Something Fresh (Blandings 1) by PG Wodehouse

The Scandal of the Stolen Scarab!

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When the Hon. Freddie Threepwood gets engaged to American heiress Aline Peters, Lord Emsworth is thrilled. As a younger son, the Hon. Freddie has been a trial and a tribulation to him, and the idea of him settling down with a rich wife is a great relief to what one might loosely describe as Lord Emsworth’s mind. Lord Emsworth’s mind is mostly notable for being absent, though, and this leads him to accidentally steal a valuable scarab from Mr Peters, Aline’s father – the pride of his collection. Mr Peters knows that to denounce the theft would break up the engagement, and he’s as keen on getting Aline married into the British aristocracy as Lord Emsworth is to marry Freddie to American money. So Mr Peters lets it be known that he will handsomely reward anyone who steals the scarab back and returns it to him. Enter Joan Valentine, an old school friend of Aline who is in need of money. Joan decides to head off to Blandings Castle, Lord Emsworth’s seat, in the guise of being Aline’s maid, to steal the scarab and get the reward. Imagine her surprise when she finds her neighbour, Ashe Marson, has also turned up at Blandings purporting to be Mr Peters’ valet, with the same intention. The competition is on for who will get to the scarab first, but the general air of misunderstandings and romantic entanglements at Blandings make the task far from simple…

I’ve always preferred the Jeeves and Wooster books to the Blandings books, mainly because I love Bertie Wooster and have never found any of the Blandings regulars as likeable. So it’s been a long number of years since I last read a Blandings book, until I was encouraged to do so by a recent review from Julé at Gallimaufry Book Studio. Noting that my favourite Jeeves and Wooster narrator, Jonathan Cecil, had recorded the first Blandings book was an extra incentive. And I enjoyed it a lot!

Despite it being a Blandings book, the Emsworth family play a rather secondary role, and I think that works to the book’s advantage. Instead the leads are Ashe and Joan and they’re both very likeable characters whom the reader would like to see succeed in their mission and achieve a happy ending. It’s a Wodehouse book, so of course happy endings are guaranteed! Joan is one of Wodehouse’s modern, feisty heroines with a mind of her own, a spirit of adventure and a determination to make her own way in the world. But that doesn’t make her immune to the charms of a man who appreciates her independence and admires her for it, like, for example, young Ashe. He has made a living writing pulp detective stories for magazines but is heartily sick of it and wants to try something different. The reward Mr Peters is offering will give either of them the means to make a fresh start in life.

PG Wodehouse

As well as the upstairs characters, we spend a lot of time below stairs with the servants, from Beach, the hypochondriac but immensely dignified butler, to the gossiping valets of the various guests who exchange scandalous and sometimes scurrilous stories about their employers past and present. Despite the main characters in Wodehouse’s books being culled from among the upper class, he’s actually not nearly as snobbish as many of his contemporaries. He sends up both high and low equally, and laughs at the aristocrats for the same kinds of quirks as he mocks in his servants. Just as Jeeves is at least Bertie’s equal, so Beach, though a figure of fun, is easily the intellectual and organisational superior of Lord Emsworth. If anything, the servant class has the upper hand over the aristos, even though they show all due deference to their ‘masters’. This somehow means the books feel less dated than they should, despite their belonging to a specific social level at a specific point in time. It’s an idealised, impossibly innocent world for sure, but all the more fun for that!

Needless to say, everything comes right at the end. Sundered hearts are united with true loves, and no one is left unhappy or heart-broken at the end. The sun always shines even when it rains, all’s right with the rightest of all possible worlds and everyone is destined to live happily ever after. Well, at least until the next time Wodehouse takes up his pen and throws them all into a different set of confusions and turmoil! I still prefer the Jeeves books, but enjoyed my visit to Blandings and will spend more time there in future.

Audible UK Link

Two’s company 3…

Two for the Murder, Mystery, Mayhem challenge this week. One of these I expected to love and didn’t; the other I expected not to love and did. So much for judging books by their covers!

The Floating Admiral by The Detection Club



While out fishing on the local river, Neddy Ware sees a rowing boat floating upstream on the tide. He manages to hook it and bring it to the bank, where he discovers it contains a dead body. Admiral Penistone, the corpse, is a newcomer to the area so no one knows much about him or his niece, Elma, who lives with him. It’s up to Inspector Rudge to find out who could have had a motive to kill him. He’ll be helped or hindered in his investigation by the eleven Golden Age mystery writers, all members of the Detection Club, who wrote this mystery, one chapter each and then forwarding it on to the next author to add their chapter, with no collusion as to the solution. Some of the true greats are here, like Christie and Sayers, and lots of others who have been having a renaissance in the recent splurge of vintage re-releases.

Challenge details:
Book: 27
Subject Heading: ‘Play Up! Play Up! and Play the Game!’
Publication Year: 1931

Lovely idea. I fear I found it a total flop. The first several writers repeat each other ad nauseam, each adding a few more clues or red herrings as they go. Poor Rudge never gets a chance to investigate anything, since each new writer wheels him around and sends him off in a different direction. I was determined to persevere, mainly because it has inexplicably high ratings on Goodreads, but by halfway through I was losing the will to live. Then Ronald Knox decided to use his chapter to list thirty-nine questions arising from the previous chapters, all of which needed to be answered before we could arrive at the solution. Thirty-nine! I gave up. I tried flicking forward to the last chapter as I usually do when abandoning a book mid-stream, only to discover the last chapter is about novella-length (unsurprisingly, really, since I suppose it has to address those thirty-nine questions plus any more that had been added in the second half). I asked myself if I would be able to sleep at night without ever discovering who killed the Admiral, and while pondering that question quietly dozed off, which I felt was a fairly effective answer. I also tried reading the various other solutions from some of the other authors which are given as an appendix, but the first couple were so ludicrous I gave up. Clearly many people have enjoyed this, but for the life of me I can’t understand why. Oh well!

Amazon UK Link

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The Medbury Fort Murder by George Limnelius

Sex in the Golden Age??

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Lieutenant Lepean is found with his throat cut and his head nearly severed from his body in a locked room at the isolated Medbury Fort on the Thames, it soon becomes clear he was justifiably disliked by a whole host of his colleagues. Four in particular had good reason to hate him – two he was blackmailing, one whose family he had dishonoured, and one whose girlfriend the lascivious Lepean was pursuing. But first Chief Inspector McMaster and Inspector Paton will have to work out how someone managed to get into his locked bedroom…

Despite the locked room aspect – never my favourite style of mystery – there’s actually much more in this one about motivation than means. First published in 1929, Limnelius is remarkably open about sex, acknowledging unjudgementally that sex happens outside marriage, that lust does not always equate to love, and that sexual jealousy rouses dangerous passions. The sexual elements are viewed largely from the male perspective, but the women are not all simply passive recipients of male desire – he makes it clear that women are sexual beings too. All very different from the usual chaste Golden Agers, although still couched in terms that are far from the graphic soft porn that some writers tend to go for in these degenerate days!

Challenge details:
Book: 30
Subject Heading: Miraculous Murders
Publication Year: 1929

However, just as I was going to hail Limnelius as a man before his time, he reassured me that while he may be forward-thinking about sex, he’s conventionally Golden Age when it comes to class…

In the history of crime there is no single case of a murder of violence having being committed by an educated man. The sane, educated mind is not capable of the necessary degree of egotism combined with ferocity.

Hmm, tell that to Lord Lucan!

It’s very well written and, classism notwithstanding, I found the psychology of the various characters convincing. The solution shocked me somewhat, not because it’s particularly shocking in itself, but merely that the motivation seemed far too modern for a book of this era, and probably more realistic as a result. I enjoyed it very much. I believe he only wrote a handful of novels, but I look forward to reading more if I can track any down.

Amazon UK Link

Two’s company 2…

Another double review to help clear my backlog, though this particular pair really demand to be reviewed together…

Dialogues of the Dead (Dalziel and Pascoe 19)
by Reginald Hill

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When an AA man dies after apparently falling from a bridge, it is assumed to be an accident. Then a young musician crashes his car into a tree and dies, again put down to accident. But at the local library, librarians Dick Dee and Rye Pomona are going through the massive pile of entries to a short story competition in the local paper when they come across anonymous stories that show another side to these deaths, and it appears they must have been written before the deaths were reported in the media. As Dalziel and Pascoe begin to investigate, there’s another death, then another, and it appears obvious the team have a serial killer on their hands. The killer is soon nicknamed the Wordman, since each death is accompanied by another short story. Meantime, new member of the team, “Hat” Bowler, is falling in love…

I had forgotten just how good this one is! It’s a wonderful blend of light and dark, and full of Hill’s trademark love of words and wordplay, which this time he puts at the centre of the story by filling the Wordman’s written “confessions” with literary “clues”, and by involving the librarians – Dick Dee especially loves to play word games. There’s a huge cast – essential, since so many of them will be bumped off and there need to be enough left as suspects. It’s mainly set among the self-styled great and good of the town, and Hill has excelled himself in creating characters who stay just the right side of caricature. Dalziel is on fine form, which means the book is full of humour, but Hill is expert at suddenly changing the mask from comedy to tragedy – the murders are dark enough, but the Wordman’s confessions take us deep into a troubled and damaged mind.

The denouement is tense and thrilling, and the solution shocks. And we’re left with the reader knowing more about what happened than Dalziel and Pascoe. They think that everything has finally been wrapped up, maybe not neatly, but securely. However…

* * * * *

Death’s Jest-Book (Dalziel and Pascoe 20)
by Reginald Hill

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s impossible to see this one as anything other than as Part Two of Dialogues of the Dead. Unlike many of the books in the series, this one does not stand on its own – anyone trying to read it without having read the one before would probably be completely lost, or at the very least feel as if important stuff had been left out. As a result, I’m not giving a little blurb, since almost anything I say about this one could spoil the last one. I’d also say to anyone who’s reading the series in order, make room to read these two one after the other – they’re both intricately plotted and having the details of the first one fresh in your mind helps when reading the second.

Oddly, although it is a sequel of sorts, this one doesn’t work nearly as well as the first, in my opinion. Hill had obviously become fascinated by the character of Franny Roote over the course of the series – a man who appeared in one of the early cases and reappears in several of the later ones, becoming a kind of nemesis for Peter Pascoe. In this one we get screeds of letters he writes to Pascoe which take up probably around a third of the book, and while they’re interesting, often amusing and, of course, well written, they slow the main plot down to a crawl. I’m afraid I never found Franny quite as entertaining as Hill clearly thought he was, although he provides an interesting study in psychology both of himself and of Pascoe’s reaction to him. I’m not sure the psychology is completely convincing, though.

