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…

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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…

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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

TBR Thursday 205…

A seventh batch of murder, mystery and mayhem…

I’m still going slowly with this challenge although I’m reading lots of other vintage crime too. So many great books are being re-issued now, it’s like having access to a long-buried treasure trove!

I haven’t finished reading and reviewing all of the books from the sixth batch of MMM books, but I’ve acquired a couple of review copies of ones recently re-issued, meaning I have to make some changes to the priority list. So here goes for the seventh batch…

The Curious Mr Tarrant by C. Daly King

This one is a collection of short stories rather than a novel, and mostly of the “impossible crime” or “locked room” variety. The original eight stories are the ones Edwards includes in his list, but the currently available edition contains another four, written at later dates.

The Blurb says: “The Most Imaginative Detective Stories of Our Times.” So wrote Ellery Queen about The Curious Mr. Tarrant, an extraordinary collection of detective stories by Charles Daly King (1895-1963). The cases solved by Trevis Tarrant, during the early 1930’s, assisted by his manservant (who is in actuality a Japanese spy) include locked rooms, headless corpses, a vanishing harp, and newly built but haunted house, and other bizarre events. With the encouragement of Ellery Queen, King wrote four additional stories about Mr. Tarrant, some of them becoming “curiouser and curiouser.” They include the case of a Hollywood star who disappears from a locked suite of rooms, in a house surrounded by detectives, and the murder solved only because of the absence of a fish. These additional stories along with the original eight tales are included in The Complete Curious Mr. Tarrant. Introduction by Edward D. Hoch.

Challenge details

Book No: 92

Subject Heading: Across the Atlantic

Publication Year: 1935

Martin Edwards says: “King’s work illustrates the truth that, alongside the more acclaimed ‘hard-boiled’ crime fiction of the era, some of the most remarkable Golden Age mysteries were written by American authors.

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Case for Three Detectives by Leo Bruce

While the author’s name means nothing to me, Sergeant Beef is ringing all kinds of bells. I feel I must have come across him when I was reading my way through my sister’s vast crime collection in my teens. Can’t remember if I liked him though… 

The Blurb says: Possibly the most unusual mystery ever written. A murder is committed, behind closed doors, in bizarre circumstances. Three amateur detectives take the case: Lord Simon Plimsoll, Monsieur Amer Picon, and Monsignor Smith (in whom discerning readers will note likeness to some familiar literary figures). Each arrives at his own brilliant solution, starting in its originality, ironclad in its logic. Meanwhile Sergeant Beef sits contemptuously in the background. “But,” says Sergeant Beef, “I know who done it!”

Challenge details

Book No: 48

Subject Heading: Making Fun of Murder

Publication Year: 1936

Edwards says: “Lord Simon Plimsoll, Amer Picon and Monsignor Smith are thinly disguised versions of Wimsey, Poirot and Father Brown, and the mannerisms, dialogue and methods of detection familiar from the originals are captured wittily and with considerable skill.

* * * * *

The Case of Miss Elliott by Baroness Orczy

Courtesy of Pushkin Vertigo via NetGalley. Another collection of short stories, and I do remember reading stories about The Old Man in the Corner when I was young – the sleuth whom Pushkin now appear to be calling the Teahouse Detective, which is a baffling mystery in itself…

The Blurb says: Classic mysteries by the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel.

In the corner of the ABC teashop on Norfolk Street, Polly Burton of the Evening Observer sets down her morning paper, filled with news of the latest outrages, and eagerly waits for her mysterious acquaintance to begin. For no matter how ghastly or confounding the crime, or how fiendishly tangled the plot, the Teahouse Detective can invariably find the solution without leaving the comfort of his café seat.

What did happen that tragic night to Miss Elliott? Who knows the truth about the stolen Black Diamonds? And what sinister workings are behind the curious disappearance of Count Collini? The police may be baffled, but rare is the mystery that eludes the brilliant Teahouse Detective.

Challenge details

Book No: 3

Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns

Publication Year: 1905

Edwards says: “The story-telling formula, although inherently limited, was neat and original, and the book enjoyed considerable popularity; it was included in the tiny library taken by Sir Ernest Shackleton on his ill-fated expedition to the South Pole in 1915.

