Monthly Archives: September 2021

A Misalliance by Anita Brookner

The English writer and art historian Anita Brookner carved out a particular niche for herself during her writing career, producing beautifully crafted novels about loneliness and isolation. Her books often feature unmarried women living narrow, unfulfilling lives in well-to-do London flats, where they spend their evenings waiting for unobtainable lovers to make fleeting appearances. That probably makes the novels sound rather dull; however, in reality, they are anything but. I find them very appealing – both for their exquisite prose and for their astute insights into character, particularly as Brookner’s women feel very relatable to me. 

First published in 1986, A Misalliance is very much in this vein, focusing as it does on Blanche Vernon, a respectable middle-aged woman who now lives alone in her central London apartment. Blanche’s husband of twenty years, Bertie, has left her for ‘Mousie’ – a much younger, frivolous woman who has succeeded in capturing Bertie’s imagination and protective instincts. Consequently, Blanche endeavours to fill her days with charitable work at one of the London hospitals and trips to the National Gallery where she studies the nymphs, reflecting on their romantic allure – a vision that presents a sharp contrast to the drabness of her life. Money is not an issue for Blanche – she has a small private income – and with no job or children to occupy her time, we quickly get the sense that facing the day ahead often presents something of a challenge. The expensive food and wine she buys give her little pleasure, heightening her longing for the night and a release into sleep.

Blanche Vernon occupied her time most usefully in keeping feelings at bay. In this uneasy month of the year – cold April, long chilly evenings – she considered it a matter of honour to be busy and amused until darkness fell and released her from her obligations. […]

Leaving her house – in reality a tall brick building containing several mysterious high ceilinged apartments – was the event of the day, after which she felt she could breathe more freely, having launched herself yet again on the world without meeting any resistance. (p. 5)

With her ‘tweed suit and polished shoes’, Blanche is considered somewhat eccentric and unapproachable by her neighbours and acquaintances. She remains friendly with Barbara, Bertie’s sister, and the two women talk to one another on the phone every night.

Bertie, for his part, has also not completely severed all ties with Blanche, occasionally dropping in on her for an evening drink and a slice of apple tart. In truth, Blanche secretly hopes that Bertie might tire of Mousie and her little-girl-lost act at some point, prompting him to return to the fold even though the Vernons are officially divorced. Mostly though, Blanche is left wondering why some women – like the emotional Mousie and the mocking nymphs in the National Gallery – seem to attract men like magnets, while other, more sensible individuals, such as herself, do not. Moreover, when Blanche meets Sally Beamish, a woman who shares something of Mousie’s alluring qualities, these thoughts are accentuated, throwing the emptiness of her life into sharp relief.

She [Blanche] even thought, and not for the first time, that it was her timorous decency, disguised as brusqueness, that had caused her to lose Bertie, and she compared herself with the distantly musing Sally entirely to her own disadvantage. For Sally, like Mousie, like those cynical smiling nymphs in the National Gallery, had known, with an ancient knowledge, that the world respects a predator, that the world will be amused by, interested in, indulgent towards the charming libertine. At that moment Blanche knew herself to be part of the fallen creation, doomed to serve, to be faithful, to be honourable, and to be excluded. (p. 79)

Blanche meets Sally and her three-year-old mute stepdaughter, Elinor, while dispensing tea in the hospital outpatients’ department. Almost immediately, Blanche sees something of herself in Elinor with her serious demeanour and quiet determination, prompting a desire to know more about the child and the family’s circumstances. It’s an interest that Sally quickly intuits and seeks to take advantage of, casually leveraging Blanche’s attachment to Elinor for her own personal gain. In short, Sally has grown used to a glamorous lifestyle but no longer has the means to sustain it, especially as her husband, Paul, is currently working overseas. Before long, Blanche is leaving £10 notes under the teapot in Sally’s flat to ‘tide her over’ and looking after Elinor while Sally amuses herself with a friend.

The situation intensifies when Sally pressurises Blanche to intervene in personal matters involving her husband, Paul, and his employers, a wealthy American couple, the Demuths. It’s a request that Blanche initially resists, knowing nothing of Paul and his rather mysterious financial arrangements. As this scenario plays out – I won’t go into it here – we see another man falling for the charms of a younger, attention-seeking woman who is fully aware of her appeal to the opposite sex. Once again, Blanche is left to reflect on the vagaries of romantic attraction – why do vulnerable or manipulative women seem so attractive to men, while their more refined or restrained counterparts are frequently ignored?

