Classics, detective, Series I love

Series I love: Lord Peter Wimsey

I have a rather complicated history with detective stories.  When I was 11, I scared myself silly by forgetting I’d put a pillow in my bed to confuse my sister while I was downstairs watching Joan Hickson’s Miss Marple with my parents.  Once I’d seen Miss Marple on the TV, I promptly read all the Agatha Christie books that my mum owned, bought more with my pocket money and then in a fit of angst over death (in particular my own), gave all my purchases to the jumble sale and hid mum’s copies out of sight.  I know.  I was a strange child.

After that, I left detective stories alone for probably about five years.  Then a friendly librarian, who found out that I was a bellringer, pointed me in the direction of The Nine Tailors, which I duly read, enjoyed and then forgot about – although by this point I had started reading Agatha Christie again.

Fast forward nearly 10 years and I’m living in Essex, working the early shift at a radio station, a bit lonely and hitting the library hard.  I don’t know if I started reading them because I was reading Margery Allingham (who had lived locally) and seen comments that Albert Campion had started as a take-off of Peter Wimsey, or because I’d seen a recommendation, or because I happened across them in the stacks at the library and remembered I’d enjoyed The Nine Tailors, but I did rediscover them and boy did I love them.

My little local library didn’t have many books in the series – and once I’ve found something I like, I want to read them all, as quickly as possible.  So I started buying them in the local book shop.  But it didn’t have many in stock.  So I picked up a few second hand paperbacks from my friendly book dealer who happens to do detective stories as well as classic school stories, then I started buying the ones that I’d read at the library (because I *had* to have the whole set) and so my rag tag collection was born.

Lord Peter Wimsey books
My Dorothy L Sayers collection

For those who have had the misfortune to have never come across Lord Peter Wimsey, he is the archetypal gentleman detective – much copied and never equalled.  The second son of the Duke of Denver, born in 1890, educated at Eton and Oxford, he is a bon vivant with a private income who solves mysteries because he can.  But Peter is troubled – he’s battle scarred after the First World War, with shell-shock and a fear of responsibility; which sits badly with sending men to the gallows.  He’s much more than just an idle rich man with a vaguely foolish face – which is the image he likes to project to the world.   Assistance comes principally from his faithful valet Bunter (who had been in his unit in France) and Chief Inspector Charles Parker of Scotland Yard.  The books were published between 1923 and 1937 – and Peter ages in real time as the series progresses.

 

Four books
The four books that feature Lord Peter Wimsey and the mystery writer Harriet Vane

My favourite four books are what I call the Peter and Harriet Quartet – that is Strong Poison, Have His CarcaseGaudy Night and Busman’s Honeymoon – the novels that feature Harriet Vane, first encountered in the dock at the Old Bailey on trial for murder – who Peter falls in love with and pursues across the next three books.  As well as my paperback copies, I have all four as audiobooks or radio plays – and they run in high rotation on my generic mp3 device on my journeys on the train, on my lunchbreaks and late at night when I’m staying away from home and need something to listen to to get to sleep.  I didn’t read them in order – Have His Carcase came first, then Busman’s Honeymoon, Strong Poison and finally Gaudy Night.

I’m firmly convinced that Busman’s Honeymoon is probably the most romantic detective novel in existence.  In the dedication at the start Sayers writes:

It has been said, by myself and others, that a love-interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story. But to the characters involved, the detective-interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love-story. This book deals with such a situation.

And to me, that pretty much sums it up perfectly.  Busman’s Honeymoon is a perfectly formed detective novel (I didn’t figure out who did it until the reveal) but also is a beautifully romantic story about the start of a couple’s married life.  And if you’ve read the three books that lead up to it, it’s the perfect end to a long and sometimes painful courtship, which must have felt tortuous to readers when the books were first published – because Strong Poison was appeared in 1931 – and Busman’s Honeymoon came out six books later in 1937.

Gaudy Night is the weakest of the four when it comes to the detective plot – it’s not an actual murder but a poison pen mystery and actually has very little Peter to a lot of Harriet.  But it’s still a very good book and you learn a lot more about Harriet, her life, her side of the courtship and what she was doing while Peter was solving the mysteries in the two novels of that part of the series that she doesn’t feature in.  Strong Poison and Have His Carcase have two of Sayers’ best puzzles – they’re utterly ingenious and perfectly plotted.

