Blue Murder (Flaxborough Chronicles 10) by Colin Watson

Skulduggery behind the net curtains…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When a Sunday newspaper tantalises its readers with promises of a juicy story about a blue movie ostensibly made in a quiet, respectable English town, the residents of Flaxborough are horrified to see that the accompanying photograph is of their town’s main street. So when top muck-raking journalist Clive Grail and his team arrive in the town, they aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. In fact, the mayor decides this would be a golden opportunity to use the antique duelling pistols he has just purchased, and issues a challenge to Grail. This may have been intended as a publicity stunt, but things take a more sinister turn when one of the characters dies…

I loved the Flaxborough Chronicles in my youth and have been enjoying reading some of them again as they’ve been published for Kindle by Farrago. However, the series wasn’t of the same standard across its whole length of twelve books – in the first couple, Watson was finding his feet, then there’s a glorious section of six or seven in the middle when he was on top form, before they fell away a little in the last few. Being book 10, this isn’t one of the best. My tendency is always to compare these lesser ones to the best of the series (Broomsticks over Flaxborough, for instance) but this is unfair. Compared to many other books of the same period, even Watson’s less good ones shine.

Part of the problem is that the humour of the earlier books comes from Watson allowing us to peek behind the net curtains of respectability of the middle-classes of the 1950s. By the end of the series, we’re in the ‘70s, and society had changed so much in the intervening years that that kind of show of respectability and class deference had pretty much disappeared, and I never felt Watson really got to grips with how to lampoon the late ‘60s and ‘70s in quite the same way. The delicious, wickedly salacious wit with which he mocks the shenanigans of the ultra-respectable burghers of the town in the ‘50s takes on an edge of crudity in the more liberal ‘70s, and the slang used by his younger characters in particular doesn’t ring wholly true.

Having said that, he still provides an entertaining story, full of characters who are deliberately caricatured and overdrawn. As the newspaper team begin to realise that the story they expected to get isn’t turning out quite the way they anticipated, they have to scramble to save their reputations and jobs, since the paper won’t be pleased if they don’t come up with the goods. Meantime, the townsfolk are split between those outraged at the idea of their town being linked with porn, and those who find it all quite titillating. Inspector Purbright must try to keep the peace by stopping the mayor from carrying through on his threat of a duel, and then must investigate the sudden death which takes everyone by surprise.

Colin Watson

The investigation element of this one is pretty poor. We see the story mainly from the perspective of the newspaper team, with Purbright and his team becoming heavily involved only at the end. Purbright seems to get at the truth too easily and the reader isn’t really shown the connecting links – we’re merely presented with the conclusion. It holds together and makes sense, and in retrospect there are some clues, but on the whole the solution comes out of the blue. Also, while Chubb and Love and the other police regulars show up, we spend very little time with them, and Miss Teatime fans will be sad to know she doesn’t appear in this one at all.

Overall, then, not one of the best but still entertaining enough to be well worth reading. Each of these books stands alone, but I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one. Existing fans will be more willing to make allowances for its comparative weaknesses than newcomers, I think. But the series as a whole is not to be missed! New readers might be better to start at the beginning with Coffin Scarcely Used.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Lanching handed her the Express. The story had made the front page, but more than half-way down. Birdie wrinkled her nose, then gave Grail a pitying look. ‘You poor darling. Below the fold.’
….The account began:

….Burley Glaswegian Charlie Hockley – His Worship to the 14,482 inhabitants of this quiet little market town – today threw to the floor of his Mayor’s Parlour one of the ceremonial white kid gloves that go with his office. The Chief Citizen of Flaxborough was issuing a challenge to a duel – probably the first public ‘calling out’ in this country for more than a century.
….For Mayor Hockley believes that his township has been grossly libelled by a recent article in a Sunday newspaper (not the Sunday Express) and considers it his duty on behalf of his fellow citizens to challenge the journalist responsible and demand ‘satisfaction’. . .
….The mayor is widely believed to have been promised the loan of a pair of authentic duelling pistols together with lessons in their use.
….The man named by Mayor Hockley in his challenge, London columnist Clive Grail, was last night not available for comment.

* * * * *

….In the Rhodian room of the Colossus restaurant in Holborn one long and three shorter tables were set in the form of a capital “E”, and round them were gathered some fifty men and women ranging in age from an exceedingly venerable party with a white beard, who was sleeping fitfully at one end of the top table, down to three young gentlemen of fifteen plus (of a type normally described in police reports as “youths”) who had collected at a point furthest from the eye of the chairman and were engaged in a game of blow-football with rolled-up menus and a battered grape.
….Miss Mildmay looked up as a bread pellet struck her on the cheek and remarked in a clear voice: “If you hit me again with one of those things, John Cove, I shan’t type any more of your private letters for you in office hours.”

