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

Holmes is alive!

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

Tuesday Tec2

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

dr watsonThe Dr Watson

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

blood-spatter

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

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

Elementary, my dear Watson!

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

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

The Solitary Cyclist

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

Charles Augustus Milverton (2)

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

Golden Pince Nez

The second-best Holmes

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

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

Read after dark…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

J Sheridan Le Fanu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mixed bag…

🙂 🙂 🙂

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Transwarp Tuesday! Born of the Sun edited by Mike Ashley

Touring the Solar System…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

Mars as seen from its moon Deimos
by Lucien Rudaux

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday Terror! Weird Woods edited by John Miller

If you go down to the woods today…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday Terror! Madam Crowl’s Ghost by Sheridan Le Fanu

Deathly dialect…

Taken from the collection Green Tea and Other Weird Stories, this is one of several stories Le Fanu wrote in a Northumbrian dialect. I have no idea how authentic it is, but I love it – there’s a kind of softness and lilt to the words and phrasing that seems made for relating ghostly tales by the light of the fire. So here we go for this week’s…

Madam Crowl’s Ghost
by Sheridan Le Fanu

J Sheridan Le Fanu

I’m an ald woman now, and I was but thirteen, my last birthday, the night I came to Applewale House. My aunt was the housekeeper there…

Already anxious and homesick, the girl’s fears are increased by the teasing of two fellow passengers on the coach, on hearing where she was headed…

“Ho, then,” says one of them, “you’ll not be long there!”

And I looked at him as much as to say “Why not?” for I had spoken out when I told them where I was goin’, as if ’twas something clever I hed to say.

“Because,” says he, “and don’t you for your life tell no one, only watch her and see—she’s possessed by the devil, and more an half a ghost.”

The sight of the old house does nothing to cheer her up…

A great white-and-black house it is, wi’ great black beams across and right up it, and gables lookin’ out, as white as a sheet, to the moon, and the shadows o’ the trees, two or three up and down in front, you could count the leaves on them, and all the little diamond-shaped winda-panes, glimmering on the great hall winda, and great shutters, in the old fashion, hinged on the wall outside, boulted across all the rest o’ the windas in front…

The girl’s aunt and another woman share the task of looking after old Madam Crowl, whose mind is beginning to fail and she sometimes has periods of a kind of insanity. It’s a while before the girl gets to see the old lady, but one day her aunt has gone off to have a cup of tea while Madam Crowl is asleep, and tells the girl to listen out for any signs of her wakening. The girl can’t resist the temptation to take a quick peep at her ancient mistress on her bed…

There she was, dressed out. You never sid the like in they days. Satin and silk, and scarlet and green, and gold and pint lace; by Jen! ’twas a sight! A big powdered wig, half as high as herself, was a-top o’ her head, and, wow!—was ever such wrinkles?—and her old baggy throat all powdered white, and her cheeks rouged, and mouse-skin eyebrows, that Mrs. Wyvern used to stick on, and there she lay proud and stark, wi’ a pair o’ clocked silk hose on, and heels to her shoon as tall as nine-pins. Lawk! . . . Her wrinkled little hands was stretched down by her sides, and such long nails, all cut into points, I never sid in my days. Could it ever a bin the fashion for grit fowk to wear their fingernails so?

(Mouse-skin eyebrows?!?!? Aargh!!!)

Suddenly the old woman wakes…

And in an instant she opens her eyes and up she sits, and spins herself round, and down wi’ her, wi’ a clack on her two tall heels on the floor, facin’ me, ogglin’ in my face wi’ her two great glassy eyes, and a wicked simper wi’ her wrinkled lips, and lang fause teeth… Says she:

“Ye little limb! what for did ye say I killed the boy? I’ll tickle ye till ye’re stiff!”

(Illustration by Charles William Stewart
for the Folio Society)

Terrified, the girl flees to her aunt, who seems to find a disturbing meaning in the old woman’s words. But Madam Crowl’s remaining time is short, and soon she is in the throes of her last, uneasy illness…

She pined, and windered, and went off, torflin’, torflin’, quiet enough, till a day or two before her flittin’, and then she took to rabblin’, and sometimes skirlin’ in the bed, ye’d think a robber had a knife to her throat, and she used to work out o’ the bed, and not being strong enough, then, to walk or stand, she’d fall on the flure, wi’ her ald wizened hands stretched before her face, and skirlin’ still for mercy.

* * * * *

The version I’m linking to is slightly different to the one in the book but not significantly. The book doesn’t have the short introduction, so the narrator isn’t named. Although there are some unfamiliar words sprinkled throughout, it’s not hard to guess their meaning from the context, and of course the notes in the Oxford World’s Classics edition I was reading explain any that might be a bit too obscure.

The story is dark – a mix of human evil and supernatural horror, made scarier by being seen through the eyes of such a young narrator. The porpy quivered quite a bit at points, while I loved the language and the perfectly paced build up to a satisfyingly ghoulish conclusion.

It’s reasonably short – I think it only took me twenty minutes or so to read. If you’d like to read it, here’s a link.

(The porpy is becoming a big Le Fanu fan…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

Truth v emotional truth…

😀 😀 😀 😀

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truman Capote

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

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

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Amazon US Link – sorry, can’t find this edition on Amazon US

A Surprise for Christmas edited by Martin Edwards

Ho! Ho! Aargh!

😀 😀 😀 😀

What better time to be thinking about murder than when getting together with your loved ones for some festive cheer! (Only 350 shopping days left – better hurry!) This is another collection of vintage crime stories from Martin Edwards and the British Library, each with a Christmas theme. There are twelve in the book, as always with a mix of very famous authors like Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh and GK Chesterton, along with some that are less well known, to me at least.

