Inquest by Henrietta Clandon

Inquest is one of four Henrietta Clandon mysteries available from Dean Street Press. Many of you will have heard the sad news earlier this year of DSP publisher Rupert Heath’s death, but it has been confirmed that the titles currently in print will still be available as long they have the copyrights. I loved the first Clandon novel I read, Good by Stealth, so I thought I would read another one while I still had the opportunity.

Henrietta Clandon was a pseudonym of John Haslette Vahey, a Northern Irish author who also wrote under several other names, most often Vernon Loder. Inquest, originally published in 1933, was the first of his books under the Clandon name. I’ve never read anything else he has written, so I don’t know how much difference there is between the various pseudonyms in terms of writing style or topics.

The novel opens six months after the death of William Hoe-Luss, an English businessman believed to have been poisoned by consuming deadly mushrooms during a house party in France. Now his widow, Marie Hoe-Luss, has assembled all of the original guests – with the addition of Dr Soame, William’s physician – for another house party at Hebble Chase, her estate in England, where she plans to hold a sort of informal ‘inquest’ into her late husband’s death. However, when one of the guests breaks their neck falling from a high window, it seems that the killer may have struck again.

Although the police do eventually arrive on the scene, most of the sleuthing in the book is done by Dr Soame, who also narrates the whole novel. He’s an interesting choice of narrator as his medical knowledge and previous experience as a police surgeon means he works alongside the detectives at times, while also being one of the party, mixing with the suspects. Soame already knows some of the guests through his position as the Hoe-Luss family doctor, but others are new to him which allows the reader to get to know them along with Soame.

I enjoyed the first half of the book, which introduces the characters as they arrive at the estate for Marie’s inquest – an assortment of friends, family members, business partners and former lovers, which means there are plenty of tensions, entanglements and motives for murder. They aren’t the most pleasant bunch of people, but that’s common in Golden Age mysteries so not unexpected and not too much of a problem! However, I felt that later in the book, after the second death takes place, the plot became unnecessarily complicated and I began to struggle to keep everything straight in my mind.

I really wanted to love this book, so I’m disappointed that I didn’t. It’s a good, solid mystery novel, apart from getting a bit confusing towards the end, but there’s nothing to make it stand out from other similar books in the genre, unlike Good by Stealth, which was unusual, witty and clever. I’m not sure whether I’ll read the other two Henrietta Clandon books – I suspect I’ve already read the best one – but maybe I’ll try a Vernon Loder at some point.

Six Degrees of Separation: From Friendaholic to To the Lighthouse

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month we’re starting with Friendaholic by Elizabeth Day. It’s not a book that I’ve read, but here’s what it’s about:

As a society, there is a tendency to elevate romantic love. But what about friendships? Aren’t they just as – if not more – important? So why is it hard to find the right words to express what these uniquely complex bonds mean to us? In Friendaholic: Confessions of a Friendship Addict, Elizabeth Day embarks on a journey to answer these questions.

I’m starting my chain by linking to a novel about complex friendships: China Dolls by Lisa See (1). It’s set in the 1930s and 40s and follows the stories of three young women – two Chinese and one Japanese – who meet while auditioning as dancers at a San Francisco nightclub. The three quickly become friends, until they are torn apart by secrets, betrayals and the events of World War II. I remember being both fascinated and confused by the friendship angle, as all three women repeatedly talk about how close they are while behaving more as if they hate each other!

Another book with the word ‘China’ in the title (but a different kind of china) is Bone China by Laura Purcell (2), a Gothic novel set in the 19th century on the coast of Cornwall. Our narrator, Hester Why, has just arrived from London to take up a new position as nurse to Louise Pinecroft, a woman who barely speaks or moves and sits all day in a room surrounded by china cups and plates. I found it an atmospheric book, let down slightly by a weak ending.

A subplot in Bone China involves a doctor carrying out some experiments to try to find a cure for consumption (tuberculosis). In The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas fils (3) – the book that inspired Verdi’s opera La traviata – we know from the start that Marguerite Gautier is going to die of consumption. The novel tells the story of her time as a Parisian courtesan who uses bouquets of red and white camellias to send messages to her lovers. I read it in an English translation by Liesl Schillinger.

