Monthly Archives: March 2021

Family & Friends by Anita Brookner

Central to this novel – Brookner’s fifth – are the Dorns, a wealthy Jewish family living in London during the first half of the 20th century. It’s a quiet, character-driven book, rather European in style – an approach that reflects the family’s origins and mitteleuropean traditions. It also represents something a break from Brookner’s previous novels, each of which featured a lonely unmarried woman at its heart. A widening of scope, so to speak, building on some of the supporting themes from the earlier Providence.

Head of the family is Sofka, a stately matriarch beholden to traditional rituals, a practice typified by her celebrated marzipan cake, usually served with coffee on a Sunday afternoon. Sofka’s husband is no longer alive – a flirtatious man who engaged in various dalliances (and possibly some excessive gambling) prior to his early death several years before.

Frederick is the eldest of Sofka’s children – a natural boulevardier who prefers the captivating company of women to the dull environment of business. It’s a temperament that his mother encourages, reminiscent as it is of her late husband’s salacious charm. At sixteen, young Alfred is already destined to spend the best part of his life managing the family firm; his serious, bookish nature marking him out as the dutiful one, despite any other, more personal aspirations he may be harbouring. Aiding Alfred in this respect is Lautner, the faithful right-hand-man and longstanding employee at the factory; his knowledge and experience prove indispensable at first, although Alfred soon supersedes him in standing.

Completing the family are Sofka’s daughters, Mimi and Betty, who couldn’t be more different from one another if they tried. At seventeen, Mimi is the prettier of the two girls, but she is also the more passive in temperament, favouring the piano over more sociable pursuits. Betty, on the other hand, has her sights set on Paris, preferably as a dancer in the Folies Bergère, a role where she can put her high-spirited, flirtatious nature to evident good use.

I find it entirely appropriate and indeed characteristic that Sofka should have named her sons after kings and emperors and her daughters as if they were characters in a musical comedy. Thus were their roles designated for them. The boys were to conquer, and the girls to flirt. (p. 10)

Brookner uses quite an interesting framing device to help present her narrative, bookending the novel with a pair of wedding photographs, separated by a period of some 30 to 40 years. The opening picture captures a moment in time, possibly in the mid-1920s, showing Sofka, the Dorn children plus various family and friends. An unnamed narrator casts their eye over this initial photograph, pausing to speculate whether any signs of the children’s destinies were detectable at this point – particularly to Sofka. As the remainder of the novel unfolds, we gain insights into the Dorns’ lives, their hopes and dreams, their frustrations and disappointments, all captured in Brookner’s supremely elegant prose.

One aspect that seems to be of interest to Brookner is the question of familial duty vs personal fulfilment. Who will fare better in life? Will it be Frederick, the rather flamboyant womaniser, or Alfred, the family’s dutiful provider? Betty, the outgoing, incorrigible flirt, or Mimi, the accepting, mild-mannered companion? In certain respects, Alfred and Mimi form a natural pair – both remain relatively close to Sofka, both are accepting of compromises in their lives, in the early years at least.

There are similarities too between Frederick and Betty – both are naturally flamboyant and adventurous, characteristics that contribute to their departure from the nest. When Betty is packed off to a Swiss finishing school, she gives Frederick the slip, choosing to remain in Paris to pursue her artistic dream. In short, Betty has arranged to run away with Frank Cariani, a handsome young dancer whom the girls know from London through the piano lessons his father gives to Mimi. When Betty’s disappearance comes to light, Mimi and Alfred – the sensible ones – are swiftly dispatched to Paris to rescue their sister from her foolish adventure. Nevertheless, it is Mimi whom Frank truly prefers – a belief that Mimi clings to as she waits in her hotel room at night, hoping that he will come to claim her in favour of Betty.

Hastily she [Mimi] removes her dress and pulls down her hair; then, in her plain white nightgown, she resumes her seat by the window. Since she can now see nothing she listens all the more intently. She hears the occasional motor car; she hears footsteps in the corridor and the diminishing sound of voices. She seems to hear a clangourous bell, although there are no churches in this district and the bell is probably in her head. The intense darkness envelops her, envelops also her inviolate dream. At some time in that interminable night she lies down on her bed; on her face the smile is tinged with intimations of the most absolute horror. (p. 71)

It’s a quietly devastating scene, one of the most affecting in the book, as the reader realises its significance in shaping Mimi’s destiny. 