* * * * *

….“We will demand of the King,” said Sir Louis Lundin, “my advice being taken, that the body of our murdered fellow citizen be transported into the High Church of St. John, and suitable masses said for the benefit of his soul and for the discovery of his foul murder. Meantime, we shall obtain an order that Sir John Ramorny give up a list of such of his household as were in Perth in the course of the night between Fastern’s Eve and this Ash Wednesday, and become bound to present them on a certain day and hour, to be early named, in the High Church of St. John, there one by one to pass before the bier of our murdered fellow citizen, and in the form prescribed to call upon God and His saints to bear witness that he is innocent of the acting, art or part, of the murder. And credit me, as has been indeed proved by numerous instances, that, if the murderer shall endeavour to shroud himself by making such an appeal, the antipathy which subsists between the dead body and the hand which dealt the fatal blow that divorced it from the soul will awaken some imperfect life, under the influence of which the veins of the dead man will pour forth at the fatal wounds the blood which has been so long stagnant in the veins.”

* * * * *

….‘Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good. No unreasonable offer refused.’ How would that strike you if you read it?”
….“It would strike me as either being a hoax, or else written by a lunatic.”
….“It’s not half so insane as a thing I read this morning beginning ‘Petunia’ and signed ‘Best Boy.’” She tore out the leaf and handed it to Tommy. “There you are. Times, I think. Reply to Box so-and-so. I expect it will be about five shillings. Here’s half a crown for my share.”
….Tommy was holding the paper thoughtfully. His face burned a deeper red.
….“Shall we really try it?” he said at last. “Shall we, Tuppence? Just for the fun of the thing?”
….“Tommy, you’re a sport! I knew you would be! Let’s drink to success.” She poured some cold dregs of tea into the two cups.
….“Here’s to our joint venture, and may it prosper!”
….“The Young Adventurers, Ltd.!” responded Tommy.

* * * * *

I sat in the last row of the public benches. Despite its importance, the Court of Appeal was held in a small room, and it was packed. The court reporters were choosy about which cases they covered but this one was a guaranteed front-page splash. A murderer was always news. A murderer of women was even better, especially if the women were beautiful, especially if they had everything to live for, especially if they met a horrible end at the hands of a perverted stranger. But best of all was a gruesome series of murders combined with a miscarriage of justice. That was a story that had everything.

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Hmm… crime week, it seems!
So… are you tempted?

TBR Thursday 190…

Episode 190

The postman arrived and my reading slump kicked in again, so it’s pretty surprising that the TBR has only gone up by 1 to 229. I don’t understand it – I’m wondering if Abbott & Costello have been secretly messing with my spreadsheet…

Here’s the next thirteen…

Factual

Courtesy of Collins Reference via NetGalley. Do you ever click that NetGalley button and then immediately regret it? For ten seconds, I thought this one sounded interesting, but as soon as I’d downloaded it I realised the idea of reading a bunch of obituaries appealed about as much as eating six plates of lumpy custard. So, on the bright side, it can only exceed my expectations…

The Blurb says: The Scots have contributed richly to the world, most notably in literature and science, but also in the arts, law, politics, religion, scholarship and sport. In this volume, The Times brings together a unique and fascinating collection of obituaries. The list includes people who have made the greatest impact in their fields, others who have led particularly interesting or influential lives, and a selection of notable Scottish figures in the history of The Times.

This book features the major Scottish figures of influence from the last 200 years and includes a diverse range of people, including: Sir Walter Scott, Sir David Livingstone, Thomas Carlyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Keir Hardie, Alexander Graham Bell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Phoebe Traquair, James Ramsay MacDonald, John Logie Baird, Mary Somerville, Jim Clark, John Smith, Donald Dewar, Eugenie Fraser, Robin Cook, Jock Stein, R. D. Laing, Margo MacDonald, William McIlvanney, Tam Dalyell and Ronnie Corbett.

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Crime

Courtesy of Farrago via NetGalley. I’ve been hugely enjoying revisiting Colin Watson’s Flaxborough Chronicles as they’ve been reissued for Kindle. The blurb of this one doesn’t ring a bell, so either I missed it when I was reading them back in my youth, or it will all come flooding back when I start reading…

The Blurb says: A peculiar pornographic movie has been wowing viewers in the Gulf. One of the more scurrilous English Sunday papers gets a tip-off that this exotic blue production stars respected residents of the coastal town of Flaxborough, and a team led by the well-known investigative journalist Clive Grail arrives in a Rolls Royce.

Word of the looming scandal soon gets out and the town’s quixotic mayor, Alderman Charlie Hockley, spurred on by the loan of some antique duelling pistols, issues a challenge to Grail! DI Purbright’s stern warning falls on deaf ears, but before the duel can take place a far more sinister fatality occurs…

Witty and a little wicked, Colin Watson’s tales offer a mordantly entertaining cast of characters and laugh-out-loud wordplay.

