Margery Allingham writing as Maxwell March: Rogues’ Holiday and The Devil and Her Son

A while ago I read an early novel by Margery Allingham published under the pseudonym Maxwell March. It was called The Man of Dangerous Secrets and, although it was undoubtedly silly and over the top, I enjoyed it so much I knew I would be reading her other two Maxwell March books as soon as the time was right. Well, the time was right this month and I have now read both Rogues’ Holiday (1935) and The Devil and Her Son (1936).

Rogues’ Holiday begins with the death of a young man found dead in a locked room at his London club. Suicide is assumed, but Inspector David Blest of Scotland Yard is not convinced. Having learned that the dead man had been seen arguing with Sir Leo Thyn, an older and highly respected member of the club, shortly before his death, David wonders whether there is a connection. He shares his suspicions with his superior officer, who tells him to keep his opinions to himself and sends him off on his scheduled two-week holiday as planned.

But David has no intention of taking a holiday. Instead, he heads for the Arcadian Hotel in the seaside resort of Westbourne – the same hotel where Sir Leo Thyn is now staying with a friend, a man whom David immediately recognises as a notorious criminal known as The Major. Another guest has also just arrived at the hotel: this is Judy Wellington, a young heiress who claims to be a permanent invalid, but David suspects that she is not in such poor health as she pretends. When another murder takes place, he discovers that he has walked into a whole nest of rogues – but how is Judy mixed up in it all and could she be in danger?

As I’d already read The Man of Dangerous Secrets, I had a good idea of what to expect from this book. I knew it would be more thriller than detective novel, I knew there would be wicked villains, far-fetched plot twists, last-minute escapes and coincidences galore, and I knew there would be a beautiful girl with whom our hero would fall in love at first sight. And yes, Rogues’ Holiday has all of those things. You probably wouldn’t describe it as a fantastic piece of literature and I’m sure it doesn’t represent Margery Allingham at her very best, but accept it for what it is and it’s a lot of fun to read.

I thought The Devil and Her Son (originally published as The Shadow in the House) would be similar and in some ways it is. The ridiculous plot, the coincidences, the villains and the unbelievable plot twists are all here again – but this is a much darker novel than the other two and, I thought, a better written one.

The novel opens with Mary Coleridge feeling very sorry for herself. She has lost her job as a governess, her love interest has left town with no explanation after their first date, and she has no family or friends to turn to. So, when Marie-Elizabeth Mason, another lodger in the boarding house where Mary lives, makes an outlandish suggestion, Mary feels she has nothing to lose. Miss Mason has recently arrived in England from Australia and an elderly aunt whom she has never seen is expecting her to go and visit. Preferring to stay in London to pursue an acting career, Miss Mason’s idea is that she and Mary switch identities and Mary goes to stay with the aunt instead.

This is clearly a ludicrous plan, but somehow it works (and Mary’s lack of Australian accent is not even remarked on). However, she gets more than she’d bargained for when Aunt Eva persuades her to marry her dying son to prevent the house from being lost to the family. Feeling sorry for the old woman, Mary agrees, despite her guilt at marrying under a false name and deceiving everyone. But soon she discovers that she herself is the victim of an even bigger deception and that Eva and her family are not what they appear to be. Can Mary escape from the terrifying situation in which she has placed herself?

Once you’ve accepted the premise of the story, this is a very enjoyable novel. Eva de Liane is a truly chilling and sinister woman and I was genuinely afraid for poor Mary – although I also wanted to scream at Mary for walking blindly into danger over and over again! This is a novel where nobody at all can be trusted, where even a stranger in the street or on a train could be somehow wrapped up in the de Lianes’ nefarious schemes. There’s also a romance which wasn’t quite as obvious as the one in Rogues’ Holiday and rather than being love at first sight, is much more satisfying because it takes longer to develop.

Maxwell March has been a great discovery for me and I’m sorry Margery Allingham only wrote three books under that name!

The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

The Winter of the Witch is a wonderful, magical read and the perfect conclusion to Katherine Arden’s Winternight trilogy which combines Russian fairy tales, history and folklore with an atmospheric and wintry medieval setting. I loved the previous two books, The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, so I went into this one with high hopes and high expectations – and I’m happy to say that I thought it was the best of the three. You may be wondering whether it’s necessary to read the books in order; my answer would be yes, as I think you will definitely get more out of the story if you start at the beginning.

