Book Corner – October 2019 (3)

The Dead Secret – Wilkie Collins

If you have been following these book reviews with even a scintilla of interest, you would have worked out that I am a fan of Wilkie Collins. This is his fourth book, originally serialised in 1856 in Charles Dickens’ publication, Household Words, and in book form the same year. Whilst even his most fervent advocates would not place it amongst his best, some rather churlishly call it the last of his apprentice novels before he wrote his acclaimed masterpiece, The Woman in White, it is a lovely story and a book which has endured in popularity.

The secret, the contents of which are disclosed to the reader early on but not to all the characters, is to do with the true identity of the leading protagonist of the story, Rosamond Treverton. The dying Mrs Treverton entrusted her maid, the scatty and possibly deranged Sarah Leeson, with a letter containing a deathbed confession to pass on to her husband, Captain Treverton. Sarah can’t bring herself to do it and hides the letter in the Myrtle Room, a room in a deserted wing of a Cornish gothic house, Porthgenna Tower. The story concerns the unravelling of the secret, the impact of which could affect the fortunes of some of the protagonists. I will not spoil the story as it is entertaining.

Along the way we meet a wonderful array of characters. Some are there purely for comedic effect like the dyspeptic Mr Phippens who would not be out of place in the pages of a Dickens’ novel. When a little girl is offered an extra slice of bread and marmalade at breakfast, the martyr to his intestines warns, “think of Mr Phippen’s clogged apparatus – and say No thank you next time”. Then at Porthgenna Tower we meet the comedy duo, the butler, Mr Munder, who “has a great reputation for wisdom without the trouble of saying or doing anything to deserve it” and his side-kick, the housekeeper, Mrs Pentreath. The misanthropic Andrew Treverton, the self-styled Timon of London, and his servant, Shrowl, are wonderfully drawn and add a layer of gothic horror to the tale, even if the former’s Damascene conversion at the end is a little out of character and a tad melodramatic for my taste.

Collins’ portrayal of Sarah Leeson’s uncle, Uncle Joseph, engaging. As is his wont Collins introduces a character with a disability, Leonard Franklin, Rosamond’s husband, is blind, and by Victorian standards his portrayal is sympathetic and free from any cloying sentimentality. Although a relatively minor character, he is Rosamond’s rock and fount of all knowledge, she wishing at one point that she could give him her eyes as he is cleverer than she.

Collins’ strength, though, is his understanding and portrayal of female characters. Sarah Leeson is melancholy and tormented with good reason and her character is portrayed with feeling. It would have been too easy to make her into a figure of evil but the writer shows great understanding of the crisis of conscience that made her act in the way she did, notwithstanding the consequences. The pairing of Rosamond with her blind husband is inspired. It means that standard Victorian portrayal of the dynamics of a marriage where the man is the protector and the woman the weak dependent is turned on its head.

The book is written in an engaging style and the reader is anxious to follow the twists and turns of the narrative. As with most sensation novels of the period the plot turns on coincidences, many of which are so far-fetched as to defy credulity. But you have to ride with it, suspend belief and keep going. If you do, you will find you have read an entertaining novel, the popularity of which through the ages is not difficult to understand.

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Book Corner – October 2019 (2)

Mr Finchley Discovers His England – Victor Canning

I have been musing why the interwar years saw such a prolific outburst of what might be termed escapist literature, particularly detective fiction and comic writing. It may well have been something to do with the absence of alternative popular entertainment, radio was in its infancy and television a distant spot in a cathode ray tube. It might have been a conscious attempt to blot out the horrors of the recent world war, the grim economic realities that were prevailing and the rise of fascism. Who knows? What is for sure is that there is a glut of literature, popular in its time, waiting to be rediscovered.