* * * * *

Fiction

Courtesy of Penguin Viking via NetGalley. I know nothing about this one, other than that the blurb is as appealing as the cover…

The Blurb says: 1826, and all of London is in a frenzy. Crowds gather at the gates of the Old Bailey to watch as Frannie Langton, maid to Mr and Mrs Benham, goes on trial for their murder. The testimonies against her are damning – slave, whore, seductress. And they may be the truth. But they are not the whole truth.

For the first time Frannie must tell her story. It begins with a girl learning to read on a plantation in Jamaica, and it ends in a grand house in London, where a beautiful woman waits to be freed.

But through her fevered confessions, one burning question haunts Frannie Langton: could she have murdered the only person she ever loved?

* * * * *

Christie on Audio

My cats Tommy and Tuppence get very annoyed whenever I read a Poirot or Miss Marple book. In their opinion, Ms Christie’s other detective duo are by far the best. So we shall all be listening to Hugh Fraser narrating this – the first of the Tommy and Tuppence books… 

The Blurb says: Tommy and Tuppence, two young people short of money and restless for excitement, embark on a daring business scheme – Young Adventurers Ltd.

Their advertisement says they are ‘willing to do anything, go anywhere’. But their first assignment, for the sinister Mr Whittington, plunges them into more danger than they ever imagined…

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

Broomsticks Over Flaxborough (Flaxborough Chronicles 7) by Colin Watson

Devilishly good…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The Flaxborough Citizen tells the worthy people of the town that the Folklore Society’s revel to celebrate Roodmas was well attended. It sounds like it was a fun do, with a discussion of old traditions round a bonfire, followed by refreshments and dancing. But sometimes newspapers don’t tell the whole story…

Naked as on the day she was born, save for a double-looped string of amber beads and a pair of harlequin-framed spectacles, Mrs Flora Pentatuke, of 33 Partney Avenue, Flaxborough, leaped nimbly over the embers of the fire.

The next day, it is discovered one of the revellers, a promiscuous young lady by the name of Edna Hillyard, has gone missing, leaving only her car and her neatly folded clothes behind her. Inspector Purbright is at first inclined to think that she’s simply gone off for a bit of jiggery-pokery, but when the newspapers begin to print lurid reports that black magic and witchcraft have turned respectable little Flax into the Town of Fear, he realises he’ll have to take it all a bit more seriously. Especially when some of the town’s prominent citizens become the targets of witchly curses…

Of all twelve of the Flaxborough Chronicles, this is the one I love best. I think Watson peaked here, finding the perfect story with which to lampoon all his favourite targets at once. As always, he pulls aside the net curtains of respectability to let us glimpse the salacious shenanigans going on behind them. But his humour on the subject of sex is of the saucy seaside postcard variety – more “Ooh, you are awful!” than Fifty Shades of Grey. Class is as prevalent in Watson’s books as it is in British society, and he has a delicious lack of reverence for the town’s worthies as, indeed, does Inspector Purbright. It’s a joy to see him manipulating his Chief Constable, Mr Chubb – a man who finds it hard to accept that his social equals could possibly be up to any kind of skulduggery.

….Pook nodded at Miss Parkin’s sapience and looked again at the Citizen report while he drank some coffee and demolished the rest of the KreemiKrunch.
….“What’s a faggot-master?” he inquired.
….Mrs Gloss frowned. “If you must know, we generally have a little bonfire to brighten up our outdoor meetings, and Mr Cowdrey looks after it. He has had experience with the Scouts.”
….“I know,” Pook said, without looking up from the paper. He somehow made the acknowledgement sound like a notice of impending prosecution.

What makes this one stand out even more is the inclusion of the Lucillite campaign, complete with the Lucies – a group of girls going door-to-door as part of the drive to persuade the ladies of the houses to change their laundry detergent. First published in 1972, Watson ruthlessly lampoons the advertising campaigns of the day to persuade women that all their troubles could be solved by changing to a new brand of soap powder, thus enabling them to achieve an idyllic marriage by ensuring their husbands’ shirts are whiter than white. At the same time, he mercilessly mocks the kind of marketing lingo that was coming into vogue then (and still exists in some of our sadder companies – I speak from bitter experience!).

….“An ad-clens revolution. A turn round of the whole concept. Everything up to now has been slanted on women wanting to please men. But do they?”
….“Exactly. Do they? We’ve been hammering away for years on this whiteness thing. And why? Because Motivational Research said whiteness represented lost virginity.”
….“Every washday the woman got her hymen back so she could offer it again to her mate. Sure, sure. You remember the Vurj campaign, Richard? Always a shot of washwife handing the Vurj pack to man in white hubbyshirt.”
….“God! How off-beam can one get? Listen, this is how I see it, Gordon. Copulation equals children equals drudgegrudge. Right?”
….“Right.”