The other aspect that weakens this one is very hard to discuss without spoilers, so forgive my vagueness. As I said above, at the end of Dialogues of the Dead, the reader knows more than the characters. This continues throughout Death’s Jest-Book, which is basically the story of Dalziel and the team gradually realising that their knowledge is incomplete and trying to fill the gap. Hat’s love story continues too but, knowing what we know, we more or less know how that will work out. So all through we’re watching the characters learning about things the reader already knows. Of course it’s more complex than that makes it sound, and there’s still all the usual stuff that makes Hill so enjoyable – the writing, the language, the regular characters, secondary plots, moral dilemmas – but the pace is very slow, and plot-wise it doesn’t build the same level of tension. It’s good – just not as good as the first part of this story, and being a sequel of sorts it’s impossible to avoid making that comparison.

* * * * *

In summary, then, together the two books form one massive story – both books individually are chunksters. Dialogues of the Dead is excellent and could be read separately as a standalone, although the reader is likely to feel that there are some loose ends. Death’s Jest-Book is good but with some structural weaknesses, and is very much a sequel or second part. It doesn’t work well as a standalone, and should be read soon after Dialogues of the Dead while the details are fresh.

The Horned God edited by Michael Wheatley

When the pipes play…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The last of the British Library Tales of the Weird anthologies that the porpy and I have read for this year’s spooky season, this one contains 11 stories and 6 short poems all on the theme of Pan. As I’ve said before, the poems in these anthologies never really interest me and I tend to skim over them, so to be fair I don’t include them when deciding how to rate the book. The eleven stories, though, are very good. I’ve always liked Pan from way back when first introduced to him in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and indeed the relevant chapter of that book, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, is included here and works very well as a standalone story, showing Pan in his demigod role as friend and protector of animals.

Most of the stories here, though, are more interested in Pan as everything from a champion of free sex, to a corrupter of the innocent, to a campaigner against the deadliness of some of the more joyless types of Christianity. Pan, when he’s being presented as a positive force, encourages people to find freedom from the strict conventionalities of Victorian/Edwardian society, that being the era of most of these stories. But just as often he’s presented as bad or, rather, amoral, corrupting people and destroying them either morally or physically or both. Seems to very much depend on the outlook of the author!

The blurb suggests the stories share a theme of “queer awakenings” which surprised me when I looked at the index and saw that Ratty and Mole were about to appear, along with Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan which I had also already read and loved, and which for me had themes of degeneracy and degradation rather than any kind of awakening, queer or otherwise! As I suspected, this claim is little more than a marketing ploy to tie in with the current obsession with all things queer in contemporary culture – while it could feasibly be claimed for a couple of the stories, most of the sex, actual or implied, in the stories is of the heterosexual kind (with occasional mild hints of bestiality!), and often not presented positively at all. Being of that earlier era, it is also never described graphically, though there are enough hints for the reader to be able to imagine what’s going on in those forest glades at midnight…

The Great God Pan
Illustration by
mgkellermeyer via

This is another collection that got consistently high ratings from me, excluding the poems. Of the eleven stories, I gave seven the full five stars, and none of the stories rated as poor. Here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Moon-Slave by Barry Pain – a story of a young girl who loves to dance! I highlighted this one in a previous Tuesday Terror! post.

The Story of a Panic by EM Forster – Young Eustace, a “repellent” 14-year-old (is there any other kind?), is staying in an Italian hotel with two aunts and a group of dully conventional and mostly middle-aged English and American people. During a picnic, everyone suddenly feels a great fear and they all run off… except Eustace. Whatever happened to him on that hill, (and there’s a reason the word “panic” has Pan in it), Eustace is changed forever, and no matter how hard they try, the other guests are unable to “cure” him. This is one on which the “queer awakenings” claim is based, and it can certainly easily be read that way, though it can equally be read as simply a breaking away from society’s conventions. It’s very well told, with some humour but also with some depth.

The Devil’s Martyr by Signe Toksvig – (If you’re wondering, yes, she was the great-aunt of Sandi Toksvig.) An orphaned young boy has been left in the guardianship of a bishop, who has handed him over to monks to train him up for a life in the Church – a particularly harsh version of the Church, where all is sin and the monks enjoy nothing more than a good bit of self-flagellation of an evening. However, a friend of the boy’s father shows up and gets the bishop to agree to allow the boy to go away with him for a month. During that month, he introduces the boy to wine, women and song, and shows him there is another god to worship – Pan, who in this story is not unlike the Devil. This is a dark story which is certainly about sexual awakening, but also about the evils that can result when religion is taken to extremes.

Pan in The Wind in the Willows

The Golden Bough by David H Keller – Two newlyweds are honeymooning, when the rather fey young wife tells her husband that she has dreamt of a house and wants them to live in it. The husband, who is wealthy and loving to a fault, agrees to drive around till they find the house, which they eventually do. It turns out to be a castle, isolated from all other people, in the middle of a forest. The husband isn’t wildly keen but decides to stay there for a while in the hopes his young wife will tire of the loneliness. But there’s a mysterious man in the forest, who plays a mysterious pipe, and the wife becomes enthralled by him. Very dark, with elements of fairy stories and some great horror imagery at the end.

I seem to have picked out some of the darker stories, but there are lighter stories too. However, the overall lesson is that Pan is not a god to treat lightly! If you hear those pipes when you’re walking in the forest, run! An excellent collection that is interesting for showing the variety of ways in which Pan has been portrayed.

(The porpy admitted that he and his chums often sneak off
to worship their demigod Pan in the forest at midnight…)

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

Amazon UK Link

Guy Mannering by Sir Walter Scott

The missing heir…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

One dark night a traveller in the south-west of Scotland loses his way, and begs a night’s lodging at Ellangowan, the house of Mr Godfrey Bertram. Mrs Bertram is in labour and soon gives birth to a son, their first child. The traveller, Guy Mannering, has revealed he has studied astrology and agrees to cast the child’s fortune. But when he discovers that the stars foretell three distinct periods of danger, each potentially fatal to the child, he insists that the fortune should be read only when the child is five years old. But young Harry Bertram will meet the first period of danger before his fifth birthday is over, when a conflict takes place between smugglers and the local excise-men, during which Harry disappears. The shock sends Mrs Bertram, again pregnant, into labour, and she gives birth to a daughter, Lucy, but dies in childbirth.

Fast forward 17 years, to probably the mid-1780s. All has gone wrong at Ellangowan, and Mr Bertram is being forced to sell up. Guy Mannering, now a middle-aged widower with a daughter of his own, Julia, has returned from India where he has spent his career as an army officer. Harry is still missing. And then Mr Bertram dies, leaving Lucy almost destitute. Mannering decides to ask her to make her home in his house, to be a companion to Julia. Ellangowan is sold, but with the proviso that if the heir returns, the property shall revert to him…

This was Scott’s second book, and I must say I found it considerably better than its more famous and more lauded predecessor, Waverley. Partly this is a matter of taste – I’m rather tired of the Scottish obsession with the Jacobite era, when Waverley is set. But I also thought the characterisation in Guy Mannering is much truer and more realistic, and, perhaps because it’s not set around such a pivotal event, I felt Scott explained the background more clearly, rather than assuming the reader would be aware of it. Both gypsies and smugglers play important roles in the story, and Scott incorporates a lot of information about both groups and how they were perceived in Scotland at this time, all of which is interesting from both a historical and a literary viewpoint.

Book 11 of 80

I was less keen on the structure. The gap of seventeen years after the first section of the book is somewhat dislocating. Suddenly half the characters whom we have become invested in are dead, while the other half are much older, having lived a full life in the interim. Personalities have changed, sometimes with reason, due to events that have happened in the interim, and sometimes simply due to age. My other issue might arise from my pedantic nature, but when a book is called Guy Mannering I expect Guy Mannering to be the central character. But after casting the child’s fortune, he disappears for the entire first section of the book, and when he reappears after the gap, so does a young man we are introduced to as Vanbeest Brown, who is the hero for the rest of the book. Mannering’s role is secondary at best, and arguably not even that.

Sir Walter Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn
Scottish National Portrait Gallery

However, there are some great characters in the book, some of whom were household names in Scotland in my youth, though I’m not sure they still are. Vanbeest Brown (have you guessed who he is yet?) is an enjoyable young hero who is constantly falling into scrapes, but is also always helping his friends out of them. There’s Meg Merrilies, the gypsy woman, who also appeared at Harry’s birth and plays a vital role throughout the story. Dirk Hattaraick is the boo-hiss baddie (or at least one of them!), a Dutch smuggler plying his trade around the shores of Britain and Northern Europe. Dominie Sampson is Lucy’s childhood tutor and is a sort of tragicomic figure, although personally I found him too caricatured. Farmer and dog-breeder Dandie Dinmont is the major rural character, loyal and true, and so popular was he that there’s a real breed of dog called Dandie Dinmont terriors in his honour. In Edinburgh, we are amidst the lawyers, and here advocate Paulus Pleydell is central, as the man who will sort out the legal entanglements the various characters fall into, including the inheritance issues, and take on a kind of avuncular role towards the young people. And the two girls, Julia and Lucy, are so much better drawn than the female characters in Waverley. Lucy might be a little too much like the future self-sacrificing heroines beloved by the Victorians, but Julia is mischievous and gay, her romantic excesses tempered by her sense of humour.

