Tuesday, 25 April 2017

TNB: A is for…. Agatha (Again) and Ackroyd

The Tuesday Night Bloggers are a group of crime fiction fans who choose a different topic each month, then write a weekly post on it. Our current theme is 'A is for April, A is for Anything'. We can take the A any way we want to, so there have been some very varied blogposts….

A for April logo

Please join in if you would like to – one-offs and casuals always welcome.

This month I am collecting the links, so just let me know (in the comments below or on Facebook) if you have anything to add.

Brad at the Ah Sweet Mystery blog did a post on Alfred Hitchcock

Kate at Cross-Examing Crime looked at Aristocratic Sleuths

The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel is wondering about favourite  Agatha Christie novels, and looking for audience participation

As ever, Bev at  My Reader’s Block did the splendid logo.

In previous weeks I have done posts on Agatha Christie, Catherine Aird, and Patricia Wentworth’s seminal Anna Where Are You

And this week I am back to Agatha Christie, and one of her most famous works:

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

published 1926
Ackroyd'England is very beautiful,' said Poirot, his eyes straying over the prospect. Then he smiled. 'And so are English girls,' he said in a lower voice. 'Hush, my friend, and look at the pretty picture below us.'

It was then that I saw Flora. She was moving along the path we had just left and she was humming a little snatch of song. Her step was more dancing than walking, and, in spite of her black dress, there was nothing but joy in her whole attitude. She gave a sudden pirouette on her toes, and her black draperies swung out. At the same time she flung her head back and laughed outright.

As she did so a man stepped out from the trees. It was Hector Blunt.

The girl started. Her expression changed a little.

'How you startled me - I didn't see you.' Blunt said nothing, but stood looking at her for a minute or two in silence.

Ackroyd kimono

bonus picture…

[Earlier, when the body was discovered, Flora was in bed] Flora descended the staircase. She was wrapped in a pale pink silk kimono. She looked anxious and excited.

commentary: As I am forever saying, a middling murder story is much the best one to re-read: you may well not remember the solution, or important details, and such a book can be full of surprises. But no-one who has read it will have forgotten the solution of Roger Ackroyd (and that’s true for at least a dozen other Christies too) – so is there any interest in re-reading?

Yes, definitely, is my experience. First of all you can admire the writing – there must be 20 different points, tiny unnoticed turns of phrase, that mean something new when you know the secret. And secondly, it is full of fascinating details of the time and the place and the kind of village they all live in. And thirdly it is a very entertaining and very funny book.

It’s more than 90 years old (astonishingly) and that adds interesting points – someone has made a fortune in wagon wheels (no, not the chocolate snack beloved of 1970s youth), dictaphones and lie detectors are new and mysterious, and one character has made his own wireless. The attitudes are old-fashioned too: is the maid too well-educated? – but at least she is still prepared to wear a cap and apron. A proper flapper young lady has ‘boyish shoulders and slight hips’. And a goose quill, intriguingly, brings a suggestion of drug-taking. Poirot has a mysterious housekeeper – an old lady in a Breton cap. Whatever became of her? (Buried under the vegetable marrows perhaps.)

The relationship between Dr Sheppard and his sister Caroline is hilarious. At one point she is longing to tell her brother the latest gossip, but then in mid-story he mentions in passing that he has met their new and unknown neighbor (who is going to turn out to be Poirot):
Caroline visibly wavered for a second or two, much as if a roulette ball might coyly hover between two numbers. Then she declined the tempting red herring.
So she continues with her story of a male character meeting up secretly with an unknown female. Her brother then says:
‘I suppose you hurried on to the Three Boars, felt faint, and went into the bar for a glass of brandy, and so were able to see if both the barmaids were on duty?’
It’s been suggested that Caroline contains the seeds of Miss Marple, and you can totally see Miss M counting the barmaids in the pub in an attempt to identify an unknown girl.

There is a Mah Jong party at which information, gossip, rumour and speculation are exchanged, and it is a tour de force of village life and jokes –
‘The Chinese put down the tiles so quickly it sounds like little birds pattering.’
For some minutes we played like the Chinese.
It is as funny as anything from EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia.

As a detective story – Christie plays fair, but there is information which is not given to the reader. It is so hard now to imagine someone reading it for the first time, and not being ultra-aware, looking out for a surprise twist: but I think a blank reader would be unlikely to guess the solution. Two secret meetings in, and a separate visit from the murderer to, the summer-house: sounds a bit much, but Christie never really minded that. I loved the silver table – such an Agatha Christie item in books and in real life; she was an avid, manic, magpie-like collector of bits and pieces, and you can see shed-loads of them at her house in Devon, Greenway. But I still don’t know why Miss Russell closed the silver table… And I don’t know why neither Sheppard or Parker thought of going round to the window when they were worried that Ackroyd wasn’t responding.