All the regulars are here – Purbright and Chubb, Sergeant Love of the innocent face and rather less innocent mind, and Miss Teatime, up to her delicately feminine armpits in Psychical Research. Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention, the plot’s excellent too. If I haven’t persuaded you to read any of the other books, I’ll take one last stab at letting Mr Watson persuade you to read this one…

….“Well,” said Gordon, “you’ve heard about industrial sabotage. Right?” He pointed at the prints, opened his mouth, shut it again, and began walking rapidly up and down. He stopped and pointed once more at the prints. “Right?”
….“The lady with the very odd eyes,” Miss Teatime began.
….“Agent,” snapped Gordon. “From P and Q probably. Or C and H. KGB even.”
….Miss Teatime looked shocked. “The Russians?”
….“Kleen-Gear Biological. Do I have to spell it out for you?”

Fabulous!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 167…

Episode 167…

Well, things went slightly better this week, perhaps due to me bricking up the letter box and shouting “She’s emigrated to Australia!” every time the postman knocked the door. So the TBR has fallen by 4 to 226! I’m pretty sure I’ll be getting off the treadmill soon…

Here are a few more that should drop off soon…

Classic Club Spin #18 Winner

Number 9 was called and so this is it! In its favour, it’s short and I loved the film. Against, I really didn’t get along with Cain’s writing in Mildred Pierce (review still to come). So it could go either way…

The Blurb says: An amoral young tramp.  A beautiful, sullen woman with an inconvenient husband.  A problem that has only one grisly solution–a solution that only creates other problems that no one can ever solve.

First published in 1934 and banned in Boston for its explosive mixture of violence and eroticism, The Postman Always Rings Twice is a classic of the roman noir. It established James M. Cain as a major novelist with an unsparing vision of America’s bleak underside, and was acknowledged by Albert Camus as the model for The Stranger.

* * * * *

Vintage Crime

Courtesy of Farrago via NetGalley. I’ve been enjoying revisiting a few of the Flaxborough Chronicles as Farrago have been releasing them for Kindle. This one has always been my favourite of the series so *spoiler alert* it will get a five-star review!

The Blurb says: As Miss Lucilla Teatime often remarks, there is no lack of entertainment in the delightful town of Flaxborough. What could be more wholesome than the Folklore Society’s quarterly “revels”, with dancing, a bonfire, and a quaffing bench? Well-upholstered matrons and town worthies enter most enthusiastically into the spirit. So it’s unfortunate when a younger woman, the freethinking Edna Hillyard, goes missing that night.

Then the manufacturer of “Lucillite” (gives your wash lightness, brightness and whiteness), filming a promotion locally, is dismayed to find a gruesome bull’s head ruining his key scene, while desecrations take place in the church, and the press begins reporting on Black Magic and a Town of Fear! Are DI Purbright and his team really battling against evil forces?

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of Grove Atlantic via NetGalley. I’m not sure about this at all – it doesn’t sound my kind of thing. But somehow I have to get South and Central America on my Around the World map, and frankly books from there never seem to appeal to me! So I shall try to go in with an open mind and maybe this will be the one to win me over…

The Blurb says: From a writer whose work has been praised by Junot Díaz as “Latin American fiction at its pulpy phantasmagorical finest,” Don’t Send Flowers is a riveting novel centered on Carlos Treviño, a retired police detective in northern Mexico who has to go up against the corruption and widespread violence that caused him to leave the force, when he’s hired by a wealthy businessman to find his missing daughter.

A seventeen-year-old girl has disappeared after a fight with her boyfriend that was interrupted by armed men, leaving the boyfriend on life support and the girl an apparent kidnap victim. It’s a common occurrence in the region—prime narco territory—but the girl’s parents are rich and powerful, and determined to find their daughter at any cost. When they call upon Carlos Treviño, he tracks the missing heiress north to the town of La Eternidad, on the Gulf of Mexico not far from the U.S. border—all while constantly attempting to evade detection by La Eternidad’s chief of police, Commander Margarito Gonzalez, who is in the pockets of the cartels and has a score to settle with Treviño.

A gritty tale of murder and kidnapping, crooked cops and violent gang disputes, Don’t Send Flowers is an engrossing portrait of contemporary Mexico from one of its most original voices.

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Classic Fiction on Audio

For my Classics Club challenge. I loved Tess when I read it many years ago, and I also loved the 1979 Roman Polanski film. This audiobook is narrated by Peter Firth, who played Angel in that film, so I couldn’t resist…

The Blurb says: Hardy tells the story of Tess Durbeyfield, a beautiful young woman living with her impoverished family in Wessex, the southwestern English county immortalized by Hardy. After the family learns of their connection to the wealthy d’Urbervilles, they send Tess to claim a portion of their fortune.

Considered Hardy’s masterwork it presents a major departure from conventional Victorian fiction, causing controversy and mixed reviews on first publication due to it challenging Victorian sexual morals. The work was subtitled ‘A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented’ as Hardy felt that its heroine was a virtuous victim of a rigid Victorian moral code.