And, as always, the quality is somewhat mixed, although there are no real duds and a few standout stories among them. I gave six of them four stars, while three got the full five, so I’d say this was a pretty solid collection overall. The stories I ranked highest all came at the end, which left me feeling much more impressed than I was, perhaps, halfway through. I felt it was a bit of cheat to include a Julian Symons story that had turned up in the Christmas collection just a couple of years ago, though, giving it a different title this time. But that will only matter to geeks like me who read all of the crime anthologies the BL produces, and it is a good story!

As usual, here’s a flavour of a few of the ones I most enjoyed…

Dead Man’s Hand by ER Punshon. A servant and his wife plan to murder and rob their employer. This is a very short and quite slight story, but it uses the heavy snowfall in an intriguing way to provide cover for the murderer, and gives a nicely dark picture of evil and guilt.

On Christmas Day in the Morning by Margery Allingham. On Christmas morning, a postman is run down by a car and killed. The police think they know who the men were who were in the car, but it seems they couldn’t have done it since the postman was in a different place when they drove drunkenly through the village. It’s up to Campion to work out if they are the guilty ones, and if so, how it happened. This is quite an interesting take on breaking an unbreakable alibi, but what lifts it is the insightful and somewhat sad picture of how lonely Christmas can be for those without families around them.

Give me a Ring by Anthony Gilbert (aka Anne Meredith). On Christmas Eve, Gillian Hynde loses her way in a sudden London fog and steps into a shop to ask for directions. Unknowingly, she has walked into danger, and finds herself kidnapped and held captive. The story is mostly about her fiancé’s desperate attempts to find her, with the assistance of Arthur Crook, lawyer and scourge of the criminal classes – and apparently a successful series detective back in the day. This is a nearly novella-length thriller, very well written, fast-moving and high on suspense, especially since both Gillian and Richard, the fiancé, are likeable protagonists.

The Turn-Again Bell by Barry Perowne. An elderly rector is waiting for his son to come home on Christmas leave from the navy. The plan is that the son will marry his childhood sweetheart on Boxing Day, in the Rector’s ancient Norman church. But there is a legend that each Rector will at some time hear the church bell toll just once on Christmas Eve and this is a portent that he will not live to see the following Christmas. This is a beautifully written, perfect little story, admittedly with no actual crime in it but with all the right messages for Christmas, and it left me with a tear or two in my cynical eye, and a warm fuzzy feeling of goodwill to all mankind. Can’t be bad, eh?

So a good mix of style and tone, with everything from high octane thrills to more thoughtful festive fare. And proves it’s not always necessary to murder someone to enjoy yourself at Christmas…

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Curse of the Catafalques by F. Anstey

Repent at leisure…

Sometimes victims of ghostly hauntings and demonic curses must be pitied, but frankly at other times the victim really deserves all he gets. Our young hero in this Christmas tale of horror, from the Spirits of the Season collection, is one of the latter…

The Curse of the Catafalques
by F. Anstey

F Anstey

in the “Curse of the Catafalques” I was confronted with a horror so weird and so altogether unusual, that I doubt whether I shall ever succeed in wholly forgetting it – and I know that I have never felt really well since.

It all begins when our narrator sets off on a sea voyage to return to England from Melbourne, to where he has been banished by his uncle for being a bit of a feckless wastrel.

I resolved to return home and convince him of his error, and give him one more opportunity of repairing it; he had failed to discover the best means of utilizing my undoubted ability, yet I would not reproach him (nor do I reproach him even now), for I too have felt the difficulty.

On boarding the ship, he meets the stranger who is to share his cabin…

He was a tall cadaverous young man of about my own age, and my first view of him was not encouraging, for when I came in, I found him rolling restlessly on the cabin floor, and uttering hollow groans.

Not sea-sickness, as our hero first thinks. The stranger, Augustus McFadden, is regretting his agreement to go to England to woo and marry the girl, unfortunately named Chlorine Catafalque, to whom his rich aunt has left her fortune. An attractive baronet’s daughter with a fortune – what’s not to like? But there seems to be a catch, as Augustus soon reveals…

“The very day after I had despatched my fatal letter [agreeing to the marriage], my aunt’s explanatory packet arrived. I tell you that when I read the hideous revelations it contained, and knew to what horrors I had innocently pledged myself, my hair stood on end, and I believe it has remained on end ever since. But it was too late. Here I am, engaged to carry out a task from which my inmost soul recoils. Ah, if I dared but retract!”

Encouraged by our narrator, Augustus decides he can’t go through with it, and stays in Melbourne, while our hero promises to go to the baronet and explain that Augustus died on the voyage. But when he thinks the matter over later, he has an inspiration…

But it struck me that, under judiciously sympathetic treatment, the lady might prove not inconsolable, and that I myself might be able to heal the wound I was about to inflict.

It would be even easier to console the heiress, he thinks, if he were simply to take on the identity of Augustus, whose face or photograph Chlorine has never seen…

What harm would this innocent deception do to anyone? McFadden, even if he ever knew, would have no right to complain – he had given up all pretensions himself – and if he was merely anxious to preserve his reputation, his wishes would be more than carried out, for I flattered myself that whatever ideal Chlorine might have formed of her destined suitor, I should come much nearer to it than poor McFadden could ever have done.

Of course, unlike Augustus, our hero doesn’t know the details of the family curse. But he will soon learn, as his soon-to be father-in-law reveals that all suitors to the hand of a Catafalque maiden must undergo a terrifying pre-nuptial ordeal…

….“In 1770, it is true, one solitary suitor was emboldened by love and daring to face the ordeal. He went calmly and resolutely to the chamber where the Curse was then lodged, and the next morning they found him outside the door – a gibbering maniac!”
….I writhed on my chair. “Augustus!” cried Chlorine wildly, “promise me you will not permit the Curse to turn you into a gibbering maniac. I think if I saw you gibber I should die!”
….I was on the verge of gibbering then; I dared not trust myself to speak.