As the novel opens, Moscow is on fire and blame has fallen on Vasilisa Petrovna. With a furious mob calling for her to be burned as a witch, Vasya manages to escape with the help of the magical beings only she and one or two others can see. However, her freedom comes at a cost and, as part of the bargain, an evil spirit is unleashed into the world once more. This could have serious implications for Vasya’s cousin, Grand Prince Dmitrii Ivanovich, who is already facing the threat of the Tatar commander Mamai and his Golden Horde. As the Tatars advance into the land of Rus’, Vasya must enlist the help of the chyerti – her demon friends and enemies – in a final attempt to save her family, her country and its people.

Like the first two books, The Winter of the Witch is steeped in Russian mythology and fairy tale. In this book we are reacquainted with characters who appeared earlier in the trilogy and we meet another selection of fascinating beings from Russian myths too. These include the upyr (monstrous vampire-like creatures) and the famous Baba Yaga. Of the other new characters, I was particularly fond of Ded Grib – but will leave you to discover more about him for yourself when you read the book! Vasya also follows a magical pathway through the enchanted realm of Midnight, a journey which provides some of the most thrilling moments in the book. My favourite of the novel’s many threads, though, involves Vasya’s romance with a certain frost demon called Morozko…

The reason I find the relationship between Vasya and Morozko so compelling is precisely because it’s completely unconventional. Morozko is not human and doesn’t always react or behave like a human; to him, Vasya’s actions sometimes seem illogical and difficult to understand – yet they love each other for who they are, and each accepts whatever the other is willing and able to give.

Another aspect of the book (of all three books, actually) that I like is the theme of conflict between old and new as the ancient beliefs and traditions are swept aside by the spread of Christianity. We have seen from the beginning of the trilogy how the power of the chyerti is fading as the people forget the old ways, turning away from their household spirits such as the domovoi and turning instead to men like Konstantin, the Christian priest with whom it is safe to say Vasya has never seen eye to eye. Vasya’s task in this novel is to persuade everyone – chyerti and human, Christian and pagan – to work together to defend Rus’. It will all come to a head at Kulikovo on the Don River, as the opposing armies prepare for a battle which will prove whether or not our heroine has been successful…

This really is a great end to the trilogy; the beautiful, powerful writing took me through a whole range of emotions and I had tears in my eyes at the loss of a favourite character early in the book. I also love the fact that, despite all the fantasy elements, so much of the story has its foundations in Russian history. I’m sorry to have to leave Vasya and her friends behind, but I will look forward to whatever Katherine Arden writes next.

Bardelys the Magnificent by Rafael Sabatini

I love Rafael Sabatini’s books. His classic tale of the French Revolution, Scaramouche, and his two famous pirate novels, Captain Blood and The Sea-Hawk, have been some of my favourite reads of the last few years, while Bellarion was a great book too. I’m now beginning to explore his more obscure books and chose this one, Bardelys the Magnificent, more or less at random when I was putting my Classics Club list together. I hoped it would be a good choice – and it was!

The story is set in 17th century France, during the reign of Louis XIII, and is narrated by the wealthy Marquis de Bardelys, a ‘libertine, a gambler, a rake, a spendthrift’ and a favourite of the King. As the novel opens, Bardelys is hosting a party in Paris at which his rival, the Comte de Chatellerault, makes an unwelcome appearance. It is well known that Chatellerault has recently tried and failed to win the hand in marriage of the beautiful Roxalanne de Lavedan and as Bardelys and his friends tease the Comte about his failure, the discussion becomes more heated. Before the night is over, Bardelys finds himself wagering his entire fortune that he can succeed where Chatellerault could not – and he sets off the next day for Languedoc, the home of Roxalanne.

Of course, things don’t go according to plan and following a series of misunderstandings, Bardelys arrives at the Lavedan estate under a mistaken identity. When he meets Roxalanne and discovers that he is genuinely falling in love with her, he knows that he should tell her the truth about who he really is, but as time goes by it becomes harder and harder to do this. To complicate things further, Bardelys learns that the man whose identity he has stolen is a wanted traitor. Our hero’s life quickly becomes such a confusing mess that it’s difficult to see how anything can ever be resolved! Will he lose his fortune, his life, or the love of Roxalanne – or will he somehow manage to keep all three?

