Answer in the Negative by Henrietta Hamilton

It’s good to see so many forgotten authors of crime fiction being brought back into print by various publishers recently. Henrietta Hamilton is another one I had never heard of until I came across Answer in the Negative, originally published in 1959 and now available as part of Agora Books’ Uncrowned Queens of Crime series.

Set in the world of 1950s journalism, the novel follows husband and wife detective team Johnny and Sally Heldar, who are called in by their friend, Toby Lorn, to investigate a case of poison pen letters and practical jokes. Toby runs a newspaper cuttings agency in London’s Fleet Street, providing archived photographs to writers and publishers, and it is one of his assistants, Frank Morningside, who is the target of the nasty letters. Johnny and Sally quickly discover that there is no shortage of suspects as Morningside is disliked by so many of the other archive workers, but before they have time to identify the culprit, Morningside is found dead in the doorway of his office, having been hit on the head by a box of heavy glass negatives. Suddenly the Heldars find themselves investigating a murder case, but can they stop the murderer before he or she kills again?

Answer in the Negative is a short book and kept me entertained for a day or two, but it’s not one of the better ‘forgotten crime novels’ I’ve been reading lately. It got off to a promising start, but quickly became bogged down with repetitive discussions of alibis and lists of who was where at what time. I know other readers enjoy that sort of mystery more than I do, so it’s really just a matter of personal taste. The characterisation didn’t seem very strong either, which is a problem in a book where so many characters are introduced in a short space of time. Johnny and Sally themselves are likeable enough but they are no Tommy and Tuppence and I found the dialogue between them quite wooden. Their partnership is not a very equal one and it’s quite clear that Johnny is regarded as the detective and Sally as just his helper, but I was pleased to see that she does occasionally go off and have adventures of her own – even if Johnny isn’t very happy about it!

I did find the setting interesting and enjoyed the little insights we are given into 1950s life; it was particularly fascinating to see what was involved in archiving and the use of photographs in books and newspapers in an era before computers and digital images made everything available at our fingertips. For some reason, though, the constant references to ‘pix’ and ‘negs’ really irritated me! I know it’s realistic that the characters would have used that terminology for pictures and negatives, but it was so grating. Again, not something that will bother everyone, of course.

I don’t think Henrietta Hamilton is an author I would want to read again, but other reviews of this book are more positive than mine so I hope Agora will continue to publish her other titles for those who are enjoying them.

Historical Musings #58: From the TBR…

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

I haven’t had much time to put a post together this month, so I thought I would just take a quick look at some of the books I have waiting on my TBR. On Friday I reviewed The Brothers York by Thomas Penn, a non-fiction account of the Wars of the Roses, which is one of my favourite periods of history. I have already read a lot of books, both fiction and non-fiction, set in that period and have listed them here, but there are a few others I’ve acquired over the last few years and haven’t had a chance to read yet. Here are some of them (with descriptions taken from Goodreads):

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The Seventh Son by Reay Tannahill (2001)

Reay Tannahill’s enthralling novel is a family saga in the grand tradition, a tale of brother against brother, cousin against cousin, of love, hate and intrigue, of women inescapably entangled in the fates of their men, and of a mystery that has exercised people’s minds for more than five hundred years. At the heart of it all is the complex human being known to history as Richard III, a king whose reign is darkened by the murder of the young Princes in the Tower, but who also found a touching love with the woman he married, and possessed immense courage. Here, brought vividly to life in this most moving novel, is a man who inspired loyalty and hatred in almost equal measure, until at last the implacable enmity of one woman brought about his downfall.

The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

Originally serialized in a periodical of boys’ adventure fiction, The Black Arrow is a swashbuckling portrait of a young man’s journey to discover the heroism within himself. Young Dick Shelton, caught in the midst of England’s War of the Roses, finds his loyalties torn between the guardian who will ultimately betray him and the leader of a secret fellowship, The Black Arrow. As Shelton is drawn deeper into this conspiracy, he must distinguish friend from foe and confront war, shipwreck, revenge, murder, and forbidden love, as England’s crown threatens to topple around him.

