Tag Archives: British Library

Tension by E. M. Delafield

The English writer E. M. Delafield is probably best known for her Diary of a Provincial Lady, a largely autobiographical account of middle-class life in the early 1930s. Tension is an earlier book, first published in 1920 when Britain was still recovering from the impact of the First World War. It’s an interesting story about the damaging effects of gossip – how hard-won reputations can be destroyed by malicious rumours, especially when a manipulative person is involved. On another level, the novel also highlights the limited options available to single women with no husband or family to support them in financing their day-to-day existence.

The novel’s title refers to the tensions created by a new appointment at a Commercial and Technical College in the South West – the main setting for Delafield’s story. As an experienced teacher of shorthand and typing, twenty-eight-year-old Miss Marchrose is well qualified for the role of Lady Superintendent. However, her card is marked when the College Director’s wife – the poisonous Lady Edna Rossiter – recognises Miss Marchrose’s name from an unfortunate incident in the past. Some years earlier, Lady Rossiter’s cousin, Clarence Isbister, was jilted by his fiancée following a life-changing accident – an incident that caused both Clarence and Lady Rossiter considerable distress at the time. Given the unusual nature of Miss Marchrose’s name, Lady Rossiter is convinced that the new Superintendent is the woman who slighted her cousin, so she sets out to ruin her reputation in the most underhand of ways.

Nevertheless, Miss Marchrose proves herself to be hardworking, capable and well-organised – qualities appreciated by College Supervisor Fairfax Fuller, a blunt, plain-speaking man who dislikes any outside interference in his activities, especially from Lady R. Sir Julian Rossiter, the College Director, also takes kindly to Miss Marchrose, viewing her as a good addition to the institution’s staff. But when the new appointee develops a close friendship with Mark Easter, the agent for Sir Julian’s estate, Lady Rossiter sees her chance. As the friendship between Mark and Miss Marchrose blossoms, showing every potential to develop into a romance, Lady Rossiter begins to draw attention to it, dropping carefully-worded hints to other trustees and staff.

“Yes, poor Miss Marchrose. Don’t think that I would willingly say an unkind word about her, for indeed I could never cast the first stone. But I’ve been uneasy for some time, and this afternoon it gave me a little shock to see something—Oh, never mind what! A straw very often shows which way the wind blows.”

Having by this reticence left the simple-minded Alderman to infer the existence of a whole truss of straw at the very least, Lady Rossiter leant back and closed her eyes, as though in weary retrospect. (p. 145)

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Mark Easter is already married; however, his wife is an alcoholic, incarnated in a home for inebriates, a fact he shares with Miss Marchrose at an early stage in their relationship.

As Lady Rossiter continues to sow the seeds of doubt about the nature of Miss Marchrose’s character, the reader can only watch as the rumours begin to circulate, giving rise to the uneasy atmosphere and tensions of the novel’s title. While Sir Julian knows full well what his wife is getting up to, he does little to nip her duplicitous behaviour in the bud – opting instead for a quiet existence, despite his disapproval.

Lady Rossiter, on the other hand, is a fascinating creation – a hypocritical, insensitive woman who lacks even the slightest hint of self-awareness. In living her life by the mantra “Is it kind, is it wise, is it true?”, Lady R is convinced that her actions are for the moral good, misguided in the belief that she is a shining light to others. Moreover, the Rossiters’ marriage is a loveless one, a union of convenience and companionship – a point made clear by Sir Julian right from the very start. In fact, one wonders whether the lack of romantic love in her own life has made Lady Rossiter somewhat envious when she observes it in others, contributing perhaps to her ‘protection’ of Mark Easter from Miss Marchrose’s charms…

As the novel unfolds, we hear a little more of Miss Marchrose’s backstory as the young woman confides in Sir Julian Rossiter – a friendly presence in a somewhat hostile world. By delving into this in some detail, Delafield shows us how desperately lonely life can be for an unmarried woman in the city, with no husband or close family for support – the long, uneventful days stretching out ahead of her as hopelessness and resignation sets in.

“…But all the time I was more and more lonely, and I used to sit and think in the evenings, wondering how I could bear it if all my life was going to be like that—just working on and on and then becoming like one of the older women at that hostel—there were dozens of them—pinched and discontented, always worrying over expense, and why there weren’t two helpings of pudding at dinner, with nothing to do, nothing to remember, nothing to look forward to—knowing themselves utterly and absolutely unnecessary in the world. And they’d got used to it—that was the ghastly part of it—and yet they couldn’t always have been like that…” (p. 120)

In time, we also learn about the circumstances surrounding Miss Marchrose’s aborted engagement to Clarence Isbister – and perhaps unsurprisingly, they’re not quite as ruthless as Lady Rossiter has assumed.

In summary, then, Tension is an absorbing exploration of the challenges of life for working spinster in the interwar years, not least when there are poisonous women such as Lady Rossiter about. The latter may well have earned her place alongside other monstrous women in fiction – characters such as Flora in Elizabeth Taylor’s The Soul of Kindness and Miss Bohun in Olivia Manning’s School for Love – each one flawed in her own individual way. There are some good supporting characters here, too – not least Mark Easter’s rebellious children, Ruthie and Ambrose (aka Peekaboo), who provide a little light relief amidst the tensions in the college.

All in all, it’s another fine addition to the British Library’s Women Writers list, a series that continues to shine a light on society’s treatment of women in the early-mid 20th century. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Murder in the Basement and Jumping Jenny – two splendid vintage mysteries by Anthony Berkeley

Two very intriguing British Library Crime Classics for you today – both featuring Anthony Berkeley’s amateur detective / crime writer, Roger Sheringham.

Murder in the Basement (1932)

A very enjoyable mystery, and an excellent introduction to Berkeley’s work.

The story opens with the discovery of a body, carefully concealed in the basement of a rented house in Lewisham – much to the horror of newlyweds Reginald and Molly Dane, who have just taken possession of their new home. The meticulous Chief Inspector Moseley and his team quickly confirm a few important particulars about the body – a young woman aged twenty to thirty, found naked except for a pair of gloves, probably murdered some six months earlier by a shot to the head. That said, the victim’s identity proves much trickier to establish due to the lack of any papers or visible distinguishing features on the body.

One of the most interesting things about this novel is its imaginative structure, the first third of which focuses on Moseley’s quest to put a name to the dead woman. After a few blind alleys and less than fruitful enquiries, the police trace the victim to Roland House, a boys’ Prep School on the outskirts of London.