Frederick’s escape comes about as the result of his marriage – an event that yields another wedding photograph to add to the family album. The girl in question is Evie, a natural yet unconventional girl whom Sofka finds rather noisy, especially at first.

Who is this person whom Frederik has bought home for coffee and for marzipan cake? She is certainly not a lady and is rather too old to be a girl: Sofka is almost forced to think of her as a woman. Where did he find her? At what party, in what clubhouse on what golf-course or tennis-court did he manage to acquire this all-round, outdoor, noisy, cheery, healthy-looking, loud-voiced, incessantly laughing, large-boned, carelessly dressed person whose name is Eva and who instantly says, ‘Call me Evie’? Why should Sofka call her Evie, even if the woman has unconsciously conformed to Sofka’s family tradition? Why should she call her anything, thinks Sofka… (p. 72)

Nevertheless, Sofka soon warms to her future daughter-in-law, recognising the suitability of the match for Frederick as the wedding arrangements get underway. Following their marriage, the couple depart for the Italian Riviera, where Frederick is to act as General Manager for one of Evie’s father’s hotels – a natural fit for the happy couple as they settle down to their married life.

Of the four siblings in the novel, Mimi is perhaps the one who undergoes the most interesting transformation, her character developing in the most serendipitous of ways. It would be unfair of me to reveal any more about this, other than to say that Mimi ultimately finds a way to shed some of the more self-effacing aspects of her personality, much to her brother Alfred’s disgust.   

While Family & Friends isn’t my favourite Brookner, there’s certainly more than enough for her fans to enjoy here. The prose is elegant, evocative and precise, very much in the style of this author’s other work. Brookner’s characters are always so well-drawn and fully fleshed-out, and yet I didn’t always feel a strong connection with them here. This might be a function of the use of the unnamed narrator, whose relationship to the family we never discover. Nevertheless, this is a highly accomplished book, an exquisitely-painted family saga that shows how our character traits and personalities can shape our ultimate destinies.  

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

I have long been an admirer of Powell and Pressburger’s film, Black Narcissus, with its sumptuous, vivid colours and moments of heightened drama. The movie, which came out in 1947, was adapted from Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel of the same name (an instant bestseller in its day, it remains Godden’s best-known work). It’s a glorious book, an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and – perhaps most significantly of all – repressed female desire.

As the novel opens, a small group of Anglican nuns are setting out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains – a place steeped in beauty and mystery. Sister Clodagh – newly appointed as the youngest Sister Superior in her Order – will lead the mission, to go forward where others have failed. (A group of Jesuit Brothers has recently returned from the mountains, having abandoned their plans for a school in the very same location.)

Accompanying Sister Clodagh in her quest are four other sisters, each with their own potential role in the new collective: Sister Briony to run the dispensary; Sister Phillipa to establish a garden; Sister Ruth to give the children lessons; and Sister Honey to teach the young women to make lace.

Roles and responsibilities aside, the various dynamics in the group have the potential to hinder progress. Sister Ruth is unpredictable and strong-willed, likely to cause trouble if not carefully managed. There are question marks too over Sister Clodagh’s abilities – not least from Dorothea, the Mother Superior who has already expressed reservations about Clodagh’s readiness for the role, despite the young Sister’s assurances. Right from the start, there is an air of trouble brewing with this mission, a feeling only enhanced by the strangeness of the location itself. Mopu Palace – the building donated to the nuns for their convent – is the former home of the General’s seraglio, effectively a harem or ‘House of Women’.

At first, the nuns are somewhat daunted by the challenge as they struggle to adapt to the high altitude and new living conditions; nevertheless, they soon begin work to establish their community. Assisting the sisters is Ayah, an elderly lady who keeps house at the Palace. Also of note is Mr Dean, the outspoken British man who acts as the General’s Agent in the area.

Mr Dean is quite a character – not one for holding back on his opinions of the sisters’ ambitions, especially when he foresees trouble with the locals. His forthright nature, strong sense of humour and fondness for drink all come as a bit of a shock to the Sisters, who have led quite a sheltered existence to date. The dynamic between Mr Dean and Sister Clodagh is a fascinating one, the kind of sexual tension that can erupt in a passionate disagreement.