I did enjoy The Lady of the Camellias, but I prefer the work of Dumas’ father, the more famous Alexandre Dumas père. The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers series and The Black Tulip are my favourites, but The Red Sphinx (4) is the one I’m including in my chain because it’s much less well known and deserves some attention! It’s a Musketeers sequel, although d’Artagnan and the other Musketeers don’t actually appear in it at all. I described it in my review as a story of ‘dashing young heroes and beautiful heroines; duels, battles and sieges; spies and smugglers; secret messages, clever disguises, letters written in code – and political and romantic intrigue in abundance.’

My next link is to another book with a colour in the title – not red this time, but green. It’s The Land of Green Ginger by Winifred Holtby (5), the story of a missionary’s daughter, Joanna Burton, who is born in South Africa but raised by her aunts in a small rural community in England. I prefer Holtby’s other books, but this one does have a lot of interesting elements, looking at the aftermath of the First World War, the contrast between post-war life in Britain and other parts of Europe, and attitudes towards immigrants.

The Land of Green Ginger was published in 1927. Another book also published in the same year was To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (6). Although it’s one of Woolf’s best known books, it’s actually my least favourite of the four I’ve read by her so far, mainly because I’m not a fan of the stream of consciousness writing style. I can understand why other people love it, but it wasn’t for me.


And that’s my chain for June. My links have included friendships, the word China, tuberculosis, father and son authors, colours in titles and books published in 1927.

In July we’ll be starting with the winner of the International Booker Prize, Time Shelter by Georgi Gospodinov and translated by Angela Rodel.

My Commonplace Book: May 2023

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

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


One had no right to play about with people’s lives. One should not interfere with their emotions. A word, a look, a smile, a frown, did something to another human being, waking response or aversion, and a web was woven which had no beginning and no end, spreading outward and inward too, merging, entangling, so that the struggle of one depended upon the struggle of the other.

The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier (1957)


Miniature of the Empress Matilda

‘You think only men can run estates, yet many widows do, and women must when their men are at war. And all you want from us is male heirs. Too many men with power. Too many women without.’

The Stolen Crown by Carol McGrath (2023)


You can deal with a mood – a mood is bound to pass, and the more violent it is, the more complete the reaction to it will be. But a calm and reasonable determination is very different, because it’s been arrived at slowly and isn’t likely to be laid aside.

Unfinished Portrait by Mary Westmacott (1934)


‘It isn’t so easy, is it, to change who we are by changing where we are. The past has a nasty habit of following us around. I believe it’s called regret.’

‘My father said we should always look forward, not back, that you can’t change the past, but the past can change the future, if you want it to.’

The Last Lifeboat by Hazel Gaynor (2023)


Engraving of the minotaur in the labyrinth – Palazzo Strozzi, Florence

The things you found in the mud went inevitably into Murdstone’s hands, but he could never take away the things you nurtured inside. Your memories. Your gifts.

Once a Monster by Robert Dinsdale (2023)


Favourite books read in May:

The Scapegoat

Authors read for the first time in May:

Robert Dinsdale

Places visited in my May reading:

France, England, the Atlantic Ocean


Reading notes: I didn’t manage to finish many books in May, for various reasons, but I’m pleased that I at least found time to re-read The Scapegoat, which I’ve wanted to do for years. 20 Books of Summer starts tomorrow and I’m still not sure which book I’ll be picking up first but I’m looking forward to everything on my list. I’m also planning to take part in Reading the Meow later in the month.

How was your May? What are you hoping to read in June?

Unfinished Portrait by Mary Westmacott

May’s theme for the Read Christie 2023 challenge is ‘betrayal’ and the suggested title this month is Unfinished Portrait, a 1934 novel which is one of six books Christie published under the pseudonym of Mary Westmacott. Although I haven’t managed to take part in the challenge every month so far this year, I was particularly keen to join in with this one as I’ve previously only read one Westmacott novel – Giant’s Bread – and have been looking forward to reading more of them ever since.

Unfinished Portrait begins by briefly introducing us to Larraby, a portrait painter who is visiting an unnamed island when he comes across a woman sitting alone in a garden. Sensing that something is wrong, Larraby engages her in conversation and discovers that he is correct – she is intending to commit suicide. Not wanting to leave her alone, he accompanies her back to her hotel and listens as she tells him the story of her life and explains the sequence of events that have put such desperate thoughts into her head.

