to see how the authors try to stick to the conventions of mystery writing while incorporating the more imaginative SF stuff. Recommended to SF fans, but also to mystery fans who dare to step a little out of their comfort zone.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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Tuesday ’Tec! The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim by Agatha Christie

Never bet against Poirot…

I seem to be reading as many mystery short stories this autumn as horror, so it’s time to let one of the greatest detectives of all time take over the Tuesday slot for a change! The story will have been collected many times, I imagine, but I read it in the new collection from HarperCollins, Midsummer Mysteries, which I’ll review fully soon…

Tuesday Tec2

The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim
by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

.….Poirot and I were expecting our old friend Inspector Japp of Scotland Yard to tea. We were sitting round the tea-table awaiting his arrival. Poirot had just finished carefully straightening the cups and saucers which our landlady was in the habit of throwing, rather than placing, on the table.

If I were Hastings, I’d find the temptation to unstraighten the cups and saucers again irresistible! Anyway, Japp arrives…

….“Hope I’m not late,” he said as he greeted us. “To tell the truth, I was yarning with Miller, the man who’s in charge of the Davenheim case.”

Poirot and Hastings are immediately intrigued, having seen the story in the papers…

….For the last three days the papers had been full of the strange disappearance of Mr. Davenheim, senior partner of Davenheim and Salmon, the well-known bankers and financiers. On Saturday last he had walked out of his house, and had never been seen since.

On Hastings remarking that in these days of technology it ought to be impossible for someone to successfully disappear, Poirot demurs…

….“Mon ami,” said Poirot, “you make one error. You do not allow for the fact that a man who had decided to make away with another man—or with himself in a figurative sense—might be that rare machine, a man of method. He might bring intelligence, talent, a careful calculation of detail to the task; and then I do not see why he should not be successful in baffling the police force.”

Japp then slyly suggests that of course Poirot would not be baffled…

….Poirot endeavoured, with a marked lack of success, to look modest. “Me, also! Why not? It is true that I approach such problems with an exact science, a mathematical precision, which seems, alas, only too rare in the new generation of detectives!”

Japp says confidently that the detective in charge of the case is excellent at spotting clues, but Poirot is unimpressed. He feels that in a case like this, merely collecting clues will not be enough – one must exercise the little grey cells. Grinning, Japp suggests a wager…

….“You don’t mean to say, Monsieur Poirot, that you would undertake to solve a case without moving from your chair, do you?”
….“That is exactly what I do mean—granted the facts were placed before me. I regard myself as a consulting specialist.”

….Japp slapped his knee. “Hanged if I don’t take you at your word. Bet you a fiver that you can’t lay your hand—or rather tell me where to lay my hand—on Mr. Davenheim, dead or alive, before a week is out.”

And so the race is on…

* * * * *

Considering how short a story this is, there’s a good plot, plenty of clues and it is essentially fair play. It’s also a light-hearted tale, with lots of humour in the banter between our three favourites, Poirot, Hastings and Japp. In these very early Christie stories – this one is from 1923 – it’s often easy to see the influence of Christie’s love for the Holmes and Watson stories, not just in the relationship between Poirot and Hastings, but sometimes also because she picks up on elements from the stories and uses them, not in a plagiarising way but as jumping off points for her own originality. This one takes a couple of points from one of the Holmes stories – which I’m not going to name since it would be a spoiler for anyone who knows those stories – and builds an entirely new set of characters and motives around them. I have to admit that once I recognised the influence, I was able to quite quickly work out the mystery, but if anything that added to my enjoyment rather than diminishing it. I love sharing my own Holmes geekery with Ms Christie!

If you’d like to read it for yourself, here’s a link.

* * * * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Tuesday ‘Tec! The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Holmes is alive!

😀 😀 😀 😀

The Return of Sherlock HolmesThis is the third volume of Holmes short stories, and in my opinion the weakest overall, although it still has several good stories in it. Forced by popular sentiment and commercial realities to resuscitate Holmes after the unfortunate drowning incident at the Reichenbach Falls, I always have the feeling that Conan Doyle’s heart wasn’t really in it at this stage – some of these are a bit bland in terms of plot. In the later volumes I feel he got back into his stride and came up with more imaginative and dramatic scenarios – some so imaginative, admittedly, that they test credibility to the breaking point, but more exciting on the whole.

That rather negative introduction shouldn’t put new readers off though – even the weaker Holmes stories are always well worth reading, simply for ACD’s easy, flowing writing style which makes anything he writes a pleasure to read. And the relationship between Holmes and his admiring friend Watson is always a joy.