After a good start, I found the book got very slow for a while as Scott set up all the characters and their various settings and situations. But the second half speeds up considerably and is full of intrigue and action with lots of danger, spiced with just the right amount of romance. There’s some Scots dialect, but not enough to be problematic, and in general the writing is excellent. The two main settings, the rural south-west and the city of Edinburgh, are very well depicted and provide an interesting contrast. Scott weaves his large cast of characters in and out of his dance with great skill, and ensures we like all the good ones and hate all the bad ones, which is just as it should be! He should have called it Harry Bertram though…

Amazon UK Link

Two’s company…

Still being a million miles behind with reviews, I’m going to do a few double posts over the next few weeks, containing two short reviews each, to cut into the backlog. First up, two mystery novels, one which I enjoyed very much and one which didn’t hit the spot for me…

Death at La Fenice (Brunetti 1) by Donna Leon

In the beginning…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

World-famous conductor, Maestro Helmut Wellauer, is appearing at La Fenice opera house in Venice when he is poisoned with cyanide during the second act interval. The show goes on front-stage with a stand-in conductor, but backstage Commissario Guido Brunetti is already discovering that Wellauer was roundly disliked by almost everyone who knew him. But who disliked him enough to murder him, and why? Brunetti decides that the only way to find the murderer is to learn everything he can about the victim, so he begins to delve into Wellauer’s past, where he will uncover some disturbing secrets…

I’ve read a couple of the recent entries in this long-running series and enjoyed them well enough, but not to the extent of being particularly inspired to read more. However, this first one turned up in an Audible sale and the narrator, Richard Morant, sounded good so I thought I’d give it a try. And I must say I thought this was vastly better than those later ones!

For the first novel in a series, the development of Brunetti as a character is excellent, and we begin to get a picture of his extended (and happily functional) family life. Venice comes alive, not so much in the sense of physical descriptions though they’re there, but as an atmosphere and a culture, a fully-rounded society. Leon talks knowledgeably about opera and music generally, and gives a good picture of a culture where the arts are both highly valued and well and widely understood. And the plot is excellent – it is dark, indeed it shocked me at a couple of points, but Brunetti’s humanity and sympathy towards the various suspects stops it from becoming too bleak. It’s a little weak on the investigative side, perhaps, but Brunetti’s colleagues avoid the mild caricaturing that I wasn’t so keen on in the later books – they are much more believable as real people here. I can now understand why so many people have become hooked on this series, and I look forward to reading more of the earlier ones.

Audible UK Link

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The White Priory Murders (Sir Henry Merrivale 2)
by Carter Dickson

Footprints in the snow…

😐 😐

James Bennett has been invited to a house party in the White Priory, home to the Bohun brothers, John and Maurice. The star guest is Marcia Tait, a glamorous actress who has just walked out of a Hollywood contract so she can act in a play written by Maurice Bohun. The house is full of people connected to Marcia – fellow actors, people from the movie company, lovers actual and hopeful – and Marcia loves to be the centre of attention. In fact, it’s a real mystery why it’s taken so long for someone to murder her…

I’ve had a mixed reaction to Carter Dickson aka John Dickson Carr, loving some of his early books and not getting on well at all with his more famous locked room mysteries. This is one of the latter – in this case, the “locked room” is a pavilion in the ground of the White Priory where Marcia planned to spend the night alone (maybe), and is found dead with only one set of foot-prints, of the man who found her, in the snow outside. I must admit I’m weary of the one/no set of footprints in the snow trope beloved of locked roomsters, so my heart sank as we began to go through and discard all of the usual possibilities – secret tunnels, fresh snow falls, people dropping in from hot air balloons overhead (OK, I made that one up, but at least it would be different).

I’m afraid I found this dull, as I often do with locked rooms, and I didn’t like any of the characters including the detective, Sir Henry Merrivale, retired policeman. All the intricacies of alibis and who could have got to the pavilion and how left me both confused and bored, and there’s lots of jerky dialogue that mainly consists of people being rude to each other. I eventually abandoned it at 60% and flipped to the end to discover whodunit. A week later, I’ve forgotten.

I’m sure this would work fine for people who enjoy locked room mysteries or impossible crimes. Unfortunately it just happens not to be my kind of thing.

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

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! The Moon-Slave by Barry Pain

That’s how you know…

This week’s story is taken from The Horned God, a British Library Tales of the Weird anthology focusing on stories starring the Great God Pan. They are a warning to us all to live in crowded cities, preferably with our doors and windows sealed to keep out the horrors and temptations of the natural world! Our little heroine in this story paid no heed to this advice, as she danced ‘neath the light of an enchanted moon…

The Moon-Slave
by Barry Pain

Barry Pain

The Princess Viola had, even in her childhood, an inevitable submission to the dance; a rhythmical madness in her blood answered hotly to the dance music, swaying her, as the wind sways trees, to movements of perfect sympathy and grace.

Like many of us girlies, she has found dancing with (most) men something of a disappointment…

‘They are all right,’ she said to herself as she thought of the men she had left, ‘but they cannot dance. Mechanically they are all right; they have learned it and don’t make childish mistakes; but they are only one-two-three machines. They haven’t the inspiration of dancing. It is so different when I dance alone.’

Even her Prince, the handsome Hugo, to whom she has become betrothed, doesn’t set her blood tingling when they dance…

With others the betrothal was merely a question of state. With her it was merely a question of obedience to the wishes of authority; it had been arranged; Hugo was comme ci, comme ça—no god in her eyes; it did not matter. But with Hugo it was quite different—he loved her.

Perhaps if she had loved him it would have been different – love is the secret ingredient that turns (most) men into good dancers, after all. The betrothal party is in full swing, but Viola, bored with the dance, slips off into the palace grounds and finds herself at the entrance to the old overgrown maze…

Many years ago the clue to the maze had been lost; it was but rarely now that anyone entered it. Its gravel paths were green with weeds, and in some places the hedges, spreading beyond their borders, had made the way almost impassable.

Viola enters the maze anyway with the idea of reaching the space at the centre, but gradually is lulled by the darkness…

She soon forgot her purpose, and wandered about quite aimlessly, sometimes forcing her way where the brambles had flung a laced barrier across her path, and a dragging mass of convolvulus struck wet and cool upon her cheek.

By chance… or is it?… she finds herself in the centre…

Here the ground was carpeted with sand, fine and, as it seemed, beaten hard. From the summer night sky immediately above, the moonlight, unobstructed here, streamed straight down upon the scene. Viola began to think about dancing.

And that’s when she makes her mistake…

‘Sweet moon,’ she said in a kind of mock prayer, ‘make your white light come down in music into my dancing-room here, and I will dance most deliciously for you to see.’ She flung her head backward and let her hands fall; her eyes were half closed, and her mouth was a kissing mouth. ‘Ah! sweet moon,’ she whispered, ‘do this for me, and I will be your slave; I will be what you will.’

Oh dear!

Quite suddenly the air was filled with the sound of a grand invisible orchestra. Viola did not stop to wonder. To the music of a slow saraband she swayed and postured. In the music there was the regular beat of small drums and a perpetual drone. The air seemed to be filled with the perfume of some bitter spice. Viola could fancy almost that she saw a smouldering camp-fire and heard far off the roar of some desolate wild beast. She let her long hair fall, raising the heavy strands of it in either hand as she moved slowly to the laden music. Slowly her body swayed with drowsy grace, slowly her satin shoes slid over the silver sand.

Le Faune by Carlos Schwabe.
Musées d’art et d’histoire in Geneva.

* * * * *

Things we have learned today:

1. Never wander off alone at night.

2. Never go into old forgotten mazes.

3. Never make pacts with powers you don’t understand!

4. If given a choice between a Prince and a desolate wild beast, pick the Prince!!

This is a short story, beautifully written and full of the kind of lush descriptions of the natural world that normally signal the arrival of Pan. It’s very clear where it’s heading but it’s done so well that it still manages to create an atmosphere of tension. In the style of those happy bygone days it’s packed full of sensuality and repressed desire without ever resorting to spelling everything out in graphic detail, and that subtlety and allusion works so much better than the hit-you-over-the-head-with-a-hammer approach of too much modern writing. The porpy and I both loved this one!

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

(The porpy apologises for the unseasonal story
and wishes you a Merry Christmas!)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

The Murder on the Links (Poirot) by Agatha Christie

Poirot and the foxhound…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

On his way home from Paris, the ever-susceptible Hastings is charmed by a girl who shares his carriage on the train to Calais. As they part he asks her name and, laughing, she replies “Cinderella”. He never expects to see her again, but of course he does! The next day Poirot receives a letter begging him to come to Merlinville-sur-Mer, a small resort midway between Boulogne and Calais, to look into an urgent matter for a M. Renauld. Renauld says he is in imminent fear for his life, and though Poirot and Hastings travel there as quickly as they can, alas, too late! Renauld is dead, stabbed in the back and tipped into a shallow open grave on the golf course that borders his property. Poirot feels he owes it to his would-be client to work with the French authorities to find his killer…

Christie’s third book and only the second Poirot novel, she still at this stage hasn’t quite settled into the style that would eventually become her trademark, but in terms of plotting this is a big step up from her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Hastings too has settled into the character with which we are familiar. Poirot is still rather different – he’s much more physically active than in the later books, and although there are mentions of things like his passion for order, his eccentricities are not yet so much in evidence. There are odd little things that stand out, like his moustache being described as “military” rather than the later “luxurious” and so on, but he’s closer to his final characterisation than he was in Styles. His relationship with the French police detective, Giraud, is much more of a rivalry than the collaborative approach he has with the police inspectors he works with in later books – his attitude to Giraud, and Giraud’s to him, reminded me much more of Holmes’ sarcastic superiority than Poirot’s later affectionate mockery.

The plot is nicely complicated, with plenty of shifts and twists along the way. On the night before Poirot and Hastings arrive, Renauld and his wife were woken in the night by two masked men, who proceeded to tie up and gag Mme Renauld, and then demanded that Renauld tell them the “secret”. When he refused, they dragged him out of the room, and he wasn’t seen alive again. What was the secret they were after? Renauld had mentioned Santiago in his letter to Poirot, and it transpired he had business dealings there. His son, Jack, was about to set off to Santiago on his father’s instructions, but M Renauld hadn’t told him why, simply that he would send further instructions later. But there are odd things closer to home too. Why has Renauld had several meetings with a neighbour, Mme Daubreuil? Were they having an affair? Why does Mme Daubreuil’s lovely daughter Marthe have anxious eyes? Who is the mysterious Bella Duveen, a letter from whom is found in Renauld’s overcoat pocket? And what has Cinderella to do with the whole thing? And just when things seem complicated enough, another dead body is found…

Agatha Christie

Giraud is the “foxhound” style of detective, minutely poring over the ground in search of physical clues, like the match that appears to be of a kind more common in South America. Poirot is more thoughtfully observant, as likely to spot what should be there but isn’t as to obsess about what is there. While Giraud hides behind bushes to eavesdrop, Poirot simply listens to what people tell him, and uses his little grey cells to spot the tiny inconsistencies that will lead him to the truth. I did work out part of the howdunit aspect of the plot, but was still taken by surprise by the solution to the whodunit.