The woman’s name is Celia – at least that’s what Larraby calls her, as he doesn’t know her real name – and her story forms the main part of the novel. A lot of time is spent on Celia’s sheltered childhood, growing up in the late Victorian period in a comfortable home with servants and a nanny until the family’s financial position is affected by the early death of Celia’s father. I only know the basics about Agatha Christie as a person, but apparently Unfinished Portrait is semi-autobiographical, drawing on her own childhood memories to create Celia’s tales of inventing imaginary friends, time spent abroad due to her father’s poor health, the close relationships she had with her mother and grandmother and her first attempts at writing books. Later, Celia finds herself trapped in an unhappy marriage to Dermot, a man who is insensitive, controlling and eventually unfaithful – which again is based on Agatha’s own marriage to Archie Christie. If I’d been more familiar with Christie’s own life I would have appreciated the autobiographical element of the book a lot more, which would probably have added to my enjoyment of it, but I still found Celia’s story compelling in its own right.

After finishing the book, I could see how it fits the challenge topic for this month, exploring the theme of betrayal from several different angles: Dermot betrays Celia with another woman, Celia herself betrays a previous lover, and later in life she feels she has betrayed her daughter. All of these betrayals combine to cause the deterioration in Celia’s mental state that leads to her feeling so unhappy the day she meets Larraby. It’s a sad and emotional story – even sadder knowing that it was how Christie felt about her own situation at that time. Of course, the book was published in the 1930s and so it’s an ‘unfinished portrait’, leaving a lot of things in Celia’s life (and Christie’s) unresolved and incomplete.

I found this book quite different from Giant’s Bread, the only other Westmacott book I’ve read, and I think I preferred that one overall. I’m definitely more of a Christie fan than a Westmacott fan, but these are still great books and I’m looking forward to reading the other four.

Savage Beasts by Rani Selvarajah

The Greek myth of Medea is transposed to 18th century India in Rani Selvarajah’s debut novel, Savage Beasts. Although I haven’t read very much about Medea – except where she has appeared as a secondary character in other novels I’ve read, such as Madeline Miller’s Circe – it was actually the Indian setting that attracted me to this book rather than the Greek myth aspect and I expect it will have equal appeal to readers of historical fiction and those who enjoy mythology retellings.

The novel opens in 1757 in Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). The East India Company, under the leadership of Sir Peter Chilcott, are advancing on Bengal and war seems inevitable, but James Chilcott, Sir Peter’s nephew, has arrived in Calcutta ready to make a bargain. He is prepared to betray the company and reveal their plans, he says, but he wants something from the Nawab of Bengal in return. Although the Nawab isn’t convinced, his daughter, Meena, is captivated by the handsome young Englishman and agrees to help him. When things go wrong, James and Meena are forced to flee Bengal, leaving a scene of death and devastation in their wake.

So far, I could see the parallels with mythology – Meena in the role of Medea, daughter of King Aeëtes of Colchis, and James as Jason, who comes to Colchis on the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece. When Meena and James leave Bengal, they encounter Meena’s aunt, Kiran, whom I quickly identified with Circe. The later parts of the myth are less familiar to me, but as far as I could tell the novel continued to follow the basic outline, with one or two nice twists towards the end.

What let this novel down for me was the writing. I hate to be too critical of an author’s first novel, but I did find some of the word choices odd or inappropriate. Characters ‘smirk’ all the time, on almost every page – that’s when they’re not ‘sneering’ or ‘scoffing’. I lost count of how many times these words were repeated. I also struggled to believe in Meena as a convincing woman of her time. It seemed unlikely that the daughter of a Nawab (a Mughal ruler of similar status to a prince) would have the freedom to hang around the docks of Bengal on her own, as Meena does in the opening chapter, and her subsequent actions feel more and more anachronistic.