Tuesday Tec2

The first story, and the worst of all the Holmes stories for me, is The Adventure of The Empty House in which Holmes returns from the grave, startling Watson into a fainting fit. It’s full of plot holes and the explanation for why Holmes has left his old friend grieving for him for several years makes Holmes seem even colder and more heartless than usual. During this period Watson lost his beloved wife, Mary, and Holmes, having sent no word of comfort at the time, barely bothers to condole with him even now. But the real weakness is that the reason for Holmes’ long absence makes no sense. Supposedly staying presumed dead so that he can work quietly to destroy the remnants of Moriarty’s organisation, we quickly discover that Moriarty’s number two, Colonel Moran, saw Holmes escape from the Reichenbach incident. So everyone – Moriarty’s people and the police – all knew Holmes was alive, but he still didn’t tell dear old Watson. If I’d been Watson, I’d have punched him! Watson, being much sweeter than I, instead welcomes him back with open arms and an open heart. I love Watson…

dr watsonThe Dr Watson

Anyway, after that frankly disappointing start, the collection reverts to the usual format of individual cases often brought to Holmes by the baffled police. Lestrade (my favourite bumbling policeman) appears in several, as does Stanley Hopkins, of whom for some reason Holmes thinks highly, although he always seems just as befuddled as poor Lestrade to me! There are missing rugby players, mysterious ciphers, blackmailers, abusive husbands, imperilled women, Russian nihilists, stolen government plans, etc., etc., and we also have Holmes saving the world from war (as he does a few times over his career) in the final story, The Adventure of the Second Stain.

blood-spatter

Here’s a flavour of a few of my favourites:

The Adventure of the Dancing Men – Hilton Cubitt approaches Holmes because he is finding little drawings of dancing men around his property and they seem to be terrifying his wife. Actually this is one of Holmes’ major failures in that he fails to solve the dancing men cipher in time to prevent the tragedy that the messages foretell, but I love those dancing men! Sadly I’ve read it so often now I know what the messages mean, but the first time(s) I read it I had great fun trying and failing to crack the code.

Elementary, my dear Watson!

(bonus points if you crack the code – clue: the first letter is E)

The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist – A woman in peril story, as Miss Violet Smith becomes the target of evil men for nefarious reasons that only become clear at the end. I enjoy Miss Smith’s feisty independence and courage, even if she does have a (justifiable) fit of the vapours at the climax of the story. And there’s something very creepy about the way ACD describes her being followed as she cycles along deserted country roads. This is another it’s important not to analyse too deeply because frankly the climax ignores minor details like how the law works in the England of the time, but it’s fun anyway.

The Solitary Cyclist

The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton – Milverton is a notorious blackmailer who preys on society ladies who have been indiscreet. Holmes is asked for help by one such lady, and both he and Watson are at their chivalrous best, even going so far as to break the law in an attempt to get back the lady’s letters. This one tootles along at a steady pace and then suddenly blows up into a spectacular climax! A real “I did not see that coming!” moment, and brilliantly done!

Charles Augustus Milverton (2)

The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez – Inspector Stanley Hopkins asks for Holmes’ help in a puzzling case involving the murder of the secretary of Professor Coram at Yoxley Old Place. I love this for three major reasons: I love the name Yoxley Old Place – it sounds so deliciously Gothic; this is where I first heard of pince-nez and the idea of them tickled young FF’s fancy; and mostly, I love the brilliant way Holmes uses cigarettes to solve the case, much to Watson’s baffled disgust!

Golden Pince Nez

The second-best Holmes

So, much to enjoy even in this relatively weaker collection. I listened to Derek Jacobi narrating them, and he really is the perfect Watson, as well as creating a full range of voices and personalities for all the other many characters who cross the pages.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Tuesday Terror! Green Tea and Other Weird Stories by Sheridan Le Fanu

Read after dark…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In terms of horror writing, it could be said that Sheridan Le Fanu needs no introduction, but in fact the introduction in this new collection of his work adds a lot of interesting insight into his life and work. Aaron Worth, Associate Professor of Rhetoric at Boston University, discusses whether Le Fanu was really the originator of weird fiction, as a term as well as a sub-genre, as is sometimes claimed. This, of course, depends very much on how the term ‘weird fiction’ is defined, and Worth shows how it has changed over time, from something implying “a coherent, ordered cosmic system” to its currently popular meaning of “cosmic meaningless”. He also discusses the influence on Le Fanu’s work of his position as an Anglo-Irish Protestant of Huguenot descent living as part of a ruling class over a largely Catholic country.