Now, it just so happens that Moseley’s great friend, the detective writer Roger Sheringham, deputised for a Master at the very same school the previous year – partly as a means of gathering background for one of his novels. So, when Moseley calls on his friend for support, Sheringham offers the Inspector the manuscript of his unfinished book – a novel based directly on the Roland House staff, just as he perceived them at the time.

“…There isn’t a development in it which I didn’t see in preparation; and you might say that there isn’t an action for which I haven’t definite evidence. It isn’t difficult, you know, to forecast people’s major actions when one has studied their minor ones. The mind never alters its sweep.” (pp. 65–66)

Sheringham’s manuscript forms the second section of Berkeley’s novel – presented to the reader with the characters’ real names. Happily, it’s a most entertaining story, rife with all manner of personal grudges, petty jealousies and emotional entanglements amongst the staff. In short, we have a very well-drawn set of characters here, with plenty of potential for mischief and mayhem.

By the beginning of Basement’s final third, which returns to Moseley’s investigations, we know the victim’s name and her former role at the school. The murderer’s identity also seems clear cut, along with the emerging details of the motive. Nevertheless, there is the question of hard evidence to be gathered – convincing enough to secure a conviction in court. Interestingly, Sheringham also plays a crucial role in establishing the nuts and bolts of what actually happened to prompt the murder, drawing on his experiences at the school and various insights into character.

In summary then, this is a very intriguing mystery with a creative set-up and structure – I could quite happily read a whole novel from Sheringham’s pen, such is the entertaining nature of that engaging second section.

The final solution, when it comes, has a few surprises up its sleeve – possibly a little contrived at one or two points, but that’s a minor quibble in the broad scheme of things. There’s also some lovely humour running through the book – not just in the antics at Roland House School but in the detailed detective work, too. I’ll finish with a passage from an early interview with a neighbour as the police try to establish the history of the Lewisham house.

Relations? Well, there was a nephew; but such a nice young man; quite impossible that… his name and address? Well, his name was Staples too, but as for his address… wasn’t he in the navy, Jane? Or was it the merchant service? Anyhow, Miss Staples called him “Jim,” if that was any help. It was? How wonderful to think of oneself actually helping Scotland Yard! (p. 35)

Jumping Jenny (1933)

A very entertaining example of the ‘inverted mystery’ genre, where the identity of the murderer is known to the reader (but not the investigators) at an early stage.

Here the action centres on a fancy-dress party being hosted by Sheringham’s friend, Ronald Stratton, and his sister, Celia, at Ronald’s spacious country house in the home counties. Most of the guests have entered into the spirit of things, dressing as either murderers or their victims, as per the gathering’s theme. To add a macabre touch to the evening, Ronald has set up mock gallows on the property’s flat roof, complete with three stuffed figures, two male and one female – the Jumping Jacks and Jenny partly referenced in the novel’s title.

As the party gets going, Sheringham becomes increasingly fascinated by Ronald’s sister-in-law, Ena Stratton, clearly an exhibitionist who craves to be the centre of attention, irrespective of how much trouble this creates for those around her. Virtually everyone at the event has a good reason to dislike Ena intensely, and when Sheringham finally meets her, he too is far from impressed.

“Shall we dance?” said Roger.

“I’d rather have a drink. I haven’t had one for at least half an hour.” She spoke slowly, and her voice was not unpleasant, rather deep and with a particularly clear enunciation. She managed to convey that for a woman of her sophistication not to have had a drink for at least half an hour was quite too ridiculous. (pp. 42–43)

Ena claims to be thinking of ending it all – a cry that other partygoers put down to attention-seeking theatrics rather than any serious threat. Nevertheless, when Ena is subsequently found hanging from the roof-top gallows as the party enters its finally stages, her earlier talk of suicide takes on a different light. The reader knows, however, that Ena’s death was not as straightforward as might appear at first sight, having observed the woman’s final moments on the roof.

The intrigue really kicks in when Sheringham notices something amiss with the scene of Ena’s death, a crucial detail that seems at odds with the hypothesis of suicide. So, he meddles with the evidence, hoping to shield a friend he suspects of being involved in a murder. But by doing this, Sheringham unwittingly puts himself in the firing line, prompting another guest to suspect foul play – to the point where Sheringham could be viewed as a prime suspect.  Jumping Jenny is a very engaging mystery that plays with various conventions of the genre. It’s really rather entertaining to watch Sheringham as he rushes around, trying to make each attendee’s story fit with the alerted ‘crime scene’, digging a deeper hole for himself as he goes. The novel’s tone is gently humorous, with some darkly comic moments for sharpness and bite, while the characters themselves are nicely differentiated and well-drawn. There’s even a little twist at the end, just to keep the reader on their toes throughout.

All in all, another very welcome addition to the BLCC line-up – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing review copies of both books.

Two of the Best Vintage Crime Classics – Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac and Due to a Death by Mary Kelly

I have two crackers for you today – not necessarily Christmas crackers, but well suited to the season nonetheless.

Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac (1952)

This delightful mystery, written by Edith Caroline Rivett – who also published books under the pen-name of E. C. R. Lorac – has to be one of the most enjoyable entrants in the British Library’s Crime Classics series so far. Set in the snowy Austrian resort of Lech am Arlberg and a foggy central London in the middle of winter, Crossed Skis weaves together two connected narratives to very compelling effect.

The novel opens with a party of sixteen holidaymakers – eight men and eight women – journeying from London’s Victoria Station to the Austrian Alps for a combination of skiing, mountain-walking and dancing. There’s a lovely ‘jolly-hockey-sticks’ boarding-school-style atmosphere within the group as the travellers bunk up alongside one another in their couchettes on the train. While some members of the group are known to one another, various last-minute dropouts and replacements have led to others being less familiar – typically friends of friends or fellow members of social clubs. Most of the party are relatively young, and everyone seems to be glad of the chance to swap the doom and gloom of Britain, with its food rations and damp weather, for some much-anticipated merriment in the Australian mountains. The extended journey, by train and sea, serves as a good ice-breaker, offering the participants the opportunity to get to know one another as the banter flows back and forth.