My memory of this was that it was quite a weak one which is why it’s so long since I revisited it. But I was wrong – it’s a good plot, an interesting story and there’s plenty of fun along the way, plus a touch of romance for our Hastings. It’s also enjoyable for seeing how Christie was continuing to develop her style and her characters. Not one of her very best, but as always with Christie, even her second tier novels are better than most people’s best. Well worth reading!

Book 12 of 12

This was the People’s Choice for December. You were very kind, People, to pick me a Christie – always a sure-fire winner! 😀

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! Crooken Sands by Bram Stoker

Arthur, Where’s Yer Troosers?

The porpy and I are always happy when Bram Stoker pops up in one of our anthologies. His stories can sometimes be a bit grim for our tastes, but they’re always well written and imaginative. This one is in Our Haunted Shores, one of the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series…

Crooken Sands
by Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker

Mr. Arthur Fernlee Markam, who took what was known as the Red House above the Mains of Crooken, was a London merchant, and being essentially a cockney, thought it necessary when he went for the summer holidays to Scotland to provide an entire rig-out as a Highland chieftain, as manifested in chromolithographs and on the music-hall stage.

It has long been a joke in Scotland that if you see someone wandering around in tartan you can be sure they’ll be a tourist. Mr Markham based his knowledge of Scottish culture on a totally reliable source…

He had once seen in the Empire the Great Prince – “The Bounder King” – bring down the house by appearing as “The MacSlogan of that Ilk,” and singing the celebrated Scotch song. “There’s naething like haggis to mak a mon dry!”

(The kilt is not always flattering…)

Very true! Crooken Bay is a beautiful spot, situated between Aberdeen and Peterhead…

…at either end of the bay is a rocky promontory, and when the dawn or the sunset falls on the rocks of red syenite the effect is very lovely.

There is just one spot in the bay that presents danger to the unwary…

Between the rocks, which are apart about some fifty feet, is a small quicksand, which, like the Goodwins, is dangerous only with the incoming tide. It extends outwards till it is lost in the sea, and inwards till it fades away in the hard sand of the upper beach.

It is just above here that the Red House is situated. Mr Markam hadn’t told his family about his holiday outfit, and had had it made in secret…

He had taken some pains to insure the completeness of the Highland costume. For the purpose he had paid many visits to “The Scotch All-Wool Tartan Clothing Mart” which had been lately established in Copthall-court by the Messrs. MacCallum More and Roderick MacDhu.

These gentlemen had pointed out the possible embarrassment of wearing a clan tartan to which Mr Markam was not entitled, so Mr Markam had ordered them to design a unique tartan for him…

It was based on the Royal Stuart, but contained suggestions as to simplicity of pattern from the Macalister and Ogilvie clans, and as to neutrality of colour from the clans of Buchanan, Macbeth, Chief of Macintosh and Macleod. When the specimen had been shown to Markam he had feared somewhat lest it should strike the eye of his domestic circle as gaudy…

(…but sometimes it is…)

However, he was delighted with it and gave the makers his permission to use the design for others if they wished. He didn’t want to go completely overboard though…

“I shall not, of course, take the claymore and the pistols with me on ordinary occasions,”

He changed into the Highland outfit as the boat drew into Aberdeen, and burst upon his family in his full glory. His son was the first to react…

“Here’s a guy! Great Scott! It’s the governor!” And the boy fled forthwith and tried to bury his laughter under a cushion in the saloon.

This was nothing, though, to the reaction of the Aberdonians when the family disembarked…

The boys and loafers, and women with babies, who waited at the landing shed, followed en masse as the Markam party took their way to the railway station; even the porters with their old-fashioned knots and their new-fashioned barrows, who await the traveller at the foot of the gang-plank, followed in wondering delight.

News ran ahead of them to Crooken, and the villagers had gathered to welcome them…

When the party arrived at the gate of the Red House there awaited them a crowd of Crooken inhabitants, hatless and respectfully silent; the remainder of the population was painfully toiling up the hill. The silence was broken by only one sound, that of a man with a deep voice.

“Man! but he’s forgotten the pipes!”

* * * * *

You may well be wondering exactly where the horror is in this story, and I assure you there is some, but I couldn’t resist the humour in the beginning. I’ve never really associated Bram Stoker with humour somehow! Anyway, Mr Markam insists on continuing to wear his rig regardless, despite the warning of the village seer that…

Mon! mon! Thy vanity is as the quicksand which swallows up all which comes within its spell. Beware vanity! Beware the quicksand, which yawneth for thee, and which will swallow thee up! See thyself! Learn thine own vanity! Meet thyself face to face, and then in that moment thou shalt learn the fatal force of thy vanity. Learn it, know it, and repent ere the quicksand swallow thee!”

And one day, on the quicksand, Mr Markam sees himself…

I’ll leave it at that! If you’d like to read the story, here’s a link. The porpy and I found it very well told with lots of humour, and a great, unexpected ending!

(The porpy and I were both put in mind
of the late, great Andy Stewart…

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

The Gate of the Sun by Derek Lambert

Surviving Franco…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

As Spain erupts into Civil War, people well beyond its borders align themselves with one side or the other, and soon some of those people will make their way to Spain to join the fighting. Two of these men are Tom Canfield and Adam Fleming, who will find their fates linked and the courses of their lives altered forever by the time the guns are silenced. But the fight belongs to the Spaniards themselves, and inspired by the example of the great Republican and communist leader, la Pasionaria, many women join the men at the barricades. One such is Ana Gomez, whose exploits will earn her fame or notoriety, depending on which side is judging her, and the soubriquet of the Black Widow. The book follows these three characters and their families through the war years and beyond, as Spain survives through the Franco years, remaking itself as a modern nation and slowly coming to terms with its past.

This is a long book which covers the years from the early stages of the war, 1937, by which time the International Brigades were active, to 1975, the year of Franco’s death. Lambert has chosen his characters to give an idea of the different factions and what they believed they were fighting for. The political situation, especially on the Republican side, was so full of factions that it would have been unreasonable to try to represent each one, but he’s done an excellent job of using the three to provide him, as it were, with an entrée into each side from which he can then show how the disunity of the Republicans greatly weakened their ability to prevail over the much more united and disciplined forces of the Nationalists, especially once Franco took full control. After the war, the same characters show us how people changed, or didn’t, some victorious, some defeated but accepting their defeat, some fighting on for years as guerrillas or agitators or separatists. And they show us how life slowly changed and improved, even under Franco, as Spain began to resume its place in international organisations and developed a modern economy.

Tom is an American, son of a once rich man who lost everything in the Crash, and loves to fly. So he leaves his life of nouveau-poverty and joins the International Brigade, fighting, he claims, not for communism but against fascism. Adam is English, also from a rather privileged background, and he is horrified about the atrocities being carried out against the Church which, along with a general spirit of contrariness, leads him to go out to fight for Franco. He claims he is fighting not for fascism, but against communism. Lambert shows the mix of idealism and youthful spirit of adventure of the young men who went to fight in a foreign war, and while he is kind to his characters, he is quite clear about the muddiness of some of their reasoning, and in later years he shows us how easily they moved on, these foreigners, adapting themselves to the new regime and adopting pretty much the same middle-class values they would doubtless both have had even if they’d stayed at home. It’s very believable, and he shows how the much bigger conflict of WW2 affected their thinking, making both question what they were fighting for. In time, like the rest of the world, they will come to wonder if there was ever much to choose between communism and fascism, in Spain as elsewhere, when both ideologies lead to war and atrocities.

Book 12

I was pleased that Lambert chose to include a character who fought for Franco and did so without demonising him. The horrors of WW2 have made us all like to think that we’d all have been anti-fascist in the ‘30s, but of course that wasn’t the case at all. While the Republican cause had all the best publicists in the UK and the US, the Fascists had plenty of supporters, not least in government circles. Lambert also shows that Franco, while designated as a fascist and guilty of his share of the atrocities carried out in Spain in this period, wasn’t in the same league as Hitler or even Mussolini, and indeed became increasingly popular as his regime went on, the economy improved and society became somewhat more liberal. Lambert’s depiction of the history throughout felt completely accurate to me, tying in with everything I’ve been reading in history books about the war and Franco’s long reign.

I struggled a little more with Ana’s character, and that of her daughter who is a child at the start but a middle-aged woman by the end. I couldn’t decide if this was because their attitudes were more foreign to me, or to Lambert, but I felt they were somehow portrayed with less depth and complexity. They seemed to exist to show the distinctively Spanish viewpoint, and there Lambert’s even-handedness fell away considerably. Republicans good, Nationalists bad, with none of the excuses that he allowed for his international men. Ana is a Republican but not a communist, and a ferocious warrior driven to fight by the poverty and brutality she sees all around her. I don’t want to get too deeply into spoilers, but she has a personal loss in the war that leaves her embittered and vengeful, so that, unlike the men, she finds it impossible to move on. It’s an interesting portrayal and takes us into the ongoing violent struggle that continued as first guerrilla war and later terrorism and political assassination long after the country was outwardly at peace. I found the history convincing, while not believing in her as a character to quite the same extent as I did the men.

Derek Lambert

There are sections that feel too much like a history lesson, and in general I feel Lambert perhaps tried to include too much. His desire to paint a panoramic picture of Spain’s development over forty years sometimes took him too far from the personal stories which turn history into novels. But for the most part I found the book absorbing, very well written and deeply insightful about the war-time conditions, its aftermath and the impact on some of the people caught up in events. And I grew to care about all of the characters, even the ones I didn’t much like. I wondered how it would have worked for me if I’d read it knowing nothing about the history, and for the most part I think he explained everything clearly enough, with the possible exception of not getting into what caused the war in the first place and what all the different factions’ objectives were – perhaps he assumed his readers would already have that knowledge, or perhaps he was more interested in the era of Franco’s Spain than in what brought it about.

Overall, then, an ambitious novel that covers a complicated and emotive period of history and manages to humanise it through a group of well-drawn, complex characters. If you want to know more about this period of Spain’s history but can’t face a history book, then this would be a great alternative. I’m struggling with rating it – probably four for enjoyment as a novel, but definitely five for its breadth and depth, historical accuracy and the insight it provides into Franco’s era.

