Mortmain Hall by Martin Edwards

Until recently I had only known Martin Edwards as the editor of the British Library Crime Classics anthologies, but he has also written a large number of crime novels of his own. This one, Mortmain Hall, is the second in a new series set in the 1930s and featuring Rachel Savernake, an amateur detective and daughter of a notorious judge. I hadn’t read the first book, Gallows Court, but I hoped that wouldn’t matter too much.

Beginning with an epilogue (not a prologue), and then a first chapter with the opening line “The ghost climbed out of a hackney carriage”, the novel was off to an intriguing start. As Rachel follows the ‘ghost’ into a station and onboard a train, a story begins to unfold of an author – Gilbert Payne – who faked his own death and escaped to Tangiers.

Just as I was becoming interested in Gilbert’s story, however, we leave him behind and join journalist Jacob Flint, who is in court watching a trial – a case of a possible miscarriage of justice. Also watching in court that day is Leonora Dobell, Britain’s leading criminologist who has an obsession with murder to equal Rachel’s own. Mrs Dobell has a particular interest in injustices, last minute acquittals and people who have narrowly escaped hanging. Descriptions of some of these trials follow, but we won’t find out how they are connected until the second half of the book, where Mrs Dobell invites a group of guests – including Rachel – to a house party at Mortmain Hall, her remote Gothic estate on the North Yorkshire court. But before the truth is revealed, another murder will take place…

Mortmain Hall is a fascinating murder mystery, but I do think it was a mistake to read it without having read Gallows Court first; I felt as though there must have been a lot of backstory for Rachel and the other characters that I didn’t understand. Add this to the number of different storylines introduced in the first few chapters of the book and the descriptions of various criminal trials, each with their own set of murderers, victims and witnesses, and I quickly found myself becoming confused. Eventually, though, all the threads of the novel began to come together and I could appreciate the cleverness and complexity of the plot.

The book ends with a ‘Cluefinder’ (a tradition in Golden Age detective novels), in which all of the clues that appeared throughout the story are listed and explained. I have to confess, I missed most of them, but I’m sure other readers will have been much more observant than I was!

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

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

After enjoying Stacey Halls’ The Foundling earlier this year, I decided to read her previous book, The Familiars. It didn’t sound as original as The FoundlingThe Familiars is about the Pendle Witch Trials and I’ve read quite a few other books about witches – but I hoped it would still be interesting.

The novel is set in 1612, in Lancashire in the northwest of England, and is narrated by Fleetwood Shuttleworth, mistress of Gawthorpe Hall. Fleetwood is seventeen years old, in love with her husband, Richard, and pregnant with his child; this should be a happy time for her, but instead Fleetwood is filled with dread. This is her fourth pregnancy and all of her previous three have ended in a miscarriage – and, more worrying still, she has discovered that Richard has been hiding a letter from a doctor warning that if his wife became pregnant again neither she nor the baby would survive.

A chance meeting in the woods one day with Alice Gray, a young midwife, gives Fleetwood new hope. Alice seems to know a lot about herbs and remedies and what is needed to bring about a healthy birth, so Fleetwood asks her to join the household at Gawthorpe Hall until the child is born. Just having Alice around makes her feel better and she is sure that this time she will give birth to the son and heir Richard so desperately wants. 1612, however, is a dangerous time for women who are seen as ‘different’ in any way, and when a group of suspected witches are arrested Alice is one of those accused. Fleetwood vows to do whatever she can to help her friend, but will she be able to save her before it’s too late?

I think The Foundling is the better of Stacey Halls’ two novels, but I did still enjoy this one. As I’ve said, I’ve read other books on similar subjects – for example, Beth Underdown’s The Witchfinder’s Sister, Katherine Howe’s The Lost Book of Salem and Helen Steadman’s Widdershins – but this is the first one I’ve read specifically focusing on the Pendle Witch Trials. I was interested to learn that most of the characters in the book are based on real people, including Fleetwood Shuttleworth herself, the ‘witches’ and the men responsible for arresting them and arranging the trials. In her author’s note at the end, Stacey Halls explains which parts of the story stick to the historical facts and which are fictional.

Although the witches are obviously an important element of the novel, we don’t see as much of them as I had expected. Because the story is written entirely from Fleetwood’s perspective, a lot of the action – including the so-called acts of witchcraft, the arrest of the witches and the trials – takes place elsewhere and Fleetwood hears about these things from other people rather than witnessing them for herself. That’s one of the limitations of a first person narrative, I suppose, and it wasn’t really a problem as I found Fleetwood’s personal story quite engaging anyway. I liked her from the beginning and could really feel her fear and anxiety over her pregnancy and her frustration at not being able to do more to help Alice and the other witches.

