I was just telling you about Capital Crimes, which I'm going to be reviewing in Shiny 5. Here's another of the wonderful British Library Crime Classics. Freeman Wills Crofts was a celebrated and extremely prolific Golden Age writer, producing 33 full-length novels and countless short stories between 1920 and 1957. This one falls somewhere in the middle, having been published in 1938. He's probably best known for his Inspector French series, and this turns out to be one of them -- sort of. I say that because it really is a novel in two halves. In Martin Edwards' introduction, he calls this an ingenious story structure, but to be honest I wasn't very taken with it.
Let me explain. The first half of the novel centres on George Surridge. He is a respectable middle-aged man, the director of Birmingham Zoo. He's married to Clarissa, but the marriage has gone sour. She wants a better lifestyle, but he can't afford it, and on top of that, he has gambling debts. Then he meets Nancy, an attractive widow, falls head over heels, and starts spending money he doesn't have on rented cars and posh takeaway teas. Things are getting increasingly desperate, but he's buoyed up by the knowledge that his ancient aunt can't live much longer, and when she dies. he'll inherit a fair amount. At this point you probably think he's going to murder her, but he doesn't (sorry, a bit of a spoiler), and is delighted, when she dies a natural death, to discover that his inheritance is substantially larger then he was expecting. But there's a problem -- Capper, the solicitor who is handling the estate, has embezzled the money. However, being an ingenious sort of man and expecting a large inheritance himself, he puts a plan to George which looks absolutely infallible. And so the two of them work together, and everything looks as if it will succeed. But....
At this point, about three quarters into the novel, we are suddenly introduced to Chief Inspector Joseph French of Scotland Yard. French hears about the case, which has been dismissed as insoluble, and decides to have a go. It's been a fiendishly clever murder (even George doesn't know how it was actually done) but French is a brilliant detective and manages to work out the motive, means and method, and finally manages to pin it on Capper, the main suspect. But he knows that Capper could not have acted alone, and the net closes slowly on George himself.
I was loving this novel all the way through the section that dealt with George. Although Wills Crofts tells the story in the third person, it's all from George's point of view, and we see clearly how his brain becomes increasingly anxious, besotted, muddled and confused. Everything gets worse once he learns of Capper's plan. Certainly it offers a perfect solution to all his problems, but George is not a fundamentally bad man, and agonises through many sleepless nights on the rights and wrongs of it all:
what...if it meant George's own escape from ruin? What if it meant Nancy? If it meant, if fact, everything that made life worth living?
The sweat formed on George's forehead as he considered these alternatives. It was not, he told himself, a question of doing right or wrong: whatever he did would be wrong. It was a choice of two evils. Which was the lesser? Which -- was -- the -- lesser?
If only we could have stayed with George all the way through, I'd be giving this novel very high marks indeed. Unfortunately, notwithstanding French's extraordinary skill in solving this apparently impossible crime (it involves a home-made apparatus so complicated that there's an explanatory diagram in the text), it just lost me at this point. I found French and his cronies very boring and flat after the excitement and authenticity of George's mental gymnastics, and couldn't wait to get back to see what he was actually up to. When we do finally find out, right at the end, there's another slightly bizarre twist in which religious faith suddenly pops up as the 'antidote' to sin. Wills Croft was an evangelical Christian, so this ending was entirely in keeping with his own belief system, but modern readers of different persuasions may find it a little jarring.
In the end, then, taking the novel as a whole, it didn't entirely work for me. But don't let that put you off. Wills Crofts at his best was clearly a remarkable and innovative writer, and I'm looking forward to reading more of his work. And watch out for Simon's review of another of his reprinted novels, The Hogs Back Mystery, in Shiny 5, coming out in early April.
I'm reviewing Martin Edwards' collection of classic short stories for Shiny 5, so you'll have to wait till April for the full review. But here's something to whet your appetite -- the opening paragraph of the first story, 'The Case of Lady Sannox' by Arthur Conan Doyle. No Sherlock Holmes here, but a cracker of a story.