Bardelys the Magnificent is one of Sabatini’s earliest novels, published in 1906, and although I did find it weaker than the others I’ve mentioned above, it’s another entertaining adventure with all the drama, romance, political intrigue and sword fights that you would expect. As a character, I found Marcel de Bardelys less memorable than other Sabatini protagonists such as Andre-Louis Moreau, Peter Blood and Oliver Tressilian, but he is still interesting and engaging. I referred to him as a hero above, but he is not particularly heroic at all – he is selfish and irresponsible, he makes one mistake after another, and his original reason for wanting to marry Roxalanne is hardly very admirable. Despite all of this, I still had some sympathy for him and wanted him to succeed – and, thankfully, he does also develop as a character as the novel progresses. While concealing his true identity, he finds out what people really think of him and sees himself as he appears to others.

Although I wouldn’t recommend Bardelys as the best place to start with Sabatini, if you’re already a fan I’m sure you’ll enjoy this early example of his work as much as I did. I’m looking forward to exploring more of his lesser-known novels and hope my next choice will be another good one.

This is book 11/50 from my Classics Club list.

When Women Ruled the World by Kara Cooney

Despite my love of history I know very little about Ancient Egypt, so when I was given the opportunity via National Geographic and TLC Book Tours to read When Women Ruled the World, I was immediately interested. Written by Kara Cooney, professor of Egyptology at UCLA, the book explores the lives of six female rulers – Merneith, Neferusobek, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Tawosret and Cleopatra – asking how each was able to come to power, what challenges they faced during their reign and what the modern world can learn from studying them.

Apart from Cleopatra, I had never read about any of the other five rulers before, so I was looking forward to adding to my knowledge, but I don’t feel that I’ve learned as much about these six women as I would have expected to from this book. I can appreciate that the author was doing her best to work with the limited amount of factual information we have available to us, but there’s still a lot of speculation, interpretation and uncertainty. The book has clearly been thoroughly researched and there are detailed notes at the back, as well as an impressive list of resources and further reading; I just don’t feel that I’ve come away from the book with any real idea of what these female pharaohs may have been like as people, what their style of ruling was like or what their main accomplishments were.

To be fair, the author does point out that one of the reasons why we know so little about these women’s achievements is because the male pharaohs who followed tried to remove all traces of their predecessor from the historical records. Thutmose III, who ruled after his aunt Hatshepsut, “smashed her statues to bits, chiseled away the reliefs of the Punt expedition, and reassigned kingly images to her husband or father.”

This is a book with a very strong feminist message, which is fascinating when related directly to the Egyptians, for example when Cooney discusses how Nefertiti may have had to assume a male name and identity in order to rule, or how Hatshepsut had herself depicted wearing masculine clothes and with the appearance of a man. However, the author spends too much time drawing parallels with modern politics, discussing the stereotypes directed at female leaders and the language used to describe women like Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel. It seems that the purpose of the book is to show that women have qualities which make them better equipped to rule the world than men and that the stories of the six female pharaohs of Egypt are being used to illustrate that point, rather than because they are interesting historical figures in their own right whose stories deserve to be remembered.

On a more positive note, I thought this book was written at the right level to make it accessible to the general reader. It wasn’t necessary to have any prior knowledge of Ancient Egypt and I found it easy enough to follow and to understand. There’s a map at the beginning and a useful chronology showing each ruler’s place in history, as well as an interesting selection of photographs and illustrations. Although this book wasn’t quite what I’d expected, I’m pleased to have at least been made aware of women like Merneith, Neferusobek and Tawosret, whose names weren’t even familiar to me before. I would like to read more about them one day.

The Death Maze by Ariana Franklin

This is the second novel in Ariana Franklin’s Adelia Aguilar mystery series, set in the 12th century. My feelings about the first book – Mistress of the Art of Death – were quite mixed (I liked the medieval setting but found the dialogue and the main character too modern), but I wanted to try at least one more in the series and came across this one in the library a few weeks ago.