While I loved the first half of this novel for its compelling set-up, I found the second half just a little looser and less convincing. Still, there is plenty for fans of Brookner to enjoy here. As ever with this author, the characterisation is excellent, particularly Blanche, who appears to be a classic Brookner heroine reflecting on the unfairness of life. The secondary characters are great value too, especially Miss Elphinstone, Blanche’s talkative charwoman, a figure who could have easily stepped out of an Elizabeth Taylor novel – A Wreath of Roses and At Mrs Lippincote’s both spring to mind. However, unlike Blanche, Miss Elphinstone – who also appears to live alone – has fashioned a perfectly acceptable strategy for occupying her time, throwing herself into church activities with steeliness and gusto. 

Miss Elphinstone seemed to enjoy a lively and dramatic existence lived in the shadow of some excitable church whose activities absorbed most of her time and whose members abounded in competitive acts of selflessness. Thus was ensured an avalanche of information that took up most of the morning. Severely hatted, and wearing an overall under Blanche’s last season‘s black coat, Miss Elphinstone carried an equally severe black leather hold-all which contained a pair of rubber gloves, a change of shoes, and a religious magazine to read on the bus… (p. 22)

We also meet the dentist’s wife, Mrs Duff, a kindly woman who takes care of Blanche after a particularly trying meeting with Paul’s employers. In Mrs Duff, Brookner shows us another type of life – a woman seemingly content with a lack of excitement, having settled into the rhythms and routines of a longstanding marriage.

In summary, then, A Misalliance is an exquisitely written exploration of loneliness and the complexities of emotional entanglements, especially for a woman in Blanche’s position. There are some astute observations on womanhood, manipulation and loneliness here. Highly recommended for fans of Brookner and quiet, character-driven fiction with a focus on women’s lives.

The Years by Annie Ernaux (tr. Alison L. Strayer)

Broad in scope, evocative in detail, The Years is the French writer Annie Ernaux’s dazzling collective autobiography, in which the cultural and social history of a generation is refracted through the lens of one woman’s experiences. It is a hugely impressive work, drawing on photographs, personal memories, cultural references, political history and social trends, threading together the perspectives of an individual (Ernaux), a generation (those who grew up in the aftermath of WW2) and a nation (France).

The underlying narrative running through the text is based on the trajectory of Ernaux’s life, from 1940, her birth year, to the mid-2000s, not long before the book was first published in French. Interestingly Ernaux uses ‘she’ rather than ‘I’ when conveying her own personal experiences, almost as if she is observing herself from a distance while writing the book. The collective experiences, however, are conveyed through the use of ‘we’, reflecting the ideas and perspectives of Ernaux’s generation and social class.

In fact, the question of how best to approach this style of memoir is one that Ernaux grapples with in the book. This is not the usual kind of autobiography, designed to convey an individual’s life history, story or analysis of the self. Instead, Ernaux envisages ‘a kind of woman’s destiny’, a text that will portray the passage of time, both individually and collectively – the blending of the personal with the universal referred to above.

She would like to assemble these multiple images of herself, separate and discordant, thread them together with the story of her existence, starting with her birth during World War II up until the present day. Therefore, an existence that is singular but also merged with the movements of the generation. (p. 169)

By applying this approach to The Years, Ernaux recognises that our lives and experiences are influenced by the broader political, social and cultural environments in which we find ourselves. Moreover, our personal values and beliefs are reflected in our stances on these external dynamics, highlighting the relationship between the internal and external.

Over the course of the book, Ernaux focuses on key timepoints in her life: birth, childhood, adolescence, a move to college, early marriage and motherhood, the separation and divorce from her husband at forty, her relationship with a much younger lover at the age of fifty-seven. Each of these snapshots in time is introduced through the description of a photograph or a video clip. It’s an engaging way to open each section, cleverly blending imagery with glimpses of the author’s personal experiences and inner thoughts. In the photo described here, Ernaux – who is nineteen at this point – is posing with her college classmates, the philosophy class at the Rouen Lycée.

