A Knife for Harry Dodd by George Bellairs

George Bellairs was a very prolific crime author, with over fifty books published between 1941 and 1980. This is the first one I’ve read and I enjoyed it, which means I have a lot to look forward to! Although Bellairs (a pseudonym of Harold Blundell) did write some standalone novels, most of his books were part of his Inspector Littlejohn series of which A Knife for Harry Dodd is the twenty-first. Fortunately, this is not a series which needs to be read in order!

As the title suggests, the novel begins with Harry Dodd being stabbed in the back as he begins to walk home from his local pub one night. Instead of calling the police or an ambulance, Harry summons his girlfriend Dorothy Nicholls and her mother, who immediately set off in the car – with great difficulty, as neither of them can actually drive. Eventually they manage to find Harry and help him into the car, but they are unaware of how badly wounded he is and by the time they get him home he is dead.

Inspector Littlejohn of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate the crime and, with the help of his assistant Sergeant Cromwell and the local police, he begins to unravel the secrets of Harry Dodd’s personal life in an effort to identify the murderer. At first, Dorothy and her mother are under suspicion, but the range of suspects soon widens to include another of Harry’s mistresses, his estranged wife and their sons and daughters, and his brother, an influential politician. As the story unfolds, we begin to understand what sort of man Harry Dodd was and the nature of his relationships with the various people in his life. It’s not an easy mystery for the reader to solve, as some of the information we need isn’t provided until later in the book, but I enjoyed following Littlejohn’s investigations and trying to guess who the culprit could be.

Although it’s disappointing that most of the women in the book are portrayed as either silly and helpless or loud and domineering, there’s some great characterisation too. I particularly liked Ishmael Lott, a timid little man who sells parrot seed and dreams of making his fortune on the stock market, and Mr Glass, a patient in an asylum that Littlejohn visits in his search for one of the suspects. In fact, Littlejohn himself is probably the least memorable of all the characters in the book! In a way, I liked the fact that he just gets on with solving the mystery unobtrusively, but it would still have been nice to have known a little bit more about him. Maybe his background is given in the earlier novels and Bellairs assumed he didn’t need to tell us again.

The next Inspector Littlejohn mystery I read will probably be Corpses in Enderby, which I received as a free ebook when signing up for updates from the George Bellairs website. I’m not sure if and when this offer will end, so hurry if you want a free George Bellairs book too!

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The House of Hardie by Anne Melville

The House of Hardie is the first in a trilogy published between 1987 and 1990 and telling the story of several generations of the Hardie family. In this novel, set towards the end of the Victorian era, we meet Gordon Hardie who, ever since running away to sea as a boy, has dreamed of becoming a famous explorer and discovering new lands. Gordon has been back in England for several years, working in the family wine business in Oxford, but has informed his father that this won’t be a permanent arrangement as he intends to set off soon on a voyage to China in search of a rare and beautiful flower.

Meanwhile, Gordon’s younger sister Midge is preparing to begin an exciting new adventure of her own. She has been offered a place at Oxford University, with permission to attend tutorials and lectures – as long as she is chaperoned by an older woman at all times and sits separately from the male students. Midge is determined to make the most of the opportunity she has been given, but she finds an immediate distraction in Archie Yates, a young man who couldn’t be more different from herself. As the grandson of a marquess and with no need to worry about his future, Archie has little interest in studying and plans to spend his time at Oxford having fun. While Midge embarks on a romance with Archie, her brother Gordon also falls in love – with Archie’s sister, Lucy Yates. Because of her class, Lucy’s life has so far been much more conventional and constrained than Midge’s, but she longs to get away from her grandfather’s country estate and experience more of what the world has to offer.