On their arrival in Lech am Arlberg, the holidaymakers settle into their rooms. The available accommodation is tight, leading to some scattering of the party amongst various chalets and hotels; however, all are within easy reach of one another. The skiing soon gets underway, with the crisp, wintry landscape providing the perfect backdrop to the group’s activities. All seems to be progressing well until some money goes missing from the suitcase of one of the travellers – the Irishman Robert O’Hara, one of the lesser-known members of the group. Inevitably suspicion falls on various other members of the party, particularly the last-minute replacements, including O’Hara himself – a doubt that only strengthens when a second theft is discovered.

Meanwhile, back in foggy London, the burnt body of an unidentified man is found in the remains of a boarding house gutted by fire. The circumstances surrounding the fire are distinctly suspicious, and when the police find what appears to be the imprint of a ski stick in the mud outside the house, a possible connection to skiing is mooted. As the case unfolds, some clever detecting and fingerprint analysis by Chief Inspector Rivers leads the police to the skiing party in Lech am Arlberg, where the two narrative threads ultimately combine.

This is a lovely enjoyable mystery with just the right amount of intrigue and atmosphere. As ever with this author, the settings are beautifully evoked, with the crisp brightness of the Austrian ski slopes contrasting nicely with the gloomy darkness of a British winter. Julian Rivers makes for an engaging detective, while Kate, an observant member of the skiing party, makes an amiable amateur sleuth. With its winter holiday setting – the skiing party depart on New Year’s Day – Crossed Skis is an ideal January read. Very highly recommended for fans of vintage mysteries.

Due to a Death by Mary Kelly (1962)

From the bright and frothy to the dark and brooding…I think this might be the bleakest book I’ve encountered in the BLCC series. Absolutely brilliant, but as dark as a desolate wasteland on a cold winter’s day.

The novel’s setting is Gunfleet, a fictional town inspired by Greenhithe in the marshlands area of Kent. It’s the perfect backdrop for Kelly’s story, a slow-burning tale of hidden affairs, family tensions and existential despair. Noir lovers will likely enjoy this one – it really is that bleak.

After a Hitchcockian opening, mysterious enough to grip the reader from the start, the story is told as a flashback, narrated by the central character, Agnes, who sometimes works as a teacher. Agnes, we soon learn, is a troubled, frustrated soul. Stuck in a marriage with Tom, a man she doesn’t love, she has always held a deep affection for her step-brother-in-law, Ian, who lives nearby. However, Ian’s parsimonious wife, Helen, openly dislikes Agnes, disapproving of the latter’s impulsive behaviour and ‘fast’ dresses, much to Agnes’s annoyance. Also friendly with the two couples are Tubby, a pathologist, and his easy-going wife, Carole. Personality-wise, they are much more relaxed than Helen, certainly as far as Agnes is concerned.

The other central character of note is Hedley, who has come to Gunfleet to retire early (he’s mid-forties) and learn Russian. At first, Hedley lodges in the local pub, but then moves into Tom and Agnes’s caravan as a more convenient arrangement – one that also suits Tom, who seems worried about money. As the summer unfolds, Agnes becomes increasingly close to Hedley while he teaches her how to drive – a doomed romance that seems made for the silver screen.

The novel’s mysteries revolve around the discovery of a body, an incident that happens near the beginning of the narrative. However, the book is more of a drama or psychological character study than a police procedural – readers looking for the latter may well need to try elsewhere. The dead body is Livia, a young Italian woman who worked at the local garage and was known to all three couples. While Agnes and Carole liked Livia, Helen disapproved of her, judging the young woman to be loose and of dubious morals.

As Agnes tries to make sense of the summer’s events, we learn more about how these three couples are bound together and the connection to Livia’s death. The central characters – Agnes, Tom and Hedley – are particularly finely drawn, each with their own personal hopes, troubles and disappointments that reveal themselves over time. Moreover, Kelly infuses the novel with a strong sense of despair, a tone she accentuates in her descriptions of Gunfleet, a place that time seems to have forgotten, as if it were trapped in an airlock of loneliness and pain.

At the end of the lay-by the thickets behind the barbed wire thinned to a curtain of creeper, then stopped, where the chalk was clawed to within yards of the trunk road. A hundred feet below was the roof of the cement works; one of the cement works, for there were many. The rain had pasted its dust to khaki mud, which in patches was dried by the sun. Beyond the works lay the marsh, and in the middle distance the river, a flat aluminium sheet: the brightest sky could never make it blue. (p. 13)

Alongside the desolate sense of place, Kelly also paints a realistic picture of life for many women in rural communities in the early 1960s, where fulfilling jobs are few and far between. Museum wives who work are frowned upon, so Agnes must content herself with marking school work at home rather than teaching in a classroom. Other social issues are also integral to the story, including extra-marital affairs, unwanted pregnancies, illegal abortions, stigmas surrounding orphans, broken homes and mental illness.

This is a beautifully written, intelligent drama featuring realistic, complex characters with secrets to conceal. In terms of style, the book reminded me of some of Margaret Millar’s fiction – maybe Patricia Highsmith’s too. Either way, this is an excellent book, shot through with a sense of bleakness that feels well suited to winter. (My thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.)

My favourite books from a year of reading, 2021 – part two, older books

This year, I’m spreading my highlights from a year of reading across two posts. The first piece focused on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, while this second one puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books from my 2021 reading, most of which were written in the 20th century.

These are the backlisted books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but as before, you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, this unsettling collection of Wharton’s Ghost Stories is a veritable treat. Characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety, Wharton’s narratives are 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 are all in evidence here. As one would expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn, with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing. A wonderfully chilling collection of tales, tapping into the dark side of American history and human relationships.

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

A thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten, whom she names Gattino. Not long after Mary and her husband move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, thereby reawakening various emotions, previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of Gaitskill’s father. In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. While the Daunt Books edition came out in 2020, this powerful extended essay first appeared in the Granta literary journal in 2009.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

This loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale is another of Taylor’s marvellous ensemble pieces, very much in line novels such as A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, where the focus moves from one individual to another as their lives intertwine. The novel is set in Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s, and as ever with this author, the characters are brilliantly observed. What I love about this her work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and veracity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication. Possibly underrated in the Taylor oeuvre, but for me it’s a gem.

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

This is a glorious book – an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and, perhaps most significantly of all, repressed female desire. A small group of Anglican nuns set out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains, a place steeped in beauty and mystery. As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under the setting’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. Tensions – both sexual and otherwise – abound in this sensual novel, stepped in lush visual imagery. 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, even for devoted fans of the Powell and Pressburger film, such as myself!