J Sheridan Le Fanu

Personally I think of Le Fanu as Gothic rather than weird, but all these definitions are a bit vague round the edges and tend to meld into one another. However he is classified, there’s no doubt he wrote some great stories and influenced many of the writers who came after him. This collection contains twelve stories, three of them novella length, and an exceptionally fine bunch they are, including some of his best known such as Green Tea, Schalken the Painter and my own favourite vampire story, the wonderful Carmilla. Individually I gave six of them the full five stars, and the other six got either four or four and a half, so this ranks as one of the most highly rated horror collections I’ve reviewed. In most cases where more than one version of the story exists, Worth has gone back to the original and that seemed to me to work very well – there were a few of the stories I’d read before that I enjoyed more here, either because later changes had been stripped out or because the excellent notes provided extra information that enhanced my reading. I’ve said it before, but this is another example of how a well curated collection can become greater than the sum of its parts.

When so many of the stories are good, it’s hard to pick just a few to highlight, but these are ones I particularly enjoyed:

Borrhomeo the Astrologer – Set in Milan in 1630, a plague year. Borrhomeo is an alchemist, seeking the elixir of life and the potion that will turn lead into gold. The devil, disguised as a young man, turns up and tempts him by giving him enough of the elixir to allow him to live for a thousand years. But in return he must go out and spread the pestilence to all the churches and holy houses in the city. The moral of the story is – never trust the devil offering gifts! Borrhomeo’s fate may be well deserved but I’m not sure what the Court of Human Rights would have to say about it… 😱

Green Tea – The story of a clergyman who, through drinking too much green tea, begins to hallucinate – or is it real? – a monkey that goes everywhere with him. This is bad enough, but when the monkey begins to speak, cursing foully and blasphemously, the clergyman finds he can no longer pray. He contacts Dr Hesselius, a specialist in such matters of the mind, but will Hesselius be able to find a cure for his problem before it’s too late? There’s lots in this about Swedenborg – a Swedish theologian and philosopher whose rather strange ideas, Worth tells us, Le Fanu used more than once as an influence for his stories.

The Haunted House in Westminster – This story is probably better known as Mr Justice Harbottle from Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly collection, but here Worth has given us the original, and for me it works better in this format. The corrupt and cruel hanging judge deliberately hangs a man whose wife he has taken to be his housekeeper – a euphemism for mistress, of course. But the judge then receives a letter warning him he will be tried for this crime in a “Court of Appeals”. This is no ordinary part of the justice system though – one night the judge falls asleep and finds himself in a very strange and frightening court, waiting for judgement to be handed down… 😱

Carmilla – not the first vampire story, but one of the best and certainly one of the most influential on the vampire genre. This is novella length, which allows room for character development, but keeps it tighter and more focused than a full length novel would be (looking at you, Dracula!). When a young girl falls ill close to Laura’s isolated Gothic Austrian home, Laura’s father takes her in. Laura feels immediately drawn to her, having dreamt about her in childhood. But Carmilla has a secret… and sharp teeth! Full of mild lesbian eroticism and a wonderful mix of the Gothic and folklore traditions, this has some great horror imagery, such as the coffin half-filled with blood in which the vampire sleeps. Much better than Dracula’s dirt!

I have also previously highlighted two of the stories in Tuesday Terror! posts – Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter and Madam Crowl’s Ghost.

Wonderful stuff! Enough horror to satisfy those who like to shiver, but also great writing and lots to analyse for those who prefer to dig a little deeper, guided by an expert. Highly recommended!

After that the porpy has decided he’s going into hibernation! He thanks you for your company and will be back in autumn, rested and ready to quiver again!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Tuesday ‘Tec! Bodies from the Library 3 edited by Tony Medawar

Mixed bag…

🙂 🙂 🙂

As with the previous books in the series, this is a collection of stories that have rarely or never been included in a collection before. There are twelve stories, plus a fun collection of very short shorts where several writers were challenged to come up with a story all using the same object – an orange. There’s the usual mix of well known authors like Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh, alongside some that have recently come back to prominence during the current revival, like Christopher St John Sprigg and Josephine Bell, and a few from authors entirely unfamiliar to me.

