A Fatal Crossing by Tom Hindle

I was drawn to A Fatal Crossing first by the cover, then when I saw that it was a Golden Age-style mystery novel set at sea in the 1920s, I was even more interested. I read the book in October and loved it, but have waited to post my review until publication day, which is today (here in the UK).

The whole story takes place over a four day period in November 1924 as the cruise liner Endeavour approaches New York from Southampton with two thousand passengers and crew on board. When an elderly man is found dead at the bottom of a staircase, the ship’s captain assumes – and hopes – that it’s an accident. However, James Temple, a Scotland Yard inspector, happens to be one of the passengers on the voyage and, after examining the body, he is convinced that the old man has been murdered. The captain gives Temple permission to investigate the crime, but only if he agrees to be accompanied by one of the ship’s officers, Timothy Birch.

Birch has no experience as a detective but follows Temple around the ship as he looks for clues, speaks to suspects and establishes alibis. They quickly discover a link between the dead man and a priceless painting stolen from another passenger, but the mystery deepens when more deaths occur and Temple and Birch find themselves racing against time to uncover the truth before the ship reaches its destination.

This is a complex and engaging mystery novel, with plenty of suspects, lots of red herrings and a strong sense of time and place. Although I felt that there were times when the plot was starting to become quite convoluted and I was struggling to keep track of who was who and who did what, I kept going and was rewarded by some spectacular plot twists near the end which I thought I had worked out in advance, but most definitely hadn’t!

Temple and Birch make an interesting partnership, particularly as it’s a very reluctant one! As an intelligent, competent and experienced detective, Temple is not at all happy about having an inept and bumbling ship’s officer shadowing his every move, saying the wrong things and interfering with the investigation. Birch is our narrator, and as we only see things from his point of view, Temple comes across as bad-tempered, rude and hostile, but there are hints that there’s more to each character than meets the eye. While Temple’s past and his reasons for boarding the Endeavour are shrouded in mystery, we learn that Birch is haunted by the disappearance of his young daughter Amelia and the breakdown of his marriage.

As well as the unusual detecting duo and that unexpected ending, I also loved the setting and the atmosphere. A ship on a long sea voyage is the ideal location for a murder mystery, as all of the suspects are confined in one place with nobody able to arrive or depart until the destination is reached. There’s some wonderful attention to detail as the action moves around the ship from the elegant first class decks to the less luxurious third class areas and the officer’s quarters.

A Fatal Crossing is Tom Hindle’s first novel; having enjoyed it so much, I’m already looking forward to his next one!

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

The Key in the Lock by Beth Underdown

The Key in the Lock is Beth Underdown’s second novel. Her first, The Witchfinder’s Sister, was a fascinating historical novel set during the Manningtree witch trials of 1645; this new book sounded very different, but I still wanted to give it a try.

The novel opens in 1918, with Ivy Boscawen trying to come to terms with the death of her son, Tim, shot dead in the trenches of the Western Front. Ivy is desperate to know exactly what happened to Tim, but after speaking to some of his fellow soldiers what she discovers about her son’s death makes her feel even more distressed. Worse still, the loss of Tim triggers memories of another boy, William Tremain, who died thirty years earlier in a fire at the Great House in Polneath, Cornwall. Ivy, whose father was the Polneath doctor at the time, has been haunted by William’s tragic death ever since and has never been able to shake off her feelings of guilt about her actions in the aftermath of the fire.

With Ivy as the narrator, the novel moves back and forth in time between 1918 and 1888, gradually shedding light on the mysteries surrounding both deaths. Family secrets are uncovered, wills are read, inquests are held, clandestine meetings take place and identities are revealed – yet this is not really the exciting, suspenseful Gothic novel I had been hoping for. It moves along at a very slow pace and although I was enjoying it enough to want to read on to the end, I never felt fully engaged with either the plot or the characters.

There is an advantage to the slow pace, however, which is that it gives the reader a chance to try to solve some of the mysteries and guess some of the secrets before Ivy does. It’s a complex story, with lots of pieces that only begin to fall into place towards the end and there were points where I felt confused, particularly as the two timelines often seem to merge together. A chapter heading may indicate that we are in 1918, but after a few paragraphs Ivy starts to remember the events of 1888 again and it’s not always clear which period we are reading about. Also, the ‘key in the lock’ of the title turns out to be several keys to several locks in several doors and I struggled to keep track of the significance of them all.