Victor Canning is best known as a prolific writer of novels and thrillers, he was a wartime friend of Eric Ambler, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. However, his first book, published in 1934 in the UK and two years later as Mr Finchley’s Holiday, was this rather charming and funny journey of self-discovery. The protagonist, Mr Finchley, in early drafts his name was Mr Pitcheley, is an unmarried, chubby, dyspeptic solicitor’s clerk who had never taken a holiday. The death of his boss and Mr Sprake’s assumption of the reins of power changes all that. Finchley’s dutiful service is rewarded with a three-week holiday.

And where better in the 1930s to spend three weeks than in Margate? Having booked his accommodation at the Kent resort, Mr Finchley sets off for his holiday. But he never gets there. Whiling away some time before catching his train, he is prevailed upon to look after a Bentley. Feeling a little tired, Finchley stretches out in the back of the car and, surprise, surprise, finds that it has been stolen and that he has now been kidnapped by a gang of criminals. And so begins a series of improbable escapades.

To modern eyes there may be too much easy stereotyping, people are labelled lunatics and gypsies, and an underlying moralistic tone in the book, but it is an easy and engaging read. Finchley manages to escape from the clutches of the criminal gang, and realising that his plans to enjoy his holiday in Margate, sets out west, reaching Land’s End before returning home. Along the way, he has adventure after adventure. He encounters many people who in one way or another have fallen on hard times and are living an itinerant lifestyle, including gentlemen of the road aka tramps, artists, travellers and gypsies. To make ends meet he takes a job at a fair and then sells petrol. He takes part in the obligatory game of cricket and towards the end of the book, becomes the innocent party to a smuggling expedition.

What is surprising is the dark undercurrent to life on the road. Finchley is forever being threatened with violence, on occasions threats turn to blows, and is nearly strangled to death. There is a dark side to the bucolic idyll that Canning paints. The humour is gentle and the book, effectively a comedic travelogue, reminded me of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat but, in truth, it is not as funny.

Journeys which transform people’s lives are a modern-day trope, I usually blanche when I hear someone say they have been on a journey, but this is a fair summary of Finchley’s experiences. As Canning wrote, “he still suffered from indigestion. He was still bald. He still loved his pipe. Yet he was different…” There are two more books in the Mr Finchley series which I will probably read at some point. Farrago Books are to be commended for bringing this thirties’ gem back into print.

Book Corner – October 2019 (1)

One by one they disappeared – Moray Dalton

Moray Dalton was the pen name of Katherine Dalton Renoir, the English born daughter of Anglo-Canadian parents. She wrote twenty-nine crime novels, fifteen of which, including this, featuring her principal detective, Inspector Collier of the Yard. It is fair to say that, although relatively successful in her time, Dalton has fallen out of favour. In an attempt to resuscitate her reputation, the enterprising Dean Street Press earlier this year reissued five of her works, of which this, published in 1929, is the earliest.

In truth, it has not aged well and is rather dated but if you are willing to look beyond that, you will find an engaging tale, stylishly written with a healthy dash of humour and the obligatory pinch of love interest. Her characters are well drawn and believable and Collier, whilst a pro to his finger bones, is likeable and has a heart. The plot is sufficiently interesting to keep the reader engaged and compared with other novels from the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction, this book tries not to bedazzle the reader with the brilliance of the detective in unravelling the mystery from a motley collection of clues. That said, I had worked out who had done it midway through the book, even though Collier steadfastly chose to follow the wrong route.

In essence, it is a tale of what happens when a kindly man is taken to the cleaners by those with baser instincts. A rich and rather pampered American from New York, Elbert J Packenham, together with his black cat, Jehosaphat, who plays a prominent part in the story’s denouement, is one of nine survivors of the sinking of a liner, the Coptic. Packenham, in a bad way, is put into a lifeboat and cared for by the other eight survivors. As a mark of his eternal gratitude for his escape, Packenham hosts annually a dinner for all those who survived the Coptic.

But he does more. He marks the occasion of the annual dinner by buying an expensive gift for each of the attendees. Packenham, having no one to leave his fortune to as his nephew has recently died, announces that he has left his fortune to the eight survivors. The will, though, is effectively a tontine (https://wp.me/p2EWYd-2Pf) in that only those who are alive upon Packenham’s death will get a share of the money. The problem with tontines is that they give ample opportunity for those of a greedy disposition to eliminate those who would otherwise profit from the arrangement and, thus, increase their share of the money.

