The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Those mysterious Orientals…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a new neighbour moves into the long vacant Cloomber Hall, our narrator John Hunter West and his father and sister are keen to make their acquaintance, since their estate in Wigtownshire, in Scotland’s southwestern corner, doesn’t afford much in the way of society. But they soon discover that the new tenant, Major Heatherstone, has an almost morbid aversion to company, preferring to keep himself and his family safely behind the new fences and gates he has installed all round the property. Youth finds ways to overcome these problems, however, and John and his sister, Esther, are soon romantically involved with the Major’s daughter, Gabriel, and son, Mordaunt, respectively. John soon learns that the Major’s reclusive habits are because he lives in constant fear, but of what he won’t reveal. However, his children tell the Wests that the Major’s fears intensify every year on October 5th, and then lessen once that date is safely past. This year, however, just a few days before the 5th, a terrible storm blows up and a ship is wrecked off the coast. The survivors include three mysterious men from the East – Buddhist mystics – and when Major Heatherstone hears of this, his fears reach new heights…

The narrator is writing this as a kind of statement to explain the events that follow, and includes various accounts given in the words of witnesses. This gives Conan Doyle the chance to use some Scottish dialect and he does it very well, making it sound very authentic while keeping it clear enough for non-Scots to understand. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing him in Scots mode, since mostly, like most Scots authors, he wrote in standard English to please the much larger English reading public. Most of this is in standard English too, but the dialect and locations give it a Scottish appeal.

In structure, it’s reminiscent of some of the longer Sherlock Holmes stories, in that it tells firstly of what happens in the present and then takes us back to the past to explain the reasons behind the events. It’s pretty clear from early on that the Major’s fears relate to something that he did when he was a serving officer in the Army. Conan Doyle was writing for a contemporary audience who would have been familiar with the campaigns the Major was involved in, but I must admit it took me a bit of time to work out where exactly he was. The Buddhists and the references to Sanskrit scholarship convinced me we were in India, as did the fact that the Major was leading troops including Sepoy soldiers. But there are references to Afghanistan too and John West tells us that the earlier events took place during the first Afghan War. It appears that they took place just over the border, where it was geographically Afghanistan but culturally still very similar to India, and the Indian troops were serving as part of the British Army in that war.

Conan Doyle was always interested in the mystical side of life even before he became so heavily involved in spiritualism, and this book is a real example of the then prevalent opinion of Eastern peoples as having mystical powers unknown to us in the West. There are lots of racial stereotypes and some unfortunate terminology, including use of the n-word, but if you can see past this, in fact Conan Doyle is expressing an admiration for a culture which he portrays as far more spiritually advanced than our own. He doesn’t overtly criticise the behaviour of the Brits in general, but he does show that the imperial belief in our racial superiority led some to commit acts that he in his time, like we in ours, would see as atrocities. His portrayal of the Buddhists is an intriguing insight into the mixture of fascination and fear that the mysterious people of the Orient held for Victorian Britain.

There’s mystery here, but there’s also a generous dollop of horror and very effective it is too! The start is a little slow, but once it gets going it becomes a real page-turner, full of tension as we see the Major haunted by his fears, and then drama as we reach the climax. The concluding section where we learn of the earlier events has its own different kind of horror, as we read the Major’s own diary account of what happened in Afghanistan. Great stuff, up there with the level of the Holmes’ long stories, and I’m at a loss as to why it’s not better known. Perhaps the outdated racial terms have made it fall out of favour, but I do think it’s worth making the effort to see them in their context and look more deeply at the underlying criticism of British imperialist attitudes implied in the story. Another example of wonderful storytelling from the master – highly recommended!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 220…

Episode 220

I’m back! As soon as the aliens caught sight of the assembled forces of Tommy, Tuppence and Porpy they fled back to their own sector of the galaxy, squealing! The Kpop stars have promised to stop dancing, and the sun has calmed down to a temperate glow. The world is safe! Well… for the moment anyway. The remarkable thing is that, despite everything, my TBR has gone up, by 2 to 215! My postman is clearly intrepid… 

Here are a few more I’ll be unpacking soon…

History

Brothers York by Thomas Penn

Courtesy of Allen Lane via NetGalley. I thoroughly enjoyed Thomas Penn’s earlier book on Henry VII, Winter King, so grabbed this at the first opportunity. My knowledge of the Wars of the Roses really comes more from popular culture than actual histories, not least the notoriously inaccurate (but utterly compelling) Shakespeare plays. So I’m looking forward to learning about the facts behind the legends…

The Blurb says: It is 1461 and England is crippled by civil war. One freezing morning, a teenage boy wins a battle in the Welsh marches, and claims the crown. He is Edward IV, first king of the usurping house of York…

Thomas Penn’s brilliant new telling of the wars of the roses takes us inside a conflict that fractured the nation for more than three decades. During this time, the house of York came to dominate England. At its heart were three charismatic brothers – Edward, George and Richard – who became the figureheads of a spectacular ruling dynasty. Together, they looked invincible. But with Edward’s ascendancy the brothers began to turn on one another, unleashing a catastrophic chain of rebellion, vendetta, fratricide, usurpation and regicide. The brutal end came at Bosworth Field in 1485, with the death of the youngest, then Richard III, at the hands of a new usurper, Henry Tudor.

The story of a warring family unable to sustain its influence and power, Brothers York brings to life a dynasty that could have been as magnificent as the Tudors. Its tragedy was that, in the space of one generation, it destroyed itself.

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Dickens at Christmas

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics and another for my Classics Club list. It has long been my tradition to read a Dickens over Christmas and, in fact, as soon as I am appointed Queen of the World by popular acclaim it will be the law that everyone must. This year’s choice is a re-read, but it’s years since I read it so my memory of it is vague. Almost as good as reading it for the first time! And I’m looking forward to reading the intro and notes in my OWC copy – I haven’t read any of the novels in their editions before…

The Blurb says: Set against the backdrop of the Gordon Riots of 1780, Barnaby Rudge is a story of mystery and suspense which begins with an unsolved double murder and goes on to involve conspiracy, blackmail, abduction and retribution. Through the course of the novel fathers and sons become opposed, apprentices plot against their masters and Protestants clash with Catholics on the streets. And, as London erupts into riot, Barnaby Rudge himself struggles to escape the curse of his own past. With its dramatic descriptions of public violence and private horror, its strange secrets and ghostly doublings, Barnaby Rudge is a powerful, disturbing blend of historical realism and Gothic melodrama.

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Vintage Crime

The Body in the Dumb River by George Bellairs

Courtesy of the British Library. I’ve enjoyed the other novels from George Bellairs which the BL has previously issued, so I’m looking forward to meeting up with Inspector Littlejohn again…

The Blurb says: Jim Teasdale has been drowned in the Dumb River, near Ely, miles from his Yorkshire home. His body, clearly dumped in the usually silent (‘dumb’) waterway, has been discovered before the killer intended — disturbed by a torrential flood.

With critical urgency it’s up to Superintendent Littlejohn of Scotland Yard to trace the mystery of the unassuming victim’s murder to its source, leaving waves of scandal and sensation in his wake as the hidden, salacious dealings of Jim Teasdale begin to surface.

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Fiction

The Mystery of Cloomber by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Despite my life-long love affair with Conan Doyle there’s loads of his stuff I’ve never read, including this. Mystery, colonialism and shipwrecked Buddhist monks – what more could you possibly ask? Mind you, the spiritualism aspect is a bit of a worry – Conan Doyle did get a bit obsessed with it sometimes…

The Blurb says: What dark deed from the past haunts Major Heatherstone? Why does he live like a hermit at Cloomber Hall, forbidding his children to venture beyond the estate grounds? Why is he plagued by the sound of a tolling bell, and why does his paranoia rise to frantic levels each year on the fifth of October? With the sudden appearance of three shipwrecked Buddhist monks, the answers to these questions follow close behind.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Gothic thriller unfolds in his native Scotland, in a remote coastal village surrounded by dreary moors. The creator of Sherlock Holmes combines his skill at weaving tales of mystery with his deep fascination with spiritualism and the paranormal. First published in 1889, the novel offers a cautionary view of British colonialism in the form of a captivating story of murder and revenge.

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

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

I’ll be catching up with all your posts and comments over the next couple of days.
I’ve missed you!

Tuesday Terror! The Case of Lady Sannox by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Never betray Sir Arthur…

I don’t usually use two stories from the same author so close together, but firstly, it’s my beloved ACD, and secondly, I feel this is almost a companion piece to last week’s story, The Retirement of Signor Lambert. Another adulterous affair, another revenge but this time against the erring wife and so, so much more horrific than last week’s. Not for the faint-hearted – you have been warned!

The Case of Lady Sannox
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The relations between Douglas Stone and the notorious Lady Sannox were very well known both among the fashionable circles of which she was a brilliant member, and the scientific bodies which numbered him among their most illustrious confreres. There was naturally, therefore, a very widespread interest when it was announced one morning that the lady had absolutely and for ever taken the veil, and that the world would see her no more. When, at the very tail of this rumour, there came the assurance that the celebrated operating surgeon, the man of steel nerves, had been found in the morning by his valet, seated on one side of his bed, smiling pleasantly upon the universe, with both legs jammed into one side of his breeches and his great brain about as valuable as a cap full of porridge, the matter was strong enough to give quite a little thrill of interest to folk who had never hoped that their jaded nerves were capable of such a sensation.

Douglas Stone had expensive tastes and liked the best of everything. And when he met Lady Sannox, he knew he had to have her. Not a terribly difficult task…

She had a liking for new experiences, and was gracious to most men who wooed her. It may have been cause or it may have been effect that Lord Sannox looked fifty, though he was but six-and-thirty.

The Lovers

Poor old Lord Sannox! Don’t feel too sorry for him, though! People had never been sure whether he was unaware of his wife’s indiscretions or whether he simply chose to ignore them. But when Douglas Stone became the new favourite, even Lord Sannox couldn’t fail to notice…

There was no subterfuge about Stone. In his high-handed, impetuous fashion, he set all caution and discretion at defiance. The scandal became notorious.

The Husband

One night, Stone was due to visit his Lady but as he was about to leave home a man arrived, asking for his medical assistance for his wife…

A few moments later the butler swung open the door and ushered in a small and decrepit man, who walked with a bent back and with the forward push of the face and blink of the eyes which goes with extreme short sight. His face was swarthy, and his hair and beard of the deepest black. In one hand he held a turban of white muslin striped with red, in the other a small chamois-leather bag.

