The Allingham Minibus by Margery Allingham

I have read and enjoyed several of the Margery Allingham short story collections which have been reissued by Agora Books recently; The Allingham Minibus is the latest and my favourite so far.

This collection was first published posthumously in 1973 and has also appeared under the title Mr Campion’s Lucky Day. However, that title would be quite misleading as there are eighteen stories in the book and only three of them actually feature Allingham’s famous detective, Albert Campion. Of these, I have already read the Christmas-themed The Man in the Sack (which was included in Campion at Christmas), but the other two were new to me and I particularly enjoyed The Unseen Door, a locked room mystery with a simple but clever solution.

The rest of the stories in the book cover a range of genres, not just the crime fiction with which Allingham is usually associated. Many of them are ghost stories or have a supernatural element of some sort and all of these were excellent; they were the perfect kind of supernatural stories for me – unsettling and unusual, without being too creepy. I won’t talk about all of them here, but three that stood out for me were Bird Thou Never Wert, about a woman who buys a haunted bird cage, She Heard It On the Radio, in which a lonely old lady develops an obsession with listening to the radio, and He Was Asking After You, where a man who betrays his best friend finds himself unable to escape his friend’s vengeance.

One of my favourite stories in the collection was The Pioneers, the story of a married couple who both meet someone else and decide to get divorced. On their last evening together, while they prepare to go their separate ways forever, some friends come to visit, with unexpected results. I loved this one! Actually, the only story in this book that I didn’t like was A Quarter of a Million, a crime thriller which should really be described as a novella rather than a short story as it was more than twice as long as most of the others. The length, and the fact that it seemed less tightly plotted than the rest, made it feel out of place in this collection.

With the exception of that one novella, then, I really enjoyed The Allingham Minibus – and the introduction by Agatha Christie was a nice little bonus.

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

The Doll: Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier

This week Ali is hosting a Daphne du Maurier Reading Week and as du Maurier is one of my favourite authors, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to read one of the few remaining books of hers that I still haven’t read. As I’ve enjoyed some of du Maurier’s short story collections in the past, I decided to read The Doll, her book of ‘lost short stories’, most of which were written very early in her writing career (mainly between 1926 and 1932) but not published until more recently. My expectations for this book weren’t too high as I thought there might be a reason why these particular stories had been forgotten for so long, but actually I was pleasantly surprised by it. Although some of the stories in the collection feel too short and incomplete, there are some great ones amongst them too.

As is often the case when you read an author’s early work, it’s possible to see the seeds of du Maurier’s later work being planted and future themes and ideas being experimented with. The title story, The Doll, written when the author was twenty years old, follows a man who falls in love with a violinist by the name of Rebecca. As his love turns into obsession, he discovers that he has a rival in the form of a life-sized doll called Julio. This is a dark and creepy story and the name of the character makes it difficult not to think of du Maurier’s most famous novel Rebecca (especially as there are some similarities between the two Rebeccas).

The Happy Valley also foreshadows Rebecca in some ways and involves a woman who has recurring dreams of a house in a place she calls the Happy Valley. With its ghostly undertones and supernatural twist, this was one of the stories that particularly impressed me. It also has the strong sense of place and beautiful descriptive writing I associate with du Maurier’s work, as does another of the stories – East Wind – in which the wind changes direction and blows a boat full of sailors ashore on a remote island. The arrival of the newcomers brings a great deal of excitement to the isolated island community, but temptation and evil have also come in with the tide and will leave their mark when the wind changes again.

It was almost as if there were no such place, as if the island were a dream, a phantom creation of a sailor’s brain, something rising out of the sea at midnight as a challenge to reality, then vanishing in surf and mist to be forgotten, to be half-consciously remembered years later, flickering for a bewildered second in a dusty brain as a dead thought. Yet to the people of St Hilda’s the island was reality, the ships that came and went were their phantoms.

Another story that stood out for me was Tame Cat, a disturbing tale of an innocent young girl referred to only as Baby who returns home from a long absence in France and is reunited with her mother and the man she calls Uncle John. Baby has always thought of Uncle John as being like a tame cat, but now that she is growing up and becoming a woman she finds that his position in the family is not quite as she’d always assumed.

