TBR Thursday 278… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. Now that last year’s slump seems to be a thing of the past, I’m storming through the books this year, which ought to mean I’ll be smashing all my targets. Ought to…

Here goes, then – the first check-in of the year…

TBR Quarterly Mar 2021

On the whole, I’m pretty OK with these figures. The shortfall in new releases will be made up very quickly since I have tons on the TBR now, which also explains why the TBR total has gone up rather than down. Of course, that will make it harder to fit other challenge books in, but hey! Who’s counting? 😉

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The Classics Club

I read four from my Classics Club list this quarter, but have only reviewed three of them so far…

73. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens – The only Dickens novel I hadn’t read before, and happily I loved the story of Little Nell and her grandfather, evil Daniel Quilp, and the usual myriad of quirky characters Dickens has created to delight us. 5 stars

74. Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp – A rom-com that neither thrilled me with the rom nor amused me with the com. Cluny’s coming-of-age story meanders unrealistically through the social classes of pre-war Britain. Just 2 stars.

75. Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie – unfortunately the humour didn’t work for me in this cosy wartime tale of Hebridean highlanders and a shipwreck full of whisky. An excellent narration lifted it, though. 3 stars.

So a couple of disappointments this quarter, but Dickens more than compensated!

75 down, 15 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

Doing slightly better on this challenge this quarter – I’ve read three, though I’ve only reviewed 2 so far…

41. Crime at Diana’s Pool by Victor L Whitechurch – During a garden party, the host turns up dead, face down in a pond with a knife in his back. The local vicar quickly deduces it’s murder! Quite enjoyable, but with nothing to really make it stand out from the crowd. 3 stars.

42. At the Villa Rose by AEW Mason (link to be added) – When an elderly widow is murdered and her beautiful young companion goes missing, her lover (the companion’s, not the widow’s) begs Inspector Hanaud of the Sûreté to take on the investigation. Oddly structured, but I enjoyed it a lot. 4 stars.

42 down, 60 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

Finally getting into this challenge properly and enjoying it greatly so far, and I’ve got some interesting fiction to come now that I’ve got a bit of an understanding of the factual history. I read two this quarter and had one still to review from last year. Only two reviews though – my reviewing is very behind at the moment.

3. The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan. Gerald Brenan explains in his introduction that, having been there at the start of the Spanish Civil War, he wanted to understand what led to it, and preoccupied himself with studying this during the war. This book, first published in 1943, is the result, and is now considered a classic history of the period. Deservedly so. 5 stars.

4. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Orwell fought with the Trotskyite POUM faction against Franco’s Fascists, and later was involved in the left’s in-fighting during the Barcelona May Days. This is his personal memoir of his time in Spain. An excellent read, with the politics reserved for the appendices. 5 stars.

4 down, indefinite number to go!

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The People’s Choice

People's Choice Logo

I’m just finishing March’s pick so haven’t reviewed it yet, so just two reviews so far – did You, The People, pick me some good ones…?

JanuaryThe Old Buzzard Had It Coming by Donis Casey – Harley Day beats his wife, terrorises his children, fights with his neighbours and has fallen out with his relations, so when he turns up dead the general feeling in the little town of Boynton and the surrounding farming community is that the old buzzard sure had it coming! I thoroughly enjoyed this cosy-ish murder mystery, set in the early 1900s in Oklahoma. 4½ stars.

FebruaryThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – The Price family arrive in a remote village in the Belgian Congo to take over the Baptist mission there. The four daughters of the family tell us of their time there and how it affected their future lives, and along the way show us the impacts of modern colonialism. A wonderful book, well deserving of all the praise and plaudits it has received. 5 stars.

Well done, People – you did great!

2 down, 10 to go!

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Wanderlust Bingo

Wanderlust Bingo March 2021

I haven’t stepped out of my usual UK beat much yet this year, and will probably juggle with this a lot as I go along to slot things into the various categories. I’ll be spoiled for choice for books set in Scotland and England so will leave them to the end and see which boxes I’m struggling to fill. Here’s what I’m considering so far…

CongoThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – 5 stars. I’ve slotted this into River at the moment, but it could also fit Africa or Forest.

SpainIn Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda (review to follow) – set in Barcelona, I’ve put this in City, but it could also fit Europe.

Hmm… lot’s of work to do on this one, but I have a few interesting locations coming up on the TBR.

2 down, 23 to go!

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A much better quarter, in terms of both quantity and quality, not to mention enjoyability. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

PS I appear to have gone on an unintentional break by virtue of not having written any reviews! So I’m going to take that as a sign and have a couple of weeks off to get ahead of myself again. Be good, and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

At the Villa Rose by AEW Mason

Villain or victim?

😀 😀 😀 😀

At the Villa RoseMr Julius Ricardo is enjoying himself at the casino in Aux-les-Bains, people-watching. This night the person he’s most interested in is a beautiful young girl, who at first seems to be in the depths of despair. Later in the evening, Ricardo sees her again with a friend of his, Harry Wethermill, and now she appears to be quite happy, and the two give every indication of being very much in love. So Ricardo is duly shocked when Wethermill rushes into his room a couple of mornings later to beg for Ricardo’s help. A wealthy elderly widow, Mme Dauvray, has been found murdered and Celia Harland, the beautiful girl who, it transpires, was Mme Dauvray’s companion, is missing. Everything points to Celia having been in cahoots with the murderer and having made off with Mme Dauvray’s fabulous jewellery collection. But Wethermill cannot believe this of her, and begs Ricardo to use his influence with another friend, Inspector Hanaud of the Paris Sûreté, to take on the case…

This was first published in 1910, before the standard Golden Age mystery formula of crime-investigation-solution had been fully developed, and so the structure is odd and a bit disjointed. Here, we get the crime, followed by Hanaud brilliantly catching those responsible. Then, as a kind of lengthy epilogue, we are taken back into the past and shown what happened in a narrative supposedly developed from the various witness testimonies. After that, Hanaud briefly tells Ricardo how he worked it out, but by that time the reader ought to have spotted all the clues for herself, so it’s a bit of an anti-climax.

Despite this “lop-sided” structure as Martin Edwards describes it, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, the long section where we see the crime unfold before our eyes manages to be dark and tense even though we know the outcome. The characterisation of the victim, villains and suspects is very well done, and there’s a real sense of innocence meeting evil.

Murder Mystery Mayhem Logo 2Challenge details:
Book: 8
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1910

Mme Dauvray is a kindly soul with lots of money, and so is often taken advantage of. She is a believer in spiritualism, and her long-serving maid and confidante operates as a kind of guard-dog, keeping away those who would prey on the widow. But when Mme Dauvray takes a fancy to Celia, who is an accomplished medium, and moves her in as a favoured companion, the maid is not unnaturally jealous. Her description to the police of Celia as a calculating fraud is wildly at variance with Wethermill’s idealised picture of her as a lovely innocent – it’s up to Hanaud and the reader to decide who’s right. However it’s obvious that the crime involved more than one person, so even if Celia was involved, there’s still a mystery as to who were her accomplices.

AEW Mason (2)
AEW Mason

The investigators aren’t quite such good characters in my view. Inspector Hanaud and Ricardo, who quickly becomes his sidekick, are rather caricatured versions of Holmes and Watson (far more than Poirot and Hastings, in my opinion, although it has been suggested they gave Christie the inspiration for her characters). But Hanaud is one of those superior detectives who likes nothing more than to humiliate his sidekick, and since I felt Ricardo didn’t deserve it (even though he is pretty dense sometimes), I found it hard to like Hanaud. However, we do get to see the clues that allow Hanaud to identify the culprits so it ought to be possible to work it out. By chance I happened on the right suspect, but for all the wrong reasons, so I don’t feel I can take much credit for it! The solution, although credible, isn’t straightforward, so that even when we discover halfway through whodunit, there’s still plenty left to reveal.

Undoubtedly it could have been improved by changing the structure, but fortunately I enjoyed the second half – the storytelling of the crime – more than the first half, so felt far more warmly towards it in the end than I initially thought I might. I believe Mason wrote several Hanaud books, and I’d be happy to meet him again.

I downloaded this one from wikisource.

TBR Thursday 274…

A tenth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

This is a challenge to read all 102 (102? Yes, 102) books listed in Martin Edwards’ guide to vintage crime, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. (100? Yes, 100.) Because of all the other great vintage crime being republished at the moment, I’m going very slowly with this challenge, and they’ve proved to be a bit of a mixed bag so far. Here’s the first batch for 2021 and the tenth overall…

At the Villa Rose by AEW Mason

I’ve never come across AEW Mason before, but the blurb sounds quite appealing. An inspiration for Poirot, eh? We’ll see…

The Blurb says: Aix-les-Bains is a gorgeous place to spend a vacation, and Harry Wethermill is happy to be on its lake, enjoying his time away from it all. Just when it seems life could not get any better, he meets Celia Harland, the stunning companion to the wealthy Madame Dauvray, and falls for the girl immediately. Harry’s courtship soon takes a dark turn, however, when Madame Dauvray turns up gruesomely murdered, a fortune’s worth of jewels missing from her room, and Celia nowhere to be found.

Fortunately for Harry, he has connections to the brilliant Inspector Hanaud, a detective from the Paris Sûreté. Soon the stout sleuth is on the case, vowing to follow the truth no matter where it leads. Is Celia as innocent as Harry believes? Or does her beautiful face mask the black heart of a killer? Nothing will escape the grasp of Inspector Hanaud, one of the mystery genre’s most distinctive heroes and an inspiration for Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot.

Challenge details

Book No: 8

Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns

Publication Year: 1910

Martin Edwards says: “Hanaud is a memorable creation, and his friendship with Ricardo one of the most attractive early variations on the theme of detective and admiring stooge.”