He tells Stone that his wife has met with an accident and has been poisoned by an obscure Oriental poison. She must have an operation immediately if she is to be saved! Stone is rather unmoved by this, but the promise of a huge fee sways him, and they set off to the man’s house…

It was a mean-looking house in a narrow and sordid street. The surgeon, who knew his London well, cast a swift glance into the shadows, but there was nothing distinctive—no shop, no movement, nothing but a double line of dull, flat-faced houses, a double stretch of wet flagstones which gleamed in the lamplight, and a double rush of water in the gutters which swirled and gurgled towards the sewer gratings.

Inside, the man takes Stone to the patient…

A single small lamp stood upon a bracket on the wall. Douglas Stone took it down, and picking his way among the lumber, walked over to a couch in the corner, on which lay a woman dressed in the Turkish fashion, with yashmak and veil.

And then…

The Climax

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No, if you want to know the rest you must read it for yourself! It’s one of the stories in Late Victorian Gothic Tales (and many other anthologies), but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link

I warn you, this one actually horrifies me and the porpy has now taken a lifelong vow of celibacy and retired to a monastery. It reminds us that ACD is not nearly as cuddly as Dr Watson and that he was a medical man before he was a writer. But it is brilliantly written, and completely unforgettable – though you might wish it wasn’t! It also reminds us that humans are much more to be feared than ghosties, ghoulies or even things that go bump in the night!

The porpy’s at the back. But fear not! I’m sure I’ll be able to tempt him
out again once the initial horror begins to fade!

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Tuesday Terror! The Retirement of Signor Lambert by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A cautionary tale…

If you have been a visitor to my blog for any length of time, you will know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has his very own pedestal in my bookish hall of fame. Adventure, crime, historical fiction – he was a master of so many genres. Not least, horror! Here’s a deliciously horrid little story for this week’s…

The Retirement of Signor Lambert
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir William Sparter was a man who had raised himself in the course of a quarter of a century from earning four-and-twenty shillings a week as a fitter in Portsmouth Dockyard to being the owner of a yard and a fleet of his own. . . now, at the age of fifty, he owned a mansion in Leinster Gardens, a country house at Taplow and a shooting in Argyleshire, with the best stable, the choicest cellars and the prettiest wife in town.

Life is pretty good for Sir William, but for one thing.

And yet he had failed in one thing, and that the most important of all. He had never succeeded in gaining the affection of his wife.

Oh, he had tried! His pretty wife had married him not for love, but because of his wealth and power. Sir William had hoped to win her love in time…

But the very qualities which had helped him in his public life had made him unbearable in private. He was tactless, unsympathetic, overbearing, almost brutal sometimes, and utterly unable to think out those small attentions in word and deed which women value far more than the larger material benefits.

Well, I’m not so sure in this case. She did marry him for his large “material benefits” after all. Anyway, then Sir William makes a terrible discovery…

…when a letter of his wife’s came, through the treachery of a servant, into his hands, and he realized that if she was cold to him she had passion enough for another.

Sir William was not a man who would forgive such a betrayal…

His firm, his ironclads, his patents, everything was dropped, and he turned his huge energies to the undoing of the man.

He confronts his wife, and insists she write a letter to her lover…

“William, you are plotting some revenge. Oh, William, if I have wronged you, I am so sorry—”
“Copy that letter!”
“But what is it that you wish to do? Why should you desire him to come at that hour?”
“Copy that letter!”
“How can you be so harsh, William? You know very well—”
“Copy that letter!”
“I begin to hate you, William. I believe that it is a fiend, not a man, that I have married.”
“Copy that letter!”
Gradually the inflexible will and the unfaltering purpose began to prevail over the creature of nerves and moods. Reluctantly, mutinously, she took the pen in her hand.

The letter written, Sir William sends his wife to bed. Then he takes out two things and begins to read. The first is a paper…

…a recent number of the “Musical Record,” and it contained a biography and picture of the famous Signor Lambert, whose wonderful tenor voice had been the delight of the public and the despair of his rivals. The picture was that of a good-natured, self-satisfied creature, young and handsome, with a full eye, a curling moustache and a bull neck.

The lover!

The second thing is a medical book on the organs of speech and voice-production…

There were numerous coloured illustrations, to which he paid particular attention. Most of them were of the internal anatomy of the larynx, with the silvery vocal cords shining from under the pink arytenoid cartilage. Far into the night Sir William Sparter, with those great virile eyebrows still bunched together, pored over these irrelevant pictures, and read and reread the text in which they were explained.

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Woo! Am I glad I never had an affair with Sir Arthur’s wife! This little story shows Conan Doyle at his most twisted. Sir William’s method of revenge is cruel and carried out with a cold-blooded competence that chills the blood. While it’s hard to sympathise with Signor Lambert, his punishment is harsh indeed. Jacqueline, the wife, doesn’t gain much sympathy either – having married Sir William for his money and then having betrayed him, she seems to think that he should simply forgive. But nothing in Sir William’s personality could have led her to think that he was the forgiving kind…

He could frighten his wife, he could dominate her, he could make her admire his strength and respect his consistency, he could mould her to his will in every other direction, but, do what he would, he could not make her love him.

We aren’t given many details of the aftermath for the characters after the act of revenge – I shiver when I think of poor Jacqueline’s reaction and the fear she must have felt, compelled as she would have been to remain married to a man whose potential for pitiless brutality she now fully understood.

Once read, never forgotten! I read it in Gothic Tales of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but if you’d like to read it online, here’s a link. I think of Signor Lambert often – a cautionary tale for all you adulterers out there…

The porpy reckons this story has made him immune
to female charms for a while…

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:           😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Treasure hunt…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When a young lady comes to Sherlock Holmes for advice, what at first seems like an intriguing mystery soon turns into a tale of murderous revenge. Mary Morstan’s father disappeared some years ago, just after he had returned from colonial service. He had been in the Andaman Islands, one of the officers charged with guarding the prisoners held there. A few years after his disappearance, Miss Morstan received a large pearl in the mail, and every year for the six years since then, she has received another. Now she has been contacted by a man who claims to know what happened to her father and says he wishes to right the wrong that has been done to her. He has asked her to come to his house where he will tell her the tale. Holmes is happy to accompany her because he is bored and seeking distraction from the cocaine bottle. Watson is happy to go along because he is falling in love…

The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare. There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light, – sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more. I am not subject to impressions, but the dull, heavy evening, with the strange business upon which we were engaged, combined to make me nervous and depressed.

Thaddeus Sholto tells them an astonishing story of hidden treasure and takes them to visit his brother Bartholomew. But when they reach Bartholomew’s house they find him dead, in a locked room. Holmes will soon solve the mystery and the companions will set off on a thrilling manhunt through London and down the Thames.

Like most of the long stories, this one takes the form of the first half being about Holmes solving the puzzle and tracking the criminal, and then the second half takes the reader back to learn the story behind the crime. In terms of the actual puzzle, this one is rather weak with not much opportunity for the Great Detective to show off his genius for deduction. He does however get to show us his mastery of disguise and his intimate knowledge of London’s murkier areas.

The story has a few other aspects, though, that I enjoy more than the basic mystery. The back story takes us to the time of the Indian Uprising of 1857, to the Agra Fort in Uttar Pradesh where many fled seeking refuge from the fighting. Here we are told a story of fabulous treasure, greed and murder, oaths of loyalty, betrayal and revenge. Back in London, while the solving of the mystery is a little too easy, it leads to a manhunt in the company of the loveable dog Toby with the assistance of the Baker Street Irregulars, a gang of street urchins Holmes sometimes employs to help him find people who don’t want to be found, and the whole thing culminates in a thrilling chase as Holmes and Watson get on the trail of their suspect.

Last but not least, this is the story in which Dr Watson finally loses his heart for real. When I was a child reading these stories for the first time, my admiration was all for Holmes and his brilliant reasoning skills. But over the years my loyalty has shifted, as I came to realise that all the warmth and humanity in the stories comes from Watson. He’s a soppy old buffer who is manly enough to wear his heart on his sleeve and has always been susceptible to the fairer sex. But when he meets Miss Morstan, it’s the work of only a few hours for him to know that she is his soulmate. The course of true love has to go over a few bumps, though, before he can hope for his happy ending and there’s no guarantee he will win her hand in the final outcome.

Miss Morstan and I stood together, and her hand was in mine. A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two who had never seen each other before that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marvelled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I should go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand in hand, like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.

Anyone who has read my blog will know I’m a devoted fan of Conan Doyle’s story-telling. He is fluent and easy, writing in a relaxed style that tends to hide the skilfulness of his technique. He shifts effortlessly between deadly peril and sweet romance, and the friendship between Holmes and Watson is beautifully done. Watson’s wholehearted admiration and love for his friend are there for all the world to see, but Holmes’ appreciation of Watson seems colder, until something happens – Watson is put in danger, or Holmes inadvertently hurts his sensitive feelings – when we see the mask slip, and are allowed to glimpse the strong affection that exists behind the great man’s unemotional exterior.

Mystery, thrills, romance, friendship and a lovely dog – really, what more could you want? If you haven’t read the Holmes and Watson stories yet, I envy you…

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 186…

Episode 186

My 2019 reading has got off to a start so slow I feel I might have to learn to read backwards. Fortunately my book acquisition rate seems to have slowed too, so the end result is an increase of just 1 to 227.

Here are a few that I will get to… sometime!

Fiction

Courtesy of Quercus via NetGalley. Gorgeous cover, isn’t it? The setting of colonial Malaysia will fit beautifully in my Around the World challenge. Plus I think the blurb is wonderfully enticing…

The Blurb says: In 1930s colonial Malaya, a dissolute British doctor receives a surprise gift of an eleven-year-old Chinese houseboy. Sent as a bequest from an old friend, young Ren has a mission: to find his dead master’s severed finger and reunite it with his body. Ren has forty-nine days, or else his master’s soul will roam the earth forever.
Ji Lin, an apprentice dressmaker, moonlights as a dancehall girl to pay her mother’s debts. One night, Ji Lin’s dance partner leaves her with a gruesome souvenir that leads her on a crooked, dark trail.

As time runs out for Ren’s mission, a series of unexplained deaths occur amid rumours of tigers who turn into men. In their journey to keep a promise and discover the truth, Ren and Ji Lin’s paths will cross in ways they will never forget.

Captivating and lushly written, The Night Tiger explores the rich world of servants and masters, ancient superstition and modern ambition, sibling rivalry and unexpected love. Woven through with Chinese folklore and a tantalizing mystery, this novel is a page-turner of the highest order.