The King’s Grey Mare by Rosemary Hawley Jarman (1973)

The King’s grey mare was Elizabeth Woodville, Queen and wife of Edward IV. Beautiful beyond belief, with unique silver-grey hair, she had once known joy of a marriage based on love—only to see it snatched away on the battlefield. Hardened and changed by grief, Elizabeth became the tool of her evil ambitious mother—the witch, Jaquetta of Bedford—who was determined that her daughter should sit on the throne of England. By trickery, deception, and witchcraft, Jaquetta’s wish was fulfilled. But even a witch could not have known the tragedy which lay in store for the King’s grey mare.

Queen of Silks by Vanora Bennett (2008)

This novel brings together the silk business of fifteenth-century London and the personality of King Richard III, suspected throughout history of having murdered his two nephews, the Princes in the Tower. The story begins with silk merchant John Lambert’s decision to marry off his two beautiful daughters at the end of the Wars of the Roses. Elder daughter Jane starts a notorious liaison with King Edward IV – Richard’s older brother – while her sister, Isabel, as the new silkworker to the court, becomes privy to its most intimate secrets. Could the sisters hold the keys to power at this time of uncertainty?

The Lodestar by Pamela Belle (1987)

For Christie Heron, ruthless ambition is the lodestar of his destiny. Determined to break free from his humble origins in the border country of Northumbria, he enlists in the household of Richard of Gloucester, rising with his lord to the dangerous pinnacles of power. Tangled in Richard’s web of treason and tragedy, Christie learns the full price that his destiny demands, Meg his beloved sister and only friend, rejects him. Julian, daughter of a knight of Oxfordshire, bears him undying enmity. And the long shadow of the Welsh adventurer Henry Tudor falls dark over Bosworth Field….

The King’s Bed by Margaret Campbell Barnes (1961)

For seventeen-year-old Tansy Marsh, life centres upon her father’s inn, The White Boar, in Leicester. Richard III sits upon the throne of England, and all seems well. But the threat of the would-be usurper, Henry Tudor, looms like a gathering storm and soon the eye of that storm is uncomfortably close to Tansy, disrupting her reassuringly ordinary life. Once King Richard is defeated, that life becomes even less ordinary for Tansy has met Dickon Broome, the man who will change her existence forever. And while life goes on under the Tudors, Dickon has particular reason to bear a grudge.

Non-Fiction

Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou by Amy Licence (2018)

He became king before his first birthday, inheriting a vast empire from his military hero father; she was the daughter of a king without power, who made an unexpected marriage at the age of fifteen. Almost completely opposite in character, together they formed an unlikely but complimentary partnership. Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou have become famous as the Lancastrian king and queen who were deposed during the Wars of the Roses but there is so much more to their story. The political narrative of their years together is a tale of twists and turns, encompassing incredible highs, when they came close to fulfilling their desires, and terrible, heart-breaking lows.

Blood and Roses by Helen Castor (2004)

The Wars of the Roses turned England upside down. Between 1455 and 1485 four kings, including Richard III, lost their thrones, more than forty noblemen lost their lives on the battlefield or their heads on the block, and thousands of the men who followed them met violent deaths. As they made their way in a disintegrating world, the Paston family in Norfolk family were writing letters – about politics, about business, about shopping, about love and about each other, including the first valentine. Using these letters – the oldest surviving family correspondence in English – Helen Castor traces the extraordinary history of the Paston family across three generations. Blood & Roses tells the dramatic, moving and intensely human story of how one family survived one of the most tempestuous periods in English history.

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If you’ve read any of these books, let me know what you thought. Which ones do you think are worth reading and which aren’t? What are your favourite books set in this period?