The ending is sad and creepy, as much so as the first time I read the book, which must be 40 years ago.

Truly this is one of the great detective stories of all time, and will be read forever.

Flora in black is a 1929 photo from Kristine’s photostream.

Pink silk kimono is by Frederick Carl Frieseke, from the Athenaeum.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Dress Down Sunday: About Last Night…. By Catherine Alliott

published 2017


About Last Night

‘What’s this, by the way?’

I turned, mid-riffle. Lucy was gingerly extracting a purple thong with a fingertip and thumb from a pile she’d found on the table.
‘What d’you think it is? I’m branching out from the gents’ boxers into ladies’s stuff. Is my phone under there?’ I dived beneath the towering pile of lingerie.

‘Why so sparkly?’ She peered at the encrusted sequins on the front.

‘Because it excites the gentleman friend, I imagine – or maybe it excites the lady as she’s trollying round boring old Tesco’s – I don’t know, use your imagination. Ring my phone, would you, Luce?’ I patted my pockets, glancing about the chaotic kitchen.

‘And you’re charging nineteen pounds fifty?’ She blinked at the price tag in astonishment.

I snatched it. ‘OK, make it Waitrose.’

She dropped the thong disdainfully back on the pile. ‘So the Faulkner family are flogging kinky underwear now, are they? Classy.’

About Last Night 2

commentary: About Last Night… is a light romantic yummy mummy book, grownup chicklit, with some entertaining passages. It would be an ideal holiday or aeroplane read.

The narrator, Molly, is a widow and – as shown in the extract – doing whatever is necessary to keep the family afloat. She lives in the country on a smallholding with two of her children, and she also sells underwear and soap by mail order. Life is tough, money a constant worry, and she has concerns about her children. But she has a good relationship with them (there is some shockingly realistic dialogue between parent and child…) and has friends and neighbours all around. Then the possibility of an inheritance pops up, and she considers going back to London – somewhere she only left because her now-dead husband wanted to move to the country. And it turns out there are some secrets in her past, and the truth (about her marriage and that move out of the city) is not simple.

The book is amusing, and an easy read – and Alliott tells a story well, as I think the extract above shows: she is good at convincing dialogue that moves the plot along, and tells you about the characters, and entertains. At times the book resembles (of all unlikely things) Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals - feisty widow, unruly children, no money, unsuitable adventures.

I wasn’t convinced by the sudden changes of tone, and the varying realism of the story – the exchanges with the hideous teenage children were some of the best bits of the book, and the author moved towards talking about betrayal, infidelity and bereavement, guilt and grief. But then she would be off on some ridiculous comedy moment, with the heroine behaving in a way that was not endearing, but just annoying: could she really be that stupid? And, I suppose it’s a convention that you can spot who she is going to end up with from his very first appearance, but it did take some of the tension out of the plot.

Also,  the plot is based on two premises:
1) Our heroine Molly is widowed, and is very poor because she had to pay death duties
2) This situation is going to be alleviated because a relation of her dead husband’s has died intestate, and Molly will inherit.
Now, both these premises are faulty – she wouldn’t have to pay inheritance tax on her spouse’s estate, and she cannot inherit from the dead uncle-by-marriage if not specifically named (her children can, but she cannot).

And so yet again I voice my dreary cri de coeur: did NOBODY reading this book at an early stage spot these very basic problems? This is a best-selling author, presumably a prized author. She is apparently married to a barrister. She is published by a serious major publishing house. She must have agents and editors and friends who read the manuscript. God knows, the plot isn’t trying to be realistic but still these are such basic problems… The geography didn’t seem to make much sense either – real-life experience says that it is not quite so easy and quick to whizz up to London from Herefordshire by train (and back again in a twinkle) as her characters seem to find it.

But I  shouldn’t be so picky – I think Alliott has a lot of fans who will love this book, and I cannot deny its entertainment value.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Touchstone by Edith Wharton

published 1900
Touchstone 1

[A young man is visiting for the first time the grave of someone he knew years before]

The monument rose before him like some pretentious uninhabited dwelling: he could not believe that Margaret Aubyn lay there. It was a Sunday morning, and black figures moved among the paths, placing flowers on the frost-bound hillocks. Glennard noticed that the neighboring graves had been thus newly dressed, and he fancied a blind stir of expectancy through the sod, as though the bare mounds spread a parched surface to that commemorative rain. He rose presently and walked back to the entrance of the cemetery. 

Several greenhouses stood near the gates, and turning in at the first he asked for some flowers.

“Anything in the emblematic line?” asked the anæmic man behind the dripping counter. Glennard shook his head. “Just cut flowers? This way then.”

