Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie

The February prompt for Read Christie 2021 was ‘a story featuring love’; as usual there were several books I could have chosen to fit this theme, but I decided on Sad Cypress, a Poirot title from 1940.

The novel begins with Elinor Carlisle on trial for the murder of Mary Gerrard. All the evidence points to her being guilty – not only was Mary her rival in love, Elinor was also in the right place at the right time to have carried out the murder. Only the village doctor, Peter Lord, believes Elinor didn’t do it and he calls in Hercule Poirot to find proof of her innocence. As Poirot begins to investigate, he discovers that almost everyone connected with the case is telling lies – but Poirot knows that where crimes are concerned, a detective can learn as much from a lie as he can from the truth.

Sad Cypress has not become a favourite Christie novel, but it’s still one that I enjoyed and one that stands out to me as feeling slightly different from most of the other Poirots I’ve read. In fact, Poirot himself doesn’t appear until almost halfway through the book and although he plays his usual vital role in solving the crime, I think the story could have been just as strong without him (apparently this was Christie’s own view as well, when she reflected on the novel after it was published). A large part of the story is written from Elinor’s perspective which gives it an emotional, intimate feel; I particularly liked the sections at the beginning and end of the book which become almost dreamlike as Elinor stands in court ‘as though imprisoned in a thick mist’, waiting to hear the decision of the jury.

As for the mystery itself, I think the plot is perhaps simpler than a lot of Christie’s others, but cleverly constructed and tightly focused. There are really only two or three likely suspects and for once I did correctly guess how the murder had been carried out and therefore who must have been responsible, but I wasn’t completely sure and had to wait for Poirot to provide the evidence. I didn’t manage to solve the mystery entirely, though – there were still lots of things that confused me, including the motive, and the twists towards the end of the book took me by surprise! Finally, in case you’re wondering, the unusual title comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Come away, come away, death, And in sad cypress let me be laid.”

The Read Christie theme for March is ‘a story featuring a society figure’. I’m torn between Lord Edgware Dies and Sparkling Cyanide; if you’ve read either of them, maybe you can help me decide!

Top Ten Tuesday: Characters with theatrical jobs

This week’s topic for Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl) is “Characters Whose Job I Wish I Had”. As Jana says we can put our own unique spin on each topic and as I wanted to join in with Lory’s Reading the Theatre month, I have chosen ten characters who have jobs connected with acting and the theatre. These are not all jobs I would like to have myself, but some of them sound fun!

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1. Commedia dell’Arte actor
In one of my favourite books, Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini, Andre-Louis Moreau takes the role of Scaramouche the clown in a Commedia dell’Arte troupe as part of an elaborate plan to avenge his murdered friend.

2. Puppeteer
Adelaide Culver, the heroine of Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp, finds a collection of wonderful hand-made puppets created by her late husband and opens a successful Puppet Theatre in an old coach-house.

3. Theatre manager
In Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor, Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, meets the famous Shakespearean actor Sir Henry Irving and becomes manager of his Lyceum Theatre.

4. 6th century actress
Theodora by Stella Duffy is a novel based on the life of Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire. Before marrying the Emperor Justinian, Theodora receives training as an actress, dancer and acrobat.

5. Music hall star
Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor is a fictional retelling of the life of Belle Bilton, a star of the Victorian music hall who becomes the Countess of Clancarty through marriage and finds herself involved in a controversial court case.

6. Aspiring actor and con artist
The wonderfully entertaining The Way to the Lantern by Audrey Erskine Lindop follows the story of a young actor, pickpocket and con man whose various fake identities lead him into serious trouble during the French Revolution.

7. One of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men
In Fools and Mortals, Bernard Cornwell creates a fictional story for Shakespeare’s brother Richard, imagining that he is an actor with The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and must prevent rival London acting companies from stealing William’s plays.

8. A member of an acting family
The Savage Brood by Martha Rofheart is a multi-generational family saga taking us from Tudor England to 20th century Hollywood and encompassing just about every type of acting you can think of!

9. Pantomime Cat
Who Killed Dick Whittington? by E and MA Radford is a Golden Age crime novel in which a murder takes place on stage during a traditional British pantomime. Suspicion falls on the actor in the Cat costume!

10. Drama teacher
In Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, Felix Phillips loses his position as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival and gets a new job teaching drama and literacy to the prisoners at Fletcher Correctional, directing them in a production of The Tempest.