Among the other novels, my favourite is Murder Must Advertise, where Peter – under the psedonym of Death Bredon – goes to work at an advertising agency where one of the copywriters has fallen to his death, leaving a letter hinting at scandalous goings on in the firm.  Sayers was herself a copywriter for a decade – and the book is a fascinating glimpse into the world of advertising in the early ’30s as well as a really very clever murder mystery.

Peter Wimsey
My collection (unusually for me) has several different styles of cover

I could write at even greater length about the wonders of these novels, but this post is already massively long.  I hope that if you’ve read this far and you haven’t ever read any of Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, you might be tempted to go and try one.  My recommendation as a starting point would be Strong Poison or Murder Must Advertise, although equally Nine Tailors or even the very first book Whose Body? would be a good introduction. Don’t start with Busman’s Honeymoon (I’m not even linking to it to deter you further) as you’ll regret it if you don’t read Peter and Harriet for the first time in the order in which they were intended – I know I do and as soon as I had finished Gaudy Night for the first time I went back and read all four again in the right order!

As usual, my links are to Foyles –  because I love them, their Foyalty points, their order in the morning and pick it up from a store in the afternoon feature (which even gives you discount) and I’ve found that for this sort of book (ie not a mass-market new release) they are often cheaper than the alternatives – but equally you can find Lord Peter in your high street bookshop, at major online booksellers and often in charity shops.  They’re also widely held by libraries because they are, after all, classics of the genre.

Go – discover Peter – and enjoy.

Authors I love, books, non-fiction

Maya Angelou

So, I was crying in the supermarket car park today.  Admittedly I’m quite an emotional person and it’s not that hard to make me cry in the first 36 hours after a nightshift, but  Maya Angelou’s death really hit me. I sat scrolling through Twitter looking at the tributes that were pouring in to her from all sorts of people – from Joe Bloggs on the street to statesmen and everything in between – with tears in my eyes and no tissues to mop them up with.

Maya Angelou books
Maya Angelou books on my shelf

I read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings when I was in my final year of A Levels.  In English Literature we were comparing Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and it was on the suggested further reading list – which, being a book geek, I worked my way through.  And her book was the one on that list that touched me more than any other.

I was a white, middle-class teenager from rural England.  I’d heard about racism.  I’d even studied the Civil Rights movement in GCSE History.  Back in Judy Blume reading days I’d first come across segregation in Starring Sally J Freedman as Herself.  I’d studied To Kill A Mockingbird in GCSE English.  But it was Maya Angelou’s writing that really brought home to me the reality of what people had suffered, how they were persecuted just for the colour of their skin and how they had fought for rights that I took for granted – rights that it hadn’t even occurred to me that it was possible not to have.  And it had happened in living memory. It’s still within living memory.

Maya Angelou books
The covers of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies

After I read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, I went out and bought the next book of her autobiography – and the next and the next and so on.  The final volume – A Song Flung Up To Heaven – came out during this period and I bought it, in hardback, because I was so desperate to find out what happened next.  And I never bought hardbacks –  I didn’t have a lot of spare cash and it wouldn’t match my paperbacks – but I didn’t care.  Her writing meant that much to me.

There have been a lot of her quotes posted on Twitter and elsewhere since she died, but her own last tweet was only a few days ago and it is great and it is wise:

For all the hardships and heartbreaks of her life, her writing was joyous.  She wasn’t bitter – although at times she was angry – she rose above and wanted to make a difference and she did, she has.  She crammed so much into her life that it really did need all those volumes of autobiography to tell it.  If it had been a novel, you would have said it was too far-fetched.  Whenever I saw her on the TV or in a video, she was a force of nature, one of those people who you thought would live forever  – and through her writing, she will.

Other people will be able to say all this and more much more eloquently than I have, but I couldn’t not say something about the death of someone whose writing and outlook on life had had such an impact on me.  I’m off to read her whole story again and to give thanks for a life so well lived.

stats, The pile, week in books

The Week In Books: May 19 – May 25

Oh dear.  All those train journeys and I didn’t manage to read much as I was hoping – the list was looking very poor until a concerted effort at the weekend.  This week coming I’m on nights – so it could go either way…

Read:

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan

The Perfect Match by Katie Fforde (review)

A Colourful Death by Carola Dunn

The Blessing by Nancy Mitford

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

Still reading:

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

On the brightside, all I bought this week was a free short story on Kindle and a mystery novel on the Kindle for 99p and I’m counting that as progress!

new releases, reviews, romance

Book review: The Perfect Match

I was offered an e-copy of this book in return for an honest review – and as you know, I’m never influenced by the fact that the book was free when I’m writing my thoughts on it.