Some of the topics that seem to come up again and again throughout this collection are young couples falling in and out of love and husbands and wives growing disillusioned with their marriages. Sometimes du Maurier treats this in a humorous way, such as in Frustration, where a newly married couple embark on their honeymoon and everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and Week-End, where another couple go away for the weekend believing themselves to be madly in love, but gradually discover that they don’t even like each other – something which comes as a relief when they realise they won’t have to speak to each other using ridiculous baby talk anymore! Other stories are more poignant; I loved Nothing Hurts for Long, a sad story about a woman preparing to welcome her husband home after three months in Germany. When a friend tells her about the disintegration of her own marriage, she is sympathetic but convinced that the same thing couldn’t possibly happen to her…

She went and stood before the looking-glass. Perhaps he would creep in suddenly and stand behind her, and put his hands on her shoulders, and lean his face against hers.

She closed her eyes. Darling! Was that a taxi? No – nothing. ‘This wasn’t how I imagined it at all,’ she thought.

There are thirteen stories in the collection so I’m not going to discuss all of them here, but there were only one or two that I didn’t like very much. The overall quality is not as good as some of the other du Maurier collections I’ve read, Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, The Birds and Other Stories or The Breaking Point: Short Stories, and I don’t think I would recommend this book as a starting point for readers who are new to du Maurier’s work, but if you’re already a fan I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

The Return of Mr Campion by Margery Allingham

This collection of thirteen short stories by Margery Allingham was originally published in 1989 and has been reissued by Agora Books this month. The title is maybe slightly misleading as Allingham’s famous detective Albert Campion only appears in half of the stories, but I actually found that some of the non-Campion stories were amongst my favourites from the collection.

Of the stories featuring Campion, I thought the best were The Black Tent, in which Albert catches a girl stealing a package from a desk during a party and The Case is Altered, where he stumbles upon a case of espionage while spending Christmas with friends. I was less impressed with the other Campion stories in the book, but I thought these two were just the right length, were well plotted and had satisfying conclusions. There’s also an essay, My Friend Mr Campion, where Allingham describes how she created the character of Albert Campion (or rather, how he created himself) and later in the book, in What to Do with an Ageing Detective, she imagines herself coming face to face with an elderly Campion and his servant Magersfontein Lugg. I found the first of these pieces interesting, but I think the second is really just for true Campion fans – which I can’t say that I am yet, having so far only read one full-length novel (Mystery Mile) and a few short stories.

The rest of the stories – the ones which don’t involve Campion and are not necessarily mysteries either – cover a mixture of subjects and genres. I loved Sweet and Low, in which two women who have nothing in common apart from a love of horse riding compete for the attentions of the same man. The horse called ‘Sweet and Low’ has a personality of his own and is the real star of the show in this one! The Wind Glass, about a young girl who rejects a marriage proposal from a Japanese man and receives a rather sinister gift in return, is another one that stood out due to the genuinely eerie atmosphere Allingham creates, although it was difficult to ignore the overt racism which did unfortunately spoil that particular story for me. On a more light-hearted note, I think The Kernel of Truth also deserves a mention. A man prepares a recipe for punch and adds one very special ingredient – but his wife won’t be very pleased if she finds out what it is. This is an entertaining little story that you won’t fully appreciate until you read the final paragraph!

Considering that I’m not usually a lover of the short story format, I enjoyed almost all of the tales in this collection, with only one or two exceptions. I’ll have to try more of the full-length Albert Campion mysteries soon!

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

The Breaking Point: Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Having enjoyed some of Daphne du Maurier’s other short story collections – The Birds and Other Stories, The Rendezvous and Other Stories and Don’t Look Now and Other Stories – I’ve been looking forward to reading this one. Originally published in 1959 and written at a time when du Maurier herself said she had been close to a nervous breakdown, the eight stories in this collection are particularly dark and unsettling.

There is a paragraph just before the introduction in my Virago edition of the book which gives an idea of the common theme linking the stories and why the title The Breaking Point was chosen:

There comes a moment in the life of every individual when reality must be faced. When this happens, it is as though a link between emotion and reason is stretched to the limit of endurance, and sometimes snaps. In this collection of stories, men, women, children and a nation are brought to the breaking-point. Whether the link survives or snaps, the reader must judge for himself.