Touchstone 3

The florist unlocked a glass door and led him down a moist green aisle. The hot air was choked with the scent of white azaleas, white lilies, white lilacs; all the flowers were white: they were like a prolongation, a mystic efflorescence, of the long rows of marble tombstones, and their perfume seemed to cover an odor of decay. The rich atmosphere made Glennard dizzy. As he leaned in the doorway, waiting for the flowers, he had a penetrating sense of Margaret Aubyn’s nearness— not the imponderable presence of his inner vision, but a life that beat warm in his arms… The sharp air caught him as he stepped out into it again. He walked back and scattered the flowers over the grave. The edges of the white petals shrivelled like burnt paper in the cold; and as he watched them the illusion of her nearness faded, shrank back frozen.

Touchstone 2

commentary: Edith Wharton is one of my favourite authors, and her characters are usually very well-dressed, so it is surprising and inexplicable that none of her books has featured on the blog before – though she has been mentioned a lot, and I have an important theory that Bridget Jones’ Diary, while following the structure of Pride and Prejudice, is more like House of Mirth.

Touchstone is a novella, and was published before any of the novels on which her reputation rests, although she produced a vast amount of work in many different genres along the way. This one has a most fascinating setup: Glennard is a young man who wants to get married, but has no money. When even younger, he was the love-object of a well-known woman writer, and she sent him many letters. He realizes that there would be enormous public interest in the letters, and he arranges to have them published. He makes pots of money and is able to marry his love, and to invest in a sure thing.

His name is kept out of this (this seems a touch unlikely in fact) – no-one knows that he is the loved one. The letters are a scandalous success, and he knows that many people are shocked that the recipient sold them. Although he now has everything he wants, he feels more and more guilty, imagines that other people are judging him, and fears that his wife would hate him if she knew the truth. Can he put things right?

It's not the best of her works, with nothing like the depth of House or Mirth or Age of Innocence, and is full of those rather dreary notions of shame and honour that try the patience of later readers. But it is very compelling – no reader can not want to know how this pans out – and very short.

I’ve also been reading her short story A Bottle of Perrier from 1926, a very different matter. My friend Curt over at The Passing Tramp wrote about it a few years ago, describing it as Thirsty Evil, I only came across the blogpost recently, and immediately had to read the story. It is a terrifying and atmospheric affair, about a young American, Medford, who goes to visit a friend in a lonely crumbling Crusader castle on the edge of a  desert in the Near East. His friend isn’t there, but is imminently expected. Medford waits, and chats to his friend’s servant, and wonders what is going on. Once you start reading it you cannot put it down, it is a superb story, one that gave me the chills. (It was, interestingly enough, originally called A Bottle of Evian. Was there some product placement going on?) I strongly recommend that you go over to Curt’s review, and defy you not to want to read the story when you’ve finished his post.

One of Wharton’s most famous stories – and deservedly so - is Roman Fever, published in 1934. The entire action takes place in about half an hour of conversation between two American matrons as they sit on a Roman terrace enjoying the sun. Their two daughters have gone off on an expedition, and they chat in a desultory way. But the conversation gets tighter and tighter, and harsher, and they uncover their memories of an incident that happened many years before… The story is famous for its neat last line, carefully closing up the story.

Edith Wharton’s works are available on Project Gutenberg, or you can buy her complete works for a Kindle very cheaply.

The very beautiful pictures from graveyards come from my favourite photographer: PerryPhotography.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Book of 1977: The Fan by Bob Randall

published 1977

The Fan
The Fan 2

commentary: This is my 1977 book for Rich Westwood’s Crime of the Century meme at Past Offences.

John over at Pretty Sinister Books reminded me about this one, saying:
I read it when it first came out when I was a teenager. I thought it was great. I may see it in another light now that forty years have passed. THE FAN is rather unusual for a 1970s book as it’s entirely composed of letters, memos, and notes and was cleverly designed using different letterheads and typefaces for each letter. All before the age of personal computers and digital publishing, of course. So I think that made it rather expensive and time consuming to layout and print. It was turned into a movie (a quasi-musical, no less) starring Lauren Bacall and James Garner.
Although there are large areas where our tastes do not overlap at all, every so often there is a book that only John and I seem to have read – and this may be one of them. I too loved this book as a young person, I thought it was very clever, very funny, and rather devastating.

And it stood up well on another reading. It’s the story of Sally Ross, a movie star who is about to do a stage-show on Broadway. She has an ex-husband, (Jake), a terrific assistant, (Belle), good friends, and neighbours who think she’s too noisy. And she has a fan: her biggest fan, an obsessive young man who is about to go over the edge.

The book is very cleverly told through letters – and as John says, it is laid out really well, which is why I have copied the page above rather than typing it out.