The Brothers York: An English Tragedy by Thomas Penn

I don’t often get excited about non-fiction books, but having enjoyed Thomas Penn’s Winter King – a biography of Henry VII – a few years ago, I was really looking forward to reading this new one, particularly as it covers one of my favourite periods of English history: the Wars of the Roses. I’ve read about this period many times now, but it sounded as though this book had something different to offer, promising to focus on Edward IV, Richard III and George, Duke of Clarence – three of the sons of Richard, Duke of York and Cecily Neville.

The Wars of the Roses were a series of battles for control of the throne of England fought between two rival branches of the House of Plantagenet: the House of York and the House of Lancaster. The background to the conflict is quite complex, but Thomas Penn devotes the early chapters of the book to explaining how it came about and the efforts of first the Duke of York and then his eldest son, Edward – assisted by his cousin, the Earl of Warwick – to take the throne from the Lancastrian king, Henry VI. Penn then takes us through the whole of Edward’s reign until his death in 1483 when his youngest brother, Richard, claims the throne under controversial circumstances. A relatively short account of Richard’s reign follows, before the book comes to an end with Richard’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth and the rise of a new dynasty: the Tudors.

The Brothers York is as well written and thoroughly researched as I would expect from a Thomas Penn book, yet I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it provides an excellent overview of a complicated, fascinating period of history written in a very readable and accessible style; on the other hand, if you’re already familiar with the period, as I am, there’s nothing new here that hasn’t been covered before in other books. I found The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones, for example, just as engaging and informative – and a more manageable length! I should mention that The Brothers York is a very long book that took me most of January to read; if you’re planning to read it, bear in mind that it’s going to be quite a commitment.

The majority of the book deals with Edward IV, which is understandable as his reign spanned more than twenty years (apart from a few months in 1470-71 when the crown was briefly reclaimed by Lancaster). I thought Penn’s portrayal of Edward seemed quite fair and unbiased, showing his transformation over the years from the brave, handsome, charismatic young man who succeeded so brilliantly on the battlefield to an increasingly overweight and unhealthy king, interested mainly in comfort and pleasure, accused of showing favouritism towards his wife’s Woodville relatives, something which caused resentment amongst his own loyal friends and supporters.

The portrayal of Richard, whose short and troubled reign is covered in the final section of the book, is less well balanced. It’s certainly not as negative as some I’ve read, but I definitely felt that Penn was selective about which sources he used and which aspects of Richard’s life he chose to focus on in order to show him in a bad light. That’s not really surprising though, as his sympathies are clearly with Henry Tudor, the subject of his previous book. What did surprise me was that the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is hardly mentioned at all. It’s implied that Richard was responsible, but it’s all passed over very quickly and none of the other theories for the princes’ disappearances are explored, which I thought was unusual (not that I particularly wanted to read about all of that again, but if this was the first time you’d read about it you wouldn’t realise it was actually one of history’s biggest unsolved mysteries).

As for the third York brother, George, Duke of Clarence, although he never becomes king himself he spends most of his adult life alternating between supporting Edward and conspiring against him, and in conflict with Richard over the inheritance of the Neville lands (George was married to Isabel Neville and Richard to her sister, Anne). The book is subtitled An English Tragedy and I think it’s obvious that the tragedy we are being shown here, as far as the House of York is concerned, is that the division within the family and the inability of the brothers to stay united and work together is what led to their downfall.

While the focus of the book is obviously on the situation in England, events taking place elsewhere in Europe are also discussed, including the succession to the Duchy of Burgundy and diplomatic relations between France and England. It’s all very interesting and all adds up to give a full and detailed portrait of the period. What I really wanted from a book with the title The Brothers York, though, was more analysis of the relationships between the three brothers and more insight into their characters, and there was just not enough of that for me. I think I learned almost as much about the Earl of Warwick as I did about Edward, George and Richard.

Overall, this is a very good book but I suppose I was slightly disappointed because I was hoping for something a little bit different and not just a straightforward retelling of the Wars of the Roses. For newcomers to the period, though, I’m sure you will find a wealth of information here and I would have no hesitation in recommending this book as a suitable place to start.

