I don’t have a lot of time for reading at the moment, so I’ve mostly been turning to comfort reads in my fiction, and continuing with three quite different detective series that I’ve been very much enjoying.
Hangman’s Holiday (Lord Peter Wimsey 9) by Dorothy Sayers is a bit of a pick and mix of short stories, some of them distinctly odd. There’s actually less of Lord Peter Wimsey and more of the salesman Montague Egg – what a marvellous name, though every time I read it I thought of The Great Gatsby. I loved the weirdness of this collection. It seemed to me as if Ms Sayers had really let her imagination run riot, putting together a series of vignettes rather than stories, inspired from her reading in the press. I wanted to know more about Monty Egg and reckon he’d make a fabulous TV character – I’m imagining Timothy Spall or the fabulous Richard Griffiths playing him. Out of all the stories in this collection, it was Maher-Shalal-Hashbaz, the cat story really stuck with me. Very dark and grotesque, it was also absolutely hilarious, Dorothy Sayers at her subversive best. As for the rest, I really could do without her obsession with railway tickets and timetables, which I had more than enough of in Five Red Herrings. I felt the stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey ones were the weakest, and one of them (I can’t remember which, so that’s telling) I actually skipped through. But way to go Monty Egg! Please someone, put him on the screen.
Murder Must Advertise is the next (Number 10) in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. Even though once again the elusive Harriet Vane failed to make an appearance (save in one oblique reference) I thoroughly enjoyed this. So much of it was obviously tongue-in-cheek, based on the author’s experience as a copy writer, and some of her puns and slogans made me laugh out loud. I suspect too, that not much has changed in essence in the world of copy-writing, though the process of getting an ad out there has radically evolved.
Lord Peter goes undercover in this story, and I loved the twists and turns of him having to alternate between his alter ego and his ‘real’ self, which made him question who that real self was. This was a very callous story in some regards, with people being picked off and disposed of towards the end in droves. Lord Peter and his detective sidekick seem to think that their life-styles made these victims dispensable, and I must admit that there were a couple of times where I stopped reading, quite appalled (especially at the end). While I understand the thinking, and I admire Ms Sayers’ guts in voicing her undoubtedly controversial opinions (even for the time), this attitude did a little spoil my enjoyment of the whole. That said, it romped along, and overall I’d say it was one of the better books in the series. And it goes without saying that I’m already eager for more.
On to the Miss Fisher series by Kerry Greenwood with number four, Death at Victoria Dock. Miss Fisher is at her most lethal when danger comes close to home, and when her maid Dot comes under threat in this story, there is no stopping her. Even Bert and Cec are scared of what she might do! I think my reading of this series is still coloured by the softer TV version, but I’m beginning to prefer this Miss Fisher and her coterie to the screen version. This was another pacey read that I thoroughly enjoyed, but which I did find overly complicated. I must admit, I lost track of what anarchist was doing what to whom, though that may well be because I was reading it too quickly! And I must say, there were times when Miss Fisher’s contacts and reach stretched my credulity just a little bit too far. But these are quibbles. Of course I’ll be going back for more.
London Calling is the second of Sarah Sheridan’s Mirabelle Bevan series set in post-Second World War Brighton – though this one as the title suggests is also set in the Capital. Mirabelle is a fascinating central character and her appeal alone is enough to make me want to read my way through the entire series. But Mirabelle isn’t alone in the empathy stakes. I also love her sidekick, Vesta, who is the light (ironically, since Vesta is black) to Mirabelle’s dark soul. London Calling does not start off where the first book left off, but jumps forward in time and location. In this story we get more of an insight into Mirabelle’s past, and begin to understand a little what lies behind her very closed, shuttered personality. The unwinding of the mystery and murder at the centre of the book was a bit too twisty and turny for me, and I did find the part of the story regarding Rose and her mates stretched my credulity just a little, but nevertheless, I kept turning the pages, and thoroughly enjoyed it.
So much so in fact, that it wasn’t long before I picked up the next in the series, British Bulldog which had the added bonus of being set in Paris, one of my own very favourite cities. The mysteries and murders in this series are intriguing, but they are only half the interest for me. The rest is in the historical context, the continuing themes of what WWII did to people’s lives and minds, and of course in the characters and their varied relationships. It’s relatively unusual to have a WWII theme in this kind of ‘cosy’ mystery (I call it cosy only because there’s no actual blood and guts). However, the horrors of war aren’t skimped on, trust me – it’s just that the detail is rather psychological than physical, and the physical detail isn’t dwelt upon – it doesn’t need to be. I also really enjoy that the series looks at the war from a female perspective, whether it’s through Mirabelle’s eyes as one who was involved with Whitehall, Vesta’s as one who experienced it through her parents (and the associated racism), or in this story, Christine, the French spy/informer whose story was heart-wrenching. Of course, I’m also loving the way Mirabelle and Alan’s relationship is developing. Sara Sheridan deals very sympathetically with Mirabelle’s former relationship with her married lover too, and I can’t help but thinking there’s a lot of twists and turns to come on that part of the story. All in all, another pacey and thoroughly enjoyable read, it won’t be long before I go back for the next one. Surely it’s time this series was picked up for tv!
Still on series that I’m reading in my slightly anal way, in order, The Silver Collar is the fourth book in Antonia Hodgson’s Thomas Hawkins series set in early Georgian London. Just when Thomas thinks he’s got his life on an even keel, along comes mayhem. Antonia Hodgson writes a rumbustuous world, but it’s also got very dark undertones. It’s funny but underneath there are deeply serious issues and politics being addressed. Thomas is a gorgeous hero, but she never shies away from his flaws – he’s selfish and self-centred, at times frankly a bit up himself. But his redeeming feature is that he always admits to his faults. Oh yes, and he’s gorgeous, did I say that?