* * * * *

This is played strictly for laughs and gets them in plenty. Our ne’er-do-well hero is oddly loveable and makes no attempt to hide his moral weaknesses from the reader. The big dénouement comes at midnight on Christmas Eve, so it’s perfect festive fare, and the horror aspect is so mild that even the biggest scaredy-cat out there won’t have to hide under the bed. In fact, the porpy chuckled all the way through! If you’d like to read the whole thing, here’s a link. It took me about forty minutes to read, I think. 

And the moral of the story? Always read the small print…

(The porpy wishes you all a Merry Little Christmas, with cake…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 

Overall story rating:           🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅 🎅

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link – sorry, can’t find this collection listed on Amazon US.

Tuesday ’Tec! The Hampstead Murder by Christopher Bush

The perils of research…

Bit of a misnomer here, since this lovely little crime story doesn’t actually have a detective in it, but, since I can’t find an online copy, you’ll either have to get hold of the anthology it comes from, Bodies from the Library 3, or else you’ll have to detect the ending yourself! So don your deerstalker cap, light your pipe, and join me for this week’s…

Tuesday Tec2

The Hampstead Murder
by Christopher Bush

.

Christopher Bush

A man in Scotland wrote a letter to The Times and, by chance, The Times found it interesting enough to print. Because of that letter, which had nothing whatever to do with murder, a woman was strangled in a London suburb.

This excursion into how badly the most innocent action can go wrong starts with the ending – a woman found dead with a noose around her neck…

Then there was the woman, in a charming afternoon frock, with a face like a surprised Madonna and hair like an aureola . . . There was no blood, no signs of a struggle. No vulgarity, but everything quiet and restrained, except for that deadly circle around her neck.

There is however someone else in the room – the murderer himself…

… a quiet man, writing peacefully at a Queen Anne bureau.

We are then taken back to the beginning of the story, where we meet a man with the delightful if unlikely name of Lutley Prentisse…

In front of his swivel chair were table and typewriter but he sat there with the tip of his fingers together and his brow wrinkled in thought. You would have needed no particular shrewdness to have guessed that he was a writer.

He is married to Dorothy, a glittering beauty keen on sports and with a competitive streak – an unlikely partner for the more intellectually-minded Lutley. He loves her even although her energy makes him feel tired, but her feelings are harder to read…

In public a softly murmured “Darling!” and a playful tap are no particular signs, especially when the other hand holds a liqueur glass drained for the eighth time.

Lutley has written three novels, with some critical and even commercial success. Now he has taken a flat to finish his new book while Dorothy is away looking after her seriously ill sister. Just as he is feeling quite happy with his work, he notices a letter in The Times which rather upsets him.

A policeman had written rather indignantly on the treatment of his profession by writers of detective novels, The police, he affirmed, were treated like buffoons and authors rarely troubled to make themselves familiar with the real workings of either Scotland Yard or the C.I.D. departments of provincial forces.

This bothers Lutley, because his new novel contains a section relating to a private detective agency, and he realises he has never in fact had any experience of a real one. So he decides to put this right by visiting an agency, pretending to be a client. Once in the detective’s office, he realises that of course he needs to give him something to investigate. On the spur of the moment he thinks of his friend Peter Claire and, smiling to himself at the thought of telling Peter all about it later, asks the detective to follow him…

“Just a report in confidence, by Monday, of what he does from now until then. You can manage that?”

* * * * *

So now you should be able to guess who was murdered, who murdered her, and why…

This is a lot of fun – not too difficult to see what the outcome is, I think, but written with a lot of sly humour about the perils of being a novelist. Despite the corpse in the room, the ending made me laugh – a very neat little twist. The moral of the story, I suspect, is that too much research can be as problematic as too little, and I’m sure most of my writing pals would probably agree with that! Christopher Bush is one of the vintage authors who’s enjoying a revival at the moment, though I haven’t read any of his novels yet – I hope to rectify that soon. His story is one of the highlights from this anthology, which I’ll review in full at a later date.

* * * * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(Poirot worked it out easily, of course – did you?)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Man Who Went Too Far by EF Benson

If you go down to the woods today…

Having been cooped up inside for so long, the porpy and I thought it would be nice to go for a little walk in the woods. This week’s story comes from Weird Woods, edited by John Miller, a new anthology in the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series…

The Man Who Went Too Far
by EF Benson

EF Benson

The little village of St. Faith’s nestles in a hollow of wooded hill up on the north bank of the river Fawn in the country of Hampshire, huddling close round its grey Norman church as if for spiritual protection against the fays and fairies, the trolls and “little people,” who might be supposed still to linger in the vast empty spaces of the New Forest, and to come after dusk and do their doubtful businesses.

At the end of the village is a little house, where an artist, Frank, has come to live in isolation, communing with nature. Today, however, he is awaiting the arrival of an old friend, Darcy, whom he has not seen for several years. But when Darcy sees him, he is astonished at his appearance…

“Frank!” he exclaimed.
“Yes, that is my name,” he said, laughing; “what is the matter?”
Darcy took his hand.
“What have you done to yourself?” he asked. “You are a boy again.”

It’s not simply Frank’s physical appearance that has changed, though. He seems to have become all mystical, and has developed an uncanny intimacy with nature and all her offspring…

He paused on the margin of the stream and whistled softly. Next moment a moor-hen made its splashing flight across the river, and ran up the bank. Frank took it very gently in his hands and stroked its head, as the creature lay against his shirt.
“And is the house among the reeds still secure?” he half-crooned to it. “And is the missus quite well, and are the neighbours flourishing? There, dear, home with you,” and he flung it into the air.

Later, they talk, and Frank explains that…

“…when I left London, abandoned my career, such as it was, I did so because I intended to devote my life to the cultivation of joy, and, by continuous and unsparing effort, to be happy.”

He had found humanity to be too Puritan, too downright dismal, to enable him to find joy among them.