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Sir Arthur & Mr Holmes

Anyone who visits my blog will be well aware of my never-ending love affair with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This re-read will also tie in with the Around the World challenge in a sneaky kind of way which I will explain when I review it… 

The Blurb says: When a beautiful young woman is sent a letter inviting her to a sinister assignation, she immediately seeks the advice of the consulting detective Sherlock Holmes.

For this is not the first mysterious item Mary Marston has received in the post. Every year for the last six years an anonymous benefactor has sent her a large lustrous pearl. Now it appears the sender of the pearls would like to meet her to right a wrong.

But when Sherlock Holmes and his faithful sidekick Watson, aiding Miss Marston, attend the assignation, they embark on a dark and mysterious adventure involving a one-legged ruffian, some hidden treasure, deadly poison darts and a thrilling race along the River Thames.

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Short Stories

I’m ashamed to say I won this book in a giveaway from the lovely Anne at ivereadthis.com back at the beginning of 2017, and I’m only now getting around to reading it. And it’s another that will take me to foreign climes for my Around the World challenge, this time to look at the life of the ex-pat in Hong Kong…

The Blurb says: These stories follow a kind of life cycle of expatriates in Hong Kong, a place often called the most thrilling city on the planet. They share the feeling of being between two worlds, the experience of being neither here nor there and trying to find a way to fill that space. From the hedonistic first days in How To Pick Up A Maid in Statue Square, as Fast Eddy instructs on how best to approach Filipina maids on their rest day; through the muted middle in Rephrasing Kate, as Kate encounters a charismatic bad boy and is forced to admit her infidelities; to the inevitable end in The Dirty Duck, as Philip realizes his inability to commit and resolves to return home to Australia; Hong Kong alters them all with its frenetic mixture of capitalism and exoticism. Characters exist between the worlds they once knew and this place which now holds them in its spell and shapes them to its ends. Their stories explore how they cope with this space where loneliness and alienation intersect, a place where insomniac young bankers forfeit their ambition while chasing deviant sexual encounters, or consume themselves with climbing the corporate ladder. It is a world where passive domestics live and work for the money they can send home, while their keepers assemble poolside to engage in conversations aroused by the expats’ desire to connect to others who share their fates. Always, of course, there is The Globe, a favourite watering hole where, when night falls, they meet to tell their stories.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the Collins Crime Club. I suspect the victim was stampeded to death by book-bloggers who’d come to the end of their 2018 book-buying bans…

The Blurb says: Book 50 in the Detective Club Crime Classics series is Carolyn Wells’ Murder in the Bookshop, a classic locked room murder mystery which will have a special resonance for lovers and collectors of Golden Age detective fiction. Includes a bonus murder story: The Shakespeare Title-Page Mystery.

When Philip Balfour is found murdered in a New York bookstore, the number one suspect is his librarian, a man who has coveted Balfour’s widow. But when the police discover that a book worth $100,000 is missing, detective Fleming Stone realises that some people covet rare volumes even more highly than other men’s wives, and embarks on one of his most dangerous investigations.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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

FictionFan Awards 2018 – Genre Fiction

Please rise…

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2018.

For the benefit of new readers, and as a reminder for anyone who was around last year, here’s a quick résumé of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2017 and October 2018 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

The categories tend to change slightly each year to better reflect what I’ve been reading during the year.

This year, there will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories:

Vintage Crime Fiction

Genre Fiction

Factual

Modern Crime Fiction/Thriller

Literary Fiction

…and…

Book of the Year 2018

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the author’s next book even if I have to buy it myself!

(NB If an author is unlikely to publish another book due to being dead, I will read a book from his/her back catalogue…)

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

GENRE FICTION

I don’t always include an award for genre fiction, but I’ve had a lot of fun this year reading classic science fiction and horror, so it seemed a shame to leave them out in the cold. Some of my favourites were re-reads – The Day of the Triffids, for instance – so can’t be included. I’m including several short story collections since so much good genre fiction comes in that format.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Gothic Tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Although best known today for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote prolifically across a whole range of genres in his lifetime. This collection brings together thirty-four of his tales which have been categorised as “gothic”, although some of them are more gothic than others.

The level of horror is variable from mild and even humorous to really quite scary. But the real joy of the collection, as always with Conan Doyle, is the sheer quality of his story-telling skills. Whether relating an Arctic adventure complete with ghostly apparition, or telling a tale of vengeance set in the wild frontier of old America, or forcing the reader to spend a night in a museum full of not completely dead Egyptian mummies, or taking us into the dark heart of the British Empire, his powers of description and ability to create atmosphere and tension are surely second to none. And his total command of a wonderful vocabulary and seemingly effortless writing style make the stories pure pleasure to read.

Click to see the full review

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The First Men in the Moon by HG Wells

When Mr Bedford leaves London for the quiet of the Kentish countryside he meets his new neighbour, Mr Cavor, an eccentric scientist, and becomes intrigued and excited by the possibilities of the invention Cavor is working on – a substance that will defy gravity. Bedford, always with an eye for the main chance, begins to imagine the commercial possibilities of such a substance, but Cavor is more interested in the glory that he will gain from the scientific community. And so it is that these two mismatched men find themselves as partners on an incredible voyage – to the Moon!

To a large degree, this is a straightforward adventure novel with a great story and lots of danger and excitement. But, being Wells, there are also underlying themes relating to contemporary concerns: primarily the danger of science untempered by ethical control and a rather terrifying vision of a utopian society. But the themes are treated more lightly in this one and Wells allows his imagination free rein, resulting in a great read – lots of humour, great descriptive writing, enough depth to keep it interesting without overwhelming the story, a couple of characters you can’t help liking even though you feel you shouldn’t, and plenty of excitement.

Click to see the full review

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The Great God Pan and Other Horror Stories by Arthur Machen

This is a collection of those stories of Arthur Machen that fit into what would now be thought of as ‘weird’ tales. His stories are set mainly in two locations, both of which he evokes brilliantly. His native Monmouthshire, in Wales, is depicted as a place with connections to its deep past, where ancient beliefs and rituals are hidden just under the surface of civilised life. His London is a place of dark alleys and hidden evils, with a kind of degenerate race living side by side with the respectable people, and often stretching out a corrupting hand towards them. Many have strong sexual undercurrents (never overtly spelled out – it’s the Victorian era) and paganism is a recurring feature.

The quality of the writing is excellent, especially the descriptive imagery he uses to give both of his settings a sense of evil things lurking unseen, ready to prey on the morally weak or unwary. The Welsh parts have a very similar feel to Lovecraft’s ruins – Lovecraft acknowledged his influence – but where Lovecraft opted for ancient malign aliens, Machen’s evil, though equally ancient, is all of earth, earthly. However, there’s a good deal of humour alongside the effective and occasionally gruesome horror and he’s a great storyteller, making this a marvellously entertaining collection. 

Click to see the full review

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In the Valley of the Sun by Andy Davidson

It’s 1980. Travis Stillwell lives life on the road, travelling from small town to small town in Texas, running from the memories of his earlier life, seeking something lost. Some nights he’ll pick up a woman in a honky-tonk bar, but not for love – these women are victims, killed almost as a sacrifice to those demons he can’t shake off. But one night he picks up Rue, a beautiful young woman who is more evil than even the horrors in his own mind – a woman searching for her own kind of mate, who will change him in ways he could never have imagined even in his worst nightmares. When he wakes up the next day, he is wounded, bloodied, and prey to a strange and terrible hunger – a hunger he must satisfy so that he and Rue can live.

I don’t normally read modern horror but I’m glad I made an exception for this one. It’s a bloody and often gruesome vampire novel, but it’s also so much more than that. Part examination of the hard-scrabble life of rural Texans in the early ’80s and part-metaphor for the lasting shockwaves of the traumas visited on America, and its young men in particular, by the Vietnam war, it’s right up there with the best of American fiction writing, so much so that I considered putting it in the literary fiction category. The writing and imagery are wonderful, poetic and brutal at the same time – it blew me away. 

Click to see the full review

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2018

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

This was an extremely difficult decision – at least three of these books could easily have won. But Lovecraft has been a stalwart of the blog for years now, so it felt only right he should finally win a prize!

In his introduction to this collection of thirteen tales, Xavier Aldana Reyes discusses how Lovecraft’s reputation as a major influence in weird fiction has led to his more traditionally Gothic work being somewhat overlooked. But Reyes points out that even in his weird fiction, Lovecraft often used Gothic concerns. Having read the stories, I’d say the reverse is also true – that his Gothic tales often include elements of his major weird works, particularly in the settings, the hint of unknown fears from something more cosmic than ghostly, and the idea of the degeneration of humanity, which recurs frequently not only in Lovecraft’s work but in that of many of his near contemporaries. 

I loved this collection – every story got either a four or five star rating individually, a rare occurrence indeed. Many of the stories are traditional in style and genuinely scary, while others show Lovecraft’s brilliance in creating an unsettling atmosphere where man exists as a helpless plaything, at the mercy of forces we are too puny to comprehend. Great stuff, and a worthy winner!

Click to see the full review

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Next Week: Best Factual

Gothic Tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The master storyteller sets out to scare…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Although best known today for his Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote prolifically across a whole range of genres in his lifetime. This collection brings together thirty-four of his tales which have been categorised as “gothic”, although some of them are more gothic than others. Some are well known as classic horror stories and a couple have already put in an appearance on my semi-regular horror slot, Tuesday Terror!The Horror of the Heights and Lot No. 249. None of the Holmes stories are included, although several of them would certainly count as gothic and have a strong element of horror – The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, for example, is one of his most Poe-like gothic horrors, I think.

The level of horror is variable from mild and even humorous to really quite scary. But the real joy of the collection, as always with Conan Doyle, is the sheer quality of his story-telling skills. Whether relating an Arctic adventure complete with ghostly apparition, or telling a tale of vengeance set in the wild frontier of old America, or forcing the reader to spend a night in a museum full of not completely dead Egyptian mummies, or taking us into the dark heart of the British Empire, his powers of description and ability to create atmosphere and tension are surely second to none. And his total command of a wonderful vocabulary and seemingly effortless writing style make the stories pure pleasure to read.

The range of stories is incredible, making it quite hard to single any out as representative of the collection. Some have a supernatural element while others concentrate on the horrors men and women perpetrate on each other, and yet others take their horror from the dangers of the natural world. We even get a couple culled from Conan Doyle’s life as a physician, including one about a young man with hereditary syphilis – I was astonished that such a subject was handled so openly in a story at this early date. I’m spoiled for choice, but here’s a brief look at some of the ones I enjoyed most…

J Habakuk Jephson’s Statement – based on the story of the Marie Celeste, ACD gives his version of what might have happened. A “quadroon” kills everyone and takes the ship to Africa. Although there’s some fairly strong racial stuff here that sits uneasily with the modern reader, Jephson is an abolitionist and the motive is revenge against white people for the cruelties they have perpetrated through slavery and colonialism. Powerfully told, it reminded me of Conrad’s stories in its reaction to colonialism.