Hardy considered it his finest book and due to his enlightened and forward thinking, the story has captivated audiences since it was first released.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Audible UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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Lonelyheart 4122 (Flaxborough Chronicles 4) by Colin Watson

Time for Teatime…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Arthur Spain notices that his widowed sister-in-law, Lil, hasn’t been around recently, he pops round to visit her, but his worry increases when he finds a row of full milk bottles outside her door, some curdled, suggesting she hasn’t been home for a couple of weeks. So he reports her missing and soon Inspector Purbright is worrying too, because Lil’s disappearance reminds him of another one from a few months back. Could the two missing women be connected in some way? A bit of investigation shows that both had recently signed on as clients of Handclasp House, a local dating agency…

This is the 4th entry in Watson’s Flaxborough Chronicles and the series is well into its stride by now. As always, it’s full of rather wicked humour about the weaknesses of human nature and those who exploit them. Inspector Purbright is his usual unflappable self, a detective as free from angst as even I could wish for, and with a nice line in mild sarcasm, but never cruelly employed. His sidekick, Sergeant Sid Love, hides a mind like a sink behind a cherubic countenance. And Chief Constable Harcourt Chubb remains the perfect figurehead for the force, a pillar of respectability, stolid and unimaginative…

… the chief constable had the sort of mind which, because it was so static, aided reflection. By dropping facts, like pebbles, into it and watching the ripples of pretended sapience spread over its calm surface, Purbright was enabled somehow to form ideas that might not otherwise have occurred to him.

A new client has just signed up with the dating agency. Miss Lucilla Edith Cavell Teatime is exactly the type of woman an unscrupulous man might prey on – single and new to the area, therefore without friends or family to look out for her, middle-aged and lonely, and so naive and utterly respectable herself that she’s unable to imagine unworthy motives in others. Or at least that’s how she seems on the outside, and Purbright is worried she might be the next victim. But the reader sees much of the story from Miss Teatime’s perspective, so we soon learn she’s not quite as innocent as she likes to appear.

She had just sat sown after looping back the curtain when the girl from the reception office arrived with a glass of whisky and a newspaper. Miss Teatime noted approvingly that the whisky was a double.
“Did you feel faint after the journey, madam?” The girl held the glass like a medicine measure.
“Not a bit of it! Cheers!”
The girl withdrew, looking slightly bewildered.

As Miss Teatime begins to correspond with a gentleman also looking for love, Purbright and Sid have to balance their investigation of the previous disappearances with their desire to prevent her from becoming the next victim. But Miss Teatime has plans of her own…

I love these books and am delighted that Farrago are re-releasing all twelve of them for Kindle. It’s the first time for years they’ve been available at reasonable prices, and that’s a necessity since once you’ve read the first one (Coffin Scarcely Used), you will almost certainly want to binge-read the rest. Although they’re all very good, the ones in the middle are undoubtedly the best, once Watson had established all the regulars. Often humorous crime books are let down by the plotting, but each of these has a strong story and a proper investigation, so they’re satisfying on both levels. They are wickedly perceptive about middle-class English society of the ‘50s, with Watson letting the reader see through the veneer of dull respectability to the skulduggery and jiggery-pokery going on beneath. Mildly subversive, but affectionately so, they form a kind of bridge between the Golden Age and more modern crime novels, with the same class divides as in the earlier era but with the irreverence about them that came fully to the fore in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

But mostly what they are is hugely entertaining, and that’s why you should read them. And if you’ve already read them, give yourself a treat and read them all again. Highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 158…

Episode 158…

Better news this week, but only a little. The TBR has dropped by a miniscule 1 to 220. Still, it’s just a matter of continuing to take baby steps…

Here are a few more that will slide my way soon…

Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. This one popped through my letterbox last week out of the blue. I know nothing about either the book or the author, but the blurb makes it sound as if it’ll be a lot of fun! An immoral masterwork? Oooh…

The Blurb says: In this darkly comic, quite immoral masterwork, Edward is an effete, poor young man who has something in store for his only relative, his wealthy aunt. First published in 1934, this classic mystery is considered a masterpiece of the inverted detective story, in which it is known “whodunit.” The question is “how will they catch ’em?” Highly unpredictable, it contains one of the most surprising denouements in all of detective fiction.

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Scottish Fiction

Courtesy of Canongate via NetGalley. Another one I know nothing about other than the blurb, but the Shetland setting appeals and Canongate do a good job in promoting quality Scottish fiction, current and classic, so fingers crossed for this début…  

The Blurb says: Shetland: a place of sheep and soil, of harsh weather, close ties and an age-old way of life. A place where David has lived all his life, like his father and grandfather before him, but where he abides only in the present moment. A place where Sandy, a newcomer but already a crofter, may have finally found a home. A place that Alice has fled to after the death of her husband.

But times do change – island inhabitants die, or move away, and David worries that no young families will take over the chain of stories and care that this valley has always needed, while others wonder if it was ever truly theirs to join. In the wind and sun and storms from the Atlantic, these islanders must decide: what is left of us when the day’s work is done, the children grown, and all our choices have been made?