In this book, slavery is right at the forefront, and dealt with in plain terms, bluntly, at times brutally but not viciously. It is woven intricately into the plot, so you never feel that the author is tub-thumping. The full horrors of slavery, the very personal impact it made, rather than economic, are incredibly well and emotionally presented. There are any number of contemporary parallels drawn too, if you care to look for them: contrasts between freedom and slavery that are beautifully and subtly written. Our hero Thomas grows and moves on in significant ways in this story, and Sam (and his fabulously terrifying family) come more to the fore. This review makes it sound like the book is all about Thomas, but it’s just as much about very strong women, and the way they can use power to the good and the bad. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I am now anxiously waiting for news that there will be a next.
I have managed to read a few books that aren’t classic detective fiction. I picked up Hungry by Grace Dent when I was in Harrogate for the book festival and looking for something to read while I had a solo dinner. I love her clolumn in the Guardian, and during lockdown the honesty with which she wrote of her mother’s illness touched me to the heart. She writes in this memoir with equal honesty and sparkling wit of her love affair with food and her family. I devoured it, and found myself laughing out loud in places (a rarer thing than it should be with books) and I was moved to tears several times. Grace Dent can be excoriating, ruthless, her tongue so sharp it really is a lethal weapon, but she’s just as likely to turn it on herself as others. An excellent, moving and pretty quick read which I’d highly recommend.
Alice Hoffman is another favourite author of mine. I love the magical elements in her books, and the way the landscape and nature are always key characters. I love the fairytale style of the narration, and the troubled, outsider nature of her most empathetic characters. And I love that she doesn’t explain everything away, and yet you always get an incredibly satisfying happy ending – with everyone getting what (and who) they deserve, one way or another. Of course they’re an escape from reality, but they are grounded by the people at the centre of it and the dilemmas they face. The River King is a story about a town split in two, with a posh boarding school on one side of the river, and the local townsfolk on the other. Never the twain shall meet, for when they do, trouble ensues. I won’t go into the details of the story because I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but it’s a lovely and enthralling tale that held me spellbound. Life in the boarding school, needless to say, is not all sweetness and roses (and roses are key to this story). Life on the other side of the river seems rather Edward Scissorhand-ish, but at the heart of the town is some serious corruption. When a boy from the school seems to be drowned and Abe, one of the local detectives can’t let it go, trouble ensues. As I said, this is a magical tale. It’s deeply tragic too, with some horrific bullying at the heart of it – and one of Alice Hoffman’s real skills is to deal with this, not to lecture but to show the heartache and pain and suffering of the victims and those who are ‘stuck’ on the outside looking in, unable to intervene. It is also a love story a – love affair with nature, with the concept that ‘good’ will eventually triumph, and there’s true romance flung in for good measure – really lovely romance, actually. This is real feel-good story telling. I was left very happy, and with a big smile on my face. Loved, loved, loved it.
And no to another old favourite. I think I’ve read Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons a couple of times before. This third time was as thoroughly enjoyable as all the other times. (Another similar book that springs to mind is Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.). This is a perfect read if you want darkly funny, a bit off the wall, romance, and a thoroughly feel good read. And I don’t think I need to add to that, but I will just give a shout out for all the wonderful names used – Urk and Rennet were my favourites – and say if you haven’t read this, you’re missing a treat.
And finally onto a bit of history. Square Haunting: Five Writers Between the Wars by Francesca Wade is a combination of biography and history that does exactly what it says on the tin, linking the lives of five women writers through architecture. I will confess up front that I had never heard of Eileen Powers or HD or Jane Harrison, and was drawn initially to the book because Dorothy Sayers and Virginia Woolf were the other two of the five. Virginia Woolf has always fascinated me, and hers was the first biography I ever read. The links between the women and the Square are at times tenuous, since some of them lived there only briefly, but the links between the women and each other are really interesting – tentacles of connections and ideas – lots and lots of ideas. This was a beautifully written and evocative book, filled with tragedy but also with spirit. Each of those five women inhabited the Square at a turning point in their lives, personal and intellectual. Each had a close relationship with the architecture – not surprisingly, Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own reverberates through the book. Each were striving for intellectual autonomy and a voice, at a time when women’s voices were still very much suppressed in the intellectual world. Though I’d never heard of three out of the five, I was drawn to them, I was fighting for them, I was so pleased when they triumphed and furious when they were suppressed. But best of all, for me, was the ‘After the Square’ chapter at the end. Here, the author pulled together her own thoughts and arguments, making clearer the common threads that drew the women together and I felt actually shaped a very different book that I’d like to read. I wish there had been more of this – or maybe she is writing another book – and at times, a little less of the detail on a couple of the lives that felt just a tiny bit like padding. This is a minor criticism though. An enjoyable read, I’m s and am looking forward to more from this author.
So that’s it, my last book summary of 2021. What an odd year it’s been. Whether it’s true or not, I feel as if I’ve had more misses than usual in my reading, though perhaps it’s because I’ve been venturing out of my comfort zone more (not that you could tell from this round up). There have been a great deal of new, positive discoveries too, and lots and lots of my favourite history. What would we do without books! I wonder what 2022 has in store.
Have you read any of these books? Do you have any similar recommendations? As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
You can read all my reviews, good, bad and indifferent, over on Goodreads.