The Beetle Hunter – the narrator is a newly-qualified doctor and beetle collector who answers an advert for the same. His new employer takes him to the home of a famous beetle expert, where the beetles will not be the scariest thing he has to face! Very well told and quite creepy in parts, especially if you’re squeamish about beetles… ugh!

The Retirement of Signor Lambert – a cuckolded husband takes revenge on the opera singer who seduced his wife. That’s all, but it’s told in a kind of understated deadpan that makes it deliciously horrible.

The Pot of Caviare – a group of Westerners trapped following the Boxer Rebellion await relief. But they have heard terrible stories of how the Chinese treat their captives, especially women, and so have a contingency plan should the relieving force not turn up in time. This is a dark and rather disturbing story, expertly told for maximum effect. The notes point out that it’s part of the Edwardian “Yellow Peril” genre, but it’s far more realistic and chilling than any of the silly Fu Manchu type of stuff I’ve read.

The Captain of the Polestar – an Arctic expedition to hunt whales comes to a stop when the ship is caught in the ice. Scary enough, but even scarier when the ghostly figure of a woman begins to appear and the Captain seems to recognise her. This is narrated via the journal of a young ship’s medic, a role ACD himself had undertaken in his youth. Very atmospheric, great descriptions and some first-rate Scottish dialect!

As always in the Oxford World’s Classics editions, there is an informative introduction and extensive notes, this time written by Darryl Jones, Professor in English at Trinity College Dublin. He gives a kind of biography of Conan Doyle’s thought development over the course of his life. He talks about these stories and Conan Doyle’s wider writings in the context of the various phases of his changing beliefs – his pro-Imperialism, his anxiety over the question of Irish Home Rule culminating in him changing from anti- to pro- after seeing the worst of colonialism in the Belgian Congo; and of course his loss of religion and the growth of his belief in spiritualism – Jones shows that he always had an interest in the subject but “came out” as a believer after witnessing the huge losses in the Great War. An interesting and informative essay, happily written without any lit-crit jargon, making it both accessible and enjoyable for the general reader. (Though I do wish he wouldn’t refer to him as Doyle – after he added Conan to his name (in tribute to his godfather) he was always known as Conan Doyle, he published under that name, his son refers to him that way in his biographical writings about his father, and his wife took the double surname Conan Doyle, so I don’t understand why some modern commentators have taken on themselves the right to change his name back.)

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I loved this collection. Admittedly Conan Doyle can do no wrong in my eyes, so I’m not the most unbiased reviewer, but nearly all of these stories are good and many are excellent – masterclasses in the form. Perfect for dipping – one to keep on the bedside table in perpetuity, since stories of this quality will stand up to frequent re-reading.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Educated for the sole purpose of forming a brilliant establishment, of catching the eye, and captivating the senses, the cultivation of her mind, or the correction of her temper, had formed no part of the system by which that aim was to be accomplished. Under the auspices of a fashionable mother, and an obsequious governess, the froward petulance of childhood, fostered and strengthened by indulgence and submission, had gradually ripened into that selfishness and caprice which now, in youth, formed the prominent features of her character. The earl was too much engrossed by affairs of importance, to pay much attention to anything so perfectly insignificant as the mind of his daughter. Her person he had predetermined should be entirely at his disposal, and he therefore contemplated with delight the uncommon beauty which already distinguished it; not with the fond partiality of parental love, but with the heartless satisfaction of a crafty politician.

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…Mrs Gessler went to work. She pinned Mildred’s dress up, so it was a sort of sash around her hips, with a foot of white slip showing. Then she put on the galoshes, over the gold shoes. Then she put on the evening coat, and pulled the trench coat over it. Then she found a kerchief, and bound it tightly around Mildred’s head. Mildred, suddenly transformed into something that looked like Topsy, sweetly said goodbye to them all. Then she went to the kitchen door, reached out into the wet, and pulled open the car door. Then she hopped in. Then she started the motor. Then she started the wiper. Then she tucked the robe around her. Then, waving gaily to the three anxious faces at the door, she started the car, and went backing down to the street.

(Then FF screamed. Then she gnashed her teeth a bit. Then she threw her Kindle at the wall. Then she vented on Twitter. Then she had some medicinal chocolate. Then she felt much better.)

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….“The truth is, Mrs Forrester, that Mr Lester made a provision for you in his will.”
….“For me?”
….“But why?” asks Clifford. “Who was this Mr Lester to my wife?”
….He emphasizes the last two words as if establishing ownership. Eve feels a pinprick of irritation, though why that should be so she does not know. When they were first married, nearly two years before, she used to invent excuses to drop the phrase “my husband” into conversation, and thrill at hearing Clifford describe her as his wife. It occurs to her now that she hasn’t heard him say it in quite a long time.

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….I have said that the cage had a top as well as a front, and this top was left standing when the front was wound through the slot in the wall. It consisted of bars at a few inches’ interval, with stout wire netting between, and it rested upon a strong stanchion at each end. It stood now as a great barred canopy over the crouching figure in the corner. The space between this iron shelf and the roof may have been from two or three feet. If I could only get up there, squeezed in between bars and ceiling, I should have only one vulnerable side. I should be safe from below, from behind, and from each side. Only on the open face of it could I be attacked. There, it is true, I had no protection whatever; but at least, I should be out of the brute’s path when he began to pace about his den. He would have to come out of his way to reach me. It was now or never, for if once the light were out it would be impossible. With a gulp in my throat I sprang up, seized the iron edge of the top, and swung myself panting on to it. I writhed in face downwards, and found myself looking straight into the terrible eyes and yawning jaws of the cat. Its fetid breath came up into my face like the steam from some foul pot.

(From The Brazilian Cat. It amuses me that the cat in question is called Tommy, as is my own sweet little boy-cat. Must say, temperament-wise, he sounds more like my girl Tuppence though… 😉 )

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So…are you tempted?

Conan Doyle for the Defence by Margalit Fox

“…however improbable, must be the truth…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1908, an elderly lady, Miss Gilchrist, was bludgeoned to death in her Glasgow home and a brooch was stolen. Shortly afterwards, Oscar Slater pawned a brooch and boarded a ship bound for America. These two facts were enough for the police to decide that he was the guilty man and, sure enough, they arrested and charged him, and he was convicted and condemned to death – a sentence that was swiftly commuted to life imprisonment in response to a growing feeling of doubt over the verdict among some sectors of the public. This book sets out to tell the story of the case and specifically of Arthur Conan Doyle’s involvement in the campaign to have the verdict overturned.

Quite often with this kind of book I avoid mentioning the eventual outcome as, even though it’s a true crime, it can be fun for people who don’t know the story to read it as a kind of suspense thriller. However, Fox reveals all in her introductory chapter, so I shall say now that Slater’s conviction was finally quashed, but not until he had spent nearly twenty years in Peterhead, Scotland’s most notorious prison. As the book shows, there is no doubt about his innocence, and Fox makes no attempt to pin the crime on the real culprit – that’s not her purpose. Instead, she uses the case to examine the social factors that led to the false conviction, together with the state of the science of detection and ACD’s influence on it.

Fox starts with a description of the murder and the vague and contradictory eyewitness accounts of a man, or perhaps two men, seen near the scene. The police were immediately under pressure to find the murderer, so they were delighted when they were told that Slater had pawned a brooch similar to the one which had been stolen. Slater was perfect as a villain – German, Jewish, a man who made his living from gambling and who lived with a woman suspected of loose morals, possibly a prostitute. So even although they quickly discovered that the brooch he had pawned was not the one stolen from Miss Gilchrist, they decided not to let this little fact get in the way. Instead, they carefully selected all evidence that made Slater look guilty and suppressed anything that proved his innocence – and there was plenty, including an eyewitness account from a respectable neighbour who saw him elsewhere at the time.

Fox discusses the growing anti-Semitism of the period in Scotland, and the more general fear of foreigners. While Scotland hadn’t been quite as anti-Semitic as England in the past, massively increased immigration was leading to an upsurge, especially since many of the Jews arriving were poor, thus existing on the margins. They became associated in the public mind with crime. Also, new modes of transport and the requirements of an industrialised economy meant that people were more mobile than in the past, so that people didn’t necessarily know who their neighbours were, leading to a kind of fear of the stranger. So Slater was an ideal scapegoat, given that the police had no idea of the identity of the real murderer.

Conan Doyle became interested in the case early on. Fox runs through those parts of his biography that are relevant to him becoming a kind of consultant on cases of wrongful conviction, such as his early exposure to the work of Dr Joseph Bell, the man who inspired Sherlock Holmes. Much of this was already known to me, but Fox keeps it tightly focused so that it never feels like padding. She coins the phrase “diagnostic imagination” to describe ACD’s methods, suggesting that his early medical training of conjecturing from symptom back to diagnosis was the basis for his technique of what we would now think of as forensic detection – using physical clues to work backwards to the crime. Fox discusses very interestingly how at this period the pseudoscience of “criminal anthropology” was still influencing detection in Scotland and elsewhere: a belief that one could determine criminal tendencies by certain physical hallmarks – a system “that sought to cloak racial, ethnic and class stereotypes in turn-of-the-20th-century scientific garb”. This was giving way to the more forensic methods promoted by ACD, but not quickly enough to save Slater.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Fox continues the stories of both men turn and turn about, along the way providing a pretty damning indictment of the Scottish police and criminal justice system of the time. She personalises it by allowing us to read some of Slater’s correspondence with his loving parents and family, some of which is quite moving as they gradually age and his expectations of ever seeing them again grow fainter. During the war, no communication was allowed with Germany, so for years he went with no news of family at all. He wasn’t a particularly pleasant man, Slater, but the punishment he underwent for a crime of which he was innocent was cruel indeed.

Margalit Fox
Photo: Ivan Farkas

I found this a fascinating read, especially since rather to my surprise I learned quite a lot that I didn’t know about my own city and country. All the stuff about Glasgow – the class divisions, the way people lived, the prejudices and culture – feels authentic and still recognisable to this Glaswegian, and the wider picture of policing and justice in Scotland feels very well researched. The story of Conan Doyle’s involvement is also told well with lots of interesting digressions into the art and science of detection, and plenty of referencing to the world of Sherlock Holmes. One that I think true crime fans will thoroughly enjoy – highly recommended!

