The first book in my new Marriage of Convenience quartet is mostly set in London, so my reading time in the last while has been indulgent fiction rather than research. And without planning it, I seem to have been focusing on series reads.
I love a good old-fashioned detective story, and I love it even more if the detective in question is defective (see what I did there!). Benjamin Black’s Quirke isn’t actually a detective, he’s a pathologist, but he gets involved in a lot of murders and he is dark, dark, dark! Even the Dead is the seventh in the Quirke series and I think one of the best. Benjamin Black gives equal time to Quirke and his dysfunctional life and the murder, and as far as I am concerned this is just fine.
Set in 1950s Dublin, every book is pure film noir – though the accent is all wrong, I do think that Robert Mitchum would have made a fabulous Quirke, much better than Gabriel Byrne, who played him in the TV series. In this book, Quirke is recovering (or not recovering, being Quirke) from a health scare. He’s been off the drink for a while, and he’s in a different – maybe better – frame of mind, having also been away from work for a while. But of course he gets dragged back into everything – work, drink, family secrets and old enemies. Quirke’s outlook on life is endlessly fascinating. He’s such a dour, almost unlikable man, and yet he’s so oddly confused by the world, he’s compellingly endearing. This time around, there are some happy bits. Whether they will be sustained – it would seem unlikely. Unless this is the end of the series – oh please, let it not be the end.
The Woman in the Picture by Katherine McMahon is the second book featuring one of the first female lawyers, Evelyn Gifford. I thoroughly enjoyed the first, The Crimson Rooms, and I enjoyed this one too, though not as much. I began to feel a little bit annoyed with Evelyn for faffing about – with her career, with her love life and with her family. She never seems to make any decisions, and specialises in avoiding confrontation at all costs as far as her personal life is concerned. However, the cases she becomes involved in really get your blood up – and are once again very loosely based on real cases. Katherine McMahon has a real ability to incorporate women’s history into her stories and to engage with all the associated injustices without sounding like a crusader, and in this book she does it again. However, if you’ve not read any of her books, I’d suggest you don’t start here, but go for The Rose of Sebastepol or Season of Light for your first.
A Death at Fountains Abbey is Antonia Hodgeson’s third Thomas Hawkins story, and I think the best yet. I love Thomas, the most unlikely of heroes and sleuths, who is known as ‘half-hanged Hawkins’ and granted mystical qualities by some for having escaped the noose – or rather survived the noose. It’s left a deep impression on him, this rising from the dead, as it would indeed, but this is subtly and superbly done: he looks at life differently, he’s vulnerable in a way that he wasn’t before, and though his rumbustious qualities are still part of him there is an undercurrent of fear, of no longer taking life for granted.
But this is not a philosophical tome, it’s a murder mystery packed full of history at a period rarely covered. Set in the reign of George II, at a time after the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion and before the ’45, it shows a society divided by politics and religion. And wealth. The South Sea Bubble has burst, leaving thousands of ‘middling’ types broke, while many of the elite had sufficient warning to bale out before they lost all – including the king and queen. It’s impossible not to draw parallels with the recent world fiscal crisis, and to feel renewed antipathy for those in the know who were responsible and who escaped (relatively) unblemished. One of the things Antonia Hodgson does superbly well is to make history central to her plot, with real characters and events seamlessly blended, but without making her books history lessons. Through Hawkins and his coterie, she embroils you into the time and place, playing on the emotional outcomes of the history rather than the facts, so it doesn’t feel dry, it feels real! I loved this, but if you’ve not read any of this series then I highly recommend you start with the first because although you could read this stand alone, you’d miss out on so much of Thomas’s background.
The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman is her prequel to Practical Magic (which spawned one of those rare things, a film almost as good as the book). Sadly, I felt the prequel wasn’t nearly so successful. The story meandered about aimlessly and it felt to me (I could be completely wrong) that a lot of political points were being made – and I don’t mean about the period in which the story was set, I mean about here and now United States. This read to me like an allegory, which is absolutely fine, of course, but it meant that the story felt very secondary, sometimes almost an afterthought. It also felt padded out with too many spells. On saying that, it was wonderfully written, at times spell-binding, and one not-so-great book won’t stop me from going back to such a fabulous author.
I am currently nearing the end of watching the Miss Fisher TV series, and I absolutely love it. Talking about it on Facebook, someone mentioned that the books were even better, so I decided to sample the first one. Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates by Kerry Greenwood had me hooked from the start. I think if the TV series hadn’t captured her essence so well I would have struggled, but it had – only as my Facebook friend said, in the book she’s even better. There is so much more in the books. Miss Fisher is feistier and raunchier. Bert, Cec and Dot are more developed characters, and the delicious Jack has barely made it on stage yet, I can’t wait to see how he compares with his screen alter ego. The costumes, the settings, and the Aussie-ness of it are fabulous. And this is just the first book! I can’t wait to read the next.
And so to non-fiction. Water Ways: A Thousand Miles Along Britain’s Canals by Jasper Winn is an entrancing book. A hugely entertaining combination of social history and travelogue, it is witty, enthralling, touching and written with a lovely light touch that engages and is never heavy-handed, not even when dealing with the environmental issues. It made me want to walk every single one of the towpaths, to cross the aqueducts, even to go through the tunnels. It made me want to re-watch every one of the Channel 4 Great Canal Journeys. It even made me want to take a trip on a canal boat myself – though not to live on one!
Thanks to this book, I encountered ‘Mad’ Jack Mytton, a Regency eccentric who set his nightshirt alight to cure himself of hiccups, and who I liked so much I wrote him into the first book of my new series, (The Earl’s Countess of Convenience, of which more soon). I also encountered Eleanor Butler’ and Sarah Ponsonby, two Regency ladies who set up home together in order to avoid being married off. I liked the sound of them too much I’ve ordered Elizabeth Mavor’s biography of them, The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship. Jasper Winn’s canal book is a fabulous, quirky read that will surprise you, and I think will appeal to a wide variety of readers. I loved it.
If you’ve read any of these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts either here or on my Goodreads reviews. And if you have any recommendations, please do share them, I’m always looking for something new.