“So I took one step backwards or forwards, as you may choose to put it, and went straight to Nature, to trees, birds, animals, to all those things which quite clearly pursue one aim only, which blindly follow the great native instinct to be happy without any care at all for morality, or human law or divine law.”

Darcy is a bit cynical about all this, but he looks at Frank’s youthful, joyous face and wonders. Frank continues…

“I looked at happy things, zealously avoided the sight of anything unhappy, and by degrees a little trickle of the happiness of this blissful world began to filter into me. The trickle grew more abundant, and now, my dear fellow, if I could for a moment divert from me into you one half of the torrent of joy that pours through me day and night, you would throw the world, art, everything aside, and just live, exist.”

Eventually, one day, as he lay in a deep state of contemplation of joyfulness, he heard the sound of music, from some flute-like instrument.

“It came from the reeds and from the sky and from the trees. It was everywhere, it was the sound of life. It was, my dear Darcy, as the Greeks would have said, it was Pan playing on his pipes, the voice of Nature. It was the life-melody, the world-melody.”

And now Frank hopes that soon he will be allowed into the presence of Pan and through him learn the true meaning of life.

“Then having gained that, ah, my dear Darcy, I shall preach such a gospel of joy, showing myself as the living proof of the truth, that Puritanism, the dismal religion of sour faces, shall vanish like a breath of smoke, and be dispersed and disappear in the sunlit air.”

* * * * *

Pan seems to be a mysterious god: sometimes, as Frank thinks, a kind of pagan offshoot of the Christian religion (as he also appears a few years later in The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame); sometimes a force of ancient Satanic evil, to be avoided at all costs (as he appears earlier in The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen). Since the prologue hints at the ending, it comes as little surprise to the reader to find which version of Pan appears here! It’s the ancient forces of paganism that carry this story out of straight horror into “weird” territory.

The beginning is full of gorgeously lush descriptions of the natural world – so lush I felt Benson was overdoing it until I realised he’s deliberately showing it as an enchanted, almost fairy-tale place. But the story gradually darkens, and we see that Frank’s anti-Puritanism stance barely conceals a hedonistic, narcissistic view of life. So there’s a feeling of this being a morality tale of a kind – a dark kind. It made me briefly feel quite pro-Puritan!

The story is a little longer than usual. It took me around forty minutes to read, I think, but it was time very well spent. Here’s a link if you’d like to read it, and I found this audio version of it too online. I’ve only listened to the first minute or so, but the narrator sounds good.

(The porpy will be fine just as soon as I coax him out of hiding…)

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth by Daniel Mason

A triumph of homage…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

A collection of short stories linked by subject matter and style rather than through the characters, this is a wonderful homage to the science fiction of the late 19th/early 20th century. There are nine stories in all, and I gave six of them five stars, two got four, and only the last story in the book, which I freely admit I didn’t understand, let it down a little for me at the end. But not enough to spoil my overall enjoyment – some of these stories are brilliant and the quality of the writing is superb.

As regulars will know, I love early science fiction, books from the colonial era, and stories set in fog-bound, sooty old London, and Mason manages to tick all those boxes in this slim collection, so I think it’s fair to say I was destined to love it. It could all have gone horribly wrong though if he’d got the style wrong or dragged in accidental anachronisms. Fortunately, he does an amazing job at catching just the right tone, and I could imagine HG Wells and the lads nodding enthusiastically over his shoulder while he was writing. That’s not to say the stories feel old-fashioned or dated, though. Mason looks at the subjects he chooses with a modern eye, but includes those observations so subtly it becomes part of the style. So the anachronisms that are there are quite intentional and disguised so beautifully that they’re barely noticeable, except in the way that they make the subject matter resonate with a modern reader. In short, what I’m attempting – badly – to say is that there’s no need to have read any early science fiction to enjoy the stories – they work twice, as a homage as I’ve said, but as a fully relevant modern collection too.

Here’s a flavour of a few of the stories I loved most:

The Ecstasy of Alfred Russell Wallace – Wallace is a collector of bugs and birds and animals, which he sends home for the many scientists studying such things. During a fever, he has an epiphany and realises that living things evolve to survive. He writes to a scientist he knows vaguely – Charles Darwin – and waits for a reply. And waits. And waits. And gradually he begins to doubt himself, and to doubt the scientific community, fearing they will take his idea for their own since he isn’t one of them and doesn’t deserve recognition. This reads so much like a true story I looked it up, and Wallace did indeed exist, although his real story seems to be rather different than the story Mason gives us. It’s truly excellent, full of insight into how the scientific world worked in that era.

On Growing Ferns and Other Plants in Glass Cases in the Midst of the Smoke of London (Phew! He likes his long titles!) – This is the story of an asthmatic child and his anxious mother, and the lengths to which she will go to save his life. Mason gives a superb depiction of nineteenth century sooty London, industrialized and choking. Also of medicine, at a time when the treatment was often worse than the disease. It has a wonderful science fiction element to it which I won’t explain for fear of spoilers, but it’s a fabulous story that brought the tears to my eyes at the end.

The Line Agent Pascal – a story set in colonial Brazil. Pascal is one of the agents who live along the communications line that crosses the country, each many, many miles from the next along. Every morning, a signal is sent from head office and each agent confirms in turn that the line is working. But one day, one of the agents doesn’t respond. This is a great character study of Pascal, a man who struggles to fit in with other people, so his solitary posting suits him perfectly despite the dangers lurking in the forest around his station. But he has grown to think of the other men along the line as some kind of friends despite never having met them. The colonial setting is great, with the feeling of loneliness and constant danger from nature or the displaced indigenous people. Worthy of Conrad, and in fact reminded me not a little of the setting in his story, An Outpost of Progress, though the story (and the continent!) is entirely different.