She is in the second row, third from the left. It is difficult to see in her the girl with the provocative pose from the previous photo, taken scarcely two years earlier. She wears glasses again, and a ponytail from which a lock of hair escapes at the neck. Frizzy bangs do nothing to soften her serious demeanour. Her face bears no sign of the events of the summer before, the boy’s invasion of her being, as semi-defloration evinced by the bloodstained underwear hidden between some books in her cupboard. No sign, either, of her actions and movements after the event: walking the streets after school in hope of seeing him; returning to the young ladies’ residence and weeping. Spending hours on an essay topic and understanding nothing. (pp. 73–74)

Feminism, sex and the female body are prominent themes in the book, highlighting their importance to Ernaux and her generation. Ernaux was a teenager in the mid-1950s, a decade too early to fully benefit from the sexual revolution at this point. It was a time when parents monitored their daughters very closely, scrutinising their clothes, make-up, movements and relationships. For Ernaux and her contemporaries, ‘shame lay in wait at every turn’, while the need to conform to societal expirations limited their freedoms and experiences. Nevertheless, like any enterprising teenagers, they managed to evade these restrictions now again, immersing themselves in the culture of the moment.

But we outsmarted the surveillance and went to see The Girl in the Bikini and Tempest in the Flesh with Françoise Arnoul. We would have loved to resemble the film heroines, possess the freedom to behave as they did. But between the films and books, on the one hand, and the dictates of society on the other, lay a vast zone of prohibition and moral judgement. To identify with anything we saw in the films or the heroines was forbidden. (p. 50)

Cultural and technological references also feature heavily in the book, with Ernaux conveying a picture of post-war French life, a world of rapidly evolving technologies, cultural trends and consumer behaviour. In terms of approach, the following passage gives a feel for Ernaux’s style, characterised as it is by the fusion of elements from various aspects of her world.

There would be the SS France, the Caravelle jetliner and the Concorde, school until sixteen, centres of arts and culture, the Common Market, and, sooner or later peace in Algeria. There were new francs, scoubidou bracelets, flavoured yoghurt, milk in cartons, transistor radios. For the first time one could listen to music anywhere, whether one was lying on the beach with the radio next one’s head or walking down the street. The joy of the transistor was of an unknown species. One could be alone but not alone, and have at one’s command the noise and diversity of the world (p. 76)

As one might expect, historical and political events cast their shadows over the lived experience – developments such as the Algerian war, the protests of May 1968, the election of François Mitterrand, the rise of the far right, AIDS, 9/11, etc. etc. As the years go by, we continue to glimpse moments from Ernaux’s life as her two sons grow up, leave home, find partners and have children of their own. Towards the end, there is a noticeable sense of melancholy, a growing awareness perhaps on the part of Ernaux of her own mortality, as the time she has ahead of her inevitably decreases. Not for any pressing reason – it’s simply the natural passage of time.

In summary, The Years is an evocative meditation on the lives of a generation, a beautifully written text that highlights the impact of collective history on personal memories and experiences. A fascinating book best experienced in person – I’ve barely scratched the surface of it here.

The Years is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; personal copy.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

This slim, beautifully constructed novella is an exploration of solitude, a meditation on aloneness and the sense of isolation that can sometimes accompany it. The book – which Lahiri originally wrote in Italian and then translated into English – is narrated by an unnamed woman in her mid-forties, who lives in a European city, also nameless but almost certainly somewhere in Italy. There’s a vulnerability to this single woman, a fragility that gradually emerges as she goes about her days, moving from place to place through a sequence of brief vignettes.

The titles of these individual chapters mostly refer to various physical spaces – ‘On the Street’, ‘In the Piazza’, ‘At the Ticket Counter’, ‘By the Sea’ etc. Nevertheless, the novella is as much a reflection of the narrator’s emotional mindset as it is of her physical location. The Italian title Dove Mi Trove (‘where you find me’ or ‘where I find myself’), can be interpreted in two different but closely connected ways, encompassing the narrator’s situation physically and emotionally. While three chapters carry the title ‘In My Head’, explicitly referencing the narrator’s inner thoughts, this emotional dimension is detectible throughout the book, like a thread or undercurrent running through the text.

As we follow this woman around the city, we learn more about her life – things are gradually revealed as she reflects on her solitary existence, sometimes considering what might have been, avenues left unexplored or chances that were never taken.

