Tuesday, 13 August 2019

The Lady Hardcastle Mysteries by T.E. Kinsey

 The Lady Hardcastle books are proving to be a very enjoyable series. I received the latest, The Burning Issue of the Day, from Netgalley, but before I read it, I finished all the earlier ones first. 

The first book, A Quiet Life in the Country, introduces us to our two main characters, widowed Lady Hardcastle  and her diminutive but capable ladies' maid, Florence Armstrong, and to the English country setting, but it breaks the mould in fun ways: the country house to which they move is a new build, Lady Hardcastle has a racketty background spying for the Empire, Armstrong has been trained in martial arts by a Shaolin monk, the local Inspector of Police actually welcomes their help. Events are narrated by Flo, with a general sense of irreverence:
I was up with the lark on Saturday morning, and resolved at once to make enquiries as to the sleeping habits of larks. Do they really rise early? ‘Up with the lady’s maid’ might be just as evocative of early rising but perhaps open to unfortunate misinterpretation.
The period setting (1908 at the start of the series) is well done in an understated way - it's become fashionable to give lots of detail, but here it's sketched in fairly lightly, which is fine, and the odd anachronism is either knowing, or too incidental to rankle. Perhaps there's a little too much mixing of the social classes, but the nouveau riche are, accurately enough, vilified by pretty nearly everyone, while the local country folk get ‘salt of the earth’ treatment.

The mystery is slight (apparently the original version of the book was episodic but it's been streamlined into one in this edition), with a certain amount happening off-stage, but it's coherent enough to be entertaining. All in all a good start to a series, and more than amusing enough to carry the reader on to the next instalment:
‘...we can be detectives. You can be Watson to my Holmes.’ ‘But without the violin and the dangerous drug addiction, my lady,’ I said. ‘As soon as the piano arrives from London that will make an admirable substitute for the violin. And I’m sure we could both have a tot of brandy from time to time to grease the old wheels.’ ‘The slow-grinding ones?’ ‘No, ours shall be lightning fast.’
The relationship between eccentric widow Lady Hardcastle and her maid is a joy, and the trickle of backstory elements always leaves one reader wanting a bit more. I was pretty much hooked from the very beginning, as Lady H and Flo find themselves a new house and set about furnishing it (including, of course, with daily help and cook). The exchanges between them are always beautifully judged and are full of gentle acerbity - for instance, Flo rarely refers to her employer as ‘my Lady’ except when she disapproves of her actions, they bicker over who is to drive the new car, and so on. One has the sense of a long-established relationship based on mutual respect and affection, and a certain amount of saving each other's skins:
‘You’re welcome, my lady. I shall yell uncouthly when breakfast is served.’ ‘We need a gong.’
The second book, In the Market for Murder, is also episodic, offering four short mysteries, and consolidating the rapport between the reader and characters. The cases mostly centre on their local village, with cattle markets, pub ghosts, cricketing trophies and so on. By book three (Death Around the Bend) however, we are given a ‘proper’ full-length mystery, as Lady Hardcastle and Flo are invited to join a house party for some motor racing, and this offers a little more room for development of the subsidiary characters, which is all to the good since the reader then starts to care about the ‘who’ and ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’. Flo is in the ideal situation of course, when a murder is committed, to hobnob with the servants and get all the gen on family and visitors, as well as on the staff themselves.

A short story, Christmas at the Grange, follows, with Lady H visiting friends for the festive season and Flo in attendance like a good lady's maid, but able, as before, to move with ease between above and below stairs (although Sir Hector takes a very unholy delight in offending his sister by including Flo in the festivities). As Christmas stories go, it’s a good ’un.

Book 4,  A Picture of Murder, finds Lady H and Flo offering to host a visit by some moving-picture makers as their friends, the Farley-Strouds, have unfortunately had a kitchen fire. (Lady F-S doesn’t take advantage though, she lends a surly maid and a more amenable footman to help out, the Hardcastle establishment only running to part-time help.) Even for our intrepid heroines, who stumble over murders at the drop of a hat-pin, the rate at which their guests start to meet untimely ends is a bit disconcerting, especially when there’s no motive that makes any sense. The cast of subsidiary characters is beginning to look like old friends, by now, and we’ve definitely started to get to know the village of Littleton Cotterell. We get some more about the past, too, with perhaps a presentiment of trouble to come?