Amazon UK Link

Dalziel and Pascoe Hunt the Christmas Killer by Reginald Hill

Christmas comes early…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a collection of eleven short mysteries from the pen of the supremely talented Reginald Hill, none of which have ever appeared in a collection before. HarperCollins and the Reginald Hill Estate got together to produce it, and Tony Medawar did what he does so well in the Bodies from the Library series – tracked down stories that had appeared over the years in newspapers and magazines, and had then to all intents and purposes disappeared from print. The book is foreworded by Val McDermid who admits to her lifelong admiration for Reginald Hill, and to being inspired by him. She writes knowledgeably, warmly and affectionately, and summarises the book as “the best Christmas present any reader could ask for”. I heartily concur!

The book begins and ends with Christmas mysteries, each starring Dalziel and Pascoe and the team, and both are a festive delight. These most famous of Hill’s characters appear in another couple of stories too, while the rest of the stories are non-series tales, showing off Hill’s imagination, plotting skills and range. McDermid considers him a master of the short story form, a thing I’d never really considered before since I know him best for his two major series, Dalziel and Pascoe and the Joe Sixsmith series, and his standalone thrillers. But again, on the basis of the stories presented here, I fully agree. Every one of these stories is a delight, whether Hill is indulging his humorous side or showing the darker aspects of crime. I restricted myself to reading one an evening, and my excited anticipation each time was fully rewarded.

In such a box of delights, it’s hard to pick favourites, but here’s a flavour of a few that hopefully will give an idea of the variety in the collection:

Market Forces – George has murdered his wife by putting a hatchet through her head. Now he has to consider the task of disposing of the body. Rather unoriginally, he decides to bury her beneath the floor of the cellar. But when he digs down, his spade hits a slab which turn out to be, well, burial size. He exerts his strength and manages to lift it, inadvertently releasing the demon who had been trapped there for many years. The demon can’t be truly free though, until it has granted its saviour one wish. But demons are tricky things, and this one isn’t perhaps the most intelligent demon in the underworld… This is full of humour with an absolutely delicious twist that made me laugh out loud. Great fun!

The Thaw – Carpenter is in his cottage in the Yorkshire Dales, waiting for a thaw. Snow had fallen at Christmas and continued on through the winter so that the ground has remained covered for months. Now, in March, it looks as though finally the weather is getting milder. While he waits, we learn why he’s waiting, and the reason is grim. I don’t want to give spoilers so shall say no more, but this is a bleak story, full of human weakness, guilt and duplicity, and the harshness of the snowbound setting makes it darkly atmospheric.

Reginald Hill 1936-2012

Brass Monkey – A Christmas Dalziel and Pascoe story involving the theft of a Cellini monkey, this is light-hearted fun with a rather emotive edge, in that it reprises the story of the 1914 Christmas truce, when British and German soldiers briefly laid down their arms, sang carols together and played impromptu football matches. All the team is there for this one – Wieldy, Novello, even Hector, and Dalziel is on his best form!

Proxime Accessit – which roughly translated means “nearly made it”. Dennis Platt is a school teacher, greatly respected in his hometown of Dunchester. But Dennis feels he is living the wrong life. His childhood friend, Tom Trotter, always beat him at everything, and now Tom is a famous actor, married to a woman Dennis loved first. He feels Tom has stolen the life that should have been his. When the town council decide to present Dennis with an award, they ask Tom to do the presentation and he, being Dennis’ friend, readily agrees. But Dennis knows that this means all the attention will be on Tom, even on this day which should be Dennis’ day. And so he decides that Tom must be prevented from making the speech. Again this is very well done, and with some humour, but there’s a sad undertone to it in Dennis’ dissatisfaction with a life that, to outward appearances, seems to have been quite successful in its own right.

When the Snow Lay Dinted – another Christmas outing for Dalziel and Pascoe, this time very definitely played for laughs. Peter, Ellie and Rosie are going to a hotel for Christmas and in a moment of weakness, Peter invites Andy along. Partly because he’ll be alone otherwise, with no one to cook for him, and partly because he sees that wine and spirits are included in the price, Andy goes. There is a theft from the hotel and Andy sets out on the trail of footprints, while all the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even. Peter, of course, follows – in his master’s step he trod, where the snow lay dinted. Well, you get the picture! Lots of fun, and it ends with a lovely interchange between young Rosie and her Uncle Andy which sheds a sweet light on their friendship – sweet, but not saccharin!

Ever since Hill died, I’ve wished there could be just one more book, somehow, sometime. Not one “finished” by someone else, but one written entirely by the master. My wish has been granted! (And I didn’t even have to release a demon…) A wonderful collection!

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

Amazon UK Link

The Night Wire edited by Aaron Worth

Technological ghosties…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Another anthology from the great British Library Tales of the Weird series, the theme of this one is how horror writers played with all the new communications technology coming into use in the early part of the twentieth century, examining society’s anxieties about how these would change the world as they knew it. From photographs to movies, from telephones to the telegraph, from phonographs to radio to TV – all technologies we take for granted today but which were revolutionary when they were introduced. And the horror writers of the day used them with great imagination, showing how the ghosties and ghoulies of the time mastered these technologies as tools to boost their scariness to the poor victims of their hauntings!

There are seventeen stories in the book, and the mix of authors is interesting. There are perhaps fewer than usual of the biggest names, though Lovecraft is there; some that are better known, to me at least, in other genres, such as Bernard Capes and Rudyard Kipling; and lots I’ve never come across before. The more I read of these anthologies, the more I realise that their success or failure is largely dependent on the compatibility of the editor and the reader, and is therefore quite subjective. There are a few editors I look forward to eagerly, and Aaron Worth is high on that list. I find his choice of stories always works particularly well for me, and I always enjoy his informative introductions even in the shortened form the format of this series dictates. So, in short, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection! Only three of the stories didn’t work for me – the other fourteen all rated as good, very good or excellent, with eight of them getting the full five stars.

I’ve already highlighted a couple of the stories in previous Tuesday Terror! posts – The Statement of Randolph Carter by HP Lovecraft and They Found My Grave by Marjorie Bowen. Here’s a flavour of a few of the others I most enjoyed:

Poor Lucy Rivers by Bernard Capes – Our narrator is a doctor, One day he’s in a typewriter shop when a young woman comes in to request that the shop exchange a second-hand typewriter she’d bought there a week or so ago. She explains there’s nothing wrong with the machine but she simply wants a different one. The shop owner pretends to give her a different machine but in fact cheats her into taking the same one again. The doctor is intrigued, gets the woman’s name from the shop and learns she does typing jobs to earn just enough to keep body and soul together. So he decides to give her a job, as a means of prying into why she has an issue with that particular typewriter. It transpires the problem may be the person who owned the typewriter before – poor Lucy Rivers! Very effective, and it gives a good picture of how typing gave women a means to earn an independent living. Though thankfully not all typewriters are haunted!

Benlian by Oliver Onions – The narrator, Pudgie, makes his living painting miniatures, using photographs as his models. Across the yard from him is Benlian’s studio – he’s a sculptor, and Pudgie doesn’t know him. But one day, Benlian appears and asks Pudgie to photograph him. Pudgie obliges, but the photos turn out fogged and unclear. Pudgie puts this down to the materials he used in the processing and offers to take new photos, and so begins a routine of him photographing Benlian every few days. But over time the photos become odder, and Pudgie gradually learns just exactly what Benlian is trying to do with the sculpture he’s working on. This is an unnerving one, with a chilling ending that is left deliberately ambiguous as we begin to wonder how reliable Pudgie is as a narrator…

Uncle Phil on TV by JB Priestley – When Uncle Phil dies, the Fleming family inherit £150 insurance money. They decide to buy a TV – a new-fangled invention and horrendously expensive, and with only one channel broadcasting a few hours each evening. Mrs Fleming is the first to spot something rather odd – in the background of the programme she’s watching, she spots someone who looks just like Uncle Phil! Gradually the rest of the family admit that they too keep seeing Uncle Phil, and soon he’s not just in the background – he starts talking to them from the screen or talking to other on-screen characters about them. But why? This is great fun – a little bit of spookiness and lots of humour, and a kind of well-deserved ghostly revenge!

So lots of variety despite the single theme, and everything from light-hearted fun to dark, unsettling and sometimes sad. I also enjoyed the look at very early versions of the various technologies and how they changed the way people lived, creating new opportunities and new forms of entertainment but also adding to the speed and rush of life, and the anxieties that come with that. Another excellent anthology in what is turning out to be a bumper year!

(The porpy is sure if he watches long
enough he’ll see Uncle Phil…)

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😮 😮 😮 😮

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

Amazon UK Link

Death on the Down Beat by Sebastian Farr

A dying fall…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two thousand people have packed into Maningpool Civic Hall for a performance by the Municipal Orchestra of a Strauss tone poem. Halfway through, the conductor, Sir Noel Grampian, seems to gesticulate even more wildly than is his wont just before he pitches head-first off the podium into the orchestra. Landing on his head probably didn’t help, but it transpires it was a bullet that killed him. And since he was shot in the front it seems that it must have been one of the orchestra who did the deed. Inspector Alan Hope of the Yard is in the area visiting friends, so is quickly put in charge of the investigation. But where to begin? It appears Sir Noel was roundly disliked by almost everyone who had anything to do with him, so anyone from the Piccolo to the Kettle-Drum could have had a motive. And despite there being two thousand eye witnesses, it seems no one saw anything…

Well, this is a unique little puzzle! It’s told almost entirely through letters from Inspector Hope to his wife, Julia, in which he encloses copies of lots of documents related to the case, including newspaper clippings, lots of statements from the orchestra members, a chart of the orchestra and even four pages of the score of the relevant part of the music being played at the time of Sir Noel’s demise! It’s from these documents that Alan hopes to find the clues that will identify the killer, with any help that his more musically minded wife can give him.

The denouement is probably the least successful part of the book, so I’ll mention it first. After being baffled for weeks, Alan suddenly leaps to the correct solution out of nowhere. In retrospect it is technically fair-play, in that the reader has all the same information as Alan, but I’d be amazed if anyone was able to make the necessary connections to have a shot at solving it. The main weakness, though, is that the format means the reader hasn’t ever “met” any of the suspects and there are a lot – a lot! – of them, most of whom never become more than names, and in fact are often referred to as the instrument they play – the 1st Clarinet, etc. So when Alan finally reveals the culprit, my first response was “Who’s that?” However, Alan then reveals what brought him to this conclusion and all becomes clear before the end.

