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Thursday, 30 October 2014

Thursday List: Scarey Stories for Halloween

Like the Fat Boy in Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, the blog would like to make your flesh creep. So - inspired in part by the crime writer Christine Poulson’s blog post on scarey stories – here’s a list of shockers of one kind or another, not in any special order (links are to blogposts on some of the books):

1) The Tell Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe – scared me half to death the first-time I read it as a teenager, with that amazing first line:
TRUE! --nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?

2) This is the one I mentioned to Christine: Don’t Look Behind You by Frederic Brown, which I read in a Hitchcock collection many years ago. It is TERRIFYING because it manages to convince you, the reader, that you are going to die. It is incredibly creepy, and leaves you looking over your shoulder. I really wouldn’t have wanted to read it if I’d been alone in the house. Brown was more famous for his sci-fi, but was obviously a talented writer in all directions…

3) Darkness over Pemberley by TH White   featured on the blog this week, and certainly had a pretty good concept involving a villain locked in the house with the good guys, and apparently able to make murderous and very creepy ventures into locked rooms. (I found it completely preposterous, but you have to give it some credit.)

4) Susan Hill, The Woman in Black. I’m not a huge fan of Hill, but this book (and the play based on it) really work.

5) Charles Dickens The Mystery of Edwin Drood – left unfinished on his death, and not that mysterious, but still the spooky atmosphere of a Cathedral town is very well done, and the two men going out for a walk, from which only one will return, is wonderfully tense.

6) The Aspern Papers by Henry James The climax of this novella has the grasping literature student creeping around a palazzo in Venice in the middle of the night, searching for elusive documents. He gets a surprise, and so does the reader…

7) … and similarly The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin is another tale of an unscrupulous young man trying to make his fortune, and getting himself and the reader a bad fright in the process.

8) Dracula by Bram Stoker – quite the chiller, and dealt with nicely by a Guest Blogger here.

9) MR James short stories, particularly Whistle and I’ll Come to you My Lad & The Mezzotint. They give you that uneasy feeling. 

10) The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams. The book is close to forgotten now – the author known mainly for Watership Down. It’s a strange book, always going off on tangents, and it’s not at all clear what is going on. But the ending is genuinely terrifying, and the sight of a green toy turtle would give any reader palpitations…

11) Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier – story and film both traumatizing, and (like green turtles above) some of us can’t ever see a red raincoat and feel calm. The story of a bereaved couple trying to mend their relationship on a trip to Venice is perfect in its way. And as the blog post was titled: Red Coat. Don't Go There. And Don't Look Now.

My list ran to 11, and I'm sure I'll think of more in the next few years. I'd love to know which books and stories readers would add to the list. 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera

published 2013

There were many astonishing things about these jaunts, not least how we looked: my mother, the shorter and stouter of the two ladies, dressed in a shapeless pastel salwar kameez, wearing chappals with thermal socks; my aunt, stately, in a Barbour jacket and fashion trainers completely unsuitable for cross-country trekking, almost always on her phone, her hair underneath a silk scarf; me, clutching a travel-sick spaniel wrapped like a sausage roll.

Then there was the unique way we tackled the walks. Mum… objected to the countryside on the grounds that ‘there is nowhere to sit down’. ..If she ever saw a corner shop, she would insist on popping in to have a look at the produce and compare the prices with those at home. Meanwhile, my aunt would combine a need to keep up a brisk pace with an insistence on sticking to clean footpaths, which in practice usually meant walking around the gardens of stately homes in circles, slightly ahead or behind me, taking a call or checking for a mobile phone signal…

observations: There’s nothing like being made to feel clever by a book – it makes the discerning reader much more inclined to like it. I started this one and was rather unsure for a while – it has a double structure which I still think doesn’t work well: a present-day story told in the 1st person, and a 3rd person story set in the past. The two tales – of a Sikh Indian family in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands - are obviously closely-connected, though it’s not clear who exactly is who at first. But it was a bit irritating, because who is telling the historical story? There’s a real POV problem with this book.