The relation between Douglas Stone and the notorious Lady Sannox was very well known both among the fashionable circles of which she was a brilliant member, and the scientific bodies which numbered him among their most illustrious confrères. There was naturally, therefore, a very widespread interest when it was announced one morning that the lady had absolutely and forever taken the veil, and that the world would see her no more. When, at the very tail end of this rumour, there came the assurance that the celebrated operating surgeon, the man of steel nerves, had been found in the morning by his valet, seated on one side of his bed, smiling pleasantly upon the universe, with both legs jammed into one side of his breeches, and his great brain about as valuable as a cup full of porridge, the matter was strong enough to give quite a little thrill of interest to folk who had never hoped that their jaded nerves were capable of such a sensation.
If that doesn't make you want to read the whole story -- only ten pages long -- I don't know what would. It's brilliant.
How cosy is this? It's by the Dutch artist Hendricus Jacobus Burgers (1835-1899), who doesn't have an English Wikipedia entry, but seems to have been a fine painter. A comfy chair, tea at her elbow, toes right up against the fire. Heaven.
Not long ago I was telling you about Rose Tremain's 1988 novel Restoration, which I read with great delight and admiration. I'd been sad to finish it, as you always are when you've really loved a book, so imagine how I felt when I discovered that Tremain had published this, a sequel, in 2008. You can't help worrying about sequels -- could they possibly live up to the original? In this case, a resounding yes. In fact finishing Merivel yesterday has left me feeling bereft, and it's going to be a really really hard act to follow.
For anyone not familiar with these novels, both are set during the reign of King Charles II (1660-1685). Fifteen years separate them, the second one taking place in the last couple of years before Charles's death. Sir Robert Merivel is now fifty-seven, and feeling his age. Since the end of the previous novel, he has been living quietly at Bidnold, the Norfolk manor house given him by the king, practicing locally as a physician, and bringing up his beloved daughter Margaret. But as the novel starts, Margaret is beginning to move away -- she has been invited to join a neighbouring family on a long visit to Cornwall, and Merivel is overcome with loneliness and depression, frequently weeping (something he has always been prone to do) as he sits by the fire. So he gratefully seizes on a suggestion from the king, who he continues to idolise as much as ever, that he should pay a visit to Versailles and see if he can get Louis XIVth to take him on as a court physician.
And so begins a series of adventures at least as strange and varied as any he had in his youth. Versailles turns out to be not at all as he had imagined it, and even though he is armed with a letter from Charles recommending him to Louis, his cousin, he never gets near the king, instead spending his days cooped up in a tiny, more or less empty room shared with a Dutch clockmaker, existing on milk and salted peas bought from vendors at the chateau gates. But while in this curious limbo, he encounters a beautiful Swiss woman, Louise de Flamanville, with whom he quickly starts a passionate affair. Unfortunately her husband, a gay six-foot four Swiss Guard, threatens to kill him, so he returns to Norfolk, taking with him a bear he has managed to rescue along the way. Back at Bidnold, he finds Margaret has developed typhus, and despite his careful nursing, she remains on the brink of death for a long time. He also, in an agonising passage, operates on his neighbour and former mistress, who has breast cancer. Margaret recovers, possibly as a result of being touched by the king, who reputedly has this ability. Charles then decides to stay on at Bidnold for a prolonged holiday, a mixed blessing for Merivel, who, much as he adores him, starts to worry that he will seduce his newly recovered and increasingly beautiful daughter.
There's more -- much more -- including a long visit to Louise and her father in Switzerland, and a long and ultimately tragic period at Whitehall Palace, where Charles's health is deteriorating fast. As usual, Merivel finds himself on a switchback though all this, alternating between pleasure and pain, with the pain generally more predominant. He worries about Margaret, he worries about himself and whether he should marry Louise, he worries terribly about his servant Will Gates, who he has left in charge of Bidnold but who has not written for a long time. And of course he is in despair about the evidently coming demise of Charles.