So, I’ve been reading Katie Fforde’s books for about a decade now – and have settled into a nice pattern of buying her latest paperback as soon as it comes out.  Now this review of her latest hardback means that I’m out of sync with her paperback releases, but it was a sacrifice I was more than willing to make…

Bella, the heroine of The Perfect Match, is an estate agent who moved in with her godmother three years ago, when she moved towns because she’d fallen in love with a man she couldn’t have.  She’s now seeing Nevil – her boss – who wants to take their relationship to the next level.  But he’s been growing increasingly secretive and something doesn’t quite feel right to Bella about the whole situation.  Then when the man she was running away from returns to her life, her questions really start to mount up.

One of the things I particularly like about Katie Fforde’s books (and I am planning an Authors I Love post on her) is that while they’re all love stories, the heroines always have such interesting jobs – that Fforde seems to have researched really thoroughly.  Bella is no exception to this – she’s just the sort of estate agent you would like to have.  She doesn’t seem to be out for her commission – but is always trying to find the perfect house for her clients.  Like a lot of Fforde women, she has a kind heart and does her best to help people (but without being sickly or do-goody) and you really do want her to find a “Perfect Match” of her own (sorry, terrible pun, but it had to be done).

Nevil is obviously wrong for Bella – and my only quibbles with the book were that I would have liked Bella to have stood up to him more, rather than being trampled over and letting him run her down and I would like to have seen more of his eventual comeuppance.  But I did enjoy the book – in fact I was actually quite grumpy when my train was on time and I had to stop reading it and go to work!  I particularly liked the subplot with Bella’s godmother and her love life, which was sweet and realistic portrayal of love later in life which rang true without being either twee or pensioners-do-Fifty-Shades.

It’s not my favourite of Katie Fforde’s books – there’s not enough of Dominic in this book for it to reach the giddy heights of my favourites like Stately Pursuits and Flora’s Lot, but it’s still a fun romantic read which I’m sure will be very popular on the beach this summer and I’d happily recommend to people who like a good light romantic read. Now all I’ve got to do is twiddle my thumbs (or start re-reading) until her next one comes out!

 

stats, The pile, week in books

The Week In Books: May 12 – May 18

Squeezed in a bit of over-time this week and had an elections briefing on Saturday – so you’d think that was plenty of commutes to get my teeth into some books, but I don’t seem to have covered as much ground as I was hoping.  I’m blaming this on my attempts to reduce the number of non-fiction titles waiting to be read – because they take me longer to read than some light fiction does.  But it remind me how much I enjoy good non-fiction  and so I’m thinking of adopting a policy of having one on the go at all times.  But then I already have too many rules and policies and it’s starting to get ridiculous.

Read:

A Delicate Truth by John le Carré (review)

Beautiful for Ever by Helen Rappaport

Death of a Mad Hatter by Jenn McKinlay* (review)

Fanny and Stella by Neil McKenna

Night of Pleasure by Delilah Marvelle

Started:

The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris by Jenny Colgan

The Blessing by Nancy Mitford

Still reading:

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

A pile of books
A bad week for self-restraint – but one of these was free and another borrowed

Now I was doing really well on the not buying books front, until Saturday lunchtime when I arrived really early for my shift and ended up wandering into a charity shop.  Four books later and suddenly the to-read pile was looking monstrous again.

I had a bit of a panic earlier in the week when Jenn McKinlay’s book turned up – as I didn’t remember ordering it.  It turned out that I hadn’t – it was a win in a Goodreads giveaway – so of course that had to jump straight to the top of the pile so that I could review it because when some one sends you a book and wants you to review it, you should really do that as quickly as possible…

The Railway Detectives is borrowed from my Dad, and the Terry Pratchett is the replacement for my duplicate copy of Trisha Ashley, so only 6 (gulp) books bought this week and a net gain of 2 on the pile (because the Delilah Marvelle was an ebook).  I really do need to try harder, still, I have many shifts this week.  But then that’s what I thought last week!

