When it comes to keeping records of my reading, I'm extraordinarily disorganised. Unlike many of my fellow bloggers, I don't keep notebooks or spreadsheets, so when it comes to a 'best of' post I have to scroll back through the blog and through Shiny, and of course rely on my increasingly hopeless memory. But this is, I hope, a fairly representative list of what I enjoyed the most this year. It's all fiction - not that I haven't read some good non-fiction books this year, but none of them stuck out enough to get a place on the list. There are several reprints, and some were re-reads, but none the worse for that. Links take you to the original reviews.
It's no secret to readers of this blog that I'm a huge admirer of Margery Allingham. I think I've read all her novels at some point over the course of my life, but as it's been rather a long one I've happily re-read a good many of them in recent years. I even went so far, a few months ago, as to buy a box set of the 1989-1990 TV series based on some of her books. It's called Campion (after her celebrated detective, of course) and starred Peter Davidson. It passed a few relatively enjoyable hours but didn't do the books justice - and for my money Davidson didn't work for me as Campion, though the late great Brian Glover was fantastic as his manservant Magersfontein Lugg. Most of the stories were already quite familiar to me, though I was slightly irritated by the fact that they arranged them out of their original order of publication. Any true fan of Campion will know that he changes and develops over the course of his appearances -- the eight books in this TV series ranged from 1930 to 1937, and he's a great deal more fully rounded as a character by the later date. But that's all by the by.
I was particularly intrigued by Dancers in Mourning, as my memory of the novel was very vague, so I thought I should give it a re-read. And what an interesting novel it is, much more multi-faceted than the TV version suggested. First published in 1937, this book concerns what the blurb on this old Penguin cover calls 'a grease-paint world' - the world of the theatre, that is, and in this case musical theatre. Campion gets called in to help solve what at first seems no more than an irritating mystery. Jimmy Sutane, the famous singing and dancing star of a successful musical comedy, has been the victim of a series of disturbing practical jokes, ranging from a needle in a make-up stick (nasty trick, this one) to a party invitation sent out without his knowledge and resulting in a large crowd of neighbours arriving unexpectedly at his country house, where they find nothing to eat or drink. Sutane is a sensitive chap and his performance is suffering from the strain, so Campion agrees to come and stay at the house for a few days to see what he can find out.
The rather grand and elegant house is heaving with people, mostly theatrical types associated with Sutane in some way, but there's also his moody young sister and his beautiful wife Linda, and their strange little daughter. Also arrived for the weekend is Chloe Pye, an ageing actress who has somehow managed to get a part in the musical and has invited herself for the visit, though she is extremely irritating and universally disliked. Shortly after Campion arrives, Chloe falls from a bridge onto the road in front of Sutane's car and is run over. It's generally assumed that this was an accident, but Campion is not so sure. He starts to investigate and discovers that, though Sutane denies having known her in the past, their association goes back a long way. But before he can proceed very far with all this, there's another death, this time of a young man, an aspiring dancer, who is blown up by a bomb affixed to his bicycle.
So Campion pursues his usual investigations, but he does so unwillingly and with less than his usual success. There's a reason for this - he has fallen instantly and powerfully in love with Jimmy Sutane's wife, and this has seriously clouded his usually brilliant mind. And, since it begins to look more and more likely that Sutane is guilty of both murders, he's extremely unwilling to proceed towards that conclusion because of the effect it would have on beautiful Linda.
This is a side of Campion we haven't seen before. He has been given to slight crushes on unavailable young women, and in an early novel (Sweet Danger) we saw him taking a great liking to young Amanda Fitton, to whom, few books later, he will get married, but this business with Linda Sutane is far more serious and painful for him - he's much too honourable to act on his feelings, but it's clear she also feels something for him and the whole thing puts him in a dreadful quandary.
There are many things to admire and enjoy in Allingham's novels, not least her excellent prose style and wonderful character observation, but for regular readers the development of Campion's character is certainly one of them. She seems to have started to take more and more interest in his psychology, something which is evident here and which comes to a peak in the amazing Traitor's Purse (1940), in which he loses his memory and learns things about himself he has been ignoring or denying for some time.
So this novel, and indeed anything by Allingham, is highly recommended not just for the plot but for the intelligence, wit and fine writing. I doubt if a great deal of time will go by before I've (re-)read yet another!
Still dithering over that last minute Christmas present list? This latest collection of short stories from the wonderful British Library Crime Classics collection would be a perfect gift for anyone who loves vintage crime. I thought this was a particularly good selection and raced through it even though I'm not in general a huge fan of short stories. You can read my full review in the recent issue of Shiny here.
This is the sixth in Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant series and I've read, or listened to, them all. Here's what the blurb says:
Suspicious deaths are not usually the concern of PC Peter Grant or the Folly, even when they happen at an exclusive party in one of the most expensive apartment blocks in London. But Lady Ty's daughter was there, and Peter owes Lady Ty a favour.
Plunged into the alien world of the super-rich, where the basements are bigger than the house and dangerous, arcane items are bought and sold on the open market, a sensible young copper would keep his head down and his nose clean. But this is Peter Grant we're talking about.
He's been given an unparalleled opportunity to alienate old friends and create new enemies at the point where the world of magic and that of privilege intersect. Assuming he survives the week . . .
If you've never read one of these delightful novels this may sound a bit mystifying. The clue is in the last paragraph - 'the world of magic'. For Peter, and his boss, the suave ageless Nightingale, operate from the little known branch of the Metropolitan Police known as The Folly, located in an old house of that name in Hampstead, north London. Although more or less bound by the rules of the Met, they are also what is known as Practitioners - practitioners of the ancient arts of magic, that is. Viewed with a rather beady eye by the more conventional members of the police force, they are nevertheless called in when a case shows obvious signs of some magical elements.