I enjoyed this book, but I found the first three stories by far the strongest and some of the others slightly disappointing in comparison. For this reason, I preferred The Birds and Don’t Look Now, which I felt were more even in quality. Anyway, the first story in the book, The Alibi, gets the collection off to a great start. A man, bored with his life, his marriage and his daily routine, makes an impulsive decision to rent a room in a house chosen at random. Adopting a new identity, soon he is spending every spare moment at the house, but what is his real motive for doing this? This is a creepy and disturbing story; the suspense builds and builds as we wait to see whether it will end in the way we hope it won’t!

The Blue Lenses is a very strange story about Marda West, a woman who has been having eye surgery. When her bandages are removed and she is fitted with a new pair of lenses, she finds that the people around her look very unusual – in fact, you could say that she is finally seeing them for what they really are. I can’t say much more without completely spoiling the story, but Marda’s situation is both frightening and fascinating. I loved this story and thought the twist at the end was perfect.

The next one, Ganymede, reminded me of Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, both in setting and in plot. A man is visiting Venice for a relaxing October break when a young man working in a restaurant catches his eye. As the days go by, he becomes more and more obsessed with the young waiter, whom he thinks of as ‘Ganymede’. This is another very suspenseful story, as it quickly becomes obvious that things are not going to go smoothly for our narrator – and in du Maurier’s hands, Venice becomes an eerie and sinister setting where we know some sort of tragedy is going to happen.

In the next story, The Pool, we meet Deborah and Roger, two children staying at their grandparents’ house for the summer. One day Deborah escapes from her younger brother and enters the woods nearby, where she discovers a pool which seems to lead into a secret world. I didn’t like this story as much as the first three – although, as always, du Maurier’s descriptions are beautiful and vivid. The Archduchess, which follows, is an account of a revolution in a fictional European country called Ronda. This was the only story in the collection that actually bored me – there seemed to be a huge amount of world-building and scene-setting, with very little plot or depth of character – but it’s possible that I didn’t fully understand what she was trying to say.

I wasn’t sure what to make of The Menace either. It seemed like a science fiction story at first, about a new filming technology known as ‘feelies’ where actors are wired up to a machine powered by their own life-force. This aspect of the story is never really explained, but I did enjoy getting to know actor Barry Jeans as we follow him through a twenty-four-hour period and I loved the ending. The Chamois is another of the weaker stories in the collection, but still an interesting one. A woman travels to Greece with her husband so that he can hunt chamois, but as they climb further into the mountains, the cracks in their marriage start to show and the woman’s deepest fears become exposed.

Finally, The Lordly Ones is a great story to finish with. Ben is a young mute boy who feels neglected and unloved by his parents. When the family move to a new house in the countryside, he escapes to the moors one night and for the first time in his life feels welcomed and cared for by another family he thinks of as The Lordly Ones. This is a very short story with a clever twist at the end that made me want to go back to the beginning and read it again!

Overall, I do recommend The Breaking Point but if you’re new to du Maurier’s short stories, I would suggest reading The Birds or Don’t Look Now collections first as I thought they were stronger. I still have The Doll, her collection of ‘lost’ stories to read, and will try to get to that book soon.

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors and I now only have one of her novels left to read (Castle Dor, which was partly written by Arthur Quiller-Couch). However, I also still need to read several of her short story collections, having previously only read The Birds and The Rendezvous, so I decided to put this one, Don’t Look Now and Other Stories on my 20 Books of Summer list.

This particular collection is from 1971 and has been published as both Don’t Look Now and Not After Midnight. It contains five stories which are all about fifty or sixty pages long – the perfect length, in my opinion, as it means they are long enough to allow for some development of characters and plot, while still being short enough to read in one or two sittings.