And one by one, in seemingly random accidents, the beneficiaries of the tontine will die. Collier suspects darker forces at work. When Packenham himself disappears and the culprits set a trap for the inspector which leads to a colleague being seriously injured, he knows he is on to something. Deploying his expertise and Jehosaphat playing the role of deus ex machina, he gets to the bottom of the dastardly scheme.

As often is the way with these stories, you have to suspend belief. If you can do that you will meet some wonderful characters including an Italian nobleman, Count Olivieri, down on his luck and a bohemian English artist, Edgar Mallory. A great read.

Book Corner – September 2019 (4)

Deep Waters: Mysteries on the Waves – edited by Martin Edwards

I am a fan of Martin Edwards’ archaeological efforts to resuscitate some of the better shorter stories from the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction. This is the thirteenth such themed anthology. Perhaps it’s a case of thirteen being unlucky for some as I found it the least satisfying of those that I had read.

I guess part of my dissatisfaction lies with the choice of theme. At first blush you would think that this will be a collection of mysteries and crimes set at sea but in order to get to sixteen stories and a satisfying length, Edwards has had to broaden his brief to include swimming pools, hardly depths or waves, methinks, and a couple of stories that are as recent as the 1960s and 70s. Ironically, though, H C Bailey’s story involving his medical detective, Reggie Fortune, called The Swimming Pool, is probably the best of the lot with an excellent twist to it. It will make you think twice before diving into a pool.

One of the most bonkers stories I have read is The Pool of Secrets which was written in 1935 by Gwyn Evans. It has an element of science fiction about it with a robot assisting the investigation and the use of a prototype of what we would now call a drone. The way the murder was committed also has a splash of ingenious eccentricity about it.

The collection starts off with a Conan Doyle story, and one featuring the greatest detective creation, Sherlock Holmes, to boot. It is the sleuth’s first case, The Adventure of the Gloria Scott, but in truth it is one of Doyle’s weakest. There is little in the way of detection or intellectual intuition that Holmes was famous for as the case was solved by a letter. I should have realised at this point that the collection was not going to reach the heights of some of the earlier collections.

That said, there are some gems and highlights along the way. C S Forester, he of the Hornblower series, makes an interesting contribution with The Turning of the Tide which tells of a well-planned murder which went wrong because of a failure to plan for all eventualities or, depending upon your point of view, a spot of bad luck. I found it gripping in more senses than one.

Nautical knowledge solves the mystery in The Thimble River Mystery by Josephine Bell and if seeing a murderer hoist by his own petard is your bag, you will enjoy Andrew Garve’s story, Seasprite. C St John Sprigg’s Four Friends and Death is an amusing and clever take on a poisoning which has gone wrong. Its only connection with the sea is that the poisoning took place on a boat. The most recent story dating to 1975 by Michael Innes, Death by Water, involves a fish out of water that turns a suspected suicide into a murder.

If you are prepared to give Edwards some latitude on his choice of theme and are prepared to navigate your way round some of the weaker contributions, I always approach a R Austin Freeman story with some dread and he rarely fails to disappoint, it is a book worth splashing out on. But if you are looking for an anthology to start out with, there are many better.

Book Corner – September 2019 (3)

The Wheel Spins – Ethel Lina White

One of the many advantages of hardly ever watching a film is that when you come across a book which was the basis for a classic piece of cinematography, the basis of the plot is not spoilt for you. Take Ethel Lina White’s 1936 novel, The Wheel Spins, which formed the basis of the plotting for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, The Lady Vanishes. As I had not seen the film, my loss I’m sure, the twists and turns of the plot were new to me and made the book more enjoyable.