The two storylines – one following Midge’s relationship with Archie and the other Gordon’s with Lucy – move forward in parallel with each other, a few chapters at a time spent on each one. I enjoyed getting to know three of the characters, at least; I didn’t like Archie at all and couldn’t understand what an intelligent woman like Midge saw in him! The book was much more than a simple romance, though, with lots of interesting issues covered through the stories of the main characters. First, there was women’s education and how progress in that area was slowly being made, while still being very far away from equality with men. We are shown how frustrating it must have been for Midge to be allowed to study at Oxford and take examinations like the men, yet not to be awarded the equivalent degree just because she is a woman. It’s even more ridiculous that she is forced to use separate entrances to the university buildings, that she has to bring a female companion with her to tutorials and that she could be sent home in disgrace if she is caught alone with a male student, however innocent the circumstances.

Class differences are also explored. The Yates family are upper class people with titles and estates, whereas the Hardies are wine merchants with a background in trade. It doesn’t matter that the Hardies still have a comfortable lifestyle and a nice home and that they are decent, hardworking people; because of the class system, the marquess will never consider them to be good enough for his grandchildren. Gordon and Lucy believe that love should be able to transcend these boundaries, but for Midge and Archie their difference in status will prove much more challenging.

Travel and exploration form another important part of the plot. Most of the final section of the book is set in China where Gordon is hunting for the lily he hopes will make his name as an explorer and botanist. This is fascinating and reads almost like a Victorian travel memoir, describing the scenery, the culture and the people our characters meet along the way. However, the feel of the novel changes at this point with the decision to leave Oxford – and Midge and Archie’s storyline – behind. The balance and variety of the earlier chapters are lost and I finished the book feeling a bit less enthusiastic about it than I had at first. I did enjoy The House of Hardie, though, and I have a copy of the second book in the series ready to start soon.

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea

With its cold Icelandic setting, dark atmosphere and shades of classic Gothic novels, this would have been an ideal winter read, but for me it was a spring one, finished towards the end of April – and now here I am writing about it in June, at the beginning of summer. An indication of how far behind I am with everything, but I know I will catch up eventually!

Anyway, The Glass Woman opens in November 1686 with a body rising to the surface of the frozen sea just off the coast of Iceland. Amongst the crowd who gather to watch and to try to pull the body from the water is one man who knows more than he’s willing to admit. A man who ‘remembers carrying the heavy body in the winding sheet, weighted with stones; remembers his wound paining him as they scraped through the snow and smashed the ice with long staves before sliding the body in’.

We then go back a few months to the August of that year, when Rósa comes to live in the village of Stykkishólmur with her new husband, Jón. She knows very little about Jón but he had promised to see that her ailing mother was cared for if she married him, so she felt she had to accept his proposal. Rósa finds it difficult to settle into her new life; she misses her mother and her childhood friend Páll and her husband is proving to be disappointingly cold and distant. The other women of the village seem to be reluctant to befriend Rósa and she soon discovers that this is because there is some sort of mystery surrounding the death of Jón’s first wife, Anna.

Alone and isolated in Jón’s croft, Rósa listens to strange noises coming from the loft above but she is unable to investigate because her husband keeps the loft door locked and has forbidden her to try to enter. He expects her to be meek and obedient, as symbolised by the small glass woman he gave her as a wedding present, but Rósa has other ideas. She has questions that must be answered. Who or what has been hidden away in that secret locked room? What really happened to Anna? And what sort of man has she married?

The Glass Woman is a beautifully written novel; Iceland is a setting I always find atmospheric and interesting and in this book it is more than just a setting – the landscape itself plays a part in the development of the story. I liked Rósa and understood how difficult the situation was that she found herself in, unable to trust her husband yet doing her best to make the marriage work, while suspecting that he may have done something terrible and that she herself could be in danger.

Most of the novel is written from Rósa’s point of view, but there are also some chapters narrated by another character and set at a slightly earlier time. Although this did help to fill in some of the gaps in Rósa’s knowledge, I thought it was done in a way that confused things rather than clarified them. The structure seemed to slow the story down and I didn’t find myself becoming fully absorbed until near the end of the book when the various threads began to come together and the truth started to emerge.

Overall, though, I did enjoy reading The Glass Woman. Some of the plot elements in the first half of the book made me think of Jane Eyre and others of Rebecca, but as the story moved forward I knew it wasn’t going to be exactly like either of those other novels and that Caroline Lea had written something quite different.

