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! 

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

All for Love by Jane Aiken Hodge

All for Love was originally published as Savannah Purchase in 1971 and seems to have been out of print for a little while. I'm very glad that Agora Books have brought it back, and kindly allowed me a copy via Netgalley, because it was a real romp of a read - I stayed up late and then finished it in one blissful gulp this morning, as part of my mini Aikenfest.

Juliet and Josephine are cousins so alike that they've often, in childhood, swapped roles. They've been apart for some years, though both have moved to Savannah from France, where both had been involved in the French-English war that saw Napoleon exiled to St Helena. As their story begins their circumstances are very different - Juliet has just lost her father and is living in miserable poverty, while Josephine has married a wealthy landowner, Hyde Purchis. (This is in fact the third book in a Purchis family saga but since, I think, it introduces Juliet and Josephine as new characters, can perfectly well be read as a standalone.)

Josephine, we learn, was rescued by her husband from an unspecified-but-dire situation in France where they conducted a mariage de convenance. Thus she has little compunction about persuading her cousin to take her place while she sets off on a wild scheme to rescue her hero Napoleon. Juliet reluctantly allows herself to be drawn into this plot on condition that she will be able to return to France to start a new life. Once in the Purchis household, of course, she faces a series of challenges, since however alike the cousins look, it is impossible to predict all eventualities. Josephine's wayward habits and extravagance contrast with Juliet's quiet and caring manners, though at times she manages a bravura performance as her selfish cousin. How it all plays out I leave the reader to discover (you know I don't like plot summaries!)

Having just read and reviewed Maulever Hall, a typically English Regency bit of gothic fun, I enjoyed the shift to Southern Gothic in All for Love. It's a sort of Georgette Heyer-meets-Anya Seton kind of book. Some years ago I re-read Dragonwyck, which I had remembered from my teens as a dark and brooding sort of affair, and on re-acquaintance was struck by how much the hot southern sun kept intruding to lighten the atmosphere. It's the same here - to my surprise I almost wanted more histrionics. Perhaps you can't do Southern Gothic without vampires? But that notwithstanding, I enjoyed All for Love very much, and boy, but I'm loving some of the Agora reprints - through them I've discovered such writers George Bellairs and Richard Hull, filled some Allingham gaps, and have a feast of Jane Aiken Hodge's books still to come. In fact, I have a feeling that their list is going to keep me pretty busy for the next 12 months or so, and use up most of my book budget. Thank goodness for the Crime Classics Review Club!

Monday, 12 November 2018


I have a terrible tendency to muddle up the Aiken sisters: Joan Aiken (she of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase fame) and Jane Aiken Hodge. I guess I was reading both in my late teens and early twenties, they both wrote some regencies, their writing styles are not dissimilar, and while Joan wrote some Austen sequels, Jane wrote a biographies of Austen and Georgette Heyer... so when I thought last week that the book I was enjoying was by the Other One, I didn't feel I was entirely to blame for my confusion.

I started the week with The Embroidered Sunset, by Joan Aiken. Lucy, born in England but brought up by her uncle in the US after her father ran off leaves school to discover that her expensive education has apparently used up all her money so that her planned career as a concert pianist looks unlikely. However there's a chance that a famous pianist who is dying of cancer might train her, if she can earn enough to pay for lessons so she decides to work her passage to England as a ship's stewardess. Her loathsome uncle agrees to her plan as she can also check up on his elderly sister, who may or may not have died - if she has, he wants to stop paying her an annuity, and besides, he has an idea that her pictures just may be valuable. While most enjoyable, this turned out to be quite a dark little novel, and I'm still not at all sure what I make of the end. Lots of gothic overtones, deserted houses and rain though - you can never have too much of them, right?

What I did know, however, was that Aiken's writing was pleasing and was holding my attention, and I felt that I could do with more of it. So I turned to another of her books, only to discover that it was in fact by Jane. It was on my Kindle because Agora Books have been reprinting quite a number of authors I like - Michael Innes amongst them - and I'd spotted it on one of their emails. Well, I'd spotted the Aiken bit, at any rate...

Maulever Hall has a lot of Georgette Heyer about it - resourceful heroine, in the case suffering from amnesia after a carriage accident, eccentric aristocrats, cross-country chases (so much more fun in a coach and four!), murdered heirs, dangerous suitors... what more could one ask? Marianne has no idea why she is fleeing in terror on a dark night with a child she doesn't think is hers. And where is she going? She's not even sure what her name or status is. Does she have a guilty secret? She manages to be at once both capable and gullible, and I thought this quite convincing - the one thing that is clear from what she can/can't remember is that she's country-bred, and has no experience of the ways of the city or the ton. And she has only her own feelings to tell her who and what can be trusted, and her memory of fear and pursuit. There's plenty of rain in this one too.

Which did I prefer? Well, actually, I was very happy with both, and as the nights here grow longer, am going to immerse myself in the gothic worlds of both Aiken sisters. Next up, Castle Barebane, by Joan - now there's a promising title!