I did like the atmosphere Beth Underdown creates and the attention to period detail; I never felt that the language or attitudes were too modern. She also writes very convincingly about Ivy’s grief for her lost son, her sense of guilt over what happened at the Great House, and the terrible misunderstandings and assumptions that have persisted for thirty years. It’s a very sad story, where lives are taken too early, acts of kindness go unappreciated until it’s almost too late and wicked deeds go unpunished for too long. An interesting read, but with a tighter focus I think it could have been a much better book.

Thanks to Pigeonhole for the opportunity to read this book.

This is book 1/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

The final book I read in 2021 was one that I very much enjoyed: Gill Hornby’s Miss Austen. The title character is not, as you might expect, the famous novelist Jane Austen, but her elder sister Cassandra. Cassandra, who outlived Jane by nearly thirty years, is known to have burned many of her sister’s letters, although we don’t know exactly why she did this. In this fictional version of Cassandra Austen’s story, Hornby explores a possible reason for the destruction of the letters, while also giving us a glimpse into the lives of Cassandra, Jane and the rest of the Austen family.

The novel opens in 1840 with Cassandra, now an elderly woman, arriving at Kintbury, home of the Fowles, the family of her long-dead fiancé. Following the death of the Reverend Fowle, his daughter Isabella has been left to pack up her parents’ belongings so that a new reverend can move in. Cassandra believes that the letters she and Jane wrote to their friend Eliza Fowle (Isabella’s mother) must still be in the house somewhere and she is determined to find them and remove them before they can be made public.

The story unfolds through the letters Cassandra discovers at Kintbury (not the real letters, of course, as they were destroyed) and through Cassandra’s memories of her younger days. The narrative moves back and forth in time as she remembers the loss of Tom Fowle, the man she should have married, her relationship with Jane and the lives they both led as single women. In the 1840s storyline, we also get to know Isabella, another spinster, and this provides some further insights into what it means to be an unmarried woman in the early 19th century: the lack of security; the pressures created by failing to conform to society’s expectations; and the feeling of being a burden to other family members.

This is a quiet, domestic novel, but I was never bored. There is an authentic period feel and although Hornby doesn’t try to imitate Jane Austen’s writing exactly, the language used generally feels suitable for the time. I enjoyed the occasional references to Jane’s novels, some of which we see her working on and others which the characters read to each other for entertainment. There’s an interesting suggestion that Jane based Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice on her sister-in-law, Mary Austen. Most of all, I enjoyed learning a little bit about Cassandra and the world in which she lived.

I had never come across Gill Hornby before, but it seems that not only is she the sister of the writer Nick Hornby, she is also married to one of my favourite authors, Robert Harris! Her earlier novels sound very different and don’t really appeal to me, but I’ve discovered that she has a new book out later this year – Godmersham Park, about a governess in the Austen household. I will be looking out for that one.

Catching up: Three mini-reviews

I always try to finish reviewing the current year’s reads before the new year begins (although I don’t always manage it), so today I’m catching up by posting some brief thoughts on three books read in November and December.

I added None But Elizabeth to my TBR a few years ago after reading Rhoda Edwards’ two novels about Richard III, Some Touch of Pity and Fortune’s Wheel, both of which I enjoyed. This one, first published in 1982, is a fictional retelling of the life of Elizabeth I. The book is written in a straightforward, linear style as we follow Elizabeth from childhood to old age.

There are some things Edwards does very well – the depiction of Elizabeth’s feelings for Robert Dudley, the man she loves but never marries; Elizabeth’s internal conflict over how to deal with the threat of Mary, Queen of Scots; the symbolism used to mark the passing of time; the way in which Elizabethan poetry is woven into the text – but as someone who has read about Elizabeth many times before, there was nothing new or different here. I would recommend reading Margaret Irwin’s Young Bess or Margaret George’s Elizabeth I rather than this one.

The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow is a multiple time period novel in which our present day narrator, an aspiring interior designer, finds a beautiful quilt in her mother’s attic with a message embroidered into the lining. She sets out to learn more about the quilt and discovers a connection with a young woman called Maria who spent most of her life in a mental hospital claiming to be a former lover of the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII). As Maria’s story unfolds, in the form of taped interviews recorded by a student in the 1970s, we find out whether she was telling the truth and, if so, what secrets are hidden in the quilt’s design.

I wasn’t expecting too much from this book, but I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would – and for once, I found the modern day storyline as compelling as the historical one. On one level it’s almost a mystery novel, with the narrator hunting for clues to the quilt’s origins, tracking down people who may have known Maria and piecing fragments of information together to try to discover the truth. However, it also provides some insights into social issues such as living conditions in mental institutions, psychiatric treatment in the early 20th century and the later policy of ‘care in the community’. Some parts of the story were too predictable, but it was an interesting read overall and I will probably look for more of Liz Trenow’s books.