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The Cask by Freeman Wills Crofts

I’ve read a few of Crofts’ Inspector French books recently but this will be my introduction to Inspector Burnley. Their methods sound very similar…

The Blurb says: A strange container is found on the London docks, and its contents point to murder. The cask from Paris is bigger than the rest, its sides reinforced to hold the extraordinary weight within. As the longshoremen are bringing it onto the London docks, the cask slips, cracks, and spills some of its treasure: a wealth of gold sovereigns. As the workmen cram the spilled gold into their pockets, an official digs through the opened box, which is supposed to contain a statue. Beneath the gold he finds a woman’s hand—as cold as marble, but made of flesh.

He reports the body to his superiors, but when he returns, the cask has vanished. The case is given to Inspector Burnley, a methodical detective of Scotland Yard, who will confront a baffling array of clues and red herrings, alibis and outright lies as he attempts to identify the woman in the cask—and catch the man who killed her.

Challenge details

Book No: 16

Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age

Publication Year: 1920

Edwards says: “The meticulous account of the detective work, coupled with the ingenuity of the construction (and deconstruction) of the alibi were to become Freeman Wills Crofts’ hallmarks, and they set his debut novel apart from the competition. Over the next twenty years, the book sold more than 100,000 copies.

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The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

Hmm… I’ve tried and failed with another of Tey’s books so, despite the intriguing blurb and its reputation as a classic, I’m a bit dubious about this one. But that means if it surprises me it can only be in a good way…

The Blurb says: Marion Sharpe and her mother seem an unlikely duo to be found on the wrong side of the law. Quiet and ordinary, they have led a peaceful and unremarkable life at their country home, The Franchise. Unremarkable that is, until the police turn up with a demure young woman on their doorstep. Not only does Betty Kane accuse them of kidnap and abuse, she can back up her claim with a detailed description of the attic room in which she was kept, right down to the crack in its round window.

But there’s something about Betty Kane’s story that doesn’t quite add up. Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard is stumped. And it takes Robert Blair, local solicitor turned amateur detective, to solve the mystery that lies at the heart of The Franchise Affair

Challenge details

Book No: 87

Subject Heading: Fiction from Fact

Publication Year: 1948

Edwards says: “The plot’s origins lay in the strange case of Elizabeth Canning, a maidservant of eighteen who disappeared for almost a month in 1853, and claimed that she had been held against her will in a hay loft. 

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Darkness at Pemberley by TH White

As a child, I read and loved White’s series about King Arthur, The Once and Future King, but I had no idea he’d written a mystery novel – just the one apparently… and it sounds pretty dreadful. I really do wonder sometimes what criteria Martin Edwards used to make his selections. He describes this one as ‘preposterous’…

The Blurb says: An unpleasant don called Beedon is found shot in his locked room in St Bernard’s College, Cambridge. The corpse of an undergraduate is also discovered, and the case appears to involve murder followed by suicide. The crime is suitably ingenious, but Inspector Buller solves the case rapidly, and confronts the culprit. He is rewarded with a prompt confession – in private. The bad news is that although the villain has killed three times in quick succession, Buller is quite unable to prove his guilt.

Disheartened, Buller resigns from the police force, and travels to Derbyshire to meet two old friends. At Pemberley, he tells the lovely Elizabeth Darcy (descended from ‘the famous Elizabeth’) and her brother Charles the story of his disastrous last case. Charles has personal experience of bitter injustice, and attempts to take the law into his own hands. Buller and the Darcys find themselves menaced by a deranged yet infinitely cunning murderer…

Challenge details

Book No: 88

Subject Heading: Singletons

Publication Year: 1932

Edwards says: “…the story takes several wildly improbable turns as the characters become increasingly embroiled in what Elizabeth describes as ‘this Four-Just-Men business’. Preposterous as the story becomes, it fulfils Gollancz’s promise of originality.”

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All blurbs (except one) and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
The blurb for Darkness at Pemberley and the quotes from Martin Edwards are from his book,
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Crime at Diana’s Pool by Victor L Whitechurch

Stabbed in the back…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Felix Nayland is hosting a garden party for the worthies of Coppleswick, and has laid on entertainment in the form of an Albanian band. Later that day, Nayland turns up dead, face down in the pond known as Diana’s Pool, with a knife in his back. The odd thing is that he is wearing the uniform jacket of one of the band, who is now mysteriously missing and therefore quickly becomes the prime suspect. But the local vicar, Reverend Westerham, has spotted some odd clues around the crime scene and he has his doubts. Anyway, even if the musician is guilty, why is the victim wearing his jacket? Nayland is a newcomer to the area, having spent his life as a diplomat travelling the globe and getting mixed up in all sorts of murky events – could it be that some incident from his past has somehow caught up with him?

This is another of the novels in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, in the subsection Murder at the Manor. Edwards tell us that Whitechurch adopted an approach which for the time was unorthodox – he wrote the beginning, including the murder, without knowing himself how the book would develop or who the murderer would be. I’m not sure how much difference this made to the eventual outcome – it reads like a pretty standard murder mystery of the time.

Challenge details:
Book: 37
Subject Heading: Murder at the Manor
Publication Year: 1927

Westerham is a likeable amateur ’tec and, as was the way in crime novels back then, the police quite happily include him in their investigations once they discover that he is a particularly observant witness. The policeman in charge of the investigation, Detective Sergeant Ringwood, gets a big build-up from his colleagues – “…he’s a demon for solving things” Constable Froome informs Westerman. Hmm, personally I thought he was more in the tradition of Japp or Lestrade, and that it was lucky for all involved that justice didn’t rest on the intelligence of the boys in blue!

Victor L Whitechurch

The plot gets a bit messy, which I suppose might be due to Whitechurch’s lack of planning ahead, and takes us into the murky world of South American politics. To be honest I found this pretty uninteresting, and since Nayland wasn’t given any time or space to develop as a character, it was hard to care much about his murder. There’s a side plot concerning the girl that Westerman is falling in love with, and because I liked him, I found I cared far more about the resolution of that strand. I don’t think it’s really fair play, although in fact I guessed the murderer quite early on, though not the motive. Just as an aside, I should mention that if you’re going to commit murder or participate in any other kind of dodgy dealings, it is not a good idea in general to have your initials embroidered or engraved on your belongings, but, if you must, then you should make every effort not to drop them at the scene of the crime. There were two instances of monogrammed items in this story, plus an identifiably foreign type of cigarette paper, all conveniently dropped as clues around the place, and it all felt a bit too contrived.

Overall, I enjoyed this well enough but didn’t think it had anything to really make it stand out from the crowd. It hasn’t inspired me to actively seek out more of Whitechurch’s work, but I’d still be happy enough to read another if it came my way.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 265… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

I usually include a summary of how I’m progressing (or not) towards the targets I set myself for the year, but since I’ll be looking at my New Year’s Resolutions old and new tomorrow, I’ll leave that for then. So just a round-up of the books I’ve read and reviewed for my various ongoing challenges this time. Given that I’ve read almost nothing except vintage crime and short story anthologies for the last few months, this may be the shortest report in the history of the blogosphere…

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The Classics Club

I only read one from my Classics Club list this quarter, but I had three left unreviewed from the previous quarter…

69. Earth Abides by George R Stewart – An apocalyptic tale set in a post-plague world that may have been startlingly original when it was first published, but sadly bored me to distraction now. I abandoned it at 20%. 1 star.

70. The American by Henry James – The story of cultures clashing when a nouveau riche American businessman attempts to marry into the snobbish European aristocracy. I enjoyed this more than I expected to, and it has left me less reluctant to tackle some of James’ other novels. 4 stars.

71. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – The story of Willie Stark, an ambitious, high-flying politician in the Depression-era South, told through the eyes of his most loyal lieutenant, Jack Burden. Along the way we learn much about the corruption at the heart of American politics, but primarily this is a book about humanity in all its flawed imperfection. A brilliant book that earned a Pulitzer prize and the, arguably, even more prestigious accolade of being named my third Great American Novel. 5 stars.

72. Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald – A book full of narcissism and misogyny written by a misogynistic narcissist. Gah! I hated this and abandoned it at 32%. I did enjoy discovering that my fellow read-alongers all felt much the same way about it, though! 1 star, but only because I don’t have a zero rating.

So a very mixed bunch this quarter, but the brilliance of All the King’s Men made up for all the rest.

72 down, 18 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

Although I’ve read a ton of vintage crime over the last few months, none of them were part of this challenge…

40 down, 62 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

Oh, dear, oh, dear! Not only have I not ready any books for this challenge this quarter, I still haven’t reviewed the book that I finished reading back in July!

2 down, indefinite number to go!

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Well, that was exciting, wasn’t it? 😉 I’m sure things will pick up in the new year – 2021 has to be better than 2020! Doesn’t it?? Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

TBR Thursday 259… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

(Yes, I know it’s not Thursday, but I forgot to do my quarterly post yesterday, so I’m fitting it in today instead.) At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. Although I’m not slumping as badly as I was earlier in the year, I’m still not reading at anything like my usual rate, so there’s zero chance of me meeting targets this year. (What’s new??) But I’ve decided not to beat myself up over it, and I’m still slowly chipping away at my various challenges.

