So after a week of old favourite authors and only a few new things, I find myself back in the realms of classic mysteries for this week’s BotW pick.
So Smallbone Deceased is a murder mystery set in the offices of a firm of London solicitors. Horniman, Birley and Crane is a well established and prestigious firm – who have just lost their senior partner, Mr Horniman. Some weeks after his death, when his son has taken over his share in the firm, a body is discovered in a deed box and the firm is thrown into turmoil. Inspector Hazlerigg is sent to investigate what strongly seems to be an inside job, and receives some assistance from Henry Bohun, the newest solicitor of the firm – newly qualified and arrived after the body must have been placed in situe.
Michael Gilbert was a solicitor by training, and this is a wonderfully drawn picture of the characters of the law firm and the way the wheels of the legal profession turned in the late 1940s. I think I’ve mentioned before how much I like all the details about the advertising company in Dorothy L Sayers’s Murder Must Advertise, and this does the same sort of thing for a solicitors office. The mystery itself is very clever, although a little slow to get started, the pace picks up nicely and by the end its tense and fast paced as Hazlerigg and Bohun race around (not together!) trying to catch the killer.
I’ve read a lot of British Library Crime Classics now and written about a fair few of them here (like Murder by Matchlight, The Sussex Downs Murder and The Division Bell Murder). I find them such a reliable series for discovering new-to-me Golden Age murder mysteries. They may not all be to my precise taste, but they’re always well constructed – even in the ones when the writing style doesn’t appeal to me. And they also have a habit of rotating their titles through Kindle Unlimited so if you’re smart you can work your way through them quite nicely.
My copy came via the wonders of the aforementioned Kindle Unlimited, but it’s also available to buy in the Crime Classics edition on Kindle for £2.99. Kobo has a slightly different looking version, for a slightly higher price. The Crime Classics version is also available in paperback – and if you get a big enough bookshop you should be able to get hold of it fairly easily. You could also buy it from the British Library shop direct – where they’re doing 3 for 2 on their own books so you could also grab
Well it was actually a proper contest for BotW this week between this and the new Taylor Jenkins Reid book, Malibu Rising, but The Feast really impressed me and is definitely lower on the radar than the TJR. But I’m sure I’ll find a way to talk about that too – after all summer holidays are coming – theoretically at least, so perhaps there’s a sunlounger (in your garden if no where more exotic) reading post in my future!
This one is really hard to summarise without giving too much away, and that would really ruin some of the enjoyment, but here goes: At the start of The Feast we hear about the Pendizak Manor Hotel, now buried under a collapsed cliff, with seven guests dead. The rest of the book is set in the week running up to that cliff collapse, which happened in the middle of summer 1947. You spend the book getting to know all the people who live and work at the hotel and the ins and outs of their lives. I went through the book wondering whether it was going to turn out to be a thriller, or a tragedy or something else – it’s a complete page-turner. And the characters, oh the characters. Of all of the adults, there’s really only Nancy who is sensible. The hotel is owned by a formerly genteel family fallen on hard times and who have turned the family home into a boarding house to try and make ends meet, and their guests tend to be people Mrs Siddal thinks are the “right sort” – although as you learn about them, you realise that “the right sort” may not be nice people at all…
The Feast was first published in 1949 and this is a new edition with an introduction from Cathy Rentzenbrink. Now I’ve been had by spoilers in introductions before so I deliberately skipped it before I read it so it wouldn’t ruin anything for me and I recommend you do the same because it really repaid me – both in reading the book the first time through and then when I read the introduction in giving me more layers and levels to think about. I read Margaret Kennedy’s more famous book, The Constant Nymph, a couple of years back and could see why it was influential, but didn’t love it – mostly because the characters were annoying but not in a so annoying you want to see them get their comeuppance sort of way – but with this lot, the ones that are annoying are really annoying, and you have the added suspense of whether they’re going to end up under the cliff or not! And on top of everything, the cover for this new edition is gorgeous too. I’m seriously tempted to get myself a physical copy.
Anyway, my copy of The Feast came from NetGalley, but this new edition is out now in paperback – Foyles appear to have copies at Charing Cross Road (and a couple of other London stores) and Bristol judging by their click and collect, so I’m hoping it’ll be fairly findable in the larger book stores. And of course it’s on Kindle and Kobo. Audible also appear to have a fresh version of it too – which is a bit tempting I have to say. The blurb describes this as “rediscovered” which suggests that it may not be that easy to find secondhand – the cheapest that aren’t this new edition all appear to be in the US (with the associated postage costs) so it might have to be an actual antiquarian/second hand bookshop rather than the charity shop if you want something older, but the introduction in this edition is a really nice touch – provided of course you don’t read it first!