A Princely Knave was the oldest remaining book on my NetGalley shelf (from 2016, I’m ashamed to say). After receiving a copy, I read some negative reviews that put me off it, but in November I finally decided to give it a try. The book was originally published in 1956 as They Have Their Dreams and tells the story of Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the English throne. Warbeck claimed to be Richard of York, one of the two ‘Princes in the Tower’ – the sons of Edward IV who disappeared from the Tower of London, believed to have been murdered. The novel begins with Warbeck landing in Cornwall in 1497, hoping to lead an army to overthrow Henry VII and take his place on the throne.

Philip Lindsay uses flowery and often antiquated language, a style which was common in older historical novels but feels very dated today. However, I’ve read one or two of his other books so was prepared for this. The biggest problem I had with this particular book was that, apart from Warbeck himself, the characters feel underdeveloped – the group of men who accompany Warbeck in his rebellion are almost indistinguishable and the only significant female character, Warbeck’s wife Katherine Gordon, also lacks depth. Lindsay does explore some fascinating ideas, though; for example, he suggests that even Warbeck himself doesn’t know who he really is – having been told by some that he has royal blood and by others that he is the son of Flemish merchants, he has become unsure of his real identity. I thought it was worth reading, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re as interested in this period as I am.

The Girl in the Photograph by Kate Riordan

Kate Riordan’s 2015 novel The Girl in the Photograph is one of many to be compared to the Daphne du Maurier classic Rebecca, but apart from being set in a country house and having a few Gothic undertones, I couldn’t see many similarities. It is, however, an interesting read in its own right, exploring some of the social issues faced by women who lived during less enlightened time periods.

This is a dual-timeline novel, but unlike most, which have one thread set in the present and the other in the past, both narratives in this book are historical. In 1932, we meet Alice Eveleigh, a young woman of twenty-two who lives with her parents and works in an office as a junior typist. With many of her friends becoming engaged, Alice is worried that she will be ‘left on the shelf’, so she is flattered when the new accountant at work, a handsome older man, begins an affair with her. Unfortunately, he is already married and when she inevitably finds herself pregnant, he refuses to leave his wife for her. On discovering what has happened, Alice’s mother quickly packs her off to stay with an old friend at remote Fiercombe Manor where she can give birth away from prying eyes and have the baby adopted.

After arriving at Fiercombe Manor, Alice becomes intrigued by hints of the house’s tragic past, picking up snippets of information about Elizabeth Stanton, whose husband Edward was the Manor’s previous owner. Alice attempts to learn more about Elizabeth from Mrs Jelphs, the housekeeper, but it seems that she is reluctant to talk. Not ready to give up, Alice finds Elizabeth’s diary and gradually her secrets begin to be revealed.

Elizabeth’s story, set in 1898, unfolds alongside Alice’s in alternating chapters, allowing us to see parallels between the lives of the two women. Like Alice, Elizabeth is expecting a baby; unlike Alice, she has a husband, but she still feels very alone. Edward is controlling and distrustful and they don’t have a close or loving relationship, but as Elizabeth’s narrative progresses we begin to wonder whether she is really the most reliable of narrators and whether something could have happened to cause Edward to turn against her.

The Girl in the Photograph is a beautifully written novel, with lovely, vivid descriptions of the old house surrounded by yew trees, the formal gardens and terraces, and the views of rolling meadows and setting suns. Riordan creates an eerie atmosphere, with some very subtle ghostly/supernatural elements. However, I found the book very slow and unnecessarily long – I felt that some of Alice’s chapters could probably have been left out without affecting the overall story too much. Still, the novel offers some fascinating insights into what it was like to be a pregnant woman in the 1930s or the 1890s. Attitudes of society towards unmarried mothers, the challenges of postnatal depression and ‘puerperal insanity’, and the general lack of understanding of women’s mental health issues are some of the subjects Riordan touches upon.

Although I felt that this book didn’t have much, apart from the quality of the writing, to set it apart from others of this type, I thought it was still a worthwhile read. I see Kate Riordan has written several other novels which all sound interesting too.

The Ambassador’s Daughter by Pam Jenoff

It’s 1919 and twenty-year-old Margot Rosenthal has accompanied her father, a German diplomat, to Paris for the Peace Conference that has been arranged following the end of the First World War. At first Margot is unhappy in the French capital – even though the war is over, she and her father are still thought of by the Allies as ‘the enemy’, while their Jewish background means they are viewed with suspicion by their fellow Germans – but the alternative is to return to Berlin, where her wounded fiancé Stefan awaits. Margot had agreed to marry Stefan before he went away to fight in the war, but now that he is back she’s no longer sure whether she wants to go ahead with the wedding.