The title story, the dark and atmospheric Don’t Look Now, is a strong opening to the book. John and his wife Laura are on holiday in Venice following the recent death of their young daughter, Christine. John has been doing his best to move on, but Laura is still grieving and, when they meet a pair of elderly twin sisters in a restaurant one evening, it comforts her to be told that one of the twins, who claims to be psychic, can ‘see’ Christine sitting beside her parents. When more strange occurrences follow – including the sighting of a little girl in a red hood jumping over the boats moored in a canal – it seems that something sinister is going on. Could he and Laura be in danger? This is a great story, and if you haven’t read it perhaps you have seen the 1973 film with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland?

Not After Midnight comes next and is another good one. Our narrator, schoolmaster and artist Timothy Grey, is visiting Crete where he hopes to find some inspiration for his paintings. Staying in a little chalet in a picturesque resort by the sea, Timothy is enjoying the peace and quiet – until he encounters an American couple, the Stolls, who are staying in one of the nearby chalets. The couple invite him to visit them in their chalet – as long as it’s ‘not after midnight’ – but Timothy feels uneasy. Why do the Stolls spend so much time out at sea, supposedly fishing? And what really happened to the last occupant of Timothy’s chalet? This is another dark and suspenseful story and I really enjoyed it – until I reached the ending, which I’ll confess to not really understanding at all.

I think the middle story, A Border-Line Case, was my favourite. A nineteen-year-old actress, Shelagh Money, has just lost her beloved father and heads to Ireland to track down his old friend, Nick. The two men had lost contact years earlier after Nick was injured in a car accident and became a recluse, living on an island in the middle of an Irish lough. On her arrival at Nick’s island home, Shelagh begins to feel uneasy and decides not to admit who she is or why she is there…but Nick is hiding a secret of his own – and not the sort of secret either I or Shelagh was expecting. Although I didn’t see that particular twist coming, there is another twist at the end which I found much more predictable, but I still found this the most enjoyable of the five stories.

I didn’t like The Way of the Cross quite as much as the first three stories. It’s about a group of people from the same little village who are on a tour of Jersualem, led by the Rev. Edward Babcock. Babcock has stepped in at the last minute to replace another vicar who has fallen ill, and he doesn’t know – or particularly like – any of the people in the group. They include a retired colonel and his self-obsessed wife, a young newly married couple, a wealthy middle-aged couple, an elderly spinster, and a precocious nine-year-old boy who is enjoying showing off his knowledge of the historical and religious sites they are visiting. Unlike the previous stories, there is nothing dark, supernatural or shocking about this one – the focus is on the tourists and the discoveries they make about themselves and their companions.

The last story, The Breakthrough, was my least favourite in the book. It’s a science fiction story which explores some of the ethical questions surrounding scientific progress and whether there should be a limit to how far it should go. The narrator, Stephen Saunders, is a scientist who has been transferred to a research facility in rural England where the eccentric Mac and his assistants are working on an experiment so controversial it must be kept completely secret. This is a disturbing story with the sort of unsettling atmosphere du Maurier is so good at creating. It wasn’t entirely to my taste, as I’m not much of a science fiction fan, but it is still an interesting story to bring the collection to an end.

Five very different stories with very different settings. I enjoyed reading all of them, some more than others, and I’m looking forward to reading the other du Maurier short story collections on my TBR: The Doll and The Breaking Point.

This is book 8/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

It is also book 7/50 from my second Classics Club list.

The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure, edited by Lawrence Ellsworth

After reading Lawrence Ellsworth’s new translation of the Alexandre Dumas novel The Red Sphinx last year, I discovered that Ellsworth was also the editor of the enticingly titled The Big Book of Swashbuckling Adventure. As a fan of the swashbuckling genre, I knew I would have to read it.

This is certainly a big book, containing eighteen stories and poems written in the 19th or early 20th centuries. Some of them are by well-known classic authors such as Dumas, Arthur Conan Doyle and Baroness Orczy, but some of the others are more obscure – authors who may have enjoyed some success at the time, but have been largely forgotten today. Ellsworth provides a brief introduction to each author’s work, including a short biography and some background information on the story which follows and why he selected it for this collection. All different types of swashbuckling hero are represented: the pirate, the musketeer, the jester, the swordsman, the aristocrat and more.

I’m not going to discuss all of the stories in depth here – there are too many of them – but I will highlight a few favourites and just give the others a quick mention.