Here goes, then – the third check-in of the year…

Well, it’s actually slightly better than I was expecting! Most of the challenges are still badly behind, but I think I’ve actually caught up a little since I last reported. The Classics Club is the real problem, since I’m supposed to finish my list by next summer. Does anyone know what the punishment is for failure? It better not be chocolate-denial…

The TBR had dipped a bit at the end of September, although honesty compels me to admit October has been a bit of a spree so far. My recent disappointing experiences with some of the older books on the TBR has given me just the excuse I needed to add new ones. Plus my favourite publishers have come out of lockdown and a few parcels have been arriving – yay! However, I continue to cull the wishlist monthly, so the combined figure is still on target – amazingly…

 

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The Classics Club

I’ve read a respectable six from my Classics Club list. I had two left unreviewed from the previous quarter, and now have three unreviewed at the end of September. My reviewing slump has actually been worse than the reading slump. Still, that means I’ve reviewed five this quarter…

64. Flemington by Violet Jacob – Set during the Jacobite Rebellions, this is the story of two men on opposite sides in the conflict. Well told, some great characterisation and a good deal of moral ambiguity, with Jacob showing that both sides believed in the honour of their cause. I enjoyed it very much. 4½ stars.

65. The African Queen by CS Forester – The book on which the classic Hepburn/Bogart film is based, this is the story of a spinster lady and a Cockney steamboat pilot coming together to destroy a German gunboat. The main strength of the book is in the descriptions of the African riverscape. It’s an old-fashioned adventure story, enjoyable but let down a little by the ending, which was changed in the film to make it more exciting. 3½ stars.

66. The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson – Set in Elgin in the 1920s, this autobiographical novel tells of a little girl growing up among the women of Lady’s Lane. Her mother is a prostitute and little Janie is seen as neglected, though she doesn’t feel that way herself. But when the Cruelty Man comes calling, Janie’s life will change. It’s a hard story, told with warmth and empathy and humour, and no bitterly pointed finger of blame from the adult Kesson. A beautiful book. 5 stars.

67. The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison – Another Scottish classic, this time set in Gleneagles just after the Jacobite Rebellion. It’s based on the history of Mitchison’s own family, and while it is clearly brilliantly researched and gives a real flavour of the lives of the minor aristocracy of the time, sadly it’s let down by a weak and rather dull plot. I abandoned it halfway through. Just 2 stars.

68. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler – this classic noir simply didn’t work for me, but I take the blame since noir rarely does. The detective, Marlowe, is convinced that his friend didn’t murder his wife, even though he confessed and committed suicide. The book is way too long, with more emphasis on Chandler’s musings on life than on the plot. Again, just 2 stars.

A very mixed bunch this quarter, but with a couple of goodies in the mix. If I never read about another Jacobite though, I’ll die happy…

68 down, 22 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read and reviewed three for this challenge this quarter. I’m going through a bad phase with these, often unable to see why Martin Edwards would have included them in his list. However, I’ll keep going for a while longer since, despite this quarter’s dismal experience, overall I’ve enjoyed most of the one I’ve read. To see the full challenge, click here.

38.  The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham – A murder mystery with a twist – the dead man appears to have died twice! This is an unusual Campion mystery in that it’s told in the first person rather than the usual third. I enjoyed getting inside his head – it made him seem a little less of the silly ass that he sometimes appears. One of the more enjoyable Campion books for me. 4 stars.

39. The Killer and the Slain by Hugh Walpole – the story of a man driven to murder and the effect it has on him. This is a rip-off of Jekyll and Hyde, and not nearly as well done, dull and over-padded. I can’t imagine why it’s on the list. Abandoned halfway through, and a generous 1 star.

40. Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi by Jorge Luis Borges – dear me! I only got halfway again in this one! It’s a spoof of The Old Man in the Corner stories and filled with “humour”, but I found it overly wordy, condescendingly knowing and gratingly arch, with every client (of the three I read, at least) having exactly the same characterisation. 1 star, though I may have to introduce a zero stars rating soon.

40 down, 62 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

I’ve actually read two history books for this so far, but have only reviewed one (in October, but I’m counting it anyway). I haven’t managed to fit in any more of the fiction books yet, and I think this challenge is really only going to take off properly next year. My enthusiasm is still high, though – it’s just a matter of scheduling!

2. The Spanish Civil War by Stanley G Payne – this was an excellent introduction to the subject, concise but packed full of information, clearly presented. Payne has been a historian of Spain and European fascism throughout his career, and this book feels like the sum of all that immense study, distilled down to its pure essence. 5 stars.

2 down, indefinite number to go!

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So  a more productive quarter in terms of quantity, with enough great books to make it all worthwhile. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The Killer and the Slain by Hugh Walpole

Accountably neglected…

😦

John Talbot always hated Jimmie Tunstall from the time they were boys at school and extrovert Jimmie would torment the introverted John. Now, years later, Talbot writes down the story of their relationship to prove, so he tells us, that he is not mad. Of course, whenever a narrator tells you he’s not mad, then you kinda know he is. After several years of absence, Tunstall returns to the town where Talbot still lives, now with a wife he adores but who doesn’t love him, and a young son who’s not fond of him either. They both quite like Tunstall though. Unable to put up with Tunstall’s overbearing personality any longer, Talbot murders him. But soon he begins to feel that Tunstall is still around – is, in fact, in some way controlling Talbot’s behaviour, making him do things he would never have dreamed of – bad things! Guilt? Madness? Or is something supernatural going on…?

I don’t know. I got bored with being bored halfway through and decided I didn’t care. I often wonder why already successful authors sometimes decide to rip off a great classic and then do it so badly. It must be the ultimate in hubris. “Aha!” I imagine Walpole thinking to himself one day, “I know what I’ll do! I’ll take the basic premise of Jekyll and Hyde, tell it sort of from the perspective of Hyde, fill it with lots of sex and endless, repetitive and exceptionally dull padding, and everyone will see what a great and original talent I am!” Poor Walpole, with your 27 ratings on Goodreads – looks like the reading public felt that the greatness and originality all belonged to Robert Louis Stevenson (373,463 ratings).

Challenge details:
Book: 101
Subject Heading: The Way Ahead
Publication Year: 1942

Martin Edwards must see something in this that I missed, since he included it in his 100 Classic Crime novels. As well as mentioning Jekyll and Hyde, he also says it’s reminiscent of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and yes, there is a similarity, but again, that was original and great, whereas this is a rip-off and dull. Edwards says it’s “unaccountably neglected” – I would argue that it’s accountably neglected, very accountably…

Book 12 of 20

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 246… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. It was already beginning to go horribly wrong when I last reported at the end of March, and I fear my plaguophobia has made this my worst quarter since I started blogging and maybe for several years before that. However I haven’t given up all hope of finding my groove and making up for lost time in the second half of the year. Time to see just how bad the situation is!

Here goes, then – the second check-in of the year…

 

Oh dear, most of the challenges have fallen badly behind, especially the Classics Club and the challenge to read some of the older books on my TBR.

However, while the TBR (books I own) remains stubbornly high, the combined TBR/wishlist figure is looking better. The mathematically-minded among you will realise that’s because books are gradually moving off the wishlist onto the TBR as I acquire them, and I’m not madly adding new ones. Mostly this is due to a lack of enthusiasm, but it’s also because I’m receiving almost no books for review at the moment, as my favourite publicity people remain furloughed. This is no bad thing since it’s allowing me to clear my feet of old overdue review copies a bit, but I do miss those parcels popping through the letterbox!

 

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in March, and since then I’ve broken out of quarantine three times but have only reviewed two of them so far – my reviewing slump is even worse than my reading slump!

On the Main Journey (made by the characters in Around the World in 80 Days) I spent a long visit in Egypt with the family of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad in Naguib Mahfouz’s wonderful historical saga Palace Walkset in Cairo to the backdrop of the end of WW1 and the movement for independence. Then it was off to the Alps for a skiing holiday in the company of Carol Carnac in her Crossed Skis – a trip which, as is so often the way with vacations, promptly turned into a murder mystery. (Originally I had put Frankenstein in the Alps slot, but having now abandoned three books in my attempt to fill the Arctic slot, I’ve shoved Frankenstein into it and put this one in the Alps instead. All this world travelling gets quite complicated…)

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

78 down, 2 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve only read three from my Classics Club list this quarter, and still have two to review, so just one review this quarter…

63. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers – The story of deaf mute John Singer who attracts a small group of broken and lonely people, each of whom finds his silence allows them to talk openly to him in a way they can’t to other people.  A profound and moving study of the ultimate aloneness and loneliness of people in a crowd, and of the universal human desire to find connection with another. The writing is beautiful, emotional but never mawkish, with deep understanding of the human heart and sympathy for human fallibility – a book that fully deserves its classic status. 5 stars.

Low on quantity this quarter, but high on quality!

63 down, 27 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

Although I’ve read several vintage crime novels, I’ve only actually read one for this challenge this quarter. To see the full challenge, click here.

37.  The Innocence of Father Brown by GK Chesterton – This is the first collection of Chesterton’s stories about the little Catholic priest who not only solves inexplicable mysteries but also cures souls as he goes along. I honestly don’t know what it is other people see in the Father Brown stories – they don’t work for me at all, and I abandoned this after the first four stories. 1 star.

37 down, 65 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

This challenge really only started properly in June, so I’ve only read one book for it this quarter and unfortunately haven’t reviewed it yet. My enthusiasm is high though, so expect this section to be busier next time I report!

1 down, indefinite number to go!

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So not the most productive quarter but I still enjoyed most of the few books I read for my various challenges. Thanks as always for sharing my reading experiences!

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

TBR Thursday 244…

A ninth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

This is a challenge to read all 102 (102? Yes, 102) books listed in Martin Edwards’ guide to vintage crime, The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. (100? Yes, 100.) Because of all the other great vintage crime being republished at the moment, I’m going very slowly with this challenge, and they’ve proved to be a bit of a mixed bag so far. Here’s the second batch for 2020 and the ninth overall – some well known names in this batch!