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 156…

Episode 156…

Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!! A massive drop in the TBR since I last reported! Down 4 to 214! But I’m now stuck in the middle of a bunch of giant tomes and a parcel is heading my way, so the slide has probably come to an end for a bit…

(Apparently he was fine!)

Here are a few more that should fall over the edge soon…

Film History

Courtesy of Simon & Schuster. Last year I was blown away by the experience of reading Arthur C Clarke’s book and watching Stanley Kubrick’s film together, as they were intended to be. So I couldn’t resist this book about the creation of these two masterpieces, or, perhaps, joint masterpiece…

The Blurb says: Celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the film’s release, this is the definitive story of the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, acclaimed today as one of the greatest films ever made, including the inside account of how director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke created this cinematic masterpiece.

Regarded as a masterpiece today, 2001: A Space Odyssey received mixed reviews on its 1968 release. Author Michael Benson explains how 2001 was made, telling the story primarily through the two people most responsible for the film, Kubrick and science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke. A colourful nonfiction narrative packed with memorable characters and remarkable incidents, Space Odyssey provides a 360-degree view of this extraordinary work, tracking the film from Kubrick and Clarke’s first meeting in New York in 1964 through its UK production from 1965-1968, during which some of the most complex sets ever made were merged with visual effects so innovative that they scarcely seem dated today. A concluding chapter examines the film’s legacy as it grew into it current justifiably exalted status.

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Humorous Crime

The third instalment of Lucy Brazier’s PorterGirl series. I shall stock up in readiness with stacks of sausage sandwiches, copious buckets of tea and a barrel-load of biscuits to fortify myself for whatever skulduggery awaits me in Old College this time… 😱

The Blurb says: “Sometimes the opposite of right isn’t wrong. It’s left.”

Tragedy strikes once more at Old College… The Porters’ Lodge is down to its last tea bag and no one has seen a biscuit for over a week. Almost as troubling are the two dead bodies at the bottom of the College gardens and a woman has gone missing. The Dean is convinced that occult machinations are to blame, Deputy Head Porter suspects something closer to home.

The formidable DCI Thompson refuses to be sidelined and a rather unpleasant Professor gets his comeuppance. As the body count rises, Head Porter tries to live a secret double life and The Dean believes his job is under threat from the Russian Secret Service. Deputy Head Porter finds herself with her hands full keeping Old College running smoothly as well as defending herself against the sinister intentions of the new Bursar.

Spies, poisoning, murder – and none of this would be any problem at all, if only someone would get the biscuits out and put the kettle on…

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Gothic Horror

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. Regulars will know I love Sir Arthur nearly as much as I love Dr Watson and Darcy, so I couldn’t resist begging a copy of this new collection of all his darker tales. I’ve read several of them before and even reviewed one or two as Tuesday Terror! posts, but there are plenty more which will be new to me. I can barely resist rubbing my hands in glee…

The Blurb says: Arthur Conan Doyle was the greatest genre writer Britain has ever produced. Throughout a long writing career, he drew on his own medical background, his travels, and his increasing interest in spiritualism and the occult to produce a spectacular array of gothic tales. Many of Doyle’s writings are recognized as the very greatest tales of terror. They range from hauntings in the polar wasteland to evil surgeons and malevolent jungle landscapes.

This collection brings together over thirty of Conan Doyle’s best gothic tales. Darryl Jones’s introduction discusses the contradictions in Conan Doyle’s very public life – as a medical doctor who became obsessed with the spirit world, or a British imperialist drawn to support Irish Home Rule – and shows the ways in which these found articulation in that most anxious of all literary forms, the Gothic.

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Spark on Audio

Having recently thoroughly enjoyed my first encounter with Muriel Spark in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, I decided to try to fit another one in for the second phase of Heavenali’s #ReadingMuriel2018, which she’s running to celebrate Spark’s centenary year. And I thought it might be fun to listen to Juliet Stevenson reading it to me…

The Blurb says: It is 1945; a time of cultural and political change, and also one of slender means. Spark’s evocative and sharply drawn novel focuses on a group of women living together in a hostel in Kensington who face new challenges in uncertain times. The novel is at once dramatic and character-based, and shows Muriel Spark at the height of her literary powers. Juliet Stevenson reads with her customary wit and intelligence this powerful masterpiece.

(Is this the shortest blurb in the history of the universe? I like it!)

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NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

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

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Tuesday Terror! Lot No. 249 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Beware the Mummy!!

As autumn nights grow darker, the fretful porpentine has poked his little nose out of his hibernation box and demanded new stories to get him through the winter months. Or old stories – like this one from the master storyteller Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Who better to kick off a new season of horror…?

Tuesday Terror 2Lot No. 249 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

…when we think how narrow and how devious this path of Nature is, how dimly we can trace it, for all our lamps of science, and how from the darkness which girds it round great and terrible possibilities loom ever shadowly upwards, it is a bold and confident man who will put a limit to the strange by-paths into which the human spirit may wander.

Three students live in a corner turret in Old College in Oxford. Our hero is Abercrombie Smith, a medical student studying hard for his final exams, and a man of both robust physical attributes and a steady, unimaginative mind. On the floor below is Edward Bellingham, a strange and rather repulsive man with a pasty complexion and rolls of loose skin as if he had lost a lot of weight at some time. He is a student of Eastern languages and has spent much time amongst the people of Egypt and the arab lands. Below him is William Monkhouse Lee – a friend of Bellingham, who is engaged to be married to Lee’s sister. They are connected by an ancient staircase…

Life has flowed like water down this winding stair, and, waterlike, has left these smooth-worn grooves behind it. From the long-gowned, pedantic scholars of Plantagenet days down to the young bloods of a later age, how full and strong has been that tide of young, English life. And what was left now of all those hopes, those strivings, those fiery energies, save here and there in some old-world churchyard a few scratches upon a stone, and perchance a handful of dust in a mouldering coffin? Yet here were the silent stair and the grey, old wall, with bend and saltire and many another heraldic device still to be read upon its surface, like grotesque shadows thrown back from the days that had passed.

Abercrombie Smith is warned by his friend James Hastie to steer clear of Bellingham. Hastie says Bellingham’s character is as unpleasant as his appearance, and gives an example to back up his claim…

“Well, you know the towpath along by the river. There were several fellows going along it, Bellingham in front, when they came on an old market-woman coming the other way. It had been raining–you know what those fields are like when it has rained – and the path ran between the river and a great puddle that was nearly as broad. Well, what does this swine do but keep the path, and push the old girl into the mud, where she and her marketings came to terrible grief. It was a blackguard thing to do…”

Despite this tale, Abercrombie Smith suspects that Hastie is in love with Bellingham’s fiancée and that it’s the green-eyed monster talking, so dismisses his warnings.

However, later that night, after Hastie has left, Abercrombie Smith hears a stange hissing noise from the room below. Then suddenly…

…there broke out in the silence of the night a hoarse cry, a positive scream – the call of a man who is moved and shaken beyond all control.

Lee bursts into his room asking for assistance – Bellingham has apparently been taken ill. Abercrombie Smith rushes down to find Bellingham in a dead faint. His room is more like a museum – filled with curiosities from the East and strange relics from the tombs of Egypt, and a stuffed crocodile suspended from the ceiling. But there’s one thing in particular that sends chills down Abercrombie Smith’s spine…

…a mummy case, which had been conveyed from the wall, as was evident from the gap there, and laid across the front of the table. The mummy itself, a horrid, black, withered thing, like a charred head on a gnarled bush, was lying half out of the case, with its claw-like hand and bony forearm resting upon the table. Propped up against the sarcophagus was an old, yellow scroll of papyrus, and in front of it, in a wooden armchair, sat the owner of the room, his head thrown back, his widely opened eyes directed in a horrified stare to the crocodile above him, and his blue, thick lips puffing loudly with every expiration.

Boris Karloff as The Mummy (1932)

Soon Abercrombie Smith will be locked in battle against an evil beyond his wildest imaginings…

* * * * * * *

Did you know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the first person to create a story about a mummy being brought back to life for evil purposes? No, neither did I. Isn’t that fascinating? So every time you watch a mummy movie, it was inspired either directly or indirectly by this story.

Sometimes the problem with these old originals is that each generation of descendants adds something to them until eventually the originals can seem a bit bland. I must say I think this story stands up very well for about 95% of it, and then has a rather anti-climactic ending in comparison to what we’d expect now. The old college and winding staircase give it all a nicely gothic feel and of course Conan Doyle’s writing is perfectly suited to that kind of style. There are some genuinely creepy moments, and a particularly scary scene when our hero is pursued through the night by the murderous mummy.

I do like my horror stories to include the old battle between good and evil thing, and this has that to perfection. So it’s not just interesting for its place in the history of horror, it’s also still a very enjoyable tale of terror in its own right. The porpentine and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

But the wisdom of men is small, and the ways of Nature are strange, and who shall put a bound to the dark things which may be found by those who seek for them?

Who indeed?

If you’d like to read it, here’s a link. It’s quite a long short story – maybe about an hour’s worth.

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Fretful Porpentine rating:  😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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NB For the benefit of new readers since it’s the porpy’s first appearance for the season, the fretful porpentine reference comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine

So the Fretful Porpentine rating is for the scariness factor, whereas the Overall Rating is for the story’s quality.

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Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….In my memory they slid from a bank of sea mist, and perhaps they did, but memory is a faulty thing and my other images of that day are of a clear, cloudless sky, so perhaps there was no mist, but it seems to me that one moment the sea was empty and the next there were three ships coming from the south.
….Beautiful things. They appeared to rest weightless on the ocean, and when their oars dug into the waves they skimmed the water. Their prows and sterns curled high and were tipped with gilded beasts, serpents and dragons, and it seemed to me that on that far off summer’s day the three boats danced on the water, propelled by the rise and fall of the silver wings of their oar banks. The sun flashed off the wet blades, splinters of light, then the oars dipped, were tugged and the beast-headed boats surged and I stared entranced.

* * * * * * * * *

….I wanted to ask her then if she did not remember. I wanted to ask if the manner of her death had been erased from her memory, if she lived now as if those things had not occurred.
….Perhaps the days before her death, and the way death was given to her, are nothing in the place where she is. Perhaps the gods keep the memory of death locked up in their store, jealously guarded. Instead, the gods release feelings that were once pure or sweet. Feelings that mattered once. They allow love to matter since love can do no harm to the dead.
….They approach each other, my father and my sister, their movements hesitant. I am not sure that, once they have seen each other, they still see me. I am not sure that the living interest them. They have too many needs that belong to themselves only; they have too much to share.