‘You’re –’ she said furiously. ‘You’re – you’re unforgivable.’ Then she said vindictively, between her teeth: You’re objectionable when you’re sober, and abominable when you’re drunk.’

‘I quite agree,’ he said, and taking his pony went down the hill. (p. 121)

That said, Mr Dean is a level-headed man at heart, naturally sympathetic to the Sisters’ situation, and he soon proves highly valuable to the mission, assisting with plumbing, construction and all manner of practical jobs – some of which involve careful liaison with the locals.

As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under Mopu’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. For Sister Honey, it is a longing for a baby; for Sister Philippa, the love of her garden; for Ruth, an ongoing obsession with the magnetic Mr Dean; and for Clodagh it is Con, the childhood sweetheart she left behind in Ireland, back in the days of her carefree youth. In short, each woman must wrestle with her own psychological demon.

Sister Honey stopped in her work to listen eagerly to the children saying their lesson in the next room, as if they belonged to her; Sister Philippa straightened her back from her frozen beds and stared across the garden, seeing it in summer, and Sister Ruth watched and waited for Mr Dean. Sister Clodagh’s face was so softened and changed that Mother Dorothea would not have known her. (p. 143)

As the novel moves towards its dramatic climax, tensions between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth intensify, threatening to erupt at any given moment. Sister Ruth becomes increasingly unstable, accusing Sister Clodagh of harbouring feelings for Mr Dean – an accusation driven by jealousy and a kind of descent into madness.

‘All the same, I’ve noticed that you’re very pleased to see him yourself!’ she flung at Sister Clodagh.

Sister Clodagh’s face blazed. She half rose in her chair and then she sank back into it again, holding her desk.

‘You’re trying to tell me I’m not fit to be a nun,’ cried Sister Ruth. ‘Well, let me tell you that no more are you. You should never have entered either, and you know it for all your honours and success. Wonderful Sister Clodagh. Clever Sister Clodagh. Admirable Sister Clodagh,’ she mocked, ‘and all the time you’re worse than I am and that’s why you’re trying to bully me.’ (p. 127)

Another factor in the novel’s undeniable sexual tension is Dilip Rai, the General’s nephew who comes to the Palace for lessons with the Sisters. While there, Dilip falls for Kanchi, a flirtatious girl who has been pestering Mr Dean, much to the latter’s annoyance. Black Narcissus is Sister Ruth’s nickname for Dilip Rai – a rather dismissive term coined from the women’s perfume he likes to wear. However, it also holds a significance for Sister Clodagh, whose relationship with Dilip can be viewed as a kind of metaphor for her repressed desires.

In terms of style, the novel is wonderfully sensual, rich in detail and imagery – aspects that capture the lush appearance of the surrounding natural world.

Just before Easter the knife wind changed to boisterousness, playing round the trees and rattling at the windows, and snatching at skirts and veils; with its roughness it was warm, scented with the orange flowers from the groves in the valley, a languorous scent blown roughly. The snow was melting and the streams were full; their own stream pelted down the hill, swelling up round the bamboos; over the slopes came a green bloom with a blueness in it like a grape and the rhododendrons opened in hundreds, and the magnolia behind the house budded into thick white flowers. (p. 178)

While the novel is rooted in a very specific time and place, there is a strange, dreamlike quality to the narrative – a little like a fairy tale or powerful spell that gradually works its magic on the unsuspecting reader. It all makes for an evocative reading experience, the essence of which is reflected in Powell and Pressburger’s luxuriant film.

In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, irrespective of your familiarity with the story.

Black Narcissus is published by Virago Press, my thanks to the publishers for a reading copy.

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with the others from this period. First published in 1969, it is something of a bridge between The Boarding House (1965) and The Children of Dynmouth (1976), both of which I adored.

The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Large coffee-table style books are this woman’s stock-in-trade – a forerunner of the poverty porn images that are rather controversial today.

As the novel opens, Mrs Eckdorf is on route to Dublin, eager to pay a visit to O’Neill’s Hotel, having heard about the establishment from a bartender on a ship. The hotel itself is central to the book; once grand and distinguished (the sort of place frequented by actors and commercial travellers), it has now fallen into disrepute, its faded glory being a kind of metaphor for declining moral standards.