The Killer and the Slain by Hugh Walpole

This will be my introduction to Hugh Walpole. It sounds dark and pretty terrifying – I may need to wake the porpy up for company…

The Blurb says: As boys, Jimmie Tunstall was John Talbot’s implacable foe, never ceasing to taunt, torment, and bully him. Years later, John is married and living in a small coastal town when he learns, much to his chagrin, that his old adversary has just moved to the same town. Before long the harassment begins anew until finally, driven to desperation, John murders his tormentor. Soon he starts to suffer from frightening hallucinations and his personality and physical appearance begin to alter, causing him increasingly to resemble the man he killed. Is it merely the psychological effect of his guilt, or is it the manifestation of something supernatural—and evil? The tension builds until the chilling final scene, when the horrifying truth will be revealed about the killer—and the slain.

Challenge details

Book No: 101

Subject Heading: The Way Ahead

Publication Year: 1942

Martin Edwards says: The Killer and the Slain is a compelling novel, very distantly reminiscent of James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), yet distinctive in its treatment of cruelty and murderous obsession…

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The Sussex Downs Murder by John Bude

The British Library has re-issued several books by Bude now. It took me a bit of time to warm up to him but I loved the last couple I’ve read, so am looking forward to this one with great anticipation…

The Blurb says: Two brothers, John and William Rother, live together at Chalklands Farm in the beautiful Sussex Downs. Their peaceful rural life is shattered when John Rother disappears and his abandoned car is found. Has he been kidnapped? Or is his disappearance more sinister – connected, perhaps, to his growing rather too friendly with his brother’s wife?

Superintendent Meredith is called to investigate – and begins to suspect the worst when human bones are discovered on Chalklands farmland. His patient, careful detective method begins slowly to untangle the clues as suspicion shifts from one character to the next.

Challenge details

Book No: 35

Subject Heading: Serpents in Eden

Publication Year: 1936

Edwards says: “The Rother family farmhouse, Chalklands, and the surrounding area are convincingly realised, and in keeping with Golden Age tradition, a map is supplied to help readers to follow the events of the story after John Rother goes missing, in circumstances which at first (but deceptively) seem reminiscent of the disappearance of Agatha Christie…

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Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi by H Bustos Domecq

I’m not sure about this one at all – it sounds like a bit of a mish-mash from the blurb, and perhaps trying to be too clever. But low expectations mean that if it surprises me, it can only be in a good way!

The Blurb says: The first fruit of the collaboration of Borges and his long-time friend Bioy-Casares, Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi appeared originally under the pseudonym of H. Bustos Domecq. “Bugsy’s” prose style is not quite the style of either of the collaborators, but in this volume, at least, “he never got out of hand,” as Borges complained he did later.

In the first story, Parodi, who is himself in jail for homicide, is visited by a young man who seeks his help in solving a particularly baffling murder. In the second story, a killing takes place aboard an express train. One of the characters is a writer named Gervasio Montenegro, whom the discerning reader will identify as author of the book’s expressive foreword. In “Tadeo Limardo’s Victim,” a murdered man prepares for his own death. “Tai An’s Long Search” is a variation on Poe’s “The Purloined Letter.” In “Free Will and the Commendatore,” a cuckold takes elaborate and invisible revenge.

Challenge details

Book No: 98

Subject Heading: Cosmopolitan Crimes

Publication Year: 1942

Edwards says: “In-jokes abound; some are lost on a modern British reader, while Montenegro’s anti-Semitism represents the authors’ scorn for racism; Nazi-supporting extremists had previously suggested that Borges was secretly Jewish, and not a ‘true’ Argentinian… 

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The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham

I’ve never learned to love Margery Allingham though I don’t hate her stuff either. Maybe this will be the one that turns me into a wholehearted fan. Certainly the title is a major attraction!

The Blurb says: Private detective Albert Campion is summoned to the village of Kepesake to investigate a particularly distasteful death. The body turns out to be that of Pig Peters, freshly killed five months after his own funeral. Soon other corpses start to turn up, just as Peter’s body goes missing. It takes all Campion’s coolly incisive powers of detection to unravel the crime.

The Case of the Late Pig is, uniquely, narrated by Campion himself. In Allingham’s inimitable style, high drama sits neatly beside pitch perfect black comedy. A heady mix of murder, romance, and the urbane detective’s own unglamorous past make this an unmissable Allingham mystery.

Challenge details

Book No: 25

Subject Heading: The Great Detectives

Publication Year: 1937

Edwards says: “…the story is an example of Margery Allingham at her best. Its high spirits are not a means of disguising a thin plot, but complementary to an intriguing mystery. She was an unorthodox novelist, whose work was correspondingly uneven, but her admirers remain legion…”

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All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
The quotes from Martin Edwards are from his book,
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

The Innocence of Father Brown by GK Chesterton

A mystery to me…

😦

This is the first collection of Chesterton’s stories about the little Catholic priest who not only solves inexplicable mysteries but also cures souls as he goes along. There are twelve stories and I made it through almost four of them before I decided I’d rather be cleaning the cats’ litter tray.

Sometimes when I dislike a popular book or author, I can see why the world loves them even although I don’t. But not with Father Brown, I fear. Nonsensical plots, frequently poor writing and ridiculous scenes of the priest with a few words bringing hardened criminals to repentance leave me struggling to find anything to admire in these. Throw in Chesterton’s supercilious disdain for anyone from a creed other than his own – i.e., Roman Catholicism – with his sanctimonious sneering reserved especially for atheists and Jews, and I find the stories often actively unpleasant as well as unentertaining.

Let me give you an example, which includes major spoilers for one of the stories, The Queer Feet. A group of rich gentlemen have a monthly dining club during which they use their own valuable set of fish knives and forks. On this evening, while they dine in one room of a restaurant, Father Brown sits locked in in another, writing a letter on behalf of a dying man. (Why locked in? No idea, other than that the plot requires him to be unable to open the door and look out.) Hearing footsteps outside in the corridor, he miraculously extrapolates from the sound of them a) that something queer is going on b) that it must be someone pretending to be a gentleman part of the time and a waiter the other part and c) that therefore this individual must be stealing the valuable cutlery about which Brown miraculously seems to know and d) that the criminal is getting way with this imposture because gentlemen and waiters all wear black jackets and it is therefore impossible to tell them apart. Having worked all this out on the basis of the sound of the footsteps, and having then discovered that there’s a second door in his locked room which has been unlocked all along *eyeroll*, Brown tackles the dangerous criminal, and with a few words persuades him to repent, turn over the loot and depart to lead a better life. I think my favourite line, showing Chesterton’s poor grasp of either writing or arithmetic – perhaps both – must be:

The proprietor knew all his waiters like the fingers on his hand; there were only fifteen of them all told.

Challenge details:
Book: 7
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1911

Still, at least that line made me smile, unlike this, from the following story, one of several snide remarks about Jews and their supposed love of money:

…squires should be swindled in long rooms panelled with oak; while Jews, on the other hand, should rather find themselves unexpectedly penniless among the lights and screens of the Café Riche.

Other reviews inform me he’s even worse later about Indians and Chinese people. Of its time, of course, and I’d doubtless have been able to overlook it had I been enjoying the stories more.

Then there are the moments when he reaches for the heights of grandiose melodrama, and misses by a mile:

Lady Galloway screamed. Everyone else sat tingling at the touch of those satanic tragedies that have been between lovers before now. They saw the proud, white face of the Scotch aristocrat and her lover, the Irish adventurer, like old portraits in a dark house. The long silence was full of formless historical memories of murdered husbands and poisonous paramours.

What can I say? Obviously other people see something quite different when they read these stories or they wouldn’t be as lastingly popular as they are. For me, they’re a 1-star fail, but statistically speaking there’s a good chance you’d love them. Go figure.

Goodreads ratings

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 235… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. I usually start off pretty well and then it all goes horribly wrong later in the year. However, due to a severe dose of plagueomania, for most of March I’ve been struggling to read anything except thrillers and mysteries, so I fear the horribly wrong bit has started early this year !

Here goes – the first check-in of the year…

Actually I thought the reading targets figures might be much worse than they are. The classics are taking the worst hit as generally speaking they require the most concentration. The Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge won’t get underway properly until I finish the Around the World Challenge, which should happen in April but may drift to May.

However, the TBR figures are going in completely the wrong direction! After exercising iron willpower over new releases all last year I seem to have gone mad this year and have acquired about a million! Well, slight exaggeration but it won’t be if I keep going on like this. Must do better!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in December, and this quarter I’ve done most of my travelling in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. One is still patiently waiting for me to review it – better do it soon before the holiday tan wears off! It’ll appear in the next round-up.

On the Main Journey (made by the characters in Around the World in 80 Days) I visited the Suez Canal only to find that I’d turned up in the middle of the Suez Crisis to witness the dying throes of the British Empire, in PH Newby’s Something to Answer For, the first ever Booker Prize winner.

I also had a few detours this quarter. First, I went to the Swedish island of Öland, where I got involved with the disappearance of a little boy many years earlier, in Johan Theorin’s excellent Echoes From the Dead. Off to Sicily next where I got caught up in Garibaldi’s attempt to unify Italy, spending some time with the decaying aristocracy in Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Then I found myself in Ruritania, (which may have been a fictional country but is still probably better known than many a real one so I’ve decided it counts!) and had great fun with Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll as he impersonated the Ruritanian King in Anthony Hope’s swashbuckling adventure The Prisoner of Zenda. I also returned to China, a destination I’d already visited. I enjoyed the magically realistic look at life for the modern urban Chinese woman in An Yu’s Braised Pork so much I’ve decided to swap it in to replace the one I’d previously listed for China.

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

76 down, 4 to go!