The Fan, Douglas, writes to Sally: letters which start out simply being quite keen, and then get more and more deranged. For the first half of the book Sally is unaware, and the reader follows her life as she rehearses, meets a new man, and continues her delightful relationship with her ex-husband, as above. Eventually she realizes something is badly wrong, and that Douglas is threatening her, but by this time it is hard to track him down, and the tension rises: the reader knows far more about Douglas than either Sally or the police. The final pages are terrifying.

The film was not a success, and Lauren Bacall apparently said it was far too gruesome and violent: she wanted it to be a film about an older woman’s life and choices. Bacall was (it becomes ever more apparent) a complete diva, often totally unreasonable, but she may have a point here, though I haven’t seen the film so can’t be too judgemental. The character development via the letters is superbly done – Randall was an excellent writer. He obviously intended there to be a huge and growing contrast between the sunny tone of Sally’s exchanges with her friends, and the sad downward spiral of Douglas’s life. But there were times when you’d just want to ditch the madness plot and hear more about Sally.

As a book of 1977 – it’s very much a time of A Chorus Line and Cabaret on Broadway, of Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett. New York is on its way to being down and out, dirty and dangerous and glamorous, not yet polished up. And the world of musicals and showbiz is going to be hit by AIDS in a few years time, but doesn’t know it yet.

I very much hope John will read this book too, look forward to hearing his views.

There is very little in the way of clothes description in the book, so I found this perfume advert from a 1977 fashion magazine – I feel it gives an idea of Sally’s mystery and charm.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Tuesday Night Club: A is for Aird

The Tuesday Night Bloggers are a group of crime fiction fans who choose a different topic each month, then write a weekly post on it. Our current theme is 'A is for April, A is for Anything'. We can take the A any way we want to, so look out for some varied blogposts.

A for April logo

And of course please join in if you would like to – one-offs and casuals always welcome.

This month I am collecting the links, so just let me know (in the comments below or on Facebook) if you have anything to add.

This week's links: 

Kate over at Cross-Examining Crime looked at A for Alibis

And Brad at Ah Sweet Mystery did An Anatomy of an Adaptation

As ever, Bev at My Reader’s Block did the splendid logo.

We tend to go for Golden Age books, but after all there are no rules this month – A is for Anything. So I have chosen to write about a book by Catherine Aird, who is Anyway generally Agreed to be very much in the tradition of the Golden Age.



His Burial Too by Catherine Aird

published 1973

HIs Burial Too

She was framed by the classical lines of the Georgian doorway. She stood quite still as she regarded the three policemen. There was something a little unexpected about her appearance—almost foreign. It took Sloan a moment or two to pin down what it was—and then it came to him. It was her clothes. It was high summer in England and this girl was wearing dark brown. Not a floral silk pattern, not a cheerful cotton, nor even a pastel linen such as his own wife, Margaret, was wearing today. But dark brown. It was a simple, utterly plain dress, unadorned save for a solitary string of beads. He was surprised to note that the whole effect was strangely cool-looking on such a hot day. There was the faintest touch of auburn in the colouring of her hair which was replicated in the brown of the dress.

A purist might have said that her mouth was rather too big to be perfect but …

Sloan wasn’t a purist.

He was a policeman.

On duty.
commentary: I picked up this one on the recommendation of my friend Sergio, over at Tipping my Fedora: he reviewed it last year and got my interest going.

It has a crackerjack setup: a body is buried under a massive marble statue, which has fallen on the victim inside a church tower in such a way that no-one can get in or out. It’s absurdly over-the-top, and completely unbelievable, but terrific fun – and the solution is completely unbelievable too so there’s a certain symmetry there.

The thought of this ridiculous plot has been entertaining me ever since I began reading - and the book as a whole is very  entertaining. The giant marble statue
“…was a weeping widow and ten children all mourning the father. You know the sort of thing, sir… This one’s called the Fitton Bequest. A memorial to remember Mr Fitton by …” 

“I should have thought myself,” remarked Leeyes, “that ten children were …" 
“The workmen moved it into the church tower last week,” went on Sloan hastily.

It takes a while to move the lump, so the body can’t be identified for a while, though the doctor does his best to reach some conclusions, and there is a local man gone missing…

As Sergio points out, there are far too many red herrings – something seems frightfully important and full of meaning, and then suddenly we find out that there was a simple, irrelevant explanation. Meanwhile there is much stress on the Italian ways of the young woman above – who has just come back from the country -  her connections, the contrast with English ways: but all that is left hanging at the end.

The choppy style – short sentences as at the end of the extract above – gets wearing. But Aird has a light touch, with some funny running jokes such as the very stupid assistant to our own Inspector Sloane, and the bad driving of the doctor:
The Dean of Calleford, a blameless man whose faith was seemingly as firm as that of anyone in the diocese, had once tried to get out of Dr Dabbe’s moving car, wishing he had led a better life the while.
There’s a character called George Osborne, and a reference to ‘going into the hush’ as a slang term for going into the countryside – a usage I cannot find anywhere else.