We’re midway through March and it’s been a while since I picked something from my list of slightly quirky out of the way authors. So here we are, with Mrs Tim of the Regiment, which firmly fits into the gentle English life subset of my reading.
As the title suggests, Mrs Tim – Hester Christie – is the wife of an army officer, in the 1930s. Told in the form of a diary, we see her navigate regimental life, including moving across the country when Tim gets promoted, and trying to make friends and raise a family. The first half of the book is more about the day to day, the second follows a holiday that Hester takes to Scotland with her young daughter to visit a friend and the complications ensue.
I’ve written a lot about the fact that I’ve been sticking to genres where I know that things will turn out ok in the end, and at first glance this might seem like a bit of a turn away from that, but this is actually very low stakes and relaxing to read. Hester is a wonderful narrator – she’s witty and observant of others, but also a little bit dense when it comes to herself. She is utterly oblivious to the fact that Major Morley is mad about her – and that he and her friend’s son are fighting over her when she’s on holiday in Scotland. This is a tricky tightrope for the author to tread, because Tim isn’t always around much and by its nature, domestic life of a married couple is less glamorous and exciting than holiday-ing in Scotland and dashing around the countryside. But I thought that Hester’s obliviousness – and her devotion to Tim (earlier in the book she worries about what to do if he is sent to India and whether they could afford to send their daughter to boarding school so she can go too because she doesn’t want to be apart from him again) means that this section is amusing and charming rather than feeling like you’re working up to Hester leaving Tim or being left at home unhappy.
I’ve read D E Stevenson before – she’s the author of the wonderful Miss Buncle’s Book and Anna and her Daughters which I have written about before – and this has a lot of the things I liked about both of those, but also seemed to me to fit in along with books like Diary of a Provincial Lady and Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books. It’s essentially a slice of life story from the interwar period, in the voice of a smart woman who is running a household (because that’s what you did when you got married in those days). There are three more books in the series, and I suspect I’ll be reading them at some point in the near future.
My copy of Mrs Tim of the Regiment was a birthday present (thanks mum and dad!) and you should be able to get hold of the charming paperback edition I have from any sensible bookshop (like Foyles), but it’s also available on Kindle and Kobo.
Another week in lockdown done. If only we knew when it would end so we could count down instead of up. I should have been in China last week, visiting little sis, so my mood was a bit low generally. I read a lot of familiar authors to cheer myself up, and so consequently the BotW options were somewhat limited as I talked about George Bellairs last week and I have other plans for some of the other books. I do like to make life difficult for myself. However, another good murder mystery cropped up – with a plot that really appealed to me. This is another re-release of a forgotten book from the mid-twentieth century – and it’s not out until Thursday, but as that’s only two days away, I’m sure you’ll let me off.
Detective Inspector Simon Hudson was at the concert to watch his girlfriend sing in the Metropolitana Choir, but when the conductor drops dead as the performance finished, he ends up in charge of a murder inquiry. Delia has told him about the tensions among the committee members, when he drove her to the committee meetings, but which one of them was angry enough at the conductor to turn a grudge into murder?
This is a clever and twisty murder mystery originally written in the late 1950s, with a setting that really appealed to me. I’m definitely not a singer and I’m not a great musician either, but I did play clarinet at school and in concert bands through my 20s. If I could have got my schedule in order (stupid shift working) I would probably be in a band now – although the band scene in my town is very competitive because the county has a really strong schools music service, so there might not be one that would have me that I want to be in! Anyway, the musical setting really appealed to me – I’ve even played at the Festival Hall where the murder takes place – and I could certainly believe in the egos and hot tempers in the choir.
I don’t think you have to be a musician to enjoy this though – I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the resolution doesn’t require any particular knowledge of music. And committees are a fairly regular feature of murder mysteries because of their potential to be a sea of seething rivalries. The plot has plenty of twists and turns and kept me guessing pretty much right until the end as the layers were revealed. I hadn’t read anything by Margaret Newman before, but would happily read more after this if they’re all as much fun as this one.
My copy of Murder to Music came from NetGalley, but it comes out on April 16th in Kindle. I can’t see it in any other format, unless you’re prepared to pay £50 for the only copy on Abebooks as I write this…
A short BotW post today, and another week, another crime pick… I just can’t help myself. Crime is also most of what I’ve been reading in the last week.