* * * * * * * * *

….The trains of the London and West Coast Railway run over the lines of another company as far as this town, which should have been reached by the special rather before six o’clock. At a quarter after six considerable surprise and some consternation were caused amongst the officials at Liverpool by the receipt of a telegram from Manchester to say that it had not yet arrived. An inquiry directed to St. Helens, which is a third of the way between the two cities, elicited the following reply:-
….‘To James Bland, Superintendent, Central L. & W. C., Liverpool. – Special passed here at 4.52, well up to time. – Dowser, St. Helens.’
….This telegram was received at 6.40. At 6.50 a second message was received from Manchester:-
….‘No sign of special as advised by you.’
….And then ten minutes later a third, more bewildering:-
….‘Presume some mistake as to proposed running of special. Local train from St. Helens timed to follow it has just arrived and has seen nothing of it. Kindly wire advices. – Manchester.’

From The Lost Special by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

* * * * * * * * *

….By 1921, there were twice as many bureaucrats as workers in Russia. They were the social base of the regime. This was not a Dictatorship of the Proletariat but a Dictatorship of the Bureaucracy. Moscow, in Lenin’s words, was ‘bloated with officials’: it housed nearly a quarter of a million of them, one-third of the total workforce in the city by the end of 1920. The centre of Moscow became one vast block of offices as committees were piled on top of councils and departments on top of commissions.
….Perhaps a third of the bureaucracy was employed in the regulation of the planned economy. It was an absurd situation: while the economy came to a standstill, its bureaucracy flourished. The country was desperately short of fuel but there was an army of bureaucrats to regulate its almost non-existent distribution. There was no paper in the shops but a mountain of it in the Soviet offices (90 per cent of the paper made in Russia during the first four years of Soviet rule was consumed by the bureaucracy).

* * * * * * * * *

….I broke off. He was looking at me with a cold, glassy stare, as no doubt he had looked at the late lions, leopards and gnus whose remains were to be viewed on the walls of the outer hall. Fellows at the Drones who have tried to touch Oofy Prosser, the club millionaire, for a trifle to see them through till next Wednesday have described him to me as looking just like that.
….‘Oh, so that’s it!’ he said, and even Pop Bassett could not have spoken more nastily. ‘I’ve got your number now. I’ve met your sort all over the world. You won’t get any five pounds, my man. You sit where you are and don’t move. I’m going to call the police.’
….‘It will not be necessary, sir,’ said a respectful voice, and Jeeves entered through the french window.
….His advent drew from me a startled goggle and, I rather think, a cry of amazement. Last man I’d expected to see, and how he had got here defeated me. I’ve sometimes felt that he must dematerialize himself like those fellows in India – fakirs, I think they’re called – who fade into thin air in Bombay and turn up five minutes later in Calcutta or points west with all the parts reassembled.

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

A thrilling adventure yarn…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

The story begins when Holmes receives a message in cipher from one of his contacts within the Moriarty organisation. Unfortunately they don’t have the key to the cipher but after some lovely banter between Holmes and Watson and some brilliant deductions on the part of the great man, they solve it, to discover it warns of danger to someone called Douglas and mentions Birlstone Manor. Just at that moment, Inspector MacDonald turns up to seek Holmes’ aid in the baffling murder of John Douglas of – you’ve guessed it! – Birlstone Manor. And the game’s afoot…

Like all bar one of the long stories, this one takes the format of a deduction of the crime followed by a journey into the past to learn what led to it. In this case, John Douglas had lived in America for most of his life and the gun that killed him was of American make. Holmes does a nifty bit of investigating, involving a moat and drawbridge, an umbrella, a curious mark on the victim’s arm, and a dumbbell; and promptly gets to the truth, though not before driving poor MacDonald almost apoplectic with frustration first.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The background story takes us to the Pennsylvanian coal-mines of the 1870s, where we meet Jack McMurdo, an Irishman who has just arrived there after fleeing justice in Chicago. He quickly becomes involved in the Scowrers, a gang of unscrupulous and violent men who control the valley through fear, intimidation and murder. McMurdo’s personal bravado and intelligence soon allow him to become a valued member of the gang. But this doesn’t sit well with the father of the woman he has fallen in love with, Ettie Shafter. Gradually, it is revealed how this earlier story links to the later murder at Birlstone Manor, and it is a dark story indeed, especially since it is based largely on real events of the time. The tale finishes back in Baker Street, where we learn the final fate of some of the characters we have come to know.

This is another great story from the hands of the master. The first half is a typical Holmes investigation, with plenty of humour and warmth to offset the grimmer aspects of the plot. Holmes’ deductive powers are in full working order, and the crime itself is nicely convoluted, with a good bit of misdirection along the way. The second half allows ACD to give full rein to his marvellous story-telling powers as he takes us deep into the darkness at the heart of the brutal Scowrer gang. His characterisation is superb, both of the rather mysterious McMurdo and of the cruel and barbaric leader of the gang, Boss McGinty. I love the short stories, but I always find the long stories more satisfying, with the extra room allowing ACD to do what he does best – spin a first-rate, thrilling adventure yarn.

Illustration from the New York Tribune – the Scowrers’ initiation ceremony

Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection introduced and narrated by Stephen Fry

I listened to the story this time around, from this fabulous new audio collection from Audible. It includes all the short and long stories, set out in the traditional order. Fry gives a short introduction to each of the five books of short stories and individually to each of the long ones. The collection runs to over seventy hours, so needless to say I haven’t listened to it all yet, but will have great fun dipping in and out of it over the coming months and years.

In the intro to this one, Fry puts the book into its historical context, telling the story of the Molly Maguires, a secret society active among the immigrant Irish coalminers in Pennsylvania during the 1870s; and of the Pinkerton agent who infiltrated them, ultimately leading to their destruction. He points out how soon after the Civil War this was, and that the bosses of the Pennsylvania mines were effectively their own law and could hire people of their own choosing to enforce it. He also tells the other side of the story – the appalling working conditions and extreme poverty of the workers. He manages all this without giving any spoilers for the story to come. An excellent introduction – brief, but interesting, clear and informative.

Stephen Fry

His narration of the story itself is great! He had to compete with my favourite Holmes narrator, the wonderful Derek Jacobi, so he was going to have to work hard to convince me. And I found myself laughing sympathetically because ACD didn’t make his task an easy one. Almost every character has his accent described, usually something like “half-English, half-American” or “Chicago with a hint of Irish” or “German overlaid with the twang of the new country”. And then there are the characters who are not who they first seem, so that when their true identity is revealed, they change to their real accents. I must say Fry did brilliantly with all of them and, despite there being a pretty huge cast in this story, he managed to differentiate them all quite clearly. There are two characters with straight Irish accents, so to make them different, he made one sound Northern Irish and the other Southern, both done totally convincingly. Even Inspector MacDonald’s Aberdonian accent got a high pass mark from me. He brings out the humour and the warmth of Watson’s character, and makes the adventure parts suitably exciting without over-dramatising them. I always think you can tell when a narrator loves the material he’s reading, and Fry’s strong affection for the Holmes’ stories comes through clearly.

My love for the Jacobi recordings remains, but these are just as excellent, and the little introductions are a great addition, making this a fabulous collection which I highly recommend to all Holmes fans out there.

NB The audiobook was provided for review by Audible via MidasPR. Lucky me!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Book 9 of 90

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….As the column approached the Narva Gates it was suddenly charged by a squadron of cavalry. Some of the marchers scattered but others continued to advance towards the lines of infantry, whose rifles were pointing directly at them. Two warning salvoes were fired into the air, and then at close range a third volley was aimed at the unarmed crowd. People screamed and fell to the ground but the soldiers, now panicking themselves, continued to fire steadily into the mass of people. Forty people were killed and hundreds wounded as they tried to flee. [Father] Gapon was knocked down in the rush. But he got up and, staring in disbelief at the carnage around him, was heard to say over and over again: ‘There is no God any longer. There is no Tsar.’

* * * * * * * * *

….At grey of night, when the sun was gone, and no red in the west remained, neither were stars forthcoming, suddenly a wailing voice rose along the valleys, and a sound in the air, as of people running. It mattered not whether you stood on the moor, or crouched behind rocks away from it, or down among reedy places; all as one the sound would come, now from the heart of the earth beneath, now overhead bearing down on you. And then there was rushing of something by, and melancholy laughter, and the hair of a man would stand on end before he could reason properly.
….God, in His mercy, knows that I am stupid enough for any man, and very slow of impression, nor ever could bring myself to believe that our Father would let the evil one get the upper hand of us. But when I had heard that sound three times, in the lonely gloom of the evening fog, and the cold that followed the lines of air, I was loath to go abroad by night, even so far as the stables, and loved the light of a candle more, and the glow of a fire with company.

* * * * * * * * *

From The Valley of Fear:

….And now, my long-suffering readers, I will ask you to come away with me for a time, far from the Sussex Manor House of Birlstone, and far also from the year of grace in which we made our eventful journey which ended with the strange story of the man who had been known as John Douglas. I wish you to journey back some twenty years in time, and westward some thousands of miles in space, that I may lay before you a singular and terrible narrative – so singular and so terrible that you may find it hard to believe that even as I tell it, even so did it occur.
….Do not think that I intrude one story before another is finished. As you read on you will find that this is not so. And when I have detailed those distant events and you have solved this mystery of the past, we shall meet once more in those rooms on Baker Street, where this, like so many other wonderful happenings, will find its end.

* * * * * * * * *

….They were rich, they were ready, they were ravenous for bear. Nine days into their fourteen-day voyage on the Vanir, the most expensive cruise ship in the Arctic, the passengers’ initial excitement had turned to patience, then frustration, and now, a creeping sense of defeat. As sophisticated travellers they knew money didn’t guarantee polar bear sightings – but they still believed in the natural law that wealth meant entitlement. Ursus maritimus sightings very much included.

* * * * * * * * *

From the Archives…

….What did it mean, sitting in that motel parking lot, waiting to see? What did it mean to know she’d been there, maybe just minutes before, she’d been there, so close you could maybe still feel her, hear the squeak of her tennis shoes on the doormat, smell her baby-soft hair. They’d been there, been there behind one of those clotty red doors, and done such things…and now gone. And now gone.

(Click for full review.)