The debut novel from one of our most exciting new literary voices, The Valley at the Centre of the World is a story about community and isolation, about what is passed down, and what is lost between the cracks.

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More Vintage Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley again. Farrago are gradually reissuing all twelve of Colin Watson’s Flaxborough Chronicles – this is number 4. I’ve read them all before, some of them many times, so am only selecting the ones I haven’t re-read for a long while, but they’re all great fun…

The Blurb says: Whatever can have happened to Lil?

Flaxborough butcher Arthur Spain is worried that his sister-in-law hasn’t been in touch lately, so he pays her a visit. But Lil’s not at home, and by her porch door are a dozen bottles of curdling milk… Alarmed, he calls in the local police, D.I. Purbright and his ever-reliable Sergeant Sid Love.

It transpires Lilian Bannister is the second middle-aged woman in the town to mysteriously vanish, and the link is traced to a local lonely hearts agency called Handclasp House. So when a vulnerable-seeming lady with the charming title of Lucy Teatime signs up for a romantic rendezvous, the two detectives try extra hard to look out for her. But Miss Teatime has a few surprises of her own up her dainty sleeve!

Witty and a little wicked, Colin Watson’s tales offer a mordantly entertaining cast of characters and laugh-out-loud wordplay.

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Classics Club

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. A few years back, I listened to Heart of Darkness on audio with Kenneth Branagh narrating, during my daily commute. Frankly, I didn’t have a clue what was going on – not a unique occurrence for me with audiobooks, which I find require a different kind of concentration. I decided this was one that needed to be read on paper, so stuck it on my Classics Club list. And to be extra safe, I begged a copy from OWC so that if I still don’t understand it, their intro and notes should help! Plus I get a bonus of ‘Other Tales’…

The Blurb says: The finest of all Conrad’s tales, Heart of Darkness is set in an atmosphere of mystery and menace, and tells of Marlow’s perilous journey up the Congo River to relieve his employer’s agent, the renowned and formidable Mr. Kurtz. What he sees on his journey, and his eventual encounter with Kurtz, horrify and perplex him, and call into question the very bases of civilization and human nature. Endlessly reinterpreted by critics and adapted for film, radio, and television, the story shows Conrad at his most intense and sophisticated.

The other three tales in this volume depict corruption and obsession, and question racial assumptions. Set in the exotic surroundings of Africa, Malaysia, and the east, they variously appraise the glamour, folly, and rapacity of imperial adventure. This revised edition uses the English first edition texts and has a new chronology and bibliography.

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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Bump in the Night (Flaxborough Chronicles 2) by Colin Watson

Skulduggery in Middle England…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Chalmsbury is normally a quiet town with at least a veneer of respectability. So it’s a bit of a shock when the residents have their sleep disturbed one Tuesday night when somebody blows up the local drinking fountain. A prankster, is the general feeling, but when on the following Tuesday a statue unfortunately loses its head in another blast, people want the police to get to the bottom of it before more damage is done. The problem is the local Inspector is friends with the man the townsfolk suspect is responsible. So suddenly Inspector Purbright from the neighbouring town of Flaxborough finds himself drafted in…

Colin Watson wrote the twelve books that make up the Flaxborough Chronicles over a period stretching from 1958 to 1982, with this second in the series dating from 1960. Like many series, the books improve for the first two or three, hit a peak in the middle of the series, and then tail off a little towards the end, but even the less good ones are still way ahead of most of the competition. This one loses a little for me by having the action moved to Chalmsbury, which means that we don’t see much of the regular cast of characters who appear in the ones based in Flaxborough itself. But it has its own cast of deliciously quirky characters to make up for that lack, and has the same sly and wicked wit, poking fun at the respectable middle-classes of Middle England.

“Mr Hoole was the complainant, sir, but he didn’t exactly report it. He just stood under where the sign had been and used bad language. I advised him to be careful and he changed to much longer words that didn’t seem to give as much offence to bystanders.”

The books are peculiarly suited to the ’50s and early ’60s – a time when class structures were still fairly rigid in Britain, and people were judged as much by their professional role as by their character, but when the first breezes of the winds of change of the later ’60s were beginning to be felt. The joy of Watson is that he takes delight in letting the reader peek at the scandals hidden behind the lace curtains of the outwardly respectable. It’s quietly subversive, and must have seemed even more so at the time.