If you’re new to these books, I don’t think it’s necessary to have read the previous one before reading this one. The Death Maze, which has also been published under the title The Serpent’s Tale, begins with the poisoning of Rosamund Clifford, Henry II’s mistress. Henry’s estranged queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is immediately suspected, being the person with the most obvious motive for wanting The Fair Rosamund dead. If this is true, the repercussions could be huge and could lead the country into civil war. The king needs someone to investigate on his behalf – and so he summons Adelia Aguilar, his ‘mistress of the art of death’.

Adelia, before coming to England, had studied medicine at the famous medical school in Salerno which accepted female students as well as men. Since solving her first case for Henry II (a series of child murders which formed the basis of the previous novel), she has been living a quiet life in the countryside with her baby daughter, Allie, and it is with some reluctance that she agrees to undertake this new task. The king cannot be refused, of course, so Adelia soon finds herself setting off for Rosamund’s castle, escorted by Rowley Picot, her former lover, now the Bishop of St Albans. During their investigations, they are taken captive by Eleanor and her supporters, but when snow begins to fall the whole party become trapped for the winter at the nunnery in Godstow, where the mystery deepens as more murders take place.

In some ways, I enjoyed this book more than the first one. I thought the mystery was more complex – and certainly not as dark and disturbing as the previous one. I didn’t guess who the murderer was, although I had my suspicions, but I think we were given enough clues to work it out with no unfair surprises or information being withheld.

This is a period of history I always find interesting to read about and I felt that the portrayals of real historical figures in this book, such as Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, were very different from the way they have been depicted in other novels I’ve read. Eleanor is certainly not the sympathetic, admirable character she is in Elizabeth Chadwick’s The Summer Queen trilogy, for example – she comes across as quite selfish and petulant. Most of the other characters, though, are fictional – as is most of the plot, including many of the details of Rosamund Clifford’s story. I did like the descriptions of the maze of hedges surrounding Rosamund’s tower; the scene where Adelia and her friends try to find their way through it reminded me of the famous Hampton Court Maze episode in Three Men in a Boat.

‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ Adelia shouted. She faced Rowley. ‘Don’t you see, if a maze is continuous, if there aren’t any breaks, and if all the hedges are connected to each other and you follow one of them and stick rigidly to it wherever it goes, you’ll traverse it eventually, you must, it’s inevitable, only…’ Her voice diminished in misery, ‘I chose the left-hand hedge. It was the wrong one.’

As for Adelia herself, I can’t make up my mind about her. I do like her as a character because she has all the qualities I admire in a heroine – intelligence, courage and independence, as well as a passion for her career which made her turn down the chance of marriage to Rowley as she knew that would bring her medical work to an end. However, she is the sort of heroine I would expect to find in a much more modern setting; her behaviour and attitudes make her very unconvincing as a medieval woman. I could say the same about the language Ariana Franklin uses, which I think also often feels far too modern for the time period. I suppose whether or not you will enjoy these books depends on how important those things are to you, but I always struggle to overlook them.

I’m not sure if I will read any more of the Adelia Aguilar books, but I might try one of Ariana Franklin’s earlier novels published under her real name, Diana Norman.

Blackberry and Wild Rose by Sonia Velton

It’s 1768 and Sara Kemp has just arrived in Spitalfields, the London parish which has become home to a thriving community of Huguenot silk weavers. Sara is full of hope and optimism, ready to start a new life, but before she’s had time to get her bearings she finds herself the victim of a cruel trick which leaves her with no choice other than to live and work in a notorious brothel.

In a much more respectable house nearby lives the master weaver Elias Thorel and his wife Esther. Their marriage is not a loving or happy one, but Esther has been trying to take an interest in her husband’s work and has discovered an aptitude for designing floral patterns. There’s nothing she wants more than to see one of her own designs woven in silk, but Elias is scornful and refuses to acknowledge her talent. Still determined to turn her dreams into reality, Esther approaches the journeyman weaver who has been using the loom in the Thorels’ attic to weave his master piece.

Two women leading very different lives – but their paths cross when Esther is distributing Bibles in the poorer areas of Spitalfields and sees Sara being abused by her madam outside the brothel. Soon Sara is working as a lady’s maid in Esther’s household, but how will she repay Esther for her act of kindness?

