Hamlet, Revenge!, Michael Innes
Istanbul Passage, Joseph Kanon
Black Plumes, Margery Allingham
AA Milne: His Life, Ann Thwaite
Winnie-the-Pooh, AA Milne
The Pocket AAM, AA Milne
Lost for Words, Stephanie Butland
Anne of Green Gables , L M Montgomery
Reading in Bed, Sue Gee
The Proper Place, O Douglas
Amanda’s Wedding, Jenny Colgan
Bergdorff Blondes, Plum Sykes
I was sure I’d read Hamlet, Revenge! years ago but couldn’t remember anything about it. Reading this, you can’t help but be aware that Michael Innes was a don; it’s as much a work of literary criticism as it is a crime mystery. It takes a long time to get going, with a lengthy description of Scamnum Court, its surroundings and occupants. An amateur production of Hamlet is planned, organised by the duchess and produced by Giles Gott, an academic. The duchess has persuaded a professional actor to play the lead; other parts are played by members of the household and by neighbours. Before anything happens, we get a potted history of the theatre and of productions of Hamlet. The whole book becomes a critique of the play. Most of this intellectual stuff is in talk. Lord, how these people can talk! Quotes, allusions, even Greek tags. This book makes demands of the reader.
When the Lord Chancellor of England is murdered on stage while playing Polonius (conveniently behind a curtain, you see), Inspector Appleby is despatched from Scotland Yard to sort out this sensitive case. Was the murder about revenge, or about spying? With such an enormous crowd present, who can be eliminated? Working closely with Gott, whom he knows well, Appleby sets to work but is unable to prevent a second murder. While carrying out police procedure, he is also looking over and over again at the play, for clues as to motive. It’s very complicated and the ending a surprise.
In spite of complaining that it’s too clever, I enjoyed this very much and preferred it to The Daffodil Affair, which I read recently.
Istanbul Passage is another page turner from Joseph Kanon. I now regard his books as reliably readable and gripping. Amanda’s Wedding was disappointing: complete rubbish about stupid girls. I’d read praise for Plum Sykes on someone’s blog so picked up Bergdorff Blondes to try. It’s about New York socialites who think about nothing except wearing the right clothes before anyone else, getting invited to the right events, body maintenance and looking ‘ana’, as thin as possible. Oh, and a future very rich husband, of course. You could hardly find a more worthless set of people, but the book is redeemed by being funny.
I’ve signed up with an outfit called Crime Classics to receive a free e-book each month in return for a review on Amazon. Not much of a hardship. These publications are not the kind coming from the British Library Crime Classics or Dean Street Press, but books by well known (and in my case, favourite) authors like Margery Allingham. The first offering was Black Plumes, which I was surprised to find I hadn’t read. It’s a standalone novel published in 1940, set in London, which she wrote about so well. Almost all the action is centred on one house, where two murders take place, each using the same method. The family seem more worried about potential scandal than about the nasty deaths. At first, it seems that the murders must be connected with scary events at the family art gallery next door but there’s a clever twist, which I unfortunately spotted. I enjoyed the book but missed Campion and Lugg.
These days, if you put ‘bakery’, 'cake shop’ or ‘book shop’ in a novel, preferably in the title, it seems to guarantee a market. Lost for Words is in the book shop niche but just for a change the heroine doesn’t move to some remote part of the British Isles and magically open her own book shop. Loveday works in someone else’s book shop and it’s just the sort we’d all like to visit: crammed full of second-hand books. It’s owned by Archie, a lovable, larger than life figure. It’s clear that something terrible happened to Loveday in her childhood. She lives alone, keeps people at bay, trusts no one (except maybe Archie). She’s also being stalked by one man who is possibly mad and pursued by a perfectly sane and attractive one. Gradually the mystery of the trauma is revealed and it’s a pretty horrific thing for a child to have had to cope with. Can anything break through the shell she’s carefully built around herself? The bookshop, the unusual characters and a horrifying event at the end make this quite an interesting read.
Ann Thwaite’s biography of AA Milne is a very long book, yet by the end of it I still didn’t feel I really understood the strange, complex character of the man. I enjoyed reading about his happy childhood, with a headmaster father who sounds like the perfect teacher, and the adventures he shared with his beloved brother, Ken. I went off him when he was at Westminster and positively disliked him at Cambridge. Although it was mathematical brilliance which promoted his academic career, he always wanted to write and found success while still quite young. He wrote for Punch, had plays produced and was quite the rising young star. Then came the First World War. Milne regarded himself as a pacifist but joined the army as a signals officer. He proved such a good instructor that he was kept at home until 1916, when he was on the Somme. This confirmed his pacifism. He didn’t stay long at the front as he was invalided home with a serious fever which kept him ill for some time.
After the war, of course, everything had changed, including literary tastes. While still a popular writer (a favourite of PG Wodehouse), it wasn’t until his children’s books were published that he achieved real fame, especially in America. He had married Daphne, an extravagant, selfish woman and they’d had a son, Christopher Robin. Poor Milne; these books proved as much of a millstone round his neck as they were for his son. He wanted to be taken seriously as a playwright, not known principally as a children’s writer but the Pooh bandwagon was too much for him. It also made him rich. He was able to pay Ken’s medical expenses when he became ill and supported his family after Ken died.
Before reading this book, everything I knew about Milne came from Christopher Milne’s autobiographies, which I read years ago when they first came out. Christopher doesn’t come well out of Thwaite’s book. Although bullied at school because he was ‘Christopher Robin’, he seems to have remained on good terms with his father until his twenties, when he had served abroad in the Second World War. He seemed to feel that his father had achieved fame by standing on his son’s tiny shoulders and it made him bitter. In spite of wealth and success, the end of Milne’s life was sad. He was estranged from his son, he felt his ‘real’ writing was not appreciated as it should be and his marriage was not happy. After a stroke he had an operation which paralysed him and changed his character. Perhaps fortunately, he didn’t live much longer.
But, on to more cheerful matters. I read Winnie-the-Pooh in tandem with the biography and kept laughing out loud. Why be ashamed of writing something like this?
‘Hallo, Rabbit,’ (Pooh) said, ‘is that you?’
‘Let’s pretend it isn’t,’ said Rabbit, ‘and see what happens’.
I don’t know why that cracks me up; it just does. After finishing the biography, I read The Pocket AA Milne, which was published in wartime. It includes some of his famous pieces from Punch. As Ann Thwaite says, quoting a line, ‘you either find this funny, or you don’t’. I don’t; I find the whole Punch thing unbearable. I did love the Little Plays for Amateurs, especially the stage directions. I’d like to see these performed, in the manner of Peter Pan Goes Wrong. Milne really could write.
Just a couple more books to deal with. Reading in Bed is as well written and readable as you’d expect. It’s very limited in scope, dealing with two North London families and their children. I found it slightly depressing, because there’s so much about death and illness in it. Good, though. In bed, I read The Proper Place for the nth time and am now on The Day of Small Things, perhaps my favourite O Douglas novel. There’s nothing like these for a soothing bedtime read.