The problem with these “never before collected” collections is that there is bound to be a finite number of great stories that fall into that category. I read and loved the second book in the series, and was surprised at the high quality of the stories in it. I’m afraid this one feels rather like the leftovers – the ones that weren’t good enough to be included in the earlier books. Only one achieved a five-star rating from me – The Hampstead Murder by Christopher Bush, which I highlighted in a previous Tuesday ‘Tec! post. A handful got four stars, but I found the rest disappointing and not really worth the bother of collecting. I feel the series has probably run its course, in this format at least.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the better stories:

The Incident of the Dog’s Ball by Agatha Christie – although this story was only discovered many years after Christie’s death, it has certainly been collected before since I had already read it! A woman writes to Poirot for advice, but the letter doesn’t arrive till some months later. Poirot discovers the woman died just after she had written the letter, a death put down to accident. But the letter makes Poirot think that there may have been a darker cause, so he sets out to investigate. This story forms the nucleus of the plot of what would become the novel, Dumb Witness.

The Case of the Unlucky Airman by Christopher St John Sprigg – it’s sad that Sprigg died so young, since the little I’ve read of his stuff suggests he had a lot of talent. This one involves an airman who lands to get an oil leak fixed. He taxies into an empty hangar, there is the sound of a shot and he is found dead. An intriguing take on a “locked room” mystery – well told and quite fun.

The Riddle of the Black Spade by Stuart Palmer – a man is killed on a golf course, apparently by a ball with a black spade trademark. At first, his son is suspected, until it turns out the ball was one of the victim’s own. The police captain investigating the death is “assisted” by a spinster lady, Hildegard Withers, who apparently was the star of a series of novels and stories, and popular in her day. This story is light-hearted and entertaining, with some surprises and a clearly explained howdunit solution.

Grand Guignol by John Dickson Carr – written while he was at University, this story formed the basis of his early novel It Walks By Night. I felt a bit smug about that, since in my review of It Walks By Night, I mentioned that the book made me think of the traditions of Grand Guignol! The basic plot and solution are the same but it’s done differently, and the dénouement here is all a bit silly and unbelievable. But it’s an interesting look at the beginnings of the style he would later develop into the decadent horror feel of the Bencolin novels.

So a few enjoyable stories, though often as much for seeing how these famous authors started out than as polished articles in their own right. I’m sure real vintage crime fans will find enough of interest to make reading the collection worthwhile, as I did, but for newcomers or more casual fans I’d recommend the earlier book, Bodies from the Library 2, as a more entertaining collection overall. I haven’t mentioned the first book in the series because I haven’t yet read it.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, HarperCollins.

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Transwarp Tuesday! Born of the Sun edited by Mike Ashley

Touring the Solar System…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This collection of ten vintage science fiction stories takes us on a tour of our Solar System. “Ten?” I hear you ask. Yes, there are six of the seven actual planets in the system (excluding Earth). Saturn’s moon Titan is included instead of the planet itself. (Well, obviously one couldn’t live on Saturn, silly!) Pluto is included because it was considered a planet until Neil De Grasse Tyson viciously demoted it to lump of rock or some such. The Asteroid Belt gets its own entry since there have been lots of stories about it. And there’s a mysterious planet, Vulcan – never seen but once postulated to exist by scientists trying to explain the oddness of Mercury’s orbit before Einstein’s theories provided a better explanation; and exercising a considerable magnetic pull on the imaginations of SF writers of the time.

The editor, Mike Ashley (who is wonderful at these anthologies, by the way), has chosen most of the stories from the ‘40s and ‘50s, with just a couple of earlier ones and a couple from the ‘60s. He explains that this is because he wanted to “select stories that took at least some notice of the scientific understanding of the day”. Before each story there is an introduction to the planet, giving its dual history – the advances in scientific understanding of its physical properties over the decades, along with a potted history of how it was viewed and used over time by SF writers. These intros are fantastic – pitched at absolutely the right level for the interested non-scientist and packed full of examples of authors and specific stories to investigate further. (Would make the basis for a great challenge, and I may be unable to resist!) Each story is also prefaced with fabulous pictures of the relevant planetscape, mostly as envisioned by Lucien Rudaux, a French artist and astronomer of the early 20th century. I must say that, much though I enjoyed most of the stories, it was the intros in this one that made it extra special – of all the great anthologies the BL has produced this year, this one is my favourite by miles… or I should probably say, by light-years!