* * * * *

Family Matters by Anthony Rolls

Courtesy of the British Library – one from their back catalogue of Crime Classics. I enjoyed their later re-issue of the author’s Scarweather, so am looking forward to this one…

The Blurb says: Robert Arthur Kewdingham is an eccentric failure of a man. In middle age he retreats into a private world, hunting for Roman artifacts and devoting himself to bizarre mystical beliefs. Robert’s wife, Bertha, feels that there are few things more dreadful than a husband who will persist in making a fool of himself in public. Their marriage consists of horrible quarrels, futile arguments, incessant bickering. Scarcely any friends will visit the Kewdinghams in their peaceful hometown Shufflecester.

Everything is wrong – and with the entrance of John Harrigall, a bohemian bachelor from London who catches Bertha’s eye, they take a turn for the worse. Soon deep passions and resentments shatter the calm façade of the Kewdinghams’ lives.

This richly characterised and elegantly written crime novel from 1933 is a true forgotten classic.

Challenge details

Book No: 81

Subject Heading: The Ironists

Publication Year: 1933

Edwards says: Family Matters [earned] a rapturous review from Dorothy L. Sayers in The Sunday Times: ‘The characters are quite extraordinarily living, and the atmosphere of the horrid household creeps over one like a miasma.’

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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

TBR Thursday 204… 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 was doing pretty well at the first check-in at the end of March, but I always start off full of enthusiasm. It’s the summer months that do for me – I read less, and lots of new shiny books have appeared so that my commitment to my challenges goes a bit wobbly.

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

Uh-oh! It’s all beginning to go horribly wrong again! The MMM challenge is going fine, and I’m just about keeping the new releases under control. But the other challenges are sooooooo behind! Partly this is because I haven’t read much for the last few weeks, and also the classics I’ve read this year have been some of the chunkier ones. But even so. Some swift remedial work will be required. Look out for lots of classics and stuff over the next three months…

The TBR hasn’t dropped much, but thanks to yet another bout of rigorous (and emotionally devastating) culling, the more important combined TBR/wishlist reduction is well on track! I might be a loser, but I’m also a winner!

* * * * * * *

The Around the World in 80 Books Challenge

Last check-in was in March, and this quarter I’ve visited a couple of places and been on a trek across Europe!

On the Main Journey (made by the characters in Around the World in 80 Days) I helped investigate a murder with Inspector Chen of the Shanghai police in Qiu Xiaolong’s excellent Death of a Red Heroine. Then I travelled from Portugal through Spain, over the sea to Italy and finally to Austria in José Saramago’s whimsical The Elephant’s Journey, ticking off the tricky elephant travel box as I went.

I had only one detour this quarter, but it’s one of the best trips I’ve taken, and I’d probably never have gone had it not been for this challenge – which is why I love it! Leila and her friends took me on a life-affirming tour of the underbelly of Istanbul in Elif Shafak’s wonderful 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World.

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

63 down, 17 to go!

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The Classics Club

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

42. The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott – 5 bright and twinkling stars for this excellent Scottish classic – a historical novel that tells the story of Catherine Glover, the Fair Maid, who is beloved by the town’s famed armourer, Henry Smith of the Wynd. But she has also caught the eye of the pleasure loving and dissolute Earl of Rothsay, eldest son and heir to King Robert III. Great story, great writing, great book!

43. Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer – Heyer’s Regency romances are the ultimate in comfort reading. This one wasn’t my favourite because I wasn’t so keen on the rather bullying hero and heroine, but there are some great secondary characters and it’s always fun to visit Bath. 4 stars.

44. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett – 5 stars again for another Scottish classic (am I biased? I think I might be…). Matthew Bramble, hypochondriac and charitable Welsh gentleman with a choleric temper and a humorously jaundiced view of life, takes his family on a journey round Britain seeking benefit to his health. As each member of the party writes letters to their friends we see the country and its regional customs through their eyes, meeting with some interesting and often eccentric characters, and being witness to some hilarious (and some not so hilarious) episodes along the way.

I should be at about the three-fifths mark now, so I’m a good bit behind. I’ll need to do some intensive Classics reading over the next few months!

44 down, 46 to go!

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Murder Mystery Mayhem

I’ve done a bit of catching up on this over the last three months, having reviewed five and with another one pending. Another challenge I’m thoroughly enjoying, being constantly surprised by the variety of styles and the wide range in tone, all the way from humour to near noir. To see the full challenge, click here.

24.  Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert –  When a rather decaying corpse turns up in a deed box in a lawyer’s office, Inspector Hazlerigg enlists the help of one of the new lawyers to investigate. Loved this one – 5 stars.

25.  Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers – oh dear! I really can’t stand Sayers’ snobbery and it’s out in full force here. Plus the plotting is fundamentally silly and the solution is a major cop-out. Just 2 stars.