Challenge details:
Book: 90
Subject Heading: Singletons
Publication Year: 1941

For me, this weakness was well outweighed by the sheer fun and novelty of the musical clues. I’m no expert in classical music – far from it – but I found it helped that I basically know how the instruments are usually positioned in an orchestra, and the musical vocabulary wasn’t completely unfamiliar to me. Alan does explain as it goes along, but I think it might be quite a tedious read for someone with no interest at all in orchestral music. But for anyone with even a smidgen of knowledge, like me, it’s a lot of fun checking back to the chart of the orchestra whenever Alan is discussing who could have done the deed, and trying to use the score to see which orchestra members could have stopped playing for a few moments – just long enough to pull out a gun, fire and get rid of the weapon – without the audience noticing. I paused fairly early on in the proceedings to go to youtube and listen to the piece in question – Richard Strauss’ A Hero’s Life – and while that certainly isn’t necessary, it again all added to the fun and meant I knew what Alan was talking about when he mentions various passages as more suitable than others for covering up a bit of skulduggery.

Eric Walter Blom
(Sebastian Farr)
National Portrait Gallery

Sebastian Farr was a pseudonym for Eric Walter Blom, and this was his only novel. He worked as a music critic for some of the top newspapers, and in the book we hear from the two local critics from the town’s rival newspapers, locked in a bitter battle of sarcasm over each other’s musical knowledge or lack thereof. One of them, Ransom, was also feuding with Sir Noel, who didn’t appreciate any form of criticism of his musical genius. All three had taken to insulting each other in the letters pages and music review sections of the papers, and I found these sections highly entertaining.

Definitely an oddity, this one, and I can quite see why it’s attracting a few pretty negative ratings on Goodreads. But its quirkiness appealed to me, I loved all the musical stuff and it’s very well written, so despite the reveal-from-nowhere issue I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. I love when the BL concentrate on the stars they’ve brought back to prominence, like Lorac and Bellairs, but there’s plenty of room in the series for the occasional more eccentric novel like this one, too.

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

Amazon UK Link

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British Library Crime Classics Subscription

The British Library have now set up a subscription service for the Crime Classics series, which you can use to buy the books for yourself (highly recommended) or to gift to some else (if you really feel you must). Here’s the link where you can find out more:

I was delighted to be given a subscription by the BL to replace the review copies I normally get. I found it easy to set up and they were efficient in emailing me confirmation of the subscription. I’ve now received my first book, which came well wrapped and had the extra treat enclosed of a book-mark matching the gorgeous book cover! Don’t know if that’ll be the case every month, but I have my fingers crossed. 🤞 I also live in hope of a similar subscription service for their Tales of the Weird series one day… are you listening, BL?

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Tuesday Terror! The Sea-Fit by Algernon Blackwood

To his death singing…

Although the British Library call their series of vintage horror stories Tales of the Weird, the stories often don’t strictly fall into the nebulous definition of “weird fiction”. (Xavier Aldana Reyes defines weird fiction as ‘a subgenre of speculative fiction concerned with the limits of human experience and the unknowability of the natural world that brings together elements of the horror, science fiction and fantasy literary traditions’.) This week’s definitely does, however! I haven’t read much Algernon Blackwood yet, but he’s already left lingering horrors imprinted on my mind from his wonderful weird story The Willows. This one is less well known, but in my opinion just as unsettling. I’ve taken it from the BL’s anthology, Our Haunted Shores…

The Sea-Fit
by Algernon Blackwood

Algernon Blackwood

The sea that night sang rather than chanted; all along the far-running shore a rising tide dropped thick foam, and the waves, white-crested, came steadily in with the swing of a deliberate purpose.

Three friends have gathered in a little bungalow nestling in the sand dunes.

Foregathered for Easter, they spent the day fishing and sailing, and at night told yarns of the days when life was younger.

The owner of the bungalow is Captain Erricson…

‘Big Erricson’, Norwegian by extraction, student by adoption, wanderer by blood, a Viking reincarnated if ever there was one, belonged to that type of primitive man in whom burns an inborn love and passion for the sea that amounts to positive worship—devouring tide, a lust and fever in the soul.

His friends are half-brothers, Major Reese and Doctor Reese, so both men of learning and experience, surely not subject to superstitious fancies. The last occupant of the bungalow is ‘Sinbad’, Erricson’s servant…

‘Sinbad,’ sailor of big seas, and a man who had shared on many a ship all the lust of strange adventure that distinguished his great blonde-haired owner—an ideal servant and dog-faithful, divining his master’s moods almost before they were born.

Yes, well, it was the times! However nauseating that description, Sinbad is more than faithful – he knows that his master holds some strange views and is affected sometimes by the moon and the tides, and he tries to protect him when the sea-fit comes on him. As it does this night…

Erricson had one of his queer sea-fits on—the Doctor was responsible for the term—and was in the thick of it, plunging like a straining boat at anchor, talking in a way that made them both feel vaguely uncomfortable and distressed.

The tumbledown bungalow and the sound of the tide don’t help…

The loneliness of the sandspit and that melancholy singing of the sea before their very door may have had something to do with it, seeing that both were landsmen; for Imagination is ever Lord of the Lonely Places, and adventurous men remain children to the last.

And nor does Sinbad’s muttered warning to the doctor…

Sinbad had tugged his sleeve on entering and whispered in his ear significantly: ‘Full moon, sir, please, and he’s better without too much! These high spring tides get him all caught off his feet sometimes—clean sea-crazy’; and the man had contrived to let the doctor see the hilt of a small pistol he carried in his hip-pocket.

As the room grows cold and a strange sea-mist creeps over the bungalow, Erricson talks ever more wildly of the old sea gods, and his belief that they still exist for those who are willing to believe…

‘And I like the old idea,’ he had been saying, speaking of these departed pagan deities, ‘that sacrifice and ritual feed their great beings, and that death is only the final sacrifice by which the worshipper becomes absorbed into them. The devout worshipper’—and there was a singular drive and power behind the words—‘should go to his death singing, as to a wedding—the wedding of his soul with the particular deity he has loved and served all his life.’

And the sea-mist creeps through the cracks in the window-frames and the cold pours through the badly-fitting doors and the tide continues to sing as it brings the sea ever closer and Erricson plunges deeper with each passing moment into the sea-fit…

The man’s inner soul was on fire now. He was talking at a fearful pace, his eyes alight, his voice turned somehow into a kind of sing-song that chimed well, singularly well, with the booming of waves outside, and from time to time he turned to the window to stare at the sea and the moon-blanched sands. And then a look of triumph would come into his face—that giant face framed by slow-moving wreaths of pipe smoke.

Illustration by mgkellermeyer

* * * * *

Well! I shall be considerably less enthusiastic about going paddling in the sea after this one, I can tell you! It’s fabulously written, and although it’s clear where it’s heading somehow Blackwood still manages to build an atmosphere of real tension, and the climax is worthy of the story. There’s something about the way he describes nature that makes it utterly terrifying – there’s no romantic beauty in it, all is power and malevolence, all is ruled by beings too great for our puny minds to comprehend and so ancient we foolishly believe they must no longer exist…

‘And I like, too, the way they manage to keep their names before us . . . There’s old Hu, the Druid god of justice, still alive in “Hue and Cry”; there’s Typhon hammering his way against us in the typhoon; there’s the mighty Hurakar, serpent god of the winds, you know, shouting to us in hurricane and ouragan…’

If you’d like to find out what happens, here’s a link.

(The porpy was so scared by this one
he’s refusing to come out of hiding…

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

Their Finest Hour by Winston Churchill

All the winds that blew…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The second volume in Churchill’s massive, Nobel Prize-winning, six-volume history of the Second World War, this one covers two distinct stages – the fall of France and the Battle of Britain. Churchill gives each volume a theme, and this one seems particularly pointed towards our so-called allies who sat on their hands while Britain stood alone against the mighty German war machine:


Just as in the first volume, this is a wonderful mix of military detail, including many tables showing troop and equipment statistics, and political manoeuvring, as Churchill continued his patient and immensely frustrating attempts to get the US to stand by its supposed allies with something a bit more useful than warm words. Meantime, the rush was on in Britain to intensify munitions manufacture so that the armed forces and especially the air forces would be able to defend against the expected German invasion. We hear much about the many people who were encouraged to use their inventive technical skills to give us any possible military or intelligence edge, and about the support given by the Dominions and Colonies throughout the Empire.

But what makes Churchill such an outstanding Titan in history is that, despite us being forced to stand alone with France fallen and the US procrastinating, despite the massed armies of Hitler gathering on the French shore looking our way, despite the bombs falling devastatingly on our cities night after night, Churchill never considered that we might be defeated. He worked on the assumption that we would win the coming Battle of Britain despite all odds, and so simultaneously made plans for how, our defensive work still ongoing, Britain should move into the offensive stage that would drive Germany and its major ally Italy back, liberating the countries they had invaded and destroying their military might. While all eyes were on the skies above Britain, his gaze was also directed towards Egypt and N. Africa. While all efforts were made to increase production of planes and train pilots to fight the ongoing Battle of Britain, Churchill was also demanding tanks – “Tanks for Africa!”

….The prize was worthy of the hazard. The arrival of our vanguard on the sea at Buq Buq or thereabouts would cut the communications of three-quarters of Marshal Graziani’s army. Attacked by surprise from the rear, they might well be forced as a result of vigorous fighting into mass surrenders. In this case the Italian front would be irretrievably broken. With all their best troops captured or destroyed, no force would be left capable of withstanding a further onslaught, nor could any organised retreat be made to Tripoli along hundreds of miles of coastal road.
….Here, then, was the deadly secret which the generals had talked over with their Secretary of State. This was what they had not wished to telegraph. We were all delighted. I purred like six cats. Here was something worth doing. It was decided there and then, subject to the agreement of the Chiefs of Staff and the War Cabinet, to give immediate sanction and all possible support to this splendid enterprise, and that it should take first place in all our thoughts and have, amid so many other competing needs, first claim upon our strained resources.

It is as thrilling as any adventure story, but so much more than that – his foresight and that of the military men and politicians who worked with him in an attitude of mutual determination didn’t simply save Britain from invasion, but kept hope alive that the spirit of democracy and freedom from tyranny would one day rise again across Europe.