It’s pouring with rain when a spiv bursts into a pub to say that there is a dead man in a local factory. The body in question is that of one of the administrators at the factory and Inspector Littlejohn is called in from Scotland Yard to investigate when the local detective fails to make headway. What Littlejohn discovers in the small town is a tangle of divided loyalties and dark secrets.
I’m on a run of forgotten detective novels and this one is a good one. The town is cleverly drawn, with economical but incisive portraits of its residents. The mystery is well set out and even if the finale gets a little overblown, you sort of forgive it for the swashbuckling flare it shows. This is my second George Bellairs – I read Death Stops the Frolic at the start of March and I liked that a lot. My only quibble with that was that I wasn’t sure if the resolution of that one was a clever twist or a bit of a cheat. This is equally clever, but with a solution that feels fairer to the reader and detective that I prefer – which is probably unsurprising given that this is the 14th in a long series featuring Littlejohn and I think that Death stops the Frolic was the only story featuring Superintendent Nankivell.
My copy came via the publisher’s mailing list, but it’s available now for free if you’re in Kindle Unlimited or to buy on Kindle. I can’t find it on Kobo – but they do have other books in the series available.
Back to semi-normal service this week, in that there is a BotW post, albeit a shorter one because I spent the week working and then gadding about Washingotn with my sister. However after she and her boyfriend left on Saturday evening I consoled myself with books and this was one of them.
Cast, In Order of Disappearance is the first novel in the Charles Paris series by Simon Brett. Set in 1974, Charles is a middle-aged actor, with a drink problem and a career problem. But when he meets up with a previous paramour (from a seaside run in panto) he ends up getting entangled in blackmail, the murder of a theatre impresario and all sorts of other shenanigans. It’s all set against the backdrop of petrol shortages, electricity rationing and the winter of discontent which makes for a slightly different take on the murder mystery. Charles is very much in the mold of the classic amateur sleuth, and even as he’s being terrible (drinking, womanising etc) he’s still strangely likeable and very readable.
This is the first book in a seventeen-book series – which I came across because the radio adaptations popped up in my recommendations on audible. I’ve been listening to some of them – which are great fun as they have Bill Nighy as Charles (he’s predictably brilliant) but they have been considerably updated. I really liked both of them – and although the original version is probably my favourite, it does require a level of knowledge about Britain in the 1970s which may not work for modern audiences. Anyway, I’m already stockpiling more of these to read, so you may well here more of them anon.
Yes, this is short, but it’s been a busy week – and it’s about to get even busier. As this posts, I should be gearing up for a midterms overnight shift. Anyone who’s known me for any length of time knows that I love elections – so it’s a big night for me and requires proper preparation. Hence the short post. Sorry, not sorry.
You can get Cast, In Order of Disappearance on Kindle or Kobo, but the paperbacks are out of print. But the radio plays are available on audible and Kobo.
If you follow my Week in Books posts, you ma have noticed me tearing a streak through Basil Thomson’s Inspector Richardson series earlier in the summer, and I’ve been planning to write about them for a while. As this is my first week away in the USA, I though now might be a good time to post this – as I’ve no idea how busy I’m going to be – and whether I’ll be able to keep normal service going on here!
The eight books in the Inspector Richardson series follow the titular policeman as he rises through the ranks, from police constable in the first book, into the detective branch and all the way up to the giddy heights of Chief Constable. They were originally published between 1933 and 1937 – which makes rather a rapid rise for Richardson – and fit nicely into the Golden Age of murder mysteries that I love so much.
These aren’t as complicated in plot terms as some of their contemporaries, but they are fast-paced and very readable. The first book sees an estranged couple murdered on the same day, later stories feature diplomatic intrigue, the drug trade, a suspicious suicide and smuggling. As he rises through the ranks, Richardson becomes more of a supervisory figure, but there are some themes that run through the series – and which get pulled together nicely in the final book in the series, A Murder Is Arranged, which I think might be my favourite of all.
What makes these a little bit different from most of the other mysteries of the time that featured a police officer as the detective is that the author, Basil Thomson was a former Assistant Chief Commissioner at the Metropolitan Police and a former head of their CID department. So the police procedural detail in this is drawn more from real experience from many of its contemporaries. Martin Edwards has written an introduction for this latest batch of reissues that tells you a little bit about the author and the context of the books at the time – although it doesn’t mention some of the more dubious aspects of his life that are in Thomson’s Wikipedia entry. However as Thomson’s been dead since 1939 I felt ok buying the books because its not as if I’m lining his pockets!