Some of the stories were turned into a TV series in 1977 under the title Murder Most English, starring Anton Rodgers as Inspector Purbright. I re-watched them two or three years ago on DVD and they’ve stood up well to the passage of time. Perfect Sunday afternoon viewing…

In this one, the action takes place mainly among the shop and business owners of the town, and Purbright soon finds that most of them are willing to gossip about their friends and neighbours. There’s a good deal to gossip about – everything from drunk driving to murky business dealings to marital infidelity goes on regularly, and everyone knows everyone else’s business. The solution seems perfectly obvious from early on, so you can be sure that won’t turn out to be the real one in the end. Underneath all the humour and light social commentary, there’s an excellent plot, full of motives, alibis and clues, and it’s not long before the destruction of property escalates to a death and a murder investigation. These books are a little too late to really count as Golden Age from a strict time point of view, but they have that feel about them, only with added hanky-panky. Often Watson makes an oblique innuendo and leaves it to the reader’s mind to fill in the blanks, and I always imagine him winking cheekily as he does so…

“A somewhat impetuous man, Mr Biggadyke, by all accounts.”
“Very likely. But that was no excuse for him going round and telling everybody that story about the Colonel and Bessie Egan.”
“Ah, yes. And the spurs.”

I can never think of these books without the word skulduggery coming into my mind – everybody, except Purbright, is always up to something they shouldn’t be, but it’s mainly mild naughtiness rather than outright badness.

“So you see the person I think the police ought to be looking for is someone here in the town who’s been turned into an enemy of society – perhaps through being sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit.”
“That ought to be a lot easier,” Kebble daringly remarked, “than having to pick from all the people in Chalmsbury who haven’t been sent to prison for things they did commit.”

Colin Watson

A delight – books I revisit often and enjoy anew every time. They’ve been quite hard to get hold of for some time, so I’m happy to see that Farrago are issuing them as e-books. If you’ve never met Inspector Purbright, give yourself a treat – these books are guaranteed to chase the blues away…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 149…

Episode 149…

A tiny drop in the TBR since I last confessed – down 1 to 223. But it’s the beginning of a massive fall, I’m certain. Any day now…

Here are a few more that will soon bounce to the top…

Factual

Courtesy of Duke University Press via NetGalley. There was a time not so long ago when I believed America had begun to escape from its racially divided past. Recent events have disabused me of that notion. So unfortunately this feels quite timely…

The Blurb says: One August night in 1931, on a secluded mountain ridge overlooking Birmingham, Alabama, three young white women were brutally attacked. The sole survivor, Nell Williams, 18, said a black man had held the women captive for four hours before shooting them and disappearing into the woods. That same night, a reign of terror was unleashed on Birmingham’s black community: black businesses were set ablaze, posses of armed white men roamed the streets, and dozens of black men were arrested in the largest manhunt in Jefferson County history. Weeks later, Nell identified Willie Peterson as the attacker who killed her sister Augusta and their friend Jenny Wood. With the exception of being black, Peterson bore little resemblance to the description Nell gave the police. An all-white jury convicted Peterson of murder and sentenced him to death.

In Murder on Shades Mountain, Melanie S. Morrison tells the gripping and tragic story of the attack and its aftermath—events that shook Birmingham to its core. Having first heard the story from her father—who dated Nell’s youngest sister when he was a teenager—Morrison scoured the historical archives and documented the black-led campaigns that sought to overturn Peterson’s unjust conviction, spearheaded by the NAACP and the Communist Party. The travesty of justice suffered by Peterson reveals how the judicial system could function as a lynch mob in the Jim Crow South. Murder on Shades Mountain also sheds new light on the struggle for justice in Depression-era Birmingham. This riveting narrative is a testament to the courageous predecessors of present-day movements that demand an end to racial profiling, police brutality, and the criminalization of black men.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of NetGalley. Colin Watson’s Flaxborough series was one of the great joys of my youth, and it’s shameful that he’s never made an appearance on my blog to date. (It’s so tragic to think that my youth now counts as ‘vintage’, but moving swiftly on…) For a long time they’ve been quite hard to get hold of, so I’m delighted to see that Farrago are issuing Kindle versions of some of them – I hope maybe all of them eventually. This is one I haven’t re-read in a long time…

The Blurb says: Tuesday nights have suddenly turned quite ridiculously noisy in the country town of Chalmsbury, where the good folk are outraged at having their rest disturbed. It begins with a drinking fountain being blown to smithereens – next the statue of a local worthy loses his head, and the following week a giant glass eye is exploded. Despite the soft-soled sleuthing of cub reporter Len Leaper, the crime spate grows alarming. Sheer vandalism is bad enough, but when a life is lost the amiable Inspector Purbright, called in from nearby Flaxborough to assist in enquiries, finds he must delve deep into the seamier side of this quiet town’s goings on.

Witty and a little wicked, Colin Watson’s tales offer a mordantly entertaining cast of characters and laugh-out-loud wordplay.