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Have you read any of these? Can you think of any other books you’ve read with characters who work in the theatre? There were a few more I could have included on my list, but I had to limit myself to ten!

My Commonplace Book: February 2021

A selection of words and pictures to represent February’s reading:

commonplace book
noun
a book into which notable extracts from other works are copied for personal use.

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“Ah, but life is like that! It does not permit you to arrange and order it as you will. It will not permit you to escape emotion, to live by the intellect and by reason! You cannot say, ‘I will feel so much and no more.’ Life, Mr Welman, whatever else it is, is not reasonable.”

Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie (1940)

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Clearly the answer was that birds have a life of their own which, although over large areas irrational and perplexing, isn’t quite so irrational and perplexing as the life that human beings have been contriving for themselves of late. Work hard on birds, and you may here and there make some sense of them. This scarcely holds true of homo sapiens.

Hare Sitting Up by Michael Innes (1959)

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Reading room at the American Library in Paris

‘But seriously, why books? Because no other thing possesses that mystical faculty to make people see with other people’s eyes. The Library is a bridge of books between cultures.’

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles (2021)

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Were not Time and Fate sisters? My feeling is that they both work against us, sometimes gently, sometimes harshly, with the briefest interruptions when the tide flows backwards for a happy moment, mainly due to our own endeavours.

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago (2021)

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An entertainment in Vauxhall Gardens c. 1779

‘The magistrate says it cannot be one of her clients because the crime was too savage to be committed by a gentleman. Is that also your view?’

‘I think monsters who wear the masks of men are as likely to be found in the clubs of St James’s as they are in the slum rookeries of St Giles. Whether this is the former or the latter, I cannot yet say.”

Daughters of Night by Laura Shepherd-Robinson (2021)

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My father once said: “If you understand yourself, it is as much as you can be expected to do.” How true that is! Every day I live I realise what a fund of wisdom he had. It poured from him as water pours from a spring, clear and hard, and just right.”

Good by Stealth by Henrietta Clandon (1936)

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Favourite book read in February:

Good by Stealth

New authors read in February:

Janet Skeslien Charles, Lucy Jago, Henrietta Clandon

Countries visited in February’s reading:

France, USA, England

The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

I was already aware of the Cottingley Fairies before reading this book; I remember watching a documentary years ago, as well as the 1997 film Fairy Tale. I knew that, early in the 20th century, a series of photographs appeared, taken by two young girls and allegedly showing fairies playing in the garden. Were the photographs real? Well, the girls managed to convince half the world that they were, including the famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle! In The Cottingley Secret, Hazel Gaynor gives a fictional account of the story of one of the girls, Frances Griffiths, and through her eyes we see how and why they take the photographs and the effect the incident has on the rest of their lives.

Frances’ story begins to unfold in 1917, when she and her mother return to England from South Africa because her father has gone to fight in the war. Arriving in the Yorkshire village of Cottingley, where they will stay with family, nine-year-old Frances gets to know her cousin, Elsie Wright, who is sixteen, and the two quickly become close friends. When Frances insists that she has seen fairies playing by the beck, or stream, at the bottom of their garden, she and Elsie decide to take photographs to prove that they exist. However, they are completely unprepared for the sensation they cause when the pictures are eventually made public.

One hundred years later, in 2017, Olivia Kavanagh is in Ireland where she has inherited her grandfather’s bookshop. Sorting through his things, she comes across an old manuscript and is fascinated by what it contains: the true story of the Cottingley Fairies, written by Frances Griffiths herself. As Olivia delves into Frances’ story, she discovers her own family connection to the village of Cottingley and begins to understand the appeal of believing in fairies!

I’ve mentioned in the past that I often have problems with dual timeframe novels, particularly where one period is much more interesting to read about than the other, but I’m pleased to say that I think The Cottingley Secret is one of the better examples of this type of book. Although I did find Frances’ narrative slightly more compelling, I liked Olivia too and enjoyed watching her discover the story of the fairies while also trying to bring new life to the ‘Something Old’ bookshop, coming to terms with her grandmother’s dementia and making some important decisions about her future.