American imports, cozy crime, new releases, reviews

Book Review: Death of a Mad Hatter

I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway (I know! Two giveaway reviews in a week! This doesn’t usually happen – I’ve only won three giveaways ever!) but that doesn’t influence what I write.

Back on more familiar territory for me here, with a fun murder mystery story from American author Jenn McKinlay.   Death of a Mad Hatter is the second book in the Hat Shop Murder series (and is the first book I’ve read by this author) and centres around American Scarlett Parker and her cousin Vivian Tremont, who run a hat shop in London.  As usual I’m trying to avoid spoilers in my synopsis, and I can’t say too much about the set up without giving away the plot of the first book (or at least I think I can’t!), so here goes: In Death of a Mad Hatter, an unpleasant man dies at a themed party which the girls have provided the hats for.  When a trace of poison is found in the hat, the girls get involved in trying to track down who was really responsible.

Death of a Mad Hatter
I love it when you get some extras with a book!

This is a cozy murder mystery with a fun premise and an ingenious solution.  The plot is well worked out, the dialogue snappy, the humour works and the characters are engaging.  I was never bored and always wanted to know what was going to happen next.  In fact the book almost seemed to wrap up too soon – although that’s not to say that the denouement was in anyway rushed, I just couldn’t believe that the book was nearly over (which is always a good sign). I read the book in a day and enjoyed it.

For me it ticks similar boxes as Donna Andrews’ Meg Langslow series, although this series is obviously set in the UK.  And therein was my only problem with it – as a Brit there were a few things that jarred for me as being just not “right”.  Now I know that this book is written for the US market – and in fact I don’t think it has been picked up by a publisher over here – so for the vast majority of people reading it, this won’t be an issue.  Mainly the problems came with things that the British characters said that weren’t “right” – although as we have the NHS here the idea of a British family having a event to raise money to build a new wing at a hospital struck me as a bit odd – but hey, it could happen, after all Great Ormond Street Hospital’s charity is probably one of the most famous charities in the country!

Now this is me being really very nit-picking – because the “wrong” moments were my only problem with the whole book and it’s really a very minor issue in the grand scheme of things, because in the main the British characters and British bits were so well done that the bits that weren’t “right” bit surprised me!  And I’ll still be looking out for more from Jenn McKinlay – from the cards and bookmarks that came with my copy I think her other series may be right up my street too!

Death of a Mad Hatter is presumably available all good bookshops and book retailers who stock Mass Market paperbacks in the US and over here in the UK you can get it from Foyles and Amazon (and presumably anyone else who’ll order in from the US). Jenn McKinlay’s website is jennmckinlay.com, she can be found on twitter as @JennMcKinlay and on Facebook

Authors I love, books, fiction, historical, romance

Authors I Love: Georgette Heyer

Between the 1920s and 1970s, Georgette Heyer wrote nearly three dozen novels set Regency or Georgian times, along with a string of thrillers.  I love me some Golden Age detective action, but this article is about her historical romances which, in my opinion, are sublime and nearly perfect examples of their type.

My shelf of Georgette Heyers
Hardback, paperback, different styles – my shelf has editions from the 1940s through til the 2000s

My mum had a shelf of Heyers on the landing the whole way through my childhood, but it was only when I was about 16 that I first picked one up (either False Colours or Cotillion, I can’t remember which) and that one led to another, which led to all of the ones she had and then to buying the ones that she didn’t.  When my parents moved house a couple of years ago, mum passed them on to me as she “didn’t have space for them” any more, on the understanding that she could borrow them back if she wanted and that I wouldn’t get rid of them.  Since then though, rather than borrowing them from me, she’s started re-buying them!

I have a lot of favourites, but if I was forced and could only have one, it would be The Grand Sophy. Sophy is feisty, independent, well-travelled and used to running her own life – and everyone else’s.  She arrives back in England to live with her aunt and her cousins after her diplomat father is posted to South America. She finds them in the midst of a family crisis – with one daughter in love with an unsuitable poet and the eldest son engaged to a disagreeable bluestocking.  Sophy proceeds to try to organise the household along more harmonious lines and arrange matches for her cousins and, in the end, herself.

