Jane’s Parlour, O Douglas
Dark Bahama, Peter Cheyney
The Two Mrs Abbotts, D E Stevenson
The Countenance Divine, Michael Hughes
Love Notes for Freddie, Eva Rice
Death on the Riviera, John Bude
Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, H E Bates
Death on the Cherwell, Mavis Doriel Hay
A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler
The Sea Garden, Marcia Willett
A Week in Paris, Rachel Hore
Weekend with Death, Patricia Wentworth
The Butterfly Summer, Harriet Evans
Eliza for Common, O Douglas
I read two British Library Crime classics last month; those covers just leapt out at me from the library shelves. My verdict on Death on the Riviera is: don’t bother. More than half way through the book, there still hadn’t been a murder! This is not the sort of mystery I like. Death on the Cherwell was far more interesting, set in an Oxford women’s college. The bursar of Persephone College is murdered and a group of students decide that they will solve the mystery. I have to say, they seem more like a bunch of schoolgirls than undergraduates but they are lively characters and the book is entertaining. The book was published in 1935, the same year as Gaudy Night. There is of course no comparison but I liked this book well enough to want to read Murder Underground by the same author.
These two mysteries are totally eclipsed by Weekend with Death. I’ve already mentioned this as one of the final thirteen novels by Patricia Wentworth reissued by the Dean Street Press. Sarah is travelling back to the home of her employer, a man engaged in psychical research. A strange woman whom she meets in a station waiting room slips a package into her bag. The woman is later found murdered and there’s Sarah stuck with a mysterious package she knows nothing about. You then have to believe that such an intelligent young woman would do absolutely nothing about it, rather than running to the police at once. The excuse is that she’s afraid of losing her job. Suspend disbelief and you’re deep in a scary mystery. Sarah finds herself taken to an isolated country house with her employer, his sister and a chauffeur who is not quite what he appears to be. Everyone in the house is an enemy except the foolish sister, no one knows where Sarah is and someone wants that package very badly indeed. This is all suitably claustrophobic and frightening. I was charmed to read that, stuck in that terrible house with nothing to do, Sarah discovers and becomes enthralled by The Pillars of the House. Recommended.
Two of last month’s books proved disappointing. For all its faults, I loved Eva Rice’s The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets but Love Notes for Freddie doesn’t come near. Brilliant mathematician Marnie is unexpectedly expelled from her posh boarding school and forced to go to the local comprehensive, where her only friend is a clever, working class boy who’s as good at maths as she is. Failing to see what’s under her nose, she falls in love with a handsome factory worker, Freddie, after seeing him dance. Her mother and her gay brother Caspar see that this affair is doomed. Although only sixteen, Marnie starts drinking enough for it to become a problem. Her former teacher, Miss Crewe, was once a dancer herself and Marnie persuades her to teach Freddie, à la Billy Elliott. Miss Crewe seems to become infatuated as well, although she’s forty one. Obviously Marnie is in for serious disillusionment. The rest of the plot and the family dynamics are far too complicated to go into. There are enjoyable things in the book but the events are quite unbelievable.
I absolutely love Anne Tyler’s writing and admire her enormously; me, Nick Hornby and a host of others. She has said that A Spool of Blue Thread is probably her last novel. As usual, it’s a quiet story about ordinary people whom she makes extraordinary. I may have failed to enjoy it as I should have done because this library book had a horrible smell. It was so bad that every time I stopped reading it I felt I had to wash my hands. Four books from the library; only one I really enjoyed. I’m always resolving to use the library more but I’m put off doing so because our library has now introduced pin numbers, as well as the self service cards we’ve had for a while now. I regret the lack of social interaction which results from all this DIY borrowing and I can’t face memorising yet another pin. They assured me at the library that ‘everyone’ does this now. Is that true?
Marcia Willett is a completely new author to me but I realise now that she’s very popular. I saw The Sea Garden on the charity stall in the Co-op and was seduced by the title, the cover and the description. Jess wins a prestigious art award and is invited by the widow of the man it’s named for to stay with her in Tavistock. When she visits the Trehearnes in Cornwall, she feels strangely at home and is welcomed there. It seems there’s a mystery about her birth (three in one month!) to which the family matriarch, dominant Lady T, holds the key. An enjoyable, light book with some attractive characters. I gave it away again but that was policy rather than criticism.
H E Bates was already familiar to me but Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal was new. I’m usually disappointed to find that a book consists of short stories, but not in this case. The title story is heart breaking and the others all winners. Bates was so skilful at making ordinary lives interesting.
I almost always enjoy Rachel Hore’s books. A Week in Paris describes literally that in the present day but the secret of the book lies in wartime France. Fay is a violinist visiting Paris on an orchestral tour. Her mother, Kitty, is a pianist turned piano teacher. There’s a mystery about Fay’s early years which seems to be what makes her mother so unhappy and causes her to end up in a mental hospital shortly before Fay goes abroad. Fay had previously had strange flashbacks when on a school trip to Paris (a trip her mother was strangely reluctant to allow). On this second visit to Paris she has more feelings of déja vu which may actually be memory. As far as she knows, she was born in England and has only visited France on these two occasions, so it’s odd and frightening. Fay tries to find out the truth, which is clearly connected with the war. She’s helped by a journalist who, by an amazing coincidence, she had originally met on her school trip. This is a real page turner and the truth is terrible but at the end you have to ask why Kitty thought it right not to tell Fay the truth about her father. I also found some of the 1940s story rather slow and wanted more about Fay. Her school trip to Paris, when she meets the boy with yellow hair (the journalist), reminded me of Jerusalem the Golden. At the end of the book, Hore credits Margaret Drabble for the inspiration. Hah!
When I need cheering up (and I certainly do at the moment), I turn to O Douglas and re-read. Jane’s Parlour is not a favourite; I get tired of these ‘poor’ families who send their sons to Eton. Reading Eliza for Common I was struck yet again by how much Eliza’s brother Jimmie must have been based on John Buchan. O Douglas put a lot of herself into her books; also her opinions. Both these books remind one of her belief that children have a duty to look after their parents. Caro in Jane’s Parlour is seen as selfish because she’s at stage school in London. This is a bad thing because she’s not that good an actress, she’s costing her parents money and she ought anyway to be at home, helping her mother. Jimmie’s mother, in Eliza for Common, actually says to his face that it will be a long time before he can help his parents to retire. No pressure, then! My other comfort read (another Scottish author) was D E Stevenson’s The Two Mrs Abbotts, the third book about Barbara Buncle. Although set in wartime, it is cheerful. I mentioned it previously here.
Not a bad month for reading.