I Will Repay by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

I haven’t been very successful recently at finishing the books chosen for me by the Classics Club Spins, so I decided to make an early start on my current Spin book, I Will Repay by Baroness Orczy – and have finished it three weeks before the 22nd August deadline! It helped that it was a relatively short book, as well as a light and entertaining one that I found easy to read.

First published in 1906, this was the first sequel to The Scarlet Pimpernel to be published, but if you’re reading the series in chronological order, as I am, it’s the fourth. I have previously read Sir Percy Leads the Band and The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel and found them both disappointing in comparison to the original book, but I’m pleased to say that this one was more enjoyable. Not everyone will agree, as we do see very little of the Scarlet Pimpernel and nothing at all of his wife Marguerite, but I thought it was quite an exciting and gripping story in its own right.

The novel opens in 1783 with Paul Déroulède and the young Vicomte de Marny fighting a duel in a Paris tavern. When the Vicomte is accidentally killed, his father, devastated at losing his son and heir, forces his other child, fourteen-year-old Juliette, to swear an oath promising to avenge her brother’s death: “May my brother’s soul remain in torment until the final Judgment Day if I should break my oath, but may it rest in eternal peace the day on which his death is fitly avenged.”

Ten years later, the Revolution is underway and Paris has become a dangerous place for a young noblewoman like Juliette:

And the afternoons were very lively. There was always plenty to see: first and foremost, the long procession of tumbrils, winding its way from the prisons to the Place de la Révolution. The forty-four thousand sections of the Committee of Public Safety sent their quota, each in their turn, to the guillotine. At one time these tumbrils contained royal ladies and gentlemen, ci-devant dukes and princesses, aristocrats from every county in France, but now this stock was becoming exhausted…

Walking through the streets one day, Juliette’s expensive lace-trimmed clothes draw the attention of a mob and she escapes from them by hammering on the door of the nearest house, which happens to be the home of Paul Déroulède. Paul, who has made himself popular with the citizens of Paris despite his own royalist sympathies, protects her from the mob and takes her into his household. As Juliette gets to know her brother’s enemy, she finds herself falling in love – so when a chance comes to send Paul Déroulède to the guillotine, she faces a very difficult decision.

You’re probably wondering where Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel himself, comes into the story; as I’ve said, we don’t see very much of him, but he does have an important role to play towards the end. However, the absence of Sir Percy for most of the novel probably explains why this book was not more popular on its publication as people who were expecting a Scarlet Pimpernel book would have been disappointed. Personally, this didn’t really bother me as I was so caught up in the story of Juliette and Déroulède, and all the detail of this period of the French Revolution. The novel is set shortly after the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, during the ‘Reign of Terror’, and Orczy does a wonderful job of recreating the atmosphere on the streets of Paris where anyone with a drop of noble blood risks being denounced and sent to their death. Orczy makes no secret of the fact that she is clearly on the side of the aristocrats, while the ordinary citizens of Paris are portrayed as brutal and bloodthirsty, but I suppose you would expect bias from someone who was a baroness!

Having enjoyed this one, I’m planning to continue with the next book in the series, The Elusive Pimpernel, which I’ve been told is one of the best.

This is book 21/50 from my second Classics Club list.

Book 33/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

This month’s theme for Read Christie 2021 is ‘a story starring a vicar’ and the chosen title is an obvious one – The Murder at the Vicarage, which was first published in 1930 and is the first book in the Miss Marple series. I have read most of the later Marple novels, but never this one and I thought it would be interesting to go back to the beginning and read the book that introduced Miss Marple to the world of crime fiction.

The novel is set, like many of the other Marple novels, in the village of St Mary Mead, a place where everyone knows everyone else and nobody’s behaviour goes unnoticed! When Colonel Protheroe is found dead in the study at the vicarage, shot while waiting for the vicar to return home, Miss Marple and the other villagers immediately begin to gossip and to speculate on who the murderer could be. At first suspicion falls upon Anne Protheroe, the Colonel’s unhappy wife, and Lawrence Redding, the man with whom she has been having an affair. However, Colonel Protheroe was not a popular man and there is no shortage of other suspects – Miss Marple herself insists that she can think of at least seven.

The story is narrated by the vicar, Leonard Clement, who is drawn into the mystery not only due to the murder victim being found in his study, but also because the people of St Mary Mead see him as a trusted friend in whom they can confide and share pieces of information they prefer not to give to the police. The vicar’s narrative is both intelligent and amusing, as he reflects on his household, his domestic arrangements and his relationship with his younger wife, Griselda, as well as carrying out his own investigations into the murder case.