The Grand Sophy
My copy of The Grand Sophy – in what I think is a late 1980s edition

What I love about Heyer’s female characters are that they’re not weak and wishy-washy pushovers, but they also don’t feel like modern women who have been supplanted to the eighteenth or nineteenth century.  Her women aren’t simpering misses sitting around waiting for life to happen to them or for a man to make their life complete, but they’re not doing anything that feels jarringly out of period either.   I have a weakness for American-written British-set historical romances (you know, the ones with the buxom heroines bursting out of their corsets on the covers) which lead a shamefaced existence* on the uppermost shelf of my tallest spare bedroom bookcase – and that’s a problem I find with some (but by no means all) of their heroines.

One of the feistiest and most independent of Heyer’s heroines is Léonie in These Old Shades – who we first meet as Léon the page when he is bought “body and soul” by Justin, Duke of Avon – known as Satanas because of his lack of morals.  Heyer books always have a lot plot and not a lot of yearning looks or heaving bosoms and Shades is a great example of this.  At the start of the book Justin is a thoroughly disreputable character who buys Léon not to free him from a life of abuse and mistreatment, but because he sees a method of being revenged on one of his enemies.  Léonie is in love with Avon almost from the start, but you’re not sure until the very end, after the plot has taken you from France to England and back to France again, whether Avon’s motives have changed at all. Most of Heyer’s books are standalones, but Shades is unusual in that some of the characters have appeared before, albeit with different names and in a less developed form, in The Black Moth – and Justin, Léonie and Rupert all appear again in Devil’s Cub (which I also love) where Justin and Léonie’s son Dominic – who has all of his father’s faults and his mother’s temper but does at least have a conscience – runs off with a virtuous young lady who is trying to protect her sister’s honour.

The Black Moth, These Old Shades and Devil's Cub
My copies of Moth, Shades and Devil’s Cub show some of the range of different editions in my collection!

In Regency Buck (another with a sort-of sequel – An Infamous Army of which more later) another strong minded heroine comes up against a domineering alpha-male and, dear reader, you may start to see a pattern in the sort of heroes that I like.  Preferably tall, dark and handsome, he needs to be bossy, clever and with a bit of a dark side or at the least a temper – like Buck‘s Julian St John Audley, the titular Sylvester or best of all Damerel in Venetia.  But they also need to be up against a smart woman who is prepared to stand up for herself and what she wants.  I don’t want to see any woman being forced into a marriage by a man who holds all the power.  The Heyers that come off my shelf the least are ones like Cotillion (Freddy’s too thick), Friday’s Child (Hero the heroine is too wet), Cousin Kate (Kate’s too stupid to see the trouble coming) and A Civil Contract (Adam needs a good slap).

Inscription in the front of Devil's Cub
My copy of Devil’s Cub has a note from in the front written by my mum

Those are the exceptions though and just looking along the shelf is like seeing group of old friends – they live in the sitting room so I have them to hand if I need them!  If you’ve never read any Georgette Heyer, may I heartily recommend you have a look now – particularly if you are a fan of authors like Eloisa James or Julia Quinn.  They don’t have the sex that modern historicals do – in fact there’s barely any kissing, but they’re still breathtakingly romantic in places and have tight well-structured plots – and a wealth of meticulously researched historical detail (An Infamous Army was required reading for trainee army officers because its descriptions of the Battle of Waterloo are so accurate – it also features Julian and Judith from Regency Buck and a cameo from a much older Dominic and Mary from Devil’s Cub) that I can only imagine the current crop of authors have drawn on.  It also says a lot that more than ninety years since her first book was published and forty years (this year in fact) since Georgette Heyer died, her Regency/Georgian romances are still in print.

Artistically arranged Heyer novels
A selection of my favourites in a charming garden setting!

I like them so much I even have a couple of them on my kindle and as audiobooks in case I need a fix when I’m away from home.  And, while I was taking the photos for this article I discovered I’ve got a couple of duplicates of my own – I think I bought the pretty Pan paperbacks of The Talisman Ring and The Masqueraders when I was living in Essex – in the days when mum had most of the Heyers…

I suggest you start with The Grand Sophy.  Or These Old Shades.  Or Venetia.  Or Regency Buck.  Or Sylvester.  Or April Lady. Or Sprig Muslin. Oh go on, just pick one and dive in.

* Thank you Peter Wimsey for that turn of phrase (From Busman’s Honeymoon, about his collection of press cuttings about Harriet)