On the Cause of Winds and Waves, &c. – The story of a female aéronaute – a balloonist – whose exploits have made her famous. But when one day she sees an odd rift in the sky she discovers that her gender and class mean that the scientific community not only don’t take her seriously but actually ridicule and humiliate her. So she sets out to prove her story true, taking along a witness. Another science fiction one, but with a delightful quirk that takes it into the realms of metafiction. (I swore I’d never use any word beginning with meta- on the blog, but I really can’t think of another way to describe it. 😉)

So plenty of variety linked, as I said at the beginning, by style, subject matter and wonderful writing. A great collection – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle at Pan Macmillan.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday Terror! The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen

Remembrance…

This week’s story comes from a new anthology of eerie stories from the British Library’s Tales of the Weird series, this one with the theme of settings in the various districts of London – Into the London Fog. The tale of terror I’ve selected is set in Kensington, during the Blitz, and comes from the pen of an author I’ve seen mentioned a lot around the blogosphere but have never previously read…

The Demon Lover
by Elizabeth Bowen

Elizabeth Bowen

Mrs Drover is in London for the day, and visits her deserted home to pick up some things she’d left there when she and her family fled to the country to avoid the Blitz. She finds herself feeling a strange sense of dislocation…

In her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up; a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs. Drover’s return. Shifting some parcels under her arm, she slowly forced round her latchkey in an unwilling lock, then gave the door, which had warped, a push with her knee. Dead air came out to meet her as she went in.

Everything is cold, and the empty rooms show the things usually unnoticed in a full house…

…the yellow smoke stain up the white marble mantelpiece, the ring left by a vase on the top of the escritoire; the bruise in the wallpaper where, on the door being thrown open widely, the china handle had always hit the wall.

She passes through the hall to go upstairs…

A shaft of refracted daylight now lay across the hall. She stopped dead and stared at the hall table—on this lay a letter addressed to her.

How could a letter be there? Who could have put it on the table? Mrs Drover hurries up to her bedroom, and opens the letter…

Dear Kathleen: You will not have forgotten that today is our anniversary, and the day we said. The years have gone by at once slowly and fast. In view of the fact that nothing has changed, I shall rely upon you to keep your promise. I was sorry to see you leave London, but was satisfied that you would be back in time. You may expect me, therefore, at the hour arranged. Until then…

K.

She remembers. She remembers the day her soldier fiancé left in 1916 to return to the war in France. She remembers their last meeting in the evening gloom of the garden, and the promise he forced from her before he left. She remembers his unkindness and her relief that he would soon be gone.

Turning away and looking back up the lawn she saw, through branches of trees, the drawing-room window alight: She caught a breath for the moment when she could go running back there into the safe arms of her mother and sister, and cry: “What shall I do, what shall I do? He has gone.”

She remembers being informed that he was “missing, presumed killed”. But she does not remember the appointed hour for the fulfilment of her promise. And she does not remember his face…

* * * * *

Well, this is a little cracker – right up there with The Turn of a Screw in terms of ambiguity! It’s only a few short pages, but Bowen builds a tremendous atmosphere of apprehension and the dislocation of war. We think of WW1 and WW2 as two separate events, but Bowen shows them as a continuum – the second war reviving traumas barely healed from the first.

Mrs Drover is outwardly a passive character. Her first lover seemed to rather want to possess her than love her, and her reaction seems to have been entirely submissive. Left single after the end of the war, she is grateful to attract another man and strives to be a good wife and mother. But there are subtle indications that there may be more going on beneath her calm surface…

Since the birth of the third of her little boys, attended by a quite serious illness, she had had an intermittent muscular flicker to the left of her mouth…

This wonderfully ambiguous character portrait leaves the reader unsure whether anything is true. It’s told in the third person, but if the narrator is omniscient she chooses carefully which parts of her knowledge she will reveal. Is it the repeated trauma of war – the loss of a lover in the first, the loss of a home in the second – that has driven Mrs Drover over the edge? Or is her lover really about to return – living or dead? The ending manages the difficult feat of being both almost entirely unexplained and yet fully satisfying.

Is it a ghost story? Or a story of revenge for a promise forgotten? Or a story of mental breakdown brought on by trauma? I still haven’t decided – you’ll need to read it and make up your own mind! Here’s a link. Whatever it is, the porpy and I think it’s great!

Fretful Porpentine rating:   😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy-Casares

Recommended to old Argentinians…

😦

Don Isidro Parodi is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but for which the police found it convenient to frame him. He now is known as a kind of consulting detective, to whose jail cell people bring their insoluble mysteries, and he tells them the solution. Like The Old Man in the Corner, of whom Parodi is clearly a parody (geddit?), there is no investigation in the middle. And I didn’t even like The Old Man in the Corner much…

Oh dear, another of Martin Edwards’ 100 Classic Crime books that I’m abandoning – I fear he and I simply have very different tastes at times. I rarely enjoy spoofs even when they’re well done, and for my money these are not well done, though perhaps that owes something to the awfulness of the translation. Six supposedly humorous tales, they are in fact overly wordy, condescendingly knowing and gratingly arch, with every client (of the three I read, at least) having exactly the same characterisation – a narcissistic simpleton who “hilariously” reveals his own foolishness while attempting to show how superior he is. Sadly, I quickly began to see the authors as being not significantly differently from these clients, although obviously I’m aware Borges has God-like status in the literary world. One day maybe I’ll look up wikipedia to find out why – it certainly can’t be because of these stories.

Challenge details:
Book: 98
Subject Heading: Cosmopolitan Crimes
Publication Year: 1942

The stories reference the famous detectives of the Golden Age and have lots and lots of winking references to people and events I assume were well known in the Argentina of the time, so that, to be fair, maybe they’re more fun if you’re an old Argentinian. But I doubt it.