Someone else who is investigating the murder for herself is Miss Marple – and of course she finds her way to the solution before the police do, using her knowledge of human nature and her powers of observation. Miss Marple as she appears in this first novel is slightly different from the woman we meet in the later books in the series and is not particularly well liked by her neighbours, who see her as someone who goes around poking her nose into everyone else’s business. Unlike in some of the other books, where she seems to have been added to the story almost as an afterthought and the plot would have worked just as well without her, in this one she is there from beginning to end – often just in the background, but everything she says and does and every suggestion she makes turns out to be vital to the solving of the mystery!

Although I did enjoy this book, particularly as I found it such a difficult one to solve – I think I suspected almost everyone and allowed myself to get distracted by all the red herrings Christie throws into the plot – it took me a while to get into it. There were so many characters to keep track of and apart from the vicar and his wife and Miss Marple I didn’t really engage with any of them. I found the second half of the book much more compelling, though, as the plot became more and more complex and clever. I have read three Miss Marple mysteries in a row now for the Read Christie challenge, so I’m in the mood for something different next month. The August theme is ‘a story set by the seaside’ and I’m thinking about the Poirot novel Evil Under the Sun.

Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

Almost exactly seven years after I picked up Assassin’s Apprentice, the first in Robin Hobb’s sixteen-novel Realm of the Elderlings sequence, here I am embarking on the final trilogy, Fitz and the Fool, which begins with Fool’s Assassin. Before I start to discuss this book, I should warn you that if you’re new to Robin Hobb, there may be things in my review that will spoil the earlier novels for you; before reading Fool’s Assassin, I think it’s essential to have at least read The Farseer Trilogy and The Tawny Man Trilogy as they deal with the same characters and storylines. The other books – The Liveship Traders and The Rain Wild Chronicles – add to the world-building and I would still recommend reading them in their correct places within the sequence, but it’s probably not completely necessary.

Anyway, back to Fool’s Assassin! After persevering through the four novels that make up The Rain Wild Chronicles, none of which I particularly enjoyed, it was such a relief to be back in the company of FitzChivalry Farseer; like being reacquainted with an old friend after a long absence.

The book begins with Fitz, now happily married to his beloved Molly, living on his country estate of Withywoods. Known to his servants and neighbours as the humble Tom Badgerlock, Fitz is keeping his distance from the dangers of Buckkeep Castle but his gift for the powerful magic known as the Skill still links him to his old mentor Chade and others within the castle walls. To his disappointment, there is no word at all from his dearest friend, the Fool, who departed at the end of Fool’s Fate – or is there? When a mysterious stranger attempting to bring him a message during the Winterfest celebrations is pursued from Withywoods before she can speak to him, Fitz is left wondering what the message contained. However, it is only after the arrival of another very unusual young woman called Bee that Fitz finds himself reluctantly drawn back into the intrigue that surrounds the Farseer throne and the affairs of the wider world of the Six Duchies.

Fool’s Assassin has a slower pace than some of the other books about Fitz; there is not a lot of action until almost the end, and instead we spend most of the novel with Fitz and his household at Withywoods. It’s a reflective, introspective story in which Fitz is looking back on the events of his past and trying to move forward, while enjoying his peaceful new life as a husband and father. This peaceful life doesn’t last forever, of course, so eventually there are more personal traumas for Fitz to deal with – and despite the largely domestic setting and the slowness of the plot to develop, I was never bored for a moment. As I said, most of the action in the novel occurs in the final few chapters, along with a revelation about one of the characters; I’m not sure whether this was supposed to come as a surprise to the reader, but I had guessed the truth much earlier in the novel and found it frustrating that Fitz had apparently been completely oblivious to it!

Although the previous books have been written only from Fitz’s perspective, this one introduces a second viewpoint character who, in the second half of the book, comes to dominate the story at times. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this at first and I think my personal preference would have been to continue with Fitz as the sole narrator, but I did like and sympathise with this second character and I can see the value of having someone who can offer insights that Fitz cannot and show us what is happening when Fitz is not physically there. It would have been nice to have seen more of the characters at Buckkeep, such as Kettricken and Dutiful, and certainly more of the Fool – Hobb really keeps us waiting and wondering when he will make his appearance – but I did like the way the long departed Nighteyes is able to play a role in the story, as I hadn’t expected to hear from him again.