Now and then on the streets of my neighbourhood I bump into a man I might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with. He always looks happy to see me. He lives with a friend of mine, and they have two children. Our relationship never goes beyond a longish chat on the sidewalk, a quick coffee together, perhaps a brief stroll in the same direction. He talks excitedly about his projects, he gesticulates, and at times as we’re walking our synchronized bodies, already quite close, discreetly overlap. (p. 5)

We learn about this woman’s childhood, the tensions that existed between her parents, the devastation she felt when her father died relatively suddenly some thirty years earlier – a loss that has left its mark on her life. While the narrator seems relatively comfortable with her solitary existence, knowing that she has chosen freedom and independence over a different type of path, there is a sense that she has disappointed her mother in some way – failing perhaps to live up to the traditional expectations of marriage and motherhood, the more expansive kind of life these experiences would have granted. Consequently, there is an unspoken sense of guilt or resignation in the narrator’s interactions with her mother – a somewhat oppressive elderly women who also lives alone.  

When I was young, even when my father was alive, she kept me close to her side, she never wanted us to be apart, not even briefly. She safeguarded me, she protected me from solitude as if it were a nightmare, or a wasp. We were an unhealthy amalgam until I left to lead a life of my own. Was I the shield between her and her terror, was I the one who kept her from sinking into the abyss? Was it the fear of her fear that’s led me to a life like this? (pp. 29–30).

I love the way Lahiri uses this collection of fragments – there are around forty-five in total – to build up a picture of her narrator’s life, her emotional frame of mind and quotidian existence. As a result, we get the sense of a woman who is aware of her solitude – her aloneness – without feeling weighed down or oppressed by it. Someone who feels resigned to living a solitary life despite the odd regret or tinge of anxiety.

Occasionally, there are social situations she finds stressful – overwhelming, even – inducing a kind of claustrophobia alongside the feeling of exclusion. It’s a state that Lahiri eloquently captures in ‘By the Sea’, which features a celebratory dinner for the baptism of a colleague’s child – a situation that prompts the narrator to seek solace on the adjacent beach, complete with the sea in all its restless magnificence. At other times, however, she takes comfort from her sense of separateness when surrounded by others, sometimes forging unspoken connections with like-minded souls.

In ‘At My Home’, we see how protective she can be about her privacy and how violated she feels if someone invades it. When an old school friend and her new husband come to visit, the narrator finds the latter arrogant – a pompous, self-centred man who looks through the narrator’s bookshelves, eats all the best pastries and bemoans the untidy state of the city. Later, after the family’s departure, the narrator discovers that the couple’s toddler has drawn ‘a thin errant line’ in ballpoint pen on her white leather couch. It’s as if the visitors have left an indelible mark on the narrator’s privacy, a violation that proves impossible to erase or cover up. 

At heart, the protagonist is a people watcher, a consummate observer of others, often wondering about their lives, their current preoccupations and concerns, maybe even their desires. In one fragment, which appears towards the end of the novel, she sees a woman who seems to be very similar to herself – their clothes and body movements are virtually identical, mirroring one another in a ghostly sort of way. Who is this other woman? she wonders. An alter ego, perhaps? A more purposeful or determined version of herself? A figure with ‘a sprightly step’ who ‘clearly knows where she is going’.

Has she always lived here, like me? Or is she just visiting? If so, why? Is she meeting someone? Is it something for work? Is she going to visit her grandmother, a woman in a wheelchair who can no longer come downstairs and sit in the piazza? Is she a woman with millions of things to do? Is she anxious or carefree? Married or alone? Is she going to ring the buzzer of a friend of hers? A lover? (p. 151)

It’s a passage that feels indicative of the slightly elusive nature of this central figure, conveying the air of mystery or privacy that surrounds her existence.

There is a luminosity to these vignettes, a beautiful dreamlike quality that runs through the text. Lahiri’s prose is precise, poetic and pared-back, a style that feels perfectly in tune with the narrator’s world. This is a quietly reflective novella, the sort of book that benefits from close attention and the focus of a single-sitting reading. I’d love to see it on the longlist for the International Booker Prize, which will be announced next March.

Whereabouts is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy.

Quicksand by Nella Larsen  

The American writer Nella Larsen was born in Chicago in the 1890s, the daughter of a Danish mother and a West Indian father. Her 1928 novella, Quicksand – inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – features a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world.