Catherine Aird offers a very enjoyable 70s take on a Golden Age mystery: her settings are pleasantly of their time, but the conventions very much of earlier crime stories. And they are guaranteed entertainment, and short. I am getting to like Inspector Sloane a lot.

I do recommend Sergio’s blogpost on the book.

For more Catherine Aird books, click on the label below.

The picture is from the Clover Vintage Tumbler.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter Sunday


Prayer By George Herbert

published 1633

Easter Sunday

Prayer the church's banquet, angel's age,
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth
Engine against th' Almighty, sinner's tow'r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

[George Herbert lived from 1593 to 1633. His poems in English were published together in 1633.]

Happy Easter to all blog readers

Picture is Easter Service by Mikhail Germashev from the Athenaeum website.

Friday, 14 April 2017

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

published 2017

[three extracts from different parts of the book]
At the Edge of the Orchard 1

[Sadie is describing a visitor, John Chapman] He had long greasy hair and a beard stained yellow round his mouth chewin baccy,, and he wore a coffee sack belted round the middle with a piece of rope, and holes cut out for the neck and arms. He looked like a crazed swamp man, but we was glad to see him, as there weren’t a whole lotta folks around and it was a treat to get a visitor, even a crazy one.

At the Edge of the Orchard 3

[Sadie describes the family's life] End of the day there’d be mud tracked everywhere, a pile of muddy boots by the door, food on the floor where Caleb and Nathan dropped it. But for now it was all prepared and ready for a day of battlin the Black Swamp. We werent livin with the land, but alive despite it. Cause it wanted to kill us every chance it got, either the skeeters or the fever or the mud or the damp or the heat or the cold… Sometimes durin the cold spells when the snow high against the house, all seven of us would be huddlin by the fire wrapped in quilts and not movin the whole day cept to feed the animals and the fire and ourselves.

At the Edge of the Orchard 5

[Robert has moved to California] Robert had witnessed a Fourth of July cotillion where 32 people had danced on the Great Stump, with enough space for the musicians as well. The cotillion had made the newspapers in Stockton and Sacramento and even San Francisco, with a drawing of the dance published alongside the articles. They were more like advertisements than news, orchestrated by Billie Lapham to publicize Calaveras Grove.

At the Edge of the Orchard 6
commentary: At times this book is as dark and bleak as a book can be, and the character of Sadie is extraordinary – I doubt I’ll read about a more memorable fictional woman this year. Tracy Chevalier doesn’t hold back: the reader wants so much to like her, keeps expecting that there will be some softening, that she will start behaving better or showing some love or affection, but she keeps right on going…

The action runs from 1838 to 1856: starting out in the Black Swamp of Ohio, a place that is just as horrible as it sounds. The Goodenough family have staked a claim to a smallholding, and are growing apples. The character mentioned in the first extract is John Chapman, who is an American folkhero known as Johnny Appleseed (I had never heard of him till I went to live in the USA in the 90s, and found out about him via children’s books), who carries apple seeds and seedlings by boat to the farming families. 

The book goes into considerable detail about growing apples, starting out with distinguishing between eaters and spitters – the spitters are cider apples. James and Sadie have a number of children and have to work through every bad circumstance you could think of, and then some, and also fight each other with great bitterness, utterly vicious. There is ‘swamp fever’, which seems to be malaria:
Almost every year one of his children was picked off, to join the row of graves marked with wooden crosses in a slightly higher spot in the woods not far from the cabin. With each grave he’d had to clear maples and ash to make space to dig. He’d learned to do this in July, before anyone died, so that the body did not have to wait for him to wrestle with the trees’ extensive roots.
Of all the heart-stopping descriptions of children dying…

The story is compelling but very downbeat, but then just in time the action moves and follows one of the sons who leaves home, and we follow him over the next few years. Robert does many different things, but in the end he turns out to be as obsessed by trees as his father was – not just apple trees either. He gets involved in plant collection, but also is tied up with the extraordinary Calaveras Grove – a real-life grove of giant sequoia trees. The descriptions of the trees and the surroundings are amazing, absolutely riveting, sticking in my mind.

At one point Billie Lapham (a real-life character) is bothered by seedlings from the trees going to England:
“England! You plant redwoods there, nobody’ll come from there to see Cally Grove trees.”
(Chevalier is always careful to distinguish between redwoods and sequoias, but some of the characters in the book are less careful.)

I don’t know what happens to the seedlings in the book, but I can tell Billie that he’s wrong – from when I was a child I always longed to see the giant trees of California, and it was one of the great adventures of my life when I achieved my ambition – and particularly when I drove through a redwood tree.