I’ll be looking out for any future novels from Stacey Halls, but if you have any other books to recommend on the Pendle witches, please let me know which ones.

Six Degrees of Separation: From The Road to Queens of the Conquest

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

This month, the book we are starting with is The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a book I haven’t read but have heard a lot about. Here is the blurb from Goodreads:

A father and his son walk alone through burned America, heading through the ravaged landscape to the coast. This is the profoundly moving story of their journey. The Road boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which two people, ‘each the other’s world entire’, are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.

I don’t really want to think too much about post-apocalyptic worlds at the moment, so I will quickly move my chain in a different direction, linking through the words ‘The Road’. This leads me to The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone (1), a novel about a young woman who arrives at a hotel in Wanting, a town on the Chinese-Burmese border, and during her time at the hotel reflects on the dramatic series of events that have brought her to Wanting.

Hotels provide the link to my next book: The Haunted Hotel and Other Stories by Wilkie Collins (2). Apart from the title novella, which is set in a Venice hotel, the book also contains several other ghostly or supernatural stories, my favourites being A Terribly Strange Bed and Miss Jeromette and the Clergyman.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a big fan of short stories, but there are some authors, such as Wilkie Collins, whose work I love reading in any format. Daphne du Maurier is another. I have read and enjoyed all of her short story collections, most recently The Doll (3), a collection of stories written very early in her career.

I still have some of Daphne du Maurier’s non-fiction to read, but I have now read all of her fiction apart from Castle Dor (4), a novel begun by Arthur Quiller-Couch and completed by du Maurier. I’m hoping to read it for Ali’s upcoming Daphne du Maurier Reading Week.

Another book I’ve read that was started by one author and finished by another is Winter Siege by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman (5). Samantha Norman is the daughter of Diana Norman (Ariana Franklin’s real name) and she completed the novel after her mother’s death. Winter Siege is set in England in 1141 during the conflict between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda.

The life of Empress Matilda – also known as Empress Maud – is covered in Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir (6), a biography of five medieval queens. The other four discussed in the book are Matilda of Flanders (wife of William the Conqueror), Matilda of Scotland and Adeliza of Louvain (the two wives of Henry I) and Matilda of Boulogne (wife of King Stephen).

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And that’s my chain for this month. My links have included the words ‘The Road’, hotels, short stories by favourite authors, novels started by one writer and finished by another, and the Empress Matilda.

Next month we are starting with Normal People by Sally Rooney.

My Commonplace Book: April 2020

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

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

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If he complains to me again, I will ask him this: is Oenone less of a hero than Menelaus? He loses his wife so he stirs up an army to bring her back to him, costing countless lives and creating countless widows, orphans and slaves. Oenone loses her husband and she raises their son. Which of those is the more heroic act?

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (2019)

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‘Those darling byegone times, Mr Carker,’ said Cleopatra, ‘with their delicious fortresses, and their dear old dungeons, and their delightful places of torture, and their romantic vengeances, and their picturesque assaults and sieges, and everything that makes life truly charming! How dreadfully we have degenerated!’

‘Yes, we have fallen off deplorably,” said Mr Carker.

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens (1848)

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Ravens at the Tower of London

Nevertheless I felt a strange affinity with these charismatic birds. I was beginning to believe we were fellow misfits in a world where all other minds were fixed on an opposing course.

The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson (2020)

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There is no wound of which human soul is capable which time cannot heal, given courage at the outset. If that were not so, life could not be lived. Time buries all that time has brought. Some things it may not bury as deeply as others. But at least it puts them out of constant sight, and so brings surcease of painful recollection.

The Minion by Rafael Sabatini (1930)

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Maud Franklin – Arrangement in White and Black, James McNeill Whistler, 1876

Pulling away, he gave his spirits a restorative shake, like a dog fresh from a river. The blue yachting jacket was straightened, the boater angled just so atop the black curls, the eyeglass slotted in. Then he tried out a couple of his favourites from the lines he’d prepared.

‘As music is the poetry of sound,’ he said, ‘so painting is the poetry of sight.’

The meaning here seemed a touch obscure. The poetry of sight? Maud wrinkled her nose; she gave him an ambiguous nod.

‘Art should be independent of all claptrap.’

Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin (2018)

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‘Experience is the word’ he said quietly. ‘I hadn’t expected anything like this. There doesn’t seem to be much relationship between music and the ordinary world, does there?’