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 his others from the 1970s, and is something of a bridge between The Boarding-House and The Children of Dynmouth, both of which I loved. 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. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays in this novel, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children, caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within. Another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers – a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality with an allegorical nod to the First World War.

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

Probably the richest, most satisfying entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series so far, Chatterton Square is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. On the surface, Chatterton appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families – one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance that Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes it a particularly compelling read – more so than my description suggests. Set in Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a place modelled on Bristol’s Clifton – the novel features one of the most pompous characters I’ve encountered this year: Herbert Blackett, a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to his more relaxed neighbours.

The Island by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a darkly evocative coming-of-age narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Matute excels in her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting, drawing on striking descriptions of natural world to reinforce the impression of danger. It’s a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions. As this visceral novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her. A unsettling summer read.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

During a trip to Bognor in the early 1930s, R. C. Sherriff was inspired to create a story centred on a fictional family by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual September holiday at the seaside resort. While this premise seems simple on the surface, the novel’s apparent simplicity is a key part of its magical charm. Here we have a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life. By focusing on the minutiae of the everyday, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can fully invest in the characters’ inner lives. This is a gem of a book, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for, a throwback perhaps to simpler, more modest times.

Passing by Nella Larsen

Larsen’s 1928 novella Quicksand – which was inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – tells the story of a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world. In Passing (1929), Larsen takes these themes a step further by exploring the emotional, moral and societal implications of the act of ‘passing’, whereby a light-skinned mixed-race woman passes as white in a society divided by race. Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry – both of whom are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances. Passing is just as much an exploration of the complexities of female friendships as it is of race, touching on themes of desire, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, victory and victimhood along the way. A superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance. I loved Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation too, currently steaming on Netflix.

Finally, a few books that almost made the cut – all very highly recommended indeed.

  • Meeting in Positano – Goliarda Sapienza’s gorgeous novel of female friendship, set in the glamorous world of 1950s Italy.  
  • The Visitor – Maeve Brennan’s piercing novella of resentment, bitterness and the loneliness of isolation.
  • Family Happiness – Laurie Colwin’s beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to be loved.   
  • Tea is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex’s delightfully amusing comedy on the pettiness of village life and the failure to recognise our own limitations.
  • The Feast – Margaret Kennedy’s joyous novel, set in post-war Cornwall. Part morality tale and part family saga/social comedy, it’s an escapist delight!

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead. Let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than the last two have been…

These Names Make Clues by E. C. R. Lorac

The British author Edith Caroline Rivett – who wrote under the pseudonyms E. C. R. Lorac, Carol Carnac and Mary Le Bourne – is fast becoming one of my favourite writers of Golden Age mysteries. The British Library have reissued several of her novels in their Crime Classics series, and while These Names Make Clues (1937) isn’t quite as strong as some of the others I’ve read, there’s certainly a very intriguing puzzle for readers to enjoy.

The novel opens with an invitation to a treasure hunt party, which is to be hosted by the London-based publisher Graham Coombe and his sister, Susan. The Coombes have invited Chief Inspector Macdonald to attend the gathering, urging the detective to test his wits against the thriller writers and other assorted luminaries attending the event. At first, Macdonald is somewhat reluctant to accept, fearing that he might look a bit foolish if trumped by an amateur sleuth. Nevertheless, he ends up taking the bait, albeit on a whim.

The action swiftly moves to the party itself at Caroline House, a rather well-to-do property in London’s Marylebone, in the spring of 1936. Macdonald is one of ten or so guests at the gathering, each of whom is assigned a literary pseudonym to adopt for the night.

At first, the treasure hunt proceeds according to plan, with each guest working on their individual clues while also wondering about the other players’ identities. (To the best of the Coombes’ knowledge, the guests haven’t met before, so their true identities also remain something of a mystery – to one another at least.)

Just as the party is in full swing, the game is rudely interrupted by a blackout, seemingly due to a blown fuse. Candles are lit as a temporary measure, but when the guests reassemble to take stock of the situation, one member of the party is missing. Before long, the body of ‘Samuel Pepys’, aka the crime writer Andrew Gardien, is discovered by Macdonald at the back of the house. 

So Samuel Pepys was Andrew Gardien, author of a dozen detective stories. The “Master Mechanic” the reviewers called him, owing to his ingenuity in inventing methods of killing based on simple mechanical contraptions. “Heath Robinson murders,” another reviewer had styled them, involving bits of cord and wire and counterpoises, all nicely calculated to tidy themselves up when their work was done. Springs and levers and pulleys had been used with wonderful effect by the quick brain which had once animated that still body. (p. 44)

Heart failure appears to be the most likely cause of Gardien’s death, but naturally Macdonald is suspicious. There are scorch marks on the dead man’s hands, possibly indicating an electric shock of some sort, although quite how that might have happened is not immediately apparent. The sighting of a mysterious grey-haired man is another puzzling factor, with two of the guests claiming to have seen this man before the blackout happened. The identity of the grey-haired man is unknown. However, there is a suggestion that he bore a vague resemblance to Gardien’s literary agent, Mardon-Elliott, who was not on the official guest list for the party, as far as we can tell.

The picture is further complicated when Mardon-Elliott himself is found dead in his office the following morning. Once again, the circumstances are suspicious, with various clues pointing to Gardien as the potential perpetrator – a theoretical possibility, especially given the degree of uncertainty around the time of Elliott’s death. As Macdonald subsequently muses, the two crimes appear to be linked, with Gardien’s murder pointing to Elliott as the perpetrator, and Elliot’s to Gardien – a puzzling situation indeed, possibly designed to throw detectives off the scent.

“Yet here we have the murder of Elliott – signed Gardien – so to speak, and the murder of Gardien with an indication of Elliott. The probability is that the same person killed both and arranged indications that they killed one another, doing it in such a way as to suggest a thriller writer is the perpetrator – on account of the funny business involved – from which suggestion it seems reasonable to argue by contraries that a thriller writer had nothing to do with it.” (p. 136)

By now, Macdonald is well and truly in his element, interviewing the various attendees to figure out their movements on the night of the party. As ever, this likeable detective is a pleasure to shadow as he goes about his business, ruminating on various details that other investigators might miss.