The book ends on a huge cliffhanger and although I really need to concentrate on other books at the moment, I think it’s very likely that I will be drawn to the second novel, Fool’s Quest, very soon. One of the advantages of waiting until a whole trilogy is available instead of reading the books as they are published!

This is book 6/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

Death in Zanzibar by M M Kaye

I love M.M. Kaye’s Death In… novels, but I’ve been taking my time with the series as there are only six books and I didn’t want to finish them all too quickly. The books all stand alone as entirely separate mystery novels, but are all set in one of several fascinating locations around the world in which Kaye lived with her husband, who was in the British Army. So far, my favourite is still the first, Death in Kashmir, but this one – the fifth in the series – ties with Death in Cyprus for second place.

Death in Zanzibar was originally published in 1959 as The House of Shade. The novel begins with Dany Ashton on her way to Zanzibar to stay with her mother Lorraine and stepfather, Tyson Frost, at Tyson’s home Kivulimi, known as the ‘House of Shade’. Before leaving London, she visits Tyson’s solicitor, Mr Honeywood, to collect a document her stepfather has asked her to bring out to Zanzibar for him. The next day, she reads in the newspaper that Mr Honeywood was murdered just after she left his office and the police have found a handkerchief at the murder scene with her initials on it. Determined that nothing will stop her from visiting Zanzibar, Dany decides to say nothing and continue with her journey – until she discovers that someone has broken into her hotel room and stolen her passport.

Staying in the same hotel is Lashmer Holden, an American publisher whose father is a close friend of Tyson’s. Lash is also on his way to Kivulimi on business and when he hears Dany’s story, he comes up with a plan to get her to Zanzibar and to throw the police off her trail. The only problem is, Lash is drunk (his fiancée has just broken off their engagement) and when he sobers up, halfway across Africa, he is horrified to learn what he and Dany have done.

I won’t go into the plot in any more detail, but there are more murders, a mysterious old mansion, family secrets, disguises and forged letters – all the elements of an entertaining and atmospheric read. I have seen a lot of comparisons of Kaye’s crime novels with Agatha Christie’s and I do agree, to a certain extent – this one did remind me at times of books like Murder in Mesopotamia or They Came to Baghdad – but I think, with their blend of suspense, romance, beautiful young heroines and evocative settings, a better comparison would be with Mary Stewart’s novels. Kaye’s books are darker than Stewart’s, though; they always seem to involve several scenes with the heroine hearing noises in the night and coming across intruders in the dark which are genuinely quite creepy and sinister!

I think this is probably the first book I’ve ever read set in Zanzibar, so I enjoyed the parts describing the island: the colours, smells and sounds, the politics and the people – and lots of interesting little facts, such as a mention of spikes on old wooden doors which had been put there to repel elephant attacks. However, about half of the book actually takes place during the journey, on planes, in airports, and in hotels; Zanzibar is less important to the story than the settings of some of the other books. The mystery itself is an excellent one with lots of suspects, several of whom I suspected at various points in the novel – but not the right one! I liked the romantic aspect of the story too and although I would have preferred Dany to have been slightly less naive and innocent, I had to remind myself that she had just left school the year before and had led a sheltered life.

I still need to read Death in the Andamans, but I’m particularly looking forward to reading Kaye’s historical novel Trade Wind, which is also set in Zanzibar during the time of one of Tyson Frost’s ancestors.

This is book 5/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021.

Classics Club Spin #27: The Result

The result of the latest Classics Club Spin has been revealed today.

The idea of the Spin was to list twenty books from my Classics Club list, number them 1 to 20, and the number announced by the Classics Club represents the book I have to read before 22nd August. The number that has been selected is…

6

And this means the book I need to read is…

I Will Repay by Baroness Orczy

It has been ten years since Juliette de Marny’s father asked her to swear revenge upon Deroulede for the death of her brother in a duel. At last she finds herself in Deroulede’s house with an opportunity to betray him. Juliette realizes, too late, that she is in love with Deroulede. Can the Scarlet Pimpernel help?

~

Not one that I was particularly hoping for from my list, but still not a bad result. After reading The Scarlet Pimpernel a few years ago and discovering that there was a whole series of Pimpernel books, I decided to continue working through them in chronological order. I have since read Sir Percy Leads the Band and The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, so I Will Repay is next for me.