The hotel is owned by Mrs Sinnott, a ninety-one-year-old deaf-mute woman who can only communicate with others through her notebooks. Various other characters – mostly orphans – frequent the hotel, having been drawn to Mrs Sinnott over the years, confiding their stories to the old lady in a way that feels similar to a religious confession. As a consequence, the notebooks represent a rich source of information, documenting the preoccupations of each of Mrs Sinnott’s visitors – their hopes and dreams, their fears and disappointments.

The hotel itself is largely run by O’Shea, an ageing porter who longs for a return to the glory days of the past. Permanently trailed by his greyhound, O’Shea cuts a somewhat tragic figure, albeit one who has Mrs Sinnott’s best interests at heart. Also residing at the hotel is Mrs S’s son, Eugene, a rather thoughtless, feckless man whose prime interests appear to be drinking and gambling – mostly on greyhound races – much to O’Shea’s disgust. 

When Mrs Eckdorf arrives at O’Neill’s, O’Shea takes a shine to her, mistakenly believing that she may wish to purchase the hotel. Perhaps as a consequence of this misunderstanding, O’Shea longs to pour his heart out to Mrs Eckdorf, viewing her as a kind of saviour and potential ally against Eugene.

He’d have liked to repeat the conversation that had taken place that morning in the kitchen between himself and Eugene Sinnott, explaining to her [Mrs Eckdorf] that for the past three years Eugene Sinnott had insisted on giving his mother a pencil sharpener for her birthday and was again insisting on it, that he had gone on about a greyhound race instead of devoting thought to the question of the birthday present.

Mrs Sinnott’s ninety-second birthday is fast approaching, a date that Mrs Eckdorf believes is particularly significant – not just to the old lady but to the broader Sinnott family. There are hints of a tragedy that took place precisely twenty-eight years earlier – a story that Mrs Eckdorf is keen to uncover, potentially as the source material for another of her books. With this in mind, Mrs Eckdorf proceeds to inveigle her way into the Sinnott family, just in time for the birthday celebrations in all their unvarnished glory.

As ever with William Trevor, the dialogue is excellent, frequently highlighting the mordant humour that seems so indicative of his early work. It’s a style typified by the following passage in which Eugene Sinnott is virtually powerless in the face of Mrs Eckdorf, complete with all her fake charm and flattery.   

‘Now listen,’ said Eugene, stepping in front of O’Shea. ‘Listen, Mrs Eckdorf, this is a bad time to stay here. Tomorrow there’s an occasion here, a lot of people coming, a family thing. It’d be awkward with a stranger about.’

‘Mr Sinnott, I’m like a mouse.’

‘Added to which, there’s only myself and O’Shea. There’s no cook in the kitchen or anything like that. The dining-room hasn’t been entered since we had a farmer from Monaghan here two months ago, a man O’Shea found wandering –’

‘Oh God, I love your way of talking,’ cried Mrs Eckdorf. ‘All the time this morning I’ve met only the nicest and now it’s best of all. Any old bed will do, and a meat tea I adore.’ (pp. 84–85)

Also on Mrs Eckdorf’s hit list are the other members of Mrs Sinnott family, all of whom are brilliantly drawn by the author in his characteristically insightful style. There is Eugene’s estranged wife, Philomena, whose primary concern is her son, Timothy John, and his burgeoning relationship with a girl from Lipton’s cheese counter – the wonderfully-named Daisy Tulip. Mrs Sinnott’s daughter, Enid, is a particularly tragic case, trapped in a loveless marriage to the bemused Mr Gregan, a man with absolutely no awareness of just how unhappy and lonely his wife feels on a continual basis. As the novel unfolds, the developments that led to this relationship are revealed, deepening the poignancy of their isolation from one another.

He had explained to her once that a brooch she had seen in a shop in Nassau Street would be of little use to her since there would never be an occasion in her life when she could wear it. (p. 34)

In the hall she shook her head. She held back her sobs. His voice questioned her again, and she said again that she was upset. She said she was fifty-one years of age and had borne no children. She said that for some reason she couldn’t bear the thought of his growing tomatoes in his field. She said that for some reason she couldn’t bear the thought of seeing him on his bicycle. (p. 37)

Other characters of note include Morrissey, a seedy little pimp who sleeps in one of the corridors of O’Neill’s hotel, effectively using the place as a brothel for various women on his books. Agnes Quin, for her sins, has fallen into Morrissey’s clutches; nevertheless, there are glimmers of hope for Agnes, a young woman who dreams of Hollywood and Olivia de Havilland.