Towards the end of the story, the action shifts from London to the Berkshire countryside with Macdonald’s friend, the enthusiastic journalist Peter Vernon also getting embroiled in the case.

While These Names… is a little short on the immersive sense of place Lorac employs so well in several of her other mysteries – a missed opportunity given her skills in capturing rural landscapes (as in Fell Murder) and wartime London settings (as in Checkmate to Murder) – it does feature some very interesting characters, not least the razor-sharp historian Valerie Woodstock.

The girl’s shrewd eyes met Macdonald’s full. Her appearance might indicate the society miss, interested only in clothes and a good time, but her expression showed a very different personality. Valerie Woodstock had recently leapt into fame for an erudite piece of historical research, and Macdonald knew that a first-class brain was hidden behind that frivolous exterior. (p. 51)

Readers would do well to pay close attention to the characters’ names in this intriguing mystery – a point that is easier said than done given the liberal use of pseudonyms running through the book. Nevertheless, fans of cryptic crosswords and anagrams will likely enjoy this one, especially given the relevance of the novel’s title, These Names Make Clues.

As ever, the novel comes with an excellent introduction from the writer and series consultant Martin Edwards, who explains a little more about Lorac/Rivett and her election to the Detection Club. It’s lovely to see this engaging novel back in print after a long period in the wilderness. My thanks to The British Library for kindly providing a review copy. (If it’s of interest, you can buy the book here via this link to Bookshop.org.)

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.

Father by Elizabeth von Arnim

First published in 1931, Father has recently been reissued by the British Library as part of their excellent Women Writers series – my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. While it isn’t as well-known as some of von Arnim’s other novels, there is much to enjoy here, not least the author’s skills in exploring the limitations of women’s lives with humour and compassion. In essence, it is a story of domestic tyranny revolving around two oppressive relationships – one between a thirty-three-year-old spinster and her dictatorial father, the other between a mild-mannered clergyman and his selfish older sister.  

The novel’s central character is Jennifer Dodge, who at thirty-three has devoted much of her adult life to keeping house for her widowed father, the successful writer Richard Dodge (referred to throughout as ‘Father’). In addition to her domestic duties, Jennifer also acts as Father’s unpaid secretary, diligently typing his manuscripts in their claustrophobic Gower Street home. Right from the very start of the novel, von Arnim leaves the reader in no doubt about the nature of Father and his attitudes towards his daughter. He is a selfish prig, content for Jennifer to pander to his every whim while simultaneously viewing her as something of a burden.  

It was her duty to make the best of herself, if only because his eyes so frequently were obliged to rest on her face. Besides, it was every woman’s duty to make the best of herself, and Jennifer’s not doing so no doubt accounted for the fact that she was still on his hands. Off those hands she ought, of course, to have been long ago; yet if some man had reft her from him before he was ready, as now, for her to go, it would have been extremely awkward, father knew; he couldn’t have run his house without her; his work would have suffered considerably; In fact he was unable to imagine what would have become of him. (p. 8)

When Father suddenly marries a much younger woman in secret, Jennifer sees an opportunity to escape from his clutches, envisioning a new life for herself in the freedom of the countryside. With Father and the nineteen-year-old Netta safely packed away on a month-long honeymoon, Jennifer travels to Sussex, determined to rent a cottage to establish her new life. There is a previous inheritance of £100 a year for Jennifer to live on – not much, granted, but just about enough if she is prudent and resourceful.

She was, she was sure, infinitely flexible, able to fit into the humblest little corner and enjoy herself in it, if only she could she be in it alone. Freedom, personal freedom, the right to be alone, was what she wanted, and what she now so miraculously had got; the power to behave naturally, to make one’s own arrangements, to decide (it seemed a little thing but was, she was certain, the whole difference between vigour and wilting) what one would do next. (p. 22)

After a farcical incident with a coat at the first prospective property, Jennifer strikes lucky at the second, securing a rather run-down cottage in Cherry Lidgate for a minimum of six months. The property is managed by the local vicar, twenty-seven-year-old James Ollier, whose older sister, Alice – also a spinster, but very different in mindset and temperament to the amiable Jennifer – is the other tyrannical character in the novel. While Jennifer sets about furnishing her new home, enjoying the freedom to do as she pleases, Alice starts to ponder the security of her own position. What if James were to develop a fondness for Jennifer? Where would that leave Alice, dependant as she is on her younger brother for a home?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, James and Jennifer do find comfort in one another’s company, each viewing the other as a kindred spirit of sorts. Consequently, Alice tries her best to monopolise her brother, spiriting him away to Switzerland on the pretence of a holiday – a trip that proves exasperating for James, strengthening his determination to forge a future with Jennifer.

As Simon Thomas highlights in his excellent afterword to the novel, both Jennifer and Alice are largely dependent on men for their livelihoods. While Jennifer is attempting to break free, her position remains somewhat precarious, especially once it transpires that Father expects her to live at home, despite his new marriage. Netta, it seems, is incapable of managing the household, leaving Father fearful of domestic chaos and disorder. Alice too is dependent on a man for her existence, although the power dynamics in this relationship are quite different to those between Jennifer and Father. Alice rules her brother with a rod of iron, dismissing him rather curtly with her regular cries of ‘bosh’. Nevertheless, despite her selfish, belittling tactics towards James, Alice realises that she would be exposed without him, reduced to a position lacking money, security and authority.

And quite apart from the fact that she owed her comfortable home and position, and her freedom from money cares to James, having ruled him since he was a baby he had now become necessary to her very existence—something to care for and to bully, to goad and to guard, something belonging to her, an object in life. What she would do without James, Alice, in her softer moments, couldn’t imagine. (p. 117)

Alongside the options for unmarried women, von Arnim explores other themes within the novel – freedom, selfishness, love and perhaps most importantly, the tension between individual desires and familial responsibility – all with her characteristic blend of insight and wit. There are some wonderfully farcical scenes here, particularly between James and Alice – a tussle over a basket of apricots seems to typify the tensions between the two siblings, signalling their opposing positions towards Jennifer’s presence in the cottage. Moreover, it is a testament to the author’s skills with character that even the most unlikeable individuals will elicit the reader’s sympathy – to some degree at least.