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Scottish Classic

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. This is one of the books on my Classics Club list, so I was delighted to be given the chance to read it in the OWC edition – the introductions are always great for helping to put these classics in their literary and historical contexts. It goes without saying that I’m ashamed that I’ve never read this one before…

The Blurb says: One of the supreme masterpieces of Romantic fiction and Scottish literature, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a terrifying tale of murder and amorality, and of one man’s descent into madness and despair. James Hogg’s sardonic novel follows a young man who, falling under the spell of a mysterious stranger who bears an uncanny likeness to himself, embarks on a career as a serial murderer. The memoirs are presented by a narrator whose attempts to explain the story only succeed in intensifying its more baffling and bizarre aspects. Is the young man the victim of a psychotic delusion, or has he been tempted by the devil to wage war against God’s enemies? The authoritative and lively introduction by Ian Duncan covers the full range of historical and religious themes and contexts, offers a richer and more accurate consideration of the novel’s relation to Romantic fiction than found elsewhere, and sheds new light on the novel’s treatment of fanaticism. Copious notes identify the novel’s historical, biblical, theological, and literary allusions.

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Pop Science on Audio

The first, I believe, of this style of book that attempts to explain the complex science of the universe in ways that are accessible to the non-scientists among us. It was written to go with Sagan’s famous TV series of the same name, which I’ve never seen – my fascination with this subject is of fairly recent date. As a plus, one of the narrators is LeVar Burton, the lovely Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation

The Blurb says: Cosmos is one of the bestselling science books of all time. In clear-eyed prose, Sagan reveals a jewel-like blue world inhabited by a life form that is just beginning to discover its own identity and to venture into the vast ocean of space. Featuring a new Introduction by Sagan’s collaborator, Ann Druyan, and a new Foreword by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cosmos retraces the fourteen billion years of cosmic evolution that have transformed matter into consciousness, exploring such topics as the origin of life, the human brain, Egyptian hieroglyphics, spacecraft missions, the death of the Sun, the evolution of galaxies, and the forces and individuals who helped to shape modern science.

Includes introductory music: Heaven and Hell by Vangelis from Cosmos: A Personal Voyage used with permission from Druyan-Sagan Associates, Inc. 

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
JANUARY

SMILEYS

Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with the brilliant idea of looking back over her reviews of the last five years and picking out her favourite books of the month from each year. She kindly agreed to let me borrow her idea (which saved me from stealing it!). I was a bit later in starting reviewing than Cleo, really getting properly underway in about April/May of 2011, so for the first few months I might have to be a bit creative in my 2011 selections.

So here are my favourite January reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

broomsticks over flaxboroughNo reviews in January 2011, so here’s one from May 2010. I have loved the Flaxborough Chronicles since my teens and Broomsticks over Flaxborough is my favourite – as always, Colin Watson pulls back the respectable net curtains of the town of Flaxborough to let us see the wickedness behind. In this case, we are treated to a coven of middle-aged, middle-class, sex-obsessed Satanists, nicely contrasted with the ‘Lucys’, a superclean team of door-to-door marketers selling soap powder. These books could be cosies were it not for the vein of sly humour that runs through them, giving them a distinct edge and making them wonderfully enjoyable reads.

 

2012

 

dead scaredThe second instalment of Bolton’s Lacey Flint series, and perhaps my favourite. The plot about a spate of students committing suicide couldn’t be much darker, and there are bits that are very unsettling and downright creepy. Having been unsure about Lacey’s character in the first book, Now You See Me, I felt in this one she had become more open and much more likeable, less of a loner and now with a sense of humour and considerably less angst – all to the good. A great entry in a great series.

 

 

2013

 

brooklynThis book, set in the 1950s, takes us from small town Ireland to Brooklyn, in the company of Eilis Lacey, a young girl forced into economic migration through lack of employment and the expectations of her family. This was the second of Tóibín’s books that I read, after the astonishing The Testament of Mary, and confirmed his place as one of my favourite writers. His prose is beautiful, and his small, quiet plots allow his characters to become utterly real. A writer who never fails to move me deeply.

 

 

2014

 

the papers of tony veitchTony Veitch has disappeared and it seems like half the city is looking for him. Laidlaw’s one of the searchers. Tony’s name has come up in connection with Eck Adamson, a drunk and down-and-out, now dead; and it seems Laidlaw’s the only man who cares. McIavanney’s use of language is superb, particularly the way he catches the tones and patterns of Glasgow dialect. Glasgow, as the sum of its people good and bad, is the character that is at the heart of the book and McIlvanney makes us weep and rejoice for it in equal measure. A love letter from a man who sees the violence and darkness of the city, but also sees it as a place of courage and heart and humour – and ultimately integrity.

 

2015

 

lamentationHenry’s last Queen, Catherine Parr, has written a book describing her spiritual journey to believing that salvation can be found only through study of the Bible and the love of Christ, rather than through the traditional rites of the Church. Not quite heretical, but close enough to be used against her by the traditionalists. So when the book is stolen, Catherine calls on the loyalty of her old acquaintance, Matthew Shardlake, to find it and save her from becoming another of Henry’s victims. The most recent entry in the Shardlake series is also the best – the fiction is woven seamlessly into the fact, and the picture that Sansom paints of the last days of Henry VIII’s reign is both authentic and terrifying.

 

If you haven’t already seen Cleo’s selection for January, why not pop on over? Here’s the link…