With the fifth in the series, The Burning Issue of the Day, the author takes the light-hearted amateur detectives - we know by this time that their background has been much more serious, but they have retired from living on their wits in the service of HMG - and gives them something a bit more serious to get their teeth into. A death has occurred which may have been the result of suffragist sabotage, and a young suffragette is on trial for her life. Can they save her, despite the opposition of the (male) Bristol establishment? I felt that the author genuinely wanted to talk about the suffragist cause and that it wasn't simply a subject to hang a mystery on. Kinsey re-introduces a character from A Picture of Murder, the journalist Diana Caudle who, despite initially clashing with Lady Hardcastle, looks set to put in appearances in future episodes. She fulfils the role of ambitious young career woman, nicely complementing the two more in-period ladies.

I see there is another on its way - good-oh!

Sunday, 7 April 2019

A Conformable Wife by Alice Chetwynd Ley

Somehow or other I missed Alice Chetwynd Ley's books when I was younger, and A Conformable Wife is the first of hers I've read. It will not, however, be the last, for I found it charming.

It is very much in the style of one of my favourite authors, Georgette Heyer, including the familiar formula of eligible young woman meets eligible bachelor, sparks fly, there are obstacles to overcome before they, and we, reach the inevitable happy ending, and so on. Like Heyer, I'm sure that Alice Chetwynd Ley's books will explore the many possibilities offered by this pattern in very entertaining fashion, and amongst her books I will expect to find mistaken identities, dastardly villains, abductions (usually foiled), misunderstandings between lovers, young men going to the bad through gambling... all the vicissitudes which Georgian society can throw up, and all leavened with humour and warmth.

The attraction of the Georgian period is, I guess, that some women were beginning to have a small degree of autonomy, particularly if they were widowed, when they might respectably manage their own incomes unless very young. It was also a time when women were beginning to write for publication, so we have, in their own words, the start of a recognisably modern, female sensibility. The rising middle class was a factor too, as more and more people became wealthy and respectable while not necessarily belonging to the aristocracy - though it obviously helped if you could marry a duke's daughter or a younger son, the latter almost invariably in need of an urgent injection of merchant-class money.

In A Conformable Wife, the Hon. Julian Aldwyn has decided that it's time he was married, and seeks a suitable wife, one able to manage a large household, and of respectable origins, obviously. His sister suggests her girlhood friend Henrietta Melville, who has kept house for her family until his death; despite being wealthy in her own right she now lives in her family home as a dependent relative of her brother and his resentful wife - it's not easy when the servants all defer to the former, instead of the present, mistress. Aldwyn, who in modern terms is positively phobic in his avoidance of love, having been once-bitten, proposes a marriage of convenience, since this will provide the rather dowdy Henrietta with her own establishment, and besides, they seem to get along quite well together. Henrietta retorts, in essence, that she's never had any fun in her life and doesn't see why she shouldn't have some now, and anyway, she'll marry - if ever, which at twenty-six, she doubts - for love, thank you.

Thus the stage is set for all the required elements, and the action moves to Bath, which is rather livelier than the family home. Henrietta embarks on a makeover, so that Julian fails to recognise her when he eventually turns up, and he's duly horrified by the number of conquests she has made. Need I say more?

Chetwynd Ley, like Heyer, is careful about her period detail, although - here, at least - she doesn't wield cant with such bravura. Perhaps she prefers not to compete? At any rate, readers shouldn't find themselves jolted out of the Regency by the annoying anachronisms which are all-too-common nowadays. Bath is well-portrayed and researched, but not in distracting detail - the author feels no need to show off her scholarship. Altogether, A Conformable Wife turned out to be an excellent place to begin my acquaintance with this author, and I look forward to many more of her books. My thanks to Sapere Books and NetGalley for my review copy.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Becoming Mrs Lewis by Patti Callahan

I saw this title on NetGalley and was interested as I'm one of the many who grew up on the Narnia books, progressed to C.S. Lewis's adult books and later enjoyed the film Shadowlands, about his marriage to the poet and author Joyce Davidman.