Ultimately, then, though there's still wit and fun in this novel, it's charged with more sadness than Restoration. This is inevitable, because it deals with ageing, with loss, and with the death of those we love the most. Merivel has always been given to self-examination, and his honesty about himself and his compulsions has always been one of his most attractive characteristics. The honesty is still there, and so are the compulsions -- but so too is his wonderful humanity, his great heart, his desire to be a better man than he knows himself to be. I cried a couple of times during this novel, and the ending -- wonderfully apt and beautifully conceived -- left me grieving as if at the loss of an old and dear friend, which indeed Merivel had become. Profound and thought-provoking in so many ways, this is a brilliant novel, and one I'm very glad indeed to have read.
This is The Love Letter (1863) by Auguste Toulmouche. Well, it is Valentine's Day, not that I've ever paid all that much attention to it, or not since I was at boarding school, when it mattered terribly whether you got any cards -- I never did, apart from one memorable year when a friend of my parents sent me three, all purporting to come from different people, one of whom was the coal man (yes, we had coal delivered in those days) -- it had a black thumbprint on it. Of course I knew who had done this, but it was a nice thought. Anyway, if you care about such things, I hope you get a lovely card from your loved one today.
And if you love poetry, how about some love poetry? Audible has a special offer for today, a recording of fifteen classic love poems, read by Richard Armitage. Classic Love Poems can be downloaded free from: www.audible.co.uk/mt/valentines_day. And if you want to see Richard talking about, and reading some snippets, here's a video.
One of the great pleasures of editing Shiny New Books is the fun of looking out for books we or our contributors would like to read and review. As soon as one issue is out of the way, we start trawling for what's going into the next one, and publishers are very generous in meeting our requests. But sometimes an even greater pleasure is things that come at you quite unexpectedly. I've just read two unsolicited novels and both of them were really good. You'll have to wait till April for full reviews, but here they are, to whet your appetite.
This one came from Faber and is Peter Swanson's second novel. I haven't read the first one, but if its a good as this, it must be a cracker. Told in the voices of a selection of devious and untrustworthy characters, it twists and turns and constantly takes you by surprise, right up to the shocking revelation in the very last sentence. Psychological crime at its best.
This one came from Chatto & Windus, in a parcel with a book I had requested. The cover looked intriguing so I picked it up and read the first paragraph and that was it. I'd say I couldn't put it down, but in fact I had to, a few times, to get on with life. But every time I had a spare few minutes, I dived in again. This is an exceptionally wonderful novel, exquisitely written and deeply tragic. It's about a girl who goes as a soldier to the Civil War in America (as seemingly some girls and women did). Lots of superlatives here, but it deserves every one of them.
Good morning (or afternoon, or evening...). Feel like a bit of browsing? Here are links to a couple of my reviews in the most recent issue of Shiny New Books.
Feel like a bit of seriously noir of the most brilliant kind? You couldn't do better than this novel. Set in Venice, it's far from a conventional crime novel, but the atmosphere and the brooding dread are wonderfully conveyed. Here's the review.
For something completely different -- delightful and heartwarming -- try the latest adult novel by Adele Geras. A novel that blends past history, present-day troubles, psychological analysis and a (possible) touch of the supernatural, this one is highly recommended. Read the review of it here.
We've had people reading and cats reading and rabbits reading, but this is the first time we've had a mouse reading. No prizes for guessing this is by Beatrix Potter, from her wonderful novel The Tailor of Gloucester.
Well, here's a book that took me completely by surprise. I thought I'd read all Josephine Tey's celebrated crime novels, but I saw a review of this one recently and realised I hadn't. That wasn't the surprise, though. I'd been expecting that something dramatic would happen quite early on in the novel, and this proved to be far from the case. I've rarely used the expression slow burn, but my goodness this book really deserved it.