Have you read this book? Did you take part in the spin and are you happy with your result?

Classics Club Spin #27: My List

It’s time for another Classics Club Spin! I wasn’t sure whether to take part in this one as I didn’t manage to read my book from the previous spin in April; that was Germinal, which I had expected to love and do still want to finish but I had too much else going on in my life at that time and couldn’t give it the concentration it deserved. However, I’m disappointed by how few classics I’ve read so far this year, so I will see what the spin chooses for me this time and have another try.

If you’re not sure what a Classics Spin is, here’s a reminder:

The rules for Spin #27:

* List any twenty books you have left to read from your Classics Club list.
* Number them from 1 to 20.
* On Sunday 18th July the Classics Club will announce a number.
* This is the book you need to read by 22nd August 2021.

And here is my list:

1. Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault
2. The Trumpet-Major by Thomas Hardy
3. Goodbye Mr Chips by James Hilton
4. The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov
5. La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas
6. I Will Repay by Baroness Emmuska Orczy
7. Armadale by Wilkie Collins (re-read)
8. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
9. Moonfleet by John Meade Falkner
10. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
11. The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope
12. Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather
13. St Martin’s Summer by Rafael Sabatini
14. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
15. Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym
16. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
17. A Laodicean by Thomas Hardy
18. The Turquoise by Anya Seton
19. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
20. The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni

~

Are you taking part in the spin this time? Which numbers do you think I should be hoping for?

Red Adam’s Lady by Grace Ingram

Although Red Adam’s Lady was first published in 1973, I wasn’t aware of it until a few years ago when it was reissued by Chicago Review Press as part of their Rediscovered Classics series. This edition has a foreword by Elizabeth Chadwick, one of my favourite authors of medieval fiction, and knowing that she rates this book highly was enough to make me want to try it myself.

Julitta de Montrigord is taking shelter from the rain in an alehouse one evening when she is abducted by the drunken Red Adam de Lorismond, the new lord of Brentborough, who carries her off to his castle and into his bedchamber. She manages to defend her virtue by hitting him over the head with a stool and tying him to a bedpost, but is horrified when, in the morning, he insists on making amends by marrying her. Julitta can think of nothing worse – even being sent to a convent seems preferable to her – but her uncle and guardian sees his chance to form an importance alliance with Brentborough and she is eventually left with no option but to agree to the marriage.

Despite the efforts of Julitta’s new husband to redeem himself, she is determined that this will remain a marriage in name only. Meanwhile she has plenty of other distractions; after all, as Red Adam’s Lady she now has a castle to look after and servants to manage – including the jealous chatelaine, Constance, who seems set on making Julitta’s life as difficult as possible.

This vivid and detailed depiction of 12th century castle life is one of the things I particularly enjoyed about this novel. There’s nothing glamorous or fairytale-like about Brentborough Castle; when Julitta first arrives, she discovers that her new home is dirty, neglected and has been badly managed during the lifetime of the previous lord, Adam’s uncle, and it’s fascinating to see how she goes about setting things in order. Away from the domestic setting, we learn a little bit of what is going on elsewhere in the country, with Henry II’s son, the Young King, preparing to rebel against him and England’s nobility facing a choice between one side or the other. Julitta’s uncle and his friends are supporters of the Young King, but Red Adam’s loyalty to Henry II makes him a traitor in their eyes.

There’s also a mystery aspect to the novel, with Julitta and Red Adam trying to find out what really happened to the former lord’s pregnant wife, who was believed to have been murdered although no proof was ever found. When another young man claiming to be the true heir to Brentborough appears on the scene, it becomes more important than ever that the truth is uncovered at last.

As for the romantic element of the story, I think a romance that begins with the hero trying to rape the heroine is always going to be problematic from a modern point of view, though probably not so much in the 1970s when it was written. In this case, it seems so out of character for Adam that the whole opening scene felt to me a little bit contrived, as a way of getting Julitta into the castle and setting up the rest of the story. Apart from that, I thought the characters felt like believable and convincing 12th century people rather than present day people in medieval costume and there was none of the annoying anachronistic language I sometimes come across in the historical fiction being published today.

Grace Ingram’s other novels, Gilded Spurs and several that she wrote under the name of Doris Sutcliffe Adams, all still seem to be out of print. It would be nice if a publisher could give more of them the same treatment as Red Adam’s Lady and make them available to new readers.

Book 32/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Book 4/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021