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

Blood Upon the Snow by Hilda Lawrence

Having read Death of a Doll last year, my first novel by American crime writer Hilda Lawrence, I have been looking forward to more of her books being reissued so I would have the opportunity to read another one. Death of a Doll was the third of only three novels Lawrence wrote featuring the detective Mark East, so I was delighted to find that the first in the series, Blood Upon the Snow – originally published in 1944 – has now been made available again too.

The novel opens with Mark East’s arrival in the small town of Crestwood on a dark, snowy evening, having been hired by the elderly historian Joseph Stoneman who is staying with friends, the Moreys, in a remote country house in the mountains. After making his way up to the house to meet his new employer, Mark is surprised to find that Stoneman believes he is a private secretary, not a private detective. However, the old man’s shaking hands and uneasy manner tell Mark that Stoneman knows exactly who he is and what he does. Intrigued, Mark agrees to stay on in the role of secretary for a while, hoping that eventually Stoneman will tell him what is going on and why he has secretly summoned a detective.

As Mark gets to know the other people living and working in the house, he becomes even more convinced that something is not right. What – or who – are the servants so afraid of? What is wrong with the pale and nervous Laura Morey? And was Stoneman’s fall on the cellar stairs a few days before Mark’s arrival really an accident? Then a woman dies under suspicious circumstances and suddenly Mark’s skills as a detective are required after all.

I found this book quite different from Death of a Doll, but equally enjoyable. While Death of a Doll is set almost entirely within the walls of Hope House, a women’s refuge in New York, Blood Upon the Snow has a very different setting – one that I loved from the opening descriptions of a remote ‘one-lane town’, ‘lying at the foot of Big Bear Mountain and surrounded by a dark forest’.

The cold, snowy winter weather provides atmosphere and the portrayal of a small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business increases the sense of suspense and danger as the people of Crestwood become aware that the killer must be someone they all know. I didn’t guess the solution and, to be honest, I wasn’t completely convinced by it; it certainly wasn’t something the reader could be expected to work out from the clues we are given. Mark East tends to keep his thoughts to himself too and doesn’t give us a lot of hints as to how he is progressing with solving the mystery – although now and then he does confide in Beulah Pond and Bessy Petty, two spinsters he meets in the town shortly after his arrival in Crestwood.

I remembered Beulah and Bessy appearing halfway through Death of a Doll and being a bit confused as to who they were and how they knew Mark, so it was good to see the beginnings of that relationship and to have my questions answered! The two women are fans of crime fiction and Beulah in particular likes to do some amateur detective work, which adds a bit of light-heartedness to the story even if it doesn’t do much to move the actual plot forward.

Now that I’ve read the first book in this series and the last, I will be looking out for the middle one, A Time To Die. What a shame Hilda Lawrence only wrote three of them.

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

The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd

Two years ago I read Guinevere Glasfurd’s first novel, The Words in My Hand, about a young Dutch woman and her relationship with the philosopher René Descartes. I loved that book so was hoping for a similar experience with her new one, The Year Without Summer. However, although I loved parts of this book too, I found it entirely different from The Words in My Hand and less enjoyable as a whole.

The title refers to the year 1816, which was the year following the eruption of Mount Tambora, an Indonesian volcano. It was known as ‘the year without a summer’ due to the effects of the volcanic activity on the weather. These effects were felt all over the world, far away from Asia: in Europe, low temperatures and heavy rain caused flooding, failed harvests and famine, while crops were also destroyed in North America by droughts and by frost and snow in June. In The Year Without Summer, Glasfurd explores, in fictional form, the stories of six different people whose lives were affected by the extreme weather.

The first character we meet is Henry Hogg, ship’s surgeon aboard the Benares, who sets sail in April 1815 for the island of Sumbawa to investigate reports of explosions and is shocked by what he finds: ash falling from the sky, the sea turning to stone and what had once been a green island now ‘a hellish scene’. Henry’s story is the only one in the book that takes us directly to the scene of the eruption – the others only mention the volcano briefly, if at all – yet, surprisingly, his is the one given the least time and attention.