As the novella opens, Larsen’s protagonist, Helga Crane, is teaching at Naxos, a boarding school for black girls in the South. Helga has no real family to speak of, her Danish mother having died when she was a teenager, while her West Indian father is no longer on the scene. Right from the very start, it’s clear that Helga feels out of place in her surroundings, ill at ease in her own skin and with her position in society. Part white and part black, Helga is not entirely comfortable in either of these two racial groups, a situation that leaves her feeling stranded in a kind of hinterland or liminal space.

She could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity. (p. 7)

Her engagement to James Vayle, a fellow teacher at Naxos, is also a source of tension, especially for James’ family, who view Helga’s background and uncertain ancestry as undesirable complications.

Early in the book, Helga decides to leave Naxos (and James) because she feels uncomfortable with the institution’s ‘uplift’ philosophy which she views as hypocritical. Essentially the school’s belief that black people should try to fit into society by mirroring their white counterparts imposes limits on diversity and individuality – difficulties that Helga can see even if others around her cannot. As a consequence of her fundamental discomfort at Naxos, Helga quits her job at the school and travels to Chicago, where she hopes to find another role.

In Chicago, a long and fruitless search for a job ensues, hampered by Helga’s lack of references or personal sponsors. Nevertheless, just when things are looking particularly desperate, Helga manages to secure a temporary job as an assistant to a travelling female lecturer. It’s a role that opens doors for Helga, bringing her to New York, where she is introduced to Anne Grey, a well-connected, financially independent black woman who offers her a home.

For a while at least, Helga feels settled in Harlem. Her days are occupied by a secretarial role at an insurance company, while her nights are spent at parties and the theatre, activities that appear to blot out the isolation of her previous existence.

For her this Harlem was enough. Of that white world, so distant, so near, she asked only indifference. No, not at all did she crave, from those pale and powerful people, awareness. Sinister folk, she considered them, who had stolen her birthright. Their past contribution to her life, which had been but shame and grief, she had hidden away from brown folk in a locked closet, “never,” she told herself, “to be reopened.” (p. 45)

Larsen, however, remains alert to the hypocrisies that exist in this sector of society, primarily through the character of Anne Grey. While Anne models her life on the refined culture of white society and campaigns for racial equality, she also believes that integration between the two races is indecent – something to be discouraged for its transgressive associations.

After a year or so in Harlem, the glow begins to fade. Restlessness sets in, leaving Helga feeling isolated and estranged from those around her, particularly Anne with her inherent inconsistencies. As a consequence, Helga decides to travels to Denmark in the hope of reconnecting with her Aunt Katerina, whom she recalls fondly from her childhood.

I found this section of the book particularly distressing to read because of the way Helga is treated by Katerina and her husband, Herr Dahl. While Katerina seems welcoming and well-meaning on the surface, in truth she is intent on parading Helga around as if she is some kind of pet – an exotic curiosity to be stared at and admired for her distinctive appearance and otherness.

Helga herself felt like nothing so much as some new and strange species of pet dog being proudly exhibited. Everyone was very polite and very friendly, but she felt the massed curiosity and interest, so discreetly hidden under the polite greetings. The very atmosphere was tense with it. (p. 70)

She liked the compliments in the men’s eyes as they bent over her hand. She liked the subtle half-understood flattery of her dinner partners. The women too were kind, feeling no need for jealousy. To them this girl, this Helga Crane, this mysterious niece of the Dahls, was not to be reckoned seriously in their scheme of things. True, she was attractive, unusual, in an exotic, almost savage way, but she wasn’t one of them. She didn’t at all count. (p. 70)

This fetishisation of black culture and individuals remains a problem in modern-day society, so it’s fascinating to read a novel from the 1920s that highlights these issues so clearly. Nevertheless, while it’s refreshing to see these subjects being explored by Larsen with insight and humanity, the novel also indicates how little has really changed. (I couldn’t help but be reminded of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s 2013 novel, Americanah, in which a white woman’s well-meaning attempts to establish a connection with a young black woman – a potential employee named Ifemelu – come across as misguided and patronising.)