By the end of this volume the Battle of Britain has been won, the threat of invasion is over, the Axis advance in North Africa has been halted, and America has finally signed up to lend-lease which, if it will still not put American skin in the game, will at least provide (for a fee that Britain would still be paying back sixty years later) equipment and the necessities of life to those who are doing the fighting. And here, at the end of 1940, the writing is already on the wall for the eventual defeat of the Axis powers, though it would be many years and see many millions of deaths before that defeat was final.

And now this Britain, and its far-spread association of states and dependencies, which had seemed on the verge of ruin, whose very heart was about to be pierced, had been for fifteen months concentrated upon the war problem, training its men and devoting all its infinitely-varied vitalities to the struggle. With a gasp of astonishment and relief the smaller neutrals and the subjugated states saw that the stars still shone in the sky. Hope, and within it passion, burned anew in the hearts of hundreds of millions of men. The good cause would triumph. Right would not be trampled down. The flag of Freedom, which in this fateful hour was the Union Jack, would still fly in all the winds that blew.

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! Ghosts from the Library edited by Tony Medawar

Criminally spooky…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

There has always been a strong crossover between the genres of crime and horror, and many authors have tried their hand at both. This collection brings together ghostly offerings from fifteen authors better known as mystery writers, mostly from the Golden Age or shortly after. There’s an extra story from MR James, helpfully included because Dorothy L Sayers uses it as a jumping off point for her story. All the entries bar one are stories – GK Chesterton’s is a short essay in which he advises writers how to do ghosts in fiction (oddly, since that’s hardly what he’s known for, but it gives him an opportunity to sound supercilious towards writers whose reputations have long surpassed his own). And as with the Bodies from the Library series to which this is a companion, all the stories have never been collected before (except the MR James) and in one or two cases are being published here for the first time

The overall standard is very high, with only two of the stories getting low ratings from me. All the rest were fairly evenly divided between good, very good and excellent, so a very enjoyable collection in total. What I would say, though, is, that with a couple of notable exceptions, the writers have tended to write what felt to me like crime or mystery stories with a ghostly element rather than the more traditional spooky story of, say, MR James himself and his ilk. This worked great for me since I’m a fan of both genres and actually prefer even my ghost stories to have a proper plot. But I suspect it might mean they wouldn’t work quite so well for people looking for traditional ghost stories and spooky scares – this, I’m guessing, may be why it’s getting pretty mixed ratings on Goodreads so far.

There are loads of well-known names – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Josephine Tey, Daphne du Maurier, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, et al – and, because of the format, no well known stories, so even enthusiastic anthology readers like myself will find all these stories new to them. Here are a few of the ones I enjoyed most:

The Green Dress by Anthony Berkeley – a painter is helped by a ghostly model, but what does she want? I highlighted this one in a recent Tuesday Terror! post.

The Witch by Christianna Brand – A longer story this one, novelette length, it tells of a woman, Laura, alone in the world but with a small inheritance. She has a whirlwind romance with Gereth, and marries him despite barely knowing him. Then she finds a letter in his pocket from his first love, Dorion, talking about murder. Beautiful Dorion seems to have the ability to make men and animals bend to her will and is known locally as a witch. But is Gereth plotting with her to get Laura’s inheritance? A great story, full of suspense and Gothic horror. Is Dorion really a witch? I’ll leave you to find out for yourself!

The Red Balloon by Q. Patrick – This one is really more of a science fiction story, but with some great horror aspects. The narrator is a journalist, sent to report on a terrible incident when two children are killed when they run after a mysterious red balloon. The children’s bodies are kind of dried out, sort of mummified. The journalist’s uncle is a famous but eccentric scientist, and he has a theory that the red balloon comes from an invisible planet which approaches Earth every 28 years. As we will discover, the reason the balloon is red is quite gruesome! Despite the dead children motif, this story is humorous, and references HG Wells quite strongly and openly. Light-hearted, well written and shivery fun.

Run, Pooh! Run!!

Death in a Dream by Laurence Meynell – After being hit on the head during a bombing raid, our narrator begins having dreams in which he time-slips, sometimes to the past, sometimes the future – he doesn’t always know himself. One night he dreams of a nurse murdering her patient, a middle-aged woman. But has it already happened or is it still to come? Very short and more ironically humorous than scary, but very well done!

St Bartholomew’s Day by Edmund Crispin – A dilettante historical researcher is investigating Raoul de Savigny, a man who was killed in the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. He learns that de Savigny’s papers were buried with him, in his casket in the mausoleum in the grounds of his château. The historian breaks in, rather foolishly on St Bartholomew’s Day, and finds more in the mausoleum than he was expecting! This has a great mix of humour and horror and is very well told. Probably one of the most traditionally “ghost story” style tales in the collection.

So loads of variety – lots of great authors having some fun and inviting the reader along to share in it. And this reader certainly appreciated the invitation! I’d probably recommend it more to vintage mystery fans than horror fans – half the fun comes from seeing the authors try something a bit different to what we normally expect from them, most of them very successfully. Another one that would make a great Christmas stocking gift!

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

Amazon UK Link

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Best days of our lives…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Kathy H, at the age of thirty-one, is coming to the end of her career as a carer and looks back at her life, especially her time at Hailsham, the school where she lived throughout her childhood, and the friends she made there. Even as children they all knew Hailsham was a special place and that they too were special, marked out to be carers first, and then donors. But it is only in the last few years that Kathy has come to question that path, and to wonder, along with her best friends Ruth and Tommy, if anyone is ever allowed to deviate from it…

Coming to this book so late it feels almost pointless to avoid spoilers, since I expect almost everyone already knows what the book is about. But I’ll try anyway! It’s probably best described as a literary science fiction set in a dystopian world but in our own recent past – the late 20th century, that is. The core subject is one that has been done many times before and since in science fiction, but is no less powerful for that. The first thing that made it feel different for me is that the narrator, though she sometimes questions things, is ultimately accepting of the life that is mapped out for her. This is not about a struggle against injustice, a battle for rights – it is a portrait of brainwashing, and of a society that has learned how to look the other way.

Secondly, until very near the end we only meet the students of Hailsham and other schools of the same kind, and later when they’re grown up, the carers and donors they become. The other side of society, where the “normal” people live – the ones we’d be in this world – is left almost completely blank, which I found made the book unsettling and rather ambiguous. What happened to this society? A past war is mentioned, but just once in passing. But the roads that Kathy drives along as she moves between the donors under her care are usually empty and the world seems as if it has been somehow depopulated. Are they, the normal people, rich? Poor? Do they have residual health problems from whatever event led to the depopulation? Do they struggle with the morality of what is being done in these isolated schools? Or do they perhaps not know? Or not care?

I felt it was easy to work out pretty early on what was going on with regards to the carers and donors, and I think that’s deliberate. The central mystery is more to do with why Hailsham is seen as special even among the students of the other schools. At Hailsham a great emphasis is placed on art and creativity, and a mysterious Madame visits occasionally and takes away the best of the students’ artworks. The rumour among the children is that Madame runs a Gallery where this art is shown to the public, but when they reach adulthood this explanation seems less satisfactory, and Kathy’s friends have another theory, which they will eventually set out to prove or disprove.

Kazuo Ishiguro

Kathy is a wonderful narrative voice and I grew to care about her very much. Her changing relationships over the years with her two closest friends, Ruth and Tommy, are beautifully portrayed, and while Kathy doesn’t spend much time emoting, nevertheless the book is deeply emotional. She looks back at the three of them in childhood with an adult eye, and can therefore evaluate their interactions more objectively in retrospect. She knows their weaknesses and her own, and sometimes their friendship is strained almost to breaking point, but those early experiences hold them in a kind of web of their own making, a web that may feel like a trap sometimes but is fundamentally spun from love. In Hailsham, no families visit, there are no vacations or interaction with the outside world, so the children there are all each other have. They are not treated cruelly; they are simply trained and conditioned to accept the role for which society has destined them.

I don’t think I can say much more about the story without getting into spoiler territory. It’s a quietly devastating book that shows how easily mankind can create “others” and then treat those others as lesser. And more than that, it also shows how those others can be taught to think of themselves that way too, and to accept the injustices they are shown as normal, even right. It’s a continuation of the science fiction tradition of “mad science”, only here we spend our time not with the mad scientists but with the results of their experiments. It is the bastard child of Frankenstein and Dr Moreau, but here the monsters look just like us, and act like us, and think like us. So the question is, why then are they not us?

Book 10 of 12

This was The People’s Choice for October, and a wonderful choice for which I thank you, People! Keep up the good work!

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! They Found My Grave by Marjorie Bowen

Is there anybody there?

This week’s story is another from The Night Wire, a British Library Tales of the Weird anthology that takes as its theme the new technologies at the turn of the last century that were inspiring both science fiction and horror writers of the day. The technology here is the gramophone, complete with horn, which is used by a medium to provide a conduit from the spirit world…

They Found My Grave
by Marjorie Bowen

Marjorie Bowen

Ada Trimble was bored with the sittings. She had been persuaded to attend against her better judgment, and the large dingy Bloomsbury house depressed and disgusted her; the atmosphere did not seem to her in the least spiritual and was always tainted with the smell of stale frying.

Miss Trimble has been persuaded by her friend, Helen Trent, to come with her to visit a fashionable medium…

The medium named herself Astra Destiny. She was a big, loose woman with a massive face expressing power and cunning. Her garments were made of upholstery material and round her cropped yellowish curls she wore a tinsel belt. Her fat feet bulged through the straps of cheap gilt shoes.

Both women claim to be cynics, but Ada suspects Helen is getting sucked in to what she believes is a fraud…

….‘I haven’t seen anything yet I can’t explain, the woman is a charlatan, making money out of fools. She suspects us and might get unpleasant, I think.’
….But Helen Trent insisted: ‘Well, if you’d been going as often as I have, and noticing carefully, like I’ve been noticing…’

So despite her own boredom, Ada continues to go along…

Ada Trimble respected her friend’s judgment; they were both intelligent, middle-aged, cheerful and independent in the sense that they had unearned incomes. Miss Trimble enjoyed every moment of her life and therefore grudged those spent in going from her Knightsbridge flat to the grubby Bloomsbury Temple. Not even Helen’s persistency could induce Ada to continue the private sittings that wasted money as well as time. Besides, Miss Trimble really disliked being shut up in the stuffy, ugly room while Madame Destiny sat in a trance and the control, a Red Indian called Purple Stream babbled in her voice and in pidgin English about the New Atlantis, the brotherhood of man and a few catch phrases that could have been taken from any cheap handbook on philosophy or the religions of the world.