The following spring, the English landscape painter, John Constable, is returning home to Suffolk from an unsuccessful visit to London in an attempt to gain recognition for his art and be admitted to the Royal Academy. Without that recognition and the money it would bring, John’s future looks bleak: how can he expect his beloved Maria to marry a struggling artist with no prospects?

The future of our third protagonist, Sarah Hobbs, looks even more uncertain. She and her friend Tessie are walking across the Fens from farm to farm looking for work, only to be told that there is no work to be had – and even if there was, the wages would only be half of what they were the year before. Meanwhile, Hope Peter, a soldier back from Waterloo, is having problems of his own. In his absence, his mother has died and his family home has been demolished; the life to which he’d thought he was returning no longer exists.

In the May of that year, Mary Godwin travels to Switzerland with her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, their baby son Willmouse, and her half-sister Claire Clairmont. They are planning to spend the summer at Lake Geneva with Lord Byron and his doctor, John Polidori, but the gloomy weather keeps them indoors where they entertain themselves by writing horror stories. Finally, we meet Charles Whitlock, a preacher from Vermont, who gives us an American perspective on the summer of 1816. Charles is trying to gain the trust of his flock who are growing increasingly worried about the lack of rain and planning to abandon their farms to head west to Ohio.

These six very different storylines alternate throughout the book, never meeting or intersecting in any way, the only link between them being the unusual weather of 1816. They cover a range of issues including the social unrest which led to the Littleport Riots, the enclosure of land in the English countryside, the writing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the influence of the weather on John Constable’s paintings, and I found something to interest me in all of the stories – although most of them are very bleak and it would have been nice to have had a few more happy endings!

My problem with the book was that the way it was structured, with a chapter from one story, then a chapter from another, made it feel disjointed and made it difficult to stay engaged with each set of characters. As the six threads never came together at all, I think I would have preferred just a straightforward collection of six complete short stories – or maybe even just four, as the ones following the ship’s surgeon and the Vermont preacher felt very slight and undeveloped in comparison to the others.

As a whole, I don’t think this book was entirely successful, but still with more positives than negatives. It’s impossible not to draw parallels between the weather of 1816 and some of the extreme weather the world has been experiencing recently, which we can only expect to see more of in the future due to climate change, so this was a relevant read as well as an interesting one.

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

Sir Francis Bryan: Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Ambassador by Sarah-Beth Watkins

Sir Francis Bryan is one of the figures from the Tudor period I know very little about. I keep coming across him in fictional form, in novels like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Alison Weir’s Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen, but this new biography by Sarah-Beth Watkins is the first opportunity I’ve had to read a non-fiction account of his life.

Subtitled Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Ambassador, the book takes us through Bryan’s life beginning with his arrival at court at a young age, when he and his brother-in-law Nicholas Carew became close companions of the king, and ending with his final days in Ireland. In the years between, he held a number of positions at Henry’s court including Chief Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, Master of the Toils, Master of the Henchmen and Chief Cupbearer, as well as carrying out diplomatic missions to France and Rome. He was also, at various times, a soldier, sailor, cipherer, poet and translator. However, his greatest skill seems to have been his ability to keep the king happy and tell him what he wanted to hear, keeping his head while those around him, including his cousins Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, were not so fortunate. Some people saw this as lacking principles, others as common sense and self-preservation.

This is a short book and a very quick read, with the author sticking mainly to the facts and rarely providing any analysis or deeper insight into Francis Bryan’s actions or character. Nicknamed The Vicar of Hell and known for his love of wine, women and gambling and his reputation as ‘a rake and a libertine’, I had initially expected him to be a fascinating character to read about, but I felt that he never really came to life on the page at all. I suppose it depends on the type of non-fiction you like – other reviews of this book are glowingly positive – but I found it a bit dry and not quite what I’d been hoping for.

