Portrait of a Man with Red Hair by Hugh Walpole (1925). It's funny, but I thought I remembered rather liking the once-fashionable Hugh Walpole in my schooldays. If I did, it wasn't for this gothic romance - when I picked it up I'd an idea I had read it before, but I quickly realised I had no recollection of it. I suppose it's a very early version of the psychological novel - you can see similarities between it and some of Buchan's writing, or even Chesterton's, but it has none of the appeal. In fact, I loathed it, and it made me feel rather grubby, although there is nothing overtly unpleasant. The man with red hair is a sadist who fancies himself a master criminal, but all the characters are cardboard cutouts, from the not-terribly-heroic hero to the ill-fated lovers that he meets while on a walking holiday. I really can't recommend it at all - Daphne du Maurier did this sort of thing so much better that you'd be much wiser to choose any of her novels. It's taken me ages to get round to writing about it because I can't think of anything to say except "yuck".
Diplomatic Baggage by James Melville (1994). This felt like a book from an earlier time - perhaps the 60s. It's a piece of fluff about a young-ish diplomat with something of a reputation for getting embroiled in (unspecified) trouble, who is posted to Hungary in 1982 as a cultural attaché ( a post the author himself once held, so you know there's going to be a degree of plausibility about the mayhem). Once he gets to Budapest Ben Lazenby initially seems to settle in fairly well - he's an easy-going type, with enough of a sense of humour to find negotiating the intricacies of diplomacy in the later stages of the Cold War to be faintly ridiculous, at best, and downright farcical at worst. And predictably, worst is what it becomes, when he is sent to escort two lorries containing an exhibition of British art to their next destination. Before long, one of the lorries is missing, and Ben finds himself lumbered with an attractive journalist in possession of secrets and apparently haunted by two gipsy children who keep turning up in unexpected places. It was described as the start of a "sparkling new series" but only seems to have been followed by one sequel, suggesting that I wasn't the only one who found it, if reasonably enjoyable, a bit lacking in actual sparkle. Sad, because the author was responsible for an excellent crime series about Superintendent Tetsuo Otani which gave a real sense of life in modern Japan - at least to this reader - and contributed to a series about an art teacher called Miss Seeton, which sound fun. Here's a bit from Diplomatic Baggage - Ben has been wining and dining a recent arrival, academic Emma Jarvis, who has a teaching appointment at the University:
Just in time he remembered to hand over the plastic bag he had brought for her. It contained two boxes of Kleenex, a jar of Nescafé, a tin of Band-Aids and a plastic bottle each of Stergene and Squezy washing-up liquid from the Embassy staff shop. Joanna Crockett had recommended these items as more than acceptable gifts for a young British lady living on her own in the Hungarian provinces, and contributed a rectangular package wrapped in brown paper and a letter from herself. Lazenby thought he could guess what was in the package and thought Emma would be grateful for this token of sisterly thoughtfulness; but was astounded when she positively crooned over the bottle of Squezy, tears of gratitude brimming in her eyes.Watson's Choice by Gladys Mitchell (1955). I didn't mean to read two books by Mitchell, but the library produced this one for me, for a year I hadn't completed. Her writing career spanned the years 1929 to 1984, so this one comes from about midway, though I don't think there's much difference in Mrs Bradley from the 1941 novel I reviewed earlier - she's described as old in both, she definitely cackled in the earlier one (suggestive of age, I think?) and George the invaluable chauffeur seems much the same in both. In this book a rather unlikeable friend of Mrs Bradley's, Sir Bohun Chantrey, has insisted, despite fears for his safety which she considers to be reasonably well-founded, on giving a Sherlock Homes party for his immediate household and a few friends. Everyone attending is expected to dress up as one of Conan Doyle's characters, and to demonstrate their familiarity with the stories during a treasure hunt. The evening doesn't go entirely to plan and, in its later stages, a large dog turns up, rather badly painted to look like the famous Hound... Mrs B., her secretary Laura, and Laura's policeman fiancé are concerned enough to look into the events at the party and no-one is terribly surprised when one of the household turns up dead.
Mrs Bradley books are held, by those who know, to be variable in quality, and this is one of those chosen by Vintage for its recent reprinting, but I didn't think it as good as When Last I Died: despite the badly-painted dog, it was short on the eccentricity of the earlier book. I like Mrs B.'s affinity for young people and I find it very comforting that there's more than 60 Mrs B. books still to read - most series are a little on the short side, in my opinion. Finding them all would be quite another matter, however, and could prove very expensive!