What I hadn't realised when I requested the book was that this is a fictionalised version of that story, though it makes much use of letters between the two from their first correspondence - Davidman wrote to Lewis because his description of his religious conversion struck an immediate chord with her. He replied, and a lengthy and intimate exchange grew up between them. In many ways, fictionalisation is a good choice for biography - it serves to remind us that any account of another's life is necessarily a fiction, even when we have their writing to base it on (come to that, it's the case even when they've written it themselves). Initially though, it gave me some problems, because I found it rather overwritten - later, I told myself that Davidman (events are told in the first person, from her point of view) was, as a poet, given to wielding words dramatically, so a degree of self-dramatisation was appropriate.

I think the book's author,  Patti Callahan, admired both Davidman and Lewis fairly uncritically, so I found myself reading between the lines quite a bit. Not with the sort of vilification that met Davidman when she had the "effrontery", as many saw it, to marry Lewis - they seem to me to have been a very successful couple, despite his qualms about her divorced state, their relationship being a genuine marriage of two minds - but I found Callahan's version of Joy quite hard to like, and I think that might well hold true for the real person. But then, I find Lewis quite hard to like too, if I'm honest - though the Inklings fascinate me and I find them eminently readable, I don't think I would actually like any of them.

I suppose my biggest problem was with the account of Davidman's first marriage, to fellow author William Gresham. He certainly comes across as a pretty loathsome person, but I suspect that during the time they spent together they would both have seemed, to me at least, self-centred and histrionic, probably bringing out the worst in each other. After her conversion to Christianity (she was Jewish, non-practising, and had flirted with communism – a much greater sin in the US than here in the UK), Davidman left her husband and two some for an extended research and writing trip to to the UK, during which she planned to meet Lewis in person. I can understand that she felt her writing was suffering at home, and that she needed to write to earn, but still found it hard to reconcile the length of time she was away from her children, particularly since there were already signs – according to Callahan’s account, at least – that at least one of the children feared their father, who had an explosive temper and was possibly a suicide risk.

Readers who share the Lewises' religion will almost certainly enjoy this retelling of their relationship, while those who, like me, are interested in the Inklings will find much of interest, albeit secondhand. I imagine for many it will provide an impetus to go back to Lewis's own non-fiction and some may be inspired to further explore Davidman's poetry, which is oft-quoted, which didn't appeal to me. I did, however, find a previously unread author amongst Davidman's Oxford friends (unfortunately, long out-of-print and therefore almost unobtainable). I found myself sympathising again with C.S. Lewis's brother Warnie who, although much troubled, seems to have been a gentle individual, and enjoyed an American's impressions of the shabby shambles in which the Lewis brothers lived in peculiarly English fashion. At one point I had wondered whether to give up on the book altogether. I’m glad that I didn’t, because I did end up enjoying this rather poignant story. Thanks go to NetGalley for providing me with a review copy.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Thunder On The Right by Mary Stewart

Oh, the hysteria...

Not since my last reading of Black Narcissus have I encountered so many hooded eyes under conventual veils, slender white fingers convulsively clutching pectoral crosses and torrential rain. But I was in the mood for something short and gripping, so turning to Mary Stewart seemed natural enough, and I quickly found myself borne along on descriptive sentences that seemed never-ending along with a liberal dose of the aforementioned hysteria.

Actually, the book opens very pleasingly, with a sort of cameo from two Cambridge geologists, Miss Moon and Miss Shell-Pratt (for my fellow Thirkellites, they are a Hampton and Bent couple, though both stoutly brogued and tweeded) who are holidaying in the Pyrenees and rock-hunting, their dinner conversation all gabbros and anticlines, while Miss Jennifer Silver, twenty-two and coolly virginal, idly listens while dining in her hotel. She has come to meet her cousin Gillian at a convent in the Vallée des Orages  - and if that doesn't warn you what's coming... but we read Mary Stewart expecting a romantic mystery, with only the most veiled (see what I did there?) references to anything as untoward as sex, though violent death, of course, is fine.