Life in Paris becomes more interesting for Margot when she makes two new friends. One is Georg Richwalder, a former naval officer who has arrived with the German delegation; the other is Krysia Smok, a Polish pianist who introduces her to a group of political activists. When one of Krysia’s radical friends starts to put pressure on Margot to obtain information on Germany’s plans from Georg, suddenly Stefan and the wedding seem the least of her problems!

The Ambassador’s Daughter is a prequel to The Kommandant’s Girl and The Diplomat’s Wife, neither of which I have read, but that didn’t matter at all as this one works as a standalone novel. In fact, I suspect it’s probably better to start with this book anyway as it comes first chronologically. I do wish authors and publishers would move away from ‘wife’ and ‘daughter’ titles (which I discussed in one of my Historical Musings posts), but this series was written before that seemed to become such a popular trend, so I can be more forgiving!

Although I have read a lot of novels set during and just after World War I, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything specifically about the Paris Peace Conference, so I found that aspect of the book interesting. The German delegation was kept on the sidelines during the negotiations and excluded from decision-making, not being officially called to the conference until the details of the treaty had already been agreed upon. Because the Germans played such a minor role in all of this, it doesn’t form a big part of the novel, but I think Jenoff does a good job of showing how frustrating it was for diplomats such as Margot’s father to be kept out of making the important decisions that would affect their own country’s future.

The espionage element of the story is also well done, as we wait to see whether Margot will really betray Georg and Germany – and if so, whether she will be caught? However, a twist that comes near the end of the book is very obvious and because I had predicted it so quickly, it took away some of the suspense. The main focus of the novel, though, is not the conference or the spying, but Margot’s personal story and her relationships with Georg and Stefan, so if you’re not interested in romance, this probably isn’t the book for you. Overall, I found it quite enjoyable, but I’m not sure whether I would read anything else by Pam Jenoff – although I was intrigued by the character of Krysia and it seems she also appears in The Kommandant’s Girl, so maybe I could be tempted.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

There are many events taking place in the book blogging calendar this month and AusReading Month hosted by Brona’s Books is one of them. I have a few books by Australian authors waiting to be read, but I decided to read one that has been waiting a long time: Kate Morton’s 2012 novel, The Secret Keeper. I’ve previously read three books by Morton and had mixed experiences with them; I loved The Forgotten Garden but was slightly disappointed in both The Distant Hours and The Clockmaker’s Daughter, so wasn’t sure whether I wanted to bother with this one. I’m pleased I did, because I enjoyed it much more than I expected to.

Like Morton’s other books, The Secret Keeper is set in multiple time periods. It begins in 1961, with sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson hiding in a wooden tree house during a family celebration. Laurel just wants some time alone to think, but this means that, from her position in the tree, she is able to see a strange man approaching the Nicolson farmhouse – and is witness to a violent crime involving her mother, Dorothy. We then jump forward fifty years to 2011, when the Nicolsons are gathering at their childhood home for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday. Laurel, now a successful actress, is still haunted by what she saw on that long ago day and decides that, with Dorothy in poor health, she needs to find out what really happened before her mother dies and takes her secrets with her.

As Laurel begins to investigate her mother’s past, the novel moves back and forth between 2011 and 1940s London where the young Dorothy is looking forward to marrying war photographer Jimmy as soon as their financial situation improves. Dorothy has also made a new friend (or so she thinks): the beautiful, wealthy Vivien, who lives in the house opposite. But when she is betrayed by Vivien, Dorothy puts together a plan of revenge – with unexpected and tragic results.

As is usually the case when I read books set in more than one time period, it was the historical one I enjoyed the most. The present day story was interesting – I enjoyed Laurel’s interactions with her younger brother Gerry, who helps her to uncover the truth about their mother – but I felt that it was effectively just a frame for the much more compelling story of Dorothy, Jimmy and Vivien. I was surprised by how absorbed I became in these parts of the novel, considering that I found Dorothy a particularly unpleasant and irritating character! I did like Jimmy, was intrigued by Vivien and loved the wartime setting, especially as things build to a climax during the London Blitz.

Somewhere in the second half of the book I started to have some suspicions regarding Laurel’s mother and the secrets she was hiding, but this came late enough that it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the story and I was pleased to find that my guess was correct. Of Kate Morton’s other books, I only have The House at Riverton and The Lake House left to read. Which should I read first?