* * * * *

Having had a run of 1- and 2-star abandonments in this challenge, I’ve been debating whether to continue with it. However, looking back, in fact of the forty books I’ve read so far, I’ve given twenty 5-stars, and several more 4. So I’m going to assume I’ve just hit an unlucky patch and soldier on for a while longer. I mention this merely because I wouldn’t want my deeply unenthusiastic recent reviews to put anyone off reading Edwards’ book, which I enjoyed very much, or trying some of his recommendations for themselves. As always, my reviews are simply my subjective reaction, not a critical evaluation. You may love the ones I hate…

Thirst by Ken Kalfus

The first collection…

🙂 🙂 🙂

Ken Kalfus has become one of my favourite authors in recent years, and I’m gradually working my way through his earlier works. This collection of short stories was his first publication, so I was prepared for it to perhaps be less polished than his more recent stuff. And, indeed, I found it very variable, with only around half of the stories rating as good or excellent, and some of the rest being really rather poor. It reads to me as if he was maybe still searching for a style, trying things out, some of which worked better than others. His trademark humour, insight and precise prose are already there, but many of the stories are too insubstantial to be satisfying.

I’ve read both of his later collections, Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies and Coup de Foudre, both of which I loved, and I think the major difference is that the stories in them tend to have a more political edge or be more clearly about that nebulous thing we call the “human condition”, even when he’s being whimsical. So, on the one hand, I found this collection a little disappointing but, on the other hand, it was interesting to see this early stage in his development towards becoming a master of the short story form, as he undoubtedly now is.

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

Suit – a teenage boy and his father are in a men’s outfitters looking for a suit for the boy. It’s for a particular occasion, although we don’t know what. We only know the father is not pleased about it. They are joined by a third man, and together the three reject every suit the poor assistant shows them – too smart, too casual, too old, too preppy, etc. It is only when the harassed assistant asks what the occasion is that we finally have confirmed what we have gradually come to suspect… This is whimsical and humorous but it’s very well done, and gives a light-hearted commentary on a specific aspect of privilege, about which I can’t be clearer without spoiling the story.

Night and Day You Are the One – a rather strange story about a man who is living two lives, inadvertently shifting between them each time he falls asleep. In each life he has a different home and a relationship with a different woman. Neither of these women knows about his other life, and indeed, it’s not clear if the two lives are real or if the man is suffering from some kind of delusion. In essence, it’s a love story, but done with a lot of originality and with a nicely satisfying ending.

Among the Bulgarians – this was my favourite story. A teenage boy has spent the summer in Bulgaria with his parents. Now he’s home, and in the narcissistic way of teenagers, he assumes the world will have stood still in his absence, his friends waiting impatiently to hear all about his adventures. But he’ll learn that they have had their adventures too – normal teenage ones, dating, and learning to drive and so on – and to them his Bulgarian experiences are only of mild interest. It’s a coming-of-age tale, beautifully done, and with the suggestion that the boy may have been inspired over the course of this summer to take a first small step towards becoming a writer. I wondered, as I often do with Kalfus, if it had an autobiographical element.

So enough in there to make the collection worth reading, but it wouldn’t be where I would suggest any newcomer to Kalfus should begin. I’m glad I’d read his later stuff first, since I may not have been tempted to investigate further if this had been my introduction to his work. But I recommend it for existing fans, since it’s always interesting to see how a favourite author started out.

Book 11 of 20

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The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie

The perfect dinner guest…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A group of friends meet regularly for dinner and one night the conversation turns to mysteries. They agree that over the next few weeks they will each take turns at telling of a mystery they were involved in, but before they reveal the solution they will let the group see if they can solve it. They are a diverse group, well positioned to understand the depths to which human nature can descend – a policeman, a lawyer, a clergyman, an artist and a novelist. The sixth is less likely to have much insight, or so her friends assume, being an old maid who has spent her entire life in the quiet backwater of an idyllic English village. Her name is Miss Jane Marple…

I listened to this collection narrated by the wonderful Joan Hickson and as always she does a superb job. Each story comes in at roughly half an hour long, so they’re the perfect length for a bedtime listen, or for more active people, for the evening walk! I’d come across one or two of the stories before in anthologies, but I thought they actually worked better collected in this way, since you begin to get a feel for the personalities of the regular diners. Miss Marple, of course, takes centre stage, waiting each time for everyone else to get it wrong or confess themselves baffled, before drawing on her experience of life or village parallels to reveal the true solution. Halfway through, the diners change although the format remains the same – now we are in the company of Colonel and Mrs Bantry back in Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead. Since Mrs Bantry is one of my favourite occasional characters in the novels, it was an added bonus having her in a few of the stories here.

The quality varies as is usually the case in short story collections, but I enjoyed them all, and thought some of them were excellent. Sometimes it’s possible to see how Christie used the kernel of one of these stories later, turning it into the basis of the plot of a novel, and that’s fun for the Christie geeks among us. Here’s a flavour of some of the ones I most enjoyed:

The Blood-Stained Pavement – this is told by Jane, the artist in the group. It’s set in Rathole in Cornwall, which is clearly based on the real Mousehole, then as now a magnet for tourists. Christie builds up a wonderfully creepy atmosphere by telling of the village’s many legends of the days of Spanish invasions. In the present day, Jane sees blood dripping from a hotel balcony to the pavement beneath, and describes how that became a clue in a murder mystery. This has a lot of similarity to the murder method in Evil Under the Sun, which meant I solved it for once! But it’s different enough to still have its own interest.

Ingots of Gold – another Cornish story, this time related by Raymond, novelist and Miss Marple’s nephew. It has to do with shipwrecks and missing gold, and the fun of it is in the way poor Raymond, who always has a tendency to patronise his old Aunt Jane, is brought down to size by her insight.