First, however, she meets Stephen Masefield, the only man with whom she's ever been seriously involved - but he's a musician and her father approves, so we know he's going to be a protector, and not the treacherous lover we might otherwise encounter in an MS novel.

Now, despite my flippant tone and Stewartian sentences, I don't actually want to give the plot away - suffice to say that when she gets to the convent, where she will inevitably stay for a period so that the action can be cloistered and claustrophobic, events will move inexorably towards the helter-skelter denouement that we expect from this author. There's always a chase, and they are always, somehow, the part that gives me least pleasure, I suppose because they get very predictable. From about the halfway point, you know exactly how it is going to end. In my teens, I suppose, I found that cathartic, but in fact it's not what I remember about her books - rather, I recall the settings, always richly described, and to some extent, the heroines, although the latter do tend to blend into one - all early twenties, attractive, poised, well-spoken and capable, from "good" backgrounds and, usually, with plenty of spare time and money on their hands. More recently, my favourite Stewart, and the one I re-read from time to time, is Thornyhold - it was written 33 years after her first novel and, although it still has elements of the romantic mystery, is much quieter and more pleasing, and the heroine, although still young, seems more mature.

Several of her novels play with the paranormal, but Thunder On the Right, written in 1957, sticks to the Gothic. In one of her later novels, a character scoffs:
"A robed figure in a darkened church? Absurd. They had a word for the silly penny-dreadful, didn’t they? Gothic, that was it. Robed nuns and ancient houses and secret passages, the paraphernalia that Jane Austen had laughed at in Northanger Abbey."
But this one plays into them, right down to the tenebrous church. As with many of her books, both title and chapter headings are aptly chosen, in this case with reference to music (actually, I think she missed Tenebrae - how thoughtless! - but I liked the use of Bridge Passage). I think it was her titles which started me reading her books in the first place - although at the time I first read it I was still young enough to be horse-crazy, what drew me to Airs Above The Ground was the evocative title. Even at its most histrionic, her writing is intelligent and well-crafted, and when later I discovered her Merlin books, I was immediately hooked. And, having invoked it in my opening comments, I should say that  Thunder On The Right has very little of the tense eroticism of Black Narcissus (19397), though given the popularity of the film (1947), it may well have been at the back of Stewart's mind while she was writing.

Right now, Thornyhold beckons again, so I may have more to say on the subject of Mary Stewart shortly.

Friday, 23 November 2018

The Ghost It Was by Richard Hull

I've never read anything by Richard Hull before, so when the Crime Readers' Club offered a review copy I was keen to see what I thought - I'm always on the look-out for new writers to satisfy my completist needs. A nice long list makes me very happy!

As well as a long list (fourteen books) Richard Hull supplies, in A Ghost It Was, something else that makes me happy in a writer of mysteries - humour. In his case it's not quite that slightly febrile humour that characterises Innes or Crispin but something a little more down-to-earth: his policemen are more stolid, reliable types than Sir John Appleby, for instance, even when undercover (and we won't even mention Gervase Fen!). Nonetheless, you do feel that the author's tongue is firmly lodged in his cheek at times, as each new character displays a series of unloveable traits in trying to manipulate circumstances to his own ends.

Funnily enough, I'd just been reading a book with a rather similar starting point by Gladys Mitchell, The Longer Bodies. Each begins with a rich relation who hasn't yet named an heir, and various family members trying to ingratiate themselves in order to inherit all. Mitchell's horrible Great Aunt Puddequet (what a fantastic name!) sets an athletics challenge to her nephews; here James Warrenton, who has a strictly dilettante-ish interest in spiritualism, buys a haunted house and proceeds to amuse himself by watching his family members jump through metaphorical hoops to please him. Among them is Gregory Spring-Benson, whom we meet at first trying to persuade an newspaper editor to employ him as a reporter apparently in the belief that it won't involve any actual work. He certainly doesn't intend to do any, and is staggeringly rude to absolutely everyone; his pretence that he believes in ghosts gets him into the house as a potential heir, since it amuses Warrenton to annoy the rest of the family. And then there's the pompous Arthur, who sets up an elaborate - and really rather perverse - trick to prove that there's no ghost. They really are a nasty bunch.