I was drawn to Blackberry and Wild Rose by the beautiful cover – and the mention of an 18th century setting and the comparisons to Jessie Burton and Tracy Chevalier made me want to read it even more. Of course, none of those things guaranteed that I would like the book, but I’m pleased to say that I did!

First of all, there are the fascinating details of weaving, of using looms, designing patterns, and everything else involved in creating beautiful figured silk. At the beginning of the novel, Esther knows very little of any of this – she only knows that she wants to see her designs brought to life – but she learns a lot from the weaver she befriends, and her enthusiasm (and, I think, the author’s) comes through very strongly:

By the time the candle had burned down to a waxy stump, the thinnest sliver of iridescent silk clung to the heddles. ‘I can’t believe it,’ I breathed. I was finally looking at the very beginning of a silk made to a pattern I had designed. My own creation. ‘How long will it take to finish it?’

I could feel Esther’s excitement and pride as her silk took shape, as well as her disappointment and anger at her husband’s lack of support. Through the stories of Esther’s weaver friend Bisby Lambert and some of the other Spitalfields weavers, we also learn about some of the issues and challenges the industry faced and how the workers had to fight for their rights against unscrupulous masters and the threat of cheap imports from abroad.

An even more engaging aspect of the book is the relationship between the two main characters, Esther and Sara, whose narratives alternate throughout the novel. At first, Esther feels sorry for Sara, as she would for any woman driven to prostitution, and she wants to do what she can to help. Once Sara is there, in the Thorel household, however, their relationship is an uneasy one and Esther begins to wonder whether she has done the right thing in bringing Sara into her home:

She was like a cat sidling in uninvited and looking about. You don’t want to turn it out straight away so you offer it a scrap of food. The next thing you know it’s curled up on your favourite chair, watching you with unblinking elliptic eyes.

As for Sara, she quickly becomes aware that Esther’s life is not as perfect as it seems and that she is hiding some secrets of her own. While a friendship does form between the two women, they are not entirely comfortable around each other and neither is quite sure whether the other can be trusted, which makes for a tense and exciting story! The plot kept me gripped throughout the book and although I thought I could predict how it would end, I was wrong and the ending was actually much more realistic than I’d expected. This is an impressive debut novel and I hope to read more from Sonia Velton in the future.

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

I am counting this book towards the What’s in a Name? challenge (a book with a fruit or vegetable in the title).

Campion at Christmas by Margery Allingham

I love Margery Allingham so I was pleased to have the opportunity to read this new collection of four short stories, all with a festive theme. The title is slightly misleading as only three of the four stories feature Albert Campion, but they are all quite enjoyable in their different ways. They are also very short, so perfect for readers with busy Christmas schedules who just want something quick to read!

The first story, On Christmas Day in the Morning, was my favourite and involves Campion investigating the death of a postman hit by a car on Christmas morning. The culprits have been identified, but the evidence provided by local residents is confusing and Campion must decide whether the suspects and the victim really could have been in the right location at the right time for the accident to have taken place. It’s not much of a mystery, but I found it a sad and poignant story which reminded me of how lonely some people feel at Christmas.

Next we have Happy Christmas, probably the weakest story in the book, in which a young couple with a passion for the 19th century decide that they would like to have a traditional Victorian Christmas. Campion doesn’t appear at all in this story and I’m not sure that it really belonged in this collection. I’m not entirely sure what the point of it was, although I do love the idea of a Victorian Christmas.

The Case of the Man with the Sack is a more conventional detective story. Albert Campion is celebrating Christmas with friends at their country house when a theft takes place – and the main suspect is Santa Claus. This is a slightly longer story than the others, so there’s more time to develop the plot. Of course, it can’t compare with a full-length Campion mystery, but it was interesting enough to hold my attention until the end.

Finally, there’s Word In Season, a lovely but unusual tale about Campion and his dog, Poins. Did you know that, according to myth, animals are given the power of speech in the final hour of Christmas Eve? I didn’t, but that’s what this final story is about.

These four Christmas stories were obviously ideal for the time of year and I did find them entertaining, but I thought they were too short to be completely satisfying. I’m looking forward to reading some more of Allingham’s longer novels soon.

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