Thanks to the publisher Michael Joseph for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh has written nine novels, as well as several non-fiction books, but so far my experience of his work has been confined to Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire, three novels known as the Ibis Trilogy, which are set in China and India during the First Opium War of 1839-1842. I loved those books, so even though his new one, Gun Island, sounded completely different, I was still looking forward to reading it.

Unlike the Ibis Trilogy, Gun Island is set entirely in the modern day. Our narrator, Dinanath Datta – known as Deen – has been leading a quiet, uneventful life in Brooklyn as a dealer of rare books. In fact, sometimes it is too quiet and uneventful. Approaching his sixties and feeling very alone in the world, Deen visits Bengal, the place of his birth, in the hope of meeting someone special with whom to share the rest of his life. Instead, he meets a distant relative who tells him the story of the Gun Merchant, a legendary figure who had dramatic adventures at sea while fleeing the wrath of the snake goddess Manasa Devi, before taking refuge on the island of Bonduk-dwip or ‘Gun Island’, a land free of serpents.

As Deen digs deeper into the legend and embarks on a journey to one of the historical sites associated with the story, he enlists the help of his friends Piya, a Bengali-American teacher, and Cinta, an Italian academic. But it is not until he gets to know two young men – Tipu and Rafi, who help him to see the world from another perspective – that Deen finally begins to unravel the riddles of the Gun Merchant.

The first half of the novel, set in India and America, is fascinating; I particularly enjoyed Deen’s visit to the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans. Although I found the pace quite slow, I loved the exploration of the Gun Merchant legend and what its true meaning may have been. Amitav Ghosh is obviously an author who likes to play with words and language, something which is more prominent in Sea of Poppies and its sequels but is apparent in this book too. We – and Deen – soon discover that some of the names of places and people mentioned in the legend could mean something entirely different than they initially seemed to.

Two other themes play an important part in the novel and both are hugely relevant to modern life: climate change and migration. These are introduced into the story gradually at first, as Deen’s friends share their theories of how increasing temperatures and rising water levels are leading to the movement of both wildlife and people. In the second half of the book, however, after the action switches to Venice and begins to focus on the stories of migrants who have made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean from Libya, the story seems to lose its way. Ghosh clearly feels passionate about these issues, but the way he incorporates them into the novel is a bit too heavy-handed and at times I felt as though I was reading a long essay or an article in The Guardian instead of a work of fiction. I think part of the problem is that we see everything from Deen’s perspective and, for most of the book, he is a passive onlooker, listening to accounts of other people’s experiences rather than experiencing things for himself.

Gun Island is an interesting read but the balance between the story and the message isn’t quite right. There are also far too many coincidences, with Deen meeting people by chance whom he had previously met on the other side of the world. As I did enjoy those other books by Amitav Ghosh, I would be happy to try more of his work, but this particular novel just wasn’t for me.

This is book 3/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Historical Musings #51: The Long Take – and a question of perspective

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

Let’s start with the winner of this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, which was announced yesterday at the Borders Book Festival. Congratulations to Robin Robertson who has won the prize with The Long Take, a book written in a combination of prose and verse. I haven’t managed to read this book yet, but here is what the Walter Scott Prize website has to say about it:

Walker is a Canadian veteran of the Normandy Landings and this extraordinary and exceptional prose/verse narrative tracks the progress of this damaged but decent man through the bleak and violent streets of post-war America. While New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are in a state of constant change and reinvention Walker is trapped by his searing experiences; his devils too present for him but to remain an outsider. Illustrated with grainy black and white photographs and inviting comparison with cinema The Long Take defies conventional literary boundaries but is a moving, memorable and wholly original work of writing.

The other shortlisted books were:

After the Party by Cressida Connolly (my review)
Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller (my review)
The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey (my review)
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (not yet read)
A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey (not yet read)

The Long Take was probably the book that sounded least appealing to me from this year’s list, so I will be interested to see what I think of it when I get around to reading it. If you have read it, did you enjoy it and do you think it is a deserving winner?