The Dahls persist in dressing Helga in glamorous, eye-catching clothes, clearly designed to attract attention – a practice that Larsen uses to highlight issues of objectification and the white male gaze. Interestingly (and somewhat disturbingly), the previous quote also makes it clear that Danish women do not consider Helga a personal threat despite her natural beauty. To them, she is an outsider with limited status or agency, easily dismissed as an exotic curio or ‘peacock’ without being allowed to enter their society.  

In the final section of the narrative, Helga changes direction again, which chimes with Larsen’s use of ‘Quicksand’ as the novella’s title. It’s a powerful ending that feels somewhat surprising yet also sadly inevitable in a tragic kind of way.

Larsen manages to pack quite a lot into this slim novella. Alongside the central themes relating to race and segregation in society, the author touches on identity, female desire, religion, poverty, objectification and self-loathing. Ultimately though, there is an air of tragedy surrounding Helga as she struggles to find a sense of belonging in this highly segregated society, where her mixed-race ancestry creates barriers to self-expression and emotional fulfilment. She is a complicated character who frequently adopts a self-sufficient, standoffish manner to repel those around her. In essence, this is a protective mask, something she learned to embrace from a young age as a way of guarding her inherently sensitive nature.

There is a richness to Larsen’s prose at times, drawing on the use of colour and evocative descriptions to help bring Helga’s story to life. As a result, there are some wonderful descriptive passages in this striking, thought-provoking book – a text that remains highly relevant today. (I’ve yet to read Passing, Larsen’s companion novel, but hope to do so before Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation is released.)

Quicksand and Passing are published by Serpent’s Tail; my thanks to the publishers and Independent Alliance for a reading copy.

Guilty Creatures, a Menagerie of Mysteries – Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton and many more

It’s always a joy to receive one of the latest British Library Crime Classics releases through the post, and this clever anthology of short stories, Guilty Creatures – a Menagerie of Mysteries, is no exception to the rule. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.) Included here are fourteen vintage mysteries, each featuring an animal, bird or invertebrate of some description as an integral component in the case. As Martin Edwards notes in his introduction:

Animals play an extraordinarily wide variety of roles in crime stories. They may be victims, witnesses, even detectives. (p. 8)

Moreover, they can also provide – or indeed uncover – vital clues in the investigations, as illustrated by some of the best stories showcased here.

As ever with these anthologies, part of the joy of reading them comes from the mix of authors included, ranging from the well-known (Arthur Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton and Edgar Wallace) to the somewhat less familiar (Christianna Brand, Mary Fitt and Clifford Witting). Also of note is the seam of darkness running through this collection, with several of the stories channelling a rather sinister vibe not always associated with ‘cosy crime’ fiction from this era. It’s something that gives this anthology an interesting edge, very much in line with the predatory characteristics one might observe within the animal kingdom itself. On that ominous note, I’ll start with some of the gentler stories here and work my way up to the more ruthless end of the spectrum…

In Arthur Morrison’s The Case of Janissary – one of my favourites in the anthology – Janissary, a much-fancied horse, is the intended victim of a crime, destined to be ‘nobbled’ in advance of a key race to fix the outcome. The Redbury Stakes has attracted significant interest from the betting fraternity, with sizeable amounts of money riding on Janissary as the pre-race favourite. Needless to say, an attempt to sabotage the frontrunner is launched, only to culminate in a very interesting twist. This delightful story features Horace Dorrington, a Raffles-like scoundrel who combines investigation with crafty trickery in rather unexpected ways.

Mary Fitt’s The Man Who Shot Birds is another excellent story, a very clever puzzle involving a jackdaw, a valuable diamond star, a gold watch of sentimental value, and—of course—a man who shoots birds. This is my first encounter with Mary Fitt (aka the classical scholar Kathleen Freeman), but I’d be interested in reading more on the strength of this piece. A bird also features in F. Tennyson Jesse’s story, The Green Parrakeet, a sinister little tale in which the titular creature acts as a bit of a smokescreen for the true nature of a tragedy.

Headon Hill’s The Sapient Monkey is a lovely story involving a performing monkey, some banknotes and a case of false accusation – a charming little piece with a satisfying conclusion. Also very enjoyable is The Oracle of the Dog, one of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories from the early 1920s. In this tale, the term ‘armchair detective’ is particularly apt, with the investigator solving a seemingly impossible murder from the comfort of his own home. It appears that Colonel Druce has been stabbed to death with a stiletto-like implement while sitting alone in his summer house. The fact that several other people could see the garden at the time makes the incident appear all the more mysterious. This is a story in which the behaviour of the victim’s dog is crucial to the resolution, with actual doggy-like traits trumping any suggestions of a sixth sense.