But then some way into Marriage Material, the plot of the 1960s/70s section started to seem familiar and I realized, with some incredulity, that it was taken from the Arnold Bennett book The Old Wives’ Tale – a huge favourite round here at Clothes in Books, and one that gave us a shed-load of entries in the early days. But not a book that most people have read: in fact I have never knowingly met anyone else who has read it, apart from the lovely Arnold Bennett Society, who keep the faith, and kindly re-Tweet me whenever I mention him. (I should stress that this is not plagiarism: Sathnam Sanghera writes about the Bennett inspiration at the end.)

So a huge point in favour of the book, and actually it is terrific fun: an engrossing family story, and the passage above is typical of Sanghera’s marvellous observation and character-drawing. And it is laugh out loud funny: one character, Ranjit speaks in an idiom that is horrendous and hilarious at the same time: ‘How’s it going any ways chitterface – when you coming for a glassie at Singhfellows? Innit’. And then the narrator goes to talk to Ranjit’s Dad: ‘His English was excellent, so much so that it made me realize that, as with human civilization at large, one generation of a family does not necessarily build on the achievements of another.’ There is an explanation of low dog ownership in his community – dogs are ‘relentlessly loyal and proffer extremes of emotion… given the neediness and emotional hysteria of the average Asian extended family, that’s the last thing we need.’

Apart from the entertainment value, I realized that I have read various versions of the female Indian or Pakistani view of life in Britain (eg books by Meera Syal) but nothing from the male view except Hanif Kureishi.

I thought the ending gave only an outline of how events panned out, I’d have liked more detail, but that’s a compliment to the author as I liked the characters so much by this time.

One thing I loved was that each chapter had the title of a magazine that might have been sold in the family newsagent business, chosen to reflect the events of the chapter. (One of them was Bunty, mentioned in yesterday’s entry.)

Another version of the marriage plot for young men came with Jeffrey Eugenides’ book of that name.

The top picture, from Wikimedia Commons, is called Shalwar Kameez colours. The second picture, also Wikimedia, shows a group of women in India in their shalwar kameez. The spelling varies as it is a transliteration: the outfit is widely worn in the sub-continent. Chappals are sandals.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

published 2014, set in 1934

[Daisy and Hazel are leaving school to visit the Willow café]

When we leave school grounds we are supposed to wear our uniforms, but of course it is no good trying to go anywhere grown-up wearing your pinafore and school tie, and the Willow is certainly grown-up. In summer you have to put on your mufti, then your school clothes over the top (breathing in so Matron doesn’t notice the difference ), and as soon as you’re out of school, wriggle out of your uniform. In winter, though, you can get away with just wearing your school coat and hat out of House and bundling them into a bush as soon as you’re out of sight down the hill. Of course, once you’ve done that, you have to grit your teeth and freeze…

[After visiting the Willow] I thumped straight into someone coming the other way down the street. I yelped and the other person exclaimed in annoyance. Then I gave a gasp of surprise. I was staring up at the chestnut curls and regal nose of King Henry [another schoolgirl]. As soon as she saw us, she spun on her heel and marched away up the street again – but I was sure that she had been about to go into the Willow.

observations: After yesterday's murder story set in a boys' school, Josephine Bell's Death at Half-Term, here's one set in a girls's school of the same era, but written now. 

This is the first in a projected series about schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, who are at a boarding school in England in the 1930s. It is slightly hard to imagine where the future cases are going to come from:
We solved The Case of Lavinia’s Missing Tie. The solution to that, of course, was that Clementine stole it in revenge for Lavinia punching her in the stomach during lacrosse, which was Lavinia’s revenge for Clementine telling everyone Lavinia came from a broken home.
The book is for children, but someone with a taste for Golden Age detection fiction can’t resist taking a look. It’s a straight mixture of two genres: traditional school story and traditional murder mystery, and there is no winking or irony or modern ideas in there – you could just about imagine that this was written at the time. I was quite surprised when Matron ‘whacked us both around the head.’