~

On a different topic, I came across this interesting quote in one of my recent reads, The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie:

Mr Quin shook his head gently. “I disagree with you. The evidence of history is against you. The contemporary historian never writes such a true history as the historian of a later generation. It is a question of getting the true perspective, of seeing things in proportion. If you like to call it so, it is, like everything else, a question of relativity.”

Alex Portal leant forward, his face twitching painfully. “You are right, Mr Quin,” he cried, “you are right. Time does not dispose of a question – it only presents it anew in a different guise.”

What do you think? I think the opposite argument could be made – that it could be the contemporary historian who writes a truer history because they are actually experiencing the period and events which they are writing about and will understand them in a way a later historian can’t. On the other hand, somebody in the modern day writing about an earlier period will be able to look at that period in the context of what happened afterwards, has a wider range of sources to study and can draw on research and information that has come to light more recently (such as the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton in 2012).

To give an example from the world of fiction, would we learn more about the Regency period from reading Jane Austen, who lived and wrote during that time, or from an author like Georgette Heyer, who was writing in the 20th century but researched the Regency thoroughly? Which gives us a more accurate idea of Victorian society – Bleak House by Charles Dickens or Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters?

What are your opinions on this?

The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie

Have you met Mr Satterthwaite and his mysterious friend, Mr Harley Quin? I hadn’t, until I saw that the book selected for Read Christie 2019 this month was The Mysterious Mr Quin, a collection of short stories published in 1930 and featuring a very unusual sort of detective. In fact, he is not really a detective at all, but more of a catalyst who “has a power – an almost uncanny power – of showing you what you have seen with your own eyes, of making clear to you what you have heard with your own ears…”

There are twelve stories in the collection, all of which originally appeared separately in various magazines throughout the 1920s. They all stand alone as individual mysteries but reading them in the order they appear in the book is very effective as each one seems to build on the one before – and the twelfth story, Harlequin’s Lane, should definitely be read last.

The first story, The Coming of Mr Quin, sets the tone for the rest of the book. It begins with Mr Satterthwaite, an elderly English gentleman, attending a New Year’s Eve party at a country house when conversation turns to the suicide of Derek Capel, the former owner of the house. The suicide took place several years earlier, but is still unexplained. In the middle of this discussion, there is a knock at the door and Mr Satterthwaite’s friend Harley Quin appears, asking for shelter while his broken-down car is repaired. Mr Quin joins in the conversation and, by prompting Satterthwaite to ask relevant questions and to think carefully about the sequence of events, the truth behind Mr Capel’s death suddenly becomes obvious – and has important implications for some of the guests at the party that night.

Most of the other stories, with one or two exceptions, follow a similar format: Mr Satterthwaite is at a house party, an opera, on holiday, or attending some other sort of social gathering with his upper-class friends, when he becomes aware that one or more of his companions is hiding a secret – a criminal past, a thwarted love affair or an involvement in a murder. Mr Quin then makes a sudden appearance (sometimes in person and sometimes by leaving a message or cryptic clue) and steers Mr Satterthwaite in the right direction, enabling him to solve the mystery. Some of these mysteries have been unsolved for many years and Mr Quin claims that he is acting as an ‘advocate for the dead’, getting justice for long-ago victims of crimes, while also helping Mr Satterthwaite to influence people’s lives in the present.

Although Mr Satterthwaite is a rich man, with a comfortable, privileged lifestyle, I found him quite a sad and lonely character. He has never married and despite his busy social life his friendships seem to be mainly on a superficial level. He describes himself as a ‘looker-on at life’, someone who observes other people’s dramas without being involved in any himself. If it wasn’t for the fact that other characters in the book see and interact with Mr Quin, I could have believed that Mr Satterthwaite had invented him as an imaginary friend. There is certainly something surreal and otherworldly about Mr Quin, with his unexpected arrivals and departures, and the way his appearances are usually accompanied by a strange trick of the light – he is seen silhouetted against the setting sun, standing in front of a stained glass window, or illuminated by the sun shining through the trees.