Miss Pym Disposes is set in a 'college of physical culture', undoubtedly based on the physical education college Tey herself attended as a young woman. The college principal, Henrietta Hodge, has invited Lucy Pym, a one-time teacher of French who has written a book on psychology which has unexpectedly become a huge success, to give a lecture to the students. Lucy, who has made money out of her book and rather enjoys the creature comforts that has brought, finds the spartan living conditions, early hours and frightfully plain food something of a strain, and initially decides she must head back to London as soon as possible. But one thing leads to another and she finds herself getting to know the students and the staff, and taking an interest in the forthcoming leaving demonstration of the skills they have been learning. She's particularly drawn to some of the girls -- beautiful Pamela Nash, known as Beau, and her quiet, clever friend Mary Innes, awkward Miss Dakers, Irish Miss O'Donnell and others. Then there's Miss Rouse, who Lucy first encounters making a mess of a gymnasium exercise she really ought to have conquered by now. Rouse, as she's always referred to, is not a likeable person, though she seems to be favoured by Henrietta, presumably because of the very high marks she is getting in her final exams. But when Lucy agrees to invigilate an exam, she becomes convinced that Rouse has been cheating. Henrietta, however, refuses to believe it.
Everything comes to a head in the final week of term. A job placement has come up at a most prestigious institution, and everyone expects that Mary Innes will be the chosen student. But Henrietta chooses Rouse instead, despite an outcry from the staff and desperate pleas from Lucy. Then Rouse, who has been assiduously practicing every day in the gym, has a serious accident -- or is it? This happens about three-quarters into the novel, and the remaining chapters show Lucy working out a solution which is, however, completely overthrown in the last couple of pages. That's what I mean by a slow burn. Miss Pym Disposes is billed as a mystery novel, and so indeed it is, but that led me to believe something mysterious would take place a good deal earlier. Does this matter? Not in the least, except that I was waiting all the time for this dramatic event instead of fully savouring the wonderful build-up -- the gloriously detailed picture of a life which I suppose doesn't exist any more, a world of keen, bright, healthy, vibrant and beautiful young women living and working together in a college dedicated to their education. Of course P.E. is still taught, but I suspect it's become just another subject taught at university.
So the historical, sociological background is a great joy in itself -- the novel was written in 1946, but as Tey was a student thirty years earlier, her own experiences and memories undoubtedly fed into the picture. Then there's Lucy Pym, an unlikely sort of heroine in many ways. Though presumably in her forties, she's very innocent and unsure of herself in many ways, despite the fluke of her successful book. And it had been a fluke:
She had read her first book on psychology out of curiosity, because it seemed to her an interesting sort of thing;and she read all the rest to see if they were just as silly. By the time she had read thirty-seven books on the subject, she had evolved ideas of her own on psychology; at variance, of course, with all thirty-seven volumes she had read to date. In fact, the thirty-seven volumes seemed to her so idiotic and made her so angry that she sat down there and then and wrote reams of refutal. Since one cannot talk about psychology in anything but jargon, there being no English for most of it, the reams of refutal read very learnedly indeed.
Lucy comes to doubt aspects of her own knowledge of psychology at the end of the novel. She decides her own real strength lies in 'character as betrayed by facial characteristics', and resolves to write a book about it. This aspect of psychology clearly interested Josephine Tey herself, and is at the basis of several of her other novels. In fact TheDaughter of Time, published five years later in 1951, in which Detective Inspector Alan Grant, confined to a hospital bed, arrives at a radical re-interpretation of the character of Richard III based on a portrait, could well be the book Lucy was planning to write in 1946. I came to the conclusion that Grant was Lucy's friend 'Alan', to whom she refers in passing from time to time. Nice intermingling of fact and fiction. All very intriguing, and I'm really glad I read it.