Having installed herself at the hotel, Mrs Eckdorf wastes little time in tracking down these individuals, using her discussions to create a mental picture of their backstories, notably enhanced by the conversations in Mrs S’s notebooks. Naturally, the books prove to be a rich seam of information for Mrs E, a veritable treasure trove just waiting to be exploited… 

As the birthday tea gets underway, Mrs Eckdorf continues to make a nuisance of herself, intruding on the privacy of the occasion, snapping people left, right, and centre for her *art*. Despite several protestations from the Sinnott family, Mrs E is determined to persist — an activity that ultimately leads to her downfall, revealing a disturbed and deluded individual underneath all the bravado.

Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure. (There’s a marvellous farcical sequence in which a Mr Smedley, a cardboard salesman from England, is fobbed off with another of Morrissey’s women when Agnes Quin fails to show. It is the beginning of another undoing – in this instance, that of a relative innocent, ‘a man of vigour’ caught in the fray.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Trevor’s interest lies in various aspects of human behaviour, particularly the darker or less appealing facets of our personalities. There is a seedy malevolence to some of these characters, a sense of selfishness and exploitation of others that some readers might not enjoy (despite its authenticity). Nevertheless, there is evidence of sympathy and compassion too, certainly enough to balance the tone. All in all, this is another finely observed novel from one of my favourite writers – I loved it.

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel is published by Penguin Books; personal copy. Read for Cathy’s Reading Ireland month, which runs throughout March.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton – subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined.

I have long been a fan of Edith Wharton, a fascination that started with Ethan Frome, Wharton’s brilliant yet brutal novella of the fallout from an intense love triangle. The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth are favourites too, along with the New York Stories which I wrote about in 2019.

Wharton’s Ghost Stories – collected together in this beautifully-produced book from Virago’s Designer Collection – are probably closest in style to some of the more unsettling pieces in the New York book, characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety. Here we have narratives rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors – the fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul. As one might expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn – with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing.

The book opens with The Lady’s Maid’s Bell, one of the most unnerving tales in this excellent collection. Narrated by the maid herself, it is a classic ghost story in which the protagonist is haunted by the appearance of a spectre, the identity of which becomes clear as the story unfolds. There are several familiar elements here: a dark gloomy house; a feverish young lady of the manor; servants who refuse to speak of the maid’s predecessor; and a ghostly image that only the protagonist herself is able to detect. However, perhaps the most frightening element of the story is Wharton’s use of sound – the terrifying ring of the maid’s bell after hours, piercing the intense silence of the house as it rests at night.

Silence also plays a key role in All Souls, another highlight and possibly the most terrifying story in the collection. It tells the tale of a widow, Sara Clayborn, who believes she has spent a horrific weekend at her home, Whitegates, a lonely, remote house in the wilds of Connecticut. Having spotted an unknown woman heading towards her house, Sara breaks her ankle and is confined to bed for the night. On waking she discovers that the servants are nowhere to be found. The house appears to be deserted; an eerie silence having replaced the normal bustle of activity during the day. In this story, it is not the unexplained creaks and groans that strikes terror into the heart of the protagonist; rather, it is the ominous lack of any sound at all, especially as the house appears to be completely deserted.

More than once she had explored the ground floor alone in the small hours, in search of unwonted midnight noises; but now it was not the idea of noises that frightened her, but that inexorable and hostile silence, the sense that the house had retained in full daylight its nocturnal mystery, and was watching her as she was watching it; that in entering those empty orderly rooms she might be disturbing some unseen confabulation on which beings of flesh-and-blood had better not intrude. (p. 348)

It’s a tale in which Sara begins to doubt her own sanity and perception of reality, with time appearing to expand and contract before the servants finally reappear.