The Idol-House of Astarte – told by Dr Pender, the clergyman in the group. The members of a house party decide to have a costume party in a grove near the house, known as the Grove of Astarte. The story here is decidedly second to the spine-chillingly spooky atmosphere Christie conjures up – she really is excellent at horror writing when she wants to be. Dr Pender feels evil in the air and is inclined to put it down to supernatural causes, but Miss Marple knows that the supernatural can’t compete with the evil humans do to each other…

The Blue Geranium – told by Colonel Bantry. Another one that has a spooky feel to it, this tells of Mrs Pritchard, the wife of a friend of the colonel’s. She’s a cantankerous invalid who has a succession of nurses to look after her. She also enjoys fortune-tellers, until one day, a mysterious mystic tells her to beware of the blue geranium, which causes death. This seems to make no sense at first, but when the flowers on Mrs Pritchard’s bedroom wallpaper begin slowly to turn blue one by one, her terror grows. This has a really unique solution, based on Christie’s knowledge of poisons and chemistry, but it’s the atmosphere of impending doom that makes it so good. Again this reminded me in some ways of one of the novels but I can’t for the life of me remember which one… anyone?

I’m not always as keen on Christie’s short stories as her novels but I really enjoyed this collection, I think because Hickson’s narration brought out all the humour and spookiness in the stories so well. A perfect partnership of author and narrator!

 

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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

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Settling Scores edited by Martin Edwards

Simply not cricket!

😀 😀 😀 😀

Another themed collection of mysteries from the Golden Age, this contains 15 stories, as usual with a mix of well-known and lesser known authors. As the title and cover imply, the theme in this instance is sport, and a different sport features in every story. There are the sports that are well known for skulduggery – horse racing and boxing, for example – and the sports which are usually, or were at that time, held to be the squeaky clean preserve of the English gentleman – rowing, rugby and, of course, cricket. In some of the stories the sport matters in terms of the plot, while in others it merely forms an interesting background to a more traditional mystery.

As always, I found the quality variable, although in this one most of the stories fell into the middling range for me, between average and good, with just a couple standing out as excellent and only one which I thought was so bad it didn’t really merit inclusion. There were only one or two where I felt my lack of understanding of the sport in question got in the way of my enjoyment of the story, and since I’m not very sports-minded this would probably be even less of a problem for most people.

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

The Boat Race Murder by David Winser – Set in the run up to the all-important annual race between Oxford and Cambridge Universities, this is a story of competitiveness and ambition taken to extremes. It’s very well written, told by a first-person narrator who was in the Oxford team. It does assume a bit more understanding of the technicalities of rowing than I possess, but it gives a great and very authentic feeling background to what it’s like to be an “Oxford Blue”, the hard work and teamsmanship, and all the pressures and celebrity that come with being at the top of an elite sport.

The 1930 Oxford Crew

Death at the Wicket by Bernard Newman – During a match, a cricketer is struck by the ball and later collapses and dies. It appears to have been an accident, but was it? Our narrator is not convinced and sets out to investigate. The cricketing story here assumes the reader understands the dangers and ethical questions around “bodyline” bowling – a technique that came in the 1930s whereby the bowler deliberately aims the ball with the intention of intimidating the batsman, leading to many injuries. It was (is?) considered deeply unsporting. However, the story is well written and ultimately depends on human nature rather than cricketing shenanigans, so is enjoyable even for people who don’t know their googly from their silly mid-off.

The Drop Shot by Michael Gilbert – as two men watch a squash match, one tells the other of another match years earlier that resulted in the death of one of the players. This is very well told and doesn’t require any knowledge of squash to understand the plot. It’s not a mystery – more of a morality tale about greed and competitiveness, and how fate makes sure one gets one’s comeuppance in the end. I enjoyed it a lot.

Dangerous Sport by Celia Fremlin – the sport here is really incidental to the story, being merely that a school sports day provides the backdrop to one of the major events. It’s the story of a mistress who is tired of her lover lying to her, especially since he’s not very good at it. She likes to catch him out in his lies, but has gradually come to realise that his wife and family will always be more important to him than she is. So she decides to do something about it. This suspense story has an almost noir feel to it, in that no one is likeable and there’s no hope for a happy ending. It’s extremely well told and psychologically convincing, especially of the thoughts and feelings of the mistress. I shall look out for more from this new-to-me author.

And it also has a Holmes story, which seems to be a regular feature of these collections, certainly for the last several anyway. This time it’s The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter (rugby) – not a particularly strong mystery but, as always, a very well told and interesting story.

So plenty of variety and lots to enjoy, and a great way of participating in some strenuous sports without leaving the sofa. Recommended.

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

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Tuesday Terror! The Judge’s House by Bram Stoker

Asking for trouble…

The fretful porpentine and I were full of good intentions to read an Irish horror story every week during March as part of Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month. But then we were attacked by plagueophobia and you know what they say about the best laid plans! However, here we are, sneaking one in on the very last day of the event, and just as the porpy goes off into hibernation for the summer…

The Judge’s House
by Bram Stoker

Bram Stoker

Student Malcolm Malcolmson is looking for somewhere where he can study in peace without the distraction of friends or family, so he heads randomly for the little town of Benchurch. Putting up for the night at the only inn, the next day he looks around for a house that he can rent for a few weeks…

There was only one place which took his fancy, and it certainly satisfied his wildest ideas regarding quiet; in fact, quiet was not the proper word to apply to it – desolation was the only term conveying any suitable idea of its isolation.

Oh dear! When will people learn that isolated houses are never a good idea? You’d think the words of the house agent would have warned Malcolm…

“To tell you the truth,” said he, “I should be only too happy, on behalf of the owners, to let anyone have the house rent free for a term of years if only to accustom the people here to see it inhabited. It has been so long empty that some kind of absurd prejudice has grown up about it, and this can be best put down by its occupation – if only,” he added with a sly glance at Malcolmson, “by a scholar like yourself, who wants its quiet for a time.”

The good landlady of the inn seems to share that “absurd prejudice”…

“Not in the Judge’s House!” she said, and grew pale as she spoke.