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The Classics Club

Although I’ve only read three from my Classics Club list this quarter, I had a backlog of four from the previous quarter still to review. So six reviews this quarter, and one still to review which will appear next time…

57. The New Road by Neil Munro – Set midway between the two major Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745, this great adventure story tells of two men travelling north into Highland country at the time when General Wade was building his New Road as part of the effort to pacify the clans. Entertaining and very well written, although the heavy sprinkling of Scots language and rhythms combined with its assumption of familiarity with the historical context might make it a demanding read for non-Scots. But for me, 5 stars.

58. The Go-Between by LP Hartley – A re-read of a book I loved in my youth and happily I loved it just as much all over again. The narrator Leo looks back to the summer of 1900 from a distance of fifty years. The story he tells us is one of subtle gradations of class and social convention, of sexual awakening and the loss of innocence, and over it all is an air of unease created by the older Leo’s knowledge of the horrors of the wars which would soon engulf the 20th century, changing this enchanted world of privilege for ever. 5 stars

59. The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown – A miserable and misanthropic portrayal of small-town Scottish life in the mid-19th century. I admired the skill of it, and the use of language, but it’s not an enjoyable read. And, while it is undoubtedly insightful about some aspects of Scottish culture, it certainly doesn’t give a full or rounded picture. 3 generous stars.

60. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – No such reservations for this wonderful classic set during the Spanish Civil War. A love story, a story of the horror of war, of loyalty and comradeship, and surprisingly with a very strong female character at its heart, there is so much beauty in this book, side by side with so much brutality and so much tragedy. A real masterpiece – the descriptive writing is wonderful and the depth of insight into humanity and how people behave in times of war is breathtaking. 5 supernova-bright stars.

61. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens – Set during the Gordon Riots of 1780, this is Dickens’ first attempt at the historical novel. The structure he uses is not wholly successful, but it’s filled as always with some delightfully original characters and also has some very fine mob scenes that hint at what would come in his later, and much better, A Tale of Two Cities. 4 stars because I’m comparing it to other Dickens’ novels, but would be 5 stars if compared to almost any other author’s work.

62. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – In this excoriating study of the horrors of colonialism in Africa, Conrad shows the devastating impact the white man has on both the society and the land of Africa, but he also shows that this devastation turns back on the coloniser, corrupting him physically and psychologically, and by extension, corrupting the societies from which he comes. Not an easy read, but more than worth the effort. 5 stars.

A fantastic quarter! I hope my next batch of classics are just as good!

Update to the list: I abandoned the third book in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy, Grey Granite, at too early a stage to review. (If you’re interested in why, here’s a link to my comments on Goodreads.) So I’m replacing it with The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson. Details will appear on a future TBR post.

62 down, 28 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

Although I’ve continued to read a ton of vintage crime, I’ve only actually read two for this challenge this quarter. To see the full challenge, click here.

35.  The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie – When a rich old lady is killed in her country house, the various members of the household come under suspicion. This is the first book ever published by Agatha Christie and therefore our first introduction to the two characters who would become her most famous, Poirot and Hastings. Great fun to see how the Queen of Crime began! 4½ stars.

36.  Trent’s Last Case by EC Bentley – Another murder in a country house, this time of an American business tycoon. Trent is a journalist and amateur detective who soon thinks he knows what happened, but has his own reasons for not revealing his suspicions. From 1913, it’s an intriguing look at one stage on the road to development of the genre. 4 stars.

36 down, 66 to go!

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Reading the Spanish Civil War Challenge

Although this challenge hasn’t really started yet, it would be crazy not to link Hemingway’s classic to it…

1.  For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. This story of love set amidst war is one of the best known books in English about the Spanish Civil War. The wonderful writing and profound insight into Spanish culture and the realities of war mean it richly deserves its status as a major classic. A glowing 5 stars and a great way to start the challenge!

1 down, and who knows how many to go!

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Another great quarter’s reading, even if the last month has thrown me off track a little! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

Trent’s Last Case by EC Bentley

Person or persons unknown…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When wealthy American business tycoon Sigsbee Manderson is found shot dead in the grounds of his English country house, freelance journalist and amateur detective Philip Trent is commissioned by one of the Fleet Street newspapers to investigate. Trent quickly learns that Manderson’s marriage was in difficulties. His young trophy bride Mabel had soon discovered that the life of a rich socialite bored her, and although she did her best to fulfil her duties as wife and hostess, Manderson had become increasingly withdrawn from her. Also in the house are Manderson’s two secretaries: his American business secretary, Calvin Bunner, and John Marlowe, an Englishman who looked after the social side of Manderson’s diary. A manservant and a stereotypical French maid complete the list of inhabitants, while Mabel’s uncle, coincidentally an old friend of Trent’s, Nathaniel Cupples, is ensconced in a nearby hotel. Although the coroner’s inquest finds a verdict of murder by person or persons unknown, Trent soon feels he has a good idea what happened that night. But for reasons of his own, he can’t reveal his suspicions…

This one was first published in 1913, before the Golden Age had got properly under way and therefore before the genre had developed its recognisable structure. Here we get Trent’s solution halfway through, along with his reasons for not revealing it. The rest of the book takes us through what follows, eventually leading to Trent finding the full truth, complete with a little twist in the tail. It’s enjoyable in parts, but the structure makes it uneven, and it’s one of those ones that depends very much on two adults being unable to have a simple conversation which would have brought out the truth much earlier. It also goes wildly far over the credibility line more than once, all becoming rather ridiculous in the end. Admittedly, what I just called ridiculous, Martin Edwards describes as a ‘clever surprise solution’, so as always these things are in the eye of the beholder.

Challenge details:
Book: 12
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1913

EC Bentley

Edwards also points out, in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, that Bentley was experimenting with some of the things which would later become part of the standard for mystery novels – the unlikeable victim over whom the reader need not waste too much time grieving, the country house with its enclosed set of suspects, and an attempt at fair play, making sure the reader is given all the clues to pit her wits against the detective. I’m not sure how well he succeeds in that last aspect – when the clues and solutions are so wildly incredible, one wonders if the reader can really be said to have a fair chance even if all the information is given. I did spot one or two of the clues and worked out little bits of what was going on, but I came out of it rather glad that my mind isn’t quite distorted enough to have worked out the whole puzzle!

It didn’t become a favourite for me, or inspire me to seek out more of Bentley’s Trent books (it turns out not have been his last case after all!) but overall I enjoyed it, partly for the story itself and partly for the interest of seeing another stage towards the development of the genre.

I downloaded it from wikisource.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

Introducing Poirot and Hastings…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Captain Hastings is home from the war on leave and his old friend John Cavendish invites him to stay at his family’s manor house, Styles, where Hastings was a frequent visitor in earlier years. There have been some changes since then. John is now married to Mary, not that that stops Hastings immediately being struck like a lovelorn schoolboy by her beauty and grace. Then there’s Cynthia, a young woman staying at the manor while she works in the pharmacy of the local hospital. Hastings is immediately struck like a lovelorn schoolboy by her auburn-gold hair and vivacity. Old Mrs Inglethorp, John’s stepmother, has re-married the awful Alfred whom everyone dislikes on the grounds that he’s clearly a fortune hunter and worse, he sports a bushy black beard which makes him look like a bounder. And there’s Evie – a lady who acts as a companion and general helper to Mrs Inglethorp. Evie is middle-aged and has a rather gruff, almost manly demeanour, so that happily Hastings manages to remain immune to her charms. And in a house in the village are a group of Belgian refugees, including a retired police officer, M. Hercule Poirot…

This is the first book ever published by Agatha Christie and therefore our first introduction to the two characters who would become her most famous, Poirot and Hastings. It’s decades since I last read it so I didn’t remember much about it at all and was delighted to discover that it’s a whole lot of fun. It’s not as polished as the books from her peak period – the pacing isn’t as smooth and some of the clues are pretty obvious requiring Hastings to be… well, it grieves me to say it, but a bit thick to miss them! I pretty quickly worked out whodunit, although it’s possible that maybe the solution was deeply embedded in my subconscious from long ago (though that’s unlikely given my terrible memory). But the intricacies of the plotting show the promise of her later skill and the book has the touches of humour that always make her such a pleasure to read.

Challenge details:
Book: 18
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1920

Poirot himself has some of the quirks we all know so well – his obsessive straightening of ornaments, his occasional French exclamations, his egg-shaped head and neatness of dress. But he’s much more of an action man than in the later books, frequently running, jumping, leaping into cars and driving off, and on one occasion even physically tackling a suspect! When I thought about it, this does actually make more sense for a retired police officer than the delightful fussiness of his later career, but it’s not quite as appealing and unique. He does however have the same soft heart and romantic nature of the later Poirot, as determined to mend broken hearts as to mete out justice. Inspector Japp also puts in an appearance, also rather different from the later Japp but still entertaining.

Agatha Christie

I did have a quiet laugh to myself at the obvious fact that Christie was clearly a major Holmes fan, since quite often Hastings sounds almost indistinguishable from Dr Watson, and this version of Poirot is much more into physical clues like Holmes than the psychology of the individual as he would later be. I’m pretty confident she’d read Poe’s detective stories too! But when you’re learning your craft who better to imitate than the masters, and her debt is repaid a zillion times over by all the many authors who have since unashamedly borrowed from her in their turn. And frankly, spotting these connections adds an extra element of enjoyment to nerds like me…

All-in-all, while I wouldn’t rank this as her best, it’s as good as most of the vintage crime I’ve been reading recently, which means it’s very good. My buddy, author and Christie aficionado Margot Kinberg, tells me that the book was turned down several times before finding a publisher. All I can say is I hope the ones who turned her down were eaten up by jealousy and regret when they realised what they’d missed out on! Four stars for the quality and an extra half for the interest of seeing how the indisputable Queen of Crime started out.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday (on a Sunday) 224…

An eighth batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

(Yes, I know it’s Sunday but I’m so behind with postings that I’ll be reading books before I’ve included them on TBR posts soon, and I simply can’t cope with the mental and emotional discombobulation that would cause me!)