I wouldn’t suggest making these your starting point if you want to dip your toe into the world of inter-war crime novels – but then i find it hard to see beyond Peter Wimsey for that – but if you’ve exhausted Sayers and Christie, these are easier to get hold of than Margery Allingham can be and are worth a look – along with more well known authors like Josephine Tey and Patricia Wentworth and are more affordable than some of the other more forgotten authors that British Library Crime Classics have been republishing*.
The first book in the series, Richardson’s First Case is available for 99p at time of writing on Kindle and Kobo and the rest of the series are at a similar price point so if you like it, it’s a fairly cheap way of passing a few hours!
This week’s BotW returns to my old stomping ground of Girl’s Own fiction. However it is slightly out of my usual wheel house in that it’s not a school story, but a career book. Compared to my reading of school stories, I haven’t read many career books, but one of my favourite books that my mum passed on from her childhood was Shirley Flight, Air Hostess so a book in a series called Sally Baxter, Girl Reporter definitely appealed to me. I found it in the Oxfam Bookshop in York (on the same trip that I picked up two Oxenhams and Dorita Fairlie Bruce) and I bought it, because after all, I am a journalist after spending my childhood pretending to be one, so what could be more perfect?!But this is definitely a recommendation for people who are afficiados of the genre – because it has some… let’s call them issues.
So, Strangers in Fleet Street is apparently the 15th book in the Sally Baxter series and it sees Sally, who is a teenager working as a reporter at a national newspaper, taking charge of a group of foreign readers of the Evening Cry (her paper) who won a competition to spend two weeks in London. She’s their guide – but she’s also hoping to get some stories from their visit. Sally soon makes friends with most of the visitors but a series of disappearances – of money, of earrings and of a person – lead to suspicion being thrown on her little group and Sally is determined to unmask the real culprit – not just for the scoop but to save her new friend’s reputations.
This ticked pretty much all of my boxes – it’s got a mystery and a bit of adventure. It has a fun cast of characters and it has a lead character who is doing an interesting job, in a male-dominated profession. OK Sally may be on human interest duty in this book, but she’s definitely doing the job and she’s not the only one – there’s a more senior woman reporter too. Looking at the information about the other titles in the series that I found here, it seems that Sally seems to get a lot of the softer stories – as opposed to crime, trials or politics, but then court rooms and council meetings are hard to make sound exciting – but a lot of it involves globe-trotting. Even without that list, Sally mentions trips to Hong Kong and North Africa – so it does sound like an exciting and appealing life, which has got to be one of the major aims of a career novel. My quibbles with it are all around some of the rather old-fashioned (putting it nicely) attitudes. Sally herself is very fair but the way the young North African boy is portrayed is definitely very stereotypical and of its time. And the resolution to the mystery involved another trope that I’m not very keen on, but I can’t say more than that because it’s a huge spoiler. So lets say that I won’t be lending this to my 10-year-old niece. But if you are a fan of Girl’s Own fiction and know where its weaknesses and blind spots are, this is a very enjoyable way to spend a few hours. And I’ve already been on the second hand book sites looking for more in the series.
As I mentioned, my book came from a charity bookshop, the secondhand dealers have lots of copies of various books in this series (please don’t beat me to them) but unless this is your secret niche book love, it’s probably not going to be one for you- and if it is, you already know how to source this sort of thing, so no links this week!
There were a few options for this week’s BotW pick, but I have plans for some of them, but also this was my favourite book that I read last week and makes a nice companion or compliment to last week’s choice. Last week I picked A Case of Blackmail in Belgravia, which was a book set in the interwar period but written now, this week it’s The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith, which is a genuine forgotten Golden Age mystery. It was also another book from the massive unread pile on my Kindle and I’m so pleased I impulse bought it at some point in the distant past.
Patrica Wentworth’s The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith was originally published in 1923 and tells the story of a young woman who is swept into an adventure after a chance meeting when she’s down on her luck, with nowhere to stay and be t to no money. In one of those astonishing coincidences that you find in some books, it transpires that a Jane has a cousin who is practically her double and who is being held hostage by her father and a shadowy group that he is associated with. The cousin has a fiancé who is desperate to elope with her and run off to foreign climes and Jane ends up switching places with Renata and taking over her identity. What follows is a breathless espionage adventure thriller with a dash of romance and a dollop of murder.