The author says that she loves Agatha Christie, who of course wrote the wonderful Cat Among The Pigeons, set in a girls’ boarding school. There are also echoes of Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, the Enid Blyton school stories set at Malory Towers and St Clare’s, and Antonia Forest’s school stories. There is even a group of girls called The Marys, which for some of us means the girls' magazine Bunty, and the  comic strip The Four Marys. (Which went on for years – my daughter, 2nd generation Bunty reader, asked me once how old they were supposed to be. ‘They must be 104 at least’, I replied).

Anyway, Hazel finds the body of Miss Bell the science teacher, in the gym. The body disappears, and Miss Bell supposedly has ‘resigned’ so the two third formers investigate themselves, making lists of suspects and alibis. Maps are provided. They work their way through various suspects, till everyone is either dead or eliminated, then find the solution more or less by chance. But that’s fine. It’s not a stunning mystery, but it’s an enjoyable book, and one that I hope young people might like, so they get a taste for murder mysteries.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Death at Half-Term by Josephine Bell

published 1939

As they went in the excited babble of conversation was checked and the group of players, fantastic and incongruous in their stage clothes, broke up to admit them to their stricken leader.

He lay on his back near the show-case on which his own clothes and possessions were piled. He had not started to undress and the wig and beard were still in place, together with the stage bandage in which he had made his final appearance in the play. It was impossible to determine his colour on account of the grease-paint, but the stertorous breathing and the flaccid condition of his limbs made diagnosis obvious…. Sonia Fenton, who had watched with large frightened eyes, gave a loud sob.

‘This is his wife’, explained George Lemming in a hushed voice

observations: It is half-term this week in most English schools – a much needed break for children, staff and parents - so a good time to look at this strange book.

My friend Sergio, of the Bloody Murder/ Tipping my Fedora blog, covered this book for Rich Westwood’s Past Offences ‘books of 1939’ meme. (My book of 1939 was a detective story by Georgette Heyer, here on the blog.)

He didn’t like it much.

I commented that I liked the sound: a murder story of that era, set during a performance of Twelfth Night in a boys’ preparatory school, combined my favourite features, and had to be worth a try. Sergio generously passed on his copy of the book to me (could it be… that he couldn’t imagine ever needing to read it again?) and I started to read with some optimism.

Alas I was sadly disappointed. I have read and enjoyed other books by Josephine Bell (on the blog here and here), but this one is a dud. After I’d finished the book I went back and counted up: in the first 25 pages she introduces 42 characters by name – parents, staff, schoolboys, actors – and that doesn’t include the character names from Twelfth Night: the reader is expected to keep in her head who is playing at least eight of the cast, as Bell sometimes refers to them by character name, and who appears in the final scenes is relevant to the plot. I don’t normally complain about this, and (like most crime fiction readers) I’m pretty good at keeping characters and family arrangements in my head. (The only comparable book in my view is the dread Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien, which has more characters than pages.) But most of these characters are unnecessary and irrelevant, and I still have no idea who Hugh and Margaret were.

The murder isn’t that interesting. There is something to throw off timings, which is similar to an event in Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon. The schoolboys occasionally have an entertaining moment. There is nothing much to pin the book to 1939, although I did like the very Clothes-in-Books-ish revelation that the headmaster asked the visiting actors to dress properly for church: coats (I think meaning jackets) for the men, no sandals, and frocks not slacks for the girls. There is also an implication that nail varnish on toenails is rather fast.

But really not a lot to recommend this book. But thank you Sergio for passing it on!

The picture is from a 1917 book illustrating popular operas: close examination would tell you this was Puccini’s ‘shabby little shocker’ Tosca, but the photo did seem to resemble very closely the description above.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Dress Down Sunday: Book of 1932

the book: Darkness at Pemberley by TH White

published 1932


Meanwhile, darkness had fallen. Kingdom stood alone in the gathering dusk of the old house whilst the great hall sank about him imperceptibly through waves and waves of gloom. The invisibility welled up from the distant corners and sank downwards from the domed ceiling, gradually stealing its last glints from the chandelier. At last only the silent ghost of a white moustache hung suspended in the night…. 