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

Bookish selfie…

A snapshot of my reading week in quotes…

….Day after day. Always on the move. My boot heels quite worn away. Wolfmouth only left me alone when I came home at night. Even then he followed me through the hallways, tap dancing up the stairs. He followed me, he follows me. Step scuff smack step, step scuff smack step. Echoing in the stairwell at the end of another long day.
….– The kooks, there are more of them all the time.
….– That’s right, Mrs. Waxman.
….Carrying my groceries past her door. The stink of her cats.
….I hole up, lock the door, fix the chain. Step scuff smack step, shuffling in the hallway. Then, at last, silence. I am not sure if he goes away.

* * * * * * * * *

….As for their commitment to ‘the people’, it was essentially abstract. They loved Man but were not so sure of individual men. M.V. Petrashevsky, the utopian theorist, summed it up when he proclaimed: ‘unable to find anything either in women or in men worthy of my adherence, I have turned to devote myself to the service of humanity’. In this idealized abstraction of ‘the people’ there was not a little of that snobbish contempt which aristocrats are inclined to nurture for the habits of the common man. How else can one explain the authoritarian attitudes of such revolutionaries as Bakunin, Speshnev, Tkachev, Plekhanov and Lenin, if not by their noble origins? It was as if they saw the people as agents of their abstract doctrines rather than as suffering individuals with their own complex need and ideals. Ironically, the interests of ‘the cause’ sometimes meant that the people’s conditions had to deteriorate even further, to bring about the final cataclysm. ‘The worse, the better,’ as Chernyshevsky often said (meaning the worse things became, the better it was for the revolution).

* * * * * * * * *

….Before I realised it, I was crying. People might think I’m homesick, I thought, a hick lugging a huge bag around, sitting there blubbering. Embarrassed, I wiped away the tears, glancing nervously around me, but not a single person was looking at me.
….Right then it struck me: Tokyo was a more wonderful place than I’d ever imagined.
….I didn’t come to Tokyo for the upscale shopping or all the great places to have fun at. What I wanted was to melt into the crowds of people who didn’t know about my past, and vanish.
….More precisely, because I’d witnessed a murder, and the person who committed it had not been caught, what I wanted more than anything was to disappear from his radar forever.

* * * * * * * * *

….For in those days I had a firm belief, as many other strong boys have, of being born for a seaman. And indeed I had been in a boat nearly twice; but the second time mother found it out, and came and drew me back again; and after that she cried so badly, that I was forced to give my word to her to go no more without telling her.
….But Betty Muxworthy spoke her mind quite in a different way about it, the while she was wringing my hosen, and clattering to the drying horse.
….“Zailor, ees fai! ay and zarve un right. Her can’t kape out o’ the watter here, whur a’ must goo vor to vaind un, zame as a gurt to-ad squalloping, and mux up till I be wore out, I be, wi’ the very saight of ‘s braiches. How wil un ever baide aboard zhip, wi’ the watter zinging out under un, and comin’ up splash when the wind blow. Latt un goo, missus, latt un goo, zay I for wan, and old Davy wash his clouts for un.”

* * * * * * * * *

From The Valley of Fear:

….“You have heard me speak of Professor Moriarty?”
….“The famous scientific criminal, as famous among crooks as…”
….“My blushes, Watson!” Holmes murmured in a deprecating voice.
….“I was about to say, as he is unknown to the public.”
….“A touch! A distinct touch!” cried Holmes. “You are developing a certain unexpected vein of pawky humour, Watson, against which I must learn to guard myself. But in calling Moriarty a criminal you are uttering libel in the eyes of the law – and there lie the glory and the wonder of it! The greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld, a brain which might have made or marred the destiny of nations – that’s the man! But so aloof is he from general suspicion, so immune from criticism, so admirable in his management and self-effacement, that for those very words that you have uttered he could hale you to a court and emerge with your year’s pension as a solatium for his wounded character.”

* * * * * * * * *

So…are you tempted?

PS If anyone knows what “zame as a gurt to-ad squalloping” means, do tell!

TBR Thursday 114…

Episode 114…

Hurrah! The TBR has plummeted massively this week- down 2 to 196!! This is a result of my legendary iron self-control – I don’t know why you ever doubted me! And furthermore, I’ve reached the last third of Trotsky! I’ll miss the old codger, you know – he’s quite funny… sometimes even intentionally…

Here are some I should get to soon…

Fiction

First up, the winner of the Classics Club spin is Lorna Doone, so somehow I need to fit it in, in time to review it by the 1st May. *gulp* Of course, it’s one of the longer ones on my list…

The Blurb says: First published in 1869, Lorna Doone  is the story of John Ridd, a farmer who finds love amid the religious and social turmoil of seventeenth-century England. He is just a boy when his father is slain by the Doones, a lawless clan inhabiting wild Exmoor on the border of Somerset and Devon. Seized by curiosity and a sense of adventure, he makes his way to the valley of the Doones, where he is discovered by the beautiful Lorna. In time their childish fantasies blossom into mature love—a bond that will inspire John to rescue his beloved from the ravages of a stormy winter, rekindling a conflict with his archrival, Carver Doone, that climaxes in heartrending violence. Beloved for its portrait of star-crossed lovers and its surpassing descriptions of the English countryside, Lorna Doone is R. D. Blackmore’s enduring masterpiece.

Factual

thomas-more-john-guyCourtesy of NetGalley. I’m not sure what appealed to me most about this – the words “John  Guy”, my favourite Tudor historian, or the words “Very Brief” in the subtitle, most welcome as a little palate cleanser between the tomes of Russian history I’m continuing to accumulate!

The Blurb says: ‘If the English people were to be set a test to justify their history and civilization by the example of one man, then it is Sir Thomas More whom they would perhaps choose.’ So commented The Times in 1978 on the 500th anniversary of More’s birth. Twenty-two years later, Pope John Paul II proclaimed Thomas More the patron saint of politicians and people in public life, on the basis of his ‘constant fidelity to legitimate authority and . . . his intention to serve not power but the supreme ideal of justice’.

In this fresh assessment of More’s life and legacy, John Guy considers the factors that have given rise to such claims concerning More’s significance. Who was the real Thomas More? Was he the saintly, self-possessed hero of conscience of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons or was he the fanatical, heretic-hunting torturer of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall? Which of these images of More has the greater historical veracity? And why does this man continue to fascinate, inspire and provoke us today?

* * * * *

Crime

scarweatherCourtesy of NetGalley again. My addiction to these British Library Crime Classics re-issues continues unabated. Doesn’t Dorothy L Sayers sound like a total stuck-up book snob in this quote? And yet, oddly, she also sounds just like me… 😉

The Blurb says:  John Farringdale, with his cousin Eric Foster, visits the famous archaeologist Tolgen Reisby. At Scarweather – Reisby’s lonely house on the windswept northern coast of England – Eric is quickly attracted to Reisby’s much younger wife, and matters soon take a dangerous turn. Fifteen years later, the final scene of the drama is enacted. This unorthodox novel from 1934 is by a gifted crime writer who, wrote Dorothy L. Sayers, ‘handles his characters like a “real” novelist and the English language like a “real” writer – merits which are still, unhappily, rarer than they should be in the ranks of the murder specialists.’

* * * * *

Sherlock Holmes on Audio

sherlock-holmes-stephen-fryWOW!! Courtesy of Audible via MidasPR. Stephen Fry narrating the complete Sherlock Holmes stories, including the long ones? How could I possibly resist that?? Over 70 hours of listening pleasure to dip in and out of. I shall start with The Valley of Fear, I think, since it’s also on my Classics Club list. Stephen Fry is up against Derek Jacobi though – until now my favourite Holmes narrator. Will Jacobi be knocked off the top spot??

The Blurb says: “…it was reading the Sherlock Holmes stories as a boy that first turned me on to the power of writing and storytelling.” (Stephen Fry)

Ever since he made his first appearance in A Study In Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes has enthralled and delighted millions of fans throughout the world. Now Audible is proud to present Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection, read by Stephen Fry. A lifelong fan of Doyle’s detective fiction, Fry has narrated the complete works of Sherlock Holmes – four novels and five collections of short stories. And, exclusively for Audible, Stephen has written and narrated nine insightful, intimate and deeply personal introductions to each title.

He writes: “Popular fiction offers different kinds of superheroes to save the world by restoring order to the chaos, confusion and criminality of our times. Heroes with remarkable gifts are as in vogue now as they have been since they first appeared, perhaps even more in vogue. But although the very first one was launched in serial published form just like his masked and body-suited successors, it was not in DC or Marvel comic books that he made his appearance; rather it was in the sedate and respectable pages of Mrs Beeton’s Christmas Annual in the mid-Victorian year 1887.”

Stephen Fry is an English actor, screenwriter, author, playwright, journalist, comedian, television presenter, film director and all round national treasure. He is the acclaimed narrator of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter audiobooks and most recently recorded The Tales of Max Carrados for Audible Studios. Stephen has contributed columns and articles to newspapers and magazines, appears frequently on radio and has written four novels and three volumes of autobiography.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

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

* * * * *

Tuesday ’Tec! A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Love, cruelty, murder and revenge…

.

a study in scarlet 3

 

The first story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published, A Study in Scarlet introduces us to his two most famous creations, Sherlock Holmes and Dr John H Watson. So it’s a must for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

 

A Study in Scarlet

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Returning to London after being wounded in the war in Afghanistan, Watson soon finds that living in hotels is stretching his army pension to breaking point, so when he hears through a friend of a man who is looking for someone to share a set of rooms, he jumps at the chance. Holmes has some rather strange habits, like beating corpses with sticks to see if they bruise, for example, but otherwise he seems like a decent enough fellow. Watson notices that he has a steady stream of rather odd callers – everyone from police inspectors to pedlars. Out of politeness, Watson doesn’t ask what his new friend’s line of business is, though he wonders. One day, Watson reads an article that Holmes has marked in the newspaper – an article on the Science of Deduction and Analysis in which the writer claims that it is possible to tell a man’s profession from observation alone…

By a man’s finger nails, by his coat-sleeve, by his boot, by his trouser knees, by the callosities of his forefinger and thumb, by his expression, by his shirt cuffs – by each of these things a man’s calling is plainly revealed. That all united should fail to enlighten the competent enquirer in any case is almost inconceivable.