It rattles along at a breathless pace that doesn’t really give you a chance to notice the bonkersness until you’ve finished and stop to think. I raced through it once I actually sat down properly to read it and then went off to trawl Kindle for more books by Patricia Wentworth in my budget. A certain amount of suspension of belief is necessary – there are anarchists and secret passages and shadowy forces at work as well as the lookalike cousins – but you liked The 39 Steps, or the more adventure-y Albert Campion novels, then you need to read this.
The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith is included in Kindle Unlimited if you’re part of that scheme, or you can buy it on Kindle or as a paperback. At time of writing it’s £1.99 on Kindle, but I’m fairly sure I picked it up for free, so it might be worth adding to your watch list to see if the price drops.
I knew less than halfway through this book that I was going to have to lend this to my sister and my mother, and as soon as I finished this book that it was going to be this week’s BotW. Hands down. And as you’ve probably never heard of it (I hadn’t before I got given a copy) this makes it possibly the best sort of BotW – because hopefully it means I might point a few more people towards it.
In To Bed With Grand Music we follow the wartime adventures Deborah, a young wife and mother whose husband has been posted to Cairo. On the first page, while in bed together before he leaves, he says that he cannot promise to be physically faithful to his wife because “God alone knows how long I’ll be stuck in the Middle East, and it’s no good saying I can do without a woman for three or four years, because I can’t.” Instead he promises not to fall in love and not to sleep with anyone who might possibly take her place. He asks Deborah to promise same. But Deborah doesn’t take him up on his offer, instead she promises to be absolutely faithful to him and not act on any attraction she might feel to anyone else – in the hopes that he’ll change his mind and do the same. He doesn’t and is soon off to Egypt, leaving Deborah and their son Timmy at home in the countryside with the housekeeper come nanny.
But it doesn’t take long for Deborah to get fed up of life in the countryside and bored of her son. Deborah, it turns out, is a terrible person. She’s got a gift for rationalising in her mind whatever it is that she wants to do as being the best solution to whatever problem (real or imagined) that she is facing. So she decides that the best solution is for her to get a war job in London. This would mean being away from Timmy during the week and leaving him in the cae of the housekeeper, but she rationalises this as being the best thing for him – because although he’ll see her less, he’ll only see the best parts of her because she’ll be so much happier in herself. So off she goes to London, where she meets up with an old friend in the hopes that she can help her find a job. She and Madeleine (the friend) end up going out for dinner with a couple of soldiers and Deborah ends up staying the night and sleeping with one of the men. Oops. So much for that promise Deborah. She’s repulsed by her own actions and scurries back to the countryside and puts off the idea of getting a job. But soon she’s bored again and changes her mind and takes a job in London and moves in with her friend, however she’s determined not to make the same mistake again…
Madeleine at first was quite prepared to make Deborah’s life less lonely. She accepted as a natural obligation that for a week or two she would introduce Deborah to people until gradually Deborah could build up a circle of her own. But Deborah resisted all Madeleine’s suggestions for companionable evenings: if I once give in, she told herself, I’m done for, certain in her own mind that even a sherry party or a game of bridge could have only one conclusion. She martyred herself til her very martyrdom became her excuse for her release.
And that pretty much sets the tone for all that happens next. I think you can probably work out where this is going, but I don’t want to spoil it for you because it’s so much fun watching in fascinated horror as Deborah manages to justify abandoning bit by bit whatever moral code she has as she tries to get herself the glamourous life she thinks that she deserves – and how the climate in wartime allows her to do that.
As you’ve probably worked out, this is not a home fires burning, sweet little wife pining at home sort of World War II novel. This is the seamier side of wartime relationships – if you can’t cope with casual sex and marital infidelity, don’t read this book. But if you read the Camomile Lawn and want to read about a character who has all of Calypso’s worst traits and then some, then this may well be the book that you have been searching for. Equally if you’ve read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, then there’s all the bad bits of Villy and Louise and early Zoe here without the redeeming features. Deborah is brilliantly, splendidly dreadful and her exploits are compulsively readable.
To Bed With Grand Music was originally published in 1946, with the author given as “Sarah Russell”. It’s now been republished by Persephone Press (one of my favourite sources for books like this) with the real name of its author – Marghanita Laski who (under her own name) was a journalist and author from a prominent family of Jewish intellectuals. Given the book’s frank depiction of sex and morality, I can totally understand why the author didn’t want to attach her real name to the book at the time.
You should be able to get hold of the Persephone Press edition from Big Green Books or order it from Amazon – I can’t find an ebook edition at the moment.