At heart, Father is a charming novel that uses wisdom, humour and playful ridicule to convey some of the challenges faced by unmarried women in the early 20th century. While understandable from a technical point of view, the ending feels a little too neat, but that’s a minor quibble in the scheme of things. It’s a delight to see it back in print.

Cosy and Not-So-Cosy Crime – E. C. R. Lorac and Ross Macdonald

I have two crime fiction novels to share with you today – both of which were written in the late 1950s, albeit in very different tonal registers. E. C. R. Lorac’s Two-Way Murder is a thoroughly entertaining cosy crime novel, ideal escapism from 21st-century Britain; however, I’m going to start with its not-so-cosy counterpart, Ross Macdonald’s compelling California-based mystery, The Galton Case.

The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald (1959)

Regular readers of this blog may know that I’ve been reading Ross Macdonald’s ‘Lew Archer’ novels in order over the past five or six years. (For those of you who are new to Ross Macdonald, he’s in a similar vein to the great hardboiled detective novelists, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett – i.e. a writer whose work transcends the traditional crime fiction genre.)

The Galton Case – the eighth book in the series – sees the world-weary private eye being drawn into a cold case investigation which naturally turns out to be far more complex that it appears at first sight. As a novel, it contains many of Macdonald’s hallmarks: a powerful dysfunctional family; various individuals motivated by greed; and current crimes with a hidden connection to the past. While it’s probably not my favourite book in the series, The Galton Case still makes for a highly compelling read. A very solid entry, barring a couple of caveats regarding the ending.

Mrs Galton, a wealthy widow with a significant heart condition, wishes to reconcile with her estranged son, Anthony Galton, before it is too late. Some twenty years earlier, Anthony Galton disappeared from the family home (together with his pregnant wife and a significant amount of money) following a rift with his mother. In short, Mrs Galton hadn’t approved of her son’s marriage, often the cause of tension in a Lew Archer novel.

The old lady’s lawyer, Gordon Sable, hires Archer to find Anthony, even though he has already been declared legally dead. Mrs Galton, however, remains convinced that her son is still alive, possibly making a living from writing as he had hoped to do at the time of his disappearance.

Despite his initial scepticism about the chances of finding Anthony alive, Archer takes the case; however, just as he is about to get started, a murder takes place, the victim being a rather ill-tempered servant by the name of Culligan, whom Archer had met at Sable’s home. Unsurprisingly, these two cases – the disappearance of Anthony Galton and the murder of Peter Culligan – turn out to be connected, signalling another complex tangle of crimes for Archer to unravel.

As ever with Macdonald, the descriptions of the locations are marvellous, from the melting pot of San Francisco to the comfortable enclaves of California.

Arroyo Park was an economic battleground where managers and professional people matched wits and incomes. The people on Mrs Galton’s Street didn’t know there had been a war. Their grandfathers or great-grandfathers had won it for them; death and taxes were all they had to cope with. (p. 11)

However, what’s particularly interesting about this novel is the psychological aspect – the exploration of human behaviour that takes place as Archer digs deeper. There are questions of identity to be resolved, instances of wish fulfilment and delusion alongside the more traditional motives of resentment and greed.

In Archer, Macdonald has created a highly engaging investigator who veers between pragmatism, sarcasm and compassion – a protagonist the reader can invest in for the duration of the series. While the ending feels a bit rushed, leaving a couple of loose ends unresolved, these are relatively minor quibbles in the scheme of things. In summary – a very solid mystery with some interesting insights into human nature.

Two-Way Murder by E. C. R. Lorac (written in the mid-late 1950s, published in 2021)

While Two-Way Murder is a much lighter, less menacing mystery than The Galton Case, the two novels share some similar characteristics – namely, tangled dysfunctional families and current crimes with potential links to suspicious incidents from the past.

Lorac’s novel – which has the air of a classic Golden Age Mystery – is set in the coastal resort of Fordings in the mid-late 1950s. Local innkeeper Nicholas (Nick) Brent – an ex-Navy man in his early thirties – has offered to drive his friend, the lawyer Ian Macbane, to the Hunt Ball, the major event in Fordings’ social calendar. Macbane is down from London for the Ball, where he hopes to get the opportunity to dance with Dilys Maine, the prettiest girl in the locality. Dilys, however, has a fondness for Michael Reeve, a prickly farmer and landowner whose family has something of a chequered history.

The action gets going towards the end of the Ball when Nick drives Dilys home, just before midnight. It’s a pre-arranged departure, conveniently timed to enable Dilys to get back without her absence being detected – by either her puritanical father, Mr Maine, or the family’s housekeeper, Alice. During their journey home, Nick and Dilys come across a dead body lying in the road, at which point Nick suggests that Dilys should walk home across the fields to avoid being dragged into the inevitable investigations. To complicate matters further, Nick is then attacked while phoning the police to report the dead body. There are further suspicious goings-on too, but I’ll leave you to discover those for yourself should you decide to read the book…

Needless to say, the police suspect the man on the road has been murdered, prompting investigations into various persons of interest in the vicinity and their movements on the night in question. There are some very interesting characters in the mix, including Dilys’ father, a tyrannical man obsessed with keeping a watch on Mr Hoyle, a local landlord whom Maine suspects of smuggling; Michael Reeve, of course, whose house Nicholas Brent was phoning from when he was attacked; and Michael’s elder brother, Norman, who may or may not be the dead body.

One of the things I particularly like about this mystery is the contrast between the different policemen investigating the murder. The initial enquiries are conducted by Inspector Turner, a methodical, practical-minded chap whose insensitivity and disregard for local networks tend to put him at a disadvantage. Inspector Waring, however, adopts a more intuitive approach to the case, his lively and imaginative mind remaining alert to the patterns of human nature. Ian Macbane is another interesting addition to the ‘team’, aiding Inspector Waring (who has been brought in from CID) with a spot of amateur detecting of his own.

In summary, Two-Way Murder is an excellent vintage mystery with a rather clever resolution – eminently believable at that, which isn’t always the case in these things. Attention to detail is key here, with elements of timing, the weather and the geographical layout of the area all playing important roles in pinpointing the culprit. There are some wonderful characters here too, from the likeable Inspector Waring to the thoughtful Ian Macbane to the Maine’s astute housekeeper, Alice. As ever, Lorac does a great job in conveying a sense of the local community and the importance of longstanding grudges. I’ll finish with a final quote that gives a feel for the location and Lorac’s flair for descriptions.