One that I particularly enjoyed was Crillon’s Stake by Stanley J Weyman, an author I’ve heard about but have never actually read until now. Set in France in 1587, two men sit down to play a game of dice in which the stakes become higher and higher until they are literally gambling with their lives. The outcome of the game will have surprising consequences, however, as the participants become entangled in a conspiracy against the king.

Another favourite was The Black Death by Marion Polk Angellotti, one of only a few female authors to be featured in the book. This story is part of a series that she wrote about the adventures of the 14th century mercenary captain Sir John Hawkwood. On a journey through the mountains of Italy, Hawkwood tries to protect his men from attack by enemy soldiers, but with the Black Death raging across the country, he could be leading them into a different type of danger instead.

I also enjoyed Pirate’s Gold by H. Bedford-Jones, which was first published in an American ‘pulp magazine’ in the 1920s. George Roberts accepts a position as first mate on a ship sailing to Virginia, The King Sagamore, which is captained by the charismatic Captain Low. It is only when the ship has left port and is out at sea that Roberts discovers his captain is actually the notorious pirate better known as Bloody Ned. This is a much longer story than most of the others in the book – more of a novella, really, which allows more development of storyline and characters – and although I doubt I’ll look for anything else by Bedford-Jones, this was fun to read.

The Sin of the Bishop of Modenstein by Anthony Hope is another fun read, set in the kingdom of Ruritania, the same world as his famous novel The Prisoner of Zenda. In this story, King Rudolf of Zenda gambles away his castle and estate, but when the new owner, Count Nikolas of Festenburg, moves in, he discovers that Rudolf’s sister, Princess Osra, is still there…

I was surprised to find that I had already read some of the pieces in the book. The Cabaret de la Liberté by Baroness Orczy is taken from her collection The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel, which I read a few years ago. I couldn’t really remember this particular Pimpernel story, so I was happy to read it again. I did not re-read White Plume on the Mountain by Alexandre Dumas, which is not actually a standalone story, but a reproduction of several chapters from the end of The Red Sphinx.

For the same reason I didn’t bother with Captain Blood’s Dilemma by Rafael Sabatini, and I only briefly looked at The Fight for Black Bartlemy’s Treasure by Jeffery Farnol, which are also the concluding chapters of full-length novels (Captain Blood and Black Bartlemy’s Treasure respectively). It just seemed an odd decision to include these in a collection of ‘short stories’ and will surely spoil the actual novels for anyone who hasn’t read them. On the other hand, Ellsworth does include the opening chapters of Johnston McCulley’s first Zorro novel, turning them into a story titled Señor Zorro Pays a Visit. This seems a much more sensible way to introduce a new reader to an author’s work!

There’s also a second story by Sabatini (Sword and Mitre, a true standalone this time), and one each by Sidney Levett-Yeats, John Bloundelle-Burton and Harold Lamb. I hadn’t come across any of the last three authors and I found their stories entertaining but forgettable (although Lamb’s is slightly different, being set in India). Finally, there’s a story by Arthur Conan Doyle which features his hero Brigadier Gerard, and a Robin Hood adventure by Pierce Egan. The collection is completed by several short poems, Cheerly O and Cheerly O by Jeffery Farnol, The Buccaneer’s Last Shot by Farnham Bishop and The Pirate Sea by Lilian Nicholson. These are interspersed amongst the stories and add a bit of extra variety.

As is usually the case with anthologies of this kind, the stories and the writing are of mixed quality and I found it quite uneven, especially towards the end. With such a variety of different types of story, though, I think there should be something for almost everyone here.

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall by Diana Gabaldon

No, this is not a new novel in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, but a collection of seven stories featuring characters from the series, written over a number of years. The first five have previously appeared in other collections, such as 2013’s A Trail of Fire, or as standalone novellas, but the final two are new ones. I hadn’t really intended to read this book; although I loved the earlier Outlander novels, I’ve been less impressed with the more recent ones, mainly because of the increasing focus on Lord John Grey’s family, and as most of these stories seemed to involve the Lord John characters I wasn’t in any hurry to read them. When I found a copy in the library a few weeks before Christmas, though, I thought I would give it a try in the hope that at least one or two of the stories would interest me – and some of them did, but maybe not the ones I would have expected!