At the Edge of the Orchard 4

The story goes back into the past so we finally find out what happened to the family, why Robert left, and then it’s back to finish off the story of the Goodenoughs.

I’m not sure I’ve made much of a hand at describing the book, with its multiple voices. But I can say it was a wonderful book, I loved it, though that may be because I am as fascinated by big trees as the book is. Maybe other people would be less entranced?

One thing – talking about The Dollmaker, Harriette Arnow’s masterpiece, recently I argued with the book’s contention that living in the country was automatically much better than living in the city, that it was a straight black and white distinction. Now this book has no such feeling, and is quite plain about the horrors of dirt farming, and swamps, and the misery of being a long way to town. Evidence for the prosecution? - this book is knock-out evidence.

Picture of Johnny Appleseed is a mural in Mansfield Ohio, from the Library of Congress.
The Library of Congress has a fascinating collection of old photos showing the trees at Calaveras Grove, a key setting for the book – anyone who reads the book and is interested should go and take a look, as it’s an amazing opportunity to see what Chevalier is writing about. I was spoilt for choice.

All the tree photos are from Library of Congress.

The drawing is of people dancing on the treestump.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman by Mindy Mejia

published 2017

Last Act of Hattie Hoffman 2Last Act of Hattie Hoffman

I pulled up at school in Greg’s old truck and waved at Portia, who was just walking in. She waited for me.

‘OMG, I love it,’ Portia said, eyeing my outfit as I walked up. ‘Turn around.’

‘You like?’ I did a catwalk turn. My first-day-of-school outfit was the best New York impression I could find in the Apache mall in Rochester – a black pencil skirt and a gray twinset with my black church heels that had the pointy toes…

‘You’re so East Coast, darling.’

‘And you are totally California chic.’ I grinned at her sundress and chunky sunglasses. ‘I guess it makes sense that we’re meeting in the middle.’

Portia laughed, slung her arm through mine, and pulled me inside.

commentary: It’s no use getting too fond of Hattie Hoffman, because she is the victim in the book – there is a dual timeframe, so the story of the investigation (seen through the eyes of the sheriff) is interleaved with her own thoughts on life in the year leading up to her death, and the thoughts of another major character. All three are first person.

This is an unusual and very well-constructed book, and it catches you in unexpected corners. I don’t think anyone could predict its twists and turns, either as plot or at a deeper level in the ways the characters develop and change, and the ways our views of them change.

It is an extremely well-written book, with a level of imagination and an achieved voice that is rare in any literary work. I am, as regular readers know, not one to undervalue crime fiction compared with so-called literary fiction, but this was one book that I almost thought would work better as a novel. It’s apparent to us from early on that Hattie is a very nice person, and very well-liked, although she thinks of herself as ‘different’ from those around her (but then what teenager doesn’t?). She is sure her future must lie in New York City, far away from the small town in Minnesota where she lives, far away from the farmlands and barns and pickup trucks. She catches the eye of a High School football star, she pursues her ambitions to act, she works at the drugstore, and she goes online to research her future in New York – and to meet other potential literary, arty and theatre types.

So you can see there’s plenty of potential for things to go wrong. And they do.

last act of Hattie Hoffman 3

The book features two of her amateur theatre productions – Jane Eyre (‘I’ll wear a grey dress with white cuffs’) and Macbeth – and it shows that she is acting all the time off-stage too: she is presenting herself to people as she thinks they want to see her. So which of her acts brought her to the barn where her life ended? How could such a thing happen to such a girl? Mindy Mejia has answers, and they may be ones that the reader disagrees with. The book is very nuanced, and makes you think hard about behaviour, and results, and responsibility. The US title of the book is Everything You Want Me to Be, and you can make a case for both UK and US choices.

It’s also a funny, warm, charming book (perhaps surprisingly), where you sympathize with all the characters to some extent. Unlike most literary teens, Hattie has a good relationship with her parents, and when her Dad talks about her dating, this is her response:
‘Did you get those convent brochures you’ve been waiting for?’ I yelled at his back and heard him chuckle.
I first heard about this book over at Bernadette’s Reactions to Reading, and her conclusion was that it’s ‘an unsettling, surprising, compelling and ultimately very satisfying read’. And I agree completely.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Tuesday Night Club: A is for Agatha...(of course)

The Tuesday Night Bloggers are a group of crime fiction fans who choose a different topic each month, then write a weekly post on it. Our current theme is 'A is for April, A is for Anything'. We can take the A any way we want to. So look out for some varied blogposts.

A for April logo

And of course please join in if you would like to – one-offs and casuals always welcome.

This month I am collecting the links, so just let me know (in the comments below or on Facebook) if you have anything to add.