‘That’s a question which requires several days to answer,’ Delia laughed, ‘and I’ve only got about two minutes to get to the box office and back.’

Murder to Music by Margaret Newman (1959)

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They say that only fools struggle against fate. But I don’t think it’s foolish at all. After all, you don’t know how things will come out afterward until they have, so why settle for them ahead of time?

A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley (1988)

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With regard to religion, finally, it may be briefly said that she believed in God in much the same way as she believed in Australia. For she had no doubts whatever as to the existence of either; and she went to church on Sunday in much the same spirit as she would look at a kangaroo in the zoological gardens; for kangaroos came from Australia.

Queen Lucia by EF Benson (1920)

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A 19th-century engraving imagining Shakespeare’s family life.

Every life has its kernel, its hub, its epicentre, from which everything flows out, to which everything returns.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (2020)

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‘Not in the slightest,’ Hakesby said. ‘It is perfectly natural to wish to – to remember those places where we have been happy. Old buildings contain the history of those who used to live in them.’

The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor (2020)

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What hardships does one undertake when one loves? thought Bianca. Love demands equal parts of joy and sorrow. Love is a balance between the two, but sometimes one weighs more than the other.

The Lost Boys of London by Mary Lawrence (2020)

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Favourite book read in April:

A Vision of Light, Murder to Music and The Last Protector

New authors read in April:

Matthew Plampin, Natalie Haynes, EF Benson, Margaret Newman, Maggie O’Farrell

Countries visited in my April reading:

England, Scotland, Italy, Ancient Greece

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Have you read any of these books? Which books did you enjoy reading in April?

The Lost Boys of London by Mary Lawrence

This is the fifth book in a series of historical mysteries set in the Tudor period and featuring the character of alchemist’s daughter Bianca Goddard. I don’t think it’s essential to read all of the books in the series in order; I started with the fourth one, The Alchemist of Lost Souls, and had no problems in picking up the threads of the story and following the plot.

As The Lost Boys of London opens, Bianca’s husband John is away fighting in Scotland for Henry VIII, leaving Bianca in London, devoting her time to preparing herbal remedies in her ‘room of Medicinals and Physickes’. In the past, Bianca’s skills as a herbalist have led to her assisting Constable Patch with his investigations, and having played a part in solving several previous mysteries, her help is required again when a young boy is found hanging from the exterior wall of a church.

Finding a rosary wrapped around the boy’s neck marked with a set of initials, it seems there could be a religious motive for the murder, and this appears to be confirmed when a second boy is found under similar circumstances at another church. Bianca is determined to do whatever she can to find the murderer before he or she kills again – and she has a personal reason for wanting to do so as quickly as possible. Her own young friend, Fisk, who is about the same age as the other boys, has gone missing and Bianca is afraid that he could become the next victim.

I enjoyed this book more than The Alchemist of Lost Souls. I thought the mystery was stronger and more interesting, with its exploration of topics such as religious conflict, the rivalries between the clergy of various churches, and child poverty in Tudor London. Also, although the previous book included some magical realism elements, which didn’t entirely work for me, there didn’t seem to be anything like that in this one and I thought that was a good decision as the plot was strong enough without it. As well as following Bianca’s investigations in London, there are some chapters describing John’s adventures as a reluctant soldier in the Scottish borders during the war known as the ‘Rough Wooing’ and this added some variety to the novel, taking us away from London now and then to see what was going on elsewhere.

Sometimes the language used is not right for the setting (English houses don’t have ‘stoops’, for example) and I found that a bit distracting, but otherwise the atmosphere is convincing enough and it’s always interesting to read about the lives of ordinary, working-class people in the Tudor period as a change from all of the books dealing with the royal court. Oh, and I love Bianca’s cat, Hobs!

This is apparently the final book in the Bianca Goddard series. I received a copy for review via NetGalley.

Murder to Music by Margaret Newman

The latest addition to Agora Books’ Uncrowned Queens of Crime series is a book by an author I thought was new to me, but it turns out I’ve read a few of her books under another of her pseudonyms, Anne Melville. This one, Murder to Music, was her first novel and was originally published in 1959 under the name Margaret Newman. It’s an excellent murder mystery and could have been the start of a great series had the author not moved on to other genres (such as the Anne Melville family sagas).

Delia Jones is on the managing committee of the Metropolitan Choir, who are preparing to give a performance of a new mass composed by their conductor, Evan Tredegar. At the beginning of the novel, we meet the other members of the committee, whom we quickly discover are not the happiest group of people. Below the surface, there are tensions, secrets and resentments, some of which we won’t be aware of or fully understand until later in the story. The assistant conductor, Owen Burr, is particularly unpopular with the rest of the choir, so when he is shot dead just as the performance draws to a close there is no shortage of suspects.