On to the actual stories! Of the ten, I gave six either 4 or 5 stars, and only a couple were duds for me, one which went on too long and another which I simply didn’t understand, so it may work fine for the more science-minded reader. Here’s a flavour of a few of those I most enjoyed:

Foundling on Venus by John and Dorothy De Courcy. A story of the various races and species all living in New Reno, a frontier town on Venus, with all the violence and vice that usually comes with that. The story tells of a child found in the street by a young woman, and we gradually learn how he, and she, came to be there. I used this one for a Transwarp Tuesday! Post.

The Lonely Path by John Ashcroft. Mars! The first manned flight has landed on Mars, sent to examine a strange tower standing hugely high in the desolate landscape. The astronauts gradually discover the purpose of the tower and what happened to its builder. It’s an excellent, novelette-length story, well-told, interesting and thoughtful.

Mars as seen from its moon Deimos
by Lucien Rudaux

Garden in the Void by Poul Anderson. Set in the Asteroid Belt, this tells of two prospectors, hoping to strike it rich so they can return to earth. One day they spot a green asteroid and land to investigate. They find it is covered in vegetation and has its very own gardener – a human who was stranded there many years before and has developed a kind of symbiotic relationship with the plants. I found this quite a creepy story, very well told, with lots of science that mostly went right over my head, but I was still able to follow the story easily.

Wait It Out by Larry Niven. This is “hard” SF – i.e., based on real science, but explained well enough that there’s no need to be an astrophysicist to understand the story! Our narrator is one of the two men aboard the first ship to land on Pluto. But they land on ice, and their nuclear powered engine temporarily melts it. As soon as they switch their engine off, the ice refreezes and their ship is trapped. This is a bleak story but very well told, and I found the ideas in it left me feeling a bit discombobulated.

So some excellent stories in here, enhanced by the fantastic introductions. If you’re interested in science fiction in even the mildest way, then I heartily recommend this anthology to you. Great stuff!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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Tuesday Terror! Weird Woods edited by John Miller

If you go down to the woods today…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Set amidst the ancient woods and forests of Britain, these twelve tales take us into the realms of folklore and the supernatural. The book starts with a short introduction from the editor in which he discusses how woods have been seen as the home to all kinds of weirdness – hauntings, druids, evil things surviving from the ancient past. He suggests that modern people have become physically separated from the forest, and this has led to them learning to fear it.

The stories come from the usual mix of well-known and less familiar writers, and the occasional one who is perhaps better remembered for a different genre. EF Benson, Algernon Blackwood and MR James appear, along with Edith Nesbit, Marjorie Bowen and Walter de la Mare, and several others whose names weren’t familiar to me. I gave the bulk of the stories – seven of them – four stars, while two achieved the full five, and the rest were all threes. So not many real stand-outs, but no complete duds either. Overall, a solid collection.

As usual, here’s a flavour of some of the ones I most enjoyed:

The Man Who Went Too Far by EF Benson – probably the most “weird” story in the book, this is a tale of narcissism, the search for joy and the god of nature, Pan. I highlighted this in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

The White Lady by Elliot O’Donnell – presented as a true story. When the narrator was a boy, he was fascinated by tales of a White Lady who was said to haunt a tree-lined avenue in the local laird’s estate. So one night he sneaks out and hides inside the bole of a tree. He does indeed see the White Lady but he also sees something more… This is a short story, but well-told.

The Name-Tree by Mary Webb – Laura has a deep passionate love of the cherry orchard owned by her father, especially of one tree, her name-tree. Her father has fallen on hard times, though, and sells the orchard, although the new owner allows them to stay on as tenants. But he develops a passion for Laura, and when she will not willingly give herself to him, he threatens that he will throw them out of their home and part her from her beloved cherry orchard for ever. But if she consents, the orchard will be hers forever. The intro tells us that Webb was a feminist writer, and the story certainly has strong feminist themes. Dark, disturbing and excellent.

The Tree by Walter de la Mare – this is a very weird story of a man who has become obsessed by a wondrous tree of a kind never before seen. For years, he draws and paints it again and again, and eventually his drawings begin to appear on the art market, until one day his long-estranged brother sees one. Thinking that now his brother must be making money from his art, he decides to visit him, but what he finds is not what he expects! No idea what this one was about, exactly, but it’s quite unsettling and very well written.

