Wednesday, 12 August 2020

A Distant View of Everything by Alexander McCall Smith

If you are just embarking on this series, there are spoilers here! 

 I really hadn't expected, when I read the first Isabel Dalhousie novel, The Sunday Philosophy Club, that I would one day be reading the 11th in the series. I thought a book about a polite Edinburgh lady with a predilection for philosophy would be just too niche. But here we are, some 16 years later (yes, I read the first almost immediately it was published, because I couldn't resist the title) - quite a lot has happened in Isabel's life, in a very quiet sort of way. She's acquired a husband and two children, something that looked rather unlikely in the first book. However, she still lives in the same house, with Grace her housekeeper, and she is still editing the Journal of Applied Ethics

 It was the Journal which really drew me to the series - I too was working, in Edinburgh, on a small academic journal in those days, and I recognised and identified with many of the issues Isabel faced as editor. In fact, they often made me laugh out loud. Indeed, my favourite moment from the series is still the never-posted reply to one of her contributors. I could have written that myself! Isabel's investigations - or "interventions" as she terms them - may have started with a sudden death, but the issues are more often of an ethical nature than an exciting one. McCall Smith says he doesn't think we celebrate kindness enough, and there is a great deal of it within his books. When Isabel finds herself lacking in kindness, she generally takes herself to task. But although she can be punctilious to the point of being maddening - to both reader and, sometimes, her friends - she is also human and sometimes just plain wrong. 

 Edinburgh life is entirely recognisable to anyone who's ever lived there, which is another of the series' charms (though not necessarily infallibly so - I am not a great fan of the author's Scotland Street series), though McCall Smith patronises a better class of eatery than I can afford. 

 The plot hinges on whether a personable man is preying on wealthy women. Isabel's friends are the sort of people who can afford to admire works by the Scottish Colourists with the familiarity of those who have inherited one along with their gracious Georgian residences. McCall Smith name-drops various real-life Edinburgh denizens from time to time, and Colourist paintings have featured in more than one of the books. I was glad not to have too much of Isabel's "sainted American mother" here, she's an offstage character who has never appealed to me. 

I listened to the audio version of the book. There have been several readers throughout the series, but I like Karlyn Stephen, who reads here. She has a soft voice, which suits the subject matter, and a fairly generic accent - characters are distinguishable, which is important, and Isabel's lengthy musings (have they got longer?) remain lively enough to avoid longueur.

I wrote about Isabel Dalhousie once before, for anyone who is interested. 

Monday, 20 July 2020

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

In Margery Sharp's novel of this name, twenty-year-old Cluny lives with her Uncle Arn in Paddington and assists him ably in his plumbing business by taking messages and doing the accounts. But she is of concern to her family - her uncle, his sister and his brother-in-law - because they think she doesn't "know her place": she's outgoing, adventurous, full of curiousity about the world, and this leads her to decide that she can take tea at the Ritz or be invited to parties. She's a complete innocent, and can't see any reason why these things are unacceptable - if other people can, why shouldn't she? It's decided, thanks mainly to Aunt Addie, that she must go into service as a maid in the country house of Sir Henry Carmel in Devon.

Even before she arrives Cluny's behaviour is most un-maid-ish - befriending the dog of a one of the Carmels' neighbours on the train, she is invited to go and walk it on her days off, and since the dog doesn't wish to be parted from her, she is given a lift to her new place of employment in the neighbour's Rolls-Royce. Cluny's first letter home to Uncle Arn begins: "There are twenty-seven rooms, Queeen Elizabeth slept in one of them but I have to share. The other girl is called Hilda. She had a baby last year but Mrs M. overlooked it. You tell that to Aunt Addie."

Esatblished at Friars Carmel she meets "the Professor", a writer who has fled Nazi Germany. Invited by their son for a stay of indefinite length, Belinski is warmly welcomed into the household by Andrew's parents - Lady Carmel explains her understanding of the situation to her husband: Mr Belinski is a Professor, who has been ill and now needs peace and quiet. Andrew, wrapped up in his own  concerns, does nothing to disabuse his parents of this harmless notion, feeling that the explanation is well-suited to their kind and comfortable complacency.

 Belinski recognises Cluny as a misfit like himself and understands her, perhaps, better than she understands herself. When she tells him she doesn't feel as if she belongs anywhere he replies with what she regards as a magic phrase, "For you, I imagine, the whole universe is to let." Her imagination thus fired, what she will do with this idea is one strand of this quietly funny book.

In contrast, the other strand is what will happen to Andrew. Concerned that there will be another war, he frets about his future, and while his parents hope that he will come home and settle down to run the estate, he pulls away from what he calls "Lord of the Manorishness". At the same time he is vying with his friend John for the attentions of the attractive and self-assured Betty Cream, who firmly rejects them both. Although Andrew's position of privilege makes it seem as though he has much greater autonomy than Cluny, he feels trapped by both past and present.

In 1946 Cluny Brown was transported to the US and made into a romantic comedy which loses all the subtlety and humour of this very English novel. Life at Friar's Carmel is so harmonious, peaceable and comfortable that Belinski has none of the irritations that allowed him to work successfully.  Meanwhile Cluny, despite being "only" a parlourmaid, is able to escape the eye of the housekeeper often enough to form a sedate courtship with a widowed pharmacist in the nearby village. A "rom-com" demands effervescence and caricature, but what makes this book work are the tenderly-drawn characters with their little faults, foibles and escapisms. No great histrionics here, but gentle satire.

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....