I didn’t read as many books as usual last month because I was overcome by a sudden mania for decluttering, tidying and cleaning, which was very time consuming. I should have been tidying up the garden for winter, of course. Here’s the list.
Mozart, the Man Revealed , John Suchet
A Peacock for the Footman, Rachel Ferguson
The Dancing Bear, Frances Faviell
The Dark Circle , Linda Grant
Helen Passes By, E R Punshon
The Descent of Man , Grayson Perry
Winter , ed Melissa Harrison
The Red House Mystery, A A Milne
First, two Furrowed Middlebrow books. The publishers sent me A Peacock for the Footman, one of the first of the new imprint. This could have been such a good book. Instead, it’s two books; a good one inside a bad one. The story takes ages to get going, beginning with a long history of the Roundelays of Delaye which is meant to be amusing but left me cold and bored. On a guided tour of the house we are told that in an unused room there is a message scratched on a window pane.
Thomas Picocke 1792
Edmund Roundelay, head of the family, is keen on family history and has found that Thomas Peacock was a running footman. At about the time of his death a maidservant, Polly Privett, was quite suddenly dismissed. A descendant, Sue Privett, also works in the house as a maid. She’s the only member of the household who is fond of and can manage the estate peacock, a bad tempered creature. She also cleans Picocke’s room, although it’ not part of her duties. Angela, a daughter of the house and the most sensitive member of the family, can’t bear to go near the room. Near to Delaye is the village of Rohan, a strange Norman leftover, with its own speech patterns, based on French, and secret rituals. Evelyn Roundelay, Edmund’s wife, visits the village and is privileged to hear The Running Song of Rohan which begins
Even Evelyn doesn’t like the song and it gives Angela the horrors.
I liked the supernatural part of the story. I also enjoyed the description of how Evelyn learned to be Lady Roundelay by finding out who she should know, which shops to patronise and where to have tea. The point of all these details about the family is that we should hate the Roundelays. They have treated their servants badly in the past and now that war approaches, do not behave patriotically. Not that they’re Nazi sympathisers; they just don’t want to have evacuees in a house full of old ladies and with senile Nursie in the attic. This is of course very wrong but from tart comments made elsewhere in the book, you get the distinct impression that Rachel Ferguson herself considered evacuees an unfair imposition. The house is blacked out as prescribed but when the peacock seems to be signalling (what?) at night to the Germans, Angela and the vicar start to have ideas which seem impossible …
Sounds good in a fantastical way, doesn’t it? And in some ways it is. But I detected a nasty tone to the book which I couldn’t like. I felt the writer of the introduction had got the book wrong and I would very much like to read Margery Allingham’s ‘rather po-faced review’ because I felt pretty po-faced about it myself.
The Dancing Bear was Frances Faviell’s first published book. After A Chelsea Concerto, I was so keen to read this one that I pre-ordered it. Immediately after the war, Faviell’s husband was appointed to the British Administration in Berlin. Faviell followed him with their young son. Berlin was in ruins. Almost every woman had been raped by the Russians. There was little food and the winter of 1947 was one of the worst ever. People were literally starving and freezing to death. Goods could only be obtained on the black market, crime and violence were rife, children becoming feral. The people were surprised by the way the Americans and British treated them compared with the Russians yet they were not very grateful. Many were bitter and resentful at having lost the war. I’m afraid I couldn’t feel very sorry for them. Surprisingly, Faviell found a common feeling amongst Germans that the British had treated Churchill (‘that great man!’) badly.
Faviell led a privileged life in diplomatic circles but typically wanted to help people. She taught, and also befriended a family, the Altmanns. It’s impossible to know if they were really one family or a composite, so neatly does each family member typify a particular type of German. Frau Altmann is a ‘good’ German; deeply religious, brave and Nazi-hating. Her son is a mixed-up young man missing the life he enjoyed in the Hitlerjugend and, as his sisters see, a nasty piece of work. One daughter is a professional dancer, the other working the black market and willing to do anything for a better life. She eventually marries an American soldier.
As in A Chelsea Concerto, Faviell’s observations make the privations of Berlin life real: the bleakness, the problems of de-nazification, the increasingly difficult behaviour of the Russians. Eventually we reach the blockade and the Berlin airlift. Spy fiction and films have made this period glamorous, in a black and white way, but it was anything but. Not a cheery book but a riveting one.
A reminder: the Furrowed Middlebrow books and others published by Dean Street Press are occasionally available free on Amazon (for Kindle) for a short time.
I’m reading the Bobby Owen mysteries completely out of order. Helen Passes By is the 23rd book in the series and deals with a strange case. A man is found shot dead near the house where Helen lives. She seems to have been a Zuleika Dobson type who drove men insane. She’s so beautiful that everyone who sees her falls in love and they repeatedly use the expression used in the title. ‘Just to see her passing by…’ they reflect dreamily. Owen’s problem is in seeing her at all, as she avoids all attempts to interview her although she is key to the case.
I still find it strange that such a senior officer as Owen should put in so much legwork, always working alone. He has no reliable sidekick; no Fox to Ngaio Marsh’s Alleyn, not even a Lugg. He’s usually working with other forces, incompetents and people he can’t really rely on. His closest ally is his wife Olive.
The Red House Mystery didn’t live up to its promise. It is amusing but in a very old fashioned Punch way, with silly servants. ‘Why, you could have knocked her over with a feather. Feathers, indeed, were a perpetual menace to Audrey.’ I did enjoy reading the book and Tony and Bill, the chief (amateur) investigators are very entertaining. I guessed part of the mystery and was very disappointed by the ending.