So, the first batch for 2020 for this challenge includes a couple of well-known names and a couple who are new to me…

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

This will be a re-read of the very first Christie novel. However it’s many, many years since I last read it, so I’ve pretty much forgotten it completely, including the crucial question of whodunit…

The Blurb says: Who poisoned the wealthy Emily Inglethorpe, and how did the murderer penetrate and escape from her locked bedroom? Suspects abound in the quaint village of Styles St. Mary–from the heiress’s fawning new husband to her two stepsons, her volatile housekeeper, and a pretty nurse who works in a hospital dispensary. Making his unforgettable debut, the brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is on the case. The key to the success of this style of detective novel lies in how the author deals with both the clues and the red herrings, and it has to be said that no one bettered Agatha Christie at this game.

Challenge details

Book No: 18

Subject Heading: The Great Detectives

Publication Year: 1920

Martin Edwards says: “Christie blends a rich variety of ingredients, including floor plans, facsimile documents, an inheritance tangle, impersonation, forgery and courtroom drama. The originality of her approach lay in the way she prioritised the springing of a surprise solution ahead of everything else…

* * * * *

Trent’s Last Case by EC Bentley

I don’t remember ever reading anything by Bentley before so this is unknown territory…

The Blurb says: On Wall Street, the mere mention of the name Sigsbee Manderson is enough to send a stock soaring—or bring it tumbling back to earth. Feared but not loved, Manderson has no one to mourn him when the gardener at his British country estate finds him facedown in the dirt, a bullet buried in his brain. There are bruises on his wrist and blood on his clothes, but no clue that will lead the police to the murderer. It will take an amateur to—inadvertently—show them the way.

Cheerful, charming, and always eager for a mystery, portrait artist and gentleman sleuth Philip Trent leaps into the Manderson affair with all the passion of the autodidact. Simply by reading the newspapers, he discovers overlooked details of the crime. Not all of his reasoning is sound, and his romantic interests are suspect, to say the least, but Trent’s dedication to the art of detection soon uncovers what no one expected him to find: the truth.

Challenge details

Book No: 12

Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age

Publication Year: 1913

Edwards says: “The book opens with a scathing denunciation of the ruthless American magnate Sigsbee Manderson. More than a century after the book was published, this passage retains its power, and reminds us that there is nothing new about the unpopularity of financiers…

* * * * *

The Innocence of Father Brown by GK Chesterton

I’ve never been a fan of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, so this one will be more of a duty than a pleasure… unless he manages to win me over this time!

The Blurb says: In thrilling tales such as “The Blue Cross,” “The Secret Garden,” and “The Hammer of God,” G. K. Chesterton’s immortal priest-detective applies his extraordinary intuition to the most intricate of mysteries. No corner of the human soul is too dark for Father Brown, no villain too ingenious. The Innocence of Father Brown is a testament to the power of faith and the pleasure of a story well told.

Challenge details

Book No: 7

Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns

Publication Year: 1911

Edwards says: “Chesterton took a real-life friend, a Bradford priest, as his model, ‘knocking him about; beating his hat and umbrella shapeless, untidying his clothes, punching his intelligent countenance into a condition of pudding-faced fatuity, and generally disguising Father O’Connor as Father Brown.’

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The Crime at Diana’s Pool by Victor L Whitechurch

I’m sure I’ve read and enjoyed a short story from Whitechurch in one of the BL’s anthologies, though I may be mistaken since I can’t find any reference to it on the blog. Anyway, this is certainly my first novel by him…

The Blurb says: The Reverend Harry Westerman was “an energetic, capable parish priest, a good organiser, and a plain, sensible preacher” and “a particularly shrewd and capable man. It was no idle boast of his that he had made a habit of observation – many of his parishioners little guessed how closely and clearly he had summed them up by observing those ordinary idiosyncrasies which escape the notice of most people. He was also a man who could be deeply interested in many things quite apart from his professional calling, and chiefly in problems which concerned humanity.” Attending the garden party of a newcomer to the parish of Coppleswick he makes a discovery that leads to a long and complicated investigation with sinister connections to past events.

Challenge details

Book No: 37

Subject Heading: Murder at the Manor

Publication Year: 1927

Edwards says: “As Dorothy L Sayers complained, he did not put the reader ‘on an equal footing with the detective himself, as regards all clues and discoveries’. For her, this was a throwback to ‘the naughty tradition’, but she acknowledged that the novel was otherwise excellent.”

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All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.
The quotes from Martin Edwards are from his book,
The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

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

TBR Thursday 222… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

I usually include a summary of how I’m progressing (or not) towards the targets I set myself for the year, but since I’ll be looking at my New Year’s Resolutions old and new tomorrow, I’ll leave that for then. So just a round-up of the books I’ve read and reviewed for my various ongoing challenges this time. I’ve read loads but due to my recent break, I’m way behind with reviews…

(Reminds me of my postman throwing books at me…)

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in September, and this quarter I’ve been to three destinations…

On the Main Journey (made by the characters in Around the World in 80 Days) I took my time machine back to Omaha to visit the World Fair of 1898 in Timothy Schaffert’s surprisingly enjoyable The Swan Gondola. Then Joseph Conrad and Lord Jim took me on a revealing trip around various parts of the British Empire, including a harrowing voyage across another compulsory destination, the Arabian Sea.

I finished my quarter’s travels with a detour to visit the Igbo clan in colonial-era Nigeria in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

72 down, 8 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve read an astonishing eight from my Classics Club list this quarter and had another still to review from the previous quarter. So far I’ve only reviewed five of these nine though, so have four still to review…

52. Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence – The story of young Paul Morel, the son of a Nottingham miner and alter-ego of the author, as he grows through childhood into manhood, and of the three women who vie for his love. This stood up very well to re-reading after many years, to my delight since it was one of the formative novels of my own adolescence. 5 stars

53. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey – New patient Randle P McMurphy arrives on the mental ward and is soon challenging Nurse Ratched for supremacy, geeing the Acutes up to rebel against the institution’s rules. Another re-read, of a book I found disappointing when I first read it many years ago too close to watching the movie, but this time around thought was brilliant. 5 stars.

54. Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – This second part of A Scots Quair trilogy follows the further life of Chris Guthrie, now married to a minister and having moved from her farm to the small town of Segget. Unfortunately I didn’t think it was anywhere near to Sunset Song in terms of the writing, structure or in what it has to say about society, though it tries. Just 3 stars.

55. Wild Harbour by Ian Macpherson – Billed as sci-fi, this is really more of an alternative history set in the then near future, in a Britain at war. The main protagonist doesn’t believe in killing so takes to the hills of Scotland with his wife, to live in a cave and wait for the war to be over. A bleak survivalist adventure that becomes dystopian in the end, that I found compelling despite my distaste for the premise. 4 stars.

56. East of Eden by John Steinbeck – The story of how two generations of an extended family live their lives in misery and strife, and then die, usually horribly. My last Steinbeck – I’ve had far too much of his utterly depressing view of humanity. A generous 2 stars.

I’m nearly back on track with this challenge and have several more lined up for the next quarter, including the winner of the latest Classics Club Spin, Grey Granite, the third book in A Scots Quair.

56 down, 34 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I haven’t read any for this challenge this quarter since I’d already met my target for the year. However I still had three reviews pending from the quarter before. To see the full challenge, click here.

32.  Family Matters by Anthony Rolls – Robert and Bertha Kewdingham live in a state of constant quarrelling, tired of each other, dissatisfied with their lives but unable to change. It’s a pity that Bertha is attractive to other men, and that Robert keeps a pharmacy-size stock of poisons readily to hand to treat his rampaging hypochondria. Things are bound to get nasty… Excellent characterisation and a lot of fun. 4½ stars.

33.  Payment Deferred by CS Forester – Not really a mystery, this one. The murder happens right at the beginning, and the book is actually about the impact it has on the murderer’s psychology. We watch as guilt and fear eat away at him, destroying his already weak character. It’s very well written and psychologically convincing but, oh my, it’s depressing! Just 3 stars.

34.  The Curious Mr Tarrant by C. Daly King – A collection of eight stories. Tarrant is an amateur detective, but his interest is purely in the bizarre. He investigates for the intellectual thrill, and has no particular interest in achieving justice. I gave a couple of the early stories 5 stars and another 4. But the rest ranged from mediocre to dire, getting progressively worse as they went along. A disappointing 2 stars overall.

34 down, 68 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Just one reviewed for this challenge this quarter. Struggling badly to motivate myself to continue with this since several of the books have been disappointing. But I’ll keep going for a little longer, although I’m dropping one of my five authors…

8.  East of Eden by John Steinbeck. As I said above in the Classics Club section, I’m done with Steinbeck now. There’s not enough chocolate in the world to compensate for the miasma of misery that hovers around him. A generous and final 2 stars.

8 down, 3 Steinbecks removed from list, 14 to go!

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A mixed quarter’s reading as far as challenge books have gone, but still with some gems among them! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The Curious Mr Tarrant by C. Daly King

A mystery to me…

😐 😐

A collection of eight mysteries starring the mysterious Trevis Tarrant, ably assisted by his manservant, Katoh, who is actually a Japanese spy.

I must admit that sometimes the most baffling mystery to me is why a book has been included in Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and this is one of those cases. Edwards says: The Curious Mr Tarrant is one of the most renowned collection of stories focusing primarily on impossible crimes.” It appears the stories were admired by Ellery Queen and Dorothy L Sayers, amongst others, so clearly they saw more in King than I. Apparently he never achieved popular success in his native America, though, and had difficulty finding publishers there. I’m kinda with the Americans on this one, and think it’s unfortunate this has been chosen to fill one of only four slots in the Across the Atlantic section.