Mysteries on a train are a bit of cliché now and were even in 1936 when White’s novel was published. They allow the writer to add a splash of glamour to an environment where a motley collection of characters are thrown together in close proximity and where during a journey the passengers are effectively imprisoned. What could have been a rather down-market version of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express is saved by the quality and elegance of White’s writing, her ability to build up and sustain suspense, and her underlying humour and willingness to tease the reader and send up British stereotypes.

In some ways the plot is a bit far-fetched. The protagonist, Iris Carr, is a society gal who with her rich pals have had a riotous holiday in an Italian resort, at the same time annoying the rather staid English guests staying there, plus ca change. She travels back to Blighty later than her other chums but at the railway station becomes unwell and just catches her train by the skin of her teeth, bundled into a carriage occupied by an Italian family, a rather formidable woman dressed in black and a middle-aged English woman, Miss Froy.

Invited for some tea in the restaurant car by Miss Froy, Iris is perturbed to find the guests from the hotel whom her party had disturbed are on board. Irritated by her companion’s incessant chattering, Iris returns alone to the compartment and falls asleep. Miss Froy doesn’t return. The English guests, all of whom have their own reasons for not wanting any unseemly investigations delay the train in Trieste, deny seeing Miss Froy and when Iris enlists the help of a Professor and his young student who speak the local lingo to interrogate the other travellers in the compartment, they all too deny the existence of Miss Froy. The woman in black, who turns out to be a Baroness (natch), goes as far as to suggest that Iris is hysterical and suffering from delusions brought on by sun stroke.

What has happened to Miss Froy and will anyone believe Iris?

I won’t spoil the story and, indeed, it is all a bit obvious. But that doesn’t spoil the tale and for those looking for something a little deeper in their reading material, this book obliges. It explores the reliability and integrity of witnesses. Do they have their own motives that colour their perception of what they have seen or encourage them to deny seeing what they have seen? Iris descends into a Kafkaesque nightmare where she begins to doubt her own sanity but with plucky British perseverance she soldiers on.

Another nice touch is White’s portrayal of the Brits abroad. The youngsters are loutish and the older ones impervious to the culture and mores of the country they happen to grace with their presence. When she cannot make herself understood by these foreign Johnnies, Iris just shouts louder, in English, of course.

An interesting narrative touch is that throughout the book White cuts to Miss Froy’s parents who, with mounting anticipation, await the much longed for return of their daughter, a device which adds an extra layer of pathos to the tale.

White is a much underrated writer and this book, I found, is gripping, well written and, I’m sure, much better than the film.

Book Corner – September 2019 (2)

School for Love – Olivia Manning

Olivia Manning again. Published in 1951, this book is based once more in the Levant, this time Jerusalem in 1945. The title is a loose paraphrase of a couplet from William Blake’s slightly odd poem about learning to recognise and experience a divine love that transcends race, The Little Black Boy; “and we are put on earth a little space/ that we may learn to bear the beams of love”. In essence, this book is about the coming of age of an orphaned boy, Felix Latimer, and his understanding of the ways of the world.

Felix was molly-coddled by his mother but when she died in Baghdad, his father had already been killed in action, he is packed off to Jerusalem to stay with an adopted aunt, Miss Bohun. We are put on our guard about Miss Bohum early on in the book when Felix recollects his mother’s unwillingness to have anything to do with her; “whenever his father had suggested a trip to Jerusalem, his mother had said: “Oh no, dear one, not there. We’d have to see Ethel Bohun. I couldn’t bear it””.

And a remarkable and unlovable creature she is. Having turned her home into a boarding house, she is a member of the Ever Readies, a Christian sect awaiting the second coming of Christ, she even leaves a bedroom spare in which to host the Host. A miser, taking more than her fair due from her guests, Miss Bohun makes herself out to be motivated by kindness and self-sacrificing, to boot. Highly sensitive, Miss Bohun is quick to see slights and plots against her in the most trivial incidents and when her dander is up, can be merciless in forcing her guests and employees out of the house.