I can’t talk too much about how Hazel Gaynor approaches the subject of the fairies and whether or not Frances’ sightings of them are genuine, because that would spoil the novel, but I do think she creates a convincing explanation for how the girls come to take the photographs while leaving just enough mystery in the story to raise some intriguing possibilities. You may also be wondering how so many people, ranging from photography experts to the author of Sherlock Holmes, were so ready to believe that the fairies were real, but remember that the photographs were published at a time when the world was just emerging from four years of war and it’s easier to see why people were desperate for some magic in their lives.

I have now read two of Hazel Gaynor’s books – this one and The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, about Grace Darling – and have enjoyed both. I’m looking forward to reading more!

Book 7/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Walter Scott Prize 2021 Longlist

If you’ve been following my blog for a while you will know that I have been slowly working through all of the books shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction since the prize began in 2010. I have discovered some great books and authors over the last few years thanks to this prize. You can see the progress I’ve made with this here – and I know there are other bloggers working on similar projects too.

The longlist for the 2021 prize has just been announced and includes some titles that I would have predicted, as well as some that I’ve never even heard of! Here are the eleven books on this year’s list:

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Hinton by Mark Blacklock (Granta)

The Tolstoy Estate by Steven Conte (HarperCollins Australia)

The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd (Two Roads)

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville (Canongate UK, Text Publishing Australia)

Mr Beethoven by Paul Griffiths (Henningham Family Press)

Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah (Bloomsbury)

A Treacherous Country by K L Kruimink (Allen & Unwin Australia)

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel (4th Estate)

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (Headline)

Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain (Chatto & Windus)

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (Affirm Press Australia, Chatto & Windus UK)

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I’m not at all surprised to see Hamnet on the list – although I didn’t love it as much as most other readers seem to have done, I’m sure it will be shortlisted and possibly win the overall prize. I didn’t particularly enjoy Islands of Mercy either, but again I can see that it’s a well-written, multi-layered novel and deserves its place on the longlist. The only other one I’ve read is The Year Without Summer, which I did find interesting even though it seemed more like a collection of short stories than a novel.

Of the other eight books, I do have a copy of The Mirror and the Light which I started to read last year and abandoned as I wasn’t in the mood for it; I’m hoping to finish it soon! I was already interested in reading A Room Made of Leaves, but am not familiar with any of the others so will have to investigate.

Have you read any of these? Which ones do you think should be shortlisted?

Good by Stealth by Henrietta Clandon – #ReadIndies

I had so many reading plans for February, yet the month is slipping away and I’ve hardly read any of the books I’d hoped to read. However, I really wanted to read something for the Read Indies Month hosted by Karen and Lizzy and I’m pleased that I’ve managed to fit in Good by Stealth by Henrietta Clandon, published by Dean Street Press.

This wonderful Golden Age crime novel from 1936 was written by John Haslette Vahey; Henrietta Clandon was one of his many pseudonyms – he seems to have been very prolific and used different names for his work with different publishers or in different genres. I found this one so much fun to read, I will certainly be reading more of his books! It reminded me very strongly of The Murder of My Aunt by Richard Hull, but also a little bit of Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson and Queen Lucia by EF Benson.

Good by Stealth is what is known as an ‘inverted mystery’. We know from the beginning that our narrator, Miss Edna Alice, has been found guilty of sending anonymous letters – letters which have caused suicides, broken engagements and ruined relationships – but what we don’t know is why. In Miss Alice’s own words, we watch the sequence of events unfold which lead to the writing of the letters and we hear her reasons for doing so. There’s no real suspense because we know that eventually she will be caught, tried and sent to prison, but by the end of the book we have enough information to decide for ourselves whether there is any justification for Miss Alice’s actions.

Miss Alice begins her story by describing her arrival in the small English village of Lush Mellish, where she settles into her new cottage with her dog and sets out to make friends with the other residents, but succeeds only in turning them all against her. Her attempts to join the art circle, the literary society and the tennis club all end in disaster – and of course, it is never Miss Alice’s fault.

I paid my subscription and joined the tennis club. It was sometime later that I heard how my comments – which were quite harmlessly witty – had been repeated and exaggerated, causing great offence. It was no good trying to prove that, and in the end I decided that the truth still remains the truth, even if embroidered. But people hate to recognise themselves in what they take to be a faulty mirror.

Although Miss Alice is undoubtedly an unpleasant, self-righteous woman, it’s impossible not to have sympathy for her when, first of all, not just one but several of her pet dogs die in ways which seem not to have been accidental, and then the other inhabitants of Lush Mellish appear to engage in a series of campaigns designed to humiliate her and drive her out of the village. The cruelty of these people, particularly the elderly woman who lives next door, is so excessive and spiteful that you can’t help but feel sorry for our poor narrator, despite her own nastiness.