It's an unusual example of the genre in other ways - the police arrive late to the events, which is not so very odd (there's an Appleby one where he doesn't appear until near the end, if I remember correctly), but the denouement happens, as it were, off-stage. No showdown in the library here, although there is the required explanation of the mechanism of the murder.

Apparently Hull continued to eschew the straightforward in his novels, tending more towards the sort of "psychological" novel that became more common later. I'm intrigued to see where his experimentation took him, though I must admit that I don't often enjoy mysteries with unreliable narrators. We shall see....

Monday, 19 November 2018

Illustration - Margaret Tempest

Margaret Tarrant
I was book-obsessed from the start, and some of my earliest treasures were the Little Grey Rabbit books by Alison Uttley, illustrated by Margaret Tempest. I adored the characters within these pages and the beautiful watercolours which depicted their daily tasks and amusements. They are probably largely responsible for the pleasure I take in middlebrow literature, where the mundane is of equal, if not more importance, than events on the world-scale.

Both Uttley and her illustrator understood this. The foreword to all the Little Grey Rabbit books is as follows:
Of course you must understand that Grey Rabbit's home had no electric light or gas, and even the candles were made from pith of rushes dipped in wax from the wild bees' nests, which Squirrel found. Water there was plenty, but it did not come from a tap. It flowed from a spring outside, which rose up from the ground and went to a brook. Grey Rabbit cooked on a fire, but it was a wood fire, there was no coal in that part of the country. Tea did not come from India, but from a little herb known well to country people, who once dried it and used it in their cottage homes. Bread was baked from wheat ears, ground fine, and Hare and Grey Rabbit gleaned in the cornfields to get the wheat.

The doormats were plaited rushes, like country-made mats, and the cushions were stuffed with wool gathered from the hedges where sheep pushed through the thorns. As for the looking glass, Grey Rabbit found the glass, dropped from a lady's handbag, and Mole made a frame for it. Usually the animals gazed at themselves in the still pools as so many country children have done. The country ways of Grey Rabbit were the country ways known to the author.

(The Foreword to the Little Grey Rabbit books by Alison Uttley)

The pictures are actually quite simple, but you feel as though there is lots of detail. Here, for example, is the lace border that Little Grey Rabbit made for Mrs Hedgehog, with its bees and flowers, and you can see the lace-making pillow with its bobbins on Grey Rabbit's lap.

Margaret Tempest was born in Ipswich in 1892 and lived until she was 90. She was trained at Ipswich Art School and Westminster School of Art, graduating just as WW1 began. After the war she and a group of friends founded The Chelsea Illustrators - women artists sharing a studio to work, teach and sell art - the studio ran successfully until 1939. 

During the twenties she began work on the Alison Uttley books, a partnership that lasted 40 years although artist and author didn't like each other (but Uttley does seem to have been extremely difficult - amazing that she could write such enchanting books, but I think she was probably happier while she was writing than the rest of the time). She wrote and illustrated her own books too, like the ABC below, and designed cards for Medici (78 in all) - the postcards are particularly fine, as the whole story has to be told in a single image.

Medici postcard  

The illustration below, probably from Little Grey Rabbit and the Weasels, has a lovely William Morris sort of background. Apparently the distinctive coloured border that surrounds the LGR illustrations was Tempest's idea, and it is wonderfully effective, framing the miniature world of the animals - there's always a sense of being close to the ground.

The borders made the dustjackets equally distinctive too, and even modern editions retain a strong sense of the originals. Here's the 1986 version of Little Grey Rabbit Makes Lace:

It lacks the lace-making detail that I liked so much and the lacy border, replacing them with the coloured border of the text illustrations which is the most easily recognised feature, along with the grey dress, blue pinny and crisp white collar and cuffs that Grey Rabbit (nearly) always wears. Even later illustrators of the series kept to these conventions. I particularly like this one, where her grey dress is kilted up, showing her delicious white petticoat below - she's actually hanging her pinny on the washing line.

I can see the beginnings of all lots of my own character traits when I look at these little books, which are ideally sized for small hands. The original editions had endpapers showing the little house in the woods with washing gaily dancing in the breeze. I suppose many of the things I learnt to prize are deeply unfashionable these days - homemaking, pretty clothes, care for small creatures, country lore - but the books are still in print, though whether they please small children or nostalgic grandparents I don't know.