The first story (they are all really novellas rather than ‘short stories’; I don’t think Diana Gabaldon is capable of writing anything that can truly be described as short!) is The Custom of the Army. Lord John gets into trouble at an electric eel party and when he is forced to fight a duel which goes disastrously wrong, he takes the opportunity to escape to Canada to serve as character witness for an officer who is facing a court martial. While he is there he finds himself caught up in the Battle of Quebec of 1759. Despite my general lack of enthusiasm for reading about Lord John, I found the setting interesting and thought this was a good start to the collection.

The next story, The Space Between, is entirely different from the first. It’s set around the time of An Echo in the Bone, I think, and our protagonists this time are Joan MacKimmie (whom readers of the Outlander series will remember as Laoghaire’s daughter) and Michael Murray (one of Jenny and Ian’s sons). Michael is escorting Joan to Paris where she is to become a nun, but on their arrival they become entangled with the sinister Paul Rakoczy, a character who has previously appeared in the series under a different name. I found this story quite enjoyable; it was good to meet some old friends again and also to learn more about the time travel aspects of the series. I think it’s funny that in the first Outlander novel (or Cross Stitch as it used to be called here in the UK), Claire’s ability to time travel seemed to be something unusual, yet by this point in the series almost everyone is doing it!

Now we’re back to Lord John again with Lord John and the Plague of Zombies. This time John is in Jamaica where he has been sent on army business to deal with a slave rebellion in the mountains. When the Governor of Jamaica is found murdered, it seems that a zombie could be responsible for his death…but Lord John knows nothing about zombies so needs to learn quickly. I have to admit, the title of this story was enough to put me off before I’d even read it! These particular ‘zombies’ do have a rational explanation, though, and are only one element of the story. In the overall timeline of the series, this story seems to take place shortly before the events of Voyager, when a certain Mrs Abernathy is still living at Rose Hall…

Next, we have A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows, which answers the question of what happened to Roger’s father, Jerry MacKenzie, a Spitfire pilot whose plane went down over Northumberland during World War II. This fascinating story, another which involves time travel, gives a different perspective on an episode from Written in My Own Heart’s Blood which we have already read from Roger’s point of view. I enjoyed this one as Roger is one of my favourite Outlander characters and I found it interesting to learn more about his parents.

You may be starting to wonder whether Claire and Jamie appear in any of these stories; sadly, we don’t see anything of Claire (although she is mentioned once or twice), but the next novella, Virgins, does feature a young Jamie Fraser. A straightforward prequel to Outlander, it is set during the period following Jamie’s flogging by Black Jack Randall when he joins his friend Ian Murray in France. This was the biggest disappointment in the collection, for me. It didn’t even feel as though it was written by the same author as the other stories, at least at first, although I can’t put my finger on the reason why. It does pick up halfway through, with a subplot involving the marriage of a young Jewish girl, but I still didn’t like it. I think I’m so used now to an older Jamie that I found it disconcerting to meet him as a nineteen-year-old!

Next comes my favourite story in the book: A Fugitive Green. Set in 1744, this is the story of Lord John Grey’s brother Hal, the Duke of Pardloe, and his future wife, Minnie Rennie. The young Minnie makes a wonderful heroine and I loved this tale of spying, blackmail and family secrets which takes us from Paris to London and back again. Both Hal and Minnie have appeared in other Outlander and Lord John novels, but they are not characters who ever interested me before. This story was a real surprise!

Finally, there’s Besieged, a sort of follow-up to Plague of Zombies. Lord John is still in Jamaica, but has received news that his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Pardloe, is in Havana, which is about to become the centre of a battle between Britain and Spain. Heading for Cuba to rescue her, John finds that he is too late to avoid the British invasion and the siege which follows. Like the other Lord John stories, this is set at an interesting moment in history, but the story itself was not very memorable.

So, they are the seven stories – the ‘seven stones’ of the title. They do all stand alone and it’s not completely necessary to have read anything else by Gabaldon first. However, if you’re new to her work I don’t think this would be a good place to start. I would recommend this book more for existing fans of the Outlander books (in particular, the spin-off Lord John series) who are waiting for the next full-length novel to be published.