Cats feature prominently in Clifford Witting’s domestic mystery, Hanging by a Hair. There is a touch of Patricia Highsmith (in the vein of A Suspension of Mercy)about this story, in which Arthur Marstead is caught between his critical, self-centred wife, and his timid yet clingy lover, Violet.

He walked towards the house, a tall man in the middle thirties, with a premature stoop, untidy hair, eyes peering through horn-rimmed spectacles, and a general area is absent-minded anxiety. He stepped into the room, to find that his wife had summoned him to close the windows because Rufus has sneezed in his sleep.

On Rufus were lavished the love and care that he himself should have enjoyed. He disliked Rufus—disliked him above all other cats except one, which was Tiggles, Violet’s blue Persian. With Rufus the antagonism with mutual and Rufus held aloof, but Tiggles—like Violet—maddened him with cloying attentions. (pp. 227–228)

When Violet is found dead, murdered with a spanner, suspicion falls on Arthur as the chief suspect – however, as with the Chesterton, the animals provide the solution here, leaving vital clues for the investigators to discover in this partly sinister, partly humorous domestic entanglement.

There are touches of humour and darkness too in Christianna Brand’s excellent story The Hornet’s Nest, in which Harold Caxton, a horrible little man, snuffs it during the wedding breakfast for his second marriage. 

Harold Caxton waited for no one. He gave a last loud trumpeting of his nose, stuffed away his handkerchief, picked up the spoon beside him and somewhat ostentatiously looked to see if it was clean, plunged spoon and fork into the peach, spinning in its syrup and scooping off a large chunk he slithered it into his mouth, stiffened—stared about him with a wild surmise—gave one gurgling roar of mingled rage and pain, turned first white, then purple, then an even more terrifying dingy dark red, and pitched forward across the table with his face in his plate. (p. 289)

This is a very clever mystery in which the finger of suspicion falls on each of the four main suspects with a link to Caxton: his new wife, Elizabeth; his adult son from his first marriage, Theo; his adult stepson, Bill; and his physician, Dr Ross. While hornets do not actually appear in this story, they are highly significant as a metaphor in this meticulously planned murder, providing inspiration for the solution to this case.

Finally, the most malevolent stories in the collection seem to feature invertebrates and reptiles. In The Man Who Hated Earthworms, a man must take drastic action to prevent a worldwide catastrophe, while in H. C. Bailey’s The Yellow Slugs, the titular creature provides a vital clue to some sinister goings-on. Perhaps the most brutal of all, though, is Garnett Radcliffe’s Pit of Screams, probably best avoided by anyone with an aversion to snakes!

In summary then, this is another fascinating anthology from the British Library Crime Classics series — definitely worth considering for its diversity of twisty stories, nicely linked together by an interesting theme.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

This is a lovely novel, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for – a throwback perhaps to simpler times. Its author, the English writer R. C. Sherriff – best known for the play Journey’s Endhad the idea for The Fortnight in September during a seaside holiday at Bognor:

I watched that endless stream of people and began to pick out families at random and imagine what their lives were like at home; what hopes and ambitions the fathers had; whether the mothers were proud of their children or disappointed in them; which of the children would succeed and which would go with the tide and come to nothing. (From Sherriff’s 1968 autobiography, No Leading Lady)

Consequently, Sherriff felt inspired to develop a story centred on one of these families by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual holiday at the seaside resort. On the surface, the premise seems simple, yet the apparent simplicity is part of the novel’s magic. It is a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life.

The novel is focused on the Stevens family, who we first see in their Dulwich home on the eve of the holiday. As we join the story, which takes place in the early 1930s, preparations are underway for the Stevens’ annual trip to the Seaview boarding house in Bognor, where the family has holidayed for the past twenty years. While Mr Stevens is looking forward to a fortnight away from the office, Mrs Stevens is secretly apprehensive about the trip, harbouring various worries about the journey and the holiday itself. In truth, Mrs Stevens finds it difficult to enjoy herself while away, preferring instead those quiet moments when she can be alone. Nevertheless, she realises the importance of the break for the rest of the family and is careful not to let her own reservations spoil everyone else’s fun.