Here, we find the police investigating the death of a young woman at a party in a very posh apartment block. Peter only goes along at the request of his girlfriend Beverley's sister, Lady Tyburn (both of them are members of a family known as the Rivers of London - river goddesses, indeed), who is anxious to keep her teenage daughter out of the investigation. But it soon transpires that some very dodgy dealings have been going on, involving a shady character known as Reynard the fox and, more worryingly, Peter's old enemy and would-be killer the Faceless Man. Peter's one-time friend Lesley, now gone over to the dark side, is also involved. And everyone seems to be after the elusive third volume of Isaac Newton's Principea - that's the one that deals with magic, in case you're wondering.
Existing fans of this series will know what to expect and will not be disappointed. In the first novel, Peter was a very new recruit to the world of magic, but his skills have increased a lot since then and he can conjure up werelights and cause explosions effortlessly. But don't go thinking this is all a bit twee and childish - it's a proper thriller, a police procedural, in fact, and one of the great joys of these novels is the juxtaposition between normal policing and the added elements brought in from The Folly. Peter is an immensely attractive character, and tells his story here with his normal ironic wit. It has to be said that the ending came as a bit of a surprise, as nothing is really resolved - presumably there will be a sequel? Also, there were many references back to earlier novels which were not fully explained, so I did wonder if the book would be as enjoyable is you hadn't read the others in the series.
I listened to this on Audible, excellently read as always by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith - and there's a bonus feature at the end, in which the reader and the author respond to questions. All great fun.
Everybody seems to love the Tudors. I'm not sure quite why they are so popular - is it the fancy clothes, or those eight wives, or what? Many of us, too, are fascinated by the history of women's lives through the ages. So here's a book that speaks to both those interests. I reviewed it for the most recent Shiny New Books and described it as ' a splendid book – highly readable, informative and impressively researched'. If you'd like to read my review you can find it here, and there's also a fascinating interview in the BookBuzz section with the author Elizabeth Norton here.
This is simply called Seated Woman, painted by the French artist Jules Adolphe Goupil (1839–1883). Like many nineteenth-century painters he seems to be as interested in capturing the fabric of her dress as he is in the subject itself. But I'm intrigued by the pile of books in front of her - is she just using them as a book rest or is she engaged in some kind of research? I'd like to think that she is, but I suspect not. The dress is lovely, anyway.
Shiny New Books issue 13, the Christmas issue, is online. Pop over and have a browse. I'll be back soon to point you towards some of my own reviews, but as always there's a load of great stuff in there to discover for yourself.
I think this is only the second book I've read by Molly Keane, the first being her celebrated Good Behaviour, which I loved. This one came into my hands by pure chance, being the only readable book on a shelf of freebies. And what a happy chance it was!
Published in 1935, this is the story of a decidedly dysfunctional family of Anglo-Irish landowners who live in a grand mansion, Silverue. The father is Julian, quiet, academic, ineffectual, and besotted with his wife, the terrifying Lady Bird. Lady Bird, serially adulterous, obsessed with her appearance, rules the household with a mixture of bullying and cruelty, and believes, quite mistakenly, that her children adore her. But teenage Sheena, in love with a neighbour Rupert who she hopes to marry, despises her mother and can't wait to get away. Her older brother John, who turns up at the start of the novel recovering from a serious mental breakdown, is the apple of his mother's eye, and plays along with her fantasy that they are twin souls for the sake of some peace and quiet. Little Mark, a beautiful, strong willed child, manages to go his own way, despite the best efforts of his sad little governess Miss Parker, who is treated more or less like a slave by Lady Bird.
On a visit to the house comes beautiful divorced Eliza, an old friend of the family. She has always been in love with Julian, but though he is very fond of her and they have a good understanding, she knows she can't compete with his adoration of Lady Bird.
Eliza said, 'Dear, but it’s lovely for me,' and she went away leaving Julian to everything that was more important than she was. To dressing flies for his mad son. To waiting for his faithless, cruel wife. To his Life in which he had no smallest part. Well, so long as one knew where one was, nothing hurt one. Only unexpected wounds and defeats.
The story, which takes place over a few weeks in the summer, is mainly focused on Eliza, who, not being a family member, is able to stand back and observe the complex and frequently painful interactions that go on in the house. There's little she can do to help, but she does take an important part in helping John to stabilise his mental state and ends by feeling pleased to have done so, even though at a small sacrifice herself. But we also follow Sheena's intense romance with Rupert, which is violently scuppered by some information she is given by Rupert's troublemaking sister Silene. Luckily Eliza is able to put this right, though at some probable cost to Lady Bird's relationship with her daughter and with her husband. There's nothing she can do for the 'little bearded governess', Miss Parker, who suffers agonies over her disfiguring facial hair and who falls deeply in love with Nick, the boat-owning handyman...
I loved every minute of this novel. Molly Keane writes brilliantly, and the book is full of wonderfully sharp and extremely funny moments. The characters, with all their quirks and eccentricities, are brilliantly observed and entertainingly described. Here's one of them:
Rupert's elder sister Silene looked like an enormous, a vast, an overwhelming angel. She was tall and enormously fat and gloriously fair with viper-curling yellow hair and a wonderful skin (although this was not quite what it had been what with her troubled life and constantly drinking gin). She did not like her husband very much and spent most of her time staying with friends who all loved her although she was a crashing bore when she was drunk.