Outside was the silence and tangible darkness of the passage, leading, further off, to the hall’s absorbing void, and to all the great and little deserted clocks of the household, ticking in separate persistence: unwatched, tenacious, uninforming. All the wainscots of all the rooms concerted about him in their stealthy rustle. The heart beat slower and slower… 


Buller found everybody awake when he got back.
Kingdom was in the passage. Elizabeth was sitting with Wilder and Charles in the latter’s room. She was in green pyjamas and a man’s thick blue dressing gown.

Buller said heartily: “Well, how are the refugees?”

“Perishing and terrified,” said Elizabeth. “What was it all about?”

observations: This month, Rich Westwood has chosen the year 1932 for the classic crime meme on his Past Offences blog. (See the fascinating previous roundups of entries: 1963 in June, 1939 in July, 1952 in August, 1958 in September). And he asked for spooky entries if possible, to mark Halloween.

Well, spooky is one word for this book. Another is ‘preposterous’. But I’ve done my best to choose some suitable passages…

TH White is best known for The Once and Future King, his sequence of books on King Arthur, and the basis for the Disney film The Sword in the Stone. This was an earlier work, perhaps when he was looking for the right genre. It’s fair to say crime fiction probably wasn’t his genre…

The book starts well. There are two deaths in and around a Cambridge college. There is some funny business with a gramophone, which seems to show when one of the crimes occurred, and there are fully 3 map/plans: showing the college, a don’s room, and the position of the college in Cambridge (allowing us to work out that the fictional St Bernard’s lives on the site of the real-life Queens’ College). We get this truly faultless line: 

“Why,” pursued the Inspector, “did the Master, who is a drug addict, post a letter to Beedon containing a blank sheet of paper with his signature in invisible ink?”

But then, less than a third of the way through, we find out who did the murder, and how, and why. We are told that it will be impossible to prove the case, and wham, the only partial witness – the porter – is dead too.

Now the book goes completely bonkers. The action moves to Pemberley in Derbyshire, ancestral home of the Darcy family from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice. The descendants of Darcy & Elizabeth Bennett – a brother and sister called Charles and Elizabeth – are friends of the investigating policeman from Cambridge, and via a plot device I can’t bear to describe, the College murderer turns his attention to the house and family, and puts all of them under threat. There is a lot of creeping around the house in the dark, as above, and ghostly attacks in locked rooms. Eventually they work out how this is being done, and think they can catch the murderer out. But he escapes and everyone careers round the countryside in fast cars, before ending up back at the house for a ridiculous climax.

There were two bits of this farrago that I particularly enjoyed. After one beloved character is murdered, Charles comforts Elizabeth (who is desperately upset) by saying ‘He was 69. He couldn’t have lived very much longer.’ (This IS a young man’s book). And Elizabeth later, lying in bed, has this moment of self-searching: ‘she felt her arms in the darkness. They were empty. She was getting old, she supposed. She was getting fat. She must bant.’

(To bant is to go on a diet.)

The next line is: 'At this moment she became conscious that there was somebody in the room.'

If you feel from this blogpost that you know for sure whether you would want to read this book or not, then I have done my job. 

**** ADDED LATER: To redress the balance: There are more enthusiastic reviews of the book on Sergio's Tipping My Fedora blog, and on Yvette's in so many words. (Thanks Prashant for pointing me in the right direction).

The pictures are all from the film Palm Beach Story, starring the queen of pyjama-wearing, Claudette Colbert – I particularly admire the outfit in the 3rd picture, entirely made from items picked up around her train carriage, so including the towel and pyjamas. It featured in a very early blog entry, here, and you can see her in lounging pyjamas in this entry.

The Possession of Delia Sutherland by Barbara Neil

published 1993

[Delia Sutherland has moved to the north of Scotland, and is hearing from her solicitor what is going on in her family home. Curtis is the butler.]

‘The last time I went down to stay over, like I used to with you, dear old Curtis served the two of us dinner in full evening dress.’ He was silent.

