The Belting Inheritance by Julian Symons

The prodigal son…

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When Christopher Barrington is orphaned at the age of twelve, he is taken in by his mother’s rich aunt, Lady Wainwright, and becomes a member of the family at Belting, their country house. His mother had been estranged from her family so Christopher hadn’t met either Lady Wainwright, or her two surviving sons, Miles and Stephen, before. She had had two other sons, too, David and Hugh, both of whom had been killed in the war. As with many families who lost sons to the war, the dead boys have been put on a pedestal, while the living ones constantly suffer from comparison. In this case, though, it seems as if Hugh and David may have been their mother’s favourites even before they died. Time passes, and by the time Christopher is almost grown up, Lady Wainwright’s health is failing and she isn’t expected to live much longer. And then a letter comes out of the blue, purporting to be from David. He claims to have been held as a war prisoner for many years, and has since been trying to recover in Paris. Lady Wainwright is thrilled and ready to welcome him home, but Miles and Stephen are convinced he’s an impostor, after their inheritance. Christopher, our narrator, tries to discover the truth…

This book was first published in 1965, though set some years earlier in the ‘50s, and reads much more like the novels of the likes of Ruth Rendell or PD James than the earlier Golden Age novels. While there is a central mystery and clues for the reader to spot, it’s much more based on character studies of the various family members and of Christopher himself, and gives a great and, to me, entirely believable picture of the last throes of this type of minor aristocracy, quietly decaying into the middle-classes. It’s a slower read than some of the earlier mystery novels because it takes time to let us get to know the family before it reaches the point where the story really kicks off.

There’s also a coming-of-age aspect to it, as Christopher begins to be treated more as an adult by the family at Belting and, in turn, starts to look at them with the more critical eye of maturity. It’s told by him as an adult looking back, so he has the benefit of greater insight into himself and the people he meets than he might have had at the time. Although he’s been with the Wainwrights for six years when the story proper begins, he’s spent much of that time at boarding school, so he has something of the objectivity of the outside observer. He’s very convincing for a boy of that age and class, I felt – well educated and with the confidence that social status and money bring, but with a kind of insecurity in his dealings with girls and women, as is not unnatural for a boy with no sisters or mother who has spent his teen years in an all boys school. It’s only when he begins to talk to people outside the family to try to find out more about the mysterious David that he finds to his surprise that not everyone respects old Lady Wainwright nor is impressed by his own standing as a member of the family. It isn’t laboured, but it’s an interesting insight into the growing egalitarianism of the time, as the uppity proles began to think maybe they were just as good as the privileged blue-bloods after all.

Julian Symons

Looking at reviews on Goodreads, I’ve been surprised to see that this is getting pretty average ratings. I thought it was an excellent novel, very well written and insightful. It reminded me a good deal of Gordon Macrae Burnet’s The Accident on the A35, in that, while both are undoubtedly crime novels, I feel both are also literary fiction, with our old friend “the human condition” taking precedence over the mystery aspect. Both have an excellent sense of place, and of class and social status within small spheres of society. I think it may be suffering from expectations – as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, I think some people have been disappointed by it not being a traditional whodunit. But the more I read of these books, the more I realise that the best of them were far more than that, often with much to say about the time and society in which they were set. And, for me, this is one of the best of them. Having now been highly impressed by both the Julian Symons’ novels I’ve read, I’m baffled as to why he’s fallen into relative obscurity and hope the reissue of these books will find him a new generation of admirers, of whom I’m certainly one. Highly recommended.

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

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TBR Thursday 185…

Episode 185

The TBR has been up and down over the last couple of weeks – loads of books in, loads read, leaving the final count up just 1 at 226. It’s felt a bit like a game of snakes and ladders…

 

I wish I could do that! Anyway, here are a few more that should slither my way soon…

Natural Science

Courtesy of Atlantic Monthly Press via NetGalley. I read a previous book of Tim Flannery’s on climate change and was impressed by his obvious expertise and arguments more than his style, which seemed a bit didactic and overbearing. But I suspect that was because he was so outraged at the lack of world action, so I’m hoping he’ll be approaching this less contentious subject a bit more calmly. It’s already in the running for the prize for longest blurb of the year, and it’s only January…

The Blurb says: In Europe: A Natural History, world-renowned scientist, explorer, and conservationist Tim Flannery applies the eloquent interdisciplinary approach he used in his ecological histories of Australia and North America to the story of Europe. He begins 100 million years ago, when the continents of Asia, North America, and Africa interacted to create an island archipelago that would later become the Europe we know today. It was on these ancient tropical lands that the first distinctly European organisms evolved. Flannery teaches us about Europe’s midwife toad, which has endured since the continent’s beginning, while elephants, crocodiles, and giant sharks have come and gone. He explores the monumental changes wrought by the devastating comet strike and shows how rapid atmospheric shifts transformed the European archipelago into a single landmass during the Eocene.

As the story moves through millions of years of evolutionary history, Flannery eventually turns to our own species, describing the immense impact humans had on the continent’s flora and fauna–within 30,000 years of our arrival in Europe, the woolly rhino, the cave bear, and the giant elk, among others, would disappear completely. The story continues right up to the present, as Flannery describes Europe’s leading role in wildlife restoration, and then looks ahead to ponder the continent’s future: with advancements in gene editing technology, European scientists are working to recreate some of the continent’s lost creatures, such as the great ox of Europe’s primeval forests and even the woolly mammoth.

Written with Flannery’s characteristic combination of elegant prose and scientific expertise, Europe: A Natural History narrates the dramatic natural history and dynamic evolution of one of the most influential places on Earth.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. I’ve nearly caught up with my backlog of vintage crime review books now – just another couple to go (unless the postman has other ideas). I read another of Julian Symons’ books, The Colour of Murder, just before Christmas – review to follow – and enjoyed it, so am looking forward to this one. And it’s in the running for shortest blurb!

The Blurb says: When a stranger arrives at Belting, he is met with a very mixed reception by the occupants of the old house. Claiming his so-called “rightful inheritance,” the stranger makes plans to take up residence at once. Such a thing was bound to cause problems in the family—but why were so many of them turning up dead?

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True Crime

Courtesy of Random House Vintage via NetGalley. I have had this since July 2017 but it kept sliding down the TBR as I got distracted by new shiny things. I was originally tempted towards it when fellow blogger Marina Sofia revealed that she had lived in the same neighbourhood as the killer, though fortunately at a later date. It’s in the running for least informative blurb of the year…

The Blurb says: On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting…”

With these chilling first words, acclaimed master of psychological suspense Emmanuel Carrère begins his exploration of the double life of a respectable doctor, 18 years of lies, five murders and the extremes to which ordinary people can go.

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Classics

This one fits into two of my challenges, the Classics Club and the Five Times Five. I’m always slightly ambivalent about Steinbeck – his prose can be sublime but I find he veers towards bathos in his attempt to manipulate his readers’ emotions. I’m hoping this one might avoid that pitfall. It’s in the running for most intriguing blurb…

The Blurb says: A Depression era portrait of people living in an area near a sardine fishery in Monterey, CA known as Cannery Row.

From the opening of the novel: “Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers and sons of bitches,’ by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.”

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

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