Also anticipating the holiday are the Stevens’ children: nineteen-year-old Mary, a seamstress; seventeen-year-old, Dick, who has just started work as a clerk; and ten-year-old Ernie, an excitable boy who will not be separated from his toy yacht.

Interestingly, Sherriff devotes the first 100 pages of the novel to the family’s holiday preparations and train journey to Bognor; and while this might sound a little tedious in principle, these activities prove remarkably revealing, especially in terms of character. Mr Stevens is very well-organised, listing and allocating various tasks to individual family members, thereby maximising the chances of everything running smoothly. That said, there are moments of tension too, especially for Mrs Stevens, whose anxieties at the change of trains at the dreaded Clapham Junction prove quietly gripping.

“Plenty of time,” he said. “They’ve got to get the trunk out.”

Yes, thought Mrs. Stevens—but supposing they don’t get it out!

Mr. Stevens could see that his wife was agitated, and although far from being a selfish man, he could not help a little secret satisfaction. His own coolness would have been thrown away and wasted if she also had been cool. He saw the unspoken questions in her pale face : he saw her hands trembling, and he gave her a smile of encouragement and understanding. (p. 67)

On their arrival at Bognor, the Stevens make their way to their usual boarding house, ‘Seaview‘, which the recently widowed Mrs Huggett manages. In truth, Seaview is struggling to compete with the newer, more glamorous residential hotels with their fairy lights and entertainments. Nevertheless, to Mr and Mrs Stevens, this somewhat shabby boarding house is a home from home, familiar and comforting, despite its tawdry appearance and lack of excitement. Now the holiday can really begin in all its freedom and liberation!        

The early morning and yesterday evening, exciting though they had been, were shaded by those ominous little clouds that inevitably hang over the beginning of a holiday. The anxiety of leaving home : the burden of the luggage : the bogeys of Clapham Junction and the worries about seats—they were things of the past now : things to joke about—and ahead lay the holiday—basking under a clear, untroubled sky—stretching away to the far distant horizon of Sunday fortnight—so far away that you could scarcely measure its distance in terms of tightly packed minutes of sunlit days and starlit nights. (p. 99)

In one sense, very little happens during the fortnight away – the family bathe, play cricket on the beach, attend concerts etc. – and yet, on another level, there are fundamental developments and reflections taking place. For instance, a long walk on the Downs gives Mr Stevens time to contemplate his career, putting to bed earlier disappointments and setting himself straight for the year ahead. Dick, too, experiences a moment of clarity about his future when he finally identifies the cause of his unhappiness at work. On realising that his talents lie elsewhere, Dick vows to train as an architect, a role that he hopes will offer more fulfilment and satisfaction.

For Mary, the holiday brings a fleeting romance in the shape of Pat, a dashing actor in a touring theatrical group. It’s a welcome opportunity for Mary to spread her wings a little, to experience something of the adult world and the sense of anticipation such uncertainties can bring. Even Mrs Stevens finds a greater degree of contentment this year, a quiet hour every evening when she can be alone with her memories.

Her thoughts, when they came, could scarcely be termed thoughts in the strictest meaning of the word : they were memories really, mingled with the pleasant happenings of each passing day, flecked sometimes with stray chinks of light that crept in from the future. (p. 293)

While this is a gentle novel about the small things in life, there are moments of genuine tension or apprehension amid the undoubted quietness. Somehow Sherriff manages to make the most everyday occurrences seem quite suspenseful; for instance, the securing of a coveted beach hut with a balcony – something that could make or break the Stevens’ holiday – is invested with a degree of anxiety usually reserved for mysteries. And yet, somehow it works!

Alongside everything else, this is also a novel about the passing of time, the need to adapt as we grow and develop. For Dick and Mary, this might be the last time they holiday with the family as they find their own ways in the adult world. There may even come a time when for Mr and Mrs Stevens, the downsides of staying at Seaview outweigh their loyalty to Mrs Huggett, whose financial struggles are all too apparent.

In focusing on the minutiae of everyday life, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can invest in the characters’ inner lives. A gem of a book – very highly recommended, especially for lovers of quiet, contemplative fiction.

The Fortnight in September is published by Persephone Books; personal copy.