Detective Superintendent Simon Hudson is watching from the audience and is able to begin an immediate investigation. However, things are going to be slightly difficult for Simon…because Delia Jones happens to be his girlfriend. Can she be ruled out as a suspect? Then, just as Simon thinks he has uncovered the motive and is about to identify the murderer, a second death takes place and he is forced to reassess everything he thinks he knows so far.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The characters are strong, with some of them given interesting back stories, and the reasons behind the complex relationships and long-standing feuds between the members of the choir feel believable. I also liked the setting, which made a change from the country house or small village settings which are so common in this type of detective novel. I’m not sure whether Margaret Newman had a musical background, but I felt that she seemed to really understand what was involved in the staging of a musical performance and what it was like to be part of a choir.

As a mystery, I thought the plot worked well and I was surprised by some of the developments in the second half of the book, having been led in the wrong direction for most of the first half! I kept changing my mind between one suspect and another, but in the end I was happy just to let Simon Hudson solve the mystery for me. It’s a shame this seems to be the only book featuring Simon and Delia, but I will be reading more by this author, under her various pseudonyms, and have the third book in her Hardie trilogy lined up to read soon.

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

Killing Beauties by Pete Langman

Set in England during the Interregnum, the period between the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Pete Langman’s Killing Beauties tells the story of two female spies – or she-intelligencers, as they were known. Female spies played an important role in the intelligence networks of the time and the two women who feature in this novel, Susan Hyde and Diana Jennings, are based on real people.

The story begins in August 1655. With England under the rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, the future Charles II – who is in exile awaiting the day when he can return to claim his throne – has entrusted Susan and Diana with a difficult and dangerous mission. Their task is to infiltrate the household of Cromwell’s Secretary of State John Thurloe in the hope of extracting secrets that will help them to undermine the Protectorate. However, Thurloe is also Cromwell’s spymaster, with a large and powerful network of his own. Will the women be able to obtain the information they need before their true identities are revealed?

Killing Beauties is a fascinating novel from the point of view of learning what was involved in the secret services of the 17th century: how they were organised and structured; the disguises, code names and terminology they used; how they gathered their intelligence; and the methods they used to keep their correspondence private – it was particularly interesting to read about the clever and intricate art of letterlocking! It’s such a shame that the contributions of the women who worked for these secret societies have been largely ignored and forgotten. The real Susan Hyde was completely overshadowed by her own brother Edward, the Earl of Clarendon, whose book, The History of the Rebellion, doesn’t even mention her.

Pete Langman has stated that the inspiration for his novel was Nadine Akkerman’s Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain, which refers to both Susan and Diana, but as there is a limit to how much is actually known about them, particularly Diana, he has had to use some imagination to fill in the gaps. According to Akkerman’s book, Susan Hyde was postmistress for the secret royalist society of the Sealed Knot, and she carries out this role in Langman’s novel as well as trying to gain the trust of John Thurloe in order to obtain intelligence. Susan is portrayed as a sensible, practical person who takes her work very seriously, fully aware of the danger she is in – and I admired her, but I have to admit I found her a little bit bland. Diana, in contrast, is lively, daring and much more fun to read about, even if her loyalties are sometimes in question…

Diana had her fingers crossed as she spoke. It was something she did a lot, crossing her fingers as she spoke. Sometimes even Diana was unsure when she was lying, and at such times she had long ago decided that it was best to assume that she was.

For various reasons Diana virtually disappears from the story in the middle of the book and we don’t see as much of her as I would have liked. However, there’s a large cast of other characters to get to know, some of whom I’m assuming are fictional but others who definitely really existed: for example, Isaac Dorislaus, the Dutch scholar recruited to examine the correspondence passing through Cromwell’s ‘Black Chamber’, and Samuel Morland, one of Thurloe’s spies, who was also a mathematician and inventor.

I can’t really say that I loved this book; I found the plot unnecessarily complex and on occasions a bit difficult to follow, which admittedly could have been because I wasn’t paying enough attention, although I don’t think so. I also thought the book felt longer than it really needed to be, which meant the pace seemed to drag at times. Still, it was good to get some insights into the fascinating world of 17th century espionage and to have the vital contributions of female spies highlighted. At the end, it seemed as though things were being set up for a sequel, so despite having one or two problems with this book I would be happy to read another by Pete Langman.