26.  Death of an Airman by Christopher St. John Sprigg – when an experienced flying instructor crashes everyone is ready to write it off as a tragic accident. Everyone except for the Bishop of Cootamundra, that is, a pupil at the flying school. The plotting is messy and crosses the credibility line by miles, but the characterisation and gentle humour make up for it. 4 stars.

27.  The Blotting Book by EF Benson – well-meaning but greedy trustee Edward Taynton has been gambling with his client’s inheritance. When it looks as if this might be revealed before he can fix it, things begin to go very wrong. A thoroughly enjoyable, if not very mystifying, novella-length mystery – 5 stars.

28.  The Red Redmaynes by Eden Phillpotts – When Inspector Mark Brendon is investigating a murder, he is hampered by the fact that he has fallen head over heels in love with the victim’s lovely young widow. Great settings – Dartmoor and Italy – and a surprisingly modern-feeling motivation for the crime make up for the rather messy structure and some implausibility. 4 stars.

28 down, 74 to go!

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5 x 5 Challenge

Finally! I managed to actually review a couple for this challenge this quarter! Still going very slowly with it, though…

3.  Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Sadly, this one failed to meet my perhaps over-high expectations. The story of an African-American man learning about his history and thus finding his own identity is filled with symbolism that didn’t seem to symbolise much, to me at least, and it’s filled with repeated scenes of ugliness and brutality. The excellent prose didn’t quite cover its weaknesses. 3 stars.

4.  The Kiln by William McIlvanney. As Tam Docherty is on his way home to the Ayrshire town where he was born and bred, he is visited by memories of his childhood and adolescence, his later life and marriage, but mostly of the summer of 1955 when, between leaving school and going to University, he worked in the local brickworks for a few months, and learned a little about life, girls and himself. Loved this sequel to the wonderful Docherty – together the two books tell the story of the working classes in Scotland through the twentieth century. 5 stars.

4 down, 21 to go!

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I may not have met my targets this quarter, but I’ve still read some jolly fine books!
I’m taking a Wimbledon break now, so I’ll see you in a week or so.

Meantime, thank you for joining me on my reading adventures and…

Here’s to more great reading next quarter! 😀

The Red Redmaynes by Eden Phillpotts

Blinded by love…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Inspector Mark Brendon is on a fishing holiday in Dartmoor when he first spots the lovely, ethereal, auburn-haired Jenny Pendean and falls instantly in love. Lucky for him, then, that she is promptly widowed, providing him with both a mystery to solve and a woman to woo. Less lucky for her husband, Michael. Jenny’s grandfather was a rich man and had left her a legacy, but only on condition that one of her three uncles approved her marriage. None of the three approved of Michael, though, in part because he wasn’t from the right class, but also because he managed to escape serving in the armed forces during WW1 (not bone spurs – a minor heart condition). However recently Uncle Robert had reached out to the young couple and seemed ready to accept Michael. But one night, after Robert and Michael had been working alone on the house Michael was building, neither man returns. The next day all that is found on the site is a pool of blood and signs of a body having been dragged away. Sightings of Robert making off on his motorcycle leave little doubt that he had killed Michael, probably in a fit of madness brought on by the shell-shock he had suffered in the war. Jenny begs Mark to find Robert…

This was first published in 1922 at the earliest stages of the Golden Age and, perhaps because of that, doesn’t follow the format that later became recognisable as the traditional mystery novel. It’s a bit rambling in parts, takes place over a period of more than a year, and the dénouement comes a few chapters before the end, followed by lengthy explanations and a round up of what happens to the surviving characters in their futures. It feels looser and not as well plotted as many of the later GA mysteries, though oddly I felt it was a good deal darker and more psychologically twisted than most of them too. I found a lot to enjoy in it, though I would have enjoyed it more had it been tighter and a bit more pacey.