Kate, over at cross-examining crime has done a post on Accidental and Amateur Sleuths.

And Brad, at his Ah Sweet Mystery blog, chose Acrimony! Agatha and Adaptations as his theme.

Bev at My Reader’s Block has actually read The April Robin Murders for her post - that's the book she (as ever) found and cleverly adapted for our logo. 

For my first post, I looked at Anna Where Are You?, which turned out to be one of Patricia Wentworth’s best books, as well as having a nice big A at the beginning of the title. Other contributions to the Tuesday Night Club are on the same page.

Given the A theme, there really wasn’t any chance that I wouldn’t do Agatha Christie in some form, as she is such a favourite of mine (and now with her own tab above so you can easily find all the many many entries on her). It occurred to me that I had never written about her first detective story – time to put that right.


The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

published 1920

Styles 1

[Captain Hastings has gone to visit old family friends, while on convalescent leave from serving in the First World War]

We drew up in front of the fine old house. A lady in a stout tweed skirt, who was bending over a flower bed, straightened herself out at our approach.

“Hello, Evie, here’s our wounded hero! Mr Hastings – Miss Howard.”

Miss Howard shook hands with a hearty, almost painful grip. I had an impression of blue eyes in a sunburnt face. She was a pleasant-looking woman of about 40, with a deep voice, almost manly in its stentorian tones, and had a large sensible square body with feet to match – these feet encased in good thick boots.

commentary: So Captain Hastings arrives, narrating, and will shortly introduce us to his old friend Hercule Poirot. It is the  beginning of a trail that will continue for more than 50 years. If you’d read this book in 1920 I imagine it would have seemed a routine detective story, nothing to make it stand out from many others. It has clues, and red herrings, and a dramatic court case, and burnt documents (and so fragments of paper), and a lot about wills.

The relationship between Poirot and Hastings is already set:
“We must be so intelligent that he does not suspect us of being intelligent at all… There, mon ami, you will be of great assistance to me.” 

I was pleased with the compliment.
We see women grabbing the chances offered by the war – some freedom, and jobs on the land or in nursing or a dispensary. Christie herself worked in such a dispensary during the War, gaining her invaluable knowledge of poisons, shown off with clear emphasis in this book.

The life of the country house goes on – there are only 3 gardeners now instead of 5, including a woman gardener in breeches. The large, comfortable house is run by a team of servants – but there is no electric light upstairs, and remarkably few bathrooms. A woman coming by car from the next town arrives swathed in motoring veils.

As ever there is a lot of emphasis on impersonation and disguise – Christie is starting on her lifelong affirmation that one person can become another, or become unrecognizable, with a few simple changes. (Best just to accept this before moving on to the next 70 books.) The house dressing-up box comes into play here.

As in many of the later books, the main crime is at times obscured by the various other shenanigans in the vicinity, often unrelated to the main murder. There is an interesting exchange when someone is arrested as a spy:
“The blackguard!” I cried indignantly. 

“Not at all. He is, on the contrary, a patriot. Think what he stands to lose. I admire the man myself.” 

But I could not look at it in Poirot’s philosophical way.

Surely most of Christie’s British readers would have agreed with Hastings, not Poirot.

The plot is intricate and clever, but not a standout. I think it would have taken a prescient reader to see exactly where this young woman author was going…

The clothes in the book are minimal and done in Christie’s straightforward and undetailed style. I liked the unpopular man who is a
“rotten little bounder… an absolute outsider… he wears patent leather boots in all weathers!”
Proper tweeds are a Christie banker throughout the oeuvre, for both men and women: men in a suit, women in what was then called a coat and skirt, but what we would now call a suit. She usually attached the words ‘well-cut’ or ‘shabby’ to the description, while particularly admirable down-on-their-luck toffs might be wearing tweed that was ‘well-cut but now shabby’. So a ‘stout tweed skirt’ is a nice change.

The picture is of silent movie star Dorothy Gish, and shows how very unflattering tweeds could be. Dorothy was famously beautiful, nearly as much so as her sister Lillian, but I don’t think you’d know that from this photo, which is from the Bain Collection at the Library of Congress.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Dress Down Sunday: Childhood in the Good Old Days




King of the Barbareens by Janet Hitchman

published 1960

King of the Barbareens 1King of the Barbareens 2
King of the Barbareens 3

[The young narrator has been ill all winter: the doctor comes to see her]

He turned his attention to the discarded clothes. A flannel vest, calico chemise, a pair each of linings and bloomers, a wadded red flannel bodice, a flannel petticoat, a cotton ditto, a skirt, jersey and print overall, ten garments in all.

‘I don’t wonder she’s irritable,’ was his comment; ‘she’s wearing enough clothes for three children.’