Margaret Tempest married her cousin Sir Grimwood Mears, a former Chief Justice in Allahabad, in 1951. They lived in Ipswich at 3 St Edmund's Road, where there is a blue plaque in her memory. She was an enthusiastic sailor and became Commodore of the Pin Mill Sailing Club. 

A website about Margaret Tempest lists her books and shows some of her other illustrations, but she will always be best remembered, I think, for Little Grey Rabbit and her friends.

Friday, 16 November 2018

The Ice King by Helen Slavin

I haven't been reading many new books recently - since the advent of ebooks there is so much being reissued from my favourite period (roughly 1930-70) that I can barely keep up. There is a small and select band of authors who get bought automatically, though: Ben Aaronovitch, Jodi Taylor, Alan Bradley and Jasper Fforde get pre-ordered, and Nicola Slade and Linda Gillard are close behind. Pretty much anyone else will languish on the to-be-read list, sometimes picked up from the library, but it may be years and a growing sense that I really ought to read a particular work before I get round to it. I've said before that I'm very resistant to the books absolutely everyone is talking about, unless it's an author I already know I like. So making it onto my radar is quite difficult. But I do get newsletters from some publishers (usually the ones with long reissue lists) and I do actually read them. I also, of course, read blogs, but I'm aware that everyone else's taste is necessarily as idiosyncratic as mine, so although they may rave about a book, that doesn't mean that I'll like it. I'll probably wait for a consensus by several people whose views I really trust before forking out some of my limited book budget.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that someone new got through the barbed wire fence and the pack of guard dogs and the attack squirrel and shinned up to my tower window (yes, I do have a very small tower...). And that author is Helen Slavin, who has written a novella, The Ice King, that I'm eager to talk about.

First off, isn't that a seductive cover? I'd certainly have picked it up in a bookshop. That eye is full of promise - is it a threat? or what? there's both danger and candour in that gaze. And what happens to the main characters is like that too.

The story is in three parts and focuses on three different people. The first we meet is Hettie Way, the Gamekeeper. That capital initial is important. The extent of her role isn't divulged here, but we know that she protects Pike Lake and the wood around it, and her link with the land and what lives in the lake is important. It's not entirely clear whether she's protecting it, or protecting everyone else from it. She's certainly trying to protect her 9-year-old daughter, Vanessa, who is drawn to the lake despite being told that she should stay away, and must not, ever, go into the water. Being drawn to something is a guarantee that orders will be disobeyed, and Vanessa does, in a spirit of scientific curiosity, go into the water.

Part 2 takes up the story of Lachlan Laidlaw who, in the early years of the twentieth century, is in love with a girl who's a bad lot. She wants him to take her to the Goose Fair (echoes of Lud-in-the-Mist and Stardust, two of my favourite books). It doesn't go well, but Lachlan has a brush with a fortune teller.

Part 3 takes up the story of the grown-up Vanessa, now a scientist on an expedition to the northern wastes of Norway with her supervisor and a bunch of exceedingly unlovely male scientists. Echoes of all sorts of things here, since a research station is pretty much just that - claustrophobic and vulnerable to weather and communications failures and all that those entail. And bears. Vanessa discovers a body in the ice and things don't go well from there.

How the lives and stories of the three people we've met entwine to make an atmospheric and scary whole is the stuff of folklore and legend and our most atavistic fears. The Ice King has some genuinely heart-in-the-mouth moments and leaves unanswered lots of intriguing questions, which is fine as it's the prequel to further books about the Way family. I found myself impatient to know more about the Lake and woods and how the magic within them works: what it costs its Gamekeepers, how it's inherited, whether it can co-exist with Vanessa's science? This is exactly the sort of book I like, the kind you find yourself thinking about after you've finished. And the kind where magic is woven into the natural environment and isn't something to be learnt by going to wizard school or reading a grimoire or whatever - not that I can't enjoy some of that too, but this feels like the Real Thing.

**Edited later to say I have no idea why the formatting changed in the last para! How infuriating!