Challenge details:
Book: 44
Subject Heading: Resorting to Murder
Publication Year: 1922

The first half takes place on Dartmoor and then on the weather-beaten coast of Devon, and Phillpotts uses these bleak landscapes effectively to create an atmosphere of impending doom. It transpires that Michael was merely the first victim – the murderer seems to want to destroy the remaining Redmaynes too, though no-one can understand his motives. In the second half, Jenny visits her uncle Albert at his home in Italy – again a well realised location – and when danger seems again to draw near, Albert reaches out to both Inspector Brendon and to Albert’s American friend, Peter Ganns, who happens to be a great detective. (Naturally, in such circumstances, one cannot put one’s faith in the Italian police, because after all they’re foreigners…)

This is another aspect of the book which makes it different from the standard – it appears as if Mark is going to be the central detective in the first half, but then, admittedly after Mark has proved his incompetence several times over, Ganns becomes the main man. And it’s he who will finally unravel the mystery. He’s hampered by having to rely on Mark as his sidekick, since Mark is so in love with Jenny his brain has turned to mush. Ganns points this out to him, but still Mark allows himself to get distracted at crucial moments. (One wonders if the Italian police could really have been less competent than the British and American ones…) Ganns is fun, in that I did wonder if Phillpotts had ever actually met an American or if he created the entire portrayal based on characters in pulp fiction of the day. Ganns seems to be a well educated, cultured man but sometimes slips into the kind of wise-guy speech of the fictional American PI or gangster, such as referring to women as “dames”. But he’s psychologically astute, which is more than can be said for poor Mark.

Eden Phillpotts

I had a reasonably good idea of the solution from fairly early on, although I was a bit baffled as to motive. And when the dénouement came and all was explained, it felt much more modern than I was expecting – definitely heading towards psychological thriller territory, which surprised me for a book from this early, and added considerably to the interest level.

Overall, then, despite some weaknesses and an odd format, I enjoyed this. The settings are particularly well done and I found aspects of it pretty original, especially for the time. Another author I’d be happy to meet again.

I downloaded this one from Project Gutenberg.

The Blotting Book by EF Benson

An excellent vintage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Morris Assheton is due to come into his inheritance when he’s twenty-five. However, a clause in his father’s will allows him to take control of his money earlier, should he marry a woman of whom his mother approves. Morris has met and fallen in love with just such a woman, so his trustee, Edward Taynton, suggests he might want to look over the accounts of the trust. Young Morris has other more important things to think of, though – his future wife, and his new car which he loves with at least as much fervour. This is lucky for Edward, since he and his partner Godfrey Mills have been gambling unsuccessfully with the trust funds. So all seems well, but things are about to go wrong and when they do, it will all lead to murder…

More of a long novella than a novel, this isn’t really a mystery, or at least the possibilities are so limited that most readers will be able to work out whodunit with a fair degree of certainty pretty early on. Instead, it’s an entertaining and quite insightful character study of the three main characters, Morris and the two trustees, and mostly of Edward Taynton.

Edward isn’t a bad man – in fact, his gambles were meant as much to benefit Morris as himself and he still hopes to make good the losses before the trust is wound up. He’s worked hard to give himself a comfortable life, and hopes to retire soon to enjoy life before he’s too old. But we see how he’s affected by pressure as his secret looks in danger. He makes some odd decisions, but happily manages to justify his behaviour himself. A kindly, friendly man whom everyone likes and respects – with a streak of narcissism hidden beneath the surface.

Morris too is a pleasant character, leading a contented, pampered and happy life and with every reason to expect that to continue. However, when things go wrong, suddenly he becomes filled with a rage that surprises everyone, including himself, by its intensity. Godfrey, Edward’s partner, is somewhat less well drawn, and to a degree is a bit of a plot device. He too suddenly behaves in a way that surprises his partner, but I didn’t feel I knew him nearly as well as the other characters so didn’t feel the same surprise.

Challenge details:
Book: 6
Subject Heading: A New Era Dawns
Publication Year: 1908

The murder happens quite late on and Benson builds a great atmosphere of approaching dread, with some fine dramatic writing…

Overclouded too was the sky, and as he stepped out into the street from his garden-room the hot air struck him like a buffet; and in his troubled and apprehensive mood it felt as if some hot hand warned him by a blow not to venture out of his house. But the house, somehow, in the last hour had become terrible to him, any movement or action, even on a day like this, when only madmen and the English go abroad, was better than the nervous waiting in his darkened room. Dreadful forces, forces of ruin and murder and disgrace, were abroad in the world of men; the menace of the low black clouds and stifling heat was more bearable. He wanted to get away from his house, which was permeated and soaked in association with the other two actors, who in company with himself, had surely some tragedy for which the curtain was already rung up.

EF Benson

After a police investigation in which the police show themselves to be sharper than the murderer anticipated, the whole thing winds up in a courtroom drama where there’s an excellent revelation around a physical clue that turns the prosecution’s whole case on its head at the last minute. It is fair play in that the reader was made aware of the clue at the appropriate place, but this reader, while I had spotted that it was A Clue, couldn’t work it out, which always adds to the fun!