Afterward is another highlight, a vividly-imagined story that feels all too believable and real. The Boynes, and American couple living in England take a country house in Dorset as their home – a property already known to their friend, Alida Stair. When the Boynes enquire about the possible presence of a ghost, they are told by Alida that there is a ghost, although its appearance does not become clear to the house’s inhabitant until ‘afterward’, whatever that may mean. At first, the Boynes take this conjecture in their stride, laughing it off in a light-hearted manner. It is only once a mysterious figure is seen approaching the house that the supernatural happenings swing into action…

Then of a sudden she was seized by a vague dread of the unknown. She had closed the door behind her on entering, and as she stood alone in the long silent room, her dread seemed to take shape and sound, to be there breathing and lurking among the shadows. Her shortsighted eyes strained through them, half-discerning an actual presence, something aloof, that watched and knew; and in the recoil from that intangible presence she threw herself on the bell rope and gave it a sharp pull. (p. 91)

Once again, the fear of the unknown is crucial here, the abject terror that stems from the zealous nature of our own imaginations. Overall, this is a very nuanced story, one that alludes to a sense of retribution – a kind of reckoning for past misdemeanours and nefarious deeds.

Also very impressive is Pomegranate Seed in which Charlotte Ashby, a newly-married young woman, is haunted by the spectre of her predecessor – her husband having previously been widowed following the death of his first wife. In this piece, the haunting comes as a series of mysterious letters, always enclosed in grey envelopes and addressed in the faintest of hands. As a consequence, Charlotte is left shaken; it would appear that the first Mrs Ashby retains an unhealthy hold over her husband, something that Charlotte is determined to break. There are shades of du Maurier’s Rebecca here, albeit with a more supernatural element. (Interestingly, Wharton’s story actually predated the du Maurier, first appearing in 1931, a good seven years before the publication of Rebecca.)

Finally, a mention for The Triumph of Night, which shares something with the opening story, The Lady’s Maid’s Bell. This is another story in which a spectral presence makes itself known to one individual in particular – in this instance, Faxon, a man who is offered shelter by a fellow traveller when his carriage fails to show. Over dinner with his benefactor’s family, Faxon realises that the ghostly figure is fixated on the young man, the very one who invited him to stay. As a consequence, Faxon’s hold on reality begins to slip, a development that is brilliantly conveyed in the following passage.

The glass was so full that it required an extraordinary effort to hold it there, brimming and suspended, during the awful interval before he [Faxon] could trust his hand to lower it again, untouched, to the table. It was this merciful preoccupation which saved him, kept him from crying out, from losing his hold, from slipping down into the bottomless blackness that gaped for him. As long as the problem of the glass engaged him he felt able to keep his seat, manage his muscles, fit unnoticeably into the group; but as the glass touched the table his last link with safety snapped. He stood up and dashed out of the room. (p. 162)

This is a very unnerving story, one that explores themes of guilt, manipulation and the preying on others’ weaknesses – a sobering tale with a tragic twist.

Other pieces in the collection feature mysterious individuals who are not quite what they seem; the dead seemingly brought back to life; and an eerie pack of dogs who reputedly appear on a certain day of the year.

These wonderfully chilling stories are subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, tapping into the darker side of American history and human relationships. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Two terrific vintage mysteries by Josephine Bell and John Dickson Carr (British Library Crime Classics)

Some fairly brief thoughts on a couple of very enjoyable mysteries from the British Library Crime Classics series – both set in London, both initially published in the 1930s, but very different from one another in terms of style.

The Port of London Murders by Josephine Bell (1938)

A dark and gritty mystery set amidst the London docklands, a location steeped in atmosphere and squalor.

When local resident Harry Reed rescues June Harvey and her young brother, Leslie, in a riverside accident, all three become embroiled in a network of shady events in the heart of the community…

An unemployed former dressmaker, Mary Holland, is found dead in her lodgings, presumably from suicide given the bottle of Lysol found nearby. Nevertheless, when Detective Sergeant Chandler begins to investigate, he quickly establishes that the case might not be quite as simple as it first appeared. A post mortem reveals traces of heroin in Mrs Holland’s body, but no syringes were found in her room, a point that the detective finds puzzling to say the least.

Events take a more sinister turn when Sergeant Chandler himself disappears without a trace, possibly having discovered some vital clues to the case. As a consequence, Inspector Mitchell of Scotland Yard is called in to take over the investigation, including the question of whether these incidents are connected.

What follows is less a whodunnit (the guilty parties are all pretty clear early on), but more an exploration of the criminal network, complete with all its threads and complexities. Murder is not the only crime being committed here. There are instances of blackmail, drug smuggling, shady importation deals and other nefarious activities, with chiffon nighties passing from one part of the dubious chain to another.

