The Schirmer Inheritance, Eric Ambler
Words and Music , William Mayne
Bewildering Cares , Winifred Peck
Death of an Airman , Christopher St John Sprigg
Thalia, Frances Faviell
Sally’s Family, Gwendoline Courtney
Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre, Gwendoline Courtney
The Hog’s Back Mystery, Freeman Wills Croft
Mrs Harter , E M Delafield
The Suburban Young Man , E M Delafield
The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson
Brothers in Law , Henry Cecil
Friends in Court, Henry Cecil
Andrew Marr’s Paperback Heroes programme about spy fiction made me want to read something by Eric Ambler. I was tipped off that The Schirmer Inheritance was free for the Kindle (it still is, at the time of writing), so I started with that. The book begins in 1806 during the Napoleonic Wars when a soldier called Schirmer deserts and begins a new life. Move on over a hundred years and several generations and one of the Schirmers has left a goodly inheritance, unclaimed. As no descendants have been found, the case looks set to be like Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, with the entire fortune used up in lawyers’ fees. This apparently hopeless case is dumped on an ambitious young American lawyer called George Carey, much to his disgust. Following clues discovered by a previous investigator he travels to Europe in search of more and finds himself mixed up with some very dodgy characters in Greece. His mission is far more dangerous than he could have expected but he does get an answer of sorts. Although the book is far from dull, I’m guessing it’s not Ambler’s best. It was no better than a thriller by Helen MacInnes, whom I like a lot.
I was knocked out by Frances Faviell’s A Chelsea Concerto and also enjoyed The Dancing Bear, both books based on the author’s experiences. Thalia is a novel and it doesn’t quite come off. It began promisingly, having me thinking, ‘Oh good, this is going to be like Mary Stewart’. Rachel, who is only eighteen, has displeased her aunt and been deprived of a trip to India. Instead, she’s sent to Brittany to stay with an acquaintance of her aunt’s and look after the children. It’s a strange household. Soon after Rachel’s arrival the Colonel, head of the family, has to return to duty in India. He begs Rachel to take care of Thalia. She soon finds out why. Beautiful Cynthia dotes on her young son, who is shockingly spoiled, but she seems to hate Thalia, who behaves very oddly, soon developing a passionate and jealous affection for Rachel. Poor Rachel is far too young to have to cope with this, unable to understand the social norms of the ex-pat community and rows with Cynthia about the servants. She also falls disastrously in love for the first time. Thalia is really a psychiatric case who needs proper medical help. Nothing ends well and Rachel returns to England a sadder person. I think my main problem with the book is Rachel’s age. She’s sophisticated in some ways, very naïve in others and quite unfit for the job she’s been given, which seems unfair. Had she been in her twenties, things might have ended better than they do. Thalia is a Furrowed Middlebrow book.
I felt so miserable (not because of Thalia!) that I turned to reliable Sally’s Family, a favourite girls’ book. The story of how Sally reunites her brothers and sisters, scattered during the war, and makes a home for them never fails to charm. I’m always slightly disappointed by the ending. The best parts of the book are about refurbishing the house, restoring the garden and generally making do on very little money. I moved on to Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre, also published as Stepmother and Those Verney Girls. It’s about four motherless girls who’ve been allowed to do pretty much what they like until their father introduces a stepmother, who has other ideas. On this reading I found the book very irritating. I was quite infuriated by Mr Verney and his laissez-faire attitude to parenting. What normal parent thinks it's OK to allow young girls to tramp the countryside alone at night? The eldest daughter, Alison, has an unhealthy devotion to her undeserving parent. Elizabeth is supposed to be a brilliant actress, which does not excuse her appalling behaviour. I think she’s horrid although the author seems to expect us to like her. Of the two younger girls, Susan is surprisingly normal and Georgie completely out of hand. The new stepmother, Nan, behaves like a saint and eventually wins the girls over. They improve remarkably quickly and Mr Verney smugly reflects that they haven’t turned out too badly. I can’t understand why I used to like this book. I do still like family friend the Owl, who is a clever and sensible boy.
I liked the idea of The Hog’s Back Mystery because I know the area. It’s rather dull, too much of a puzzle book to be engaging. Three people disappear mysteriously from the same Surrey house. There are very few clues, Inspector French plods along, none of the characters is interesting and there’s nothing amusing in the writing. Another BLCC dud.
I was looking forward to reading The Road to Little Dribbling and began laughing as soon as I started it. Sadly, it soon turned sour on me. Bill Bryson is older, grumpier and even less tolerant than he used to be. He is also developing unfortunate homicidal tendencies. When a woman allows her dog to foul a footpath, he wants to beat her to death with his walking stick. A boy dropping litter three feet from a rubbish bin leads him to think wistfully of euthanasia. When you add to these victims the Highways authorities, everyone in charge of public transport, surly and unhelpful shopkeepers and restaurant workers, the people running (ruining) the Natural History Museum, all Tories plus the other imbeciles and fuckwits (his word) infesting the country, you’ve wiped out most of the population of Britain, thus making it a safe place for an elderly American to wander around in, admiring the beautiful scenery he loves so much without getting constantly irritated. Of course there would be no transport, no beer and no one to rescue you when you have a heart attack after climbing one hill too many, but that is surely a small price to pay for being free from annoying people? You may say I have no sense of humour and don’t recognise irony when I see it. I reply that Mr Bryson’s humour wore very thin and that The Road to Little Dribbling would be a better and funnier book if it were half its published length. But he very often hits the nail right on the head.
I wrote earlier that I’d enjoyed Brothers in Law. Oh dear, Friends in Court is extremely boring. Roger is now a QC and doing well. Unfortunately most of the book consists of his speeches, given verbatim. Just clever, clever, clever. Sober as a Judge, which I’m reading now, is even worse. Now Mr Justice Thursby (also The Honourable Sir Roger Thursby), Roger’s judgements and even the speeches he gives at dinners are recorded in tedious detail. These two books remind me of the ghastly panel programmes they used to have on Radio 4 in which a lot of old bores Haw hawed at each others’ carefully rehearsed stories. It was a world of privileged men which makes you feel quite sick. If you want legal anecdotes, Dornford Yates did them far more entertainingly.
What a depressing account of a month’s reading. It didn’t seem so bad at the time.