‘But we aren’t to the end of May yet,’ said Aunt Ada.

‘Stuff and nonsense,’ snorted the lordly doctor; ‘there’s more clothes there than an Eskimo wears.’

The upshot of this visit was that the bodice lining and petticoats were discarded, and Aunt Ada’s outrage soothed by the promise that I should go to a sanatorium.

commentary: I can only think that the otherwise-lovely Lissa Evans thinks I am too happy. First she told me that The Plague and I by Betty MacDonald would make me laugh. You can see my miserable response here. Then – talking as we were about TB sanatoria – she reminded me of this book, which we both read as teenagers.

She said – absolutely correctly – that it is brilliant. She said ‘it's a book I discovered in the children's section of a bookshop in about 1973 and read and re-read - but it's not a children's book, it's the autobiography of a 1920s foster child. Born illegitimate, extremely bright, not at all pretty, Janet went from home to private home, to sanitorium, to boarding school, to children's home and finally to Barnardos - some places were kind, some unfair, none actively cruel but almost all lacking in any understanding.’

I told her that when I read it before it dismayed me, I found it hair-raising BECAUSE it was true, it was like those comic strips in the Bunty with poor put-upon orphans - but there wasn't going to be any great redemption, and she wasn't pretty, and someone wonderful wasn't going to adopt her.

This time I went into it knowing there wasn’t going to be any happy ending, and it was indeed brilliant and unputdownable. The details of life then, the sadness, the child-rearing ways so contrasting with now - not that we necessarily get it right now, but their ways seem shocking. And the same comparison applies to the way the authorities handle a parentless child, illegitimacy and fostercare. And no doubt the same would apply to adoption if she’d ever got that far.

Her treatment is dire, and she tells us cheerfully that she wasn’t very likeable. Her name growing up was Elsie Burrows, but she changed her first name to Janet on reading Jane Eyre, because it’s what Rochester calls Jane as a pet name, which seemed to me tremendously sad.

As Lissa says, Janet had a terrible time in foster homes, in a home for special needs ladies, at several schools, in two different sanatoria. I’ve read an armful of books about sanatoria recently (see particularly Linda Grant’s Dark Circle, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, and Betty MacDonald’s The Plague and I). What is notable about this book is that the appalling treatment there is much as it is in the other books, but it doesn’t seem any worse than her life outside.

She was obviously very bright, but wasn’t going to get a chance for further studies or a scholarship. And although treated unfairly, she obviously WAS (understandably) very difficult and did nothing to help herself. The title comes from a children’s rhyme, and indicates that she thinks of herself as a barbarian, the King of the Barbarians.

She will have no nonsense about ‘the good old days’ – she says
It was no rarity to see a child, and I was often one of them, stand crying for no reason but the sheer pain and difficulty of living.
And later:
There is nothing so awful, that if repeated often, one cannot get used to.
It’s hard to imagine two more bleak sentences. Oh God the whole thing is so depressing.

Eventually she is thrown out of care, and goes to live in a hostel. Actually things cheer up somewhat now – not because her life gets any better, it most certainly doesn’t. But the misery of being a poor uneducated woman in London is something she has in common with many many other people, often people who haven’t had dismal childhoods, and it’s familiar from other books(eg JB Priestley’s Angel Pavement, and Peter and Paul by Susan Scarlett aka Noel Streatfeild). I love accounts of this life – she gets different jobs, she attends the theatre religiously in the cheap seats, she even makes some friends. The war comes. She gets married and has a child, but ends up a single parent. She still doesn’t sound very happy, but tries to end on a positive note.

I only know one other thing about Hitchman: she wrote a very individual biography of Dorothy L Sayers, Such a Strange Lady.

AKA Such a Strange Book.

It was probably the first hardback full price book I ever bought, certainly the first such biography I bought or read. I had come across an extract in a Sunday newspaper, revealing (certainly for the first time to me) that DLS had had an illegitimate baby. I was a massive fan of Sayers, and I saved my money to pay the outrageous price of the book. I read it religiously, and still do every couple of years. I had no idea then that it was not like other biographies – it is shorter, very individual, not really referenced. Subsequent biogs tell us more about Sayers, in meticulous detail (and often containing words to the effect of ‘Previous biographers were wrong to say…’), but I have always loved Strange Lady. She is quite critical of Sayers’ treatment of her secret lovechild, and this makes more sense in the light of Hitchman’s own story as both a daughter and a mother…

OK, grudgingly, I am glad Lissa Evans made me read King of the Barbareens again. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished it – always the sign of a great book- and will no doubt read it again when I want to be depressed when I want to be reminded of the indomitable ways of the human spirit in awful circumstances.

I think Hitchman must have been terrifying in real life, a difficult woman to be a friend to. But what an admirable person she was, and what a survivor.