Despite the book being so short, it does appear to have been thoroughly researched and contains a large amount of factual information. The author draws on primary sources such as letters and often reproduces large chunks of them in the text. However, in many cases I didn’t feel that the letters added much to my understanding of Francis Bryan – sometimes he is only briefly referred to once or twice and the rest of the letter is not particularly relevant. Without these long excerpts, though, the book would have been even shorter and less substantial, and the letters do still have value if you’re interested in the Tudor period in general.

Overall, this book has given me a good overview of what Francis Bryan did and achieved, even though it isn’t the more personal sort of biography I prefer. I appreciate that there’s a limit to what we actually know about Bryan, though. We don’t even have any idea what he looked like; in 1526, he lost an eye during a jousting tournament and after that wore an eye patch which, as Watkins tells us, could have explained why he never allowed any portraits to be painted.

I have looked to see if any other books about Sir Francis Bryan have been written but this is the only one I can find. If you’re aware of any, please let me know!

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

The Foundling by Stacey Halls

Stacey Halls’ new novel, The Foundling, begins on a cold November evening in 1747 with Bess Bright about to make a very difficult decision, one no new mother should ever have to face. She has brought her illegitimate baby daughter, Clara – less than a day old – to London’s Foundling Hospital and is planning to leave her there. Aware that, as an impoverished shrimp seller, she has little to offer her daughter but hunger and hardship, she is sure Clara will have a happier childhood at the Foundling, where at least she will be fed, clothed and educated. As she walks away from the hospital, leaving her baby behind, Bess consoles herself with the knowledge that it needn’t be forever; she has left a token – half of a heart made from whalebone – as proof of identity if she is ever in a position to bring Clara home again.

After six years of working hard and saving every penny she can, Bess returns to the hospital to collect her child, dreading being told that Clara has died of some childhood illness. Nothing can prepare her for the shock she receives when she enters the Foundling and is informed that her daughter has already been claimed – by someone who gave her name as Bess Bright and knew about the whalebone token. Bess is horrified. What has happened to Clara? Who has taken her little girl and what have they done with her?

I was very impressed with The Foundling, my first Stacey Halls novel. Although there wasn’t as much mystery as I would have liked and some of my biggest questions were answered a lot earlier than I’d expected, I was still kept in suspense wondering whether there would be a happy ending for Bess and her daughter or whether fate would have something else in store. I liked Bess and loved the descriptions of the London in which she lived and worked, from her lodgings in Black and White Court, where the alleys are ‘choked by coal smoke’, to the lively fish markets of Billingsgate where she and her father sell their shrimps.

However, this is not just Bess Bright’s story. It’s also the story of another woman, Alexandra Callard, a widow who is leading a very different sort of life in another part of London. Apart from attending church, Alexandra hasn’t left her elegant townhouse for years and neither has her little girl, Charlotte. Just the thought of going outside and walking along the street fills her with fear and she’s convinced that her child will be safer indoors too. Then one day, a friend persuades her to employ a nursemaid to help with Charlotte and the arrival of a new face in the household poses a threat to the secure little bubble Alexandra has built around herself.

I didn’t like Alexandra as much as Bess, but bringing a second narrator into the story – especially one who lived in such a different world – added variety and the chance to see things from another perspective. Unlike Bess, Alexandra doesn’t have to worry about money and has everything she needs within the four walls of her luxurious home, but due to her mental health problems her life is still not very happy. We eventually find out what has caused her agoraphobia and I did have a lot of sympathy, but I still found her a cold and rather selfish person.

As well as the two contrasting views of Georgian London, The Foundling explores several other interesting issues, particularly what it means to be a mother and what sort of environment is the most suitable in which to raise a happy, healthy child. The way the book ended was probably the best outcome, but I think there were at least two other possible endings and either could have been used to make a valid point. Having enjoyed this so much, I will have to read Stacey Halls’ previous book, The Familiars, about the Pendle Witch Trials.