This is the only collection of Mr Quin stories, although I think he and Mr Satterthwaite do make one or two appearances in other books or stories. I found this book quite different from anything else I’ve read by Christie and I’m loving the way taking part in this challenge is encouraging me to pick up titles I might otherwise have ignored in favour of the more popular Poirots and Marples.

The Woman in the Lake by Nicola Cornick

One day in 2004, thirteen-year-old Fenella Brightwell is on a school trip to Lydiard House in Swindon when she becomes separated from the rest of the class. Following a disturbing encounter with a drunken old man who appears to be dressed in period costume, Fen manages to find her way out of the stately home to rejoin her friends – but not before picking up a beautiful golden dress left carelessly on a chair and pushing it into her bag. Fen doesn’t know why she keeps feeling such a compulsion to take things that aren’t hers, but perhaps it is a way of coping with her difficult home life. She hasn’t seen her father for years, and with her mother away on a series of archaeological digs, Fen has been left to care not only for herself but for her alcoholic grandmother, Sarah, as well.

In the present day, Fen is now a woman of twenty-seven trying to build a new life for herself as an antique dealer after leaving her abusive husband. Sarah has recently died and has left Fen a package containing the gold dress, which Fen has never even thought about for years, along with a cryptic message warning her to be careful. Fen has no idea what her grandmother means – how can a dress be dangerous? – but now that she has it in her possession she becomes aware of the strange, almost supernatural powers it wields.

To understand the history of the dress and the secrets it holds in its fabric, we need to follow another storyline, this one set in the eighteenth century. In 1765, Lady Isabella Gerard is surprised when she receives a lovely golden gown as a gift from her husband. Eustace, Lord Gerard, is a cruel and manipulative man and doesn’t usually show her any generosity. She doesn’t really want to accept his gifts, but tells her maid, Constance, to take the dress away and keep it until the day comes when she feels like wearing it. Constance, however, is later approached by Lord Gerard, who seems to have changed his mind about the dress and tells her to destroy it. Who should she obey? What is so important about the golden gown? And what effects might it have on Constance herself?

This is the third Nicola Cornick novel I’ve read (The Phantom Tree and House of Shadows are the previous two) and it has many of the things I’ve come to expect from her books: multiple narratives set in different time periods, a big country house, objects from the past finding their way into the present, and a touch of the supernatural. The house in this book is based on a real place, Lydiard House, set in beautiful parkland in Swindon, Wiltshire, and can still be visited today. In reality, it was home to the St John family, rather than the Gerards in the novel, although one of its residents – Lady Diana – was apparently the inspiration for Isabella Gerard. A mixture of fact and fiction, then, but with the emphasis more towards the fiction.

I preferred the historical storyline to the modern day one, although I can’t say that I liked either of our historical narrators, Isabella and Constance. They had both been treated badly in various ways, so I felt that I should have had more sympathy for them, but I just didn’t – I found Isabella self-absorbed and Constance bitter and spiteful. Having said that, the story probably wouldn’t have worked if they had been different sorts of people. I did appreciate the fact that neither of them revealed everything about themselves too early in the book, which meant that there were secrets to be discovered later on.

As for Fen, I never quite warmed to her either, but I did enjoy seeing her storyline tie together with Isabella’s and Constance’s as the book headed towards its conclusion. There are lots of little snippets of information on Swindon’s history which helps to form links between the two periods and I particularly loved a subplot involving a gang of ‘Moonrakers’ (smugglers). I couldn’t help feeling that there were too many things left unexplained, though. The time travel that seemed to occur in Lydiard House at the beginning of the book never happened again, which was disappointing, and I didn’t fully understand why the dress exerted so much power over the present day characters either – except to add a spooky, Gothic element to the story.

I found more to like than to dislike about The Woman in the Lake, but if you’re new to Nicola Cornick I would recommend starting with The Phantom Tree.

Thanks to HQ for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 2/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.