I realised he thought he’d finished and that it was my turn to speak. ‘Nothing wrong with that.’

‘A lady’s evening dress, Delia. A lady’s one. Long, blue jewelled bodice and full skirt…. In and out he sailed with the courses. I didn’t know where to look.’

Making out the view from the window was all of a sudden more interesting than what he was saying. I stood close to it…. ‘What did Leon say?’

‘Nothing until dinner was over.’


‘”He’s better in pink.”’

David at last seemed to guess something about my response because he came over, took my arm. ‘Come and sit down again.’

observations: This is a very strange book indeed – one that kept turning into a different kind of novel every time I thought I’d got a handle on it. Early on it seems to be one of my Books like I Capture the Castle, but it turns into something more dysfunctional and odd, heading through Molly Keane territory into Edward St Aubyn’s world.

Delia is a standard heroine – very upper-class, living in posh poverty, she is awkward and not one of the popular girls. But one day an unusual man turns up, Francis Sutherland, and he can see through to her Amazonian inner beauty – an illumination that crops up a lot in books, less so in real life perhaps, and mentioned in this blog entry. They marry: he is luckily very rich so can save the estate. She loves the land, loves farming and husbandry. He is more glamorous and enjoys the high life. Things go wrong between them in a way that seems avoidable. There is a letter that is left stupidly unread and thus causes more problems. The story is told in a strange flashback style which is quite difficult to follow, and the timeframe is hard to understand, and seems to hold inconsistencies. But it is an enjoyable book, and goes off in directions I think most readers simply will not expect, to the extent that there is a moment when surely those readers will be shouting ‘No!’ at Delia’s decisions. There is an illegitimate child, a death, and a strange inheritance.

Book and author seem to have disappeared, which is a pity. I would be interested to read another by Neil just because I cannot imagine what her other books (she wrote quite a few) would be like.

The picture, from Wikimedia Commons, is of the Victorian female impersonator known as Stella Boulton, aka Ernest Boulton (and from a good century before the book's setting.)

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Book Case by Nelson DeMille

published 2012

I walked to the staircase, which had a sign saying PRIVATE, and began the corkscrew climb. On the way, I tried to recall the two or three times I’d interacted with Mr. Otis Parker here in his store. He was a bearded guy in his early sixties, but could have looked younger if he’d bought a bottle of Grecian Formula. He dressed well, and I remember thinking— the way cops do— that he must have had another source of income. Maybe this store was a front for something. Or maybe I read too many crime novels. I also recalled that Mr. Parker was a bit churlish—though I’d heard him once talking enthusiastically to a customer about collector’s editions, which he sold in the back of the store. I’d sized him up as a man who liked his books more than he liked the people who bought them. In short, a typical bookstore owner.

observations: This short story – a Kindle Single – was recommended to me by my friend Prashant C Trikkanad, of the Chess Comics Crosswords blog. He read my recent entry on the book Miss by LE Usher, set in a London bookshop, and told me of this one, set in a NY bookstore. I’m a fan of Nelson DeMille, and of stories set in bookshops, and a 99p short story doesn’t break my current book-buying embargo, so I was good to go.

It is short and very funny, and tells a fair enough tale of murder in a NY crime bookstore, investigated by one of DeMille’s regular characters, John Corey. DeMille has fun with the whole trope of crime books, shops and publishing – this is typical:
The window on the right featured contemporary bestselling authors like Brad Meltzer, James Patterson, David Baldacci, Nelson DeMille, and others who make more money writing about what I do than I make doing what I do.
I don’t read many of the big best-selling thriller writers, but I make an exception for DeMille - I have enjoyed several of his books, and I really like his humour. I like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books too, but DeMille is much funnier and more light-hearted: he doesn’t take himself too seriously. I have seen occasional complaints of misogyny in DeMille and that always surprises me - his heroes are somewhat unreconstructed, but I find the women characters good, and his attitudes (not quite all the time, but mostly) very real and pro-women.

The photograph, from Flickr, is from the Nantucket Historical Association.