Watson scoffs at the article, with one of those turns of phrase that delight all of us who love him – “What ineffable twaddle!” he cries, only to be stunned when Holmes reveals himself as the author. But he’s even more stunned when a few minutes later Holmes proves that he can indeed tell the occupation of a man who arrives to deliver a message, from Inspector Gregson of Scotland Yard. Now Watson learns that Holmes works as a “consulting detective” and Gregson wants his help with a strange and brutal case of murder. A man has been found dead in an empty house, in a blood-bespattered room, although there is no wound on his body. Holmes and Watson arrive at the scene, and Watson is shocked by what he sees…

On his rigid face there stood an expression of horror, and as it seemed to me, of hatred, such as I have never seen upon human features… I have seen death in many forms, but never has it appeared to me in a more fearsome aspect than in that dark, grimy apartment, which looked out upon one of the main arteries of suburban London.

a study in scarlet 5

And so, the game’s afoot…

* * * * * * *

Like all of the long stories other than The Hound of the Baskervilles, this one is divided into two parts – Holmes’ investigation of the crime narrated by Watson, and a section giving the background to the crime, told in this case in the third-person. The motive for this crime originated in the newly-founded Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City in the 1850s, and the Mormons are portrayed in a distinctly unattractive light, especially on the questions of polygamy and violent coercion of anyone who strayed from the rules of the religion; so over the years the book has apparently been considered offensive in some quarters. The history of the Mormons is a subject about which I know nothing, so can’t make any judgements on the accuracy or otherwise of Conan Doyle’s depiction of them (though wikipedia tells me Conan Doyle himself admitted to a degree of exaggeration). But I can make judgements on the book’s enjoyability as a rollicking good story, and it passes with flying colours! Love, cruelty, murder and revenge – perfect!

There’s something about Conan Doyle’s writing that makes it perfect for the adventure yarn and if I could describe it accurately then everyone would be able to do it (and there wouldn’t be so many bad Holmes’ pastiches in the world). His language isn’t particularly poetic, but there’s an elegance in it and a strength, a lovely use of vocabulary, and a naturalness – it gives a sense of someone telling a story aloud around a fire on a dark night, as of course his stories often would have been. He has the ability to bring any scene to vivid life, whether it’s a blood-soaked room of horror, or the arid desert landscape crossed by the Mormons on the way to their new home…

Looking down from the Sierra Blanco, one sees a pathway traced out across the desert, which winds away and is lost in the extreme distance. It is rutted with wheels and trodden down by the feet of many adventurers. Here and there are scattered white objects that glisten in the sun, and stand out against the dull deposit of alkali. Approach, and examine them! They are bones: some large and coarse, others smaller and more delicate. The former have belonged to oxen, and the latter to men.

The Mormon Trek to Utah
The Mormon Trek to Utah

In this first Holmes story Conan Doyle establishes his two characters, and it’s surprising how little they change really over time. Watson’s character as the loyal friend and brave lieutenant to his brilliant colleague is exactly as he remains throughout the series. There are some things that don’t quite gel with the later Holmes – the idea that he reads detective fiction, for example, and his own description of himself as lazy, with almost Mycroftian tendencies to let the investigation come to him. But these are minor, and the passage about detective fiction is there to allow Conan Doyle to tip his hat to Poe’s Dupin – though with his usual modesty Holmes doesn’t think much of his predecessor…

“Now, in my opinion, Dupin was a very inferior fellow. That trick of his of breaking in on his friends’ thoughts with an apropos remark after a quarter of an hour’s silence is really very showy and superficial.”

Ah, my dear Holmes! Those of us who have read all your adventures avidly again and again can’t help remembering that this is a trick you will play on poor Watson yourself in the future… but much more entertainingly than Dupin ever did!

Basil_rathbone_nigel_bruce

A great story from a master storyteller, with added interest in seeing how the Holmes phenomenon began. One to read again and again and…

 

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Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Book 15
Book 15

Sherlock Holmes: The Dark Mysteries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

sherlock holmes the dark mysteriesVampires, hounds and lunatics…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This pocket-sized little book is published by the Collector’s Library and contains some of the darkest of the Holmes stories. There is an interesting introduction by David Stuart Davies, himself a writer of crime and ghost stories, and an authority on Holmes. Apparently he has also written six Holmes novels himself. He reminds us of Conan Doyle’s interest in things not of this world as a great advocate of Spiritualism, and has selected stories that show Conan Doyle’s flair for going close to the edge of the supernatural, though in the Holmes stories the solution is always ultimately based in the rational world.

The book kicks off with the long story, The Hound of the Baskervilles, probably the most popular of all the Holmes tales. This is Conan Doyle’s writing at its finest, a thrilling tale with a dramatic setting amidst the mists and mires of Dartmoor, and a terrifying climax as Holmes and Watson finally face the hound that has been the curse of the Baskerville family for generations.

Hound drawing

Then there are seven of the short stories, all either with an element of the supernatural or with particularly dark and brutal storylines:

The Sussex Vampire – when a woman is found apparently sucking blood from her own baby and will give no explanation, her frantic husband applies to Holmes for help. What Holmes discovers reveals a very human darkness at the heart of this family, perhaps more frightening than had the woman truly been a vampire.

The Creeping Man – An elderly man who has fallen in love with a young woman starts exhibiting strange and frightening behaviour and seems to have acquired almost superhuman strength and agility. I must admit this is probably my least favourite of all the Holmes stories because it’s so far-fetched. That’s because the scientific explanation seems so ridiculous. However Davies points out that there were experiments of this nature going on in real life at the time, so the story probably seemed much more credible to contemporary readers.

The Veiled Lodger – there’s no detection in this one, as Holmes is simply the recipient of the secret behind the tragedy that befell the lodger of the title. Mrs Ronder and her husband were circus folk, lion-tamers… until it all went horribly and gruesomely wrong. Betrayal, brutality and cowardice are at the heart of this story – and it’s one example of Conan Doyle’s tendency to have Holmes leave punishment of wickedness to a higher power.

veiled lodger

The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place – a Gothic tale of crypts and corpses, greed and deception, this has definite elements of the horror story about it. The credibility might be a bit over-stretched but Conan Doyle’s writing just about carries it off.

The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax – Lady Frances Carfax is alone and friendless, a perfect victim for any unscrupulous conman who wants to get hold of her property. Definitely a horror story this one, with a burial scene of Poe-like terror. And a very nice bit of detection too.

The Devil’s Foot – one evening, a man leaves his two brothers and his sister happily playing cards together. The next morning, the two men are stark, raving mad and the woman is dead, with a look of utter terror etched on her face. When I first read Holmes at around the age of ten, this story frightened the bejabers out of me, and I still find it the most truly horrifying of them all. The image of those grinning mad men being carted off to the asylum lives in my nightmares, and the scene where Holmes and Watson come close to losing their own senses is both scary and moving, as one of the rare occasions when Holmes reveals his deep affection for loyal old Watson.

The_Adventure_of_the_Devil's_Foot_03

The Cardboard Box – the last story in the book is another that planted itself firmly in my mind from first reading and refused to go away. A woman receives a box in the mail and when she opens it, she finds it contains two freshly cut human ears – but not from the same body! Betrayal and brutality again, combined with the demon drink, are the cause of this horror. But, just as a little piece of advice, if you ever want to send body parts through the post, make sure you have the right address…

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The book itself is rather gorgeous. It’s only just over 4” by 6” so the pages are tiny, which explains why there are over 450 of them. The font is pretty small too, but very clear, and some of the original illustrations are included. Beneath the rather lovely sleeve, the cover itself is of dark red cloth with the title on the spine in gilt, and is beautifully tactile. With the finishing touches of gilt edged pages and a red ribbon bookmark, this would make a perfect gift, especially for someone just being introduced to the Holmes stories. Though even although I know the stories so well and have at least three copies of the full adventures, I still found this a little delight and enjoyed reading the stories grouped in this way. A most pleasing little volume.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collector’s Library.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday ’Tec! The Adventure of the Dancing Men

Cracking the code…

 

Since spring is almost upon us (that falls decidedly into the category of wishful thinking…), the fretful porpentine has gone into hibernation for a while to recover from the horrors of the winter. So, as well as the approaching return of Transwarp Tuesday!, it’s time for a new series. Don your deerstalker, take a swig from the bottle of hooch in your desk drawer, polish off your little grey cells, and join me for the first…

Tuesday Tec

The Adventure of the Dancing Men

by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes is busily showing off his deductive powers to Watson when they are interrupted by the arrival of a new client, Mr Hilton Cubitt. He tells them that there have been strange doings afoot at his manor house in Norfolk – mysterious pictures of dancing matchstick men have been appearing, first in letters sent to his wife, and now scrawled on doors and buildings around the grounds. Mr Cubitt is a good, old-fashioned Englishman, who would never be discombobulated by such childishness. But his wife Elsie is plainly terrified. She is American, and on the day before their marriage following a whirlwind romance, she extracted a promise from Mr Cubitt that he would never question her about her past. So our upright friend has come to Holmes for help to solve the mystery of the dancing men…

Dancing Men 1

Holmes bent over this grotesque frieze for some minutes, and then suddenly sprang to his feet with an exclamation of surprise and dismay. His face was haggard with anxiety.

The Dancing Men (1984)

This may well be the story that really inspired my love of crime fiction, and quite probably influenced me to prefer clues and mysteries to mavericks and gore. It’s one of the many stories in which Holmes actually fails pretty dismally and I fear I can’t let him off the hook very easily – had he sent a telegram when he discovered the truth, all may have been well. However, the story would have been considerably duller and Conan Doyle never made the error of saving an innocent victim or two at the expense of telling an exciting yarn. Holmes, having failed to prevent the crime, sets himself grimly to solve the mystery and get vengeance for his client – a common feature of the stories. For Conan Doyle, it is always more important that the villain should get his just desserts, whether at human or divine hand, than that the crime should be prevented.

“I guess the very best case I can make for myself is the absolute naked truth.”

“It is my duty to warn you that it will be used against you,” cried the inspector, with the magnificent fair play of the British criminal law.

 

Sherlock Holmes The Dancing Men 2

I love pretty much all of the Holmes stories. They were variable, especially in terms of plotting, but Conan Doyle was such a master storyteller that he could make even the flimsiest plot enjoyable. In this one, the plot is good, but the main emphasis is less on the story or on finding clues than on the breaking of the code and, for me, that’s what makes it such a joy. Watson plays completely fair – we get all the messages at the same time as Holmes does, and the solution makes complete sense. So the reader can either read the story straight through, or do what I did (when I was about 11) and spend hours trying to break the code before reading the solution, Sadly, I now know the story too well to repeat that bit of fun, but there was a time when I was actually able to use the code to write my own secret messages!

So once you’ve read the story (click here) and memorised the code here’s a little bonus message just for you.

Elementary, my dear Watson!

Sherlock Holmes The Dancing Men 3

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It's a Poirot!
It’s a Poirot!

* * * * *

(NB The Little Grey Cells rating will measure the mystery element of a story. To get 5 cells and thus become a Poirot, the story must have a proper mystery and clues, and a solution that it’s possible for the reader to get to before the detective.)