Hotel Sacher, Rodica Doehnhert
A Private View , Michael Innes
Love in an English Garden, Victoria Connelly
The Dead Shall be Raised & The Murder of a Quack, George Bellairs
The Skylarks’ War , Hilary McKay
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free, Andrew Miller
The Singing Masons , Francis Vivian
Death of a Busybody, George Bellairs
Quick Curtain, Alan Melville
Hotel Sacher was the Kindle First book for August, nothing else appealed and so I went for this one.
It’s set in Vienna and Berlin in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. At first, I was put off by the confusing cast of characters and rather plodding writing. I kept going because I wanted to find out what happened to an abducted child. The Hotel Sacher and its manager Anna are at the heart of the book; everyone goes there at one time or another. The characters’ lives are cleverly interwoven. I felt the author was going for the Petra Durst-Benning market (tough women) but she is more ambitious, attempting to explain through the characters the downfall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. She’s not very successful at this. One thing really irritated me: the introduction of two characters called ‘Death’ and ‘Love’ who drift around observing human life. I thought we could have done very well without them. It’s rather a nihilistic book in which every character who dies is quite glad to do so and there seems, in 1918, to be nothing good to come in the world.
I was rather desperate for something to read when I picked another free for Kindle book, Love in an English Garden. This is for people who like reading about old houses and gardens. It’s also part of the growing fashion for older heroines. Vanessa is widowed and grieving and unwilling to accept that her lovely old house, Orley Court, is too expensive to keep up. Her sensible daughter suggests selling part of the house, despite protests from the poisonous mother-in-law. Laurence and his widowed father move in, bringing their own problems. The house and especially the garden have healing qualities and lives are changed.
The Dead Shall be Raised & The Murder of a Quack gives you two books for the price of one. More Inspector Littlejohn mysteries from BLCC, requested from the library. I found both stories very interesting social history. The Dead Shall be Raised is about a cold case, a murder committed in 1917. It’s 1940 and the Littlejohns have been bombed out of their London flat. Yet again Littlejohn is ostensibly on holiday yet gets roped in to help out when another body is found buried on the moor. It’s Christmas time and it’s fascinating that people turn out from all around in order to hear an amateur production of The Messiah on Christmas night. There are so many quotes from it that I found myself singing ‘the cro-o-ked straight’ to myself. The other book is about the curious murder of a ‘bone-setter’ or chiropractor who seems only have to done good. But at some time in the past, he helped a criminal to change his appearance. Why would he do that? A curious case for Littlejohn.
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free was on ‘Read Now’ offer from NetGalley and is by a former Costa prize winner.
I really struggled with this book and several times was on the point of giving up. It begins promisingly enough, with a sick man dumped at home from a coach. Who is he? What’s happened to him? He is John Lacroix, he’s been fighting in the Peninsula War and something pretty awful obviously happened to him out there. The next chapter follows events in Lisbon, where an enquiry is being held into an atrocity carried out by British troops. Psychopathic Corporal Calley is sent to England to kill the officer who was present, in order to appease the allies. Is it Lacroix?
Meanwhile, as Lacroix recovers, he decides not to go back to the war but instead to travel as far north as he can go. He sets off, still unwell, not realising that pursuers are on his tail. The chase should be suspenseful and exciting (the book is billed as a thriller) but the story is told very slowly and with many unnecessary diversions. My problem was that I couldn’t care whether Lacroix lived or died. There is some historical interest in the book but it quite failed to grip me and is probably twice as long as it need have been. I see mine is a minority opinion.
Yet another book by George Bellairs, Death of a Busybody has a classic setting in an English country village. The local busybody, a woman keen on saving souls and not caring what scandals she brings to light in the process, is murdered. At least half the village had reason to be glad to be rid of her, but who would go as far as murder? It turns out that financial shenanigans are involved as well. This is a wartime book, with blackout everywhere and yet people still eating enormous meals. I really liked this passage, which ends a chapter and has nothing to do with the plot.
Hens scratched in the ditches, cats sunned themselves, dogs snuffed about the roadside. Somewhere, someone was rattling milk churns and in the distance the clatter of a reaping-machine could be heard. The clank of the anvil and the softer blows of the hammers on hot metal sounded from the smithy. A dog-cart of ancient design jogged along to Hilary Parva and on the main Evingdon road, by way of contrast, the snarling exhaust of a sports-car roared and died away.
This period is such a popular one with modern novelists but Bellairs wasn’t writing with the aid of research or looking back nostalgically; just describing the way things were in an English village in the 1940s.
Death on stage is a popular plotline in detective fiction (Ngaio Marsh used it more than once) but once the leading man has been shot dead, Melville’s story is anything but classic. His detective, Inspector Wilson, investigates with the help of his son rather than his Scotland Yard colleagues and you will look in vain for police procedure. The book is full of theatrical jokes, like the critic James Amethyst (James Agate, geddit?) writing his reviews before seeing the shows. I imagine Melville had a lot of fun writing this, which is entertaining in its way and has a very unusual (and unlikely) ending for a book from ‘the golden age of crime fiction’.
My bedtime reading has been another re-read of Nella Last’s War. As always, her industry amazes me. The charm of the book lies not in the accounts of how the war is going but in the descriptions of how, at the very worst times, she gets out a pretty tablecloth and her best china, puts flowers on the table and makes things as bright as possible.