Where this mystery really excels is in the portrayal of dockside neighbourhood, the dark, grimy streets, the fog-bound quayside, and the shabby houses due to be demolished once the remaining tenants are evicted.

The light faded rapidly as the Fatima churned upstream. The fog was patchy now, for the wind had risen and cleared those parts of the river where the banks were low and the water exposed. Here the boats could move freely, guided by one another’s lights and the various familiar landmarks on shore. The intervening banks of fog, by contrast, seemed all the thicker and more menacing. (p. 65)

Bell captures the lives of her working-class characters with just the right notes of sympathy and compassion, illustrating their day-to-day troubles and preoccupations in a very believable way. These are ordinary, everyday people living in dismal conditions, often relying on Public Assistance as a vital part of their welfare.

Bell has created some memorable figures amongst her large cast of disparate individuals, whose lives intertwine as the narrative unravels. June Harvey and her younger brother, Leslie, are particularly engaging – the latter drawing on his curiosity and enthusiasm to assist the police with their enquiries. The more upmarket criminals are equally well portrayed, illustrating both their weaknesses and their ruthlessness when faced with adversity. Alongside the darkness of the narrative there are some lighter moments too, touches of humour in the feuds between neighbouring families, and in the views of Sergeant Welsford, Inspector Mitchell’s rather presumptive sidekick.

In summary then, this is a very enjoyable mystery, strong on authenticity and atmosphere. Definitely one I would recommend to other readers with an interest in this period.

The Lost Gallows by John Dickson Carr (1931)

This colourful mystery, written when Carr was just twenty-four-years old, is an altogether more melodramatic affair than Bell’s Port of London. Almost Victorian Gothic in style, The Lost Gallows is a hugely enjoyable revenge story, primarily set in a notorious gentlemen’s club in central London.

When the Parisian detective, Henri Bencolin, meets up with his old friend, Sir John Landervorne, at London’s Brimstone Club, he is quickly drawn into a complex mystery involving another club resident, the Egyptian, Nezam El Moulk. In recent weeks, El Moulk has been spooked by the appearance of a series of macabre items at the club, the latest of which is a tiny model of a gallows, sent directly to the Egyptian by post. It seems the perpetrator is operating under the pseudonym ‘Jack Ketch’, a nickname or common shorthand for the public hangman, but his real identity is a closely guarded secret.

The main mystery that Bencolin must turn his mind to here is to identify Jack Ketch, who seems to be seeking revenge for a crime allegedly committed by El Moulk some ten years earlier. In short, the race is on to find Ketch before he can claim payback, presumably on the 10th anniversary of the original deed.

Also swirling around in the mix are several other gruesome incidents for Bencolin to get his teeth into. The sighting of a shadow showing a man ascending the gallows; the mystery of the infamous ‘Ruination Street’, a location that cannot be found on any London map; the vision of a car being driven by a corpse. These are just some of the ghastly goings-on at play here.

It loomed up out of Jermyn Street soundlessly. Distorted by the muddy fog, it had a devilish life of its own, and its staring lamps bounded towards me as I turned. I heard the officer’s cry and the shrilling of his whistle. Then the great green limousine swept past me into the Haymarket. (p. 34)

This is a complex mystery with a lot going on, particularly in the first half of the book. Nevertheless, these seemingly disparate threads do eventually come together as the narrative approaches its end. As in Bell’s mystery, the London location is vividly portrayed, the city bustling with activity amid the fog-bound streets.

London that night was a wet chaos of fog, screeching with taxis and smeared on the sky with a blur of electric signs round Piccadilly. But as we turned down the Haymarket, there was a sense of intimacy crowded into these dun-coloured walls. The heavy-footed traffic rumbling past, the shine of light on wet pavements—clank, babble, shrill policeman’s whistle, and loom of big arm in water-proof—all carried a suggestion of companionship through mere virtue of the fog. It was not until we entered the theatre, until the house darkened and the curtain rose on that pale mimic world of terror which was Vautrelle’s play, that the afternoon’s devils returned… (p. 31)

There is a real sense of melodrama in Carr’s portrayal of events as the ghoulish atmosphere is dialled up at every given opportunity. And while the characterisation is a little thin and clichéd in places, the actual story itself is never less than entertaining. Great fun for lovers of gothic-style mysteries, as long as they’re prepared to suspend belief!

My thanks to the British Library for kindly providing review copies.