This would be quite enough for normal people, but Malcolm pressed for more information…

She told him that it was so called locally because it had been many years before – how long she could not say, as she was herself from another part of the country, but she thought it must have been a hundred years or more – the abode of a judge who was held in great terror on account of his harsh sentences and his hostility to prisoners at Assizes. As to what there was against the house, itself she could not tell. She had often asked, but no one could inform her; but there was a general feeling that there was something, and for her own part she would not take all the money in Drinkwater’s Bank and stay in the house an hour by herself.

Naturally, this decides Malcolm, and paying the rent for three months in advance, he prepares to move in, reassuring the landlady he’ll be fine…

“… my dear Mrs. Witham, indeed you need not be concerned about me! A man who is reading for the Mathematical Tripos has too much to think of to be disturbed by any of these mysterious ‘somethings,’ and his work is of too exact and prosaic a kind to allow of his having any corner in his mind for mysteries of any kind.”

Yeah. Well. We’ll see.

Malcolm hires Mrs Dempster to “do” for him and she’s of a more prosaic turn of mind about the horrors of the house…

“I’ll tell you what it is, sir,” she said; “bogies is all kinds and sorts of things – except bogies! Rats and mice, and beetles, and creaky doors, and loose slates, and broken panes, and stiff drawer handles, that stay out when you pull them and then fall down in the middle of the night. Look at the wainscot of the room! It is old – hundreds of years old! Do you think there’s no rats and beetles there! And do you imagine, sir, that you won’t see none of them? Rats is bogies, I tell you, and bogies is rats; and don’t you get to think anything else!”

Hmm, personally I’m not sure Malcolm wouldn’t be better off with bogies than rats and beetles! Especially when it’s late at night and he’s all alone in the dark, and suddenly all the noise of scampering rats behind the wainscot ceases and in the sudden silence he looks up from his books…

There on the great high-backed carved oak chair by the right side of the fireplace sat an enormous rat, steadily glaring at him with baleful eyes. He made a motion to it as though to hunt it away, but it did not stir. Then he made the motion of throwing something. Still it did not stir, but showed its great white teeth angrily, and its cruel eyes shone in the lamplight with an added vindictiveness.

Ooh, I say! But is the rat simply a rat? Or is it something more malevolent, something to do with the picture of the old judge hanging on the wall? And why does the rat always run up the rope that hangs down from the alarm bell in the roof?

“It is,” said the doctor slowly, “the very rope which the hangman used for all the victims of the Judge’s judicial rancour!”

And yet still our brave but foolish hero is determined to stay in the house…

* * * * *

Goodness, this is a good one! The porpy and I were proper scared, both by the rats and by the… other stuff! It has touches of humour in the early stages but it gradually descends into something very dark indeed. A warning to us all not to rent a house that’s full of rats… or the ghosts of hanging judges…

If you’re brave enough to want to read it, here’s a link…

NB The two great illustrations are by Walt Sturrock.

It’s a fretful porpentine!

Fretful porpentine rating:   😱 😱 😱 😱 😱

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Transwarp Tuesday! Beyond Time edited by Mike Ashley

The past is the future…

My heart sank a little when I started this collection of thirteen stories on the theme of time travel. Like Captain Janeway of the USS Voyager, time paradoxes tend to give me a headache, and the first couple of stories did nothing to relieve my anxiety, since both were rather mediocre. But they were followed by a little run of four star stories and then boom! The five star stories started coming thick and fast! These collections are always arranged more or less in chronological order and I suspect that when the early ones were written, the idea of time travel itself was so original that the writers didn’t feel the need to do much with it. By the time of the later stories, though, the writers were vying to give an original direction to a well-worn path, so there’s much more diversity in how they use the theme.

There’s the usual mix of well-known and lesser known authors, although since I’m not well read in science fiction all but three of them – HG Wells, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding and JB Priestley – were unknown names to me. Some of the stories are mildly humorous, some tend more towards horror. There’s less variation in length than in some collections, with most of the stories coming in around twenty to thirty pages, which I always find to be a great length for pre-bedtime reading.

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

Friday the Nineteenth by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding – a story that is almost as much horror and almost as much psychological crime as it is science fiction. A husband wants to embark on an affair with his friend’s wife and she’s not unwilling. But somehow the day keeps repeating and only they are aware of it. Caught in a loop, they keep making the same assignation but never get to the point of keeping it, and we see how their guilt and selfishness begins to change how they feel. It’s very well told and manages to pack in a lot of suspense for such a short space.

Look After the Strange Girl by JB Priestley – a man slips back in time to an evening in 1902 and finds himself at a big party in the house which, in the present, houses the school he runs. There he meets a woman who seems to have been caught in the same time slip. It has elements of the tragedy of war, as the man knows the future of some of the people of the house, some of whom will die in France. It also gives a little comparison of the attitudes and habits of Edwardian women to modern women. Very well done, strange and mildly thought-provoking – quite a literary story.

Manna by Peter Phillips – this is a great story about two ghosts who were once monks and are doomed to haunt their old priory, which has now turned into a factory for making ‘Miracle Meal’ – a kind of food substance that is nutritionally perfect and tastes so wonderful it can be eaten for every meal. Remembering the hunger of their own time, they find a way to transport cans back to the 12th century, where this is seen as a real miracle. It’s well written, interesting and very amusing – the two mismatched ghosts themselves are a lot of fun.

Dial “0” for Operator by Robert Presslie – the last story in the book and a great one to finish with. An operator in the telephone exchange takes a call from a woman in distress. She tells him she’s in a phone box and there’s something outside – a kind of dark blob – that’s trying to get in. He promptly sends the police but when they get there the box is empty. However, the woman is still on the line and begs the operator not to hang up. The tension is great in this as gradually the operator realises the woman is speaking from a different time and there’s nothing he can do to help her except talk…

So from an uninspiring beginning this turned into a great collection, leaving me with a whole raft of new-to-me authors to investigate. Great stuff!

Little Green Men Rating:  :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen: :mrgreen:

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

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