We see Miss Bohun, and all the other characters, through the eyes of Felix, although the narrative is written in the third person, and his natural inclination, partly through naivete and partly because he is grateful for her charity, is to take her side. The boy’s perspective begins to change with the arrival of the more sophisticated Miss Ellis, at least to his eyes, who soon recognises what Miss Bohun is up to.

Her arrival adds tension to the household and by taking Felix under her wing, Mrs Ellis opens his eyes to the possibilities that things are not always quite what they seem at first sight. He begins to see that the world is not as certain as he once thought and that all the characters he encounters, even his saintly mother, have their flaws. The scales fall from his eyes and he sees Miss Bohun for what she is; “for a moment, seeing her sitting there calmly and running at will through the gamut of her tones of command, exasperation, self-pity and disapproval, he was suddenly certain of her falsity. His faith in her as a human being had gone and he could believe her to be capable of anything…

The one constant rock in Felix’s small world is Miss Bohun’s Siamese cat, Faro, on whom he lavishes his love and believes that the feline in its own way reciprocates the feeling. Felix also feels pity for Mr Jewel, a somewhat mysterious character who is harshly treated by Miss Bohun until his circumstances change.

The book ends with Felix departing for England. It is not a book to read if you are looking for exquisite plotting or rip-roaring action. This is much more a well-written, occasionally amusing, sometimes witty, study into the human character and the rites of passage of a young man stranded in a strange land and devoid of the love and affection he once knew and craves.

Book Corner – September 2019 (1)

Fear Stalks The Village – Ethel Lina White

I first came across the crime writer, Ethel Lina White, in Martin Edwards’ wonderful anthologies of Golden Age detective fiction. I enjoyed her short stories and was sufficiently encouraged to try one of her novels. This, her second, was published in 1932.

I was almost put off by the first chapter which was full of the type of purple prose that wouldn’t have been out of place in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner. But there is a purpose to this florid language. The village in which the story is set is a picture postcard of a community where everything has a place, order prevails and everyone’s existence is serene. But scratch beneath the surface…

A series of poison pen letters disturbs this rural idyll, revealing a darker side where fear, distrust, and potential disgrace lurk. They spark a wave of suicides. The rector is beside himself, wanting to preserve the peace and quiet of the village and save the souls of his flock. He brings in a friend, an amateur sleuth of independent means, Ignatius Brown, to solve the mystery and restore order. Which he does.

I won’t spoil the reader’s enjoyment of what I found to be a bit of a patchy book, perhaps a little too overlong and with too much padding between developments in the plot. That said, what could have been a mediocre crime tale is rescued by White’s sardonic humour. I just pick out a couple of examples as an illustration. “The squire turned to his wife. Although he usually bullied her, there were times when he followed her advice: for if he had no positive virtues, he had some rather good faults”. “The Rector – who did not know shorthand – was impressed by the dots and dashes with which his friend covered pages of his note-book. Ignatius – who did not know shorthand either – had counted on making this effect”.

As an outsider Brown is ideal for observing the rather peculiar characters who populate the village. White is excellent in developing their particular traits and characteristics, the more to emphasis the horrors that would befall them if and when their dark secrets are revealed. Although long-winded in his speech and actions, Brown has a nice turn of phrase, describing a family who had just returned from an extended holiday in Italy as “aren’t they the people, who remember nothing of the places they’ve visited except the shops?” We’ve all met that type.

The plot is full of clever twists and turns, requiring the reader to be alert, and it is easy to fall for the rather discreet red herrings strewn along this particular country lane. To be fair to her, the puzzle is a first-rate one with enough clues sprinkled throughout the text for the reader to recognise that the solution, though somewhat intricate and involved, is highly plausible.

Unusually, the poison pen letter device is not used to trigger blackmail or murder, as it does in the hands of many other writers, but is sufficient to lead a string of characters to fear the worst and kill themselves. Where White really comes into her own is building up an atmosphere and distrust, a sensation heightened by her portraying it as if it was a character, a shadowy presence moving around the village. These features mark it out as a book a cut above the average.