The spirits that turn up at these sessions are often easily traceable through historical records, which the gullible think proves them to be real, but Ada thinks is more likely to be proof of fraud…

….‘I can’t think why you are interested,’ said Ada Trimble to Helen Trent as they drove home together. ‘It is such an easy fraud. Clever, of course, but she has only to keep all the stuff in her head.’
….‘You mean that she looks up the references first?”
….‘Of course.’ Ada Trimble was a little surprised that Helen should ask so simple a question.

But one day while Ada is feeling particularly bored and disgusted by the proceedings, something rather odd occurs. Madame Destiny had been going through the usual nonsense with the gramophone when…

….Suddenly a deep masculine voice said:
….‘Beautus qui intelligit super egenum et pauperem.’
….Ada was utterly startled; she felt as if another personality was in the room, she sat forward and looked around; she felt Helen’s cold fingers clutch hers; she had not more than half understood the Latin; nor, it seemed, had anyone else.

This personality gradually becomes a regular visitor. He calls himself Gabriel Letourneau, and is boastful and arrogant, and, unlike the others, there’s no trace of him in obvious records despite his claims that he was a prominent citizen in France in his day. Ada is the only one of the regulars who speaks French, so the personality always chooses to speak to her in that language. Can it be fraud? Can Madame Destiny really be fluent in French?

Ada Trimble detested this pompous, insistent personality; she felt odd, a little dazed, a little confused; the orange glow of the gas fire, the red glow of the lamp, the metallic gleams on the horn fused into a fiery pattern before her eyes. She felt as if she were being drawn into a void in which nothing existed but the voice.

Ada’s cynicism is not proof against this voice, this personality she slowly grows to hate…

He hated her, too. When she spoke to him he told her in his rapid French that Helen could not follow, his scornful opinion of her; he called her an ‘ageing woman’; he said she was pretension, facile, a silly little atheist while ‘I am in Heaven’. He made acid comments on her carefully chosen clothes, on her charmingly arranged hair, her little armoury of wit and culture, on her delicate illusions and vague, romantic hopes. She felt stripped and defaced after one of these dialogues in which she could not hold her own.

But the one thing the personality will not reveal is the location of his grave. So Ada determines to find it…

* * * * *

The porpy and I thought this was a really excellent story, which works both as a ghost story and as a commentary on the vulnerability to charlatans and fraudsters of lonely, single women with money. The writing is great, and the personality’s cruel taunting of Ada feels like an exposé of the rather worthless lives of ladies of leisure, desperately seeking ways to fill their empty days. And yet all our sympathy is with Ada – she is sucked in through her good intentions of looking out for her friend. If you’d like to know what happens, here’s a link. The porpy and I didn’t think it was super scary, but we found it odd, effective and quite sad…

(The porpy felt the need for his snuggle rug after this one…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link

Trust by Hernan Diaz

Money makes the world go around…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is the story of a power couple in New York, in the years leading up to and following the Great Crash of 1929. He is Benjamin Rask, a financier and descendant of a long line of men who made their money through trade, first in goods and later on the money markets. Rask is fascinated by how the markets work, and has a natural intuition allied to his mathematical brain that enables him to know exactly when to buy or sell. His wealth grows until he is one of the most powerful movers in the economy. He is friendless by choice, anti-social and without hobbies. His work is his life. But in mid-life he begins to consider the matter of an heir to carry on the family line.

She is Helen Brevoort, sole daughter of a couple with an aristocratic heritage but no money. Her father tutors her idiosyncratically – she is brilliant at maths and is introduced to all the faddish philosophies of the day. She too is anti-social, but her mother has made it clear that her duty is to marry money…

Or is that really what the book is about?

This is a hard one to review because of the need not to reveal too much, so I shall keep it vague and short! The book is written in four sections, the first telling the story of Benjamin and Helen as a kind of joint biography, and that section stands on its own as a short novel in the vein of books by Edith Wharton or Henry James, examining the social structure and wealth aristocracy of early 20th century America. The other sections re-examine the same story from three different perspectives, each adding to and altering the reader’s understanding, so that in the end we are clearer about the ‘true’ lives of this couple, but also about the writing of the biography. It reminded me not a little of Citizen Kane – the same larger-than-life characters, the same sense of growing isolation as wealth and power become ends rather than means, the same arrogance and hubris.

It’s brilliantly done. In each section, Diaz creates a different narrative voice and style, and each is as believable as the others. Changes in perception are done subtly, so that for the most part ‘facts’ remain the same – it is the interpretation that alters. The examination extends beyond the lives of the Rasks, to look at the motivations and influences of the various narrators, so that there are stories within stories, gradually widening out to take us into different layers of society and see the tensions caused by the huge disparity between rich and poor. There is politics here, but not polemics – Diaz examines capitalism critically rather than with outright condemnation, and at the other end of the scale he looks at how communism and anarchism grew as a response to extreme inequality, without overtly suggesting that these philosophies are more likely to produce a better society.

Hernan Diaz

But strip the politics out, and also the history of the market gamblers who caused the Crash, and what is left is an intensely human story about character. Who are Helen and Benjamin really? What factors made them into the people they became? How can we ever be sure we know the truth about anyone, even when their fame means that every detail of their lives seems to be played out on the front pages of the newspapers? And in here too is a look at the status of women and how they are perceived, with competing pictures of Helen very much dependant on the stance of the people telling her story.

I found it fascinating and absorbing, well worthy of its longlisting for the Booker nomination, and I’m disappointed that it hasn’t been shortlisted. I hope I’ve said enough to whet your appetite, without spoiling the experience of reading it for yourself. Highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link

Tuesday Terror! The Green Dress by Anthony Berkeley

Karma’s a killer…

As a companion to their great Bodies from the Library series, Collins Crime Club and Tony Medawar have this year given us an anthology of ghost stories written by the mystery writers of the Golden Age – Ghosts from the Library – from which I’ve taken this week’s delicious little story of betrayal and revenge…

The Green Dress
by Anthony Berkeley

Anthony Berkeley

….Miles Carrington gazed round the comfortable studio with appreciation. “I say, old man,” he said sincerely, “this really is most awfully good of you.”
….Fletcher smiled complacently. “Not a bit! Well, as I was saying, the rent here is paid for a year, and I’ve stored all my private things away in that cupboard. Everything else is open to you. You can move in tomorrow if you like.”

Both men are artists, but Fletcher has found himself a rich widow to marry, and intends to give up his art and live in luxury instead. So he is lending his studio to Miles – a dedicated artist, but so far unknown, who is currently supplementing the little he earns from his painting by drawing illustrations for newspaper advertisements…

Fletcher had not been wrong when he called Miles Carrington a sticker. It takes a sticker to subsist for five years in a tiny attic in Battersea and devote his attention to the portrayal of cheerful gentleman in their underclothes and elderly ladies distressed by violent pains in the back in order to scrape together a bare living, when his soul is yearning after nymphs and dryads and green trees and such more fitting subjects for his brush.

Fletcher points out an old chest, which he tells Miles is full of costumes and props he may find useful. Once Fletcher has gone, Miles opens the chest and begins to lift out its contents…

….Suddenly he paused. The last armful taken out had left uncovered some material of a most delicate shade of green. Miles lifted it out almost tenderly and examined it.
….It was a little dress of stiff green silk of early Victorian, very simple and, in some curious way that Miles could not define, extraordinarily appealing.

Miles immediately begins to imagine the picture he could create with the dress – the woman who would wear it…

…her charm, her dainty beauty, just the way she would smile. The thing fascinated him.

The Green Gown
by Thomas Edwin Mostyn

He hires a model for a couple of sessions, all he can afford, and gets to work, and soon enough the dress is painted. Having run out of money, he now puts the dress on a dummy model, intending to finish the picture from his imagination. But the face of the wearer eludes him. Try as he might he can’t catch the image that seems so clear in his mind’s eye. After a long day of fruitless attempts, each one painted out as unsuitable, the gathering twilight begins to obscure his vision. Then…

Glancing across in the dim light towards where the green dress shimmered mistily upon the model’s throne, he saw a girl’s head above it and the very face of which he had dreamed.

And now each evening when the light fades, the girl appears, never speaking or moving from the throne, but taking the pose he requires for his portrait. Frantically he paints, and now his work is inspired, better than he has ever done. However, the roguish smile he dreamed of is no longer there…

Yes, that smile of hers. That was the only point upon which Miles had been wrong in his mental picture. She might have smiled roguishly once; But not now. Now there was nothing but a terrible wistfulness, a hopeless sadness in her face that made Miles ache with pity for her even as he strove to transfer it to his canvas. She seemed a symbol of dead hopes and wishes unfulfilled.

Source: wikisource
Artist unknown

The painting finished, it is promptly accepted by the Academy and makes Miles’ name. But then Fletcher returns from his extended honeymoon abroad, and turns up at the studio. He has heard about the picture and demands to see it. Miles pulls back the cloth covering it…

He heard a gasp behind him and wheeled quickly about. Fletcher was staring at the picture with wide, horrified eyes; his face was dead white and little drops of moisture were gathering on his brow.

Miles asks him what is the matter but Fletcher is muttering to himself and doesn’t reply. Then he cries out…

“I knew it would be – I knew it would be! Oh, my God, what does she want with me? What does she want?” His gaze was torn from the picture and his starting eyes fell upon Miles. “What does she want, Carrington?” he shrieked.

* * * * *

The bad news is that I can’t find an online version, so if you want to know what she wants, you’ll have to get hold of the anthology! I will tell you that she succeeds in getting what she wants though, and once all is revealed, one feels karma has done its job well!

This is an excellent story, though as with many in the collection the real emphasis is on human wickedness rather than outright spookiness – I guess that’s the way mystery writers’ minds work! But this one has a delightfully chilling, ghostly ending that gave the porpy and me a pleasurable frisson along the spinal column.

Full review of the anthology to follow, but the short verdict is it’s a definite gift idea for Christmas, though possibly more for vintage crime fans than for true horror aficionados.

(The porpy point-blank refused to wear a green dress
for this week’s photo-shoot…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link