I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It can easily be read in an evening and my interest never flagged despite having very little doubt as to whodunit or how it would end. It’s the character of Edward that makes it entertaining – he may be a cheat and a fraudster, but I found him good company anyway. Highly recommended.

I downloaded this one from the excellent www.fadedpage.com

Death of an Airman by Christopher St. John Sprigg

Those magnificent men (and women) in their flying machines…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When George Furnace, instructor of the Baston Aero Club, is found dead in the wreck of his crashed plane, everyone assumes it was a tragic accident, even though he was a skilled airman. Everyone, that is, except the Bishop of Cootamundra, who has signed on to take lessons at the flying school so he can fly himself around his vast diocese back in Australia. The Bishop has some knowledge of medicine, and he notices something strange about Furnace’s corpse. Enter Inspector Creighton of the local constabulary, closely followed by Inspector Bray of the Yard…

There are three main elements to this entertaining mystery – who, why and how – with some added confusion over whether this really was a murder at all. At points, there are reasons to think Furnace may have committed suicide, unlikely though that seems for a man of his character, and there’s still the possibility the Bishop is wrong and it was an accident after all. But Furnace’s death soon becomes almost secondary, since Creighton and Bray quickly discover in the course of their investigations that there seems to be an international criminal conspiracy going on around the airfield, in which they suspect some of the flyers are involved, either knowingly or as dupes of the mysterious Chief of the criminal gang. But which are which? Suspicions and accusations abound and the plot is increasingly complicated to the point where I had lost all capacity to keep the facts separate from the new theories propounded every few pages by Creighton, Bray, the Bishop and just about everybody else who appears in the book!

This is one of those mysteries where it’s important to switch off one’s credibility monitor and simply go with the flow. The mystery all depends on the detectives and forensic experts missing or misinterpreting clues all over the place. First published in 1934, I’d expect forensic pathology not to be up to modern standards, but here we have to accept that they can miss minor details like bullet holes and mix up times of deaths to a frankly ridiculous level. So long as you don’t mind the general implausibility, though, it’s fun accepting the “facts” as given and trying to work out how Furnace’s death came about, that being the key to finding out who killed him and why.

Challenge details:
Book: 58
Subject Heading: Scientific Enquiries
Publication Year: 1934

The first half of the book is set in and around the flying club, so has the feel of a closed circle of suspects in traditional Golden Age style. However once the international angle becomes apparent, Creighton and Bray follow leads up to Glasgow and over to Paris, before it all comes back to the flying club in the end for the final dénouement. This adds extra interest and also gives Sprigg the opportunity to talk a lot about flying and planes, which, as a pilot himself, he does knowledgeably and entertainingly, his love for flying shining through. (It’s sad to note that Sprigg died a few years later, flying as a volunteer pilot in the Spanish Civil War, aged just 29.)

The characterisation is what makes the book, though, and carries the reader quite contentedly through the plotting complexities. The book is full of “types” rather than stereotypes – the ex-WW1 pilots, the adventurous flyers out to break records in this still new field, the decent if stolid local policeman, the more incisive methods of the Yard detective. Then there are the staff and pupils of the flying school, and the locals who get involved in one way or another. Lady Crumbles walks over everyone in her mission to do good to people whether they want to have good done to them or not. Sally Sackbut runs the school with alarming efficiency. Tommy Vane is cheerful if incompetent as a pupil, finishing every lesson with a quick dash to the bar for a double whisky. Lady Laura Vanguard and Mrs Angevin are rivals as flying adventurers and also divide the attention of the males of the club, each having their own admirers. And the Bishop bumbles along, not very good at flying, not as good as he thinks he is at detecting, but always willing to listen to other people’s troubles and to offer them sympathy and advice. They’re all enjoyable and mostly likeable, even though we know some of them must be the baddies.

Christopher St. John Sprigg

In my view, the plotting and structure of this are too messy for it to count as a top rank classic of Golden Age crime, but it’s full of gentle humour and has a warm-hearted tone despite the dark deeds. I enjoyed reading it and am sorry that Sprigg didn’t get the chance to have a long writing career – the youthful exuberance and writing skill he shows in this one may well have allowed him to become one of the greats in time, as he developed more discipline over plotting. Despite his short career, though, Martin Edwards tells us that he wrote several other mystery novels, and a check on Amazon shows that some of them are available as Kindle e-books. I look forward to reading more of them.

I downloaded this one from www.fadedpage.com – a growing resource for out of copyright works.