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.
This week’s BotW is one I picked up as a Kindle Daily Deal a couple of weeks back: Anna and her Daughters by DE Stevenson. You may remember me waxing lyrical about my love for Miss Buncle and her book back in a #Recommendsday about Comfort reads a while back and this was the first non-Buncle book I’ve read by DE Stevenson.
The Plot: Anna’s husband has died and the family’s finances are in a mess. They’re going to have to sell the London house and move to somewhere smaller. Anna decides that she wants to go back to the area of Scotland that she grew up in and starts making plans. None of her three nearly grown up daughters are precisely keen on the idea, but only one, Jane, is prepared to make the best of it. Anna and the girls move – Helen and Rosalie are practically kicking and screaming – and start their new lives.
The story is told through Jane’s eyes – she’s the plain but clever sister, who would have gone to Oxford if it hadn’t been for the money problems. Helen is pretty, but selfish and used to getting her own way. Rosalie isn’t as pretty as Helen, but isn’t clever like Jane either and tends to drift along in Helen’s shadow. The combination of the three sisters makes for fascinating reading. Anna is remarkably clear sighted about her daughters in some ways – she sees their faults in a way that many parents do not. She tries to explain her attitude to Jane, who (justifiably) gets angry about the way that Helen treats people and the fact that she gets away with it.
As the book goes on we see the girls grow and change. Jane discovers a gift for writing, Rosalie chooses security and Helen continues to be Helen, regardless of the consequences. This book is very melodramatic in some ways but also feels like nothing much happens. I loved it. Especially when Miss Buncle gets a quick mention.
Anna and her Daughters is available in Kindle or you’ll have to go and find a secondhand paperback copy, which by the look of Amazon maybe expensive.
For this week’s BotW, we’re back in the world of the boarding school books that I love so much, after I happened upon this on the collectible shelf of the charity shop last week for the bargain price of £2. My love of the Chalet School, Drina books and boarding school and ballet books in general is well known, but I’d never had a chance to read any of the Dimsie series – which was out of print by the time I was old enough to read them. This is the sixth book in the series, and so probably not the best place to start, but I’m not one to let a trifle like that stop me!
Dimsie is a prefect at Jane Willard Foundation, and the start of this book sees the prefects shaken by the unexpected departure of the head girl Erica and her replacement with the dreamy second prefect Jean. The title gives it away that Jean’s reign may not be a long one, but it’s a lot of fun watching how it all unfolds. Dimsie is a butter-inner, slightly lacking in tact, but utterly devoted to her school. When she sees that Jean isn’t pulling her weight in the way that she should be, she tries to set the Head girl on the right track. When one of the new prefects proves to be too officious and inflexible in her dealings with the younger girls, it’s Dimsie who tries to sort the situation out. To be honest, I’m surprised she wasn’t Erica’s replacement in the first place – except for the fact of course that that if she had, the author wouldn’t have had a book!
It wouldn’t be a boarding school book without the Middles causing trouble – here it takes the form of insubordination to the prefects, illegal pet keeping and midnight feasts. What more could you want? And yes, this is a slightly higher level of spoilers than I usually give out – but to be honest, I can’t imagine that many of you are going to be able to lay your hands on a copy of this! Which is a shame really, because it’s not half bad – some of it is funny in a way the author didn’t intend but that’s one of the joys of reading a book written for children in the 1920s now! It does have some of the usual problems of outdated language and a very homogeneous cast, but that’s sadly to be expected in a children’s book of this era and it’s by no means as bad as some.
This was my Dorita Fairlie Bruce book, and I suspect it won’t be my last – I’ve already been playing on the used book websites to see if I can find more. Because of course what I need at the moment is more books. Of course it is. The big worry is if it sends me off down another rabbit hole of classic school story authors that I haven’t read.