The car had topped the last rise of Bramber Head, the great chalk ridge which jutted out into the Channel; below, the ground dropped steeply to the wide basin of Fairbourne Bay, and the lights of Fordings were stretched out like jewelled necklaces, crossing and intertwining, with coloured lights along the seafront and a blur of chromatic brilliance over the cinema on the pier. (p. 18)

Karen has also written about this novel, including more info on Lorac and the discovery of this book – do take a look! My thanks to the British Library for kindly providing a review copy.

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

First published in 1947, E. H. Young’s marvellous novel, Chatterton Square, is another of the titles recently reissued by the British Library as part of their Women Writers series.

Having now read five of these books, I think this is probably the richest, most satisfying in the series so far. It is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. As Simon Thomas points out in his excellent afterword, on the surface, Chatterton Square appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families, one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes for a particularly compelling read – more so than that description suggests.

The two families in question are the Frasers and the Blacketts, whose houses are situated perpendicular to one another in the corner of Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a setting modelled on Clifton in Bristol. The Fraser household is the happy one – a relaxed and loving environment created by Rosamund Fraser for her five children, most of whom are teenagers. Rosamund – whose husband has disappeared off to France to find creative fulfilment – is an attractive, liberated woman, the kind of mother who encourages her children to pursue their own ambitions and preferences in life wherever possible. Also living with the Frasers is Rosamund’s close friend, Miss Spanner, a spinster in her forties, somewhat akin to a maiden aunt. 

By contrast, the Blackett household is much more subdued than its lively next-door neighbour. Headed by Herbert Blackett – a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to the Frasers – the Blackett family have three children, Flora, Rhoda and Mary, all similar in age to some of the Frasers. Mr Blackett’s wife, Bertha, has lived a narrow, restricted life, effectively penned in by her husband’s self-satisfied, high-minded behaviour, a damaging culture that permeates the Blackett household. 

In reality however, Bertha – who is constantly referred to as Mrs Blackett in the novel – is far smarter than her husband suspects. While at first glance, Bertha seems willing to defer to Mr Blackett’s better judgement on family matters, under the surface there is a steeliness to her personality, one that reacts to her husband’s arrogance with a mix of frustration and amusement. In short, it is a kind of coping mechanism for Bertha, her way of making the best of a bad situation. It is also something that Rhoda, Bertha’s favourite daughter, notices at an early point in the novel when her father makes one of his many disparaging remarks.

Without turning her head, Rhoda turned the eyes which had been watching her father towards her mother and intercepted the glance Mr. Blackett did not see and in the very short time it lasted, Rhoda saw in it a concentration of emotions which she could not analyse and which half frightened her. There was a cold anger in it, but she thought there was a kind of pleasure in it too. (p. 27)

One of the things Young excels at in this novel is to portray the complex network of relationships that develop between various members of these two families – connections which frequently reveal different aspects of their personalities. At first, Flora Blackett – who takes after her father in outlook and temperament – is attracted to James Fraser, an aspiring farmer. When James ultimately shows more interest in Rhoda Blackett – who is much kinder and generous than her sister, very much in the mould of her mother, Bertha – Flora’s nose is put out of joint. Even though she has lost interest in James by this point, Flora cannot help but feel envious of her sister’s connection with him due to their mutual love of the outdoors. It’s just one of the ways in which Young demonstrates her acute understanding of the human psyche.

Rhoda Blackett also develops a gentle friendship with Agnes Spanner, another woman rarely referred to by her first name, seemingly defined instead by her status as a spinster. Agnes is another woman who has lived a largely unfulfilling life, recently rescued by Rosamund following the death of Miss Spanner’s puritanical parents. When Rosamund receives a letter from her husband, Fergus, requesting his release from their marriage, Agnes fears for her own happiness. Having joined the Frasers in Chatterton Square, she is loath to relinquish her right to this newfound happiness if Rosamund decides to remarry. There will be no shortage of suitors for Rosamund to choose from should Fergus divorce her – not least Piers Lindsay, Mrs Blackett’s kindly cousin, who has recently moved to the area. In truth, Rosamund feels deeply for this somewhat wounded soul with his noticeable limp and scarred face – both of which were sustained in the First World War.

Perhaps the most fascinating interplay between the two houses is the one involving Mr Blackett and Rosamund herself. Given his priggish nature and fixation with respectability, it is perhaps no surprise that Mr B disapproves of Rosamund and her liberated attitudes to life and parenting. And yet, he remains strangely intrigued by this woman, sometimes going out of his way to observe her, if only to fuel his disapproval. Any signs of the furthering of connections between the two households are also gravely frowned upon.

As the narrative progresses, Mr Blackett becomes increasingly baffled by Bertha’s behaviour, particularly her responses to his pronouncements. Like the hapless Baron from Elizabeth von Armin’s novel, The Caravaners, Herbert Blackett – with his pompous nature and lack of self-awareness – has completely underestimated his wife’s intelligence, something that is all too apparent to the reader. When it is proposed that Mr Blackett should take Flora on holiday to Europe, Bertha is all for it, knowing full well that she and Rhoda would be happier as a result.

“I think you might feel quite different when you came back. Your mind would be refreshed. You would have other things to think about.”

“But I don’t want to feel different!” Mr. Blackett exclaimed irritably. “And as for my mind, I wasn’t aware that it showed signs of flagging.”

“Oh no,” Mrs. Blackett said pleasantly, “it’s too active,” and she gave him one of her rare, full looks. “Like a squirrel in a cage,” she added and carried away the tray before he could reply. (pp. 143–144)

Once Mr Blackett and his darling Flora are out of the way, Bertha visibly relaxes, as if a burdensome weight has been lifted from her shoulders. Consequently, Bertha, Rhoda and Mary are free to come and go as they please, to enjoy picnics with Cousin Piers, and to cement their connections with the Frasers, whose spirit and vitality prove a breath of fresh air.

As the novel draws to a close, the political developments in Europe become an increasingly dominant factor. The book is set in the lead-up to the Munich Agreement in 1938 when Chamberlain was advocating for appeasement. While many Britons – Mr Blackett included – consider the avoidance of war as a victory, others – including the Frasers, Piers and Miss Spanner – see Chamberlain’s actions as treacherous. There is a clear political dynamic running through the novel – not least the impact of developments on Rosamond’s eldest sons, Felix and James, both of whom would be called up in the event of another war.