I did like the basic concept of moving the Medea story to 18th century India and the idea of James/Jason as part of a colonial power coming to take what they can from Bengal/Colchis is an intriguing one. For this to work, though, there really needed to be a stronger sense of time and place, but sadly, I couldn’t think of the characters as anything other than modern people in historical costume. Despite my negativity, I stuck with the book to the end and did occasionally become drawn into the story; it’s been receiving a mixture of reviews, including plenty of four and five star ones, so evidently other readers have enjoyed it more than I did. Give it a try if it appeals – and please let me know if there are any other retellings of the Medea myth you can recommend!

Thanks to HarperCollins UK, One More Chapter for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 21/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Sun Walks Down by Fiona McFarlane

The Sun Walks Down by Australian author Fiona McFarlane is not a book I had considered reading until it appeared on this year’s shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Attempting to read all the shortlisted books for the prize is one of my ongoing personal projects and this is the third I’ve read so far from this year’s list (the others are Act of Oblivion and These Days).

The novel is set in South Australia and takes place over a period of seven days in September 1883. On the first day, a dust storm sweeps through the small town of Fairly in the Flinders Ranges and after it has passed, six-year-old Denny Wallace is found to have gone missing. As the whole community becomes caught up in the search for him, McFarlane introduces us to each resident of the town in turn, exploring their lives and the ways in which they are touched by Denny’s disappearance.

As well as Denny’s parents and siblings, we also meet a Pashtun cameleer, a Ramindjeri tracker, a Swedish painter and his English wife, a pair of newlyweds and an assortment of farmworkers and housemaids. Each has their own story to be told and some are given their own chapter, written in the form of a dream, a confession, a prayer or a set of notes. In this way, McFarlane looks at various aspects of life in colonial Australia and the relationships between the Indigenous people and the European newcomers. Although I did find this interesting (I’ve read shamefully little about 19th century Australia) I felt that there were too many characters in the book and the viewpoint changed from one to another too quickly, preventing me from forming a strong connection with any of them. I would also have preferred a tighter focus on the search for Denny as this seemed to get pushed aside for long periods.

I did love the beautiful descriptions of the Flinders Ranges and the way McFarlane uses colours to bring to life images of the sun, sky and clouds. 1883 was the year when Krakatoa erupted and caused a ‘volcanic winter’ with unusually vivid sunsets:

The sky burns and leaps, it gilds and candles – every drenched inch of it, until the sun falls below the ranges. Then the sky darkens. The red returns, stealthy now, with green above and lilac higher still. It deepens into purple. Here’s the strange new cloud, hovering in its own grey light. Then night comes in, black and blue and grey and white, and the moon in its green bag swings heavy over the red nation of the ranges.

I think I would describe The Sun Walks Down as a book that I admired rather than one that I particularly enjoyed. I can see why other people have given it glowing reviews and why it’s being nominated for awards, but it just wasn’t for me. That probably means it will win the Walter Scott Prize this year – not long until we find out!

This is book 20/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

20 Books of Summer – 2023

20 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, is a very simple idea: make a list of twenty books (there are also ten and fifteen book options) and read them during the months of June, July and August. However, it’s not as simple as it sounds and despite taking part for the last six years, I’ve never been able to complete it! I usually do read twenty books during that period, but not necessarily the books on my list – although last year I came very close and managed to read nineteen of them.

This year’s 20 Books of Summer starts on Thursday 1st June and finishes on Friday 1st September. I have listed below the books I would like to read:

NetGalley books
1. The Graces by Siobhan MacGowan
2. The Witching Tide by Margaret Meyer
3. Disobedient by Elizabeth Fremantle
4. Fair Rosaline by Natasha Solomons
5. Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue
6. A Lady’s Guide to Scandal by Sophie Irwin

Read Christie 2023
7. Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

Classics Club
8. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
9. Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault
10. The New Magdalen by Wilkie Collins

Reading the Meow at Literary Potpourri
11. The Cat Saw Murder by Dolores Hitchens

‘Summer’ books
12. The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay
13. A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson

14. The House with the Golden Door by Elodie Harper
15. The Ionian Mission by Patrick O’Brian
16. The Embroidered Sunset by Joan Aiken
17. Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik
18. Wonder Cruise by Ursula Bloom
19. The Reckoning by Sharon Penman
20. Atlas: The Story of Pa Salt by Lucinda Riley and Harry Whittaker


Have you read any of these? Which do you think I should read first? And are you taking part in 20 Books of Summer this year?