But these things did me no harm, the more so as cook knew a great deal about the slanderers and backbiters, and as good as told me that some of them were determined to drive me out of the town. Can you imagine people so lost to any sense of decency? In the end they had their wicked will, and so contrived it that I appeared technically to be at fault. But was it my fault if I had not their cunning and lack of principle?

In Miss Alice’s version of events, she has the best of motives for beginning to send anonymous letters to the people of Lush Mellish containing helpful pieces of advice aimed at improving their morals and correcting their behaviour. But of course the recipients of the letters don’t see things that way and as we are only given one side of the story we have to make up our own minds as to whether Miss Alice was really as well-meaning as she claims to have been.

The book is hugely entertaining and often very funny (I particularly loved Miss Alice’s descriptions of the ‘wicked old woman’ next door) and although some parts of the story don’t seem at first to have much to do with the overall plot, everything falls into place by the end and the significance of even the smallest detail becomes clear. This is not a conventional crime novel or mystery in any way, but there is still an element of detection towards the end, when the police begin to investigate Miss Alice’s alleged crimes. Again, because we are seeing things from the suspect’s point of view rather than the detective’s, my sympathies were with Miss Alice and even though I knew from the opening chapter what the outcome would be, I was still hoping she wouldn’t be caught!

If anyone has read any of Henrietta Clandon’s other books – or anything published under one of Vahey’s other names – please let me know which one I should try next!

The Bird King by G Willow Wilson

In the 12th century poem The Conference of the Birds, the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Al Attar writes about a group of birds, left without a ruler, who set off on a long journey across the Dark Sea to the land of Qaf in search of their lost king. This legend forms the basis of G Willow Wilson’s The Bird King, an unusual novel which combines history, fantasy, myth and magical realism.

The novel is set in Al-Andalus in 1491, when Muslim-ruled Granada is besieged by the Christian forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Our heroine, Fatima, is a Circassian slave in the harem of the Alhambra palace, where she serves as concubine to the Sultan and maid to his mother, Lady Aisha. Fatima’s only real friend in the palace is Hassan, the Sultan’s mapmaker, who possesses a very special skill: he is able to draw maps of places he has never visited and to change reality by adding doors and passages where none existed before.

When representatives of the Spanish Inquisition arrive in Granada on behalf of Queen Isabella, Hassan’s secret ability is revealed and he falls under suspicion as a sorcerer. With the help of Hassan’s magical maps and guided by Vikram, a shape-shifting jinn, Hassan and Fatima flee across Al-Andalus. Knowing that there is no longer a place for them in the world they have left behind, they dream of finding the fabled island of Qaf and the King of the Birds, whose story is starting to feel more and more relevant.

The Bird King is a novel which encompasses lots of fascinating ideas. I’m not sure whether I fully understood everything it was trying to say – the last few chapters feel particularly allegorical – but the central messages of friendship and faith, of tolerance and living together in harmony are clear. The author delivers these messages in a way that seems to arise naturally from the plot and the characters and doesn’t become too heavy-handed. I also loved the concept that the mysterious Qaf could be seen as another version of Avalon in Arthurian legend, or Antillia, the phantom island of Iberian myth, or Shambhala, the mythical kingdom in Tibetan Buddhism: different names, but with similar meanings to people of different cultures.

G. Willow Wilson’s writing is beautiful in places and the settings are vividly described, especially the Alhambra in the opening chapters, but something stopped me from enjoying this book as much as I’d hoped to – and I’m not really sure what it was. Perhaps it was because I found the balance between the fantasy and the historical aspects of the book too uneven; it starts off as an interesting depiction of the fall of Granada and the Inquisition, with only a small amount of magical realism, but by the end of the book the fantasy elements have become so strong that I felt I was reading a different book to the one I was reading at the beginning. Then, although I liked Fatima, I thought the other characters seemed slightly underdeveloped; Hassan’s special gift had the potential to be explored further and I also wanted to know more about Vikram the jinn and his role in the human world.

Still, this is an intriguing and entertaining novel and I would probably read more by G. Willow Wilson. Her previous novel, Alif the Unseen, doesn’t appeal to me but I will look out for any others she writes in the future.

Book 6/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.