In many respects, it’s an important component of the various uncertainties we are left with at the end of the novel. Rosamund’s marital status, and hence her freedom to marry Piers Lindsay, remains somewhat open – as does the nature of the Blackett’s marriage when Bertha finally bows to the pressure inflicted by her husband.

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures something of the sadness of this couple’s situation. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Derdons from Maeve Brennan’s brilliant Springs of Affection collection. While the Derdons are very different individuals to the Blacketts, there is a similarity in their marriage – a kind of stasis and lack of communication that has prevented them from reaching out to one another to address their situation.

There was no one in the world, except himself, who really cared for him, there were very few who cared for her. They had each lived in a mean little world, his of self-satisfaction, hers of pandering to it for her own amusement and hers, she feared, was the meaner. Twenty years ago they might have helped each other but he did not know he needed help and she was too young, too wretched to give it, too sure he would not understand her if she asked for it, and here they were, looking at each other across the kitchen table, complete strangers bound to each other for life. (pp. 253–254)

In summary, this is a superb addition to the Women Writers series; my thanks to the British Library for kindly providing a review copy.

Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard (aka Pamela Hansford Johnson and Gordon Neil Stewart)

First published in 1943, Murder’s a Swine (US title: The Grinning Pig) was the second of two mystery novels co-written by Pamela Hansford Johnson and her husband, Gordon Neil Stewart, under the pen name ‘Nap Lombard’. This very engaging mystery has recently been reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics series (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). As ever with the BLCCs, there is much to enjoy here, not least the dynamic between Agnes and Andrew Kinghof, the two amateur sleuths who play a crucial role in unmasking the identity of a ruthless killer – a man operating under the rather sinister guise of ‘The Pig-Sticker’. More on him a little later…

The novel opens on a bitterly cold evening in the middle of winter as a young Air Raid Precaution Warden, Clem Poplett, takes refuge from the miserable weather in one of the designated shelters near the Stewarts Court flats. It is here that Poplett and Agnes Kinghof (who also happens to be in the shelter) discover a dead body, partially concealed amongst a pile of sandbags that have started to smell. Agnes and her husband Andrew fancy themselves as amateur sleuths, having aided the police in Lombard’s previous crime novel, Tidy Death. As such, the couple are intrigued by the discovery of the body, all the more so when something rather strange happens at Stewarts Court later the same night…

Mrs Sibley – a somewhat frail, mature lady who lives in the flat directly above the Kinghofs’ – is horrified when a pig’s head appears out of nowhere outside her bedroom window. Once the incident comes to light, Mrs Rowse, the writer who shares the flat with Mrs Sibley, calls on the Kinghofs for assistance, relating the gruesome events that have frightened her friend.

“She says she was lying in bed, with the black-out curtains open—she always opens them before she goes to sleep as she must have fresh airwhen she heard a tap on the window. She looked up, and there it was grinning at her—a pig’s head, all shining and blue, with the snout pressed against the pane…” (p. 28)

Before long, a connection is uncovered between the dead man in the shelter and Mrs Sibley, thereby suggesting a potential link between the two events. The deceased – who appears to have been murdered – was Mrs Sibley’s estranged brother, Reg Coppenstall, last seen nearly thirty years ago. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a family inheritance was the cause of a longstanding rift between the siblings when Reg was largely excluded from his aunt’s will in favour of his sister. Now the past has returned to haunt Mrs Sibley, with Reg’s son, a chap named Maclagan Steer, being the main suspect of interest. The trouble is, no one knows what Maclagan looks like, making him a rather tricky individual to unmask.

Part of the joy of this mystery comes from the relationship between the two Kinghofs, who clearly love one another very much despite the occasional difference of opinion. There is a touch of the screwball comedy about their relationship, the sort of good-natured banter that makes this novel a delight to read, especially for those of us craving a little escapism after a dull and rainy May.   

“…Andrew, there’s one big question in all this. Have you guessed it?”

He took a long drink, stubbed out his cigarette and lit another before he answered her.

“Yes, I have… Agnes, I like you in that suit. Did I pay for it, or did you?”

“You did. The pockets are quite new, aren’t they? It’s a Chaumière model. It may be a mite cold for this sort of weather, but I can’t bear to squash it under a coat. Andy, don’t fool. What’s the question?”

He replied slowly, “Who is Maclagan Steer?” (p.51)

As the novel unfolds, there are more upsetting developments for Mrs Sibley. Threatening letters appear, mysteriously signed ‘The Pig-Sticker’. By now, Inspector Eggshell is on the case, as is Andrew’s cousin, Lord Whitestone, one of the higher-ups in Scotland Yard. Lord Whitestone – who is rather confusingly known as ‘Pig’, even though he has nothing to do with The Pig-Sticker – is not terribly fond of Andrew, though his relationship with Agnes is much more conciliatory. As such, he is not very keen on the Kinghofs’ involvement in the case, which he tries to discourage at every given opportunity.

Agnes, however, remains largely undeterred, relishing the excitement of trying to identify the killer. From an early stage in the mystery, it is pretty clear that the perpetrator is Mrs Sibley’s nephew, Maclagan Steer. However, since Steer is operating under an assumed name (in addition to ‘The Pig-Sticker’) he is effectively incognito.

Murder’s a Swine is a well-paced, highly enjoyable mystery with just enough ambiguity to keep the reader guessing. The authors do a nice job of shifting the suspicion from one potential suspect to another, particularly amongst the other residents of the Stewarts Court flats, all of whom have the necessary access to the block. In some respects, the identity of Maclagan’s alias doesn’t matter too much – it’s the sequence of events and interactions during the investigation that proves most satisfying.

As one might expect of this type of fiction, the social attitudes expressed within the novel are very much a reflection of the time – particularly the descriptions of Agnes’ legs, which are lusted over on several occasions. Lurid glances aside, this is a very entertaining mystery with just the right amount of wartime atmosphere to make it feel authentic.

This night in question, a January night, was bitterly cold, after a long spell of muggy weather, and the streets glistened beneath a coating of that delicate, almost invisible rain that soaks you through to your vest within three minutes. It was half-past eight, and Clem was not expected back to the comfort of the Post, to the fire and the dartboard, the cups of orange-coloured, stewed tea, the cards and the wireless, until nine. (p. 17)

Recommended for lovers of Golden-Age fiction with an escapist edge.