It actually starts off pretty well. I gave a couple of the early stories 5 stars and another 4. But the rest ranged from mediocre to dire, getting progressively worse as they went along. The final story slumped all the way to one star.

Tarrant is an amateur detective, but his interest is purely in the bizarre. He investigates for the intellectual thrill, and has no particular interest in achieving justice. In the early stories the narrator is Jerry Phelan, a young man about town who meets Tarrant during the first case in the collection, The Episode of the Codex Curse. Jerry and the girl he loves, Valerie, are quite fun, as is Jerry’s sister, Mary – all three of them have a Wodehouse-ish vibe. They gradually play smaller and smaller roles and eventually all but disappear, and the later stories badly miss the element of humour they bring to the earlier ones. Tarrant himself is one of these annoying geniuses with a remarkable gift for working out what seems unfathomable to the mere mortals around him. I liked him well enough at the beginning but tired of him quite quickly. And the last few stories introduce a strange kind of supernatural or mystical element, which is too nonsensical to be taken seriously, but not nonsensical enough to be amusing.

Challenge details:
Book: 92
Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic
Publication Year: 1935

When reviewing a collection, I usually highlight a few of my favourite stories. Here I’m afraid there are only two that I really enjoyed, although, in fairness, both of them are very good:

The Episode of the Tangible Illusion – Valerie is refusing to marry Jerry because she thinks she’s going mad. She hears footsteps in her house when no-one is there, and sees strange images in her room at night. Jerry, having met Tarrant in a previous case and admiring his talent for explaining the inexplicable, asks him to investigate. This is the second story in the book and is very well told, with a great mix of humour, spookiness and a lovely little romance. The solution is ingenious and the detective element is stronger than in most of the other stories.

The Episode of “Torment IV” – Torment IV is the name of a small yacht, and the story is based on the idea of the Mary Celeste. One day the yacht is found abandoned, and it transpires that the family who were on it all drowned. Tarrant investigates what happened to drive them all into the sea, given that the sea had been calm and nothing seems to be amiss on the boat. This is as much horror as detection and it has a great element of suspense. Although the solution is actually a bit silly, the ending is quite effectively scary.

C Daly King

And that’s it. There’s another one, The Episode of the Nail and the Requiem – a traditional locked room mystery – which seems to be highly thought of. I fear I found it dull. The characterisation is non-existent and the whole thing hinges purely on the technical details of how the deed was done.

Overall, I couldn’t recommend this collection, although the couple of stories I’ve highlighted are worth reading should you ever happen across them. A disappointment.

(The Kindle version I’m linking to has an extra four stories that King wrote later which weren’t originally included in the collection. I’m afraid I couldn’t get up enough enthusiasm to read them.)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Payment Deferred by CS Forester

Fade to grey…

🙂 🙂 🙂

We first meet William Marble as he sits in his dining room one evening, totting up his debts. William is a bank clerk who deals in currency exchange, and his salary is of the respectable rather than the generous kind. Despite his humble house, he and his wife Annie always overspend their budget and for a long time William has been shuffling his debt around, borrowing from one person to pay off another. But now he’s reached the point where he has no-one left to tap and his creditors are looking to be paid. Then his young nephew arrives unexpectedly from Australia, with a wallet stuffed with wads of banknotes. And it just so happens William has a cupboard full of photography chemicals that can easily double as poison…

This is not a detective novel, so that little blurb isn’t nearly as spoilerish as it might seem. The murder happens right at the beginning, and the book is actually about the impact it has on William’s psychology. We watch as guilt and fear eat away at him, destroying his already weak character. It’s very well written and psychologically convincing but, oh my, it’s depressing! William is deeply unlikeable while Annie is portrayed as so stupid that it seems unlikely that William would ever have found her attractive. They have two teenage children. Winnie, William’s favourite, starts out OK, but becomes progressively harder to like as the book goes on, while John, the son, has all the makings of a fine young man till his father’s increasingly erratic behaviour begins to affect him. I had a lot of sympathy for John, a little for poor stupid Annie, and none at all for the other two.

William eventually solves his money problems by carrying out a shady transaction at his bank – what today we’d describe as insider trading. Clearly Forester understood what he was talking he about when he described the details of how this scheme worked, but I fear I didn’t and my eyes began to glaze over. However, the end result is that William suddenly becomes well off, and we see how this change in fortune too affects the members of the family, not for the better.

Challenge details:
Book: 74
Subject Heading: The Psychology of Crime
Publication Year: 1926

The element of suspense comes from wondering what the outcome will be. Will William give himself away? Will Annie begin to suspect him? But it’s very underplayed – for reasons made clear early on, there’s no active investigation going on into the young victim’s disappearance. While the vast majority of the book is very credible, the ending left me annoyed at the abrupt and contrived way Forester tied everything up.

As you can probably tell, this one is not a favourite of mine. I often struggle with books where the criminal is the main character unless there’s plenty of black humour to lift the tone. In this one there is no humour, leaving it a bleak story with a couple of episodes that I found distinctly unpleasant. Had it been set amidst the anxious speed of big city life I would call it noir, but the respectable dullness of the middle-class suburban setting left the tone feeling grey. I also felt it went on too long (though in actual pages it’s quite short) – the endless descriptions of William drinking whisky to drown his guilt, his heart constantly thudding, pounding, racing, poor Annie’s repeated descent into sobbing for one reason or another, all became so repetitive that they lost any impact after a while.

CS Forester

However, this is mostly a matter of personal taste – I do think it does what it sets out to do very well; that is, to show the disintegration of the man and the effect this has on his family. Call me shallow but, although I admired the skill and the writing, I simply didn’t find it entertaining or enjoyable. Nor was it quite tragic enough to be harrowing, somehow. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, but the ratings on Goodreads suggest plenty of people have enjoyed it far more than I did, so if the idea of it appeals to you, don’t let my reaction put you off. Noir is not my favourite colour, even when it’s faded…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – sorry, can only find used copies on Amazon US.

TBR Thursday 214… and Quarterly Round-Up

TBR Quarterly Report

At the New Year, as I do every year, I set myself some targets for my various reading challenges and for the reduction of my ever-expanding TBR. It’s usually by this stage of the year that it becomes blindingly obvious that, unless cloning technology is invented tomorrow, I stand zero chance of meeting any of my targets, and I have a sinking feeling this year will be no different!

So here we are – the third check-in of the year…

Oh, dear! It’s not looking hopeful! The MMM challenge is done and dusted for this year, and I’m doing fine at keeping the new releases under control, but that was supposed to give me time to keep up with all the rest! I’ve picked up a tiny bit on the other challenges, but not nearly enough. I don’t understand it – I feel as if I’ve read nothing but challenge books for months… well, apart from vintage crime, vintage horror and vintage sci-fi. Hmm! I think I’m beginning to see the problem… oh well, three months to go and miracles do happen. Don’t they?

The TBR is going better. Although I’m unlikely to meet the target on books I own, especially the older ones, the overall combined TBR/wishlist figure is still on track. That calls for a celebration!

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The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in June, and this quarter I’ve visited four continents (maybe five – my geography is terrible) and sailed through every ocean!

On the Main Journey (made by the characters in Around the World in 80 Days) my exciting round the world voyage in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas took me through the Mediterranean, while my visit to fictional Mayapore in North Central India in Paul Scott’s wonderful The Jewel in the Crown will tick the box for the equally fictional Kholby in Uttar Pradesh. Confused? Me too!

I had several detours this quarter, some good, some not so much. I went to Papua New Guinea in Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip, only to find myself in the midst of a bloody civil war, which I could have coped with if only the book hadn’t been quite so bad. I slipped back in time to Zululand in H. Rider Haggard’s wonderful Nada the Lily, for a stirring adventure based on African history and folklore. Then I was taken behind the Berlin Wall to East Germany, in John le Carré’s excellent and influential The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. My final trip was with John Steinbeck in The Pearl – a tragic (and profoundly depressing) story of the pointlessness of life (though I think it’s supposed to be about the evils of capitalism), set in Mexico.

To see the full challenge including the Main Journey and all detours, click here.

69 down, 11 to go!

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The Classics Club

I’ve reviewed seven books from my Classics Club list this quarter and have one other pending…

45. Middlemarch by George Eliot – Set just before the Reform Act of 1832, Eliot uses the better off residents of the provincial town of Middlemarch to muse on the state of society at a point of change. A book that engaged my intellect more than my emotions and, in the end, failed to make me care about the outcomes for the people with whom I’d spent so much time. 3½ stars.

46. In the Heat of the Night by John Ball – Fundamentally a crime novel with a very good plot and some excellent detection elements, but it’s far more than that – it paints an entirely believable picture of being a black man in a town that’s run by the whites for the whites at a time when segregation and racism were still entirely acceptable. 5 stars.

47. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas by Jules Verne – Scientist Aronnax and his companions find themselves unwilling guests aboard the submarine Nautilus as Captain Nemo takes them on a fabulous journey beneath the seas and oceans of the world. The descriptions of the wonders of the deeps, the glimpses of other civilisations, the mystery surrounding Captain Nemo and the thrilling adventure aspects all more than made up for the excessive fish-detail. 5 stars

48. Nada the Lily by H. Rider Haggard – This is the tale of Umslopogaas, unacknowledged son of Chaka, a great Zulu king, and the beautiful Nada the Lily whom he loves. Excellently written in the voice of Umslopogaas’ adoptive father Mopo, Haggard has managed to create an entirely believable picture without projecting white people or their attitudes or values onto a story about Africa. 5 stars.

49. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré – British spymaster Alec Leamas is asked to stay “out in the cold” for one last operation – to take part in an elaborate sting to infiltrate the East German set-up and bring down his opposite number. Thought-provoking, intelligent, engrossing and hugely influential on the genre. 4½ stars.

50. On the Beach by Nevil Shute – A devastating nuclear war has been fought across the world, wiping out almost all life. We follow a group of characters in the city and suburbs of Melbourne as they figure out how to spend their last few months of life. Well written and with excellent characterisation and as relevant today as it was when written. 5 stars.

51. Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr. – A bunch of sad losers hang around getting drunk, drugged and beating each other up, with added sexual depravity. Ugh! The style is as vile as the content, making this the best argument for book-banning I’ve read. 1 star.

How is it that I’m still behind with this challenge?? Oh well, I have several more lined up over the next couple of months…

51 down, 39 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve read five of these this quarter but have only posted reviews for two so far – the rest will be coming soon. I also abandoned one at too early a stage to make a review worthwhile. To see the full challenge, click here.

29.  The Middle Temple Murder by JS Fletcher – When young newspaper editor Frank Spargo happens upon a murder scene late one night, his journalistic instincts lead him to follow the story. It’s dated in style but well written, cleverly plotted and entertaining – I enjoyed it a lot. 4½ stars.

30.  The Case of Miss Elliot by Baroness Orczy – An old man sits in the corner of a teahouse, endlessly twisting pieces of string into elaborate knots and mulling over the great unsolved mysteries of the day, in this collection of twelve short stories. Reasonably enjoyable but not wholly satisfying. 3½ stars.

31.  Case for Three Detectives by Leo Bruce – This is a parody spoofing three detectives, Wimsey, Poirot and Father Brown. I found it so dire as to be unreadable. Sometimes things are just old, not vintage. Can’t understand why Martin Edwards included this one, to be honest. Abandoned too early to review, so zero stars.

31 down, 71 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Three reviewed for this challenge this quarter! Still a long way to go though…

5.  A Mercy by Toni Morrison. As Rebekka Vaark lies sick, possibly dying, of smallpox, we learn of the people who make up the household – how they came to be there, how they live, the relationships between them. And we get a picture of the birth of America, built with the blood and toil of those who came voluntarily and those who were brought against their will. Beautiful writing, excellent characterisation. 5 stars.

6.  The Pearl by John Steinbeck. One day, poor pearl fisherman Kino finds a huge and lustrous pearl, so valuable that it will change his life for ever. But when word spreads of his find, human greed will work its evil, dragging Kino into a nightmare. Beautiful prose, but really, Steinbeck’s view of the world is utterly joyless. He really should have eaten more chocolate. 3½ stars.

7. Walking Wounded by William McIlvanney. McIlvanney takes to the short story form to create a collection of character studies of the inhabitants of his recurring setting of fictional Graithnock. Another excellent book from the modern Scottish bard – wonderfully written and insightful about the culture in which it’s set. 5 stars.

7 down, 18 to go!

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Another great quarter’s reading, even if I’m still behind! Thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The Case of Miss Elliott by Baroness Orczy

Déjà vu all over again…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

An old man sits in the corner of a teahouse, endlessly twisting pieces of string into elaborate knots and mulling over the great unsolved mysteries of the day. Opposite him is our narrator, an unnamed female journalist who, despite finding the old man intensely irritating, nevertheless can’t help being impressed by the ingenious solutions he comes up with.

This is a collection of twelve short stories featuring the amateur ‘tec who was always known as The Old Man in the Corner until a radio adaptation decided, for reasons unknown to me, to change his title to The Teahouse Detective, the name also used by this new edition from Pushkin Vertigo. The stories were originally published in various magazines and later collected into three volumes. Chronologically this is the second batch of stories, although it was the first collection to be published, in 1905.

Each story takes the same format: the journalist, puzzled over a case in the newspapers, visits the teahouse where the old man sits eating cheesecake and playing with his string. He reveals that he knows all about the case in question, and then relates all the known details before adding his own solution at the end. He is dismissive of the police and is not a pursuer of justice – he never passes his solution to the authorities. For him, it’s the intellectual satisfaction of solving the mystery which is important. For a reader used to following a detective around watching him gather evidence and interview suspects, I found this a rather odd format – it’s like getting the beginning and the end of a mystery but missing out all the fun bit in the middle. It works, and she writes well so that the stories are entertaining enough, but I didn’t find them nearly as satisfying as traditionally formatted mysteries.

Challenge details:
Book: 3
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1905

After the first few stories, I also began to have feelings of déjà vu. I wondered if perhaps I’d read the collection before – I know I’ve read at least some of the Old Man stories in my teens. But then I realised it’s not the stories that are familiar – it’s the plot points and clues, and even character names in some of them. Regular visitors to my blog will know of my life-long devotion to Sherlock Holmes, and I suspect I shared that love with Baroness Orczy. We have a dog which doesn’t bark in the night; Mr Hosmer Angel appears with a different name and persona, but a similar plan; the King of Bohemia puts in an appearance. Occasionally it almost feels a little like homage – it surely can’t be coincidence that one of her villains is called Stapylton. The stories are different enough for me not to be hurling accusations of plagiarism, but I must say I found several of the problems remarkably easy to solve because they feature plot points from the Holmes stories too obviously.

Baroness Orczy

Having forced me to make comparisons, of course this doesn’t work to Orczy’s advantage. Sherlock Holmes is a far superior creation in every way, as is Conan Doyle’s effortless writing style. These have none of the warmth and friendship of the Holmes/Watson relationship, and nowhere does Orczy achieve the layers of drama, tension, humour and even horror of the master. These are more like puzzles – like elaborate crossword clues where the only purpose is to find the solution. As I finished each story, the characters slipped smoothly from my mind, since I had never been made to care about any of them. The Old Man and the journalist too never come to life, since they don’t ever do anything – they are a framing device for telling a story, that’s all.

So overall I found this quite an enjoyable way to while away a few hours, but no more than that. I wonder if they’d be remembered at all were it not for Orczy’s much more famous creation, The Scarlet Pimpernel, keeping her name in the public eye. However, Martin Edwards tells us in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that the collection enjoyed considerable popularity when it came out, and they’re certainly entertaining enough to make them worth reading. Mostly, though, they made me want to re-read some Holmes stories…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 17 of 20

The Middle Temple Murder by JS Fletcher

A mysterious victim…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When young newspaper editor Frank Spargo happens upon a murder scene late one night, his journalistic instincts lead him to follow the story. Fortunately the police detective in charge of the case doesn’t seem to have a problem with sharing all the evidence with a journalist and soon Spargo is taking the lead in the investigation. The first thing is to identify the victim, but this turns out not to be as easy as might be expected. The man’s wallet and papers have been removed from his body, and even when they begin to trace him, he seems to have a mysterious past. Spargo will have to go back into that past to find out who the man is, what he was doing in Middle Temple late at night and who had the motive and opportunity to kill him.

All that is found on the victim’s body is a scrap of paper with the name and address of a young barrister, Ronald Breton. Breton has never met the man, but since he’s just starting his first case and is yet to make his name in legal circles, it seems unlikely the victim would have been looking for him in his professional capacity. When it turns out the man had met Stephen Aylmore the evening before – an MP and the father of Breton’s fiancée – it all begins to look like the motive is more likely to be personal, and Aylmore quickly becomes the chief suspect. Fortunately for Aylmore he has two daughters and Spargo finds himself falling for the other one, giving him an incentive to clear Aylmore’s name.

It took me a while to really get into this one but after a slowish start it begins to rattle along at a good pace, and the plot is that great combination of being twisty and complicated without ever becoming hard to follow. Spargo does his detection the old fashioned way – by talking to people, noticing discrepancies between the stories of various witnesses and using those to prise open the secrets that some of them are hiding. First published in 1919 in the age of the gifted amateur detective, the idea of a journalist being so closely involved in a police investigation doesn’t seem as unbelievable as it would today, and Spargo mostly shares all the information he finds, although eventually he and Rathbury, the police detective, find themselves on opposite sides – Rathbury trying to prove the guilt of Aylesbury and Spargo trying to prove his innocence.

Challenge details:
Book: 14
Subject Heading: The Birth of the Golden Age
Publication Year: 1919

Most of the action takes place in London, around Fleet Street and the Middle Temple, but the story takes Spargo out of the city too, first to a small market town where he uncovers some long past scandals that seem to have a bearing on the case, and then up to Yorkshire for a finale deep in the moors. Fletcher describes each setting well, giving a real feeling for the different ways of life in the various places. None of the characterisation is particularly in-depth, but it’s done well enough so that I soon found myself rooting for some of the characters to be cleared while others I was prepared to see go to the gallows. Fletcher, anticipating the Golden Age style, gave me a solution that meant I could feel justice had been done. I must say it’s a sudden solution, though! Boom – here’s the final piece that makes it all fall into place, and we’re done. My brain could have done with an extra three or four pages to give me time to process what just happened! But I didn’t think it was unfair or illogical – just abrupt.

JS Fletcher

All-in-all, I enjoyed this one a lot. It does feel rather dated in style (which I don’t mind, but some people might) and frankly could have done with a stiff edit to get rid of one or two little discrepancies, but they weren’t enough of a problem to bother me nor to affect the overall outcome. I was disappointed to read in Martin Edward’s entry in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that Fletcher never revisited the Spargo character in later books – I reckon he could have made a good series detective. However apparently Fletcher did create another series detective later, Ronald Camberwell, and I’d happily try one or two of those if I can get hold of them. Meantime, this one is recommended as well written, cleverly plotted and entertaining.

NB I downloaded this one from wikisource. The formatting is very good.

Book 14 of 20