So plenty of variety and some new names for me to look out for in the future. Personally I’m more inclined to find that spookiness lies in alleyways and foggy days and Gothic buildings and the haunts of men, but I enjoyed my tramp though the woods, and I suspect the stories in this collection would have an even stronger appeal to people more in tune with nature and the world of folklore.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

Truth v emotional truth…

😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a short collection of six stories, some of them autobiographical, others fictional. A couple of them are set at Christmas, while Thanksgiving and birthdays make appearances in others. For me, the collection was divided strictly down the middle. The three autobiographical ones were overly sentimental, veering perilously close to mawkishness, and full of preachy moral lessons the young Capote learned from his wise but childlike elderly cousin. The three fictional ones, however, were excellent – emotional, certainly, but with an underlying feeling of truthfulness that I found sadly lacking in the autobiographical ones. Since it’s a short collection, here’s a brief idea of each story:

A Christmas Memory – here we meet young Buddy, as the child Capote was known, as he and his cousin prepare for Christmas. There is much baking of cakes and collecting of boughs to decorate the house, and so on. The impression is of a rather lonely child, living with elderly relatives because of some family problem. The elderly cousin, here unnamed, is dismissed by her siblings as somewhat simple, but to Buddy she has retained her childlike innocence and sense of joy in life. It’s beautifully written, but too sentimentalised to ring wholly true.

A Thanksgiving Visitor – now we learn that the elderly cousin is called Miss Sook, and that the family problem is the separation and divorce of young Buddy’s parents, each of whom has gone off to live his or her own life leaving Buddy in the care of relatives. In this one, Buddy is being bullied by a boy at school, and Miss Sook sets out to deal with the issue by inviting the boy to Thanksgiving dinner, much to Buddy’s horror. Buddy behaves badly, and is taught a moral lesson that will stand him in good stead for life. My contemporaneous note about this one contained the words “self-pitying” and “trite”.

One Christmas – in this last of the autobiographical stories, Buddy’s father decides the boy should spend Christmas with him in New Orleans. Buddy barely knows his father, and has to travel hundreds of miles all alone to stay with this stranger. We learn more about his parents in this one, and if true (and I have no reason to doubt it) they were a pretty appalling pair. Buddy behaves rather badly, and when he gets home Miss Sook teaches him a moral lesson, blah, blah, blah. This one tipped right over into mawkishness, leaving me feeling as if I’d seriously over-indulged in Christmas cake. I was glad to move on to the fictional stories!

Master Misery – this is a strange, sad and rather haunting story of a young woman who leaves her small town to come to New York, full of dreams of how wonderful life will be there. But of course it isn’t, and she finds herself in a dreary job with no spare money for fun. So when she hears of a man who will pay to have other people’s dreams related to him, she goes to see him. There’s a mystical edge to this, although it never quite tips over into the supernatural. It’s a kind of allegory on the difficulty of keeping dreams alive when faced with the harshness of reality. Beautifully written, emotional in a good way, and thought-provoking.

Children on Their Birthdays – the story of Miss Bobbit, a little girl who comes to stay in town. She dresses oddly and behaves like an imperious grown-up lady, and two of the boys in the neighbourhood are so smitten with her that their lifelong friendship is broken by their mutual jealousy. That’s where the story starts, not where it ends. The ending, in fact, is told to us at the beginning – Miss Bobbit dies, run over by a bus. However, the real emotion of the story is in the boys’ friendship rather than their feelings for the girl. It’s a wonderful depiction of the hormonal angst of teenage boys discovering girls for the first time.

Jug of Silver – this is probably the least overtly emotional story in the collection and a rather more cheerful one to end on. As a publicity stunt, the owner of the local drug store fills a jug with coins and promises to give it on Christmas Eve to the customer who guesses nearest to the total in the jug. A poor little boy called Appleseed is determined to win, but first he has to find the money to buy something in the store to qualify for a guess. He comes every day to stare at the jug, and says he’s counting the coins. The story itself is enjoyable, but the real interest is in the depiction of small town life, with some lovely descriptions of the preparations for Christmas.

Truman Capote

The whole thing reminded me rather of the Avonlea-based short stories of LM Montgomery: warm, full of moral lessons and with a love of small town life, and walking that dangerous tightrope between emotionalism and mawkishness. For me, Montgomery manages the balance better, and her insertion of humour lifts the overall tone. There’s not a lot of humour in this collection and a good deal too much self-pity. I feel harsh saying that, because if “Buddy’s” depiction of his parents is authentic, then he had some reason to feel sorry for his younger self, though it would seem he lived a pretty pampered life in material terms in comparison to the poverty of many of those around him. But he milks it too much for my taste, I fear. Overall, I gave each of the three fictional stories five stars, but the autobiographical ones only managed to scrape a generous three apiece.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Classics via NetGalley.

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